In the beginning there was…
Kind of the beginning: Indo-European creation
It would be unusual – unique, compared to their European neighbours, even – if the Celts as a whole never had any ideas on a creation myth, but sadly nothing has survived intact. The evidence that survives only offers glimpses, but if we cast a wide net then we can perhaps get an idea of the basic underlying themes of creation.
Indo-European studies point to a number of common themes that can be found in surviving creation myths, and these can give us an idea of what we might expect to see in an Irish context, so naturally this is as good a place as any to start. Generally speaking, the world is created by the death and dismemberment of a primordial being, who is killed (or sacrificed) by one or more of their relatives. The various parts of the dismembered body go on to make up the elements and the physical world, including – ultimately – people.1
In Norse myth, creation began at the Ginnungagap, the primordial void which was enclosed in the north by Niflheim (which was intensely cold and icy) and in the south by Muspelheim (which was intensely hot and fiery). Eventually the heat of Muspelheim began to melt the ice of Niflheim, which produced a substance called etir, a sort of primordial moisture. From this, the primordial cow, Auðumbla, and the frost giant Ymir were born. As Ymir slept, his sweat produced two more frost giants, and a third was produced from his leg mating with one of his offspring. Auðumbla nourished the frost giants with her milk, and fed herself by licking the salt from a block of ice. As her licking wore down the ice, it was sculpted into the form Odin’s grandfather Búri – first his hair came into being, then his head, and on the third day, the whole of him was complete. Búri’s three sons eventually ended up killing the frost giant Ymir, and Odin used the parts of Ymir’s body to create the physical world:
“Of Ymir’s flesh | the earth was fashioned,
And of his sweat the sea;
Crags of his bones, | trees of his hair,
And of his skull the sky.
Then of his brows | the blithe gods made
Midgard for sons of men;
And of his brain | the bitter-mooded
Clouds were all created.”2
Similarities to this can be seen in Vedic myth, where the giant Purusha (‘Cosmic Man’) was ultimately sacrificed by the gods and his eyes became the sun, his breath the wind, and his mind the moon.3
Looking at the general motifs we see in Indo-European creation myths gives us an idea of what to look for in a possible Irish creation myth. This includes:
- Some sort of primordial origins out of fire and water interacting with each other to produce a sort of proto-state, where gods and giants exist
- Primordial beings – especially giants or cows as being among the first conscious beings, from which creation of the physical world (and/or animals and plants therein) begins, starting with the creation of certain elements
- The sacrifice and dismemberment of the primordial being (especially a giant or cows) being the impetus of creation
- A series of stages of creation, from the formless to the physical, from primordial beings and gods to humans, and the establishing of a social order and sovereignty4
We see evidence for all of these motifs in Irish myth, but they can in no way be seen to be whole, or surviving within their original context. What we have is evidence to suggest that there may have been a creation myth that was adapted and re-contextualised into a Christian framework that preserved certain pre-Christian parts of the story, but altered them irrevocably in one way or another – either by simply placing them in a Christian framework, or by subtle tweaking of bits here and there, or else in changing parts more dramatically. In this case, we would look to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland,’ also known as ‘The Book of Invasions’), and while it is a very problematic source in many respects, it also one of the most complete and cohesive pieces of evidence we have to hand.
In other tales we might see creation motifs – the common themes usually found in a creation myth – that have been adopted and adapted into a less grand context. In other words, creation motifs being used to illustrate the creation and origin of a particular place or geographical feature in the landscape, rather than the whole world, or whole country, itself. The Dindshenchas offers us some clues here, as well as longer tales like Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’) or Cath Maige Tuired (‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuired’).
Less concrete evidence can be found in tales like Immram Brain (‘The Voyage of Bran’), where it’s possible that Manannán refers to the creation of the world from primordial waters. Supporting evidence can be found in legal texts like the Senchus Mór, and even apocrypha5 like Tenga Bithnua (‘The Evernew Tongue’), that may refer to, or reflect, genuine pre-Christian teachings that were still known in early Christian times.
Like everything else in dealing with this subject, it’s important to remember that there is nothing truly definitive, and nor should we assume that there was necessarily only one creation myth in Ireland – or at least, by the time things were starting to get written down, many different versions may have been known, and reflected in what has survived. Given the very localised nature of many of the Irish gods we might reasonably expect to see many different permutations of a creation myth, which will affect the surviving evidence.
Given that caveat, it’s time to look at what we can interpret from the sources.
Fire in water
It makes sense to start from the beginning – or as near as we can get – even though the evidence here is scant and far from concrete in Irish terms. This means looking at the evidence from tales like Immram Brain and the Dindshenchas, which we might see as preserving hints and passing references to creation motifs.
