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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 66

The personages against whom Fionn and his men fight show the mythic nature of the saga. As champions of Leinster they fight the men of Ulster and Connaught, but they also war against oversea invaders—the Lochlanners. While Lochlann may mean any land beyond the sea, like the Welsh Llychlyn it probably meant "the fabulous land beneath the lakes or the waves of the sea," or simply the abode of hostile, supernatural beings. Lochlanners would thus be counterparts of the Fomorians, and the conflicts of the Fians with them would reflect old myths. But with the Norse invasions, the Norsemen became the true Lochlanners, against whom Fionn and his men fight as Charlemagne fought Muhammadans—a sheer impossibility. Professor Zimmer, however, supposes that the Fionn saga took shape during the Norse occupation from the ninth century onwards. Fionn is half Norse, half Irish, and equivalent to Caittil Find, who commanded the apostate Irish in the ninth century, while Oisin and Oscar are the Norse Asvin and Asgeirr. But it is difficult to understand why one who was half a Norseman should become the chosen hero of the Celts in {148} the very age in which Norsemen were their bitter enemies, and why Fionn, if of Norse origin, fights against Lochlanners, i.e. Norsemen. It may also be inquired why the borrowing should have affected the saga only, not the myths of the gods. No other Celtic scholar has given the slightest support to this brilliant but audacious theory. On the other hand, if the saga has Norse affinities, and if it is, in origin, pre-Celtic, these may be sought in an earlier connection of Ireland with Scandinavia in the early Bronze Age. Ireland had a flourishing civilisation then, and exported beautiful gold ornaments to Scandinavia, where they are still found in Bronze Age deposits.507 This flourishing civilisation was overwhelmed by the invasion of the Celtic barbarians. But if the Scandinavians borrowed gold and artistic decorations from Ireland, and if the Fionn saga or part of it was already in existence, why should they not have borrowed some of its incidents, or why, on the other hand, should not some episodes have found their way from the north to Ireland? We should also consider, however, that similar incidents may have been evolved in both countries on similar lines and quite independently.

The various contents of the saga can only be alluded to in the briefest manner. Fionn's birth-story belongs to the well-known "Expulsion and Return" formula, applied to so many heroes of saga and folk-tale, but highly elaborated in his case at the hands of the annalists. Thus his father Cumal, uncle of Conn the Hundred Fighter, 122-157 A.D., wished to wed Muirne, daughter of Conn's chief druid, Tadg. Tadg refused, knowing that through this marriage he would lose his ancestral seat. Cumal seized Muirne and married her, and the king, on Tadg's appeal, sent an army against him. Cumal was slain; Muirne fled to his sister, and gave {149} birth to Demni, afterwards known as Fionn. Perhaps in accordance with old matriarchal usage, Fionn's descent through his mother is emphasised, while he is related to the ancient gods, Tadg being son of Nuada. This at once points to the mythical aspect of the saga. Cumal may be identical with the god Camulos. In a short time, Fionn, now a marauder and an outlaw, appeared at Conn's Court, and that same night slew one of the Tuatha Déa, who came yearly and destroyed the palace. For this he received his rightful heritage—the leadership of the Fians, formerly commanded by Cumal.508 Another incident of Fionn's youth tells how he obtained his "thumb of knowledge." The eating of certain "salmon of knowledge" was believed to give inspiration, an idea perhaps derived from earlier totemistic beliefs. The bard Finnéces, having caught one of the coveted salmon, set his pupil Fionn to cook it, forbidding him to taste it. But as he was turning the fish Fionn burnt his thumb and thrust it into his mouth, thus receiving the gift of inspiration. Hereafter he had only to suck his thumb in order to obtain secret information.509 In another story the inspiration is already in his thumb, as Samson's strength was in his hair, {150} but the power is also partly in his tooth, under which, after ritual preparation, he has to place his thumb and chew it.


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