Scholars seemed to have remained intrigued by similarities between Irish and ancient Greek mythology since the advent of Irish literature in the early medieval period, down to the modern day: The monastic writers of the medieval periods, the brilliant Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh (who titled his 17thC history of Ireland Ogygia after Homer and Plutarch’s mystic isle) to the eccentric Charles Vallancey in the 18thC, and the eccentric and brilliant James Joyce of the 20th – all have been able to draw parallels.
Care needs to be taken in approaching the subject as it was, after all, a hallmark of medieval and early modern Renaissance learning to draw parallels with Europe’s classical ‘golden age’. National histories and mythologies from across Europe have therefore attracted similar comparisons at one time or another. Nevertheless, the Irish mythological landscape bears perhaps the closest resemblance in its content and complexity to that of ancient Greece. The Greek mythology served to illustrate an understanding of the universe by assigning spiritual entities to all of its functions, and in this regard is similar to every other ‘pagan’ system of learning which coded knowledge into an elaborate prosaic, artistic, poetic, dramatic repository of tradition, supported by dialectic traditions.
Fionn mac Cumhaill recurs as one of the key popular figures and vehicles of the ancient Irish traditions. I would like to discuss similarities in function shared by Fionn and his legendary Greek counterpart, Dionysus.
Dionysus (Bacchus) was revered in Europe’s Eastern Mediterranean provinces since the Bronze Age. Although most often characterised as a god of wine and intoxication, a wider reading of his cultural function reveals that he was equally associated with the convocations and group-efforts of human beings. Whether it be feasting or revels, hunting or adventure expeditions, war-bands, public theatre or the large-scale religious rituals and the mystery cults – Dionysus was often the key spiritual figure. His position as an ‘outsider’ to the Olympian tradition (which possibly post-dated him) was incorporated easily into the diversifying and expanding world of the Greek archaic and Hellenic ages. Many of his traditions were supposed to have been related by the poet Orpheus, and it is apparent that we have a number of links here to Ireland’s Fionn legends.
Fionn, like Dionysus, was a troop-leader whose tales are usually related in traditions by his poet-son Oisín or another of his followers. In his legends he feasts, hunts, fights and travels, and – like his counterpart Cuchullain – is often fractious, destructive, sometimes somewhat simple and erratic. Some of the traditions about him (e.g. – ‘Compert Mongan’) deal with his death and reincarnation – similar to Dionysus in the Orphic mysteries. Fionn is also ascribed a semi-divine parentage in some traditions. Dionysus’ Orphic name, Zagreus, is interpreted as meaning ‘hunter’ or ‘capturer’ – perhaps alluding to his underworld/psychopomp functions in the Dionysiac mysteries.
Fionn, as leader of the Fianna can therefore be seen to serve a similar narrative function to Dionysus. His connection to the Sluagh of disincarnate souls has never been made explicit in Gaelic (Atlantic) literature, but a connection between the Fianna and the ‘Fairy Host’ is implicit in regional folklore. Finally, the Isle of Man’s Phynnodderee – a mythological half-man, half-beast who helps householders – shares Fionn’s name and attributes in many Manx folk traditions, which otherwise reference a giant called ‘Finn MacCool’.
The last (but by no means the least) connection to Dionysus/Bacchus is that ‘Fion’ is the Irish word for wine!