Each of the three realms has its own associations, and the next few articles will deal with some of the key themes involved with each one, as well as the evidence that can be found in the sources.
For land, talam, we will look at the cosmological divisions of Ireland, the concept of the bile (or sacred tree), sovereignty, and the land as a gateway to the Otherworld.
For sea, muir, we will take a look at the sea’s role in the formation of Ireland, its Otherworldly associations and the immrama and voyage tales, Manannán’s role as a god of the sea, and its associations with justice and liminality.
For sky, nem, we will explore the ways in which the wind and weather exert their influence over the land and the people, as well as the many different roles that birds can be seen taking, as messengers and oracles of the gods.
The Formation of Ireland
The sea is a key, if passive, element in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which describes how Ireland was settled by five different waves of people before the Sons of Míl took over and became the ancestors of the Irish people. A possibly significant factor in this mythology is that all the peoples of Ireland are not shown to be indigenous to the island itself; they all came from over the sea. However, it’s hard to say whether this fact is simply a case of the early medieval Irish monks trying to mould Irish origins into a Biblical framework (and therefore the origins of the settlers would be overseas), or whether those who tried to mould the origins of Ireland into a Biblical framework were simply capitalising on an existing concept; that the fact that the settlers came from the sea was significant.
According to a now lost manuscript, The Book of Druim Snechta, Cessair was not was the first settler of Ireland, Banba was.1 Given the fact that Cessair is directly related to the Biblical Noah, according to Irish genealogies, it seems probable that she was more likely an invention of the scribes who compiled the Lebor Gabála (in fact, Cessair and her retinue are not mentioned at all in one of the earliest versions of the Lebor Gabála, which can be found in Nennius’ Historia Brittonum, and neither is Banba – here, the invasions begin with Parthalón2 – and in other versions it is noted by the scribe that some do not recognise Cessair in the scheme of the invasions), but then we can’t take Banba’s associations at face value and assume that her associations are more authentic simply because she could be seen to less Biblical. Whatever the case, though, it is interesting that the initial settlers of Ireland were female – and in the case of Cessair, so was most of her retinue. Linguistically, the Old Irish for sea ‘muir’ is also feminine, and Cessair’s husband was Fintan mac Bochra (Fintan son of Ocean).3
Banba is said to have survived the Flood, whereas Cessair and all but one of her people perished before the Flood came, but regardless both are intimately associated with both the sea, and as the first settlers, of bringing Ireland into being. That they were female makes sense if we look at the fact that the king’s symbolic marriage to the sovereignty goddess of his people was an integral part of the inauguration ceremony in early Ireland,4 if we assume that this association of women as the first settlers carries a pre-Christian element to it. In spite of the overtly Christian framework found in the Lebor Gabála, then, it’s tempting to see genuine elements of pre-Christian cosmology at play.
Parthalón, whose own name carries watery connotations with it, came after the Flood and brought with him the first sins in Ireland and implemented the first architecture and agriculture. His people, like Cessair, left no descendants, but the next settlers, the people of Nemed did. The Nemedians endured great hardship at the hands of the Fomorians, having to pay a hefty annual tribute to them and constantly fighting them until a great wave rose up and overcame everyone during battle. Only one ship survived, and these survivors left Ireland and dispersed across the world. The next two settlers, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann were both descendants of the people Nemed. The Fir Bolg brought with them the concept of kingship and political divisions whereas the Tuatha Dé Danann brought social order, magical arts, knowledge and skill to Ireland.
From the four mythical cities to the north, where they are said to have studied their arts, they brought with them four great treasures:
“3. From Falias was brought the Stone of Fal which was located in Tara. It used to cry out beneath every king that would take Ireland.
4. From Gorias was brought the spear which Lug had. No battle was ever sustained against it, or against the man who held it in his hand.
5. From Findias was brought the sword of Nuadu. No one ever escaped from it once it was drawn from its deadly sheath, and no one could resist it.
6. From Murias was brought the Dagda’s cauldron. No company ever went away from it unsatisfied.”5
It was in their epic battle with the Fomoire that they were finally able to force the Fomoire from interfering with Ireland once and for all. Perhaps ironically the Tuatha Dé Danann then assumed a similar adversarial role with the final settlers of Ireland, the sons of Míl, according to the Lebor Gabála Érenn.
