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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 68

Heldensage was formed in early times. This slowly expanded, new tales were added, and existing Märchen formulæ were freely made use of by making their heroes the heroes of the saga. Then came the time when many of the tales were written down, while later they were adapted to a scheme of Irish history, the heroes becoming warriors of a definite historic period, or perhaps connected with such warriors. But these heroes belonged to a timeless world, whose margins are "the shore of old romance," and it was as if they, who were not for an age but for all time, scorned to become the puppets of the page of history.

The earliest evidence of the attitude of the ecclesiastical world to these heroes is found in the Agallamh na Senorach, or "Colloquy of the Ancients." This may have been composed in the thirteenth century, and its author knew scores of Fionn legends. Making use of the tradition that Caoilte and Oisin had met S. Patrick, he makes Caoilte relate many of the tales, usually in connection with some place-name of Fian origin. The saint and his followers are amazed at the huge stature of the Fians, but Patrick asperges them with holy water, and hosts of demons flee from them. At each tale which Caoilte tells, the saint says, "Success and benediction, Caoilte. All this is to us a {153} recreation of spirit and of mind, were it only not a destruction of devotion and a dereliction of prayer." But presently his guardian angel appears, and bids him not only listen to the tales but cause them to be written down. He and his attendant clerics now lend a willing ear to the recital and encourage the narrator with their applause. Finally, baptism is administered to Caoilte and his men, and by Patrick's intercessions Caoilte's relations and Fionn himself are brought out of hell. In this work the representatives of paganism are shown to be on terms of friendliness with the representatives of Christianity.

But in Highland ballads collected in the sixteenth century by the Dean of Lismore, as well as in Irish ballads found in MSS. dating from the seventeenth century onwards, the saint is a sour and intolerant cleric, and the Fians are equally intolerant and blasphemous pagans. There is no attempt at compromise; the saint rejoices that the Fian band are in hell, and Oisin throws contempt on the God of the shaven priests. But sometimes this contempt is mingled with humour and pathos. Were the heroes of Oisin's band now alive, scant work would be made of the monks' bells, books, and psalm-singing. It is true that the saint gives the weary old man hospitality, but Oisin's eyes are blinded with tears as he thinks of the departed glories of the Fians, and his ears are tormented "by jangling bells, droning psalms, and howling clerics." These ballads probably represent one main aspect of the attitude of the Church to Celtic paganism. How, then, did the more generous Colloquy come into being? We must note first that some of the ballads have a milder tone. Oisin is urged to accept the faith, and he prays for salvation. Probably these represent the beginning of a reaction in favour of the old heroes, dating from a time when the faith was well established. There was no danger of a pagan revival, and, provided the Fians were Christianised, it might be legitimate {154} to represent them as heroic and noble. The Colloquy would represent the high-water mark of this reaction among the lettered classes, for among the folk, to judge by popular tales, the Fians had never been regarded in other than a favourable light. The Colloquy re-established the dignity of the Fian band in the eyes of official Christianity. They are baptized or released from hell, and in their own nature they are virtuous and follow lofty ideals. "Who or what was it that maintained you in life?" asks Patrick. And Caoilte gives the noble reply, "Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfilment in our tongues." Patrick says of Fionn: "He was a king, a seer, a poet, a lord with a manifold and great train; our magician, our knowledgeable one, our soothsayer; all whatsoever he said was sweet with him. Excessive, perchance, as ye deem my testimony of Fionn, although ye hold that which I say to be overstrained, nevertheless, and by the King that is above me, he was three times better still." Not only so, but Caoilte maintains that Fionn and his men were aware of the existence of the true God. They possessed the anima naturaliter Christiana. The growing appreciation of a wider outlook on life, and possibly acquaintance with the romances of chivalry, made the composition of the Colloquy possible, but, again, it may represent a more generous conception of paganism existing from the time of the first encounter of Christianity with it in Ireland.

The strife of creeds in Ireland, the old order changing, giving place to new, had evidently impressed itself on the minds of Celtic poets and romancers. It suggested itself to them as providing an excellent "situation"; hence we constantly hear of the meeting of gods, demigods, or heroes with the saints of the new era. Frequently they bow before the Cross, they are baptized and receive the Christian verity, as in the Colloquy and in some documents of the Cúchulainn cycle. Probably {155} no other European folk-literature so takes advantage of just this situation, this meeting of creeds, one old and ready to vanish away, the other with all the buoyant freshness of youth.


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