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The Legends Of Ancient Eire Post by :robre14 Category :Essays Author :George William Russell Date :October 2011 Read :2359

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The Legends Of Ancient Eire

A Reverend and learned professor in Trinity College, Dublin, a cynic and a humorist, is reported once to have wondered "why the old Irish, having a good religion of their own, did not stick to it?" Living in the "Celtic twilight," and striving to pierce backward into the dawn, reading romance, tradition and history, I have endeavoured to solve something of the mystery of the vast "Celtic phantasmagoria," I can but echoe the professor. In these legends, prodical of enchantment, where Gods, heroes and bright supernatural beings mingle, are at league or war together, I have found not misty but clear traces of that old wisdom-religion once universal. There are indeed no ancient Irish Scriptures I am aware of, but they were not needed. To those who read in the Book of Life, philosophy and scripture are but as blinds over the spiritual vision. But we today-- lost children of the stars--but painfully and indirectly catch glimpses of the bright spheres once our habitations, where we freely came and went. So I will try to tell over again some of these old stories in the light of philosophy spoken later. What was this old wisdom-religion? It was the belief that life is one; that nature is not dead but living; the surface but a veil tremulous with light--lifting that veil hero and sage of old time went outwards into the vast and looked on the original. All that they beheld they once were, and it was again their heritage, for in essence they were one with it--children of Deity. The One gave birth to the many, imagining within itself the heaven of heavens, and the heavens, and spheres more shadowy and dim, growing distant from the light. Through these the Rays ran outward, falling down through many a starry dynasty to dwell in clay. Yet--once God or Angel-- that past remains, and the Ray, returning on itself, may reassume its old vesture, remains, entering as a God into the Ancestral Self. Every real scripture and every ancient myth, to be understood truly, must be understood in this light. God, the angelic hierarchies, the powers divine and infernal, are but names for the mightier Adam in whose image man was made and who is the forgotten Self in humanity. Mystic symbolism is the same the world over, and applying it to the old Celtic romances, phantasy and faeryland are transformed into history and we are reading about the ancient Irish Adepts.

Ireland was known long ago as the Sacred Island. The Gods lived there: for the Tuatha De Dannans who settled in Eire after conquering the gigantic races of Firbolgs and Fomorians (Atlanteans) were called Gods, differing in this respect from the Gods of ancient Greece and India, that they were men who had made themselves Gods by magical or Druidical power. They were preeminently magi become immortal by strength of will and knowledge. Superhuman in power and beauty, they raised themselves above nature; they played with the elements; they moved with ease in the air. We read of one Angus Oge, the master magician of all, sailing invisibly "on the wings of the cool east wind"; the palace of that Angus remains to this day at New Grange, wrought over with symbols of the Astral Fire and the great Serpentine Power. The De Dannans lived in the heart of mountains (crypts for initiation), and today the peasant sometimes sees the enchanted glow from the green hills he believes they still inhabit. Perhaps he believes not foolishly, for, once truly occult, a place is preserved from pollution until the cycle returns, bringing back with it the ancient Gods again.

The cycles of the Gods is followed in Irish tradition by the cycle of the heroes. The Gods still mingled with them and presumably taught them, for many of these heroes are Druids. Fin, the hero of a hundred legends, Cuchullin, Dairmud, Oisin and others are wielders of magical powers. One of the most beautiful of these stories tells of Oisin in Tir-na-noge. Oisin with his companions journeys along by the water's edge. He is singled out by Niam, daughter of Mannanan, king of Tir-na-noge, the land of the Gods. She comes on a white horse across the seas, and mounting with her Oisin travels across the ocean; after warring with a giant Fomor he passes into Tir-na-noge, where for a hundred years he lives with Niam and has all that heart could wish for. But desire for Eire arises within him and returning, he falls off the magic steed, and becomes an old man weary with years. It is purely occult. Oisin, Niam, her white steed, Tir-na-noge, the waters they pass over, are but names which define a little our forgotten being. Within Oisin, the magician, kindles the Ray, the hidden Beauty. Let us call it by what name we will, so that we spare the terms of academic mysticism or psychology. It is the Golden Bird of the Upanishads; the Light that lighteth every man; it is that which the old Hermetists knew as the Fair or the Beautiful--for Niam means beauty; it is the Presence, and when it is upon a man every other tie breaks; he goes alone with It, he is a dying regret, an ever-increasing joy. And so with Oisin, whose weeping companions behold him no more. He mounts the white horse with Niam. It is the same as the white horse of the Apocalypse, whereon one sits called Faithful and True. It is the power on which the Spirit rides. Who is there, thinking, has felt freed for a moment from his prison-house, and looking forth has been blinded by the foam of great seas, or has felt his imagination grow kingly in contemplation--he has known its impelling power; the white horse is impatient of restraint.