According to the Norse creation myth, the first primordial beings were born of the etir which came from the ice of Niflheim being melted by the fire of Muspelheim. This motif of fire in water can be seen elsewhere in Indo-European terms, and in Celtic terms in particular. In Gaul, Strabo, a Greek historian writing from the late first century BCE into the early first century CE, tells us that the druids believed that souls and the universe were imperishable, “although sometimes fire and water will prevail.” This hints at a belief in a cycle of creation and destruction, and that as fire and water occasionally prevails, we might assume that so the next cycle of creation comes from fire and water as well.6
We might reasonably speculate that an Irish creation myth would start out in a similar fashion – with the interaction of fire and water. The Lebor Gabála has a very firm and consistent idea that each of the invaders who came to Ireland and had a hand in shaping it in some way, did so by journeying across the sea, hinting at a parallel with the idea of creation from primordial waters. Out of the waters, comes form.
Immram Brain, which has a lengthy episode involving Bran’s meeting with Manannán, also hints at a watery creation, saying that Manannán “…stirs the sea until blood.”7 The association of sea and blood is not found just here in Irish sources (see the section on The Duile below), so we might assume that it is meaningful. There are many ways that this can be interpreted, and all of them are creative in one way or another. Charles MacQuarrie gives four possibilities – either Manannán is raising a storm (stirring the sea into a fury, effectively); referring to his impending tryst to conceive the legendary king Mongán (in this sense referring to blood kin, obviously); or he is referring to the sea’s role in creation in general, where it was stirred until it was blood, and began to take form. In the latter example, Manannán could be interpreted as making a direct reference to his own role in that creation, or re-enacting it symbolically, in the sense that here his re-creation of creation is more specific and/or symbolic – in an immediate sense, the manifestation and revelation of the Otherworld before Bran.8
Manannán himself is called mac Lir – ‘son of sea’, and he sees the waters around him as his own land, great fertile plains covered in red flowers (perhaps referencing blood again).9 As the sea made flesh, it adds another dimension to the imagery, especially considering the fact that as he may be created directly from it, in a primordial sense. It could be interpreted that he sees creation all around him, just as he knows he is on a journey (across the sea, no less) to go on to create a son, his own flesh and blood. It does not have to be that the imagery represents just one of these acts of creation, but even all four, or a combination of them. Symbolism rarely has just one meaning or possible interpretation.
What is notable is that throughout Bran’s meeting with Manannán, the concept of creation and revelation are connected. Manannán reveals hidden knowledge to Bran, altering his perception for good. As the tale unfolds, we see that with this knowledge, with his journey, there is no going back to his previous state, his previous life, for Bran. This theme of transformation by way of the sea is recurring in Irish myth and tradition.
This brings us to our next example of a creation motif being found in an Irish context – the action of fire and water in slightly different circumstances. Here we turn to the Dindshenchas of Boann, the goddess whose name has been interpreted to mean ‘white cow’,10 and who ultimately lends her name to the river Boyne.
According to the Dindshenchas, Nechtan is said to have guarded the well of Segais, which had Otherworldly origins under the sea in Tír Tarngire, the ‘Land of Promise’. Nechtan may be comparable to Neptune, in Indo-European linguistic terms (both deriving from the PIE *neptonos or *h2epōm nepōts, ‘grandon/nephew of waters),11 suggesting a similar sort of role in a creation myth.
The well itself is said to be the source of the seven great rivers of Ireland, and the Dindshenchas poems for the naming of the River Boyne and the Shannon both explicitly associate them with it. Both are named after the women who died by them, either at their creation, or after the fact, and it is here that we see hints of the fire-in-water motif of creation.
Boann is said to have approached the well, guarded by her husband Nechtan, even though no one dared approach it because:
“There was none that would look to its bottom but his two bright eyes would burst: if he should move to left or right, he would not come from it without blemish.”12
It was guarded by Nechtan’s three cupbearers, but Boann went to the well regardless of the danger. One version tells that she went “…without being thirsty to make trial of its power,” implying that she went unjustly and with no good reason. Another version tells us that she went to the well to bathe in it, after her secret tryst with the Dagda at Brugh na Boinn where she miraculously conceived and gave birth to Oengus mac Óg in one day, through the Dagda’s magical intervention. By bathing in the waters Boann was certain that she would be able to hide her guilt at betraying her husband.13 In both versions, however, the well rises up and the waters pour forth, ultimately killing Boann.
