Mythological Cycle

Mythological Cycle
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The Mythological Cycle (Irish: na Scéalta Miotaseolaíochta)[1] is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology, and is so called because it represents the remains of the pagan mythology of pre-Christian Ireland, although the gods and supernatural beings have been euhemerised into historical kings and heroes.

The cycle consists of numerous prose tales and poems found in medieval manuscripts, as well as pseudohistorical chronicles such as Lebor Gabála Érenn and the early parts of the Annals of the Four Masters and Seathrún Céitinn's History of Ireland. The first of these works originate from 700 CE with later ones dating from 950 CE.[2]


The invasions tradition

The Mythological Cycle traces the supposed history of Ireland from its earliest inhabitants before the Biblical flood, through a series of invasions to the arrival of the Goidelic-speaking Milesians or Gaels. Some of these invaders probably represent genuine historical migrations; others, like the Tuatha Dé Danann with their magical powers, are unquestionably degraded gods.[3] The primary text of this tradition is the Lebor Gabála Érenn ("Book of Invasions of Ireland"). Elements of the tradition are expended in saga texts such as the two Battles of Mag Tuired, and in early modern compilations such as the Annals of the Four Masters and Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éireann. Interesting that the Battles of Mag Tuired (field of towers), indirectly confirm that the Round Towers of Ireland existed before the advent of Christianity.

Before the flood

A number of traditions have been preserved about the earliest inhabitants of Ireland. The best known tradition is that of Cessair, which is recorded in the Lebor Gabála Érenn and other early texts. Cessair is said to have been a granddaughter of Noah for whom there was no room on the Ark. She and her followers – fifty women and three men – arrived only 40 days before the deluge and were wiped out, all except Fintan, who transformed into a salmon. Through a series of transformations he survived into historical times and told the tale of his people.[4]

Geoffrey Keating, in his 17th century Foras Feasa ar Éirinn ("The Basics of Knowledge on Ireland"), records several other traditions from sources now lost. A poem he found in the Saltair of Cashel said that three daughters of the Biblical Cain were the first to see Ireland. A second tradition, a variant of the Cessair legend he found in the Book of Druimm Snechta, said that the first inhabitants of Ireland were led by a woman called Banba, who gave her name to the island. She came with a hundred and fifty women and three men, who lived there for forty years before they all died of plague, two hundred years before the flood. Another tradition he records, but does not source, is that Ireland was discovered by three fishermen from Iberia who were washed there by a storm. They returned to Iberia, brought their wives and settled in Ireland a year before the flood, when they were drowned.[5]

After the flood

Although the Lebor Gabála says Ireland was empty of inhabitants for three hundred years after the flood,[6] Keating records two contrary traditions. A poem from the Saltair of Cashel said that a young man called Adna, son of Bíth, a relative of Ninus of Nineveh, visited Ireland about a hundred and forty years after the flood, but merely plucked a fistful of grass and brought it home to show his neighbours. He also says that, according to "some of our authors", the Fomorians, led by Cichol Gricenchos, settled in Ireland a hundred years after the flood and lived there for two hundred years until they were defeated by Partholón and his followers in the Battle of Mag Ithe. The Fomorians are said to have lived on "fish and fowl",[7] and Partholón is said in the Lebor Gabála to have introduced cattle and houses to Ireland:[8]


According to the Lebor Gabála, Partholón and his followers settled in Ireland either three hundred or three hundred and twelve years after the flood. Said to have been a descendant of Magog, son of Japheth, son of Noah, Partholón is said to have sailed from Greece, via Sicily, to Iberia, and from there to Ireland. He landed at Imber Scéne (Kenmare, County Kerry). His four oxen were the first cattle in Ireland. One of his followers, Brea, was the first to build a house, and another, Samailiath, was the first to brew ale. When they arrived there was only one plain in Ireland — Senmag, the "Old Plain", near modern Tallaght. Four more plains were cleared during Partholón's lifetime, and seven lakes burst from the ground. He and all his followers – five thousand men and four thousand women – died of plague in a single week, with one exception – Tuan mac Cairill, who, like Fintan, survived through a series of transformations and told the story of his people to St Finnian.[9]

Nemed and his followers

Thirty years later another group, led by Nemed, arrived. The Lebor Gabála describes them as Greeks from Scythia, and says they sailed with forty-four ships, but only one ship survived to reach Ireland. Four lakes burst from the ground in Nemed's time, twelve plains were cleared, and three battles won against the Fomorians. Nemed eventually died of plague, and his descendants were subjected by the Fomorian leaders Morc and Conand, who demanded two-thirds of their children, wheat and milk as tribute. Nemed's son Fergus Lethderg and grandsons Semul and Erglan led a revolt against Conand's Tower on Tory Island, off the coast of County Donegal, and Conand was killed, but Morc led a counter-attack. The sea rose up and drowned them all, except for one ship containing thirty warriors, who left Ireland and scattered to the four corners of the world. Fergus Lethderg's son Britan Mael became the ancestor of the Britons. Semeon went to Greece and became the ancestor of the Fir Bolg. Bethach went to the islands of the north and became the ancestor of the Tuatha Dé Danann.[10]

Fir Bolg

The next invaders were the Fir Bolg, who first established kingship and a system of justice in Ireland. One of their kings, Rinnal, was the first to use iron spear-points[citation needed]. According to a controversial theory of T. F. O'Rahilly, they represent a genuine historical people, the Builg or Belgae, associated further with the Iverni.