As they pass over the waters "they saw many wonderful things on their journey--islands and cities, lime-white mansions, bright greenans and lofty palaces." It is the mirror of heaven and earth, the astral light, in whose glass a myriad illusions arise and fleet before the mystic adventures. Haunt of a false beauty--or rather a veil hung dazzling before the true beauty, only the odour or incense of her breath is blown through these alluring forms. The transition from this to a subtler sphere is indicated. A hornless deer, chased by a white hound with red ears, and a maiden tossing a golden lure, vanishes for ever before a phantom lover. The poet whose imagination has renewed for us the legend has caught the true significance of these hurrying forms:

"The immortal desire of immortals we saw in their eyes and sighed."

"Do not heed these forms!" cried Niam. Compare with this from another source: "Flee from the Hall of Learning, it is dangerous in its perfidious beauty. .... Beware, lest dazzled by illusive radiance thy Soul should linger and be caught in its deceptive light. .... It shines from the jewel of the Great Ensnarer." There are centres in man corresponding to these appearances. They give vision and entrance into a red and dreadful world, where unappeasable desire smites the soul--a dangerous clairvoyence. But in the sphere beyond their power has to be conquered, and here Oisin wars with the giant Fomor. De Dannan and Romorian passed from Eire wrestle still in the invisible world, say the legends. We, too-- would-be mystics--are met on the threshold of diviner spheres by terrible forms embodying the sins of a living past when we misused our spiritual powers in old Atlantean days. These forms must be conquered and so Oisin battles with Fomor and releases the power-- a princess in the story. This fight with the demon must be fought by everyone who would enter the land of the Gods, whether in conscious occult adventure or half-consciously after death, when the strange alchemist Nature separates the subtile from the gross in the soul in this region which Oisin passes through. Tir-na-noge, the land of Niam, is that region the soul lives in when its grosser energies and desires have been subdued, dominated and brought under the control of light; where the Ray of Beauty kindles and illuminates every form which the imagination conceives, and where every form tends to its archetype. It is a real region which has been approached and described by the poets and sages who, at all times, have endeavoured to express something of the higher realities. It is not distant, but exists in earth as the soul within the body, and may be perceived through and along with the surface forms. In a sense it corresponds with the Tibetan Devachan, and in this region Oisin lives for a hundred years, until desire to see Eire once more arises and he parts from Niam. Nor the details of his return, the drowsy land in which he slumbers; how he fell off the white horse and became an old man with the weariness of his hundreds of years upon him--I must refer the reader to the legends. He will read not alone of Oisin, but of many an old hero, who, hailed by the faery (divine) voice, went away to live in the heart of green hills (to be initiated) or to these strange worlds.

Dear children of Eire, not alone to the past but to today belong such destinies. For if we will we can enter the enchanted land. The Golden Age is all about us, and heroic forms and imperishable love. In that mystic light rolled round our hills and valleys hang deed and memories which yet live and inspire. The Gods have not deserted us. Hearing our call they will return. A new cycle is dawning and the sweetness of the morning twilight is in the air. We can breathe it if we will but awaken from our slumber.


In the recently published Story of Early Gaelic Literature, attention is directed to the curious eastern and pantheistic character of some archaic verse. Critics are for ever trying to show how some one particular antique race was the first begetter of religion and mystic symbolism. Perplexed by the identity between the myths and traditions of different countries, they look now here, now there, for the original. But it was not in any land but out of the Christ-Soul of the universe that true wisdom at all times was begotten. Some ignorant peasant, some Jacob Boehme, is pure and aspires, and lo! the God stirs within him and he knows the things that were taught in elder days and by unknown people. Our own land, long ago, had its Initiates in whom the eye of the seer was open. This eye, concealed in the hollow of the brain, is the straight gate and the narrow way through which alone the mortal may pass and behold the immortal. It is now closed in most men. Materialism, sensuality and dogmatic belief have so taken the crown and sceptre from their souls that they enter the golden world no more knowingly--they are outcast of Eden. But the Tuatha De Dannans were more than seers or visionaries. They were magicians--God and man in one. Not alone their thought went out into the vast, but the Power went along with it. This mystic Power is called the Serpentine Fire. It is spiritual, electric, creative. It develops spirally in the ascetic, mounting from centre to centre, from the navel to the heart;* (* "He that believeth on me, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living waters. This spake he of the Spirit."--John, vii, 38) from thence it rises to the head. He is then no more a man but a God; his vision embraces infinitude.

The action of this Power was symbolized in many ways, notably by the passage of the sun through the zodiacal signs * (centres in the psychic body) (* "The twelve signs of the Zodiac are hidden in his body."---Secret Doctrine, II, 619) A stone serpent was found a little while ago in Ireland marked with twelve divisions. The archaic verses alluded to have the same meaning:

"I am the point of the lance of battle.
(The spinal cord, the Sushumna nadi of Indian Psychology.)
I am the God who creates in the head of man the fire of the thought.
Who is it throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
(The meeting of the mortal and the immortal on Mount Meru, the pineal gland.)
Who announces the ages of the moon?
(The activity of the inner astral man.)
Who teaches the place where courses the sun?" (Spirit.)