The elements that are of interest to our purpose here, in looking at evidence for creation tales (or perhaps in this case the survival of the motif on a smaller scale), is that the well itself was associated with the nine hazel trees that surrounded it. The nuts fell from the tree and according to some tales the salmon that lived in the waters ate them. In other versions, the hazel nuts caused bubbles to form, that contained nothing but mystic inspiration, and were carried by the streams that sprang from the well itself.14
These bubbles can be seen to be a metaphor for boiling – fire and water in action. Kim McCone explores the motif of fire (and water by extension), along with other substances, being ‘cooked’ into something palatable and digestible. This can be in a literal sense, or metaphorical – Cú Chulainn goes into one of his warp spasms and is bathed in three cauldrons of water, causing the waters to boil, so that he is effectively ‘cooked’ back into a socially acceptable, civilised, state; Fionn is charged with tending a boiling cauldron of salmon and accidentally obtains the mystic knowledge from it after scalding his thumb on the contents and instinctively sucking it to soothe the pain. The process of gaining imbas forosnai (‘great knowledge which lights up, kindles’) involves cooking as well, and so in one sense, we see fire and water combined to give us something inspired, but understandable to us and the world around us.15
The connotations are transformative and civilising, making something socially acceptable as well – ultimately something that is both tangible and understandable in some way or other, and so the motif can be seen to be creative, too. Even in its negative capacity, we see something coming from fire and water that we know to be true, to be tangible. Boann is seen to be wrong in her approach of the well, and so she suffers for it, and ultimately dies, as does Sinann in another Dindshenchas poem,16 but the rivers flow, and those we can see and touch and feel. According to some tales, we can benefit from them as they carry the mystical hazel nuts, full of fiery knowledge, along with them or permeating the waters at certain times.17
This link with imbas forosnai and hidden knowledge brings us back to Mannanán and his revealing of the Otherworld to Bran in Immram Brain. Here, the stirring of the sea until it was blood that we looked at could be seen as comparable to tending a boiling cauldron, stirring, mixing, broiling, brewing – cooking something into being, into a palatable, digestible state. As MacQuarrie argues, it is tempting to see Manannán as a creator deity;18 and as Manannán reveals knowledge to Bran, so we see the idea of knowledge itself being associated with ultimately fiery origins, cooked in a watery and then imparted in a palatable form.19
In the case of Boann, in particular, the underlying creative elements of her story are reinforced by her ultimate dismemberment – another common creation motif. Here, however, she is disfigured before dying, so she does not die directly as a result of being dismembered by others as is usual in the motif, but more because she is embarrassed by her ugly state, and the fact that it obviously shows her wrongdoing. In the end, she chooses to die, and lets the sea swallow her (how very cyclical…).
We are told she loses an eye, a leg, and arm, which reinforces the comment that the well she approached “gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil,” linking what’s left of her with negative magic, the stance of corrguinect, “crane magic”.20 The crane, often associated with Manannán may itself be significant as a creation motif here.
Then there is the fact that she is explicitly associated as being Segais itself, with various parts of her forming various parts of the river under different names as it exudes from the source:
“Segais was her name in the Sid to be sung by thee in every land: River of Segais is her name from that point to the pool of Mochua the cleric.
From the well of righteous Mochua to the bounds of Meath’s wide plain, the Arm of Nuadu’s Wife and her Leg are the two noble and exalted names.
From the bounds of goodly Meath till she reaches the sea’s green floor she is called the Great Silver Yoke and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.
Stormy Wave from thence onward unto branchy Cualnge; River of the White Hazel from stern Cualnge to the lough of Eochu Red-Brows.
Banna is her name from faultless Lough Neagh: Roof of the Ocean as far as Scotland: Lunnand she is in blameless Scotland — or its name is Torrand according to its meaning.
Severn is she called through the land of the sound Saxons, Tiber in the Romans’ keep: River Jordan thereafter in the east and vast River Euphrates.
River Tigris in enduring paradise, long is she in the east, a time of wandering from paradise back again hither to the streams of this Sid.
Boand is her general pleasant name
from the Sid to the sea-wall…”21
As Boann races against her shame, she leaves her mark indelibly on the landscape. The ‘bubbles’ of inspiration – the fire-in-water – serve to bring our understanding of the landscape into focus.
In Indo-European terms, we see a motif of dismemberment as being the cause of creating many features of the physical world, and this is reflected in Boann’s story, but at the same time it seems clear from the evidence that that Boann’s names are only associated with the waters that ran through a landscape that had already been formed.
In a similar fashion, we see the Dagda and the Morrigan meeting over a river at a pre-ordained time in order to have sex in the tale of Cath Maige Tuired, and in a sense here we might see that they are uniting in a ritual sense, from which union peace is ultimately restored over their people. Here the river clearly forms a boundary natural between two territories, and so we might see Boann’s river as symbolically forming such boundaries in its travels, but it suggests also that the Dagda and the Morrigan themselves might have had some role in creation, their pre-ordained tryst being a sort of re-enactment of their original role of creation in order to restore balance.
Looking to the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, we see another example of dismemberment and creation. Again, as Boann had bovine associations, so we see dismemberment and cows – or bulls, specifically – being involved.
The Táin begins with Medb wanting to possess the Donn Cúailnge – the ‘Brown Bull of Cooley’ – which far surpasses the quality and value of her husband’s prize bull, Finnbennach (‘White Horned’). This would result in Medb being superior to her husband in riches and possessions, but the only snag is that the bull belongs to a man, Dáire mac Fiachna, who is of the Ulaid (people of Ulster), and who does not intend to give up his prize bull for love nor money. Driven by her need for the bull, Medb has only one option when negotiation fails, and she initiates an epic cattle-raid to seize the bull by force.
