Ancient Irish Sagas | Cassandra Voices

Ancient Irish Sagas


The following is a short retelling and interpretation of a number of Irish sagas, including two, ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ and ‘The Wooing of Étaín’, from the golden age of Gaelic literature in the early middle ages.

I – The Second Battle of Moytura

Cath Maige Tuired  (‘The Second Battle of Moytura’) c. 875 is the centrepiece of the extraordinary Irish Mythological Cycle, relating how the Tuatha Dé (‘god-peoples’) had been oppressed by their enemies the Formorians (Fomoire). It consists of a series of fantastical episodes of enduring interest. We meet a Tuatha Dé exhausted by impossible labours and tributes after the half-Formorian Bres becomes High King of Ireland. He replaces Nuada who had lost his arm and authority in battle.

We learn that the court physician Diancecht fashions Nuada a prosthetic silver limb in its place. In the meantime, Diancecht’s son Miach begins to heal Nuada’s real severed arm, but the father prefers his own methods and surgically kills his son by removing his brain. Miach is buried by his sister Airmed and from his grave sprout three hundred and sixty-five healing herbs, which she orders in her cloak. Diancecht has other ideas, however, scattering the herbs, each of whose value would remain obscure to humanity.

In the account of Diancecht’s preference for an artificial arm over Miach’s more complimentary approach, the anonymous poet may be suggesting that the best healing comes from within the body itself, while the scattering of the healing herbs could represent ignorance of the cures freely available in Nature. It also appears that a professional body will seek to preserve its privileged position, in which case this remains a powerful metaphor for the modern pharmaceutical industry. A man with a silver arm presages the contemporary spectre of transhumance, whereby human beings propose to upload their bodies into computers, in fulfillment of René Descartes’s dualistic idea of a homunculus controlling a mechanical body.

The ‘Second Battle’ parades scenes of Rabelaisian excess, especially involving one character, the Dagda, who undertakes a mission inside the territory of the Formorians. There he meets a distortion of hospitality, whereby he is compelled to consume vast quantities of porridge to a point where is belly is the size of a cauldron. Afterwards he must loosen his bowels before sexual congress with a Formorian princess. In Mark William’s ‘less genteel’ translation: ‘The girl jumped on him and whacked him across the arse, and her curly bush was revealed. At that point the Dagda gained a mistress, and they had sex’. Smutty Irish humour has long antecedents.

In Jungian terms the Formorians seem to represent the nefarious shadow of the Tuatha Dé, an external, exploitative force that corrupt and indebt the native inhabitants, a narrative familiar to contemporary Ireland. However, the half-Formorian Bres is eventually succeeded by Lug, who is also of mixed parentage. Yet he combines all the highest attributes of the áes dána (skilled people). Lug and Bres differ in that the former’s father is Tuatha Dé and his mother Formorian, while the latter’s ancestry is the reverse.

This might appear as simply an expression of approval of patriarchal descent. There is however a richer symbolic meaning available if we see a balance in Lug’s mixed ancestry between the thrusting, will-to-power of male energy on his Formorian mother’s side, and the earthier characteristics of the Tuatha Dé, that equate with female love, on his father’s side. He achieves wholeness when, paradoxically, the female characteristics arrive through a dominant male parentage wherein the thrusting Formorian energies are contained (Mf:Fm = Fm). Bres differs in that the ‘male’ Formorian outlook is ascendant as it arrives from a dominant male father, repressing his ‘caring’ Tuatha Dé ‘feminine’ energies (Mm:Ff = Mf).

Another fascinating scene occurs after the Formorians are vanquished and Lug captures the errant Bres, who pleads for his life by proposing the Tuatha Dé should plant crops four times a year. Lug recognises this as impossible, or unsustainable, and only spares his foe when he reveals how the men of Ireland could operate a plough. According to Mark Williams in his indispensable Ireland’s Immortals: The history of the gods of Irish myth (2017): ‘the Formorians in the saga are characterized by a monstrously exploitative and unnatural relationship to the organic world, in a strange anticipation of contemporary agri-business’. This may be so, but Lug’s character also has a Formorian dimension, that, crucially, is contained positively by his (Fm) parentage. Similarly, in this episode, when Bres’s knowledge is refined from the approach of ploughing the earth four times a year, we find he confers a crucial skill. The relationship between the Tuatha Dé and the Formorians may also have been a commentary on the benefit of accommodating the skills of Norse raiders, then besetting Ireland, who also brought technological advances in agriculture and sailing.

