Monday 31 October 2022

How Fionn gained Wisdom

A Halloween Tale
Probably one of the most popular tales from the Fenian Cycle is the story of how the great Gaelic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill gained wisdom. Later stories tell of the Salmon of Knowledge in which the young Fionn gained his wisdom by accidentally tasting part of a magical salmon. However, an older version from the 8th century tells a different story:

“Fionn and his men the Fianna were was cooking a pig at Badhamair on the bank of the Siúir river, Cúldubh the son of Ua Birgge came from the sí fort on Femen and snatches it from them. For three nights Cúldubh did this but on the third occasion Fionn chased him to the sí fort on Femen. Fionn kills him with a spear throw as he entered the sí fort, so that he died over there. As Fionn stretched his hand towards him, an Otherworld woman inside, with a wet vessel in her hand after distributing drink just beforehand, tries to shut the door. As she closed the door on the sí fort, and Fionn inserted his finger between the door and the post. Then he put his finger into his mouth. When he took it out again he began to utter an incantation; mystic knowledge illuminated him.”

Other variants of this old tale claim that it was Fionn’s thumb that the door to the Otherworld closed on and he then put it in his mouth. Either way, it is clear that the digit, thumb or finger was the only part of Fionn’s body that entered the Otherworld and therefore the carrier of knowledge. 

Dáithí Ó hÓgáin sees the idea of Fionn entering the Otherworld, a visit to world of the dead at Halloween, as the background to the tale, surviving only obliquely in the older tradition.

In this tale the Otherworld being called Cúldubh (literally “black-haired”) comes out of the cairn (sí fort or sidhe) on Slievenamon, the "mountain of the women". This mountain seems very apt for the tale.

The mountain of Slievenamon rises 2,365 ft out of a plain  known in Old Irish as Mag Femin, or the Plain of Femen. The mountain is steeped in folklore associated with Fionn mac Cumhaill. The remains of prehistoric burial cairns, seen as portals to the Otherworld, are strewn across the summit. One of these ancient burial cairns, with a natural rocky outcrop on its east side, has the appearance of a doorway. This may be where Fionn is said to have trapped his finger in pursuit of Cúldubh.

There is evidence of a ceremonial avenue leading up to the cairn from the east. Another burial cairn and a ruined megalithic tomb are sited on the mountain's north-east shoulder. These burial cairns are known as Síd ar Femin (Sí ar Feimhin, the "fairy mound over Femen") and were seen as the abodes of gods and entrances to the Otherworld.

The Salmon of Knowledge
By the 12th century the old story above seems to have been largely forgotten and replaced by the tale of the Salmon of Knowledge.

A poet named Finnéices (“éices” meaning “seer”, possibly an ancestor of Fionn), commonly called Finnegas, had been on the Bóinn (River Boyne) for seven years seeking the salmon of Féc’s Pool, for it had been prophesied to him that he would eat this fish then nothing would remain unknown to him after that. The young Fionn, known here by the name "Demne", when seven years old was being tutored by this old man to learn the art of poetry.

The salmon itself may have received its wisdom by eating the nuts of hazel trees which had dropped into the Bóinn. The hazel tree is particularly associated with magic and folklore and its nuts were believed to hold concentrated wisdom.

The old man finally caught the salmon he had been waiting for and told Demne to clean and cook it,  warning the young lad that he must not taste it, as he knew that the first one to taste the fish would gain its special knowledge. As Demne was cooking the fish, he burnt his thumb and immediately put it in his mouth to ease the pain. When he took the salmon to Finnegas, the old poet immediately noticed a difference in his young pupil’s face and asked if he had eaten anything of the salmon? Speaking the truth Fionn said that he had not eaten the salmon, but had burnt his thumb and put it to his mouth. Finnegas knew then that Demne had absorbed eternal Knowledge and was to become a great man and he then named him “Fionn” from that point on.

Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, Fionn MacCumhaill: Images of the Gaelic Hero, Gill & Company, Dublin, 1988. 

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Friday 14 October 2022

Where was King Harold Buried?

The Death of the King
On a hilltop 7 miles from Hastings in the early morning of 14 October 1066, two great armies prepared to fight for the throne of England.

The last Anglo Saxon king of England Harold Godwinson, who had been crowned King Harold II just nine months earlier, faced the army of Duke William of Normandy, who believed he was the rightful heir to the throne. By the end of the day thousands lay dead on the battlefield, including Harold, and his two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine, and by Christmas the victorious William would be crowned King of England in London.

Harold and his army had just won a hard-fought battle at Stamford Bridge, near York, where he had defeated another claimant to the English throne, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, on 25 September. This was a decisive victory for the Anglo Saxon army which effectively brought to an end the Viking period in England.

When Harold heard of William’s landing on the south coast he immediately marched his battle-weary army from Stamford Bridge to meet them in the battle for the crown of England near Hastings in East Sussex.

Tradition claims Harold fell after taking an arrow in his eye as depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

However, an early source describes Harold being hacked to death by Norman knights:

"The first, cleaving his breast through the shield with his point, drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood; the second smote off his head below the protection of the helmet and the third pierced the inwards of his belly with his lance; the fourth hewed off his thigh and bore away the severed limb."

At dusk, after some nine hours of ferocious fighting, the battle was finally over, with the death of their king the Anglo Saxon Army disintegrated, the outcome would change the course of English history.

In 1070 Pope Alexander II ordered the Normans to do penance for killing so many people during their conquest of England. The following year William founded an abbey on the site of the battle, which, according to an early tradition, its high altar was placed on the exact spot where Harold’s body had been found. This became known as Battle Abbey.

Where Was King Harold Buried? 
The whereabouts of the remains of King Harold after the battle have become something of a mystery. We would expect to find him buried in Westminster Abbey alongside other Anglo Saxon kings such as his predecessor Edward the Confessor. But we have no grave for Harold.

One story claims the body of the King was found on the battlefield with his two brothers nearby but Harold had been stripped of all his regalia and could not be positively identified. Edith the Fair, his mistress or second wife, came to identify his dismembered body by from 'marks known only to her'.  Yet where his body went from there remains a mystery; there are claims that Edith had responsibility for the burial.

A chronicler says that Harold’s mother Gytha offered William her son’s weight in gold in order to recover the body and give it a Christian burial. But William refused and Harold’s remains were brought to the Duke’s camp and given to a certain William Malet, said to be related to both William and Harold. However, there is no account of what William Malet did with Harold’s remains if he did indeed have responsibility for them after the battle.

The story goes that Duke William did not want Harold’s burial spot to become a shrine for discontented Anglo Saxons and had his remains buried at a secret location. The contemporary writer William of Jumièges claimed that Duke William had the body buried under a cairn on the shore. Other stories claim that William gave Harold a Viking burial, in otherwords he was cremated.

The Waltham Chronicle records two monks who took part in the search for Harold’s mutilated corpse. Waltham Abbey in Essex is a favoured spot for Harold’s burial to where his body was transported in secrecy at the order of Duke William. Edith had a demesne not far from Waltham Abbey and his family owned the local manor, unsurprisingly sources from the 1100s refer to Harold's burial at Waltham Abbey. However, as was fashionable in these times for high status individuals, it is possible that Harold had a 'heart burial' in which his heart was buried at Waltham and a separate location to the rest of their body.

Waltham Abbey Church 

There has been an Anglo Saxon church on the site at Waltham since the 7th century. Harold had received the church as part of the estate of the Anglo-Danish Thegn called Tovi the Proud, which had passed to King Edward the Confessor on Tovi’s death. The 12th century Waltham Chronicle contains the Legend of the Holy Cross which records how, in 1016, a large black marble cross had been found on a hill in Somerset on another of Tovi’s estates and taken to Waltham by an ox-cart. The Holy Cross became an item of veneration and pilgrimage.