The tale ends with the two bulls fighting each other, one of which is ultimately dismembered. The whole episode immediately leading up to this is full of creation themes, with elements of mist, wind, and lightning all playing a part in the mustering of men to arms before the bulls clash.22 We’ll return to the point about the elements later, but suffice it say, it too is important.
The significance of their clash may be reinforced by the fact that the bull who gets dismembered is white, and is named Finnbennach for its white horns. This not only recalls the possible meaning of Boann and the creative motifs found in her stories, but it is also a motif that can be found in other creation stories such as the Zoroastrian primordial bull, Gavaevodata.23 The other bull, the Donn of Cúailnge has been tentatively associated with Donn, the god of the dead who resides in Tech Duinn, but the argument is mainly based on the fact that the names are the same, and very little else.24
The Donn Cúailnge ends up tearing apart the white bull, Finnbennach, proving that he is indeed the superior bull as Medb so desired to possess. First the Donn plunges Finnbennach into the lake at Crúachan, and then emerges triumphant with Finnbennach’s loins, shoulderblade, and liver on his horns. Still on the rampage, Fergus holds his men back from trying to capture the Donn, and so the bull heads home, creating placenames as he goes:
“He stopped on the way to drink at Finnleithe, where he left Finnbennach’s shoulderblade. Hence the name Finnleithe, White Shoulder. He drank again at Áth Luain, and left Finnbennach’s loins there. Hence the name Áth luain, the Ford of the Loins. At Iraird Cuillenn he let a great bellow out of him that was heard all over the province. He drank again at Tromma, where Finnbennach’s liver fell from his horns. Hence the name Tromma, Liver. He went then to Éten Tairb, where he rested his brow against the hill. Hence the name Éten Tairb, the Bull’s Brow, in Muirthmene Plain. Then he went by the Midluaichair Road to Cuib, where he used to dwell with the dry cows of Dáire, and he tore up the ground there. Hence the name Gort mBúraig, Trench Field. Then he went on and fell dead at the ridge between Ulster and Uí Echach. That place is now called Druimm Tairb, Bull Ridge.”25
From the waters of the lake at Cruachan, the Donn Cúailnge comes out with the dismembered pieces of the white bull and alters the landscape around him, with Finnbennach lending his name to many different parts. Out of this rampage, and ultimately both of the bulls’ deaths, comes peace between the people of Connacht and Ulster – a restoration of social order.
The Senchus Mór comments that the druids “claim that they themselves created heaven and earth and sea, etc. the sun and the moon, etc.”26 Bruce Lincoln interprets this to mean that it was the druidic rituals they performed that repeated this act of creation, “in order to sustain the latter against decay and ultimate collapse.”27 This is rather like the interpretation we’ve already seen for the Morrigan and the Dagda’s Samhainn tryst.
As Lincoln sees it, this idea of repetition is especially the case with rituals of sacrifice – in other words, we might see their performing a sacrifice as a reflection of the initial sacrifice that created (and therefore sustained) the world around them. In effect, it is a ritual act of balancing.28 As the initial sacrifice of many Indo-European myths created the elements and the world, so these elements went on to create other gods, animals, and people.29 Again, we see this reflected in Irish texts, such as the thirteenth or fourteenth century story that Bruce Lincoln calls the ‘Seven Part Adam’:
“There is to be known concerning the creation of Adam from seven parts. The first part is from the earth, the second part from the sea, the third part from the sun, the fourth part from the clouds, the fifth part from the wind, the sixth part from the stones, the seventh part from the Holy Spirit.
The part of the earth, this is the body of man. The part of the sea, this is the blood of a man. The part of the sun is his face and countenance; the part of cloud, his thought; the part of the wind, the breath of man; the part of stones, his bones; the part of the Holy Spirit, his soul…”30
Whitley Stokes gives a slightly different translation from the same manuscript, and includes an eighth part, the ‘Light of the World’, which makes a man’s piety.31 Clearly it is Christian in context, but it preserves elements that have obvious similarities with Indo-European mythical elements – the creation of the elements from a primordial being, as seen in the case of Ymir. From Ymir, his flesh creates the earth, his sweat creates the sea, bones create the trees, his skull creates the sky, his brows, Midgard, and his brains result in the clouds. Here, we see it going from the macrocosmic level of creation – the world – to the microcosmic level; that of Man. The earth creates the body (flesh), and the sea forms blood (appropriately enough, given what we’ve see from Manannán), the mind (brains) come from the clouds, which by extension could be seen to relate the skull to the sky as in the Norse example, but stones, rather than trees, create bones.
