The Problem of Irish ‘Textual Omelettes’

The problem of Irish “textual omelettes”1

Excerpt from the Lebor na hUidre by

Excerpt from the Lebor na hUidre by “Sean”

In the forms that we have them now, the majority of Irish literature dates to around the twelfth century AD. Although the process of writing down the literature began sometime around the late sixth or early seventh century, the passage of time and more direct factors like Viking raiders and other external influences down the centuries have all contributed to there being very little direct evidence remaining from the earliest Christian times.2

While there is a common belief that the myths and legends of Ireland were transmitted orally and faithfully for a long time during the pre-Christian era – and even thereafter – it cannot be ignored the majority of tales were written down (and often rewritten) after Christianity came to Ireland. This means that there is a very large gap between the time of “pagan Ireland,” which ended around the mid-fifth century AD – and the time that the majority of tales were recorded in their most definitive form.

For a long time Celtic scholars accepted the idea that Irish mythology was a very conservative tradition, and that, for example, “the remarkable affection of the Celts in Ireland for their pre-Christian past allowed them, without compromising their newly won faith, to preserve something of their pagan tradition.”3 Along with this idea of the Irish people’s affection for their pagan past and their keenness to conserve it is the idea that where elements of Christianity have crept into the tales, they are easy to remove – effectively allowing scholars to “strip” the tale back to its purer, pagan roots.

More recently, some Celtic scholars have questioned these ideas, arguing that it cannot be so simple. While it is true that there are often very obvious Christian elements to be found in the myths, there may also be elements that are more ambiguous, suggesting either a pagan or Christian influence to the content of the tale. And it’s not just Christianity that seems to have influenced the myths; Classical literature like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid may also have had some influence in Irish myth, particularly in the case of Cú Chulainn’s role in the Táin Bo Cuailnge.4

These two very directly opposing views are worth exploring. Can Irish myths really be said to preserve a purely pagan tradition? If not, how does that affect the way in which we view the myths as evidence of Irish pre-Christian belief?

Given the evidence we have to hand, it seems likely that most, if not all, of the literature recorded during the early medieval period was the work of monks rather than the professional bards and poets of Ireland. While it seems that the Irish did have a remarkable affection for their pre-Christian myths – enough to record them, at least – it seems that at least some of the men who were charged with the task of writing them out were a little critical, disapproving, or even embarrassed, to be dealing with such subjects. From the Táin Bó Cúaligne, one scribe stated:

“But I who have written this history, or rather story, do not give faith to many of the things in this history or story. For some things therein are delusions of the demons, some things are poetic figments, some are like the truth and some are not, and some are for the amusement of fools!”5

Other scribes were more sympathetic to the subject and characters involved. Referring to the Tuatha Dé Danann, one scribe in the twelfth century manuscript the Book of the Dun Cow says: “…it seems likely to them [the learned people of Ireland] that they came from heaven on account of their intelligence and for the excellence of their knowledge.”6 Another scribe, writing a century earlier, is quick to point out that “though he enumerates them [the Tuatha Dé Danann], he does not worship them.”7 This gives us the impression, then, that while some scribes may have had a hard time dealing with the decidedly unChristian nature of many of the tales, others regarded them with a more open mind, and we might therefore assume that at least some of the scribes tried to record the tales more faithfully than others.

The tales as they survive today generally seem to have been copied from earlier monastic manuscripts (as opposed to having been recorded from memory or oral recital), perhaps in an effort to preserve the contents of these older manuscripts which were not going to survive much longer. It can be seen from the way the language changes through time that certain parts of text in the manuscripts have been copied more faithfully, because more archaic Irish words are used, whereas in other places it can be seen to be much more modern.

This may be the product of several factors at play. While the monks spent a lot of time faithfully reproducing copies of the Old and New Testaments, it is inevitable that mistakes will happen. In the case of Biblical passages, mistakes were not tolerated and pages would be scrapped if any were found. Such standards may not have been so stringently applied to non-Biblical texts, such as the myths and legends, resulting in subtle changes happening. A monk spending most of his day copying texts might find it easier to simply copy a passage verbatim, whereas other monks, fresher in mind and hand, might make an effort to update the passages they are copying, perhaps adding more narrative and fleshing out characters.

