Simple Devotions

As a follow-up to my prior post, I had some thoughts about simple solo devotions.  Most of my practice is solitary, so I’ve come up with a few over the years.

Example 1:  Fionn MacCumhaill is (amongst other things) patron Power for divination.  So when I’m working with Tarot or shagai bones (my two major divination modalities), I call on Him as part of it.  Specifically, I put my thumb in my mouth and bite down hard enough to cause pain, in honor of the way Fionn gained knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom.

Example 2:  Last night I celebrated Imbolc (yes, I do it on Groundhog Day- there are reasons).  First, I cleaned all of Brigid‘s shrines (surprise!  I have several!).  Then I cleaned myself up and put on some jewelry dedicated to Her.  Then I lit candles and made whiskey offerings at all of Her shrines, reciting several prayers and singing some songs.  I ended up the evening reciting a story which is sacred to Her in front of Her image.

I also started a batch of short mead dedicated to Her, but that wasn’t a simple process. 😉

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The So-called “Maxims of the Fianna”, (pt. 1)

Several weeks ago, both sides in one of the many recent polytheistic scuffles tried to make their points using a bit of Irish myth/story called The Maxims of the Fianna.  Once again, my Fionn mac Cumhaill senses started tingling, especially since I didn’t need a thumb of wisdom to be suspicious…  The original source of this material is the 12th-century work known as Acallam na Senórach (“Colloquy of the Ancients”),  the most important text of the Fenian cycle.  Rolleston seems to be drawing from the O’Grady translation of 1892, which is outdated in many ways; he also interpolates the title “Maxims of the Fianna”- this designation isn’t in the O’Grady translation or the adaption by Lady Gregory in Gods and Fighting Men (a much more faithful and readable adaption, IMHO).

Any excuse to go and do some research!  Full disclosure-  I don’t have any appreciable Old or Middle Irish skills.  But it turns out that there is a much more recent translation available- Tales of the Elders of Ireland, by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe, so I snapped that up.  It’s a very good translation- flowing, almost terse, with vivid description that doesn’t founder in the purple prose of its Victorian predecessors.  The poetry is all translated, too (a lot of 19th and early 20th century translations of Irish material omit the poetry), albeit with no attempt to capture the meter and alliteration of the original.

Not that I didn’t have my problems with this edition- the translators chose to translate most of the names and titles out of the original Irish, rather than leave them in; I understand the reason for this but I’d have preferred them to be glossed.  The introduction basically ignores the mythic value of the tales to focus on history and politics, but this ends up being useful in its own way.  You have to strip away several layers of Christianity, Irish Church politics, and contemporary historical context to get at the meat of these tales, and the introduction helps.

And boy, do you need to strip away- there’s just so much Christian triumphalism and sanctimonious Patrick hagiography in it, as well as a fair bit of disrespectful treatment of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  That being said, there are some lovely stories here, and some of the most lovely praises of Fionn in the Fenian material.

Which gets us to the so-called “maxims”.  To make a long story short, Fionn’s grandson, Mac Lugach, is being a jerk to the rest of the Fianna, and they pressure Fionn to get him under control.  So Fionn sits the lad down and gives him some sage advice.  It’s not presented as a series of “maxims” or general rules for the Fianna- it’s personal advice.  Dooley and Roe place it in the “advice to princes” category of medieval Irish literature, and further point out that it’s specifically focused on the proper behavior of a young man in military service in a king’s household.  Thus, it’s not necessarily of relevance to a civilian (and seems a little… hierarchical… to be important to an anarchist activist) or even to a modern day soldier.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be gained from it.  In my next post on the subject, I’ll cover that.

The Problem of Diarmuid and Grainne

As a devotee of Fionn MacCumhaill, I’m always happy to find books dealing with his legends (and those of the Fianna in general).  So I was very happy the other day when Monster Alice pointed out a lovely book to me in a used book store:  Dermot of the Bright Weapons.  It’s about Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, one of the most famous of Fionn’s Fianna.  The illustrations were just beautiful, and it was in decent shape for something published over 75 years ago, so I snapped it up.

