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THE HEROIC TALES OF THE CELTS,

BY
ALEX, MACBAIN, M.A., F.S.A. SCOT.

THE materials of Irish Mythology have well been divided by M. D'Arbois de Jubainville into three leading parts; there is, first, the mythological cycle which deals with the gods and the ethnology of the country, and which we have treated already (Vol. ix. 124). There are, secondly, the Cuchulain cycle, and, thirdly, the Ossianic cycle, both dealing with the heroes of the race. Between the godcycle and the hero-cycles there is a long break, which is filled up in the histories with meagre details, but full genealogies, of intermediate kings, with now and then an oasis of mythical incident, like Cimbaeth's conquest of the war-goddess, Macha Red-mane, and Labraid Loingseach's hunted youth and punishment of the usurping uncle. A wounderful list it is Are these kings and chiefs but shadows conjured from the fertile imagination of bards and monks 2 Most of them undoubtedly are mere genealogical stop-gaps, though a few names and events may have lived on in legend and myth. For, what are the facts in regard to the literary documents of Irish history 2 None go back in MS. earlier than the year I IOO, and the language in which the oldest MS. is written is just the language of the time at which it was written. It is useless to postulate for the composition of the literary matter a date of six centuries or more previously; the writings may be as old as that and older, but their final recension in the 11th century is couched in the language of that time, and great caution must be exercised in sifting out what is and what is not old. At the best, the result remains unsatisfactory, and unsafe to theorise upon. Yet, it must be said that Irish history from after the time of St. Patrick may be trusted, for it can be often tested by contemporary and other documents. When we remember the mythical history of St. Patrick himself, and that he is divisible into three different personages, dating from 400 to 500—for St. Patrick dies at the age of 122 in the 14th year of King Lughaidh —we are entitled to place little confidence in Irish history antecedent to him. In fact, Irish history begins with the introduction of Christianity. Previous to that, it is mythical and legendary. There are three distinctive periods, however; first, there is the mythological epoch commencing with Partolan and ending with the expulsion of the Tuatha-De-Danann and the instalment of the Milesian race. Then, secondly, comes the Milesian race of kings, filling up the void of fifteen hundred years till the Christian era or shortly before it, when the Cuchulain cycle of events begins. Again, thirdly, the period from the beginning of the Christian era to the time of St. Patrick is one which may be trusted possibly in its leading features. The "raisimilitude of Irish history has imposed on the best scholars, and even Professor Windisch is inclined to euhemerise the Cuchulain and Fenian cycles, and to believe the stories of the reigns of Conchobar and Cormac. But, really, the feats performed by Cuchulain are in the highest degree mythical; his life is a fairy tale that fits not into history, and, indeed, his name has no place in the “Annals of the Four Masters!” Nor is Finn and his Fenian militia (!) band much better treated ; he is, indeed, mentioned in an obscure way as having fallen in A.D. 283, while the fatal field of Gabhra is represented as an ordinary event in Irish history unconnected with the collapse of a mighty and miraculous host. The fact is, the Irish annalists found it difficult to fit the fairy heroes into their histories, just as is the case with the British Arthur. There is no place for him in the kingly list, and he is accordingly, like Finn, a “ dux belli.” Yet the fairy tales and romances regard these heroes as kings and princes, but the histories cannot recognise them ; they do not fit in well, for, in reality, they belong to no particular time, but are the incarnation of the national deities in national heroes. These heroes cannot, therefore, be tied down to history; the most popular incidents in their lives are of a wholly unhistorical character—enchantments, fairy scenes and chases, gigantic heroes that over-stride firths and valleys—such are the characteristics of nearly all the tales. The historical part is poor and non-popular. The only historical incident recognised, and that, too, doubtfully, by the popular imagination, is the battle of Gabhra, where the Feni were overthrown ; and that battle, if historical at all, was fought, not by the Finn and Oscar of popular tradition, but by some of the numerous chiefs and kinglets bearing the names of the mythic heroes. The Cuchulain cycle is set down as occurring at the beginning of the Christian era, while the Fenian cycle is placed three hundred years later. In any case, the two cycles are quite distinct in their characteristics. In the Cuchulain cycle, the hero alone performs all the wonders; for instance, Cuchulain and his charioteer alone keep the host of Meave at bay for a long period, until the princes of Ulster recover their powers. Now in the Fenian cycle, the heroes are banded together, and are captains of armies. Cuchulain rides on a chariot; the Fingalians know of none such—they are a band of foot soldiers. The