Pagan mythology evolves in response to the environment which gave birth to it, so it is perhaps unsurprising that mythology along Europe’s Atlantic climes should share much in the way of similarity. In this post, I seek to discuss some of these
Odinn and Manannan:
Legends about Odinn and Manannan demonstrate a number of obvious correlations. They are both wise. They are well-travelled. The look after the souls of those who have passed on. They are rulers of the Otherworld. They possess magical abilities and magical artifacts, which they donate to heroes in stories. They can change their appearance and are shapeshifters. They both ride a magical horse.
Odinn (whose German name Woden means madman) appears to have suffered from episodic bouts of madness or wondering, and although madness is not an explicit theme with Manannan, travel and wondering appears to be. The fact that Manannan appears to have been somewhat conflated with Merlin (who Geoffrey of Monmouth made explicitly unhinged) is of particular interest. He is described as ‘Melinus’ by Geoffrey’s euhemerist colleague-at-arms Jocelyn of Furness, and is also called ‘Merlin’ by early 18thC author George Waldron. Other famously mad tree-dwellers from Irish myth include king ‘Suibne Geilt‘, and from the Fenian mythology the interestingly love-mad Diarmuid Ui Duibne (finally caught hiding in a tree). Diarmuid is paralleled by another Fenian myth with a character who loves Fionn’s intended woman and ‘takes flight’, called Derg Corra . He, like Diarmuid is hunted down by Fionn using his (‘Odinnic’) divinatory power and finally discovered hiding in a tree, seemingly out of his mind. The Eddas refer to Odinn hanging himself from the world tree in order to get divine knowledge, which is a theme linking Fionn to another character from Germanic mythology:
Sigurd and Fionn:
The motif of the dwarf-mentor and the killing and cooking of an otherworld creature is familiar to both the Irish story known as ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ (Irish: Macgnímartha Finn) and the poetic Edda narrative known as the Völsungasaga. In the saga version, Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and gains understanding of the language of birds when he inadvertently licks his finger while roasting Fafnir’s heart for the dwarf Regin who desires this knowledge. In the Fenian version, of course, Fionn is cooking the Salmon of Wisdom for the dwarf-druid Finnegas when he does the same. Both of these tales may represent a narrative theme popular in their day as both written texts have been located to the 12th/13thC, but then again – they may be from an older oral tradition!
Finn, Cuchullain and Thor:
Thor and his battles against giants and monsters are one of the key hero-myths of the Icelandic Eddas. Like the ancient Greek figure of Heracles, he transcends what is normally acheivable in his fight against the forces of chaos. The same role is represented in Irish mythology by the ‘larger than life’ heros Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhaill, although when compared to the Eddas and Greek myths, the overt ‘sacred’ nature of their narrative importance has been obscured by christianisation of their stories.
Wayland, Chullain and the Gobban Saor:
The ‘hero-smith’ narrative is widespread throughout Irish mythology and placenames, yet the legends have suffered (like those of the Cailleach) from significant demotion or erasure during the inscription of the traditional narrative tales of the pagan world. This makes them all the more intriguing! A similar problem seems to exist with the Wayland legends, in fact.
Magical wells returning water from the Otherworld:
The Icelandic Prose Edda and the Irish Dindshenchas texts from the middle ages both contain explicit references to the mysterious flow of rivers to and from the Otherworld. In the Eddaic version (Snorra Edda), the ‘Otherworld’ source of waters is from the antlers of the stag Eikthyrnir who stands over Valhalla, and whose streams flow down to the bottom of the tree into the well Hvergelmir which is the source of all the world’s rivers and nourishes the roots of the tree. In the Irish sources, the Otherworld streams flow back into secret wells in fairy mounds, emerging as the springs originating the Rivers Boyne and Shannon, which themselves flow into the ‘world-river’ which laps on the shores of the Blessed Isles. As well as being an aquatic analogy, these appear to be describing the ancient belief in the transmigration of souls! This is an important aspect of the ancient Atlantic religion.
The Yggdrasil is the great ‘world-tree’ of Icelandic Eddaic mythology, which was based on the ancestral beliefs of the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians etc who settled in Iceland before the advent of Christianity in the Scandinavian world. It represents an abstract effigy of the idea of human generations, and nourishing rivers – roots, trunk, branches and leaves. It also acts as an abode for the metaphorical animals representing this kind of fertility, who are strongly associated with regeneration and rivers by their appearance: stags (with their branching antlers) and serpents (whose bodies mimic the appearance of rivers and who shed their skins and are ‘reborn’). Ireland, being ‘freed’ of serpents by St Patrick, naturally also has a number of serpent legends that deal with the pre-Christian era and during the period of Christianisation, but the imagery of the tree and the river was and is important. The tendency of trees to both depict the shape of and attract lightning, no doubt explains their link to ‘thunder gods’ such as Donar/Thunor/Thor and Roman deities such as Jupiter.
A large number of ‘fairy hills’, stone circles and ‘holy wells’ in Ireland seems to be associated with an ancient thorn tree. The Rowan also has great importance in the Gaelic world (particularly Scotland and the Isle of Man) and one is featured in the Fenian myths as being a sacred possession of a giant called Searbhan in the Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne.
Ireland – like the Germanic regions pillaged by the tree-felling St Boniface – has an history of special trees, and their demise was detailed in the medieval texts. These may be figurative or actual – the truth is (as with the Boniface account) unclear. The great tree at Maigh Adhair was recorded in the Irish annals as a sacred tree associated with the inauguration of Munster clan chiefs: Brian Bóruma and his relatives, in particular. There were others besides, including Bile Tortan, Craeb Daithi and Bile Uisneg,many of which were (like Yggdrasil) ashes…