Half the book is devoted to possibly the most famous story of Diarmuid, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (“The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne”).  In short, it goes like this:  Gráinne is betrothed to Fionn.  She doesn’t want to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather, so puts Diarmuid under geasa to elope with her.  Fionn pursues them, although the sentiments of the Fianna are more inclined to the eloped couple.  Lots of adventures happen, then Aenghus Og (Diarmuid’s foster father) intercedes and makes peace.  But some years later, Fionn and Diarmuid are on a boar hunt, and when the boar gores Diarmuid, Fionn refuses to heal him and lets him die.

I’ve never been happy with this story.  It casts Fionn as the villain- he acts completely inconsistently with his character in other stories.  I have to remind myself that I’m looking at these stories as myth- and in myths, gods and heroes and other Powers often act in ways that aren’t right by human standards.  Myths aren’t about us, they’re about the Powers, so our values don’t necessarily apply.

A lot of the literary use of this story frustrates me, though.  It got sentimentalized  by a number of the “Celtic Twilight” authors;  the retellings of the story have a tendency to focus on the romantic love aspects, an anachronism at least, and make Fionn out to be some sort of vengeful ogre.   Gráinne tends to come out looking pretty bad, too. But if you remember some other aspects of Diarmuid’s background, the bones of the story become a spare, harsh, but beautifully complete tragedy:

  1. Diarmuid is under a divine curse that he will be killed by a magical boar.
  2. He has a “love spot” which makes him irresistible to women who see it.
  3. Gráinne is fine with being betrothed to Fionn (a grandfather back then wouldn’t necessarily be all that old… and remember what Kissinger said about power).
  4. But she sees Diarmuid’s love spot and falls for him.
  5. She puts him under geasa to elope with her.
  6. Fionn quite justifiably pursues them.
  7. Aonghus Og makes peace, but Fionn still bears a grudge (understandable).
  8. Fionn tries to keep Diarmuid from going on the boar hunt by telling him about the divine curse.
  9. Diarmuid ignores the warning (hubris, a classic tragic flaw) and is gored by the magical boar.
  10. Fionn’s grudge and the curse combine and Diarmuid dies.
  11. In some versions of the story, Gráinne forgives Fionn and ends up back with him.  If she was under an enchantment (from the “love spot”) all along, this makes a lot more sense.

Stripped of all the nonsense, this is a compelling and heartrending story, and works much better as a myth.  It’s not a happy story, but that’s not what myths are for.

And what’s with the title?

I’ve been working on building a devotional relationship with the Irish divine hero/demigod Fionn Mac Cumhaill (more on this later). I discovered his tales many years ago; some time after that he inspired me to write several poems about him and his Fianna.  I think this one is my best; it’s about how he gained his great wisdom, and it’s also the title of my book.

Salmon-wisdom

It all falls away- the crackle and smoke;
The sizzle, smell of his master’s dinner done;
Bright burnt pain, slow to fade- they remain,
Yet dim, as the faint sweet flavor evolves
Upon his tongue, revolves within his brain;
Taste to sight to sound to thrill along his nerves.
Unasked-for lightning, lancing, opens doors,
Sends wheels of light to dance before his eyes;
And before he falls into a well of words, music,
Birdsongs given meaning, a last ironic thought:
From now on he’d look a proper fool,
Thumbsucking to gather his wits about him!
The imbas shatters into him and all the world
Is swirl and spiral, like jeweler’s craft in lines
And zones of light.  All interlinked, entwined;
Held gently cupped in Danu’s hand, tended
By her children.  Just long enough the vision stays,
Then it, too, draws back, enveils itself
Before the head that holds it fails.
The world returns and everything’s the same;
Nothing’s the same- behind the stone, the tree
The rushing of the stream, there is light and song;
And flowing in the bottom of his mind-
Cool water laced with subtle savor
Of hazelnuts- the words swim, waiting.

2/3/1999