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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 27

Throughout the long story of the conquests of Ireland there are many reduplications, the same incidents being often ascribed to different personages. Different versions of similar occurrences, based on older myths and traditions, may already have been in existence, and ritual practices, dimly remembered, required explanation. In the hands of the chroniclers, writing history with a purpose and combining their information with little regard to consistency, all this was reduced to a more or less connected narrative. At the hands of the prosaic chroniclers divinity passed from the gods, though traces of it still linger.

"Ye are gods, and, behold, ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.

In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of things,

Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for kings."

From the annalistic point of view the Fomorians are sea demons or pirates, their name being derived from muir, "sea," while they are descended along with other monstrous beings from them. Professor Rh[^y]s, while connecting the name with Welsh foawr, "giant" (Gaelic famhair), derives the name {56} from fo, "under," and muir, and regards them as submarine beings. Dr. MacBain connected them with the fierce powers of the western sea personified, like the Muireartach, a kind of sea hag, of a Fionn ballad. But this association of the Fomorians with the ocean may be the result of a late folk-etymology, which wrongly derived their name from muir. The Celtic experience of the Lochlanners or Norsemen, with whom the Fomorians are associated, would aid the conception of them as sea-pirates of a more or less demoniacal character. Dr. Stokes connects the second syllable mor with mare in "nightmare," from moro, and regards them as subterranean as well as submarine.178 But the more probable derivation is that of Zimmer and D'Arbois, from fo and morio (mor, "great "), which would thus agree with the tradition which regarded them as giants. They were probably beneficent gods of the aborigines, whom the Celtic conquerors regarded as generally evil, perhaps equating them with the dark powers already known to them. They were still remembered as gods, and are called "champions of the síd," like the Tuatha Dé Danann.180 Thus King Bres sought to save his life by promising that the kine of Ireland would always be in milk, then that the men of Ireland would reap every quarter, and finally by revealing the lucky days for ploughing, sowing, and reaping.181 Only an autochthonous god could know this, and the story is suggestive of the true nature of the Fomorians. The hostile character attributed to them is seen from the fact that they destroyed corn, milk, and fruit. But in Ireland, as elsewhere, this destructive power was deprecated by begging them not to destroy "corn nor milk in Erin beyond their fair tribute."182 Tribute was also paid to them on Samhain, the time when {57} the powers of blight feared by men are in the ascendant. Again, the kingdom of Balor, their chief, is still described as the kingdom of cold. But when we remember that a similar "tribute" was paid to Cromm Cruaich, a god of fertility, and that after the conquest of the Tuatha Dé Danann they also were regarded as hostile to agriculture, we realise that the Fomorians must have been aboriginal gods of fertility whom the conquering Celts regarded as hostile to them and their gods. Similarly, in folk-belief the beneficent corn-spirit has sometimes a sinister and destructive aspect.185 Thus the stories of "tribute" would be distorted reminiscences of the ritual of gods of the soil, differing little in character from that of the similar Celtic divinities. What makes it certain that the Fomorians were aboriginal gods is that they are found in Ireland before the coming of the early colonist Partholan. They were the gods of the pre-Celtic folk—Firbolgs, Fir Domnann, and Galioin186—all of them in Ireland before the Tuatha Dé Danaan arrived, and all of them regarded as slaves, spoken of with the utmost contempt. Another possibility, however, ought to be considered. As the Celtic gods were local in character, and as groups of tribes would frequently be hostile to other groups, the Fomorians may have been local gods of a group at enmity with another group, worshipping the Tuatha Dé Danaan.


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