Harold rebuilt and lavishly endowed the church, which was re-founded and dedicated in 1060. A tradition claims that Harold’s relationship with Waltham began when as a child he had been miraculously cured of paralysis by the Holy Cross of Waltham.

Harold stopped at Waltham Abbey on his dash south to Hastings following the battle at Stamford Bridge to pray before the Holy Cross but it is claimed that on this occasion the cross bowed down to Harold - an ill omen. His Anglo Saxon army used “the Holy Cross” as their battle cry at Hastings.

It seems any grave memorial to Harold at Waltham was lost and the Holy Cross with it during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the last of the religious houses to close in 1540. The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross is all that remains today and serves as the parish church of the town of Waltham Abbey.

Harold's 'grave stone' at Waltham Abbey

In the 1960’s grave stones, which we see today, were placed on the former site of the High Altar of Waltham Abbey as a memorial to Harold. The inscriptions reads: 

"Harold King of England. Obit 1066" and "This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried 1066".

The Search Continues
In the 1950’s an idea developed that Harold’s body had been moved to Bosham Church at Chichester Harbour on the West Sussex coast. This of course may tie in with William of Jumièges’s claim that Duke William had the Anglo Saxon king buried on the shore.

During work at Bosham Church in 1954 an Anglo Saxon grave was discovered near the chancel close to a grave containing the remains of King Cnut’s 8-year old daughter who had drowned in the nearby river. The head and part of a leg were missing which seemed to match the description of Harold’s death by the Norman knights as above.

 Analysis of the bones in the Anglo Saxon grave at the time suggested someone older than Harold but it does remain a possibility when we consider legends that Harold did not die in the battle of Hastings but lived on to old age.

The 12th century Vita Haroldi, originally kept by Waltham Abbey, claims that Harold left the battlefield alive and went abroad to raise military support to retake the throne. Unsuccessful in raising an army he returned to England and ended his days living as a hermit before dying at St John’s Church in Chester. 

This theory of Harold’s survival was developed further and in 2014 amateur historian Peter Burke had a ground-penetrating geological radar survey carried out at Waltham Abbey to try and locate Harold’s grave. The theory, based on the Vita Haroldi, argues that the king recovered and lived for 40 years after the battle of Hastings before going back to Waltham to die. 

Stratascan, the team that discovered Richard III’s grave two years previously, said the scan was positive and identified an unmarked grave close to markings on an ancient wall in the grounds of Waltham Abbey Church as highlighted by Mr Burke. An application was submitted to English Heritage to exhume the grave believed to be the final resting place of King Harold but has so far been denied.

In 2017 two amateur historians followed Harold’s trail to St Michael's Church, Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, claiming four surviving, intact high status Norman stone coffins in a vault under the church may hold Edith, King Harold and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. Edith is recorded in the Domesday Book as the owner of the Manor of Stortford.

This short piece barely scratches the surface; theories about the whereabouts of the body of Harold abound yet it seems the true story of what happened to the last Anglo Saxon king of England after the battle of Hastings will never be known for certain.

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Sunday 2 October 2022

An Irish Arthur?

Arthurian References in the Irish Annals
In the previous post Evidence for a pre-Nennian Arthur we noted four men of the 6th-7th centuries all bearing the name ‘Arthur’ from Irish Royal families with British connections:

• The first historically attested Irish Arthur is found in the family of Áedán mac Gabráin, king of the Scottish Dál Riata from 573-608 AD. 

• Artuir ap Bicuir 'the Briton' of Strathclyde who killed an Ulster chieftain. The Irish Annals record the death of Mongán mac Fíachnai of Dal Fiatach in Strathclyde in 625,

• Artur, grandfather of Feradach, documented in 697,

• Arthur ap Pedr of Dyfed, grandson of Vortipor (“tyrant of the Demetae” as mentioned by Gildas). This Arthur is mentioned in the Harleian Genealogies and the Irish text The Expulsion of the Deisi.

