Divine Sons: Mongán, Fionn and Cúchulainn

Mongán is a character who appears in medieval Irish myth literature in connection to both Manannán Mac Lir and the Cailleach. This relationship appears in one of the versions of the various Mongán tales found in the manuscript collection known as the ‘Book of Fermoy’ (Royal Irish Academy: MS 23 E 29): ‘Compert Mongáin ocus Serc Duibe-Lácha do Mongán’ (‘The Conception of Mongan and Dub-Lacha’s Love for Mongan’), appended to the story The Voyage of Bran both of which were translated together by Kuno Meyer.

The tale starts with a visit by the Irish King Fiachna Finn to the sick king of ‘Lochlann’ (either Scotland or Scandinavia), Eolgarg Mor, who sends his men to beg the ‘Caillech Dub’ for her magical cow, the flesh of which would heal him. This she agrees to do, on the condition that Fiachna stands surety with his life and honour that Eolgarg will make good. He doesn’t and the Cailleach comes to Fiachna and demands he make war on Lochlann, and he obliges her, although his assault is initially thwarted by Eolgarg who unleashes battalions of deadly poisonous sheep (!) against the Irish, killing many of them. Manannán Mac Lir then appears to Fiachna and gives him a magical hound to defeat the Scots and their deadly sheep, sleeping with Fiachna’s wife into the bargain and conceiving him a magical son called Mongán whom he spirits off to the Otherworld to teach him wizadry and shape-shifting abilities under his fosterage until the boy matures. Meanwhile, Fiachna is killed through the treachery of one of his ambitious retainers and the peace of Ireland is disturbed, so the people of Ulster implore Manannán to restore Mongán, which he eventually does.

To radically shorten the rest of the story to its bare essentials, Mongán then goes around Ireland using his magical abilities to sleep with queens and to induce kings to sleep with the Cailleach by making her appear as a young woman – at one point he even kills her, but true to form she reappears later in the narrative as ‘Cuimne of the Mill’ and seduces the King of Leinster. The tale seems to be a vehicle to demonstrate the power of the Otherworld over that of men – particularly in regard to the choice of sovereigns, which was the traditional role of the Fairy Queen or Cailleach.

The two Otherworld characters of the narrative are the Cailleach and Manannán, and their natures are made clear in the telling of the story: She is both beautiful and ugly, young and old, the decider of fate, and – like the seasons – dies and is reborn. He comes from beyond and shifts his form to influence events. Mongán is his divine son, and begins to function exactly like him in the world of men, causing Manannán to drop out of the plot. He even appears to be the power that transforms the Cailleach from old hag to attractive bride! This ‘loathly lady’ motif recurs often in medieval fairy literature, for instance in Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’.

The Compert Mongáin tale has several slightly different versions in Irish manuscripts which appear to be from different dates, so is therefore possibly important to the canon of recorded pagan belief that Christians needed to be aware of in order to combat the ancient faith. Other tellings even hint that Mongán and Finn Mac Cumhall are one and the same (Mongán’s earthly father was Fiachna Finn), and there is even a suggestion that Manannán and Cailte the warrior (and foster-son of Finn in the Fenian legends) might somehow be related! Wasn’t Mongán himself also the foster-son of Manannán, and then functions as an incarnation of his foster-father in the stories? It is a complex and intriguing tradition dealing with reincarnation, possibly made moreso by scribes who perhaps did not understand the narratives or who wished that listeners would not understand the elements of it…

Mongán functions as a ‘divine son’ – a link between kingship and the otherworld, whose assumption of earthly sovereignty is mirrored by his assumption of his father’s powers. He is identified in one tradition with the magical warrior-adventurer Finn, and the question needs to be asked how this character relates to that of the magical warrior Cúchulainn…

Cuchullain and the Badbh

Cuchullain and the Badbh

Apart from the skilled young trixter-warrior character of Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Finn Mac Cumhall and Cú Chulainn are the two primary magical warrior-adventurers of Gaelic legend: The former is a member of a youthful warrior-hunter band, the Fianna, whose tales are collectively known as the Fenian Cycle. The latter is the erratic warrior-champion of king Conchobar, and the protagonist of the ‘Ulster Cycle’ tales. Both appear to be from different story-telling traditions from literature and orature, yet they seem to share a tantalising similarity which needs to be examined. They combine an essential function that relates to the pagan mythos – one that Christians felt suitably important to record in written form, perhaps fixing a shared tradition of the pre-literate pre-Christian world into two separate strands. Of the two, Finn represents the more mundane whereas Cúchulainn, like Mongán was part-otherworld.

Of greatest interest is the fact that their names contain what appears to be a phonetic link to the Goddess herself – Cumhall (‘Coowal’) and Chulainn (‘Cullin’) can both be interpreted as potential versions of the Cailleach epithet. One piece of folkloric evidence of a possible link comes from a number of traditions which portray Finn as a giant whose attributes cross over with those ascribed elsewhere to the character of the Cailleach, or ‘the Devil’ or other ‘giants’: namely in the creation of landscape features and displays of strength and agility. These appear (to varying degrees, admittedly) to be attempts at obfuscating pagan creation-myths, where different story-characters are employed to cover the tracks of paganism in local legends and story-traditions.

