Saturday, 28 July 2012

Notes: 'The beliefs and mythology of the early Irish, with special reference to the cosmos'

It's been a while since I've done one of these and I'm not about to leave my spot on the sofa here anytime soon, so...Why not?

The Beliefs and Mythology of the Early Irish, With Special Reference to the Cosmos
Fergus Kelly
Astronomy, Cosmology, and Landscape: Proceedings of the Société Eurpéene pour L'Astronomie dans la Culture (2001)

Considering the scope of the title, I was expecting a huge and dense article here, but it's actually quite brief and light on detail or analysis. That's kind of disappointing to me, but as an overview at least it gives pointers to further reading, although it's probably quite telling that most of the references are very old - mostly from the early 1900s to the '60s. This article has the potential to fill a much-needed hole, then.

We begin with a bit of context - the astronomical alignments of many of the pre-Celtic monuments in Ireland, followed by a little commentary from Classical writers about the Gauls and mention of the Coligny calendar. Then we move back to Ireland and the possible cosmological significance of the decorations on the Turoe Stone in Co. Galway. Kelly concludes, "This was clearly an object of religious significance, and may have been associated with fertility." Which may or may not be a polite way of concluding it looks a bit like a penis.

We then move to examining the earliest written sources - evidence from St Patrick's Confessio, hagiographies (biographies of Saint's lives, that is), and legal texts - which mainly deal with the various references to druids. This is followed by looking at the myths, with some consideration of the names of certain deities and their cognates in Britain and Gaul, and noting the similarities between Caesar's comment on various deities covering certain roles, with how some gods like Dian Cécht, Badb (or Bodb), Goibniu and Crédine are said to have done the same.

Next there is a brief discussion of the connection between some supernatural figures and animals, and the observation that some deities are associated with specific localities, followed by mention of the four main festivals associated with the changing of the seasons. This is all well and good so far, but it's nothing that's particularly new or exciting, and nor does it really...go anywhere.

The latter part is perhaps the most interesting, dealing with the connection between astronomy and mythology, as well as astrology. Kelly says: "...the mythical seer Cormac mac Airt is represented as having in his youth been "a listener in the woods and a gazer at the stars." There is a native term mathmarc ("astrologer, augur") of uncertain etymology; it is attested in a text of the ninth century, but may be much earlier. Another Irish word for astrologer is néllaóir, a derivative of néll ("cloud"). Presumably, the shapes of the clouds suggested images from which the future could be foretold. In general, however, the surviving texts indicate that for the early Irish the world of the supernatural was a place to be entered through a fair mound or by passing through a fairy mist. Most frequently, it was represented as an island or group of islands in the Western Ocean. Consequently, we do not find an extensive vocabulary in the Irish language relating to celestial objects." (p169).

Kelly further notes that except for the Milky Way being known as Bóthar na Bó Finne ("the road of the white cow"), there are no known native words for planets or constellations to be found in early Irish texts. Although astronomy was widely studied in monasteries from around the eighth century or so, the names were all derived from Classical sources.

All in all, the article didn't really go in the directions I was anticipating. I was hoping for a bit on cosmogony, assumed there would be mention of the three realms, evidence for a possible cosmological divide between Darkness and Light, how the gods fit in to it all, the concept of the sacred centre, the bile and the omphalos (although the latter was kind of touched on with the Turoe Stone) and so on. Not so much! The stuff on astronomy and astrology is certainly interesting, but being half-way through Mark Williams' Fiery Shapes I'm perhaps a bit spoilt on that front already.