The Táin is one example of this, with two narrative versions in existence, the later version of which is more developed in style and plot (but also more disorganised and rambling in terms of plot development). However, much earlier than these is a poetic version, probably dating from as early as the seventh century, based on linguistic evidence. This has no mention of Cú Chulainn at all, and focuses on the relationship between Medb and the exiled Ulsterman Fergus who Conchobar had previously gained the kingship of Ulster from by means of a trick. Whether this is simply a different, localised version of the tale, or a more “original” version before Cú Chulainn was added in is difficult to say. Some scholars have suggested that Cú Chulainn was a later addition to the tale to give some sort of Irish hero on a par with Hercules.

In addition to all this, not all of the surviving versions of tales and stories we have are necessarily copied from a single earlier source. Often it can be seen that two or more manuscripts were being used to be collated into one single document, perhaps in an effort to create a ‘definitive’ version of a tale. Furthermore, more overt embellishments and changes might have been made that were more religiously or politically motivated to accommodate changing values, morals and ideologies. In this regard, some of the tales in the Ulster cycle don’t always portray the Ulaid in a very positive light, suggesting that they may have originated from outside of Ulster (e.g. Leinster or Connacht), or else the bias of the scribe affected the telling of the tale.

Any changes to the myths could therefore be motivated simply by the personal taste of the scribe himself, the fact that he had the difficult task of trying to reconcile two or more documents that might contain contradictory information, or due to wider political or religious factors. This serves to give the impression that as the texts were copied and recopied, it might be safe to assume that as time goes by they become more diluted in form from the “original” pre-Christian version. Since we don’t know anything about the motives of the original scribes who recorded the earliest manuscripts that were then copied later, and neither do we know for sure the motives or even learning of the later scribes, this position is difficult to maintain. What one scribe left out, another scribe could have put back in at a later date based on his knowledge of oral tradition.

All of this brings us back to the idea of Kim McCone’s “textual omlettes” – tales that are so mixed up the original “ingredients” cannot be clearly and comprehensively identified. One example is the tale Aided Conchobar (“The Death of Conchobar”), of which four versions are known to exist. Each version differs slightly, mainly showing varying degrees of Christianisation, and on the face of it, by looking at each version we can at least see what might be the more authentic parts of the tale, and what are obviously later additions. The four versions are usually named A, B, C and D respectively.

Version A goes into the most detail, telling of how a great warrior of the Connacht, Mesgegra, was killed and how his brain was mixed with lime to make a trophy. The “troublesome pest” Cet connived to lure Conchobar away from the rest of his warriors by way of encouraging the women to beseech Conchobar to come and show off his beautiful form to them. As he did so, Cet slung the brain of Mesgegra at Conchobar and it became lodged in Conchobar’s skull. By law this should have meant that Conchobar would stand down as king, since the brain could not be safely removed, and therefore constituted a physical blemish. No man who was physically blemished was considered fit to be king.

His people so loved him, however, that they elected to keep Conchobar as their king, and it was declared that Conchobar could live with Mesgegra’s brain provided he didn’t get up to anything too exciting – no war, no play, no sex. However, upon hearing the news of Jesus’ death from a druid, Conchobar became outraged (or mad) and the brain exploded from his head as a result. And so it was said that Conchobar became the first pagan in Ireland to be baptised (in his own blood) and go to heaven.

Versions B and C focus purely on events surrounding the revelation that Jesus has been crucified, whereas version D also starts with mention of Jesus, but then go on to refer to events that happened in version A, which might be considered to be the most authentic version. In all versions there is clearly a strong Christian element – the crucifixion of Jesus – but other elements, such as the issue of whether Conchobar should stand down, and the foretelling of Conchobar’s downfall by the death of his fool (jester – who often act as the king’s alter ego in tales and foreshadow disaster or death), are clearly pagan elements that relate to the king’s intimate relationship with his land.

One of the most troubling aspects of these different versions is that according to mythological tradition, Conchobar should not have been allowed to remain king since his physical well-being was believed to be so closely linked with the land. Effectively, if he became blemished, the land would suffer, and so according to the law he was required to stand down – as Nuadu of the Tuatha Dé Danann did when he lost his arm during the First Battle of Mag Tured. It was not just a case of standing down for the greater good of his people, but the very fact that he had been blemished in the first place would have suggested that he had somehow lost his right to rule in the first place. While the fact that he died is consistent with other tales where a king has ruled wrongfully, it is not consistent that it took so long and with so little disaster, and nor is the cause of his death (essentially at the hands of God). What we may be seeing here, then, is the use of a common pagan motif such as the ideals of kingship, in order to promote the idea that ‘our ancestors were just good Christians without even knowing it.’ It is, after all, a druid who brings the news to Conchobar.

