Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Wars of the Gods: Four, Fomorians and Faeries

They were there first, waiting as the newcomers tried their hand at taking the land from them. Massive, monstrous, having come from beneath the sea or beyond it, the Fomorians waited and held the land for their own. They were the old ones, the ancient, and all the younger gods who came after had to contend with them. Time and again they came and failed, slaughtered or shattered by disease. The invaders left or died, one after another, but always the Fomorians remained and waited. Giants, some called them, with limbs and heads of beasts. Others say they had one eye, one leg and one arm. But we know, for sure, that some were beautiful and all were mighty. They wielded terrible magics and mysterious skills, and from them came the greatest treasure of all the British Isles, the Cauldron of Rebirth - the Grail. 

The Gundestrup Cauldron

In the last three posts I have attempted to make some sense of the conflicts we witness amongst the gods of Ancient Greece and the Norse. The topic closest to my heart, however, is the Celts and it is with them that we face our greatest difficulties. When dealing with the Greek and Norse sources we have access to authentically pagan, or very near pagan, voices. The Greek texts we have are uncorrupted and provide us an honest, if fragmentary, window into the Greek Pagan way of life. The Norse sources, if somewhat more problematic, are still less so than the Celtic. The Norse documents of the Poetic and Younger Eddas, though written after the dominance of Christianity over original Norse Paganism, are nonetheless taken down from authentic pagan traditions and likely derive from a remaining Norse resistance to Christian dominance.

We face a very different circumstance with the Celts. Our best sources all derive from a thoroughly Christian environment. The paganism they depict is a submerged and hidden paganism. The Four Ancient Books of Wales all date from the medieval Christian period in Britain and the Irish texts are no different. These sources undoubtedly derive from truly pagan oral traditions but they are cloaked in Christianity and, frequently, edited and rewritten to make them sympathetic to Christian readers much as the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf was. Through the lens of Christianity, stories of pagan gods become stories of earthly kings. This makes works like the Mabinogion exceptionally enigmatic, bringing it closer to something like the later Arthurian tales (again, pagan stories heavily Christianized) than the Eddas of the Norse. You can get a sense of this difficulty if you imagine the stories of the Norse transformed so that Asgard becomes an actual kingdom somewhere in the north of Europe and Odin becomes an ancient king surrounded by members of his court such as Loki and Thor. Thus gods become heroes and magicians.   

For this reason, in Irish traditions, we hear such absurdities as the settlers of Ireland deriving their heritage from Noah and settling on the island following the great flood. This leaves us with the difficult job of unraveling later additions from the real pagan traditions. It is this odd state of the Celtic texts that, one suspects, inspired the tendency to turn gods into kings and men in other traditions, for example the tendency to read the Norse myths as encapsulating the stories of ancient clan leaders. It is interesting that this tendencies doesn't exist anywhere near as strongly in the Greek context, instead there is the similarly problematic drive to read the Greek Gods as simply personifications of abstract metaphysical principles such as justice or love (a tendency that is doomed from the start to run afoul of the unavoidable reefs of the Greek gods' overpowering personalities and individual idiosyncrasies - they are far too human to be abstracted and far too metaphysical to be turned into historical figures).

Our troubles deepen because we have, at least, two major wars within the Celtic context to contend with. There are, of course, a series of wars against the ancient gods known as the Fomorians in Ireland but our focus should undoubtedly be on the most famous conflict between the Fomorians and the triumphant Tuatha de Danann, who were to become the official gods of the Irish Celts. Then we have the stories derived from the Celts of Wales which are captured, for example, in the Mabinogion and Book of Taliesin. There we find the story of a war between the Welsh Celts and the Irish Celts. But is this to be interpreted as a war between two different groups of Celtic gods? Finally there is, I feel, a third type of war raging within the Celtic traditions. This one is an echo, perhaps, of the original war between the younger gods and the Fomorians and it is played out as a war between the world we know and the Under- or Other-world or, perhaps, between the world of the gods of men and the world of faery.

