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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 26

The Tuatha Dé Danann arrived from heaven—an idea in keeping with their character as beneficent gods, but later legend told how they came from the north. They reached {53} Ireland on Beltane, shrouded in a magic mist, and finally, after one or, in other accounts, two battles, defeated the Firbolgs and Fomorians at Magtured. The older story of one battle may be regarded as a euhemerised account of the seeming conflict of nature powers.166 The first battle is described in a fifteenth to sixteenth century MS., and is referred to in a fifteenth century account of the second battle, full of archaic reminiscences, and composed from various earlier documents.168 The Firbolgs, defeated in the first battle, join the Fomorians, after great losses. Meanwhile Nuada, leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann, lost his hand, and as no king with a blemish could sit on the throne, the crown was given to Bres, son of the Fomorian Elatha and his sister Eri, a woman of the Tuatha Dé Danann. One day Eri espied a silver boat speeding to her across the sea. From it stepped forth a magnificent hero, and without delay the pair, like the lovers in Theocritus, "rejoiced in their wedlock." The hero, Elatha, foretold the birth of Eri's son, so beautiful that he would be a standard by which to try all beautiful things. He gave her his ring, but she was to part with it only to one whose finger it should fit. This was her child Bres, and by this token he was later, as an exile, recognised by his father, and obtained his help against the Tuatha Dé Danann. Like other wonderful children, Bres grew twice as quickly as any other child until he was seven. Though Elatha and Eri are brother and sister, she is among the Tuatha Dé Danann. There is the usual inconsistency of myth here and in other accounts of Fomorian and Tuatha Dé Danann unions. The latter had just landed, but already had united in marriage with the Fomorians. This inconsistency {54} escaped the chroniclers, but it points to the fact that both were divine not human, and that, though in conflict, they united in marriage as members of hostile tribes often do.

The second battle took place twenty-seven years after the first, on Samhain. It was fought like the first on the plain of Mag-tured, though later accounts made one battle take place at Mag-tured in Mayo, the other at Mag-tured in Sligo. Inconsistently, the conquering Tuatha Dé Danann in the interval, while Bres is their king, must pay tribute imposed by the Fomorians. Obviously in older accounts this tribute must have been imposed before the first battle and have been its cause. But why should gods, like the Tuatha Dé Danann, ever have been in subjection? This remains to be seen, but the answer probably lies in parallel myths of the subjection or death of divinities like Ishtar, Adonis, Persephone, and Osiris. Bres having exacted a tribute of the milk of all hornless dun cows, the cows of Ireland were passed through fire and smeared with ashes—a myth based perhaps on the Beltane fire ritual. The avaricious Bres was satirised, and "nought but decay was on him from that hour," and when Nuada, having recovered, claimed the throne, he went to collect an army of the Fomorians, who assembled against the Tuatha Dé Danann. In the battle Indech wounded Ogma, and Balor slew Nuada, but was mortally wounded by Lug. Thereupon the Fomorians fled to their own region.

The Tuatha Dé Danann remained masters of Ireland until the coming of the Milesians, so named from an eponymous Mile, son of Bile. Ith, having been sent to reconnoitre, was slain, and the Milesians now invaded Ireland in force. In spite of a mist raised by the Druids, they landed, and, having met the three princes who slew Ith, demanded instant battle or surrender of the land. The princes agreed to abide by {55} the decision of the Milesian poet Amairgen, who bade his friends re-embark and retire for the distance of nine waves. If they could then effect a landing, Ireland was theirs. A magic storm was raised, which wrecked many of their ships, but Amairgen recited verses, fragments, perhaps, of some old ritual, and overcame the dangers. After their defeat the survivors of the Tuatha Dé Danann retired into the hills to become a fairy folk, and the Milesians (the Goidels or Scots) became ancestors of the Irish.


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