A similar case can be seen in passages from Tenga Bithnua, ‘The Evernew Tongue,’ a very obscure (and at times bizarre) text that is thought to date to the ninth century. It recounts a conversation between the Hebrew sages and the apostle Philip (the Evernew Tongue, so-called on account of the fact that his tongue was cut out nine times by heathens who didn’t want to hear his message, and each time it miraculously grew back). It covers the creation of the world (in terms of Genesis) in great detail, and again, not entirely Biblical concepts can be seen mixed in with Christian teaching. For one, it tells us that:
“All the world arose with Him, for the nature of all the elements dwelt in the Body which Jesus assumed.”32
For the creation itself, we are told:
“He said that these elements should exist: that there were no circuits of the heavens, nor clouds to irrigate the earth, nor spark, nor dispersal of storms: that there were no lands whereon they would pour: that there was neither rain nor snow: that there were neither lightnings, nor blast of wind, nor thunders; that there was neither course of sun, nor vicissitude of moon, nor variation of stars: that there were no marine monsters: that there was no sea in which they would swim: that there were streams, nor herd, nor beasts, nor birds, nor dragons, nor serpents.”33
Here then we have a list of elements as enumerated by the Irish – the duile as they are called in the text – and notably they can all be seen to be listed in terms of the three realms, with sky and land dealt with first, and then sea (and by extension, the streams), with the exception of ‘spark’. Reference to these duile can be found from early to modern Gaelic literature, in the eighth century Irish prayer of St Patrick’s Breastplate,34 to the nineteenth century charm for the Exorcism of the Evil Eye in the Carmina Gadelica.35 These all invariably include a selection from the following list:
- Rain (and/or snow)
- Fire or ‘spark’
They are commonly listed in groups of seven, nine, or eleven.
These duile are invoked in charms for protection and healing in particular, with the aim of restoring a natural balance (an unnatural imbalance being seen to be the cause of the danger or disease in the first place). Lincoln sees healing as being a sort of reverse process to sacrifice:
“…while a sacrificer employed matter taken from a victim’s dismembered body to restore the cosmos, the healer used matter from the universe to restore a damaged body. What is more, both of these practical operations reflected a mythic ideology in which body and cosmos were understood as homologous.”36
This latter point can be seen to be explicitly expressed in the quote above from the ‘Evernew Tongue,’ that Jesus, nature and the world, are one and the same. Lincoln draws comparison between the Norse story of Ymir and the Irish story of Dian Cecht and Miach in Cath Maige Tuired. From Ymir came the elements of the world; from Miach, after being slain by his father in a fit of anger at his son’s superior healing skills, came the elements of healing – all of the plants growing from the parts of Miach’s body that would heal the part they grew from. Miach’s sister tried to preserve the layout but their jealous father destroyed it, so the knowledge would be kept hidden.37 Miach’s death can be seen to be creation on a microcosmic level, whereas Ymir’s is macrocosmic.
Healing represents wholeness, naturally. It is a restoration of a balanced state, and in order to be successful it must aim to create a balance in the body – which is a microcosm of the world, effectively – with the world at large. Looking at a different angle, the duile not only associate with parts of the body specifically, but in legal and mythological terms the various parts of the body have more abstract associations with that of one’s kin. This appears to be referred to explicitly in an oath made by Fergus in the Táin.
Fergus – an outcast Ulsterman who had sided with Medb and her men – had a role in the death and dismemberment of Finnbennach by holding back the army when they made a move to stop the bulls from fighting. This hints at Fergus having a clear link with some sort of role in a creation myth, intimately linked with the white bull, Finnbennach, who arguably takes on Fergus’ role as the primordial sacrifice that is dismembered.38
The Táin often emphasises Fergus’ size and sexual appetite – he is virile, strong, huge in size; the quintessential man. His name, in fact, is thought to mean ‘Manly Property’, from *uiro-ḡustus,39 and so we might see him as just that; the primordial king, even, who is sacrificed and is progenitor of his people (and indeed, he was at one time a king of the Ulaid, but was tricked out of his seat by Conchobar, no less). Here, however, Finnbennach becomes his substitute,40 and here parallels must be drawn with the ritual of the tarb-feis – the sacrificial bull-feast (of a white bull, specifically) that is said to have ritually divined the next rightful king.41 Without cosmogonic associations of a white bull in a creation myth, whose death creates order, the bull’s role in the tarb-feis makes little sense.
Fergus’ cosmogonic associations are further reinforced by an oath he gives in trying to get his sword back, after it is stolen by Ailill when he happens upon his wife Medb in flagrante with Fergus. The sword in this sense can be seen to have definite phallic associations, for Fergus is powerless until he gets it back, and he swears:
“I swear by the god my people swear by, that I’d strike jaws from necks, necks from shoulders, shoulders from elbows, elbows from forearms, forearms from fists, fists from fingers, fingers from nails; crowns from skulls, skulls from trunks, trunks from thighs, thighs from calves, calves from feet, feet from toes, and toes from nails. Heads would fly from necks like bees buzzing to and fro on a fine day.”42
On a basic level, this is a pretty detailed description of just how much destruction Fergus intends to cause, if only he had his sword. It’s that good. But looking deeper, in legal terms the parts of the body can be seen to represent particular degrees of kinship – the ‘trunk’ is the derbfine (male family members stemming from a common great-grandfather), the upper arms are the taobfine, the forearms are the iarfine, the fists the innfine, and, as each body part represents one generation removed from the next, the fingernails are the generation of family that are furthest away in generation to one’s own close kin.43 Thus it might be seen that Fergus is also saying that he will very thoroughly work his way through all of his kin, as he himself is an outcast of the Ulaid, the very men he has to fight.