There are lessons here for a contemporary audience insofar as we need both a thrusting, male, Formorian, energy, to put a plan into action but crucially it is the caring, ‘female’ Tuatha Dé approach that should guide our endeavours. It is the dominance of the Formorian mind that brought us the Atomic bomb.

II – The Wooing of Étaín

Tochmarc Étaín (‘The Wooing of Étaín’) c.800-1000 is a colourful tale of romantic intrigues and magical spells, featuring perhaps the greatest femme fatale in Irish literature. Based on recurring shape-shifting, we find hints of belief in metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls – preceding Christianity. Only fully translated in 1930, Irish Revivalists such as W.B. Yeats were besotted by the intrigues. Here the Tuatha Dé are reduced from the giants of the ‘Second Battle’ to ethereal síde, ‘faeries’, living in síd mounds, familiar in folklore today.

When Midir of the Tuatha Dé demands that Aengus his foster son gives him the most beautiful woman in Ireland in compensation for the infliction of an accidental injury trouble begins. She is Étaín, who Aengus ‘earns’ by performing a series of tasks for her father, the high king of Ireland. Aengus then presents her to Midir, who, however, already has a wife in Fúamnach. She does not take kindly to the new arrival, eventually turning her into a giant bluebottle with a magic spell. Even in this altered state Midir finds fulfilment in her company, and the divine Calliphora vomitoria performs various miracles along the way. Furious, Fúamnach summons great winds to drive Midir’s buzzing consort away. Eventually, exhausted, she falls into the drinking vessel of a woman who swallows her and becomes pregnant, reproducing Étaín 1,002 years after her original birth.

The beauty is then married off to another high king of Ireland Eochu. Unfortunately his brother Ailill, upon setting eyes on her, falls hopelessly in love, and starts to waste away. Ailill confesses his feelings to her whereupon the blood returns to his cheeks. In order to cure him fully the obliging Étaín assents to an amorous exchange, but insists, for the sake of propriety, this should not take place under the king’s roof. In the meantime, the apparently immortal Midir puts Ailill to sleep and assumes his form, revealing to Étaín their ancient love when they finally meet. She agrees to give it another go, but only if Eochu agrees to sell her. Naturally he refuses, only for Midir to win her from him in a game of chess after bluffing for the first two rounds. Still Eochu refuses to give up his wife, defending Tara, the seat of the Irish high king, with all his men. Undeterred, Midir miraculously appears inside Tara where the lovers embrace and transmogrify into swans that escape through the skylight together. In response Eochu orders his men to dig up every síd mound in the country. At this stage Midir plays a trick on him by returning a replica of Étaín, who, it transpires, is actually Eochu’s daughter, Étaín having been pregnant with her.

Eochu’s fate is in an interesting inversion of the Oedipus myth, and echoes Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious whereby ignorance and unawareness carry the greatest offence. As van der Post puts it: ‘in Greek myth, legend and art, the villain is always the ignorance where it serves as representative of inner unawareness.’ In this tale the folly lies in denying the expression of love, especially when the Tuatha Dé are involved. Nevertheless Étaín is a moral exemplar bound by social conventions reflected in her refusal to dishonour Eochu’s home with Ailill whose recovery reflects the benefit of giving vent to passions. Also, Étaín only agrees to return to Midir if Eochu consents. Having lost Étaín in chess he welches on the bet and is punished by unconsciously committing the taboo of incest. The enduring image is of two swans, who in nature mate for life, joyfully escaping. The idea of beauty inhabiting the generally disparaged bluebottle attests to a joyful relationship with Nature. As the Eesha-Upanishad says: ‘Of a certainty the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.’

