279BC marked the zenith of the Celtic ‘La Tene’ cultural period and the warlike seemingly pan-Celtic ‘Belgic’ religious-cultural movement which had rocked Europe to its core and provided Europe’s first verifiable highly mobile elite mercenary fighting forces. It was the year that combined Celtic (‘Gaulish’) armies, having began an invasion and settlement of the Balkans some years previously, surged down through Macedonia and northern Greece and sacked of the holy city of Delphi – home to the shrine of Apollo and the Pythean Oracle. It was ancient Greece’s most sacred (and wealthy) religious site and was internationally famous. Rumours of fantastical treasure hordes carried off from these conquests back into the Celtic world persisted for centuries afterwards (e.g. ‘The Gold of Tolosa’), and it is highly likely that the stunning victories became the stuff of legends and stories for an even longer period to come. A more interesting aspect of the episode is that it fundamentally changed opinions in the Greek and Roman worlds about Celtic power: The combination of 279BCE with the earlier 4thC BCE sack of Rome by another warlord called Brennus, and the various Punic Wars in which significant Celtic mercenary forces fought for Carthage, ultimately ensured that Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasts were determined to smash independent Celtic power and culture in its seats across western and northern Europe.
It has always intrigued me how tales of this stellar 3rdC BC event might have filtered back to Britain and (in particular) to Ireland, and influenced the medieval story traditions that have survived down to this day. An example I would like to share with you is a story known as Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann (‘The Tragedy of the Sons of Tuireann’), which was translated to English under the name ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuireann’ by Eugene O’Curry and first published in ‘The Atlantis’ (Volume IV, 1863) alongside the equally important ‘Fate of the Children of Lir’.
The earliest surviving manuscript of the tale is of a late period (16th/17thC) and is written in Early Modern Irish. However, the story has some features of great antiquity to it, and the narrative is in the tradition of the ‘Mythological Cycle’ discussing the war between the Fomorians and the Tuatha De Danann: an imaginative and magical period of prehistory. The tale seeks to illustrate the inevitabilty of how acts against gods will ultimately ensure the demise of the proud and vainglorious, and as such mirrors the typical tragedean approach of ancient Greek myths.
The Tragedy, Fate or Violent Death of the Sons of Tuireann:
First, take a look at the story, here at the Celtic Literature Collective website. O’Curry’s translation can be found here, with extra notes.
The story is essentially about a group of three warrior brothers: Brian (the leader), Iuchar and Iucharba . On account of a blood-feud, they kill Cian of the Tuatha De Danann, inviting the wrath of his son – the solar warrior and champion leader of the Tuatha De Danann knights: Lugh Lamhfada (‘Long Arm’).
Lugh sets an erec (compensation fee) that at first seems lenient, but it transpires that Lugh has tricked them, and the warriors must engage in a wild and violent chase across Europe and the Middle East in order to gain what turns out to be the magical treasures of foreign kings, treasures that Lugh will require in order to win the final Battle of Magh Tureadh against the Fomorians. Tuireann’s sons achieve their goal, but ultimately meet their demise in so doing, sealing Lugh’s revenge with blood.
Upon closer analysis, this story shares many features of that of the famous 3rdC BCE invasion of Greece and sacking of Delphi. This episode, which started out as a Celtic attempt to immitate the glory of Alexander of Macedonia, as well as being motivated by greed and envy of the unstable post-Alexandrian state of the Macedonian monarchy and northern Greek alliances. It culminated in an act of religious desecration, which (in the ancient world) whilst seeming daring would have had a number of ominous consequences. The repercussions against Celtic culture (and in particular druidic culture) which were to come would have been interpreted in the light of the these events, and no doubt affected the morality expressed in poetic arts. Even the legends of Sigurd among the Germanic peoples can be interpreted in this same context.
Lugh’s first task, is to have the sons of Tuirenn plunder the apples (of immortality) from the orchard of the Hesperides, which was in ancient times believed to lie at the furthest point to the east in the world-encircling sea (river) of Okeanos. To reach it, Brian and his brothers are forced to borrow Mannanan’s boat ‘Sguabatuinne’ (‘Wave Sweeper’). Once there they take the form of birds in order to steal the apples.
It is obviously a retelling from the myth of Hercules, but with a distinct Celtic twist: the theme of distant islands and birds feature heavily in other perhaps older Irish tales and poems dealing with the Otherworld, including the Legend of St Brendan, and ‘The Voyage of Bran’. It is believed that birds were the souls of the dead, or conducted the souls of the dead to the Celtic Otherworld.
Hercules himself (as well as Pythian Apollo) was depicted on 1stC BC coins minted by Celtic tribes from the great army who settled in the Balkans, these being imitations of Greek Thasos tetradrachms:
It seems that the very act of going east towards the rising sun to seek the apples of immortality was an ideological theme which would have appealed greatly to the Gaulish warriors of Brennus’ army, seeking glorious immortality through heroic acts. In the 1st centuries BC and CE, Roman authors commented upon the fanatical aspects of Gaulish religion (said to have arisen in Britain) and that warriors were motivated to bravery by a belief in future reincarnation. Hercules’ defeat of the serpent Ladon in the garden of the Hesperides seems to be an alternate version of the Delphic myth of Apollo slaying Python. In our Irish tale, the leader of the adventurers is called ‘Brian’, very similar to the name Bran, and also to Brennus. All three means Raven in Celtic languages – the archetypal bird of war, and perhaps a symbol of reincarnating warriors.
