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Ancient myths for today’s dreams

From the eighth to the eleventh century Ireland nurtured an outstanding vernacular literature

The highest compliment I can pay Mark Williams is that after reading his ‘Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth’, I have an appetite to learn the Irish language. He exposes to the light a literary inheritance that has barely flickered in the Irish national consciousness since independence in 1922. It allows this nation to consider its origins, and observe how mythology involves a dynamic process of re-imagining, inclusive to all traditions.

Williams lays down a storehouse of inspirational sagas including the Rabelaisian intrigue of ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ and ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir’, interpreted as a Christian parable. These and other subtle tales are a corrective to the fatalistic machismo of the character of Cú Chulainn from the Irish epic ‘Táin Bó Cualígne’, that has tended to incarnate the nationalist self-image.

Scholars have found it difficult to define the nature of the Celtic immortals, or gods. J. R. R. Tolkien complained that “there is bright colour but no sense”, though the elves of his ‘Lord of the Rings’ were influenced by ‘Celtic’ mythology. The accuracy of the term ‘Celtic’ is itself doubtful when we consider the word’s Greek origin as ‘barbarian’, and the fragility of evidence derived from excavations at La Téne in Switzerland of the evidence of homogeneity of a contiguous continental ‘Celtic’ culture.

Cú Chulainn in battle. Illustration by J. C. Leyendecker

Undeterred, modern ‘Celticism’ (a hybrid of ‘Celtic’ folklore and mysticism) incubated fuzzy ideas such as these expressed by the early twentieth-century theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz:
“Of all European lands I venture to say that Ireland is the most mystical and, in the eyes of true Irishmen, as much the Magic Isle of Gods and Initiates now as it was when the Sacred Fires flashed from its purple, heather-covered mountain-tops and mysterious round towers, and the Great Mysteries drew to its hallowed shrines neophytes from the West as from the East, from India and Egypt as well as from Atlantis; and Erin’s mystic seeking sons will watch and wait for the relighting of the Fires and the restoration of the Old Druidic Mysteries”.

Efforts to taxonomise the various myths and develop rituals of worship foundered, at times comically, but the ethereal motifs were a wellspring of inspiration during the fin de siècle Irish Revival. This engendered possibly the finest movement in English-language literature of the twentieth century: the early WB Yeats and late James Joyce drew on imagery from these tales. The corpus remains a powerful creative source, connecting us with enduring symbols that portray Carl Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious. Unfortunately today in Ireland, as elsewhere, the unconscious mind is rarely nurtured, and the Irish immortals hardly figure in ‘serious’ contemporary literature. Another revival may be brewing, however, associated with John Moriarty’s ‘philo-mythical approach’.

Williams speculates that Irish worship of gods before the arrival of Christianity may have been in considerable flux due to late Iron Age agricultural decline. The evidence for Gaelic paganism is fragmented and mediated for us by a Christianity that brought literacy: the indigenous culture had not advanced beyond Ogham script. We have no evidence for how pagan deities were worshipped, and they tend to appear as numinous presences “immanent in the landscape”. Williams speculates that a taboo may have operated against poetic description of pagan worship. Nor do we encounter a central Mount Olympus or Asgard for their deities. Tara was the seat of the high kings, not of the Irish immortals. Their fragmented residences in síd mounds, haunting the countryside, reflect their banishment into the subterranean unconscious after the arrival of Christianity. As a reflection, or shadow, of a politically fragmented human society, their supposed location is unsurprising.

It is important to emphasise that throughout the period the Bible remained the foundation of learning, and few other books were available. Thus we find Ba’al, a biblical Canaanite god, being associated with the feast of Bealtaine at the start of May in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (Sanas Cormac) c.900, rather than the native ‘Bel’. Moreover, access to the writings of Isidore of Seville (d.636) brought poets into contact with the myths of Classical Rome and Greece which influenced the ceaseless recasting of indigenous tropes.

It might be assumed that the early Church brought a doctrinaire and prescriptive faith, but early medieval scholarship is infused with the language of paradox. Scholars were also acquainted with a Neoplatonism which posited a universal harmony attractive to poets.

As when two ocean plates collide to produce an extirpation of life, the encounter between a relatively insulated native civilisation and wider European currents stoked great cultural ferment. From the eighth to the eleventh century a formidable vernacular Irish literature arose, although most of the poets are unknown. Williams says this must count as “an outstanding contribution to the literary inheritance of humanity”. It is also striking that many of the great works emerged at a point when the nation was suffering grievously under Viking attacks. This must have prompted deep questioning of God’s will, and the validity of their social institutions. The pre-existing deities offered imaginative tools with which to criticise society when overt attack was dangerous, and artistically limiting.

Irish filid (poets) were experts in memorialisation of tradition, genealogies and vernacular composition, and were an exalted cast among the áes dána (skilled people). They were not clerics although, some of their education overlapped with priests’. In a highly stratified society they painted themselves as equal to kings. They were also legal authorities in a society spared full-time lawyers. As masters of language – and performance perhaps – they shaped the outlook of their audiences; They were more or less Percy Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators”.

These Irish poets learnt their trade, often operating under exacting metrical demands. According to Williams: “They were expert in grammatical analysis … in the highly formalised rules of poetic composition, and in training the memory to encompass the vast body of historical and legendary story, precedent, and genealogy which it was their business to know”. Pagan gods and lore were their discreet preserve, conferring deep awareness of the native language and landscape, although, as Williams stresses, they were not atavistic pagans.