The Fomorians

The Book of the Taking of Ireland, a medieval history of the island, depicts a series of invasions of Ireland following the great flood. Each invasion meets with the presence of the Fomorians. The heavily Christianized series of invasions is not of interest to us, but what is of interest is the echo of a basic fact: for each of these invading forces Ireland was already occupied by a terrible force of gods from "below" or "beyond" the sea. These ancient gods are a mixed bunch. Frequently they are described as monstrous with the heads, bodies or limbs of animals. They are almost always described as giants. Some of them, however, are said to be beautiful and become part of the accepted pantheon of the Tuatha de Danann. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the fact that they are frequently described as having one arm, one leg and one eye. Some Druids are described in the years long after the wars with the Fomorians as standing on one leg, with one arm behind their back and one eye closed in order to work their enchantments, a clear sign that some of their magic at least derived from Fomorian origins. Perhaps most representative of the Fomorians is their king during the war with the Tuatha de Danann, Balor. Balor was a giant with a single eye in his forehead. That eye brought death to all it looked upon. Indeed his very name is derived from the old words for death and he is usually associated with plague and drought.

It is interesting to note that, while the Fomorians are clearly the oldest inhabitants of Ireland they aren't depicted themselves as native. It seems, indeed, as if Ireland has no native inhabitants in its mythology. The Fomorians are always depicted as coming from elsewhere, whether from under the sea in the richest mythological sense or from over it when people seek to understand them as a historical invading peoples. Frequently, even in defeat, the Fomorians leave Ireland to mysterious islands at sea or lands in the north in order to return later and take Ireland once more. Clearly, then, Fomorians are from beyond  whatever realm we might count amidst the ordinary. This aspect is continued after the Fomorians are defeated by the Tuatha de Danann and many of them are understood to have been exiled to the hollow hills. They are, in other words, forced to live Under-the-World in the same kingdom that would come to be the kingdom of the Faery, a fate that would be shared later by the Tuatha de Danann themselves.

I will dismiss out of hand, whether fairly or not, the proposal that the Fomorians are human invaders from other lands. Instead I will take them to be gods and inquire into their nature. Frequently the conflict between Fomorian and Tuatha de Danann is understood in terms of a conflict between the raw destructive forces of nature on the one hand and the humanized gods of humanity on the other. There is, indeed, something to this understanding as found, for example, in Balor's correspondence with plague and drought.  The Fomorians are also often interpreted in terms of the Titans of Ancient Greek fame. The gods who ruled before the rise of Zeus, specifically his father Chronos along with his siblings, are frequently depicted in terms not dissimilar to the Fomorians. They are giants, monstrous mixtures of man and animal, and frequently have oddities of limbs, for example they have too many. But this leads us back to the mystery of how to interpret the Titans, a matter I have already touched on in a previous post. It isn't wrong to think of the Titans as destructive forces of nature, but it isn't sufficient to think of them this way either. That is why we need to bring into play considerations of gender and, in a more complex way, considerations of the nature of time in order to understand the meaning of the Titans. However, in my opinion all this is an unnecessary detour for now. It is an intellectual weakness to reduce unique cultures to basic frameworks derived from some privileged culture. We can't, in the final consideration, come to understand the Celts by means of the Greeks despite the long and frustrating history of people attempting to do so. We must, then, face the Celts on their own ground and on their own terms.

Our key hint, whereby we might bypass the simplistic reduction of Fomorians to destructive forces of nature, is the fact that they are always and everywhere foreign. Surely nature is not to be understood as foreign to Ireland, even its destructive aspects. To assume so would be to repeat the mistake of stories of a Fall which turned paradise into nature. No, the pagan cultures by and large accepted nature as it was and their gods largely fit into this understanding of nature. But the key aspect of this understanding of nature, for us, is that each of the pagan cultures we have considered include within their understand of nature an idea of the outside. It is this frequently under-appreciated aspect of pagan culture which differentiates paganism from simple nature worship. Despite what is often assumed, pagans had a complex understanding of reality which viewed the nature we experience as an incomplete element frequently disrupted from forces from beyond whether that beyond is Hades, Olympus, Asgard, Vaneheim, Jotunheim or the Celtic hollow hills that hold the doorway to some Other or Under World. To put the point directly, nature is always haunted by the uncanny. In this sense the ordered cosmos is temporary or simply the shallow surface beneath with lurk much more unexpected and uncontrollable forces. The idea of absolute unchanging law is foreign, for this reason, to pagan thought. What order there is, is established or won through struggle and is always fragile.

