The highest compliment I can pay Mark Williams is that after reading his ‘Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth’, I have an appetite to learn the Irish language. He exposes to the light a literary inheritance that has barely flickered in the Irish national consciousness since independence in 1922. It allows this nation to consider its origins, and observe how mythology involves a dynamic process of re-imagining, inclusive to all traditions.
These include the Rabelaisian intrigue of ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’; ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ which offers a fleeting glimpse of pre-Christian beliefs; ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir’ interpreted as a Christian parable; and ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Tuireann’ that foreshadows the disintegration of Gaelic civilisation. These subtle tales are a corrective to the fatalistic machismo of the character of Cú Chulainn from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cualígne, that has tended to adorn the nationalist self-image.
Defining the nature of the Celtic immortals, or gods, has long proved elusive to scholars. J. R. R. Tolkien complained that ‘there is bright colour but no sense’, although the elves of his Lord of the Rings were influenced by ‘Celtic’ mythology. The accuracy of the term ‘Celtic’ is itself doubtful when we consider the word’s Greek origin as ‘barbarian’, and the fragility of the archaeological evidence of a contiguous ‘Celtic’ culture associated with excavations from La Téne in modern-day Switzerland.
Undeterred, modern ‘Celticism’ (a hybrid of ‘Celtic’ folklore and mysticism) incubated fuzzy ideas such as these expressed by the early twentieth-century theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz:
“Of all European lands I venture to say that Ireland is the most mystical, and, in the eyes of true Irishmen, as much the Magic Isle of Gods and Initiates now as it was when the Sacred Fires flashed from its purple, heather covered mountain-tops and mysterious round towers, and the Great Mysteries drew to its hallowed shrines neophytes from the West as from the East, from India and Egypt as well as from Atlantis; and Erin’s mystic seeking sons will watch and wait for the relighting of the Fires and the restoration of the Old Druidic Mysteries.”
Efforts to taxonomize the various myths and develop rituals of worship foundered, at times comically, but the ethereal motifs were a wellspring of inspiration during the fin de siècle Irish Revival. This engendered possibly the finest movement in English-language literature of the twentieth century; the early W.B. Yeats and late James Joyce drew on imagery from these tales.
The corpus remains a powerful creative source, connecting us with enduring symbols that portray Carl Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious. Unfortunately today in Ireland, as elsewhere, the vision of an unconscious mind is rarely nurtured, and the varied manifestations of the Irish immortals hardly figure in ‘serious’ literature. Another revival may be brewing, however, associated with John Moriarty’s ‘philo-mythical approach’.
Williams speculates that the gods of the Irish prior to the arrival of Christianity may have been in considerable flux due to late Iron Age agricultural decline. The evidence for Gaelic paganism is fragmented and mediated by a Christianity that brought literacy; the indigenous culture had not advanced beyond Ogham script. We have no evidence for how pagan deities were worshipped, and they tend to appear as numinous presences ‘immanent in the landscape’. Williams speculates that a taboo may have operated against poetic description of pagan worship. Nor do we encounter a central Mount Olympus or Asgard for their deities. Tara was the seat of the high kings, not the Irish immortals. Their fragmented residences in síd mounds, haunting the countryside, reflect their banishment into the subterranean unconscious after the arrival of Christianity. As a reflection, or shadow, of a politically fragmented human society, their supposed location is unsurprising.
It is important to emphasise that throughout the period the Bible remained the foundation of learning, and few other books were available. Thus we find Ba’al, a biblical Canaanite god, being associated with the feast of Bealtaine at the start of May in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (Sanas Cormac) c.900, rather than the native ‘Bel’. Moreover, access to the writings of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) brought poets into contact with the myths of Classical Rome and Greece which influenced the ceaseless re-casting of indigenous tropes.
