Serpents and dragons in Irish mythology

“… No country in Europe is so associated with the Serpent as Ireland, and none has so many myths and legends connected with the same… “ Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions – James Bonwick, 1894.

Dragons and great serpents are common themes in the mythology of countries across the world, but their roles and meaning appear to differ depending upon the region concerned. In ancient Europe, serpents (the precursors of the more oriental ‘dragons’) were connected to the chthonic otherworld and underworld, and hence to ideas of decay – the earthy beginnings from which new life grows and the diseases and poisons which caused things to return to that state (i.e. – that process called ‘putrefaction’). They were linked to meres and marshes whose mass of rotting vegetation and sourness was a metaphor for death itself. That such marshy areas were filled with tiny worms, eels and wriggling creatures must have proved evidence that the serpentine and the decaying were linked – just as maggots appear to colonise rotting flesh and intestinal worms fill the excrement of most living creatures. This earth, the dung of animals and all manner of rotting vegetation – be it from the sea or the land – was a potent source of chthonic fertility and regeneration, and therefore wealth: a characteristic resplendent in mythological dragons.

J.R.R.Tolkein 'Conversation with Smaug' (1937)

J.R.R.Tolkein ‘Conversation with Smaug’ (1937)

This ploutic (from ‘Ploutos’ or Hades: Greek god of chthonic wealth) treasure-guarding aspect of serpents and dragons is a feature of the north European mythologies, such as the legends of Sigurd/Siegfried and the Norse peoples. However, the monstrous serpents faced by mythological  ancient Greek heroes such as Hercules, Jason and Perseus also guarded treasures: The serpent Ladon, for example, was the guardian of the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides – on an island far to the west, near the setting sun and the realms of Cronos at the limits of Okeanos.

In medieval Irish mythology, such a class of beasts (where actually identifiable as dragons or great worms at all) were more often associated with tales of monstrous peril involving saints and heroes, and were (unsurprisingly) associated with the marshy aquatic realm. Usually referred to by the terns ‘piast’ or ‘péist’ – a ‘pest’ or ‘beast’ – they were often used in christian narratives of the middle ages as dangerous legendary personifications of the Old Order – linked strongly to its religious beliefs connecting water with the underworld or otherworld. Such an example is given in the Middle Irish tales of Acallam na Senórach in which the ancient hero Caeilte supposedly recounts the deeds of the Fianna to St Patrick, and explains that it was once their prerogative to rid the land of serpents and dragons… The narrative of the tale seeks to link such exploits of serpent-expelling with that typically Patrician art:

“…Eochaid Lethderg, King of Leinster, enquired of Caeilte: ‘What cause had Finn and the Fianna that, out of every other monster ye banished out of Ireland, they killed not the reptile we have in the glen of Ros Enaigh?’ Caeilte replied:Their reason was that the creature is the fourth part of Mesgedhra‘s brain, which the earth swallowed there and converted into a monstrous worm.’ …” (Translation: Standish Hayes O’Grady)

Mesgedhra’s brain features in the Ulster Cycle: he was an older king of Leinster killed by Ulster’s hero, Conall Cernach, and his brain was taken and calcined in lime as a gruesome war-trophy (heads were preserved in the Celtic Iron Age as trophies of enemies, although here it may be a bardic narrative allegory). Later, the brain was stolen and used as a weapon by the Connachta warrior Cet mac Mágach, who employed it as a sling-shot against Ulster king Conchobar mac Nessa. This left Conchobar with the brain-stone buried in his head, and it eventually exploded when the wounded Conchobar became angry and (presumably – the mythology is lost) a great worm must have escaped from his cranium… The terrible worm which the Fianna were fain to battle in the Acallam therefore represented a reincarnation of Mesgedhra through the cthonic realms. In the tale, this represented an ancestral blood-feud which the Fianna were loath to disturb. This itself demonstrates a figurative aspect of dragons as an analogy for warfare and vengeance, replete with great danger as well as the chance for enrichment, and potential long-term consequences.

