Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

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[pg 133] welcome Ith, and ask him to settle their inheritance. Ith gives his judgment, but, in concluding, his admiration for the newly discovered country breaks out: “Act,” he says, “according to the laws of justice, for the country you dwell in is a good one, it is rich in fruit and honey, in wheat and in fish; and in heat and cold it is temperate.” From this panegyric the Danaans conclude that 1th has designs upon their land, and they seize him and put him to death. His companions, however, recover his body and bear it back with them in their ships to “Spain”; when the children of Miled resolve to take vengeance for the outrage and prepare to invade Ireland.

They were commanded by thirty-six chiefs, each having his own ship with his family and his followers. Two of the company are said to have perished on the way. One of the sons of Miled, having climbed to the masthead of his vessel to look out for the coast of Ireland, fell into the sea and was drowned. The other was Skena, wife of the poet Amergin, son of Miled, who died on the way. The Milesians buried her when they landed, and called the place “Inverskena” after her; this was the ancient name of the Kenmare River in Co. Kerry.

“It was on a Thursday, the first of May, and the seventeenth day of the moon, that the sons of Miled arrived in Ireland. Partholan also landed in Ireland on the first of May, but on a different day of the week and of the moon; and it was on the first day of May, too, that the pestilence came which in the space of one week destroyed utterly his race. The first of May was sacred to Beltené, one of the names of the god of Death, the god who gives life to men and takes it away from them again. Thus it was on the feast day [pg 134] of this god that the sons of Miled began their conquest of Ireland.”106

The Poet Amergin

When the poet Amergin set foot upon the soil of Ireland it is said that he chanted a strange and mystical lay:

“I am the Wind that blows over the sea,
I am the Wave of the Ocean;
I am the Murmur of the billows;
I am the Ox of the Seven Combats;
I am the Vulture upon the rock;
I am a Ray of the Sun;
I am the fairest of Plants;
I am a Wild Boar in valour;
I am a Salmon in the Water;
I am a Lake in the plain;
I am the Craft of the artificer;
I am a Word of Science;
I am the Spear-point that gives battle;
I am the god that creates in the head of man the fire of thought.
Who is it that enlightens the assembly upon the mountain,if not I?
Who telleth the ages of the moon, if not I?
“Who showeth the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?

De Jubainville, whose translation I have in the main followed, observes upon this strange utterance:

“There is a lack of order in this composition, the ideas, fundamental and subordinate, are jumbled together without method; but there is no doubt as to the meaning: the filé [poet] is the Word of Science, he is the god who gives to man the fire of thought; and as science is not distinct from its object, as God and Nature are but one, the being of the filé is mingled with the [pg 135] winds and the waves, with the wild animals and the warrior's arms.”107

Two other poems are attributed to Amergin, in which he invokes the land and physical features of Ireland to aid him:

“I invoke the land of Ireland,
Shining, shining sea;
Fertile, fertile Mountain;
Gladed, gladed wood!
Abundant river, abundant in water!
Fish-abounding lake!”108

The Judgment of Amergin

The Milesian host, after landing, advance to Tara, where they find the three kings of the Danaans awaiting them, and summon them to deliver up the island. The Danaans ask for three days' time to consider whether they shall quit Ireland, or submit, or give battle; and they propose to leave the decision, upon their request, to Amergin. Amergin pronounces judgment—“the first judgment which was delivered in Ireland.” He agrees that the Milesians must not take their foes by surprise—they are to withdraw the length of nine waves from the shore, and then return; if they then conquer the Danaans the land is to be fairly theirs by right of battle.

The Milesians submit to this decision and embark on their ships. But no sooner have they drawn off for this mystical distance of the nine waves than a mist and storm are raised by the sorceries of the Danaans—the coast of Ireland is hidden from their sight, and they wander dispersed upon the ocean. To ascertain if it is [pg 136] a natural or a Druidic tempest which afflicts them, a man named Aranan is sent up to the masthead to see if the wind is blowing there also or not. He is flung from the swaying mast, but as he falls to his death he cries his message to his shipmates: “There is no storm aloft.” Amergin, who as poet—that is to say, Druid—takes the lead in all critical situations, thereupon chants his incantation to the land of Erin. The wind falls, and they turn their prows, rejoicing, towards the shore. But one of the Milesian lords, Eber Donn, exults in brutal rage at the prospect of putting all the dwellers in Ireland to the sword; the tempest immediately springs up again, and many of the Milesian ships founder, Eber Donn's being among them. At last a remnant of the Milesians find their way to shore, and land in the estuary of the Boyne.

The Defeat of the Danaans