In the Celtic lore of Ireland, instead of one heroic Light-bringer, legends present a whole race of divinities whose culture and science lay the foundations of civilization and, sooner or later, entice even the most primitive to develop their faculties of spiritual intelligence.
Buried within Ireland's ancient tales of adventure is a wealth of information: accounts, for instance, of man's physical and psychological development, and of how divine kings and heroes, the Tuatha De Danann, came among mortals to teach and uplift. Their instructions and example raised the child race "up on their shoulders," extending its vision and inspiring it with wonder and a reverence for life at all levels. In addition, the Tuatha De Danann gave men "tools" with which they could prosper: their actions, exemplifying morality and justice, set patterns of conduct; their skills, ranging from the domestic to the creative, encouraged the peoples of Erin to develop their potential, and gave them the means of achieving wealth and contentment. (Ancient Ireland was named after Erin, wife of one of the early kings of the Tuatha De Danann.) These skills included those arts of chivalry and warfare that are essential if the forces of ignorance, destruction, and death — within and without — are to be held in abeyance. To this end they brought from the mythical cities in the North four magical talismans: the sword, spear, caldron, and stone of destiny — symbols all of the power and authority that characterize advanced human beings.
Furthermore, according to old Irish manuscripts, these lofty men and women were the inspiration for the founding of and for the teachings given to the worthy at sacred centers like the one reported to have been located in the Boyne county near Tara. It was to these pre-Celtic centers, quite possibly, that later Celtic lore referred when mentioning the "Sidhe-palaces," "Islands," and "Wells of Wisdom," in much the same way as other religions referred to their Mystery Schools as "Gardens of Delight," "Cities," "Trees of Knowledge," and "Subterranean Caves." At these sacred centers, it is believed, the candidates, whether they were kings or druids, bards or brehons, underwent training designed to aid them in controlling and purifying their lower natures and in awakening and developing the spiritual qualities of their souls. Here they received oral instruction in subjects like law and historical lore, mathematics, music, and poetry — all considered interrelated by their scholars.
We may presume they studied the sciences relating to earth and to the celestial spheres, for how else could they understand nature's rhythms of growth and decay, the time to plant and to harvest, unless they knew the seasons of the sun, moon, and stars, and the interplay of their forces? They mastered the wordless language of symbols so as to "speak," mind to mind, across immense distances of time and of space. Sonic individuals passed to higher degrees where, gaining the necessary wisdom and strength, they transcended the confines of human mortality and were able to travel "awake" the journey of the spirit through death, and experience first hand the reality of the inner, superior and inferior realms they had studied in theory. Possibly it was to these inner worlds their poets referred when writing of the "islands" where:
Pain and treachery are unknown,
So, too are grief, mourning and death,
Disease and infirmity. . . .
The young do not grow old at all . . . — J. Markale, "Ancienne Poesie d'Irlande," Cahiers du Sud, no. 335, p. 27.
Much of this knowledge filtered down through the ages and caused Caesar to write of the Celts: "They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded" (Gallic Wars, Book VI).
Some who thus passed "betwixt and between" the veils of the dream- and the earth-life were unable, or unwilling, to return. The few who did, for the benefit of their people, were called ollam, "master-poets," the equal of kings, and hailed in the quaint figure of the Celts, as Salmon of Wisdom. Other mythologies revere returning initiants as Sons of the Sun, Divine Kings, Trees of Life, and Fishermen.
What were they like, these radiant Tuatha De Danann who had lived in islands at the North of the world learning magic, druidism, sorcery, and wisdom, and who came, it is said, through the sky in dark clouds that blotted the light of the sun to alight on a mountain of Conmaicne Rein?
Some believe they were the mighty builders and magicians of a prehistoric age who left behind treasures of druidic lore and curious megalithic monuments whose cryptic markings still puzzle all but the few initiated into their hidden significance. Ireland's sagas describe them as handsome and delightful, wise, brave, and by far the most gifted in mind and disposition who ever set foot on the island of Erin. Their title adds more: Tuatha De Danann is translated as "the people of the goddess Danu," and as "men of science who were gods," dan here meaning knowledge. These Tuatha De Danann, a people of high esoteric knowledge, are said to have incarnated among mankind, enkindling the fires of rational thought and the latent "hidden" abilities of their higher intelligence, abilities referred to in Celtic fairy tale as second sight, enchantments, illusions, shape-shiftings, bodily transformations, restoring life to the dead, raising winds, mists, tempests, and the like. There are innumerable sagas and songs also which commemorate the Tuatha De who served as the early high kings, as warriors, poets, seers, and as druids whose superior intelligence, inspiration, and magical powers guided the decisions of many a royal court; and who later, as the "fairies," living under the earth in mounds, caves, and "palaces of crystal and gold," perform wonders that defy mortal explanation.