The Fomorians, then, as foreign divine forces represent not the destructive forces of nature but the forces which cause disruption to nature. They are the uncanny, the unpredictable, the impossible and otherworldly. They are defeated, but only ever temporarily and partially, by the forces of gods more amenable to human life. This, in turn, suggests something interesting about the Druidic penchant for, at times, using Fomorian magic. In doing so they turn from the use of nature's own power to the use of a foreign power in order to disrupt nature. But, to understand this, we need to ask about the rather odd description of the Fomorians.

The Fomorians are giants, but this poses little trouble, as we can understand their gigantic proportions to simply represent power. They are wild mixes of man and beast, a clear depiction perhaps of the unnatural or uncanny aspect of their being. Finally, and most importantly, they are often one armed, one legged and one eyed. This is very specific and, as we will see, arises from time to time in a similarly specific form in Welsh myth. Where the mix of animal and human, like the Greek many limbed Titan's, summons forth images of plurality and wild chaos, the singleness of arm, leg and eye offers something else for our contemplation. At the risk of being literal, might we not presume that we face here a representation of monism in contrast with dualism? In one of the oldest depictions of the uncanny we might presume to see here an order beyond the dualisms of good and evil, life and death. As theologies of nature love to point out, the cosmos can be understood as defined by dualistic couplets in constant interaction. Thus we have Eros and Thanatos, night and day, order and chaos, and so on. But beyond them is another reality that rejects and disrupts these simple couplets. And so one eye sees beyond truth and falsehood or what is and what is not. One arm achieves beyond what is possible and impossible. One leg travels beyond the near and the far, the here and the there. In this regard it is important to notice that the most important gift of the Fomorians to the world, the Cauldron of Rebirth, has the power to turn death into life and life into death. It represents a force beyond, or before, the distinction between the two. As we will see, to take on the power and aspect of the Fomorians can itself place one beyond the distinction between life and death.

Ireland and the Cauldron

What is likely the central story of the Mabinogion intimately involves another war amongst the Celtic gods, this one waged between those inhabiting Wales and those inhabiting Ireland. This was the war waged by Bran the Blessed to save his sister Branwen from the abuse of the leader of Ireland. Branwen, Bran and Mananwyddan were the children of Llyr, the sea god, and Bran was king of the gods in Wales. It is worth noting that the Welsh gods consisted of two major families, the children of Llyr and the Children of Don who is the goddess Danu to the Irish from whom the Tuatha de Danann, or Children of Danu, draw their name. So, the conflict between the Welsh and Irish might be understood in terms of a sublimated war between the children of Llyr and the Tuatha de Danann. Despite this, the relations of the children of Don in Wales seem to get along well with those of Llyr.

The war with Ireland derives from an agreement between the Children of Llyr and Matholwch, leader of the Irish. Matholwch would marry Branwen and an alliance between the Welsh and Irish would be established. Before Matholwch could take Branwen away, however, his horses were butchered by Branwen's jealous half-brother Efnissien. This breach of etiquette had to be mended so Bran gave to Matholwch, along with Branwen's hand, the Cauldron of Rebirth which had the ability to bring the dead back to life.

The Cauldron is one of the classic treasures of Celtic lore and it takes on many aspects. As the Cauldron of Rebirth it would later become the Holy Grail. It can also be seen in the story of Taliesin who is transformed into a great Bard and Shaman through the magical potion Ceridwen brewed within it, a potion through which Taliesin is indeed reborn as a new person with magical powers. The Cauldron came to Bran himself originally by way of Matholwch but its ultimate origins can be traced to the Fomorians. The Cauldron came from two mysterious giants who appeared from beneath a lake in Ireland, undoubtedly from the kingdom beneath the hollow faery hills to which the Fomorians had been exiled. The giant couple, a husband and wife, were granted hospitality by Matholwch but the woman gave birth to a full grown warrior every six weeks and the couple along with their warrior children proved too violent and troublesome for Matholwch to tolerate. He attempted to kill them by locking them in a massive house of iron which was heated from without. This failed to kill the couple and they went, instead, to Wales where Bran offered them hospitality and set their children to work in fortifying his kingdom. In return for his hospitality the couple gave Bran the Cauldron of Rebirth.

