Introduction To Irish Mythology

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1. Mythic Ireland

The Irish Mind. Myth and legend side by side with history and culture.

For over 9000 years Ireland has offered its various inhabitants a path where myth and legend go hand in hand with history and tradition, a rich tapestry formed by some of the most profound storytelling on earth. Here we can experience a meeting between the human and the divine and glimpse a way of thinking that has never been more relevant and truthful.

2. Mythic Journey

A journey into the unknown. A journey to the centre.

On this mythic journey to the centre we can discover something exciting and unknown. Maybe we have to head off and explore this new world because the ground we are standing on is not so firm. We hear the stories in terms of today and see deeply into the patters that structure meaning under a surface of our distractions. 

3. Story Cycles

Mythological Worlds

Within the Irish imagination are four complete worlds to immerse yourself in, with their own inspiring heroes, awesome villains and compelling stories that weave together in a separate and connected way.

Ulster Cycle

The Ulster Cycle takes us from a world distinguished by intelligence and magic to one of warriors and fighting. This world is one where will-power and fearless action prevail. The cultural hero is now the physically strong young man who puts his neck on the line for the honour of his community, his tribe. The central story of this cycle is Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

The Táin is an epic tale where the forces of the four provinces combine, under Medb’s leadership to carry off the great bull of the Ulstermen. The central figure of this cycle is the superb fighter Cú Chulainn, whose primary role is to defend his people. One key question is are we to see this figure as a hero or a tragic figure? The warrior archetype is surely still very central in the modern day figure of the sporting hero.

Fenian Cycle

The Fenian Cycle, which also concerning the hero figure as warrior, but which has a very different feel, ethos and provenance. This is essentially the lore of the Fianna who were more nomadic in nature. They are a roving outlaw band whose main occupations were to hunt and to fight. This Cycle’s central figure is Fionn mac Cumhaill, the leader of the Fianna.

One study compares Cú Chulainn as the hero within the tribe whereas Fionn is the hero outside the tribe, the outlaw, the outsider. The themes of this cycle include hunting, adventure and quests, romance and wisdom. It would have many parallels with the Arthurian Cycle within the British Myth tradition

Mythological Cycle

The Mythological Cycle is about the set of five Invasions Lebor Gabála Érenn that were core to the formation of Ireland. It is also about the Battles of Moytura where the Tuatha De Danaan were successful in establishing a culture based on the goddess. The final invaders, the Sons of Mil, then beat them at the Battle of Tailtiu to send the Tuatha De underground where they have remained. This cycle also includes the magical Midir and Etain and a number of Voyage Stories such as Bran and Máel Dúin.

Kings Cycle

The King Cycle is also known as the Historical Cycle. These tales are essentially about Kingship, the fortunes of Kings, and Kingship as a marriage between the King and the realm (and sometimes the goddess, a symbol of the land). Prosperity in the realm was intimately connected to the quality of the King. In addition the king was frequently bound by certain restrictions, called ‘geasa’. The more power you had the more this needed to be contained. To break the ‘geasa’ was to unravel the sacred bond between King and the people.

4. Character Profiles

The Archetypal figures of Irish Myth and Legend embody the collective fears, hopes and desires of a people.

Fionn Mac Cumhal

Finn (Fionn) was the hero of the Fenian cycle and was the greatest leader of the Fianna. He was born after the death of his father, and so reared by a wise woman who taught him well, and encouraged a strong affinity to nature.
His first major act was to kill his father’s murderer, Goll. Having completed this revenge he ventured to Finnegas. Finnegas was a bard who taught Finn the art of poetry and also the gift of prophecy along with general wisdom. Finnegas caught the salmon of knowledge and gave it to his young pupil to cook. As he did this Finn burnt his finger and so placed his thumb his mouth. From this he gained supernatural knowledge.
Finn was a clever hero who led his band of men through many adventures and challenges, and armed with his strength and knowledge became the greatest leader of the Fianna.

Cú Chulainn

Cú Chulainn was the son of the Celtic god Lugh and a mortal princess. He was destined for a short glorious life, and he was often depicted with the shadow of his doom looming over his shoulder.
As a boy his name was Setanta. On a journey to join the king of Ulster’s court, he acquired a new name. The king, Conchobar Mac Nessa, and his court were feasting at the house of Culann the Smith. Culann set his fierce hound to guard the door in addition to 150 of Conchobar’s own boy troops. Setanta, armed only with a hurley stick and sliotar, tried to reach the court. With this he destroyed all of the youths and then drove his sliotar into the mouth of the savage hound, killing it instantly. Culann was devastated at the loss of his guard dog, but Setanta volunteered to perform the task, instead, thus gaining the name Cú Chulainn, meaning “the hound of Culann”.

Deirdre Of The Sorrows

Deirdre was most famous of her extraordinary beauty, and it was this beauty, which caused such terrible bloodshed among the men of Ulster. She was headstrong in that she would not allow Naoise to go away without taking her with him, and she was responsible for the exile of him and his brothers. She loved Naoise dearly, and was broken hearted at his death, which was brought about by the trickery of Conor McNessa who wished to have her as his own possession.