There were in fact many other dragons associated with the tales of Fionn as well as a number of other Irish christian culture-heroes…

In the embattled times following the Flight of the Earls in the early 17thC, Fionn mac Cumhaill was a popular embodiment of the aspirations of Irish Gaeldom: A collection of Fenian lays known as Duanaire Finn was compiled at Louvain (Belgium) in the early 17thC by Aodh Ó Dochartaigh at the behest of exiled Gaelic magnate, Captain Somhairle Mac Domhnaill: A grandson of the renowned northern Gaelic dynast ‘Sorley Boy’, he was fighting the Catholic cause in the continental 30 years war). His wish was evidently to preserve the Fenian traditions among the fading bastions of independent Gaelic culture and power. Of particular interest are his descriptions in the poetic lay known as ‘The Pursuit of Sliabh Druim’ of the dragon-slaying antics of the Fianna:

This tale starts with a description of the Fianna at peace, doing what they love best when not at war: slaughtering game animals. Sliabh Druim provides the scene of their greatest hunting triumph (a veritable ecological disaster) but on progressing on to Lough Cuan, they are accosted by a great péist who announces that he has come from Greece to fight Fionn and his band. Fionn dispatches him, by way of an introduction to a bardic celebration of his history of péist-slaying antics, which in itself reads like a catalogue of Ireland’s loughs, bogs and rivers as it accounts for his slaying of dragons living in Loughs Neagh, Cuillean, Erne, Eiach, Lein, Righ, Sileann, Foyle, Eamhuir, Meilge, Sera, Mask, Laeghaire and Lurgan, as well as river serpents on the Shannon and the Bann, and in a number of glens. It appears that most of Ireland’s waterways and loughs were once well-populated with the reptilian kind, as well as dreadful ‘phantoms’ and ‘cats’ until Fionn had his way with them.

A tympanum from Cormac's Chapel at the Rock of Cashel depicts a Centaur shooting a peist with arrows... Fionn and a dragon?

A tympanum from Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel depicts a Centaur shooting a peist with arrows… Fionn and a dragon?

Indeed, if we look at many of the legends regarding those later culture heroes – the saints of early chrsitian Ireland – we come across a number of significant encounters with ‘beasts’: The Cathach of Inniscathaigh was defeated by St Sennan, and the Bruckee was supposedly defeated at Rath Blatmaic in Co. Clare by St MacCreehy. St Caomhin (Kevin) was supposed to have defeated a beast who lived at Glendalough. The 6thC Saint Patrick, was – like the earlier Fianna – also apocryphally famous for casting ‘snakes’ out of Ireland. Such beasts were often implied to be female in Christian tales: The hagiography of St Senán – Amra Senáin – from the Leaba Brecc manuscript (RIA MS 23 P 16), is quite explicit about the Cathach’s sex. Such tales seem designed to identify beasts, serpents or dragons with the true indigenous religion they were replacing. These saints appear, therefore, to have subsumed the role of Fionn as dragon-slayers!

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier...

A modern replica of the Cashel Crozier…

In christian-era art, the dragon was a recurring theme: The beautiful 13thC Crozier of Cashel (manufactured in or near Limoges, France) depicts an act of serpent-battling, and the hook of the crozier itself depicts a great snake. Another great jewel of medieval Ireland – the Tara Brooch – is decorated with a pin in the shape of tiny serpent, which appears to gnaw upon the jewel’s main body. In spite of the apparent absence of the species Serpentae among Ireland’s native fauna, the ‘serpent’ was, from early times, a well-known symbol in Ireland, as elsewhere in the Atlantic world. Why should this be so?

The 'Tara Brooch' c.700AD.

The ‘Tara Brooch’ c.700AD.

Morphologically, the connection of péists to rivers is easily explained by the serpentine appearance of such streams of water, but Ireland’s interest with serpents doesn’t stop there. In fact, it wasn’t just snakes which might be considered in the class of ‘serpents’ to the ancient mind: Eels, earthworms and any number of wriggling larval creatures and amphibians gave the Irish a ready supply. However, the lack of exemplary reptiles often led to cats, boars, badgers etc taking on the traditional role of the monstrous adversary-guardian for the purposes of mythological tales.

"Why are Herons so-called? Easy to say: They are 'Heros' who kill serpents..." The Greek word for Hero is 'Heron'...