It has been argued that these four men were named after a peerless warrior, a military superhero who had by that time attracted mythological properties that the native Britons were so in awe of they could not use the name. Clearly no such qualms applied to these Irish families who were seemingly unaware of this great soldier, mighty defender of the Britons and had complete disregard for any reverence of the name. 

Dál Riata 

Mongán mac Fíachnai
The most intriguing of these connections with these “Irish Arthurs” is Artuir ap Bicuir 'the Briton', who killed Mongán with a dragon stone from the sea.1

The Annals of Tigernach (T627.6) records Mongán’s death:

Mongán son of Fiachna Lurgan, stricken with a stone by Artur son of Bicoir Britone died. Whence Bec Boirche said:

Cold is the wind over Islay;
There are warriors in Cantyre,
They will commit a cruel deed therefor,
They will kill Mongán son of Fiachna

This poem by Bec Boirche, a 7th century bard, suggests that Mongán was killed on Islay in a battle against warriors from Kintyre who fought with Artur against the Dal Fiatach of Ulster. Islay may have been a disputed territory at this time.

The account of the death of Mongán mac Fiachnai by a stone dealt by Artur, the son of a British king, is supported in other Irish Annals. An account of the same event is included in Chronicon Scotorum Annal CS625.3

An apparent historical figure Mongán is also a well-known figure in later Irish mythology; tales of Mongán appear in the early 12th century manuscript Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow). He has significant connections with the Otherworld and Manannán mac Lir, the sea god of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

In the tale Scél asa mberar combad hé Find mac Cumaill Mongán (A Story from which it is inferred that Mongán was Finn mac Cumaill) Mongán is also said to be a re-incarnation of Finn, as the title suggests, a character who shares many traits with a pre-Galfridian Arthur of the Britons.

Mongán also appears in Immram Brain the 7th or 8th century text in which Bran mac Febail embarks upon a quest to the Otherworld; The Voyage of Bran. After travelling over the sea for several days Bran and his crew come across Manannán mac Lir in his chariot riding over the sea towards them. Manannán tells them that this may seem like a body of water to them, to him it is an Otherworldly plain. Manannán also foretells the birth of his son as Mongán mac Fiachnai. 

There is more than one copy of Mongán’s conception, Compert Mongáin, in addition to that contained in Lebor na hUidre it is also found in Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin (The Yellow Book of Lecan). The tale of Mongán’s birth bears some remarkable similarities to the conception of Arthur of the Britons in later legend. Here the Irish sea god, Manannán mac Lir, claims that Mongán is his son and was conceived while his father Fíachnae mac Báetáin, king of Dal Fiatach, was away assisting Áedán mac Gabráin on his campaigns in Britain. While Fíachnae is away Manannán takes on his appearance and sleeps with his wife Caíntigern to produce Mongán. Mongán bears the patronymic ‘mac Fiachna’ despite his misattributed paternity. 

The story of King Arthur’s conception as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) has Arthur’s father Uther take on the appearance of Gorlios, Duke of Cornwall, by Merlin’s magic, so that he can enter the castle at Tintagel and sleep with the Duke’s wife Igerna. We can dismiss any possible borrowing from Geoffrey’s later work which was not very popular in Ireland with no Middle Irish translation known, although Latin manuscripts were in circulation. Arthurian literature did not flourish until the late medieval period in Ireland and this does not appear to be influenced by Geoffrey’s work, but more from continental Romance.4

The Arthurian Legend in Ireland
Supporting the apparent disregard for the Arthurian legend is evidenced by the treatment of the Arthuriana in the Lebor Bretnach (LB), the Irish translation of the Historia Brittonum (HB). As we have seen above, the Arthurian legend came late to Ireland; the date for the reception and translation of the HB was proposed as the second half of the 11th century by van Hamel editor of the Lebor Bretnach. Irish Historian Ann Dooley sees the date as slightly earlier, circa 1050.5