It might be assumed that the early Church brought a doctrinaire and prescriptive faith, but early medieval scholarship is infused with the language of paradox. It was believed that as fallen beings we cannot approach noesis (eschatological knowledge) directly; a position akin to physicists in the quantum realm contending with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Thus, rather than viewing Christianity as a monolithic, deadening force, in earlier times at least, it seemed to bring a refined admixture to a disorderly civilisation. Moreover, scholars were also acquainted with Neoplatonism which posited a universal harmony beloved of poets.
As when two ocean plates collide to produce an effluxion in life, a great cultural ferment characterised the encounter between a relatively insulated native civilisation and wider European currents. It is evident that individual genius is expressed within the context of a particular society, and Williams discerns among the literati of the time a sense that they were playing their part in a rather special movement. From the eighth to the eleventh century a formidable vernacular literature arose in Ireland, although most of the poets are unknown. Williams says this must count as ‘an outstanding contribution to the literary inheritance of humanity’, distinguished by ‘moments of ferocious weirdness’. It is also striking that many of the great works emerged at a point when the nation was suffering grievously under Viking attacks. This must have prompted deep questioning of God’s will, and the validity of their institutions. The pre-existing deities offered imaginative tools with which to address these issues when direct criticism could have proved dangerous, and artistically limiting.
Irish filid (poets) held expertise in memorialization of tradition, genealogies and vernacular composition, and were an exalted cast among the áes dána (skilled people). They were not clerics although, unusually for the time, aspects of their educations overlapped. In a highly stratified society they painted themselves as equal to kings. More than simply entertainers, they were also legal authorities in a society spared full-time lawyers. As masters of language – and performance perhaps – they shaped the outlook of their audiences; Percy Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ in other words.
These Irish poets learnt their trade, often operating under exacting metrical demands. According to Williams: ‘They were expert in the grammatical analysis … in the highly formalized rules of poetic composition, and in training the memory to encompass the vast body of historical and legendary story, precedent, and genealogy which it was their business to know.’ Pagan gods and lore were their discreet preserve, conferring deep awareness of the native language and landscape, although, as Williams stresses, they were not atavistic pagans.
‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ (Cath Maige Tuired) c. 875 is the centrepiece of the so-called Mythological Cycle, relating how the Tuatha Dé (‘god-peoples’) had been oppressed by their enemies the Formorians (Fomoire). Applying my own Jungian analysis – especially relying on Laurens van der Post’s excellent treatment in Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975) – to the saga may be useful to the reader, and I think suggest Williams’s wide ranging approach offers an invitation for new readings.
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. He had replaced Nuada who had lost his arm and authority in battle. We learn that the court physician Diancecht fashions him 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.
In the account of Diancecht’s preference for an artificial arm over Miach’s more effective Complimentary approach, the 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 available in Nature. It is also appears that a professional body will seek to preserve its secrets, in which case this remains a powerful metaphor that could be applied to the modern pharmaceutical industry. A man with a silver arm presages the contemporary spectre of transhumance, where human beings propose to upload their bodies into computers, in fulfilment 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 Williams own ‘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.
The Formorians seem to represent the nefarious shadow of the Tuatha Dé, and the audience themselves. The Formorians are an external 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. 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 simply as an expression of approval for patriarchal bias, but we may divine an enriching symbolic meaning by seeing a favourable balance in Lug’s mixed ancestry being struck between the thrusting, will to power of male energy on his Formorian mother’s side with the earthier characteristics of the Tuatha Dé, that equate with female love, on his father’s. 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 remains ascendant as it arrives from a dominant male father repressing his ‘caring’ Tuatha Dé female energies (Mm:Ff = Mf).
There is another fascinating scene after the Formorians are vanquished when Lug captures the errant Bres, who pleads for his life by proposing that 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 Williams: ‘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 who brought technological advances in agriculture and sailing, alongside carnage.
