The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 39

On insufficient grounds, mainly because he was patron of Diarmaid, beloved of women, and because his kisses became birds which whispered love thoughts to youths and maidens, Oengus has been called the Eros of the Gaels. More probably he was primarily a supreme god of growth, who occasionally suffered eclipse during the time of death in nature, like Tammuz and Adonis, and this may explain his absence from Mag-tured. The beautiful story of his vision of a maiden with whom he fell violently in love contains too many Märchen formulæ to be of any mythological or religious value. His mother Boand caused search to be made for her, but without avail. At last she was discovered to be the daughter of a semi-divine lord of a síd, but only through the help of mortals was the secret of how she could be taken wrung from him. She was a swan-maiden, and on a certain day only would Oengus obtain her. Ultimately she became his wife. The story is interesting because it shows how the gods occasionally required mortal aid.

Equally influenced by Märchen formulæ is the story of Oengus and Etain. Etain and Fuamnach were wives of Mider, but Fuamnach was jealous of Etain, and transformed her into an insect. In this shape Oengus found her, and placed her in a glass grianan or bower filled with flowers, the perfume of which sustained her. He carried the grianan with him wherever he went, but Fuamnach raised a magic wind which blew Etain away to the roof of Etair, a noble of Ulster. She fell through a smoke-hole into a golden cup of wine, and was swallowed by Etair's wife, of whom she was reborn. Professor Rh[^y]s resolves all {83} this into a sun and dawn myth. Oengus is the sun, Etain the dawn, the grianan the expanse of the sky. But the dawn does not grow stronger with the sun's influence, as Etain did under that of Oengus. At the sun's appearance the dawn begins

"to faint in the light of the sun she loves,

To faint in his light and to die."

The whole story is built up on the well-known Mãrchen formulæ of the "True Bride" and the "Two Brothers," but accommodated to well-known mythic personages, and the grianan is the Celtic equivalent of various objects in stories of the "Cinderella" type, in which the heroine conceals herself, the object being bought by the hero and kept in his room.289 Thus the tale reveals nothing of Etain's divine functions, but it illustrates the method of the "mythological" school in discovering sun-heroes and dawn-maidens in any incident, mythical or not.

Oengus appears in the Fionn cycle as the fosterer and protector of Diarmaid. With Mider, Bodb, and Morrigan, he expels the Fomorians when they destroy the corn, fruit, and milk of the Tuatha Dé Danann.291 This may point to his functions as a god of fertility.

Although Mider appears mainly as a king of the síde and ruler of the brug of Bri Léith, he is also connected with the Tuatha Déa. Learning that Etain had been reborn and was now married to King Eochaid, he recovered her from him, but lost her again when Eochaid attacked his brug. He was {84} ultimately avenged in the series of tragic events which led to the death of Eochaid's descendant Conaire. Though his síd is located in Ireland, it has so much resemblance to Elysium that Mider must be regarded as one of its lords. Hence he appears as ruler of the Isle of Falga, i.e. the Isle of Man regarded as Elysium. Thence his daughter Bláthnat, his magical cows and cauldron, were stolen by Cúchulainn and Curoi, and his three cranes from Bri Léith by Aitherne293—perhaps distorted versions of the myths which told how various animals and gifts came from the god's land. Mider may be the Irish equivalent of a local Gaulish god, Medros, depicted on bas-reliefs with a cow or bull.294

The victory of the Tuatha Déa at the first battle of Mag-tured, in June, their victory followed, however, by the deaths of many of them at the second battle in November, may point to old myths dramatising the phenomena of nature, and connected with the ritual of summer and winter festivals. The powers of light and growth are in the ascendant in summer; they seem to die in winter. Christian euhemerists made use of these myths, but regarded the gods as warriors who were slain, not as those who die and revive again. At the second battle, Nuada loses his life; at the first, though his forces are victorious, his hand was cut off by the Fomorian Sreng, for even when victorious the gods must suffer. A silver hand was made for him by Diancecht, and hence he was called Nuada Argetlám, "of the silver hand." Professor Rh[^y]s regards him as a Celtic Zeus, partly because he is king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, partly because he, like Zeus or Tyr, who lost tendons or a hand through the wiles of evil gods, is also maimed.295 Similarly in the Rig-Veda the Açvins substitute a {85} leg of iron for the leg of Vispala, cut off in battle, and the sun is called "golden-handed" because Savitri cut off his hand and the priests replaced it by one of gold. The myth of Nuada's hand may have arisen from primitive attempts at replacing lopped-off limbs, as well as from the fact that no Irish king must have any bodily defect, or possibly because an image of Nuada may have lacked a hand or possessed one of silver. Images were often maimed or given artificial limbs, and myths then arose to explain the custom. Nuada appears to be a god of life and growth, but he is not a sun-god. His Welsh equivalent is Llûd Llawereint, or "silver-handed," who delivers his people from various scourges. His daughter Creidylad is to be wedded to Gwythur, but is kidnapped by Gwyn. Arthur decides that they must fight for her yearly on 1st May until the day of judgment, when the victor would gain her hand.297 Professor Rh[^y]s regards Creidylad as a Persephone, wedded alternately to light and dark divinities. But the story may rather be explanatory of such ritual acts as are found in folk-survivals in the form of fights between summer and winter, in which a Queen of May figures, and intended to assist the conflict of the gods of growth with those of blight.299 Creidylad is daughter of a probable god of growth, nor is it impossible that the story of the battle of Mag-tured is based on mythic explanations of such ritual combats.

The Brythons worshipped Nuada as Nodons in Romano-British times. The remains of his temple exist near the mouth of the Severn, and the god may have been equated with Mars, though certain symbols seem to connect him with the waters as a kind of Neptune.300 An Irish mythic poet Nuada {86} Necht may be the Nechtan who owned a magic well whence issued the Boyne, and was perhaps a water-god. If such a water-god was associated with Nuada, he and Nodons might be a Celtic Neptune.301 But the relationship and functions of these various personages are obscure, nor is it certain that Nodons was equated with Neptune or that Nuada was a water-god. His name may be cognate with words meaning "growth," "possession," "harvest," and this supports the view taken here of his functions. The Welsh Nudd Hael, or "the Generous," who possessed a herd of 21,000 milch kine, may be a memory of this god, and it is possible that, as a god of growth, Nuada had human incarnations called by his name.303

Ler, whose name means "sea," and who was a god of the sea, is father of Manannan as well as of the personages of the beautiful story called The Children of Lir, from which we learn practically all that is known of him. He resented not being made ruler of the Tuatha Déa, but was later reconciled when the daughter of Bodb Dearg was given to him as his wife. On her death, he married her sister, who transformed her step-children into swans.304 Ler is the equivalent of the Brythonic Llyr, later immortalised by Shakespeare as King Lear.

The greatness of Manannan mac Lir, "son of the sea," is proved by the fact that he appears in many of the heroic tales, and is still remembered in tradition and folk-tale. He is a sea-god who has become more prominent than the older god of the sea, and though not a supreme god, he must have had a far-spreading cult. With Bodb Dearg he was elected king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He made the gods invisible and immortal, gave them magical food, and assisted Oengus in {87} driving out Elemar from his síd. Later tradition spoke of four Manannans, probably local forms of the god, as is suggested by the fact that the true name of one of them is said to be Orbsen, son of Allot. Another, the son of Ler, is described as a renowned trader who dwelt in the Isle of Man, the best of pilots, weather-wise, and able to transform himself as he pleased. The