The Romantic inspiration for the Revival of Irish mythology at the end of the nineteenth century is significant. Yeats, especially, was influenced by Romantics and pre-Raphaelite poets of a previous era, foremost perhaps Shelley who saw poetry as the font of wisdom and extensively mined Classical mythology for metaphor and inspiration. In his essay ‘The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry’ (1900) Yeats refers to the “ministering spirits” for the former’s poem Intellectual Beauty: “who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of medieval Europe, and the Sidhe [sic] of ancient Ireland”. In quoting that poem he reveals the significance of the síde to his own Art:

“These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence’, ‘visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming Eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave’”.

Yeats, however, felt, “Shelley’s ignorance of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of rootless poetry”.

Yeats identified himself with Ireland (as opposed to England where he spent much of his early life), finding here vibrant and novel mystical sources for his poetry, containing symbols he considered universal. His Ireland was a Romantic illusion coinciding with a doomed attraction to Maud Gonne whose intense nationalism bewitched him. Building on the work of Standish O’Grady and others, he and his friends, the journalist and visionary George Russell and the folklorist Augusta Lady Gregory, developed a pantheon of Irish gods mirroring Classical and, importantly, Hindu, models. In Yeats’ view: “Tradition is always the same. The earliest poet of India and the Irish peasant in his hovel nod to each other across the ages, and are in perfect agreement”.

As with the early period of Christianity, the nourishment of other traditions, Neoplatonic and Oriental, brought texture and colour to the Irish gods. It is also telling that the leading Revivalists came from Protestant backgrounds as that tradition emphasises the malleability of immortals ‘immanent in the landscape’. The Tuatha Dé are equal-opportunities enchanters who make no distinction based on race or creed, although all should be beware of the amádan na bruidhne, a supernatural being whose very touch brings disablement and death. The fool in Ireland is not always wise.

Importantly at this time, Yeats and his coterie formed the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which served a role akin to the schooling of the medieval filid. According to Williams: “Progress up through the grades of the Golden Dawn was via a series of initiations and examinations, each of which required the initiate to master aspects of occult symbolism and philosophy – a system of considerable intellectual complexity”. It seems that Yeats who never attended university was alluding to the benefits of this formation when he urged, “Irish poets learn your trade’, in his valedictory ‘Under Ben Bulben’.

Largely owing to their identification with heretical Protestantism and deviant theosophy, the Tuatha Dé largely retreat from view after Irish independence in 1922 and most schoolchildren are unacquainted with the riches of the early sagas which helps explain the continuing decline in the fortunes of the Irish language. It is revealing, however, that the determinedly cosmopolitan James Joyce proposed that James Stephens, a prominent scholar of Irish myth, should complete ‘Finnegans Wake’ should he expire before doing so.

It is instructive that the retreat of mythology from late-twentieth-century Irish literature coincided with a loss of vividness and elements of magic.

It is worthwhile recalling the views of the leading art critic of nineteenth-century Britain John Ruskin who asserted a belief in “spiritual powers … genii, fairies, or spirits”. He claimed that, “No true happiness exists, nor is any good work done … but in the sense or imagination of such presences”. This may have been meant in the sense that we should preserve our ‘childish’ sense of wonder into adult life. Williams suggests that a mythology, “furnishes a culture with total worldview, interpreting and mirroring back everything that that culture finds significant”. It is a medium that remains vitally generative in the creative process allowing artists to imagine divine possibilities. Unfortunately its possibilities have been tethered by a dunderhead scientism that conflates all belief in the supernatural.

Scientism now operates in the same way as a dogmatic Christianity when it ceased to express ideas in the language of paradox. The location of the Tuatha Dé and other Irish immortals is in the unconscious mind, which is as real as any other phenomenon.

John Moriarty is the latest writer to light the torch of the Tuatha Dé in his ‘philo-mythical’ writings, dousing his work with characters borrowed from Old Irish literature. His prose is gloriously poetical although it is difficult to keep abreast of the ubiquitous erudition. It is advisable to begin by listening to recordings of Moriarity as he explores the contours of his crooked world, observing all ontologies and mythologies that lie in the undergrowth.

Unsurprisingly, the 2012 documentary about his life ‘Dreamtime, Revisited’ was subjected to attack, with Donald Clarke in the Irish Times describing it as a “priceless parody of Celtic windbaggery”. The reviewer acknowledged that he had never read any of Moriarty’s formidable writings and evinced no appetite to do so; preferring instead the cheap humour of the amádan na bruidhne, and revealing the empirical and utilitarian outlook that reigns in our culture.

Mark Williams’ book is a tour de force of scholarship by any measure. Naturally there are lacunae in a treatment that spans over a thousand years, including an acknowledged omission to integrate the gods of the ‘Táin Bó Cualígne’ into his narrative. It may also have benefited from further concentration on the social structures of early Christian Ireland and the agricultural modes of production, and relations with Nature, that underpinned these. The Tuatha Dé exist in an Irish dreamtime that we dismiss at our peril. Their presence remains etched into the landscape as an undiscriminating fountain of creativity that may help us unlock the most vivid ideas.

By Frank Armstrong