Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

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The Goddess Dana

The greatest of the Danaan goddesses was Dana, “mother of the Irish gods,” as she is called in an early text. She was daughter of the Dagda, and, like him, associated with ideas of fertility and blessing. According to d'Arbois de Jubainville, she was identical with the goddess Brigit, who was so widely worshipped in Celtica. Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba are said to have been her sons—these really represent but one person, in the usual Irish fashion of conceiving the divine power in triads. The name of Brian, who takes the lead in all the exploits of the brethren,98 is a derivation from a more ancient form, Brenos, and under this form was the god to whom the Celts attributed their victories at the Allia and at Delphi, mistaken by Roman and Greek chroniclers for an earthly leader.

The Morrigan

There was also an extraordinary goddess named the Morrigan,99 who appears to embody all that is perverse and horrible among supernatural powers. She delighted in setting men at war, and fought among them herself, changing into many frightful shapes and often hovering above fighting armies in the aspect of a crow. She met Cuchulain once and proffered him her love in the guise of a human maid. He refused it, and she persecuted him thenceforward for the most of his life. Warring with him once in the middle of the stream, she turned herself into a water-serpent, and then into a mass of water-weeds, seeking to entangle and drown him. But he conquered and wounded her, and she afterwards [pg 127] became his friend. Before his last battle she passed through Emain Macha at night, and broke the pole of his chariot as a warning.

Cleena's Wave

One of the most notable landmarks of Ireland was the Tonn Cliodhna, or “Wave of Cleena,” on the seashore at Glandore Bay, in Co. Cork. The story about Cleena exists in several versions, which do not agree with each other except in so far as she seems to have been a Danaan maiden once living in Mananan's country, the Land of Youth beyond the sea. Escaping thence with a mortal lover, as one of the versions tells, she landed on the southern coast of Ireland, and her lover, Keevan of the Curling Locks, went off to hunt in the woods. Cleena, who remained on the beach, was lulled to sleep by fairy music played by a minstrel of Mananan, when a great wave of the sea swept up and carried her back to Fairyland, leaving her lover desolate. Hence the place was called the Strand of Cleena's Wave.

The Goddess Ainé

Another topical goddess was Ainé, the patroness of Munster, who is still venerated by the people of that county. She was the daughter of the Danaan Owel, a foster-son of Mananan and a Druid. She is in some sort a love-goddess, continually inspiring mortals with passion. She was ravished, it was said, by Ailill Olum, King of Munster, who was slain in consequence by her magic arts, and the story is repeated in far later times about another mortal lover, who was not, however, slain, a Fitzgerald, to whom she bore the famous wizard Earl.100 Many of the aristocratic [pg 128] families of Munster claimed descent from this union. Her name still clings to the “Hill of Ainé” (Knockainey), near Loch Gur, in Munster. All the Danaan deities in the popular imagination were earth-gods, dei terreni, associated with ideas of fertility and increase. Ainé is not heard much of in the bardic literature, but she is very prominent in the folk-lore of the neighbourhood. At the bidding of her son, Earl Gerald, she planted all Knockainey with pease in a single night. She was, and perhaps still is, worshipped on Midsummer Eve by the peasantry, who carried torches of hay and straw, tied on poles and lighted, round her hill at night. Afterwards they dispersed themselves among their cultivated fields and pastures, waving the torches over the crops and the cattle to bring luck and increase for the following year. On one night, as told by Mr. D. Fitzgerald,101 who has collected the local traditions about her, the ceremony was omitted owing to the death of one of the neighbours. Yet the peasantry at night saw the torches in greater number than ever circling the hill, and Ainé herself in front, directing and ordering the procession.

“On another St. John's Night a number of girls had stayed late on the Hill watching the cliars (torches) and joining in the games. Suddenly Ainé appeared among them, thanked them for the honour they had done her, but said she now wished them to go home, as they wanted the hill to themselves. She let them understand whom she [pg 129] meant by they, for calling some of the girls she made them look through a ring, when behold, the hill appeared crowded with people before invisible.”

“Here,” observed Mr. Alfred Nutt, “we have the antique ritual carried out on a spot hallowed to one of the antique powers, watched over and shared in by those powers themselves. Nowhere save in Gaeldom could be found such a pregnant illustration of the identity of the fairy class with the venerable powers to ensure whose goodwill rites and sacrifices, originally fierce and bloody, now a mere simulacrum of their pristine form, have been performed for countless ages.”102

Sinend and the Well of Knowledge

There is a singular myth which, while intended to account for the name of the river Shannon, expresses the Celtic veneration for poetry and science, combined with the warning that they may not be approached without danger. The goddess Sinend, it was said, daughter of Lodan son of Lir, went to a certain well named Connla's Well, which is under the sea—i.e., in the Land of Youth in Fairyland. “That is a well,” says the bardic narrative, “at which are the hazels of wisdom and inspirations, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and then fall upon the well in the same shower, which raises upon the water a royal surge of purple.” When Sinend came to the well we are not told what rites or preparation she had omitted, but the angry waters broke forth and overwhelmed her, and washed her up on the Shannon shore, where she died, giving to the river its name.103 This myth of the hazels of inspiration and [pg 130] knowledge and their association with springing water runs through all Irish legend, and has been finely treated by a living Irish poet, Mr. G.W. Russell, in the following verses:

“>A cabin on the mountain-side hid in a grassy nook,
With door and window open wide, where friendly stars may look;
The rabbit shy may patter in, the winds may enter free
Who roam around the mountain throne in living ecstasy.
“And when the sun sets dimmed in eve, and purple fills the air,
I think the sacred hazel-tree is dropping berries there,
From starry fruitage, waved aloft where Connla's Well o'erflows;
For sure, the immortal waters run through every wind that blows.
“I think when Night towers up aloft and shakes the trembling dew,
How every high and lonely thought that thrills my spirit through
Is but a shining berry dropped down through the purple air,
And from the magic tree of life the fruit falls everywhere.”

The Coming of the Milesians