The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 70

{156} heroes and heroines are not on their native heath, and are uncertain whether to mince and strut with Pope or to follow nature with Rousseau's noble savages and Saint Pierre's Paul and Virginia. The time has gone when it was heresy to cast doubt upon the genuineness of MacPherson's epic, but if any one is still doubtful, let him read it and then turn to the existing versions, ballads, and tales. He will find himself in a totally different atmosphere, and will recognise in the latter the true epic note—the warrior's rage and the warrior's generosity, dire cruelty yet infinite tenderness, wild lust yet also true love, a world of magic supernaturalism, but an exact copy of things as they were in that far-off age. The barbarism of the time is in these old tales—deeds which make one shiver, customs regarding the relations of the sexes now found only among savages, social and domestic arrangements which are somewhat lurid and disgusting. And yet, withal, the note of bravery, of passion, of authentic life is there; we are held in the grip of genuine manhood and womanhood. MacPherson gives a picture of the Ossianic age as he conceived it, an age of Celtic history that "never was on sea or land." Even his ghosts are un-Celtic, misty and unsubstantial phantasms, unlike the embodied revenants of the saga which are in agreement with the Celtic belief that the soul assumed a body in the other world. MacPherson makes Fionn invariably successful, but in the saga tales he is often defeated. He mingles the Cúchulainn and Ossianic cycles, but these, save in a few casual instances, are quite distinct in the old literature. Yet had not his poem been so great as it is, though so un-Celtic, it could not have influenced all European literature. But those who care for genuine Celtic literature, the product of a people who loved nature, romance, doughty deeds, the beauty of the world, the music of the sea and the birds, the mountains, valour in men, beauty in women, will find all these {157} in the saga, whether in its literary or its popular forms. And through it all sounds the undertone of Celtic pathos and melancholy, the distant echo

"Of old unhappy, far-off things

And battles long ago."

Footnote 506:(return)

See Joyce, OCR 447.

Footnote 507:(return)

Montelius, Les Temps Préhistoriques, 57, 151; Reinach, RC xxi. 8.

Footnote 508:(return)

The popular versions of this early part of the saga differ much in detail, but follow the main outlines in much the same way. See Curtin, HTI 204; Campbell, LF 33 f.; WHT iii. 348.

Footnote 509:(return)

In a widespread group of tales supernatural knowledge is obtained by eating part of some animal, usually a certain snake. In many of these tales the food is eaten by another person than he who obtained it, as in the case of Fionn. Cf. the Welsh story of Gwion, p. 116, and the Scandinavian of Sigurd, and other parallels in Miss Cox, Cinderella, 496; Frazer, Arch. Rev. i. 172 f. The story is thus a folk-tale formula applied to Fionn, doubtless because it harmonised with Celtic or pre-Celtic totemistic ideas. But it is based on ancient ideas regarding the supernatural knowledge possessed by reptiles or fish, and among American Indians, Maoris, Solomon Islanders, and others there are figured representations of a man holding such an animal, its tongue being attached to his tongue. He is a shaman, and American Indians believe that his inspiration comes from the tongue of a mysterious river otter, caught by him. See Dall, Bureau of Ethnol. 3rd report; and Miss Buckland, Jour. Anth. Inst. xxii. 29.

Footnote 510:(return)

TOS iv.; O'Curry, MS. Mat. 396; Joyce, OCR 194, 339.

Footnote 511:(return)

For ballad versions see Campbell, LF 198.

Footnote 512:(return)

Numerous ballad versions are given in Campbell LF 152 f. The tale is localised in various parts of Ireland and the Highlands, many dolmens in Ireland being known as Diarmaid and Grainne's beds.

Footnote 513:(return)

For an account differing from this annalistic version, see ZCP i. 465.

Footnote 514:(return)

O'Grady, ii. 102. This, on the whole, agrees with the Highland ballad version, LF 198.

Footnote 515:(return)

IT iv.; O'Grady, Silva Gad. text and translation.




Though man usually makes his gods in his own image, they are unlike as well as like him. Intermediate between them and man are ideal heroes whose parentage is partly divine, and who may themselves have been gods. One mark of the Celtic gods is their great stature. No house could contain Bran, and certain divine people of Elysium who appeared to Fionn had rings "as thick as a three-ox goad." Even the Fians are giants, and the skull of one of them could contain several men. The gods have also the attribute of invisibility, and are only seen by those to whom they wish to disclose themselves, or they have the power of concealing themselves in a magic mist. When they appear to mortals it is usually in mortal guise, sometimes in the form of a particular person, but they can also transform themselves into animal shapes, often that of birds. The animal names of certain divinities show that they had once been animals pure and simple, but when they became anthropomorphic, myths would arise telling how they had appeared to men in these animal shapes. This, in part, accounts for these transformation myths. The gods are also immortal, though in myth we hear of their deaths. The Tuatha Dé Danann are "unfading," their "duration is perennial." This immortality is sometimes an inherent quality; sometimes it is the result of eating immortal food—Manannan's {159} swine, Goibniu's feast of age and his immortal ale, or the apples of Elysium. The stories telling of the deaths of the gods in the annalists may be based on old myths in which they were said to die, these myths being connected with ritual acts in which the human representatives of gods were slain. Such rites were an inherent part of Celtic religion. Elsewhere the ritual of gods like Osiris or Adonis, based on their functions as gods of vegetation, was connected with elaborate myths telling of their death and revival. Something akin to this may have occurred among the Celts.