On a deeper level, he is invoking imagery that goes against the initial act of creation of man – “a litany suggestive of a ritual dismemberment…”44 In effect, the men of Ulaid as a whole can be taken collectively as one, a giant comparable to Fergus himself. Furthering reinforcing the ritualistic undertones of the piece, Sayers points to the Dindshenchas of Mag Slecht, where King Tigernas and his people prostrated themselves before Crom Croich one Samhain, and three-fourths ended up dead. The text refers to some of the exact same points of the body in their prostrations as are mentioned in Fergus’ oath of dismembering by sword, again suggesting some sort of restorative, ritual sacrifice.45 Further reinforcing the point, slecht means ‘prostration’, whereas slécht means ‘hewing, cutting.’46
Creation and formation
In Ireland, the closest thing we have to a creation myth – or perhaps more likely, myths – are the many Dindshenchas tales that explain the how some places in the Irish landscape got their names, and sometimes how they came into being. The Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland,’ more commonly known as ‘The Book of Invasions’) is another important source as a pseudo-history of Ireland, a mishmash of ancient tradition and Christian and Latin learning.
It’s important to remember that the Lebor Gabála and the Dindshenchas aren’t creation myths, because they don’t deal with how the land, the gods, or people were originally formed. What they do tell us is how Ireland came to be in its present state after that creation – the Lebor Gabála deals with the different waves of invaders came to Ireland and how they all left their mark in some way or another, while the Dindshenchas looks at more specific locations – hills, mounds, rivers, and lakes. They are both set firmly within a Christian framework, and the Lebor Gabála even begins with a retelling of the Genesis story. If there was an original creation myth that came before the tales of each of the invaders, it has been lost in favour of aligning Irish history (pseudo-history, to be more exact) with Christian beliefs.
In spite of this, some of the Lebor Gabála appears to have genuine pre-Christian origins, while other parts are more overtly Christian creations or additions to fit everything together as a coherent whole.47 Even the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann are cast in a more acceptably Christian light – being referred to frequently as the Tuatha Dé, or ‘People of God.’ This subtly recasts them as Israelites,48 effectively, as the same term was used for them as the Tuatha Dé Danann, and perhaps made it a little easier to reconcile the place of heathen gods in a Christian framework. Likewise, the Milesians are given origins in Egypt, with a meandering tale of their journey through Scythia and then Spain before ending up in their rightful home in Ireland; a voyage worthy of Moses.
The Lebor Gabála itself can be dated to the mid-eleventh century at the earliest,49 but we can see evidence of its existence (or the evolution of a ‘proto-Lebor Gabála‘) back to the seventh or eighth century, at least.50 Similar stories or outlines can be found in the ninth century Historia Brittonum (which is important in itself because it is not an Irish manuscript, but Welsh, showing the tale was known outside of Ireland as well), and the tenth century tale, ‘The Settling of the Manor of Tara,’ and there is mention of a version of it in the now lost manuscript of Cín Dromma Snechta, which is thought to date to the eighth century.51 Sanas Cormaic, ‘Cormac’s Glossary,’ which is thought to date to late ninth or early tenth century, comments at one point, “read the Invasions of Ireland if you wish to know more fully,”52 and so we might assume that it is referring to an earlier version in Cín Dromma Snechta.
Of them all, the tenth century ‘Settling of the Manor of Tara’ is the most similar to Lebor Gabála, with some contradictory evidence being found in earlier sources. Clearly, the story had some evolving to do over the centuries, before it coalesced into what we know as Lebor Gabála. Some of the contradictory evidence is telling – crucially, the Cín Dromma Snechta version has Banba as the first person to set foot in Ireland, and it also tells us that she survived the Flood (which makes sense, as she later confronts the Milesians).53 Cessair, a granddaughter of the Biblical Noah, takes this role in the Lebor Gabála, with her earliest mention being found in the tenth century tale ‘The Settling of the Manor of Tara.’54 We might see that Cessair is a latecomer to the scheme, then, with Banba taking the original (or at least earlier) role, and one that is more definitely non-Christian in context. As a goddess intimately associated with the land of Ireland, Banba makes a lot more sense in a pre-Christian scheme, while Cessair being killed (original sin and all that…) and Fintan mac Bochra surviving arguably makes more sense in a Christian one.
