Myth and Saga

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Myth and Saga

A critically neutral term, the Irish saga denotes the large body of often heroic narrative composed over many centuries in medieval Ireland and surviving in the great monastic codices, such as Lebor na hUidhre (Book of the Dun Cow, late eleventh century) and Lebor Laighneach (Book of Leinster, twelfth century). The same narratives were once dubbed Early Irish literature, implying no antecedents in pre-Christian religion. An assertion that many elements from Celtic religion survived in Irish stories encouraged adoption of the term Irish myths, still widely used. The survival theory was challenged in the late twentieth century by Kim McCone, Donnchadh Ó Corráin and others, who argued that while some figures, for example Lug Lámfhota, Fionn mac Cumhaill, may indeed be based on lost divinities, the shape of the stories themselves drew more from the classically influenced ecclesiastics who committed them to writing. The death of Diarmait in a boar hunt, for example, is unmistakably modeled on the comparable death of Adonis. The term saga does not here carry its Icelandic denotation of a family story that is very likely based on historical incident.

Irish sagas should not be confused with Irish folklore. The huge volume of stories committed to writing in medieval Ireland enjoyed a prestige not accorded to those surviving in oral tradition among the oppressed and illiterate peasantry. Some figures from the sagas, such as Deirdre or the lovers Diarmait and Gráinne, were expanded and given variations in oral tradition. Yet much more in the whole corpus of Irish folklore has no correlative in the sagas.

On the basis of internal evidence, nineteenth-century scholars divided the corpus into four principal parts or cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Cycle of Kings or Historical Cycle. Beyond these are the stories of voyages to the otherworld and fanciful explanations of place-names. Medieval compilers of the sagas, however, may have been unaware of such cycles. Instead they denoted the tale type by the first word in the title. For example, the many titles that begin with the word Táin all concern cattle raids.

Mythological Cycle

The six-volume Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of invasions) details the semihistorical invasions of prehistoric Ireland, leading to the triumph of the mortal Milesians (ancestors of the Gaels) over the immortal Tuatha Dé Danann. The climatic invasion story occurs in a separate text, Cath Maige Tuired (The Second Battle of Mag Tuired/Moytura), between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians, demonic pirates. The principal hero of this cycle is Lug Lámfhota (Lug of the Long Arms), a figure whose roots can be traced to the Gaulish god Lugos, whom Julius Caesar (first century b.c.e.) called Mercury. The leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann is Nuadu Airgetlám (of the Silver Hand/Arm).

Important texts include Tochmarc Étaíne (The wooing of Étaín), about the supernatural love between King Midir and Étaín, a paragon of beauty, a myth whose form evolves over a millennium. Two of the "Three Sorrows of Storytelling" are in this cycle. Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann (Tragic fate of the children of Tuireann) tells how three sons—Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba—endure arduous tasks in exile for having murdered Cian, Lug's father. In a second "sorrow," Oidheadh Chloinne Lir (Tragic fate of the children of Lir), a king's children fostered to a distant royal household are transformed into swans by a wicked queen and suffer a three-hundred year exile at each of three places in Ireland. The last is on the Mayo coast, where the children are returned to human from and baptized in the Christian faith before they crumble into dust. The third "sorrow," the Deirdre story, appears in the Ulster Cycle.

The Ulster Cycle

Earlier known as the Red Branch Cycle, the Ulster Cycle takes place near the hillfort "capital" of Ulster, Emain Macha, Co. Armagh, and the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath. Cúchulainn (the Hound of Culann), the greatest of all Irish heroes, is at the center of the action and is the key figure in Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley); he is a son of Lug Lámfhota. The bellicose and libidinous Queen Medb of Connacht initiates war with Ulster over Donn Cuailnge, the Brown Bull, which she covets in order to have status above her husband, Aillil. Her own white bull, Finnbennach, gives insufficient esteem, so Donn Cuailnge must be seized from Ulster. An epic with dozens of named characters and faceless armies, the Táin's most dramatic moments come in personal encounters, between Cúchulainn and Medb, especially Cúchulainn's duel at the ford with Ferdiad, his former friend and companion. At the end Medb takes home Donn Cuailnge, but Cúchulainn's story continues through several other texts. One tells of the wooing of his wife Emer, another of his unwitting slaying of his son Connla.

The tragic love story of Deirdre, the third "sorrow" of storytelling, exists in two medieval texts, one a foretale of the Táin, and in many oral tradition retellings. In all of them young Deirdre is unhappily betrothed to aging King Conchobar of Ulster (anglicized Conor) when she elopes with handsome Noíse, who is accompanied by his brothers Ardan and Ainnle. Conchobar pursues them and through the trickery of a surrogate captures the lovers, killing Noíse. Deirdre takes her own life rather than return to the embrace of Conchobar.

Prominent also in the Ulster Cycle are the heroes Cú Roí and Fergus mac Róich, the second a lover of Medb. The poison-tongued Briccriu sets heroes into violent conflict over the "hero's portion" of meat in the widely read Fled Bricrenn (Briccriu's feast).

The Fenian Cycle

The Fenian Cycle, also known as the Finn or Ossianic Cycle, has produced by far the most extensive texts of any cycle and its stories have been the longest lived; yet it is called the "sow's ear of Irish literature" by Sean O'Faolain because the narratives often lack literary distinction. The central hero of the cycle, Fionn mac Cumhaill, unquestionably of divine origin, is portrayed as a poet-warrior-seer who heads the Fianna Éireann, a kind of freelance militia skilled in poetry. Many of the stories in the cycle are told in flashback by Fionn's son Oisín and the warrior Caílte, who are presumed to have survived until Christian times and engaged in dialogue with Saint Patrick. The Scottish charlatan James Macpherson borrowed Fenian themes in his bogus historical Poems of Ossian (1760–1763) in order to introduce the cycle's characters to a wider European audience as Fingal (Fionn), Ossian (Oisín), and Oscar (Fionn's grandson). Fionn sometimes appears to be an unattractive figure, as when he pursues the beautiful young Gráinne, who prefers the warrior Diarmait; this parallels the Deirdre story except that Gráinne returns to Fionn at the end.

The Cycle of Kings, or Historical Cycle

These stories may relate events thought to be historical, such as Cath Maige Rath (Battle of Moira), or may be rooted during the reigns of historical or semihistorical kings, Fingal Rónáin (How Rónán killed his son), the narrative of a seventh-century ruler whose name appears in the annals. A datable authenticity does not mean that stories within the cycle are always earth-bound, as is seen in the highly regarded Buile Shuibne (Frenzy of Sweeney). In this sequel to Cath Maige Rath, Suibne, driven mad by the din of battle following a curse put upon him by a cleric, spends years living naked or nearly naked in the tops of trees, regretting his fate, but celebrating nature in haunting, lyrical verse.

Portrayals of themes and characters from Irish sagas in Irish writing in English in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries do not always draw on original texts or their translations, but often rely instead on modern popularizers.

SEE ALSO Celtic Migrations; Cruachain; Cú Chulainn; Emain Macha (Navan Fort); Literature: Early and Medieval Literature; Prehistoric and Celtic Ireland; Táin Bó Cúailnge


Cross, Tom Peete, and Harris Clark Slover. Ancient Irish Tales. 1936. Reprint, 1969.

McCone, Kim. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature. 1990.

MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

O'Rahilly, Thomas F. Early Irish History and Mythology. 1946. Reprint, 1971.

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. 1961.

James MacKillop