Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
Page: 47The Dagda called to it, and immediately it flew into his hands, killing nine men of the Fomorians on its way. The Dagda's invocation of the harp is very singular, and not a little puzzling:
The allusion to summer and winter suggests the practice in Indian music of allotting certain musical modes to the different seasons of the year (and even to different times of day), and also an Egyptian legend referred to in Burney's “History of Music,” where the three strings of the lyre were supposed to answer respectively to the three seasons, spring, summer, and winter.88
When the Dagda got possession of the harp, the tale goes on, he played on it the “three noble strains” [pg 119] which every great master of the harp should command, namely, the Strain of Lament, which caused the hearers to weep, the Strain of Laughter, which made them merry, and the Strain of Slumber, or Lullaby, which plunged them all in a profound sleep. And under cover of that sleep the Danaan champion stole out and escaped. It may be observed that throughout the whole of the legendary literature of Ireland skill in music, the art whose influence most resembles that of a mysterious spell or gift of Faëry, is the prerogative of the People of Dana and their descendants. Thus in the “Colloquy of the Ancients,” a collection of tales made about the thirteenth or fourteenth century, St. Patrick is introduced to a minstrel, Cascorach, “a handsome, curly-headed, dark-browed youth,” who plays so sweet a strain that the saint and his retinue all fall asleep. Cascorach, we are told, was son of a minstrel of the Danaan folk. St. Patrick's scribe, Brogan, remarks, “A good cast of thine art is that thou gavest us.” “Good indeed it were,” said Patrick, “but for a twang of the fairy spell that infests it; barring which nothing could more nearly resemble heaven's harmony.”89 Some of the most beautiful of the antique Irish folk-melodies,—e.g., the Coulin—are traditionally supposed to have been overheard by mortal harpers at the revels of the Fairy Folk.
Names and Characteristics of the Danaan Deities
I may conclude this narrative of the Danaan conquest with some account of the principal Danaan gods and their attributes, which will be useful to readers of the subsequent pages. The best with which I am acquainted is to be found in Mr. Standish O'Grady's “Critical [pg 120] History of Ireland.”90 This work is no less remarkable for its critical insight—it was published in 1881, when scientific study of the Celtic mythology was little heard of—than for the true bardic imagination, kindred to that of the ancient myth-makers themselves, which recreates the dead forms of the past and dilates them with the breath of life. The broad outlines in which Mr. O'Grady has laid down the typical characteristics of the chief personages in the Danaan cycle hardly need any correction at this day, and have been of much use to me in the following summary of the subject.
The Dagda Mōr was the father and chief of the People of Dana. A certain conception of vastness attaches to him and to his doings. In the Second Battle of Moytura his blows sweep down whole ranks of the enemy, and his spear, when he trails it on the march, draws a furrow in the ground like the fosse which marks the mearing of a province. An element of grotesque humour is present in some of the records about this deity. When the Fomorians give him food on his visit to their camp, the porridge and milk are poured into a great pit in the ground, and he eats it with a spoon big enough, it was said, for a man and a woman to lie together in it. With this spoon he scrapes the pit, when the porridge is done, and shovels earth and gravel unconcernedly down his throat. We have already seen that, like all the Danaans, he is a master of music, as well as of other magical endowments, and owns a harp which comes flying through the air at his call. “The tendency to attribute life to inanimate things is apparent in the Homeric literature, but exercises a very great influence in the mythology [pg 121] of this country. The living, fiery spear of Lugh; the magic ship of Mananan; the sword of Conary Mōr, which sang; Cuchulain's sword, which spoke; the Lia Fail, Stone of Destiny, which roared for joy beneath the feet of rightful kings; the waves of the ocean, roaring with rage and sorrow when such kings are in jeopardy; the waters of the Avon Dia, holding back for fear at the mighty duel between Cuchulain and Ferdia, are but a few out of many examples.”91 A legend of later times tells how once, at the death of a great scholar, all the books in Ireland fell from their shelves upon the floor.
Angus Ōg (Angus the Young), son of the Dagda, by Boanna (the river Boyne), was the Irish god of love. His palace was supposed to be at New Grange, on the Boyne. Four bright birds that ever hovered about his head were supposed to be his kisses taking shape in this lovely form, and at their singing love came springing up in the hearts of youths and maidens. Once he fell sick of love for a maiden whom he had seen in a dream. He told the cause of his sickness to his mother Boanna, who searched all Ireland for the girl, but could not find her. Then the Dagda was called in, but he too was at a loss, till he called to his aid Bōv the Red, king of the Danaans of Munster—the same whom we have met with in the tale of the Children of Lir, and who was skilled in all mysteries and enchantments. Bōv undertook the search, and after a year had gone by declared that he had found the visionary maiden at a lake called the Lake of the Dragon's Mouth.