After the Hesperides, the next significant target for the sons of Tuireann is the court of the Greek king, ‘Tuis’ (possibly a celticization of ‘Attis’). This seems suspiciously close to the raid on Delphi, particularly as they demand the king’s magical healing pig skin which brings men back to life. Tuis refuses but offers instead to give them as much gold as will fit on the skin, to which they acquiesce, only to whip the skin out from under the king’s nose in the treasury, kill the king and make off. The Gaulish army of 279BC famously killed the Macedonian King, Ptolemy Keraunos, before Brennus’ faction made for Delphi. Apollo (the god of Delphi) was famously a god of healing, and a need for healing is a theme which crops up again and again in Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann.
Next, the brothers go to Persia to obtain the king’s magically potent spear, killing the Persian king into the bargain. This may be a reference to the elements of Brennus’ army who settled in Anatolia and became known as Galatians. They were notorious as making their living as a mercenary fighting force among the Seleucid Kingdoms and were deployed across the middle east, perhaps as far as Persia, in fighting their wars. Another interpretation could be of the spear representing the Gaulish defeat of the Macedonian kingdom, which had in turn defeated the Achaemenid Empire (represented in the Irish tale by the ‘King of Persia’).
After Persia, they go to the King of Sicily (Siguil) posing as mercenaries in order to relieve him of his chariot and team of horses. This seems to be a reference to the Pyrrhic war, which coincided with and continued after the sack of Delphi. It involved the Carthaginians and Greeks fighting over Sicily, and although we cannot be certain that Celtic mercenaries were involved in this conflict, we know that they played a major role in the Second Punic War. Another Delphi-related detail is that one of its treasures was reported to be a large golden image of a god (probably Helios) riding a chariot.
From there, the heroes go to the kingdom of’ ‘Coloman Orda’, which O’Curry translates as ‘Pillars of Gold’. The location of this is less certain, but the Lugh demands the heroes relieve the king of this place of his nine magical regenerating pigs. I would suggest that the kingdom of the Pillars of Gold, well stocked with endless pigs suggests the Iberian peninsula. Iberian and Southern Gaulish support for Carthage was a significant factor in Hannibal’s campaign during the Second Punic War, the Celts of the city of Gades (modern Cadiz) having been ancient trading partners and cultural exchangees of the Phoenicians. The pigs are recognisably similar to the magic pigs owned by Manannan Mac Lir.
The final tasks involve plundering in colder climes among places less easily identified. Ioruaidh – ‘the cold country’ – furnishes them with a hunting dog, and the congregation of women occupying the island of Inis Cenn-fhinne donate a cooking spit. Finally they give three shouts upon a hill in Lochlann (a fjord in Norway?) in order to complete Lugh’s quest, though are grievously wounded by the hill’s guardians. Upon returning to Ireland they die, sealing Lugh’s revenge. These last three tasks imply a diminution in the difficulty faced and a retreat into a colder world, where their adventures finally finish with the Sons of Tuirenn dying merely for standing upon a hill and shouting, maybe just an echo from towering Mount Parnassos and its mighty shrine to the gods. Of all their earlier victories over kings, it seems that the story seeks to trace an almost ignominious end for the warriors…
The story resonates with themes from the late Celtic iron age, tracing the descent of this golden age from the glory and immortality of the attacks on Delphi, the apparent ill-luck and kin-strife of its aftermath leading through the ill-advised mercenary alliances of the Punic Wars and finally to the destruction of independent Celtic power by the conquests of Spain, Gaul, and Britain by the Romans. These events marked the final retreat of independent Celtic power in to the far northern and northwestern climes of Europe. The story of Brennus and that of the Sons of Tuirenn are (like that of Alexander the Great) a warning against vainglory, and the corruption of men by power and money. They are an evocation of the ancient pagan European concept that no manner of power and glory will make you immune from the implacable wrath of the gods when ill-treated.
The role of Lugh in the story:
Lugh Lamhfada appears to be invested in the tale with the attributes and authority of a god, namely Manannan Mac Lir – Lord of the Otherworld. This is expressed by the simple motif of Lugh bearing the arms, armour, steed and legendary boat of the god, and through which he projects his power as chief hero, knight and leader of the cavalry of the Tuatha De Danann. As a youthful representative of Manannan’s otherworld power, Lugh seems here in many ways to embody the power of Apollo, whose shrine was desecrated in 279BC. This role was fulfilled by Thunor/Thor in Germanic paganism, and the name Tuirenn now appears to resonate a little with these, as well as the Gaulish god Taranis. How these might be linguistically linked to a word for thunder (Torran), for a disembodied soul (Taran), or the indo-european rootword from which we get ‘tyrant’ is open to conjecture…
An Early Modern Irish historical interpretation of the story:
The manuscripts of this story date at their earliest to the 16th/17thC, a period when Ireland had been subjected to invasion and settlement by the protestant Tudor and Stuart monarchies of England and Scotland, who were determined to destroy independent Gaelic power and culture, which remained conservatively Roman Catholic in its outlook. In their bids to withstand the invasion, Irish Earls were send out emmisaries across Europe in order to muster support for what would ultimately – like in the story – prove to be a doomed cause. The result was what is known as the ‘Flight of The Earls’. Although probably based on much older traditions, the themes certainly had a contemporary resonance when they were written down in the form we have them today.
Irish literature and storytelling has always retained a mythical ability to address contemporary issues, a feature which is as much a testament to the subtlety of its timeless themes as to the frequent need of Irish people to express their ideas in a form disguised from the depredations of censorship and misunderstanding by church or state.