Another leader of one of the invasions, Parthalón, takes his name from Bartholemew, which has been interpreted to mean ‘the son of the one who holds up the water,’55 and as the first settler after the Flood, his name makes a lot of sense in a Christian context. He also brings the first sin to Ireland, and he and his people are ultimately killed by plague; overall, like Cessair, he appears to be purely Christian in origin,56 and it’s been suggested that some of the invasions were added to the traditional (original?) number to make six waves in total – a number which reflects the six ages of the world that can be found in the Bible.57 This would subtly reinforce the Lebor Gabála’s Christian contextualising.
The other waves of invaders could be seen as more typically Irish in origin – native, rather than scholarly (i.e. Christian) constructs. Looking to Classical evidence, the first century BCE writer, Timagenes, tells us that the druids taught that some people were indigenous to the land they lived on, but that others came from far and distant places, escaping flooding of seas and wars.58 We know that there was a lot of population movement during various periods as Celtic culture spread, and so it’s not a stretch to think the there is some element of genuine tradition to be found in the Lebor Gabála in this respect.
Each of the invaders brought something different to Ireland, shaping it in some way. Various lakes and plains spring forth or are cleared, up until the people of Nemed – one plain appears under Cessair’s invasion, four plains and seven lakes appear under Parthalón, and four lakes and twelve plains appear under Nemed. The Fir Bolg, who invade after the people of Nemed, introduce the five coiceda of Ireland, implying that the majority of Ireland’s physical manifestation is completed by the Nemed, allowing the Fir Bolg to begin Ireland’s social and political shaping.59 In a similar vein, Cessair’s landing brought the first deaths; Parthalón and his people introduced the first sin, the first guesting house, beer and ale, and legal suretyship; the Fir Bolg introduced sacred kingship as well as the coiceda, and gave us the first glimpse of a recognisably Irish society in Ireland in this respect; the Tuatha Dé Danann brought druidry and magic, skills in the arts and hidden knowledge; and the Milesians can be seen as the culmination of all the previous invaders, embodying all of the previous elements that were introduced.
In effect, they all brought something to the land and the subsequent peoples who helped shape it – transforming and civilising it at the same time. This idea of culmination can be seen in Amergin’s songs when he sets foot in Ireland for the first time in the Lebor Gabála, except here it is much more explicitly stated. First, he says:
“I am Wind on Sea,
I am Ocean-wave,
I am Roar of Sea,
I am Bull of Seven Fights,
I am Vulture on Cliff,
I am Dewdrop,
I am Fairest of Flowers,
I am Boar for Boldness,
I am Salmon in Pool,
I am Lake on Plain,
I am a Mountain in a Man,
I am a Word of Skill,
I am the Point of a Weapon (that poureth forth combat),
I am God who fashioneth Fire for a Head.”60
Many of the images Amergin invokes appear to relate to the creation of Ireland itself – the lakes and plains, the salmon in the pool as we see with the well of Segais. It’s tempting to see some significance in the fact that he begins with the sea first of all, and finishes with ‘fire for a head’. This is a reference to imbas forosnai itself, which can be seen as divine inspiration. The link between water and fire as a creative force comes full circle in Amergin’s song, but this is only the first step in Amergin’s process of his shaping Ireland with his words.61 First he puts himself at the centre of its creation, in the song above, then he invokes the land of Ireland itself:
“I seek the land of Ireland,
Coursed be the fruitful sea,
Fruitful the ranked highland,
Ranked the showery wood,
Showery the river of cataracts,
Of cataracts the lake of pools,
Of pools the hill of a well,
Of a well of a people of assemblies,
Of assemblies of the king of Temair;
Temair, hill of peoples,
Peoples of the Sons of Mil,
Of Mil of ships, of barks;
The high ship Eriu,
Eriu lofty, very green,
An incantation very cunning,
The great cunning of the wives of Bres,
Of Bres, of the wives of Buaigne,
The mighty lady Eriu,
Erimón harried her…”62
In doing so, he completes the forming of Ireland and brings about the peaceful taking of the land by acknowledging the rightful place of the goddesses in it. They accept the Milesians, and peaceful agreement is reached with the Tuatha Dé Danann to split the dominion of Ireland in half – the Milesians get Ireland that is above ground, and the Tuatha Dé Danann get below ground. Of all the invasions that help bring about the shaping of Ireland, the arrival of the Milesians is its culmination.
In this sense, we again return ultimately to the concept of fire-in-water. It is through the cooking and concocting of various herbal remedies that healing is effected, and likewise the art of smithing and hostelling both involve the application of heat to transform material or food into something useful or nourishing.63 The ale that is brewed, the food that is served by the hospitaller, and the metals that are transformed in the smithing process are both reflective of the creative process, as well civilising and transforming. These are the processes by which society advances, and is held together, effectively, and it’s no surprise that these professions traditionally have Otherworldly connotations.64 Nor is it surprising that many of the gods themselves are intimately associated with these arts – and is perhaps, ultimately, a hint of their original role in creation.