Another example of the problem of textual omelettes we can look at is the Lebor Gabála Érenn (“Book of Invasions”). In one respect the very obvious Biblical themes of the Book of Invasions could be seen as an Irish way of reconciling their own mythology, and heritage, with Christianity and the Bible. Unfortunately, this has resulted in any sort of pagan origin myth being lost, if such a myth existed.

While some elements of the Lebor Gabála are obviously Christian, other elements are harder to interpret. For example, the Lebor Gabala outlines several different waves of settlers in Ireland, at least one of which is clearly based on Irish deities (i.e. The Tuatha Dé Danann). But does this mean all of the other settlers were part of any origin myth (or myths) and therefore pagan in origin, or were they added for purely Christian purposes?

To the Irish, ancestors were extremely important; your ancestors could give you a better social status, for example, and this is an element that crops up frequently in the Dindshenchas tales (“Placename folklore”) where mythological characters and historical characters are often said to be related to each other. As Christians, then, it was only natural that the Irish were keen to relate themselves back to Biblical figures like Noah, one of God’s chosen, or in certain circumstances, members of the Tuatha Dé Danann themselves. Where no actual relationship existed, the Irish weren’t shy in making one up retrospectively.

In the Book of Invasions the leader of the first wave of invaders, Cessair, is said to be the granddaughter of the Biblical Noah. Not much detail is given about Cessair and her people compared to the later invaders who settled in Ireland, although some interesting lore relating to the sole survivor of the Flood (out of all of Cessair’s people) offers some more food for thought. Fintan mac Bochra was one of only three men who arrived with Cessair and 50 other women, and the Book of Invasions tells us that he took 17 wives including Cessair herself (he was obviously a very busy boy, then). The tale Airne Fingen (“The Nightwatch of Fingen”) tells of how he survived the Flood and was put to sleep for several centuries, during which time he gained the knowledge and wisdom of the history of Ireland. He was also reputed to be a great poet and prophet.8

It has been suggested that Cessair’s people were invented by the medieval monks who compiled the Lebor Gabála, to create a total of six races who came to Ireland in order to correspond with the six ages of the world that can be found in Biblical doctrine.9 The fact that the Historia Brittonum by Nennius, probably dating to the early ninth century (and therefore earlier than the Lebor Gabála), mentions only Parthalon, Nemed and the Milesians (and by inference the Tuatha Dé Danann) would support this theory on the face of it.

In addition, the comparative lack of detail about Cessair and her people would support the argument for their late arrival into the framework of settlers, rather than accidental omission by Nennius, and the mention of them being settlers pre-Flood, specifically, helps to reaffirm a Biblical context for the story. Perhaps Fintan’s explicit associations with Noah – he is said to be his grandson, and is also said to have married Cessair, Noah’s granddaughter – helps put the trade of the filid, the poets of Ireland who are commonly perceived to have been the preservers of pagan lore in Christian times, into a more acceptably Christian context.

Another example of Christian influences affecting Irish myth would be the Sons of Míl, who were said to have originally come from Egypt and were exiled and settled in Spain for a while before coming to Ireland – reminiscent of the exile of Moses, in a peculiarly Irish way, one could say. And also a neat way to trace Irish origin back to the Biblical lands – making them one of the (unofficial) tribes of God, maybe.

These are not the only examples of ambiguous or problematical tales with Irish literature; there are many more that present problems of their own, and so here the intention is to simply raise some of the more common problems and questions associated with them. In identifying pagan elements within tales, then, considering the stories within a wider context and comparing them with other myths is essential in order to gain an understanding of what may or may not be ‘authentic’.

The main themes that are most relevant to reconstructionists have already been dealt with in the previous article Irish myth: An overview, but it is important to realise just how much of a profound effect that the people who recorded the myths, and therefore Christianity, has had on the myths. While this may make for a rather depressing read, it is an important consideration nonetheless.


1 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 1990, p54.

2 Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, 1970, p15. See Early Medieval Ireland by Daibhi Ó Cróinín for the effects coming of Christianity and Vikings on Irish society, for example.

3 Chadwick, The Celts, 1971, p172.

4 Kim McCone is probably the most influential proponent of this stance. See Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present (Maynooth, 1990).

5 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p24.

6 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p30.

7 Ibid. And yet, as Kim McCone points out, even the TDD’s persona may have been given a more Christian-friendly makeover by being commonly referred to as the Tuatha Dé, which could be rendered “People of God”.

8 Enright, The Sutton Hoo Sceptre, 2006, p97.

9 Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, 1949, p3.