Amergin, one of the sons of Míl, was also skilled in magic and poetry and used his arts to seduce the land of Ireland before settling there. It was as he set foot on the shore for the first time that he sang his famous riddle:
“I am a wind on the sea
I am a wave of the ocean
I am the roar of the sea,
I am a powerful ox,
I am a hawk on a cliff,
I am a dewdrop in the sunshine,
I am a boar for valor,
I am a salmon in pools,
I am a lake in a plain,
I am the strength of art,
I am a spear with spoils that wages battle,
I am a man that shapes fire for a head.
Who clears the stone-place of the mountain?
What the place in which the setting of the sun lies?
Who has sought peace without fear seven times?
Who names the waterfalls?
Who brings his cattle from the house of Tethra?
What person, what god
Forms weapons in a fort?
In a fort that nourishes satirists,
Chants a petition, divides the Ogam letters,
Separates a fleet, has sung praises?
A wise satirist.”6
And then he sang to increase the fish in the seas and rivers around Ireland. Thus the formation and taming of Ireland was complete. From the sea came the people who brought Ireland into being; each group contributed to the shaping of Ireland in both a physical sense (by clearing plains and creating lakes and rivers during their habitation) as well as a political, moral or social sense.7
Whatever each wave of invaders brought to Ireland, the ultimate, underlying agent at bringing these changes was the sea itself. However, at the same time it could be said that the sea is also the agent that tries to stop such changes. The Flood is responsible for wiping out the first wave of settlers, for example, leaving Ireland uninhabited (except, in some versions, for Fintan mac Bochra – Fintan son of Ocean, and/or Banba) and a great wave is responsible for ending the rule of the people of Nemed over Ireland (although one ship is saved, from which the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann were supposed to have derived from).
Perhaps the most enigmatic and least understood agent involved in the shaping of Ireland are the Fomorians, however. The Fomorians themselves are never considered to be settlers of Ireland, since they never ruled or settled in their own right. Their very name, Fomoire, is thought to mean “under-sea dwellers”,8 and they are said to have lived on one of the many islands near Ireland, but never on it. Tethra, king of the Fomoire, was said to live beyond the sea when Bres was king of the Tuatha Dé Danann and his name is said to be synonymous with the sea,9 emphasising the Fomorians’ watery origins.
They are often seen as agents of chaos and oppression towards many of the settlers of Ireland, but are most often seen as agents of chaos in opposition with the Tuatha Dé Danann as agents of order, perhaps in much the same way that the sea itself can be chaotic and unpredictable. It is notable, however, that their adversarial role is only towards the occupiers of Ireland. Although considered enemies of the Fir Bolg, for example, the Fir Bolg are said to have joined with the Fomoire after the Tuatha Dé Danann routed them and became rulers of Ireland themselves. Likewise, any emnity between the Fomoire and the Tuatha Dé Danann vanishes after the Milesians banish the Tuatha Dé to the Otherworldly realms. As the Rees brothers’ put it “…the opposition belongs to the realm of the manifest.”10
The Fomorians first appear during the time of Parthalón’s settlement at around the same time that his people begin to practice agriculture, and perhaps the Fomorian’s appearance at this time is a direct response to the attempts at ‘taming’ the land through the growing of crops, which would be at odds with the natural landscape. In this sense they are not simply ‘adversaries’, but a symptom of the land’s imbalance.
Clearly there seems to be a link between the Fomorians and agriculture, since they imposed a hefty tribute on the people of Nemed each Samhainn during their occupation of Ireland, demanding two thirds of the progeny, wheat and milk produce.11 Then in Cath Maige Tuired, the half-Fomorian Bres bargains for his life after being captured by first offering to make all the cows in Ireland produce milk all year round. The offer is rejected on the grounds that the cows would still age and he offered no control over their calving, so Bres then offers a harvest at every quarter of the year. This is also rejected on the grounds that the current system suits the Tuatha Dé Danann well, but Lugh asks Bres how the fields should be ploughed and how the seeds should be sown and then reaped. Being able to give an answer, Bres’ life is spared, but in giving Lugh advice on how best to farm the land.12
The great rivers of Ireland are all said to have an Otherworldly source – Segais being the source for the Boyne, named after the goddess Boann, for example – and naturally these rivers flow into the sea. In the Voyage of Bran, Manannán mac Lir (Manannán son of Sea) described these rivers as pouring forth a “stream of honey” into his “land” – the sea over which he ruled.