III – A Change in Attitude

From 900 there is a shift in the name of the Túatha Dé, crystallizing as Túatha Dé Danann, ‘the Peoples of the Goddess Danu’ in about 1200 which Williams suggests may have been ‘a deliberate attempt at inducing mental estrangement’. In the later middle ages we find pseudo-histories such as ‘The Book of Invasions’ (Lebor Gabála Érenn) c.1150 which tells the story of Ireland and its various waves of settlers and invaders from the time of Noah’s Flood to the era of the Gaels or ‘Milesians’, meaning the ethnic Irish themselves. Here the Tuatha Dé are stripped of godlike qualities and are instead imagined as a race of pagan necromancers preceding the Gaels. Historicising the Tuatha Dé also winnowed the creative possibilities available to poets, and Irish language literature thereafter fails to scale the earlier heights. The Tuatha Dé become darker presences usually associated with human failings.

Suspicion extends to their bewitching music. In one episode of the ‘The Colloquy of the Elders’ (Accalam na Senórach) c.1220 the character of St. Patrick expresses these reservations: ‘Good it was,’ said Patrick, ‘were it not indeed for the magical melody of the síde in it.’ Yet their creative presence is still acknowledged in traditional Irish music: the word for session is derived from síde.

‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Lir) c.1450 is a tale familiar around the world. The story involves a wicked step-mother Aoife whose magic transforms Lir’s two sets of twins from his first wife into swans. Forced to endure what is portrayed as an unhappy fate their resolve is strengthened by one of them, Fionnghuala, who seems to have an inner knowledge of Christian revelation. Eventually they meet a saintly monk called Mochaomhóg who baptises them, whereupon the spell is broken and they become aged human beings who die and ascend to heaven. It is worthwhile comparing this to the ‘Wooing of Étaín’, where shape-shifting into swans is an affirmative escape into Nature.

But according to Laurens van der Post:

the bird always and everywhere from Stone-Age man to Stravinsky has been the image of the inspiration, the unthinkable thought which enters our selves like a bird unsolicited out of the blue, it was for Jung … one of the signs of confirmation from nature that sustain the spirit in its search for enlightenment and emancipation from the floating world of appearances.

In ‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ a censorious cage is placed over the bird of imaginative possibilities, which fitted neatly with the domineering Catholicism of independent Ireland. The worth of life as a swan is rejected, as a dissipated human form is preferred, as long as salvation is available from the one true Apostolic Church.

‘The Tragic Deaths of Children of Tuireann’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann) c.1500 returns to the subject-matter of the ‘Second Battle of Moytura’, but at this point internal rivalry bedevils the Tuatha Dé, leading to the murder of Cian, the father of Lug, by the sons of Tuireann. The sons attempt to bury Cian’s mangled remains six times but each time the Earth rejects his body, illustrating Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious where nature itself rises up against a nefarious deed. This idea is also found in Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin (1868) where a murdered husband haunts the landscape of those responsible for the deed, his wife and her lover who are driven to commit suicide together.

Lug intuits that the sons are responsible for the deed and succeeds in gaining a commitment for them to pay éric, the legal compensation for homicide. Unsurprisingly the sons meet a sorry fate in their quests to satisfy this, but perhaps more interesting is the depiction of the Tuatha Dé as an enfeebled race incapable of contending with the Formorians. The illusion to the fractious politics of that period is obvious, and as Gaelic Irish culture crumbled after the Tudor conquest and subsequent plantations the vibrancy of the side diminished in parallel, until their resuscitation, ironically mainly via descendants of the conquerors, during the Irish Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.


About Author

Frank Armstrong graduated with a BA (International) from UCD majoring in history, during which time he spent a year at the University of Amsterdam on an Erasmus scholarship. He later earned a barrister-at-law degree at the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, and gained a Masters in Islamic Societies and Cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before taking a Post-Graduate Diploma in Education. Prior to setting up Cassandra Voices his writing was published in the Irish Times, the London Magazine, the Dublin Review of Books, Village Magazine, and the Law Society Gazette, among others. He is the editor-in-chief of Cassandra Voices.

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