two cycles have thus distinctive features, and they may be compared to the hero-cycles of Classical Mythology. These divide into two; there are the demigod heroes like Hercules, Theseus, and Perseus, who perform their feats alone ; and, again, there are the more mortal heroes of the Trojan type, like Achilles, who heads a band of men and performs marvels; but, on the whole, the Feni rather belong to the Argonautic conception, which is somewhat earlier and is a thorough fairy tale, falling between the Hercules type and the purely Trojan type. The Arthurian cycle is Trojan in its characteristics. Of Cuchulain's birth, “strange tales are told." Nominally the son of Sualtam, he in reality was the son of the god Luga—the sun-god, whose far-darting and flashing qualities he displays continually, for his power lies greatly in the use of the sling, and in fighting from the car. As a young man, he, like all fairy and mythic heroes, is lowly brought up, and serves Culann, the smith, if we can trust so evidently “ eponymic" a myth, and hence he was called Cu-Chulain, “Culaun's Hound.” But his name more likely contains the common presex cu or con, signifying superiority, and not dog. Queen Meave makes a raid on Ulster to get the famous bull, Donn Chualgne, and the Ulster people, all save Cuchulain, are placed under a spell, whereby they cannot move to fight. Cuchulain alone withstands the host of Meave, dealing death with his sling, and fighting the champions “at the ford.” But he fails, apparently, through demoniac influences, and Meave gets the bull; but, as she returns home, the Ulster men awake and pursue. A battle is fought, Cuchulain again appears, and carries all before him. Such is the rationalistic history of the “Cowspoil of Cualgne;” but evidently the spoil is connected with the cattle of the sun-god, and is quite mythical, as Professor Windisch reluctantly remarked, only to controvert it inconsistently. The other incidents of his life are his mythical education; his feats; the slaying of his son, Conlaoch, by mistake—the story of Soohrab and Rustem of Persia; and his tragic death through witchcraft spells. Finn is also a fairy hero; his birth is anteceded by his father's violent death and his mother's flight; he is brought up in obscurity; does wonderful youthful exploits; tastes of the salmon of knowledge, and so, by bruising his thumb, which was burnt in the process of broiling the fish, in his mouth, can always discover the truth; acquires his father's position, and is great. Innumerable are the tales of the Feni. The real Fenian tales are composed of fairy battles, scenes, and spells; but they have got tinged with real events, such as, in Scotland, the descents of the Norsemen; and, consequently, Finn's fairy opponent sometimes partakes of a Norse name and character. Finn is evidently the incarnation of the chief deity of the Gaels—the Jupiter spoken of by Caesar and the Dagda of Irish myth. His qualities are king-like and majestic, not sun-like, as those of Cuchulain. He is surrounded by a band of heroes that make a terrestrial Olympus, composed of counterparts to the chief deities. There is the fiery Oscar (ud-scar, uttercutter 2) a sort of war god; Ossian, the poet and warrior, corresponding to Hercules Ogmius; Diarmat, of the shining face, a reflection of the sun-god ; Caelte, the wind-swift runner; and so On. Arthur and his knights correspond generally to Finn and his heroic band; Arthur's position in history and in popular tradition agrees with Finn's, and many incidents are the same in their lives —their birth and education in obscurity, like all heroes of fairy ore ; their recognition and advancement to the throne; their kingly qualities and majestic wisdom ; their domestic life, the infidelity of their wives; and so on. The heroes of each nation show also similarities, nor are even the names without a resemblance. Taliesin, the bard, son of the mystic Gwion, may philologically correspond to Ossian, son of Finn, as Professor Rhys allows. The incidents of the Arthurian cycle sometimes correspond to the Cuchulain cycle of Ireland, as well as to the Fenian. Thus Peredur's ideal of a bride—raven-black hair and blood-red and snow-white cheeks—corresponds to the story of Deirdre and the sons of Uisneach. A word or two may be said as to the local habitation of the heroic incidents. The Irish tales localise the events in Ireland, and point to places whose names are derived from the incidents of the tales. For example, the incidents of the killing of Diarmat by the boar are located in Sligo; but in Scotland the same story is fixed in no less than two places—Argyllshire and Sutherlandshire; Ben-Gulbain in Argyllshire, and Ben-Loyal in Sutherland have clear topographical traces of the story. And, again, the Arthurian incidents are confidently located by different theorists in Brittany, Wales, and Scotland. Mr. Stuart-Glennie has written a volume to prove that Scotland was the scene of Arthur's victories, and Mr. Skene supports him. No doubt the claims are all genuine; the story, in fact, is settled wherever a colony of the Welsh and the Gaels settled in a new country. The stories are racial and general, and can be tied down to neither time nor place. Every branch and colony can claim them as their own.

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