Elements of the Arthurian legend did not receive the most attention in the translation, the material apparently not of particular interest to the Irish literati, resulting in the Arthuriana being handled rather carelessly.6

In the Irish version, LB ch.43 the battle list, it simply refers to Arthur who fought with the Britons, omitting his military leader status as “dux bellorum” and the reference to the Kings of Britain. The battles are summarised carelessly except for the religious appeal of the symbolism in the eighth battle at the “fort of Guinneain” in which Arthur carried the image of the Virgin which seemed to attract the attention of the Irish translator.7

The “Miracula” section (Wonders or Marvels of Britain) chapters 44-46 treat the Arthurian material in a similar manner. The tenth marvel refers to the cairn for Arthur’s dog, Cafal without reference to the legendary boar hunt as found in the Latin text of the Historia Brittonum. The eleventh marvel in the Irish version recalls the tomb in the region of Ercing of varying size but without reference to Arthur or his son Amr at all.8

Artur, son of Bicuir the Briton
We find the earliest mention of the Britons of Strathclyde in Irish literature. Beinne Britt, or Beinne the Briton (we find various spellings), led a Strathclyde army at the Battle of Magh Mucruimhe (Cath Maige Mucrama), against the Irish in the middle of the 3rd century. Some Annals date this battle earlier, toward the end of the 2nd century. 

Location  of Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud) 

Cath Maige Mucrama
In the tale Cath Maige Mucrama. Lugaid MacCon of Cork was foster-brother to Eogan son of Aileel Aulom, king of Munster. He and Eogan quarrelled over the possession of a fairy minstrel. They assembled their forces and fought a battle at Cenn Abrat which ended in the defeat of Lugaid. Lugaid went to Alba (North Britain) where he took refuge with the king of that country. This king was grandson of the king of the Britons and son-in-law of the king of the Saxons. He took up Lugaid's cause, and the combined forces of the Britons and Albanachs (North Britons) set out to attack Art MacCon, the king of Ireland. When the two armies met, one of the British detachments was led by Beinne the Briton who is fairly well known in Irish heroic literature. 

From the Annals of the Four Masters:

M195.1 After Art, the son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, had been thirty years in the sovereignty of Ireland, he fell in the battle of Magh Mucruimhe, by Maccon and his foreigners. In the same battle, along with Art, fell also the sons of his sister, Sadhbh, daughter of Conn, namely, the seven sons of Oilioll Olum, who had come with him against Maccon, their brother. Eoghan Mor, Dubhmerchon, Mughcorb, Lughaidh, Eochaidh, Diochorb, and Tadhg, were their names; and Beinne Brit, King of Britain, was he who laid [violent] hands upon them. Beinne was slain by Lughaidh Lagha, in revenge of his relatives….9

In addition to the 9th century tale of Cath Maige Mucrama, Beinne Britt is also mentioned elsewhere in Irish literature: as we have seen he appears in the Irish Annals as the father of the man who killed Mongán, and in the tale of the Battle of Crinna. There is also a passage in the Coir Anmann, a compilation which gives popular etymologies for certain well-known names, that records the "Three Fothads" who were the offspring of Lugaid Maccon and Fuiche the daughter of Beinne Brit, king of Britain.10

However, as a king from the early medieval kingdom of Strathclyde (Ystrad Clud) he is noticeably absent from the early king lists, although it must be admitted the early years are not good, yet Gaelic storytellers claim him as an ancestor of MacCailín, the Gaelic style of the Duke of Argyll. Clearly a Strathclyde king who fought at Cath Maige Mucrama in the 2nd or 3rd century cannot be the same as the father of the man who killed Mongán in the 7th century; were there two kings called Beinne Britt, or was this a title rather than a personal name?

