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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 166

soma or haoma; and in Scandinavian myth the gods renewed their youth by tasting Iduna's golden apples.

In Celtic Elysium tales, the fruit of a tree is most usually the food of immortality. The fruit never diminishes and always satisfies, and it is the food of the gods. When eaten by mortals it confers immortality upon them; in other words, it makes them of like nature to the gods, and this is doubtless derived from the widespread idea that the eating of food given by a stranger makes a man of one kin with him. Hence to eat the food of gods, fairies, or of the dead, binds the mortal to them and he cannot leave their land. This might be {379} illustrated from a wide range of myth and folk-belief. When Connla ate the apple he at once desired to go to Elysium, and he could not leave it once he was there; he had become akin to its people. In the stories of Bran and Oisin, they are not said to have eaten such fruit, but the primitive form of the tales may have contained this incident, and this would explain why they could not set foot on earth unscathed, and why Bran and his followers, or, in the tale of Fiachna, Loegaire and his men who had drunk the ale of Elysium, returned thither. In other tales, it is true, those who eat food in Elysium can return to earth—Cormac and Cúchulainn; but had we the primitive form of these tales we should probably find that they had refrained from eating. The incident of the fruit given by an immortal to a mortal may have borrowed something from the wide folk-custom of the presentation of an apple as a gage of love or as a part of the marriage rite. Its acceptance denotes willingness to enter upon betrothal or marriage. But as in the Roman rite of confarreatio with its savage parallels, the underlying idea is probably that which has just been considered, namely, that the giving and acceptance of food produces the bond of kinship.

As various nuts and fruits were prized in Ireland as food, and were perhaps used in some cases to produce an intoxicant,1277 it is evident that the trees of Elysium were, primarily, a magnified form of earthly trees. But all such trees were doubtless objects of a cult before their produce was generally eaten; they were first sacred or totem-trees, and their food eaten only occasionally and sacramentally. If so, this would explain why they grew in Elysium and their fruit was the food of the gods. For whatever man eats or drinks is {380} generally supposed to have been first eaten and drunk by the gods, like the soma. But, growing in Elysium, these trees, like the trees of most myths of Elysium, are far more marvellous than any known on earth. They have branches of silver and golden apples; they have magical supplies of fruit, they produce wonderful music which sometimes causes sleep or oblivion; and birds perch in their branches and warble melody "such that the sick would sleep to it." It should be noted also that, as Miss Hull points out, in some tales the branch of a divine tree becomes a talisman leading the mortal to Elysium; in this resembling the golden bough plucked by Æneas before visiting the underworld.1278 This, however, is not the fundamental characteristic of the tree, in Irish story. Possibly, as Mr. A.B. Cook maintains, the branch giving entrance to Elysium is derived from the branch borne by early Celtic kings of the wood, while the tree is an imaginative form of those which incarnated a vegetation spirit. Be this as it may, it is rather the fruit eaten by the mortal which binds him to the Immortal Land.

The inhabitants of Elysium are not only immortal, but also invisible at will. They make themselves visible to one person only out of many present with him. Connla alone sees the goddess, invisible to his father and the Druid. Mananuan is visible to Bran, but there are many near the hero whom he does not see; and when the same god comes to Fand, he is invisible to Cúchulainn and those with him. So Mider says to Etain, "We behold, and are not beheld."1280 Occasionally, too, the people of Elysium have the power of shape-shifting—Fand and Liban appear to Cúchulainn as birds.


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