Ireland's Immortals
eBook - ePub

Ireland's Immortals

A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

Mark Williams

Share book
  1. 608 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Ireland's Immortals

A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

Mark Williams

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents
Citations

About This Book

A sweeping history of Ireland's native gods, from Iron Age cult and medieval saga to the Celtic Revival and contemporary fiction Ireland's Immortals tells the story of one of the world's great mythologies. The first account of the gods of Irish myth to take in the whole sweep of Irish literature in both the nation's languages, the book describes how Ireland's pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era—and how they were recast again during the Celtic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A lively narrative of supernatural beings and their fascinating and sometimes bizarre stories, Mark Williams's comprehensive history traces how these gods—known as the TĂșatha DĂ© Danann —have shifted shape across the centuries, from Iron Age cult to medieval saga to today's young-adult fiction.We meet the heroic Lug; the MorrĂ­gan, crow goddess of battle; the fire goddess Brigit, who moonlights as a Christian saint; the mist-cloaked sea god ManannĂĄn mac Lir; and the ageless fairies who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien's immortal elves. Medieval clerics speculated that the Irish divinities might be devils, angels, or enchanters. W. B. Yeats invoked them to reimagine the national condition, while his friend George Russell beheld them in visions and understood them to be local versions of Hindu deities. The book also tells how the Scots repackaged Ireland's divine beings as the gods of the Gael on both sides of the sea—and how Irish mythology continues to influence popular culture far beyond Ireland.An unmatched chronicle of the Irish gods, Ireland's Immortals illuminates why these mythical beings have loomed so large in the world's imagination for so long.

Frequently asked questions

How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is Ireland's Immortals an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access Ireland's Immortals by Mark Williams in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Literature & Folklore & Mythic Literary Criticism. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.