“Why are Herons so-called? Easy to say: They are ‘Heros’ who kill serpents…” The Greek word for Hero is ‘Heron’…

The origin the English word ‘reptile’ is from the ancient Greek class-designator herpeta (sing. herpeton), meaning ‘crawling or creeping animals’. The Latin word ‘serpo‘ (from which we get ‘serpent’) means the same. The study of reptiles and amphibians is thus known by the modern term ‘herpetology’. The ancient class herpeta or serpenta does not necessarily refer only to reptiles and amphibians, but any animal which had a close association with the ground. More specifically, the idea of a ‘serpent’ developed an empirical class-association with worms, maggots, larvae and even ‘serpentine’ fish such as eels – referred to generically by the Latin word vermis, from which the English ‘worm’ is derived. This concordance is indicated by the ancient association between snakes and the power of putrefaction, disease, and gnawing: It is the reason why rats, lice, cockroaches, caterpillars and mice might all be referred to as ‘vermin’. It the reason why ‘wyrm’ was a synonym for dragons as well as snakes in Old English and the Germanic languages, and why gnawing cutaneous fungal infections are still referred to by the English word ‘ringworm’.

The typical ‘péist’ of Irish hagiography – when attributed a sex – was more often than not female. The word péist is usually translated as ‘worm, beast, monster’ (O’Brien), and its variants are peist, piast and biast/biasd – generally employed in the spirit of the ancient Greek and Roman usages: for instance, the Otter was calledbiasd dubhor ‘biasd donn’ in reference to its snaky shape, movement and colour.

The Irish word péist derives from the Latin bestia, meaning ‘beast’. It also connects to the Latin word pestis, meaning either disease, plague, destruction, ruin or death! Other Latin synonyms for ‘beasts’ include ‘Belluae‘ (large fierce animals – possibly after the manner of bulls and stags) and ‘Ferae‘ (large fierce predatory animals). Belluae seems to evoke the idea of war (Bellum), perhaps because armies moved, ate, fought and crapped like a huge animal, and draconine banners and standards were a feature of warfare since ancient times – particularly among the Celtic tribes of SE Europe during the late Iron Age period. The boar replaced the dragon among the NW celts of the same period.

Interestingly, the name for the fungal skin disease ‘ringworm‘ in Middle Irish was ‘frigde’ and in Old Irish ‘frigit’, and in late spoken Manx it was ‘chennney jee‘ (‘teine dé‘, god’s fire – ignis sacer – possibly the dragon’s breath) which by a Joycean ‘commodius vicus of recirculation‘ brings us back to the word and concept of the dragon or the péist, and by a number of associations, to our chthonic mother-goddess, Brigit – she of the sacred flame and the hearth…

The connection between the hearth and the earth is an old one: For starters, the English words are both etymologically linked. It is a place where earth’s produce is burned or prepared to eat – committing it to the recycling forces of nature for another turn. Anciently (and up until fairly recently in many parts of Gaeldom), the domestic hearth was a pit in the ground, so it is no wonder that the hearth and the chthonic otherworld are linked! The hearth fire was a place associated with the spirits of ancestors, and therefore with what became known from the middle-ages as ‘elves’ or ‘fairies’. Dragons attributed with the ability of breathing fire were no doubt a part of this chthonic mythology…

Dragons in the Celtic Iron Age?

There is in fact no evidence to definitively confirm that Celtic peoples of the European Iron Age believed in ‘dragons’. The popular imagination is certainly fired by archaeologists’ descriptions of the ‘dragon scabbards’ (a term popularised by Megaw & Megaw) of the elite Celtic warriors who were so instrumental in warfare during the Hellenistic and late Roman Republican periods. These all have the appearance of serpents or snakes – hardly the chimerical hybrid-forms of ‘dragons’ as we know them, with their aquiline talons, equine heads and wings. Celtic ‘La Tene’ art certainly added a ‘serpentine’ twist to its depiction of all animals, but there are no examples ‘dragons’ in the medieval sense! It is generally accepted that these were later introductions by the migrating warlike Steppes cultures whose peoples and influences flowed into the eastern European parts of the late Roman Empire – Scyhtians, Alans and Huns being examples of such groups. ‘Dragons’ were actually not a ‘Celtic’ phenomenon, but were certainly an influential narrative vehicle used in dealing with pagan themes during Europe’s Christian literary era in the middle-ages. The Viking Edda texts bear witness to this…

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