MacCorkill's Scottish - The Fianna of Eire

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The Fianna of Erin

Highland's and Islands Partnership

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Celtic Mythology

The Fianna of Erin

A couple of the main characteristics of the Ossianic cycle of the legends are romance and idealism. The legends of Finn MacCumhal and his band of fighting men have these qualities displayed in abundance. In my opinion, this legend provides a tremendous source of inspiration for the warrior.

Let us begin with the definition of 'Fian'. The most common being foot soldier. Indeed, this is their distinguishing feature, they almost always fought on foot. Especially when compared to the Ulster cycle which is known very much for its charioteering.

The Fianna's main function was to uphold order within Ireland in the form basically of a militia force. It was a very honourable institution and considered essential to the welfare of the community at that time.

From Samhain to Beltaine they were quartered among the people, whilst in the summer half of the year they engaged in hunting to support themselves. Their method of cooking their catches is well known to primitive peoples. A hole was dug into the ground, inside of which red hot stones were placed. On top of this was placed venison wrapped in sedge. Then all was covered over and in time the meat was done to a turn. In both seasons this malitia, was expected to police the country. Their task is now outlined. What kind of man would the Fianna take into their ranks? Several requirements were deemed necessary. You must be versed in the twelve books of poetry, be a man of culture and pass the following initiation tests:

At the start of the initiation test the man had to stand in a pit, dug out to knee depth. His defensive weapons were a shield and a hazel rod. These were used to deflect the spears cast by nine men from a distance of nine ridges. These spears were cast simultaneously at the prospective warrior and if he failed to deflect these weapons then he was rejected.

The second test consisted of a chase through the forest, pursued by armed men. The candidate was to avoid being caught or harmed in any way by the armed men. Indeed, if he had a lock of his braided hair loosened or if he had broken a branch on the forest floor in his hasty flight he was rejected. After all that his hands could not be seen to be shaking at all at the end or he would have failed. Iron discipline required indeed.

In addition, this the man was obliged to jump over a branch his own head height and stoop below a branch his own knee height and also be able to run at full speed whilst taking a thorn from his foot at the same time, without breaking his stride. All these tasks seem nearly impossible to achieve, yet they illustrate perfectly the idealistic nature of this group of legends.

Let us have a closer look at the leader of the band of perfect warriors. Not the strongest, physically, of them all, but Finn was the truest, wisest, kindest and most trusted of them. Generous to men and gentle to women, his wisdom was such that he would never see anyone in trouble or in poverty in his care. He was leader of his people, a poet and magician, the pinnacle of achievement for the Celtic warrior. But what are the origins of such a great man, demi-god?

The epic begins with the leaders of two rival clans disputing who had the right to leadership of the Fianna of Eire. One was called Clan Morna, the other Clan Baiscne whose leader was Finn's father, Cumhal. The two clans clashed in a bitter conflict at Cruachan (near Dublin) whereuponthe Clan Baiscne were defeated and scattered throughout Ireland.

Finn's father was killed in the battle, but Muirne, his mother, soon gave birth to their son, the hero himself. However, concerned for her son's safety, she could not keep him by her. In fear of the Clan Morna she gave him into the care of two druid women who took him to the wood of Slieve Bladhma to nurse him secretly.

There he was given excellent training in the ways of the warrior and manhood. A couple of the exercises deemed to be constructive by the women were to throw him into a lake to teach him how to swim and to put him in a closed off field with some hares. They told him to always keep ahead of the hares no matter what until the day was over. Harsh training, however necessary for survival.

However, this dicipline, turned him into a fine young man, fair of appearance, supple of limb and skilled to boot. So, after spending some time with a troupe of poets being taught the way of words, he was put out on his own and went to seek his living in the service of a king.

Eventually, he came to the king who had taken his mother for his wife and fine service wer given to the king. All was well until one day he was playing chess with the king and won seven games in a row. It was then that the king questioned this fine young man's origins and discovered that he was the son of Cumhal. This displeased him greatly and Finn, who was then called Deimne to conceal his lineage, was asked to leave.

He then decided to go into Connaught to seek out his father's brother, Crimall. He was going on his way when a magical meeting took place. He came across a woman crying tears of blood. Finn asked her why she cried so and the woman answered that her only son had just been killed by a champion. Finn vowed that after seeing such a sight that he would follow the champion and slay him. Such sorrow he had not seen before. So he killed the man and it was the same man who had given his father his first wound in the battle that was to be his last.

The champion had on his person a treasure bag made of craneskin that had previously belonged to Finn's father. The bag was full of magical items that could only be used at full tide. The original owners of the bag were Manannan MacLir, god of the sea, and Lugh of the Long Hand, god of the sun. It was a precious find, marking another stage in the boy's oncoming adulthood.

Finn found Crimall, now an old man, living in a lonely place with some of the other old men of the Fianna. They exchanged stories and conversation and it was here that Finn left the craneskin bag.

Finn then went on to learn wisdom and poetry from a man named Finnegas who lived by the river Boyne. It is by the side of water that poets gain inspiration. The border between land and sea, neither one world or the other. It is where the goddess of poetry may be sought.

For seven years Finnegas had watched for the white, red speckled salmon of knowledge. For in eating this fish a man may have all knowledge. At last the fish did arrive and Finnegas, rejoicing, gave the fish to Finn to roast but told him not to eat any of it.

However, alas, during the cooking of the salmon, Finn noticed a blister appearing on its skin and put his thumb onto it to make it disappear. Needless to say, Finn's thumb got badly burnt and he thrust it into his mouth and onto his wisdom tooth.

The boy then gave Finnegas the fish and after looking at it for a while he said to Finn: "What is your name, boy?" "It is Deimne". Finn replied. "No, it is not", said Finnegas. "It is Finn that is your name and the prophesy that someone named Finn will gain the knowledge from the salmon has been fulfilled." The boy then confessed to having inadvertently tasted the fish. From that time on Finn had the knowledge from the nuts of the nine hazels that grew beneath the sea. Otherworld knowledge.

This is how the boy then fulfilled his destiny and became the man who would be leader of the Fianna of Eire. In one of the most colourful Celtic epics imaginable. Where the Gods themselves made their presence felt and the veil between the worlds was thin. The tales within these legends go deeper into the functions of the Fianna with its many characters and adventures.

Presented by Scone,
Nancy MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot USA
Author, Poet,
Historian of the Ancient Clans of Scotland,
Researcher of Celtic Mytholody and Folklore
[© Source books: Celtic, also Celtic Mytholody,
Carmichael, O'Grady, a Compilation of Celtic Tales,
and Nora Chadwick, with some source info
attributed to each.]

©He/She who stealeth my written works, stealeth my soul
and my attorney will go soul searching.©


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