The origin tales and naming of the two heroes given in the more elaborate literary traditions associate their names with mythical male figures. Cúchulainn is supposed to be named after the magical blacksmith whose dog he killed, Finn the son of a leader the fianna of Ireland, and in one of the Mongán stories it is suggested that Finn is Mongán and therefore a creation of old Manannán himself.  Cú Chulainn – like Mongán – is conceived by a ‘god’ or otherworld man who sleeps with an earthly woman, and in the tale ‘Compert Con Culainn’ this is Lug rather than Manannan. Both warriors have an earthly mother…

Another aspect to the clever-strongman-warrior-hunter-ruler archetype tales is – as mentioned – how they relate to popular conceptions and story-traditions. Finn, Mongán or Cúchulainn might (as semi-divine intermediaries at key (pseudo) historical events) help or hinder the work of kings and whole provinces in the high literary tales but in common folktales the character takes on a somewhat different aspect and meaning:

I have already mentioned the function of Finn in particular in relation to folk tales dealing with the shaping of the landscape. These are common to all of the Gaelic language provinces, and have equivalents in the Brythonic regions and further afield. In the Isle of Man, tales were once told of belief in a half-otherworld spirit called Phynnodderee (also known by the species-name Glashtin), who like the Brownie of Scotland and his equivalents elsewhere was a powerful assister of agricultural and household endeavour and well-being. In the remaining, somewhat corrupted folktales about this island fairy-character, there is a surprising degree of story-function plasticity  and confluence of the Phynnodderee with tales of Finn, the Devil and St Patrick, a giant and his wife, the Cailleach and even Manannan. Phynnodderee is a fairy prince cast out of fairyland, a domestic helper, a Wildman who lives in caves in the hills, a strongman who moves giant stones around and performs great feats for farmers, a lover of mortal women, and a fractious and easily-offended friend (you should never offer him clothes). Had the Isle of Man been more warlike in its recent history, he would almost certainly (as happened with Finn in Ireland and Scotland) have been a great warrior too – and was probably the ‘sleeping prince’ living in the ‘Devil’s Den’ alluded to in George Waldron’s 18thC Manx folktales.

4 thoughts on “Divine Sons: Mongán, Fionn and Cúchulainn

  1. Mongán son of Fiachna is one of my favourite characters from early Irish literature simply because he is so damned mysterious. He seems to stand on the threshold between pre-Christian and Christian, prehistory and history. So many of his stories are underpinned by historical facts, real people and real events, yet they are wrapped up in so much that is purely mythic. The stories and poems, the real annalistic entries, make his legend ever fascinating.

    • He is a wonder, is he not? Another king with annalistic provenance who intrigues me is Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin of Connacht. He again spans a period during the christianisation process where the glove is made to fit the hand, and is associated with a Chief Ollam by the name of Seanchán mac Cuairfheartaigh (‘Senchán Torpéist’) who makes a number of appearances in legends spanning the same period: These deal with bardic issues, particularly the Tain (in ‘Tromdámh Guaire’) and the tale of ‘Prull’ in Sanas Cormaic. Senchán actually gets a bit of a rough deal in both tales, and seems to be satirised due to his keeping one foot in the pagan world. Guaire seems to be presented in literature as a model Christian king, and I often think he is the original identity of the Manx hero-king ‘Gorree’ or ‘Orry’, usually interpreted from an eastern perspective as Godred Crovan of the 11thC! Manx ‘Fenian’ legends have Orry as a character with Oisín etc.
      Compared to Guaire, Mongán mac Fiachna has a much wilder set of stories told about his abilities and doesn’t come across as ‘christian’ – even his name seems to be a reference to his magical father. However, those links to Ellan Vannin, Manannán, Finn and the various legendary poets intrigue me even more… I think those famous scribblers at Clonard, Clonmacnoise, Cashel and Iona etc between the 6th and 9th centuries had their work cut out creating some serious legendary pseudo-history in order to try and reconcile the old and the new. In fact, I don’t think the Gael even had ‘high kings’ as an idea until the Romans planted the seed of it among the Britons as a means of federalising them: The continental christian hegemonies down to our current day simply continued this model, pushing it evangelically towards our ‘untamed’ northern and western shores in successive waves over the centuries.

      • Yes, Mongán has something of the “Arthur” about him. Not quite historical, not quite mythical. The references to Fionn are fascinating because they are so damned allusive. Then the tying in to the Eachtra Bhrain mac Feabhail. You get that Tolkienesque impression of untold stories in the background never to to be told.

        I agree, Guaire Aidhne is another one of those liminal 6th and 7th century figures that intrigues.

        On the High Kings or Kings of Ireland it seems that the early scribes took the Rí Teamhrach, the king at Tara and his ritual primacy, and built it up into something more, something avowedly political. No doubt at the behest of their dynastic Uí Néill sponsors. History is written by the victors after all 😉

  2. Another interesting reference to Mongan and Manann(an) can be found in the (?)Early-Modern Scots Gaelic poem ‘Réalta an chruinne Caitir Fhíona’ in which the poet invokes a host of Christian and pagan characters: “… Ciarán Caoimhfhionn, Colam Cille, caomh an fhoireann, Pádraig, Martain, Mongan, Manann, Coman, Coireall…” – pretty fascinating, especially when you realise that ‘Caitir Fhiona’ is NOT ‘St Catherine of Alexandria’… The Gaelic language is pregnant with a million possibilities where modern scholars still stumble in their political quests for literal orthodoxy.

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