The Serpentine Power is the couch of the sun, the casket of spirit. Hence the Druids or Magi who had mastered this power were called Serpents. Though St. Patrick is said to have driven the serpents out of Ireland, traces still remain of the serpent wisdom. Lest the interpretation given should seem arbitrary I will trace further explicit references to the third eye. Diarmuid, the hero and darling of so many story-tellers, whose flight with Grania forms one of the most mystic episodes in Celtic romance, is described as having a spot in the centre of his forehead which fascinated whoever gazed. He is called the "Son of the Monarch of Light." He is the Initiate, the twice-born. This divine parentage has the sense in which the words were spoken. "Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again." In the same sense a Druid is described as "full of his God." From the mystic Father descends the Ray, the Child of Light. It is born in man as mind, not reasoning: earthly not sensual, but as the heaven-aspiring, thinking mind. In itself it is of the nature of fire. The man who knows it becomes filled with light, aye, he moves about in light within himself.

The following description of a giant, taken from the story of Diarmuid, refers to still another aspect of our occult nature.

"He has, but one eye only in the fair middle of his black forehead. .... He is, moreover, so skilled in magic that fire could not burn him, water could not drown him, and weapons would not wound him. ...... He is fated not to die until there be struck upon him three blows of the iron club he has. He sleeps in the top of that Quicken tree by night, and he remains at its foot by day to watch it. .... The berries of the tree have the virtues of the trees of faeryland."

The Quicken tree is the network of nerves in the magnetic astral body. Readers of the Upanishads will remember the description of the arteries, thin as a hair split a thousand times, which proceed from the heart, and in which the Ego rests during deep sleep. It has just the same significance in the legend. The meaning will be still better understood by a comparison of the youthful Finn in his encounter with a similar one-eye Titan. There is a most interesting version of this in Curtin's Irish Myths and Folk-Tales. Too long to quote in its entirety, the story runs as follows. Finn meets a giant who carries a salmon in his hand. This Titan has "but one eye as large as the sun in the heavens." He gives the fish to Finn to cook. The moment the giant closed his eye he began to breathe heavily. "Every time he drew breath he dragged Finn, the spit, the salmon, and all the goats to his mouth, and every time drove a breath out of himself he threw them back to the places they were in before." While Finn is cooking the salmon he burns it, and in trying to hide the blister he burns his thumb. To ease the pain he put his thumb between his teeth, and chewed it through to the bone and marrow. He then received the knowledge of all things. He was drawn up the next minute to the giant's eye, and plunged the hot spit (a bar of red-hot iron, says another account) into the eye of the giant. He passes the infuriate giant at the door of the cave something after the fashion of Ulysses, by bringing the flocks out and himself escaping under the fleece of the largest goat or ram.

The meaning of this story, with all its quaint imagery, is not difficult. It is an allegory describing the loss of the third eye. The cave is the body. The fish is a phallic symbol, and the cooking of it refers to the fall of the early ethereal races into generation and eventually into gross sensuality. The synthetic action of the highest spiritual faculty, in which all the powers of man are present, is shown by the manner in which everything in the cave is dragged up to the giant's head. When Finn destroys the eye by plunging into it a bar of red-hot iron, it simply means that the currents started in the generative organs rose up through the spinal cord to the brain, and, acting upon the pineal gland, atrophied or petrified it. The principle of desire is literally the spirit of the metal iron, and a clairvoyent could see these red fires mounting up by the way of the spinal canal to the brain and there smothering any higher feelings. The escape of Finn under the fleece of the ram means that, having destroyed the spiritual eye, he could only use the organ of psychic clairvoyance, which is symbolized here, as in the mysticism of other countries, by the ram.

This symbolism, so grotesque and unmeaning today, was once perfectly lucid and was justified in its application. A clairvoyant could see in the aura of man around every centre the glow, colour and form which gave rise to the antique symbol. One of the Gods is described as "surrounded by a rainbow and fiery dews." Cuchullin, whose hair, dark (blue?) close to the skin, red beyond, and ending in brilliant gold, makes Professor Rhys elaborate him into a solar myth, is an adept who has assimilated the substance of the three worlds, the physical, the psychic and the heavenworld; therefore his hair (aura) shows the three colours. He has the sevenfold vision also, indicated by the seven pupils in his eyes. Volumes of unutterably dreary research, full of a false learning, have been written about these legends. Some try to show that much of the imagery arose from observation of the heavenly bodies and the procession of the seasons. But who of the old bards would have described nature other than as she is? The morning notes of Celtic song breathe the freshness of spring and are full of joy in nature. They could communicate this much better than most of their critics could do. It is only the world within which could not be rendered otherwise than by myth and symbol. We do not need scholarship so much as a little imagination to interpret them. We shall understand the divine initiators of our race by believing in our own divinity. As we nourish the mystic fire, we shall find many things of the early world, which now seem grotesque and unlovely to our eyes, growing full of shadowy and magnificent suggestion. Things that were distant and strange, things abhorrent, the blazing dragons, winged serpents and oceans of fire which affrighted us, are seen as the portals through which the imagination enters a more beautiful, radiant world. The powers we dared not raise our eyes to--heroes, dread deities and awful kings--grow as brothers and gay children around the spirit in its resurrection and ascension. For there is no pathway in the universe which does not pass through man, and no life which is not brother to our life.

--March-April, 1895

(The end)
George William Russell's essay: Legends Of Ancient Eire

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