There are lessons here for a contemporary audience insofar as we need both a thrusting, male, Formorian, energy, to bring a task to fruition but crucially it is the caring, ‘female’ Tuatha Dé approach that should guide our endeavours. We might extend this further by allusion to the nefarious consequences of the contemporary separation of religion from science. As Laurens van der Post in his excellent study of Carl Jung puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ It is the dominance of the Formorian mind that brought us the Atomic bomb. We could also draw an analogy with the unfavourable balance between the roles struck between the two hemispheres of the brain at present, persuasively argued in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The Formorian represents left-sided, ‘male’, singular focus, the Tuatha Dé holistic, female, right-sided awareness.
‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaín) c.800-1000 is a colourful tale of romantic intrigues and magic 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, the tale was beloved of Revivalists such as Yeats, who found there imagery to stir any poetic imagination. 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 whom Aengus earns by performing a series of tasks for her father, the high king of Ireland. Midir, however, already has a wife in Fúamnach who does not take kindly to the new arrival, turning her into a giant bluebottle through 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 drink 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 Étaín falls hopelessly in love, and starts to waste away. Ailill confesses his feelings to her whereupon his health begins to return. In order to cure him fully the obliging Étaín agrees 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, explaining to Étaín their ancient love when they 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 few rounds. Still Eochu refuses to give up his wife, defending Tara with all his men. Undeterred, Midir miraculously appears inside Tara where the lovers embrace and transmogrify into swans that escape 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 whereby she refuses to dishonour Eochu’s home by fornicating with Ailill whose recovery reflects the benefit of voicing innermost feelings. 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, escaping through the skylight. 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.’
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 medieval 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 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 síd 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 to most Irish people. 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 withered old human beings who die and ascend to heaven. It is worthwhile comparing this tale to the earlier ‘Wooing of Étaín’ where the shape-shifting into swans is an affirmative form of escape into a wild nature. According to 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 the domineering Catholicism of independent Ireland. The worth of life as a swan is rejected, a lifeless 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 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 gods diminished, until their resuscitation, ironically, via descendants of their conquerors.
The Romantic inspiration for the Revival of Irish mythology at the end of the nineteenth century is significant. Yeats, especially, was influenced by Romantics and pre-Raphaelite poets of a previous era, foremost perhaps Shelley who saw poetry as the font of wisdom and extensively mined Classical mythology for metaphor and inspiration. In his essay The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry (1900) Yeats refers to the ‘ministering spirits’ for the former’s poem Intellectual Beauty: ‘who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of medieval Europe, and the Sidhe [sic] of ancient Ireland’. In quoting that poem he reveals the significance of the síde to his own Art:
These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence,’ ‘visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming Eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave,’
Yeats, however, felt: ‘Shelley’s ignorance of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of rootless poetry’. Perhaps he believed he could offer greater authenticity in his verse through his childhood contact with fairy-lore in his mother’s country Sligo, alongside his continued investigations.
Yeats identified himself with Ireland (as opposed to England where he spent much of his early life) as he found there vibrant and novel mystical sources for his poetry, containing symbols he considered universal. His Ireland was a Romantic illusion coinciding with a doomed attraction to Maud Gonne whose intense nationalism bewitched him. Building on the work of Standish O’Grady and others, he and his friends, the journalist and visionary George Russell and the folklorist Augusta Lady Gregory, developed a pantheon of Irish gods mirroring Classical, and, importantly, Hindu models. In Yeats’s view: ‘Tradition is always the same. The earliest poet of India and the Irish peasant in his hovel nod to each other across the ages, and are in perfect agreement.’
As with the early period of Christianity, the nourishment of other traditions, Neoplatonic and Oriental, brought texture and colour to the Irish gods. It is also telling that the leading Revivalists came from Protestant backgrounds which emphasises the malleability of immortals ‘immanent in the landscape’. The Tuatha Dé are equal opportunities enchanters that make no distinction based on race or creed, although all should be beware of the amádan na bruidhne, a supernatural being whose very touch brings disablement and death. The fool in Ireland is not always wise.