Tuatha Dé Danann

The Fir Bolg were displaced by the Tuatha Dé Danann or "Peoples of the goddess Danu", descendants of Nemed, who either came to Ireland from the north on dark clouds or burnt their ships on the shore to ensure they wouldn't retreat. They defeated the Fir Bolg king, Eochaid mac Eirc, in the first Battle of Magh Tuiredh, but their own king, Nuada, lost an arm in the battle. As he was no longer physically perfect he lost the kingship, and his replacement, the half-Fomorian Bres, became the first Tuatha Dé High King of Ireland.

Bres turned out to be a tyrant and brought the Tuatha Dé under the oppression of the Fomorians. Eventually Nuada was restored to the kingship, having had his arm replaced by a working one of silver, and the Tuatha Dé rose against the Fomorians in the second Battle of Magh Tuiredh. Nuada was killed by the Fomorian king, Balor, but Balor met his prophesied end at the hands of his grandson, Lug, who became king of the Tuatha Dé.

The Tuatha Dé are said to have brought chariots and druidry to Ireland.

The Sons of Míl

The Tuatha Dé Danann were themselves displaced by the Milesians, descendants of Míl Espáine, a warrior who travelled the ancient world before settling in Iberia. Míl died without ever seeing Ireland, but his uncle Íth saw the island from a tower and led an advance force to scout it out. The three kings of the Tuatha Dé, Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine, had Íth killed. After his body was returned to Iberia, Míl's eight sons led a full-scale invasion.

After defeating the Tuatha Dé in battle at Slieve Mish, County Kerry, the Milesians met Ériu, Banba and Fodla, the wives of the three kings, each of whom asked them to name the island after her. Ériu is the origin of the modern name Éire, and Banba and Fodla are still used as poetic names for Ireland, much as Albion is for Great Britain.

Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine asked for a three-day truce in which the Milesians would stay at anchor nine waves' distance from shore, and the Milesians agreed, but the druids of the Tuatha Dé conjured up a storm to drive them away. However Amergin, son of Míl, calmed the sea with his poetry. The Milesians landed and defeated the Tuatha Dé at Tailtiu, but only three of Míl's sons, Eber Finn, Eremon and Amergin, survived. Amergin divided the land between his two brothers. The Tuatha Dé moved underground, into the sídhe mounds, to be ruled by Bodb Dearg.


Another source of mythological tradition is the dindsenchas or "lore of places", poems and prose tales recounting traditions of the origins of place-names and events and personages associated with those places.

Saga texts

A number of saga texts of the Mythological Cycle survive. Some, such as the two Battles of Mag Tuired, are part of the invasions tradition. Others are tangential to it: for example, Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann ("The Fate of the Children of Tuireann") tells how Lugh orders the sons of Tuireann, as punishment for the murder of his father Cian, to collect a series of magical objects and weapons which will be useful in the second battle of Mag Tuired against the Fomorians.

Others are entirely independent of the invasions tradition. Tochmarc Étaíne ("The Wooing of Étaín") tells first of the conception of Aengus through the adultery of the Dagda and Boann, and how Aengus won the residence of the Brú na Bóinne from Boann's husband Elcmar. It goes on to tell of the various lives of Étaín, wife of Midir, who is turned into a fly and driven away by Midir's jealous first wife Fuamnach. She becomes the companion of Aengus in insect form before Fuamnach once again drives her away, and she is swallowed by a mortal woman and reborn as her daughter. Her beauty attracts the attention of the High King, Eochaid Airem, who marries her, but ultimately Midir wins her back by magic and trickery.

Another well-known mythological story is Oidheadh Chloinne Lir ("The Fate of the Children of Lir"), in which the eponymous children and turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, and live in swan form into Christian times, when they are converted, transformed back into human form, and die of extreme old age.

See also

External links


  1. ^ scéalta miotaseolaíochta&lang=2
  2. ^ , H. d'Arbois de Jubainville, Lemma Publishing, New York 1970 p. 1.
  3. ^ James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, 1998, pp. 259–262
  4. ^ Lebor Gabála Érenn §26–29
  5. ^ Geoffrey Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn 1.5
  6. ^ Lebor Gabála Érenn §30
  7. ^ Geoffrey Keating, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn 1.6
  8. ^ Lebor Gabála Érenn §38
  9. ^ Lebor Gabála Érenn §30–38
  10. ^ Lebor Gabála Érenn §39–54

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