One version of the Dindshenchas tale regarding the origin of the river Boyne tells us that the well of Segais (pleasure, delight) was owned by a man named Nechtan. He was possessive of the well and would let no one approach it, for anyone who drank from the well would gain all the knowledge of the world. One day, however, Nechtan’s wife Boann did approach the well, and from it sprang three waves which disfigured her:
“They came each wave of them against a limb, they disfigured the soft-blooming woman; a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye, the third wave shatters one hand.”13
Ashamed, Boann ran to the sea to drown herself, the water following her wherever she went, which formed the river.
The most striking element of the story is the parallel that can be drawn between Boann’s disfigurement and the way in which the Fomoire are described in the myths associated with them – the Fomoire are also often described as having only one leg, one eye and one arm:
“Three years afterwards occurred the first battle which Parrthalon gained, in the Slemains of Magh Itha, over the Fomorians, viz.: they were Demons, truly, in the guise of men, i.e. men with one hand and one leg each.”14
The description could be a later, Christian-influenced gloss on the Fomorians since we can see in tales such as Cath Maige Tuired (The Battle of Mag Tured) that many of them were thought to be beautiful, particularly Bres who became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann – if Bres were so disfigured he would not have been eligible for the kingship, since the king had to be physically perfect. Any imperfections meant the king would no longer be able to rule, since the imperfection was taken to be evidence of wrong action and injustice.15 For Boann then, it could be suggested that her deformity is evidence of her wrongdoing.
Alternatively, comparison could be drawn between the description of Boann and the Fomorians with the stance that was supposed to be adopted by an individual seeking trance, divination or sorcery. The person was supposed to stand on one leg, with one arm outstretched and one eye closed,16 which may have been intended to emulate the stance of the heron (crane) – a practice known as corrguinecht, which Fergus Kelly suggests means ‘heron (or crane) killing’.17 The closing of one eye was supposed to symbolise blindness to the ordinary, everyday world, which would then encourage inspiration; or else it was supposed to sharpen the focus of the gaze of the eye that remained open. In this light, Boann’s disfiguration makes sense because she has partaken of the Otherworldly knowledge the well contains.
The Voyage Tales
As the rivers had an Otherworldly source, which flowed out to the sea, the sea itself is often seen as being Otherworldly in nature. These Otherworldly connections with the sea are most apparent in the great Irish voyage tales (immrama), such as The Voyage of Uí Chorra, The Voyage of Bran, and The Voyage of Mael Dúinn. In such tales, the hero sets out to sea and encounters many weird and wonderful things, not of this earth; the immrama were tales specifically about journeys to the Otherworld.18 The voyage brings with it many challenges and trials, but also realisations and spiritual transformations.
In myth, such a voyage often meant they were transformed in such a way as they had to remain in the Otherworldly existence of the sea. In The Voyage of Bran for example, Bran and his men are gone for so long that many years have passed since they set sail. To them it seems to have been only a year, but on their return to Ireland as soon as one of the men, Nechtan, sets foot on land he falls into a heap of ashes, “as though he had been in the earth for many hundred years.”19 The surviving men set sail again, travelling through the Otherworldly sea having adventures untold, unable to return to Ireland ever again.
While obviously Christian in context, it is thought that the motifs in these tales are pre-Christian in origin; the overt Otherworldly qualities of the sea voyages in these tales would be otherwise at odds in a Christian context unless there was a cultural reason for people to associate the sea with sometimes heavenly, sometimes hellish, places – rather than the more traditionally Christian sky, or heavens. Biblically, in spite of Noah’s example the sea never figures in such a major way to the spirituality of its followers, and certainly not in such a major way as the Irish saw it.20 In this light, perhaps the immram tales can be considered to have “…preserved the tattered remnants of an oral Celtic ‘book’ of the dead, which proclaimed that the mysteries of the world beyond death had been at least partially explored and the stations of the pilgrimage charted…Thus, like other types of tales…the immram has its own function. It is to teach the ‘craft’ of dying and to pilot the departing spirit on a sea of perils and wonders.”21 This is perhaps overstating the case as far as the pre-Christian elements of the immrama are concerned, but it’s food for thought, nonetheless.