In the Agallamh na Senorach (AnS -Tales of the Elders of Ireland), an early 13th century compendium of Fenian tales, there is a tale of Artuir, son of Benne Brit, here a member of the Fian, the band of Finn, in a tale in which he stole three of Finn's hounds and took them across to Britain:

“Artuir, son of Benne of the Britons, was at that time a member of the Fian with a retinue of twenty-seven. Finn had arranged a hunt on Benn Etair and the hounds let loose. Finn sat at Carn in Feinneda (The cairn of the Fian-warrior) between Howth and the sea. Artuir was positioned on the coast, between the hunt and the sea to prevent the quarry swimming away. While he was at the edge of the water he saw three of Finn's hounds, Bran, Sceolaing and Adnuall and decided on a plan. He and his twenty-seven companions would cross the sea and take the three hounds with them to their own land. Executing the plan they landed at the estuary of the Sandy Shoal in the territory of the Britons. They then went to the Mountain of Lodan, son of Lir, and hunted there.

"After the hunt, the Fian found three of Finn's hounds were missing. He ordered three companies of the Fian to carry out a search but the hounds were not found. Finn washed his face then put his thumb under his Tooth of Wisdom so that the truth would appear to him.

"It was Artuir, son of the King of the Britons" he said. Nine men were chosen to go after them. They found Artuir sitting on his hunting mound, they captured him and killed all of his twenty-seven companions. They returned across the water to Finn with Artuir, the heads of the twenty-seven men, the three hounds Bran, Sceolaing and Adnuall, and two horses, a stallion and a mare, from these stock have come all the horses of the Fian. Artuir remained Finn's warrior till the day he died."11

The late arrival of the Arthurian legend in Ireland would explain why there was no reason why the use of the name should hold any prohibitions for the Irish immigrants of the 6th-7th centuries. The poor treatment of Arthuriana in the Irish version of the HB and the disregard for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work clearly demonstrates that Arthur of the Britons did not hold any great interest for the Irish storytellers. This only too well demonstrated by the tale in Agallamh na Senorach   in which Arthur is subservient to Finn. Thus, there is no reason why these Irish families would not have used the name; they were probably not aware of the Arthur of the Britons until they arrived in the British Isles. There is also the possibility that, on these rare occasions, when they came into contact with stories of this "Great Arthur" they used the name purposefully to demonstrate their military prowess over the local Britons.

Despite the various references to Beinne Brit in Irish Literature, he remains elusive in the British record and attempts to uncover him come to a dead end. We cannot even be certain if Beinne Brit’s son Artuir as mentioned in the AnS is meant to be THE ARTHUR. However, the enigmatic connection between Mongán and Arthur and Finn is suggestive of a tale that binds these three men together and suggests a knowledge of Arthur the Briton before the 9th century Historia Brittonum on both shores of the Irish Sea.

Notes & References
1. Joseph Falaky Nagy, “Arthur and the Irish”, in: Helen Fulton, ed., A Companion to Arthurian Literature, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. pp.117–127.
2. The Annals of Tigernach (T627.6) - Translated by Gearóid Mac Niocaill Electronic edition compiled by Emer Purcell, Donnchadh Ó Corráin. CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College Cork, 2010. 
3. Chronicon Scotorum Annal CS625 - Translated by William M. Hennessy, Gearóid Mac Niocaill, CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork (2003) (2010).
4. Joshua Byron Smith, "The Reception of Geoffrey of Monmouth in Ireland", in Joshua Byron Smith and Georgia Henley editors, A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Brill, 2020, pp.475–476.
5. Ann Dooley, "Arthur of the Irish: A Viable Concept?", in Arthurian Literature XXI: Celtic Arthurian Material, edited by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, DS Brewer, 2004.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Cath Maige Mucrama - Background information - References in the Annals of the Four Masters: Irish Sagas Online 
10. Clark Harris Slover, Early Literary Channels Between Britain and Ireland, Studies in English, 1926, No. 6, pp. 5-52.
11. Ann Dooley, op.cit. Appendix pp.26-28.

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