Incidentally, the Tuatha De Danann were not the first divine race to reach Ireland. Before them others had come — possibly to prepare earth and mankind for the awakening of mind. Two of these, the Partholon and Nemed, had come in ships "from other worlds." The race of Partholon found Ireland a barren, treeless, grassless plain — as is man's life when devoid of intellectual gifts and the skills they direct. But during the 300 years of their reign earth blossomed, "stretched and widened" miraculously to accommodate the increasing population, and in response to their labors. For they not only constructed buildings, planted crops, hunted and fished — even cooking for the first time the food that they ate — but they also waged war against the treacherous "not-gods," enemies who personify, possibly, not so much alien forces, but the elements within ourselves and our environment that must constantly be held in control.
The race of Nemed (literally "holy," "sacred") succeeded that of the Partholon and continued endeavors that extended and improved the land and kept the "not-gods" in suppression. Then they too "returned whence they came, or died" — the two acts being considered identic in mythologic parlance. By now Ireland and its native inhabitants were ready to receive the Tuatha De Danann and the talismans they brought from the cities in the North.
From Findias they brought Nuadu's "invincible sword," from whose stroke no one escapes or recovers. It was this same Nuadu who later lost his hand in a battle against the Fir Bolgs, and was forced into abdication because, according to law, no king was permitted to rule who suffered personal blemish. However, his physicians supplied him, first with an artificial silver hand that "moved in all its joints and was as strong and supple" as his own, and then, seven years later when his wrist festered, dug up and rejoined his original hand with skill and enchantment, so that he was whole again and able to reassume the kingship. Nuadu's invincible sword, apparently representing the infallible justice of karmic retribution, became among knights and pilgrims alike the emblem par excellence of justice, courage, and purity of soul. Like man's "will of iron" its blade is wondrously wrought and tempered in the fire of experience, and is able to cut out corruption and sever the knots of personal fears and confusion to liberate the spiritual self.
From the city of Gorias the "Ever-Living," Tuatha De brought Lugh's "terrible lance" which both kills and cures. Evidently it was this lance, suggestive as it is of concentrated, one-pointed thought, that won Lugh the titles "Far Shooter" and "Long-handed," for when drawn in battle it seemingly had a life of its own and sped forth like an arrow of flame to execute his desire. While Lugh is the sun god of Celtic deities, among men he is an omnicompetent hero, as is illustrated in a story that portrays also the high standard of Tuatha attainment and the advantage of developing all sides of one's nature:
Lugh, when a youth, as the legend tells, happened to arrive unexpectedly at the palace of Tara at the very hour when Nuadu and his court were celebrating his restoration to the throne. The gatekeeper, annoyed by the untimely interruption, confronted the youth brusquely demanding to know his name and skill, for only the gifted were admitted to Tara. "I am Lugh, a carpenter," the lad replied. "Sorry," said the guard, closing the door in his face, "we have a carpenter and need no other." "But," Lugh cried out, "I am also a smith, expert in working with gold, bronze, and all other metals." "We have a smith," grumbled the doorkeeper. Not discouraged, Lugh declared that he was also a warrior, a harpist, poet, athlete, historian, physician, and adept in magic and sorcery. As each in turn was dismissed, he added, "Ask your king whether he has one man skilled in each and every art. If he has, I will depart at once."
Nuadu, on receiving the message was delighted, and welcomed the prince to a seat of honor, for he was "a sage in every art." Indeed, Lugh's wisdom and valor soon won him the title, Samildanach, master scholar, warrior, artist, and craftsman.
From the mythical city of Falias the Tuatha De carried forth the prophetic Lia Fail, "Stone of Knowledge," which utters a humanlike cry when touched by the rightful heir to the throne. According to popular belief, this Stone of Fal, of Destiny, was taken to Scotland by an Egyptian princess, Scota, and in 1296 transported by Edward I from Scone to Westminster Abbey where it is said to form part of the Coronation Chair. Irish antiquarians deny this, however, and present evidence that this remarkable relic never left the sanctuary of Tara, near Dublin.