Justice and liminality
Manannán mac Lir is associated with many magical items and is thought of as a great magician as well as a god of the sea – something very much in keeping with his peers the Tuatha Dé Danann, who learned their arts whilst in the ‘north’ from whence they came to settle Ireland.22 Some of Manannán’s magical items include Fragarach, a sword which never misses its mark, the crane bag which he passed on to his foster son Lugh (who notably also performed crane magic, as shown above), and a golden cup of truth which he gave to Cormac of Cashel. The cup was said to break if a falsehood was told beneath it.23
The cup of truth leads us nicely onto how the sea can be seen to be connected with matters of legal justice, as well as the spiritual justice of the peregrinatio. For the early Christian Irish, putting themselves out to sea was the ultimate act of putting their souls in the hands of God; it was also a symbolic death, and such journeys were usually an act of penance for some sin they had committed. Such an act echoed the trials of Noah in the Bible, who endured the Flood after God’s wrath wiped out the rest of humanity.24 If they survived, then they were cleansed of their sins. Some of the voyage tales, such as The Voyage of Uí Chorra, are set in this context, although The Voyage of Bran is notably different.25
As the men on peregrinatio set themselves to sea in order to do penance and commit themselves to the fate that God willed, one legal practice thought to stem back to pre-Christian times is that of sending out a defendant onto the sea. Their fate was then left to God.26
Anything found at sea was deemed to belong to the person who found it, but anything found within nine waves of the shore was deemed to belong to the owner of that stretch of land.27 The ninth wave can therefore be viewed as a liminal zone, a boundary between the shore and the sea, one territory and another; this world and the Otherworld. It is a place of revelation and transformation – either spiritually or inspirationally – where truth is revealed by virtue of its own ambiguity of being neither one thing or another.
Such associations with liminality and justice are illustrated in the Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn), in the episode where the sons of Míl claim their right to Ireland. The Tuatha Dé Danann dispute their right and the three kings of Ireland judge that the sons of Míl should leave Ireland in peace for three days. The Milesian poet Amergin deems that they should sail out to just beyond the ninth wave to prove their case; just beyond the liminal zone that separates Ireland from the rest of the world and therefore effectively adhering to the judgement, while staying close enough to the shore to make their presence felt. Here they fulfil the spirit of the kings’ judgement, but perhaps it is also meant to signify that Amergin’s judgement aims to display the justice of the Milesian’s claim to Ireland. Needless to say, in spite of the Tuatha Dé Danann’s magical efforts at blowing them away from the shore to show their claim is false, the sons of Míl triumph through the magic of their poet Amergin and claim the land as their own.28
In the same episode Amergin’s brother, Donn, offends the sovereignty of Ireland represented by Éire, who welcomes the invaders and prophesies that the island will belong to their descendants forever. Donn rudely replies: “It is not you that we must thank, but our gods and our magic powers.”29 As the elder brother and potential king of Ireland, Donn commits a grave error in offending and refuting the authority of the sovereignty goddess, proving himself unfit to rule the land they intend to occupy. Éire promptly foretells his doom – that none of his descendants will settle on the island – and sure enough Donn is drowned before he has the chance to set foot on land.
The Sons of Míl bury him on an island off the south west coast which came to be known as Tech Duinn, the House of Donn, and it was said that the people of Ireland went to join him when they died.30
There is still the tradition in Ireland that the ancestors reside in the west, and while The House of Donn may seem to be in slight conflict with the idea of Tír na nÓg as being another abode for the dead (also found in the west), it is perhaps evidence of different traditions cohering into a greater whole where there were many such paradisical places to be found in the sea, as has been seen.
All of these associations with the sea, the Otherworld, transformation and death are shown nicely in The Colloquy of the Two Sages as well, where we are told:
“Adnae, son of Uthider, of the tribes of Connaught, was the ollave of Ireland in science and poetry. He had a son, to wit, Néde. Now that son went to learn science in Scotland, unto Eochu Echbél (Horsemouth); and he stayed along with Eochu until he was skilled in science.
