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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 60

Märchen and saga episodes attached themselves. Of every ideal hero, Celtic, Greek, Babylonian, or {133} Polynesian, certain things are told—his phenomenal strength as a child; his victory over enormous forces; his visits to the Other-world; his amours with a goddess; his divine descent. These belong to the common stock of folk-tale episodes, and accumulate round every great name. Hence, save in the colouring given to them or the use made of them by any race, they do not afford a key to the mythic character of the hero. Such deeds are ascribed to Cúchulainn, as they doubtless were to the ideal heroes of the "undivided Aryans," but though parallels may be found between him and the Greek Heracles, they might just as easily be found in non-Aryan regions, e.g. in Polynesia. Thus the parallels between Cúchulainn and Heracles throw little light on the personality of the former, though here and there in such parallels we observe a peculiarly Celtic touch. Thus, while the Greek hero rescues Hesione from a dragon, it is from three Fomorians that Cúchulainn rescues Devorgilla, namely, from beings to whom actual human sacrifice was paid. Thus a Märchen formula of world-wide existence has been moulded by Celtic religious belief and ritual practice.

It was inevitable that the "mythological school" should regard Cúchulainn as a solar hero. Thus "he reaches his full development at an unusually early age," as the sun does,468 but also as do many other heroes of saga and Märchen who are not solar. The three colours of Cúchulainn's hair, dark near the skin, red in the middle, golden near the top, are claimed to be a description of the sun's rays, or of the three parts into which the Celts divided the day.469 Elsewhere his tresses are yellow, like Prince Charlie's in fact and in song, yet he was not a solar hero. Again, the seven pupils of his eyes perhaps {134} "referred to the days of the week." Blindness befell all women who loved him, a reference to the difficulty of gazing at the sun. This is prosaic! The blindness was a compliment paid to Cúchulainn the blind, by women who made themselves blind while talking to him, just as Conall Cernach's mistresses squinted as he did.472 Cúchulainn's blindness arose from his habit of sinking one eye into his head and protruding the other—a well-known solar trait! His "distortion," during which, besides this "blindness," blood shot upwards from his head and formed a magic mist, and his anger caused showers of sparks to mount above him, points to dawn or sunset,473 though the setting sun would rather suggest a hero sinking calmly to rest than a mad giant setting out to slaughter friend and foe. The "distortion," as already pointed out, is the exaggerated description of the mad warrior rage, just as the fear which produced death to those who saw him brandish his weapons, was also produced by Maori warrior methods.474 Lug, who may be a sun-god, has no such "distortion." The cooling of the hero in three vats, the waters of which boil over, and his emergence from them pinky red in colour, symbolise the sun sinking into the waters and reappearing at dawn.475 Might it not describe in an exaggerated way the refreshing bath taken by frenzied warriors, the water being supposed to grow warm from the heat of their bodies?476 One of the hero's geasa was not to see Manannan's horses, the waves; which, being interpreted, means that the sun is near its death as it approaches the sea. Yet Lug, a sun-god, rides {135} the steed Enbarr, a personification of the waves, while Cúchulainn himself often crossed the sea, and also lived with the sea-god's wife, Fand, without coming to grief. Again, the magic horses which he drives, black and grey in colour, are "symbols of day and night,"477 though it is not obvious why a grey horse should symbolise day, which is not always grey even in the isles of the west. Unlike a solar hero, too, Cúchulainn is most active in winter, and rests for a brief space from slaughtering at midday—the time of the sun's greatest activity both in summer and winter.

Another theory is that every visit of the hero to a strange land signifies a descent to Hades, suggested by the sun sinking in the west. Scathach's island may be Hades, but it is more probably Elysium with some traits borrowed from the Christian idea of hell. But Emer's land, also visited by Cúchulainn, suggests neither Hades nor Elysium. Emer calls herself ingen rig richis garta, translated by Professor Rh[^y]s as "daughter of the coal-faced king,"


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