The Children Of Lir

Bobh Dearg was worried that Lir might be angry enough at his defeat to start trouble, or even rise up against him, so to make peace between them, he invited Lir to visit. After feasting for three days and three nights, he asked Lir which of his three beautiful daughters he liked best. Lir replied that though they were all fine women, he loved Bobh Dearg’s daughter Aobh the best. Now, this had of course been Bobh Dearg’s plan all along: to make Lir a part of his family through marriage so that the other man would be bound to him by ties of love and friendship.

5. Gods and the Otherworld

The Irish mythological gods make no fearsome demands for obedience. Those who meet them leave with a sense of amazement and wonder. Yet the Otherworld remains a strange and supernatural place. Sometimes it is identified as the bountiful land of the dead, but more often it exists as a parallel world alongside our own that mortals enter at their own peril if not invited by those who dwell there.

Danu

Danu is the most ancient of the Celtic gods. She was referred to as the mother of the Irish gods, which indicates that she was a mother goddess. In this guise she probably represented the earth and its fruitfulness. Many place names in Ireland are associated with her, most notable the Paps of Anu in Kerry, which resemble the breasts of a large supine female, part of the land. She is the ‘beantuathach’ (farmer), which reinforces the fertility aspect of the goddess. Rivers are associated with her, and represent the fertility and abundance in a land. There is a suggestion that Danu might have had dual characteristics, one being the beneficent, nurturing mother goddess, and another being the strong, malevolent side of the warrior goddess. The root “dan” in ancient Irish means art, skill, poetry, knowledge, and wisdom.

Brigid

Daughter of the Daghda and the Morrigan the Goddess Brigid was born on the 1st day of February which became her sacred day of Imbolg. She was born with flames around her forehead just as the sun came over the horizon. Now the Morrigan not being the most nurturing of goddesses, the infant Brigid was suckled by another worldly cow, white, with red ears and grew up in the other world tending to an apple orchard whose bees moved between this world and the other world. Brigid loved learning, knowledge and inspiration and she set up a school of sorts in Kildare where she tended to a sacred grove. Her followers were instructed for ten years and she taught them how to gather healing herbs and tend to livestock, how to forge iron into tools. They would spend thirty years in service to her, the first ten years in learning, the second ten years in tending to her sacred grove and working and the final ten years in teaching.

The Daghda

Daghda was chief amongst the Gaelic gods and was therefore an equivalent to the king of the Greek gods, Zeus. Daghda’s name means the “good god”, not in the moral sense but meaning good at everything. One of the main differences was that the Irish gods were not worshipped or sacrificed to, but instead they were characters of an oral poetic tradition. Daghda was a mystical supernatural being with magical powers, and his strength derived from his knowledge of the hidden, which in folklore was the highest kind of wisdom.
Daghda was especially connected to two particular implements. The first was the large bronze cauldron from which it was said he ate his porridge. Another version of this was that he ate it from a huge hole in the ground. The second was the club with which he armed himself. Its enormous size meant that it had to be transported on wheels.
Daghda was a warrior god, taking part in many battles. His death occurred when he was killed by a female warrior called Caitleann who cast a sling shot at him and he died of the wound.

Lugh

Lugh was the son of the beautiful Eithne who was the daughter of Balor of the Evil Eye. Balor imprisoned Eithne in a high tower so that she would never have a son, as it had been prophesised that he would be slain by his own grandson. But, in stealing the great cow called Glas Ghoibhneann from Cian, Balor drew him to his island in search of his property. It was then that Eithne first saw Cian, who she recognised from her dreams. Lugh was thus conceived.
When Lugh was born his grandfather ordered him to be killed. Ignoring the cries of his distraught mother, he was cast to the waves and all believed him to be drowned. However, the woman druid called Birog who had woven magic spells to bring Cian and Eithne together, cast another spell. That spell brought Lugh from the sea into the arms of his father. Lugh was fostered by Taillte daughter of the King of the great plain, and of Echaid the Rough. He was taught all the arts and his skill was so great with a sword and his reach so long and accurate that he acquired the name, Lugh of the Long Arm.

6. Sources

Here are the main sources of Irish Mythology

Lebar na Núachongbála (The Book of Leinster)
Lebar na nUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow)
Leabhar Baile an Mhota (The Book of Ballymote)
Leabhar Mór Mhic Fhir Bhisigh (The Great Book of Lecan)
Leabhar Buidhe Lecain (The Yellow Book of Lecan)

Further reading. Click here for a reading list that will help you appreciate the original texts.

7. The Mythic Method

Silver Branch Perception

Myth experienced through the Bardic practice of storytelling in a group setting. In the oral tradition the reception of the story was through hearing rather than reading.

8. Listen To The Stories

Here is a selection of Irish myths to get you started.

9. Next Steps

Thank you for having taken the time to look at this Introduction to Irish Mythology. We have lots more to share with you here, to read and of course to listen to. Oral storytelling lives on. You can also connect with us on Facebook and on Instagram.

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