Importantly at this time, Yeats and his coterie formed the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which served a role akin to the schooling of the medieval filid. According to Williams: ‘Progress up through the grades of the Golden Dawn was via a series of initiations and examinations, each of which required the initiate to master aspects of occult symbolism and philosophy – a system of considerable intellectual complexity.’ It seems that Yeats who never attended university was alluding to the benefits of this formation when he urged: ‘Irish poets learn your trade’, in his valedictory ‘Under Ben Bulben’.
Largely owing to their identification with heretical Protestantism and deviant theosophy, the Tuatha Dé largely retreat from view after Irish independence in 1922, except to vent a repressed sexuality in the work of Liam O’Flaherty and Austin Clarke. It is revealing, however, that the determinedly cosmopolitan James Joyce proposed that James Stephens, a prominent scholar of Irish myth, should complete Finnegans Wake should he expired before doing so. Sadly, most schoolchildren are unacquainted with the riches of the early sagas which helps explain the continuing decline in the fortunes of the Irish language.
It is instructive that the retreat of mythology from late twentieth century Irish literature coincides with a loss of vividness and magical elements. Thus, in John McGahern’s novel Among Women, perhaps the most famous Irish novel of the second half of the twentieth century, we find a realist portrayal of rural life that is bereft of fantastical imagery. This reflects a wider cultural shift as van der Post bemoaned: ‘The free exercise of fantasy which is the imagination unsevered from its instinctive roots at play, has gone from literature and art’.
Williams suggests that a mythology: ‘furnishes a culture with total worldview, interpreting and mirroring back everything that that culture finds significant’. It is a medium that remains vitally generative in the creative process allowing artists to imagine divine possibilities. Unfortunately its possibilities have been tethered by a dunderhead scientism that conflates all belief in the supernatural. Scientism now operates in the same way as a dogmatic Christianity when it ceased to express ideas in the language of paradox. The location of the Tuatha Dé and other Irish immortals is in the unconscious minds; which is as real as any other observed phenomenon, especially through the work of Jung, who analysed 67,000 dreams, we can approach an understanding of a common and elusive inheritance.
It is also worthwhile recalling the views of the leading art critic of nineteenth century Britain John Ruskin who asserted a belief in ‘spiritual powers … genii, fairies, or spirits’. He claimed that: ‘No true happiness exists, nor is any good work done … but in the sense or imagination of such presences.’ This may have been meant in the sense that we should preserve our ‘childish’ sense of wonder into adult life. Jung also identified supernatural belief with wholeness involving reconciliation to a ‘female’ side our nature.
Mythology can be a constituent of Richard Kearney’s idea of ‘Anatheism’: ‘the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: the polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history.’
John Moriarty is the latest writer to light the torch of the Tuatha Dé in his ‘philo-mythical’ writings dousing his work with characters borrowed from Old Irish literature. His prose is gloriously poetical although it is difficult to keep abreast with the sheer erudition. It is advisable to begin by listening to recordings of Moriarity as he explores the contours of his crooked world, observing all ontologies and mythologies that lie in the undergrowth. Unsurprisingly, the 2012 documentary about his life Dreamtime, Revisited was subjected to attack, with Donald Clarke in The Irish Times describing it as ‘priceless parody of Celtic windbaggery’, although the reviewer acknowledged that he had never read any of Moriarty’s formidable writings and evinced no appetite to do so.
Mark Williams’s book is a tour de force of scholarship by any measure. Naturally there are lacunae in a treatment that spans over a thousand years, including an acknowledged omission to integrate the gods of the Táin Bó Cualígne into his narrative. It may also have benefitted from further concentration on the social structures of early Christian Ireland and the agricultural modes of production, and relations with Nature, that underpinned these. The Tuatha Dé exist in an Irish dreamtime that we dismiss at our peril. Their presence remains etched into the landscape as an undiscriminating font of creativity that may help us unlock our most vivid ideas.