It is interesting that Ireland was once called "The Plain of Fal," and her inhabitants, "Men of Fal," which is in line with the tradition that this land was an ancient center of mystic lore. In this respect one wonders if the prophetic Stone of Fal could have been interpreted by bards of old as representing man's inner voice. And, we wonder, if the similarity between the Celtic legend of the flagstones Blocc and Bluigne, which guard this sacred Lia Fail, and the Greek myth of the Symplegades or Clashing Rocks, is mere coincidence? Or are they, as some assert, elements in the rites of initiation of the Celtic and Greek Mysteries? Like the mighty rocks that open and shut, which Jason and the Argonauts encountered on their voyage, the Celtic flagstones, standing so close together a hand could barely pass sideways between them, prevented the unworthy from approaching the Stone. However, when a deserving candidate advanced, they opened wide to permit his moving on to the Lia Fail, which, with a cry of its own recognized his merit, or was silent. In one interpretation such pairs of stones represent conflicts between mind and emotion, between aggression and submission, that must be resolved before one can pass onwards in safety.
From Murias the gods brought Dagda's "inexhaustible caldron" whose abundance provides sustenance to each according to his tastes and deserts. This vessel was, like the holy grail, a constant source of inspiration and of spiritual rejuvenation. Dagda (literally "the good god") was brother of Lugh and one of the greatest kings of the Tuatha De Danann. Sometimes he was regarded as god of the sky and lord of great knowledge, sometimes as god of the earth who protected particularly corn and milk. His underground sidhe (kingdom) was a bountiful Elysium where death and desire were unknown, where one can hear the melodious tones of his "living harp" which causes the seasons' procession, brings laughter and tears, and that slumber from which one awakens to discover that but a moment has passed, or a lifetime.
Dagda had, it is said, a remarkable wife, Boann, and a daughter, Brigit, who comes the closest of all Celtic deities to being a fire god. She was beloved as a goddess of fire and the hearth, of poetry, music, and healing long before she was Christianized into Saint Brigit, patron of present day Erin. The countless legends regarding these Tuatha De Danann quite obviously cloak mystic facts — wives, and often daughters, are symbols in the East and the West of aspects, or of the forces and powers, of the spirit, or of gods. One story about Dagda's wife Boann from the 12th century Book of Leinster seems to relate closely to the awakening of mind:
There was, the bards relate, one place in old Ireland so sacred that no one, human or divine, was allowed to go near it. For there, hidden by the shade of nine hazel trees was a mysterious well in whose depths lived salmon who, having eaten the crimson nuts that fell from the tree, had gained knowledge of everything in the world. Now Boann, being curious, decided to go to that well — but as she approached, its waters rose to repel her. She ran and escaped, but the waters, having risen to flood and unable to recede, flowed forth as a river, called the Boyne (this well is also described as the source of the Shannon, and also of the seven chief rivers of Ireland), its Salmon of Knowledge destined to swim where it led them. Fortunate is the fisherman, people believe, who finds one of these fish, for a taste of its flesh brings not only universal wisdom but, as it did to the famous Finn mac Coul, the high inspiration of the poet and seer.
We find in this story a Garden of Eden, in the peaceful and forbidden precincts of the well, that signifies the condition of innocence and purity that was man's before his reasoning faculties developed; a sacred well, which represents, as do rivers and lakes, humanity's "other world," unfathomed spiritual potential and access thereto; nine hazel trees, emblems, as trees are in many religions, of cosmic truths; crimson nuts (apples), or those ideas which, when grasped by the courageous, inquiring, and disciplined mind, bring self-conscious awareness, knowledge of the gods, and of good and evil. They bring, in other words, discrimination, one of the most godlike of human qualities: with its application the course of our life is infallibly true, and our rational mind is spiritually illumined.
One appeal of this story, and of the Celts' rich tradition, is the assurance that spiritual teachers, Salmon of Wisdom, have always been present in the "rivers" of life and are available to satisfy our hunger for truth; or, as Platonic philosophers might say, are available to bring to the surface the awakening ideas implanted in the mind of primitive mankind by the gods.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)