“One day the lad fared forth till he was on the brink of the sea – for the poets deemed that on the brink of water it was always a place of revelation of science. He heard a sound in the wave, to wit, a chant of wailing and sadness, and it seemed strange to him. So the lad cast a spell upon the wave, that it might reveal to him what the matter was. And thereafter it was declared to him that the wave was bewailing, his father Adnae, after his death and that Adnae’s robe had been given to Ferchertne the poet, who had taken the ollaveship in place of Néde’s father.”31
Having discovered the news of Adnae’s death through the skills he was sent to learn, his teacher Eochu tells Néde he is ready to return home. Although young, Néde has accomplished all he can with Eochu guiding him, but upon Néde’s return to Ireland it becomes obvious that he is too young to succeed his father as ollave, and that Ferchertne has taken his place. While Ferchertne is away, however, Néde uses magic to make himself appear older – using grass to take on the appearance of a beard – and usurps Fechertne’s place. Only Ferchertne, on his return, spots the deception and so challenges Néde to prove his claim to ollaveship, resulting in Néde eventually realising that in spite of his learning Ferchertne is indeed the superior. Thus we see that Néde’s journey over-seas, his subsequent education and revelation of his father’s death from the sea itself is a catalyst for Néde’s understanding of his own place in society.
As Alwyn and Brinley Rees put it, “…in metaphysical terms a ‘crossing of water’ always implies change of state and status.”32 Much like the practice of peregrinatioby early Christians. We can see this motif elsewhere, such as Cú Chulainn’s journey across to the Isle of Skye (probably) where he receives training in arms at the hands of Scathach. He goes there as a boy and returns a man, warrior and hero of the Ulaid.
Ireland’s affection for the sea meant it became a significant element in Christian tradition, particularly in the form of the peregrinatio, the idea for which was apparently influenced by pre-Christian Irish law, even though there is little Biblical support for such an emphasis to their spirituality. It seems likely that the importance of the peregrinatio in early Irish Christianity fell out of favour with the coming of the Vikings, but the tradition left its marks indelibly in the voyage and adventure tales that have survived today – tales which bear the mark of pagan, as well as Christian influence themselves, and as we have seen, may contain the remains of pre-Christian beliefs on the Irish afterlife.
We can see from these tales, as well as Irish law itself, that in Irish cosmology the sea was intimately linked to the Otherworld, transformation, death, justice and Otherworldly knowledge, especially occult knowledge like the Tuatha Dé Danann were said to be skilled in. In this esoteric vein, there were said to be three magical waves off the coast of Ireland: the Wave of Cliona (near Cork); the Wave of Tuaithe (Derry); and the Wave of Rudraidhe (Down). On stormy days, the roaring of these waves was said to prophecy danger or the death of a king.33
Sometimes the realm of the sea appears to have been at odds with that of the land, as we might interpret the role of the Fomorians in the Mythological Cycle. But with its associations with justice, the realm of the sea can also be seen in some ways as a source of order. In addition to this, as much as people were often seen to go out to sea in order to experience some form of spiritual transformation, in the hands of such an unpredictable force, it is from the sea that the mythical people brought form and structure to the land. As Alwyn and Brinley Rees put it: “The voyage of the Five Kindreds seems to be the other-world voyage in reverse, a coming into existence, a change from infinite possibility to actual manifestation.”34
1 Medieval Ireland, Seán Duffy, Ailbhe MacShamhráin, James Moynes, p239. “We Are But Women”: Women In Ireland’s History, Roger Sawyer, 1993, p1. Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p115.
2 Koch (Ed.), The Celtic Heroic Age, 1994, p272. The Tuatha Dé Danann are notably lacking in reference as well.
3 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p115.
4 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 1973, p17-18.
5 Gray, Cath Maige Tuired.
6 Lebor Gabála Érenn.
7 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, Chapter 4: Coming Into Existence gives a good summary of all this.
8 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p114.
9 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p39-40.
10 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p40.
11 MacCulloch, Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p52.
12 Gray, Cath Maige Tuired, 149-161.
14 Chronicon Scottorum, p7.
15 Kelly, Early Irish Law, 1988, p18.
16 See Borsje and Kelly, ‘The Evil Eye in Early Irish Literature’, Celtica Vol 24, p22.
17 Kelly, Early Irish Law, 1988, p60.
18 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p314.
19 The Voyage of Bran, p37.
20 See Muhr, Water Imagery in Early Irish, Celtica Vol 23.
21 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p325. For a counter-argument, see Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p80-83.
22 Gray, Cath Maige Tuired.
23 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p312.
24 See Jestice, Holy People of the World.
25 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p316.
26 Kelly, Early Irish Law, 1988, p220.
27 Kelly, Early Irish Law, 1988, p107-108.
28 Lebor Gabála Érenn.
29 Lebor Gabála Érenn.
30 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p97.
31 The Colloquy of the Two Sages.
32 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p107.
33 Leland, The lie of the land, 1999, p118.
34 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p107.