Information

PART ONE
Image
1
HIDDEN BEGINNINGS
Image
FROM CULT TO CONVERSION
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
The wet centre is bottomless.
—SEAMUS HEANEY, ‘BOGLAND’
IN MANY MYTHOLOGIES the gods issue forth from primordial night; in Ireland, the divinities emerge not from the dark abyss of creation myth, but from an enigmatic and patchy archaeological record.
The earliest written evidence for native gods comes from early Christian Ireland, not from the pagan period; this is a pivotal fact which must be emphasized. Christianity did not entirely consign the pagan gods to the scrapheap, but the consequences of its arrival were dramatic and affected Irish society on every level. Pagan cult and ritual were discontinued, and a process was set in motion that eventually saw a small number of former deities reincarnated as literary characters. Christianity—intrinsically a religion of the book—enabled the widespread writing of texts in the Roman alphabet. Some of these have been transmitted to the present, with the paradoxical upshot that we owe our ability to say anything at all about the ‘personalities’ of Ireland’s pre-Christian gods to the island’s conversion.1
This chapter focuses on the period from the fifth century down to the late seventh, but tighter historical brackets can be put around the conversion process itself. The Christian religion was present in Ireland from at least the early 400s, certainly among British slaves and their descendants, though there may well also have been communities of Irish converts in the areas of the island that had been most exposed to influence from Roman Britain.2 It is notoriously difficult to pinpoint when a population group can be decisively said to have exchanged one religion for another, but during the 500s the church hierarchy was legally established as a privileged order, and monasticism, Latin education, and ecclesiastical learning thrived. By the year 600, therefore, we can speak of Irish society as already converted on the level of hierarchy and institution.3 The public worship of pagan gods by high-status individuals had probably come to an end in the mid to late 500s, but occasional, increasingly marginalized manifestations of non-Christian religion seem to have continued until the turn of the eighth century.4 It is not until that point that druids—the magico-religious specialists of Irish paganism—finally cease to appear in legal texts as a going concern and can be taken to have disappeared from Irish society.5 It is also worth remembering that all such markers are public and collective: the realm of personal conviction—how people behaved in their homes and felt in their hearts—is irrecoverably lost to us.
Around the year 700—roughly three hundred years after the conversion process began—pagan divinities began to appear in a vibrant literature written in Old Irish.6 Two questions immediately present themselves. Why should a Christian people be interested in pagan gods at all? And what was the relationship between the gods whom the pagan Irish had once venerated and the literary divinities who thronged the writings of their Christian descendants?7
ARCHAEOLOGY AND ANALOGY
It is traditional in handbooks of mythology to begin with a family portrait of the divinities, detailing their relationships, powers, and attributes.8 This cannot be done for the gods of Ireland. It could be argued—albeit rather austerely—that we should not speak of Irish pre-Christian deities at all, because everything we know about them comes down to us in writings composed after the island’s conversion and may therefore have been filtered through a Christian lens. All surviving mythological material from Ireland is the product of a pious and intellectually sophisticated Christian culture, and it is important to hold in mind that from their earliest appearances in the textual record the Irish gods are divorced from cult.
Can we retrieve any information from non-textual sources about the nature of the divinities worshipped by the pagan Irish?9 The attempt is possible only with caution and if we confine ourselves to general principles. Two tools come to hand: the first is archaeology, and the second is inference drawn from the related societies of Celtic Gaul and Britain.
Image
FIG. 1.1. Late Bronze Age yew-wood figure, c.1000 BC, discovered in Ralaghan, Co. Cavan. Photo: Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Museum of Ireland.
By its nature, archaeological evidence is of limited value in reconstructing belief systems or mythological narratives, but it does seem that at least some Irish population groups set up anthropomorphic wooden or stone images that may be of gods. One found in the bog of Ralaghan, Co. Cavan, is roughly a metre long and made from a single round trunk of yew: it has a gouged hole in the genital area, which may once have held a carved phallus (Fig. 1.1). Though its sunken eye hollows anticipate the uncanny stare associated with the (characteristically Iron Age) La TĂšne decorative style, it actually dates to the late Bronze Age, at the beginning of the first millennium BC.10 Many scholars would place this before the arrival of any form of Celtic speech in Ireland, so there is no guarantee of cultural continuity with the religious practices of over a millennium later.11 That said, similar sculptures have turned up sporadically in Britain in a more explicitly Iron Age context, suggesting that they may once have been widespread: we cannot tell.12
Similar problems of interpretation attend the stone sculpture known as the ‘Tandragee Idol’, also dated to c.1000 BC. Helmeted and grasping his left arm—in pain or in salute?—the figure could represent a human warrior or a native deity (Fig. 1.2). In an instance of the seductive temptation to read archaeological objects in the light of much later literature—and thus to find a politically soothing continuity in the Irish past—it has been suggested that the Tandragee sculpture depicts NĂșadu ArgatlĂĄm (‘of the Silver Hand/Forearm’), a literary character who loses his arm in battle and has it temporarily replaced by one made of metal.13 Ellen Ettlinger, who suggested the identification in 1961, felt convinced that the sculptor had depicted the left arm as ‘clearly artificial’—but distinctions of this kind surely lie in the eye of the beholder.14 Additionally, as the story of NĂșadu’s silver prosthesis is first attested in a saga composed nearly two millennia after the Tandragee sculpture was created, any link must be considered at best only a possibility; the figure remains inscrutable.
There are also hints that rivers, bogs, and pools were important in the religious beliefs of the pagan Irish, though Iron Age deposits of artifacts are strikingly rarer in Ireland than in parts of Britain, for unknown reasons: an instance of the enigmatic quality of Irish Iron Age archaeology in general.15 Ireland can nonetheless boast one of the most spectacular of these, the Broighter Hoard, which was discovered in 1896 buried in heavy agricultural land near to Lough Foyle in County Derry. The original deposition was made close to the water’s eastern edge, but the shore of the lake has shifted over the millennia. It includes not only the most splendid torc ever uncovered in Ireland, but also a miniature golden boat, complete with tiny oars.16 The items seem to have been fashioned, and perhaps deposited as well, in the first century BC. Depositions such as this suggest a belief at the time they were made in supernatural beings associated with water, and it should be emphasized that this is all that can be extracted with confidence. In another instance of looking to later literature to explain archaeology, scholars have long speculated that the hoard was a ritual offering to the sea-god Manannán, because Old Irish texts associate Lough Foyle with stories of an inundation and an encounter between the god and a band of human mariners.17 All this is not to say that connections drawn between medieval written texts and pre-Christian archaeology are of necessity misguided, simply that they must be considered tentative and that it is dismayingly easy to build castles in the air.
Image
FIG. 1.2. The Tandragee Idol, carved stone image, c.1000 BC. Photo: Reproduced by permission of the Dean and Chapter of St Patrick’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland), Armagh.
Because the archaeological evidence emerges as open to several interpretations we can use it to outline only the most important aspects of how the pre-Christian Irish regarded their divinities. Briefly, there were probably a great number of these, related to specific places, peoples, and to the natural world.18 They were considered worthy of reverence, and perhaps (as seen) of artistic depiction; some of them seem to have had associations with water—though whether they were supposed to dwell in, under, or through it is unclear. They could be propitiated, and must have been imagined as having uses for the gifts, including animal sacrifice, which human beings offered up to them. Some of this picture can be rounded out by comparison with Gaul and Britain, but one final caveat about the archaeological record should be considered before we move on: it points to the centuries immediately before the conversion began as a period of economic contraction, agricultural decline, and (very likely) some degree of political upheaval.19 Therefore it is possible that late–Iron Age religious values and beliefs reflected such turbulence, so that far from descending changelessly from an immemorial Celtic past, they may have been in considerable flux.
With the turn from Irish archaeology to Celtic Gaul and Britain, written data enters the picture, largely in the form of inscriptions, though there are also important Roman descriptions of Gaulish religious customs. Once again, useful parallels between the religious cultures of these societies and that of Ireland can only be drawn if we stick to broad outlines. Three features emerge as likely to have been shared. The first is that watercourses seem regularly to have been venerated as divinities—usually goddesses, though there are a few river-gods.20 The second is a welter of local variety, with an enormously large number of named deities attested, though most of these clearly fell into a limited number of overlapping functional types: warrior, trader, hunter, and healer, for instance.21 Thirdly, neither Gaul nor Britain provide us with evidence for a native pantheon in the Graeco-Roman sense, and this is clearly related to the localism just mentioned. This last presents a puzzle, for it has to be acknowledged that Old Irish literature—as we shall see—does in fact provide a loose family of supernatural beings looking something like a pantheon. A deity named the Dagda, literally meaning the ‘Good God’, forms the centre of gravity within this structure, like the Roman Jupiter; like Jupiter, he has several children and is conspicuously highly sexed.22
There are a number of ways to resolve this discrepancy. On the one hand, pre-Christian Ireland might have independently developed a pantheon while the Gauls and the Britons did not, though this seems unlikely. Ireland was, and remained after its conversion, a decentralized, rural, and politically fragmented society with a thinly spread population of limited mobility—a situation unlikely to fo...

Table of contents