From the sources considered, we’ve seen evidence of all the motifs found in other Indo-European creation myths – hints at the motif of fire-in-water being the initial form from which other states sprang, a primordial giant and bull and its dismemberment and death, the elements being created and ultimately reflected in humans, and the subsequent stages of the land’s evolution, along with its people, into a place and a society that is recognisably Irish.
The evidence is problematic in many different ways. In looking for a creation myth, or myths, it’s dangerous to assume that any surviving evidence we might see can simply be pieced together to reconstruct a whole story by pulling the various bits together, but that doesn’t mean that what we can discern is useless. What we get is a very Irish – Gaelic – view of things that are recognisably Indo-European in one sense, and unique in another.
It is in our origins that we understand where we’ve come from, where we’ve been, where we’re going, and so, how far we’ve come. Perhaps we might see that articulated in the Carmina Gadelica:
|Mar a bha,
Mar a tha,
Mar a bhitheas…
|As it was,
As it is,
As it shall be…65
We can’t necessarily go to a pre-Christian source, so we go to the next best thing – the myths as they were recorded in Christian times, the other early and later medieval sources, and given our understanding of the culture, we have to see the possibilities of understanding, if not the absolute. It’s frustrating, in some respects, and limiting. But in the same way, it can be liberating in that we can form more of a personal opinion. There is no right answer, but some may be more firmly entrenched in tradition than others. This is why we look to what we can see, rather than form ideas based on broader brushstrokes.
One thing that is certain is that the basic motifs are there if we look for them. This gives us some confirmation in one respect, an idea of what we can see that has a common origin, but it may also run the risk of blinding us to the subtleties of a specifically Gaelic view of creation. As helpful as it might be, it is also dangerous to rely on Indo-European studies too much here. What we see tells us many things, but it is not the whole of the story. It certainly does help to put how we understand the gods, and the world around us, in some perspective at least.
1 Derks, Gods, Temples and Ritual Practices: The Transformation of Religious Ideas and Values in Roman Gaul, 1998, p74-75.
2 Gilchrist Brodeur, The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturlson, 1916, p17-21.
3 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p39.
4 Bruce Lincoln is probably the best author to look to in discussions of Indo-European cosmogony.
5 i.e. Texts that are not considered to be Biblical canon.
6 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p2.
7 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p22.
8 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p27.
9 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p28.
10 O’ Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 1946, p3.
11 Mallory and Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, 2006, p438.
12 Boand I, verse 12. Metrical Dindshenchas, translated by Whitley Stokes.
13 Boand II, verse 11. Metrical Dindshenchas, translated by Whitley Stokes.
14 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p168.
15 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p168-172.
17 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p168.
18 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p30.
19 MacQuarrie, The Waves of Manannán, 1997, p37.
20 Borsje and Kelly, ‘The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature’, Celtica Vol 24, p22.
21 Boand I, verse 3-1-. Metrical Dindshenchas, translated by Whitely Stokes.
22 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p43.
23 Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period, 1989, p90.
24 Carson, The Táin, 2007, p 210.
25 Carson, The Táin, 2007, p 207-208.
26 Hancock, Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland Volume I: Introduction to Senchus Mor and Athgabail or Law of Distress, 1865, p37.
27 Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, 1991, p170; p182.
28 Mallory and Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, 2006, p435-6; Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, 1991, p170.
29 Mallory and Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, 2006, p435; Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, 1991, p182.
30 Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, 1991, p182.
31 Stokes, Three Irish Glossaries, 1862, pxl-xli.
32 Stokes, ‘The Evernew Tongue,’ Ériu II, 1903, p105.
34 See St Patrick’s Breastplate.
35 Song 148, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p138.
36 Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, 1991, p182.
37 See Cath Maige Tuired. Lincoln, Death, War and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice, 1991, p181-182.
38 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p54.
39 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p49-50.
40 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p54.
41 See here for example.
42 Carson, The Táin, 2007, p 201.
43 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p54.
44 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p35.
45 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p36.
46 Sayers, ‘Fergus and the Cosmogonic Sword,’ in History of Religions Vol 25 No 1, 1985, p38.
47 Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, 1968, p54; Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p24.
48 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2004, p1133.
49 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p22.
50 Carney, ‘Language and literature to 1169,’ in Ó Cróinín (Ed.), A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, 2005.
51 Glosses, or commentary found in the manuscripts, written by the monks who copied down the Lebor Gabála sometimes note the contradictions between what they record and what they saw written in the Cín Dromma Snechta, which is how we know it existed. Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p11.
52 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p67.
53 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p21.
54 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2005, p1124.
55 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p8.
56 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p9.
57 Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p3.
58 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory, 1994, p2-3.
59 See Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, 1968, p53-54 for a summary.
60 See Lebor Gabála, verse 74.
61 Rees, Celtic Heritage, p99.
62 See Lebor Gabála, verse 81.
63 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p171.
64 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p174.
65 Song 216, Carmina Gadelica Volume 2, 1900.