We can see, then, that the complex story surrounding Bran's war intimately involves Fomorian magic and the disruptive effects it seems to have on the world around it. Matholwch, duly mollified, leaves Wales with Branwen and the Cauldron. Branwen bears him a son and, following that, Matholwch puts Branwen aside as his wife and sends her to the kitchens as a servant. Using a bird she has taught to speak, Branwen informs Bran of her situation and the enraged brother sets off for Ireland to save his sister and seek retribution for her mistreatment. The story from here involves a series of tricks that Matholwch uses to attempt to kill the mighty Bran and his forces, but the important point for our purposes is that while Bran sidesteps each trick Matholwch uses the Cauldron of Rebirth to bring back his slain warriors and Bran is incapable of overcoming its power. In a gesture of self-sacrifice, however, Branwen's half-brother Efnissien who had caused the disaster to begin with crawls into the Cauldron and by doing so destroys it. Bran, however, is hit by a poison spear. Before the poison can destroy him entirely Bran has his men cut his own head off, and the head continues to live on without its body. During the war in Ireland, however, Bran's rule in Wales has been overthrown by his uncle and his own kingdom is in anarchy. So the Cauldron has brought ruin to both Ireland and Wales. Ultimately, however, Bran's head becomes a constant force of protection for his land and is buried where the Tower of London now stands in order to keep the island from ever falling to a foreign invasion.

Warriors revived through the Cauldron, from the Gundestrup Cauldron
What, then, is this entire drama really about? There are many elements here, but I would like to focus on those that allow us to see a reflection of the war with the Fomorians. Central to the drama is a piece of Fomorian magic and the question of whether the power of the Fomorians can be adequately harnessed towards useful purposes. Bran ends up with the Cauldron because he can put the Fomorian couple and their children to use in building up his own kingdom, a task Matholwch had failed at. Bran, then, has the wisdom to take on Fomorian disruptive magic in a productive way. The destruction of the Cauldron in Ireland ends the presence of the Fomorian power to grant life in death in the world, but notice that this power has transferred back to Bran once more. Though poisoned and beheaded, Bran lives on following his own death as a singular concentration of the Cauldron's Fomorian force. There are, of course, gendered elements to be considered here as well. The Cauldron's original Fomorian owners are graced with an unnatural reproductive power, and the Cauldron leaves Wales along with Branwen as if the Cauldron must always go hand in hand with a Goddess figure of fertility. As in the Greek context, we see here a focus on the power of birth (and rebirth) as an uncanny power with a distinctive disruptive nature. Creation is, after all, always also disruptive. We don't, however, have the time to explore these gendered elements more fully here.

Bran, then, goes from being a god able to harness Fomorian power to a god identified with that power. In order to see more fully how this is, beyond the obvious life-in-death (or existence beyond both) position he comes to occupy, consider the odd form his transformation takes. Where the Fomorians were single limbed, perhaps as a sign of their predating of dualism, Bran is fully dual. In becoming the full incarnation of the Fomorians, however, he losses all limbs. It is as if this sacrifice is necessary for him to fully enter into an identification with Fomorian power. Bran becomes all mind, all sight, all hearing, in transcendence of the body. And so his return to Wales is, at the same time, the return of Fomorian magic to his kingdom. This war, then, is something more of a chess game played for possession of Fomorian magic, a magic destroyed and gained through the sacrifice of the Children of Llyr. It is, I would suggest, this type of chess game for control of Fomorian magic that is the consistent background story of the whole Mabinogion and Welsh myth in general.

The Faery Cold Wars

The place of the Fomorians is well established in Ireland but it is far more submerged in the Welsh context. Where, one wonders, is the conflict between the Fomorians and gods in Wales? As in all the wars amidst the gods, from Greece through the Norse to the Celtic, these battles are as productive as they are destructive. Something of the defeated gods always enters into the new order. When gods fight, the wars seem to always end in a type of new fellowship even if an uneasy one. The Tuatha de Danann married Fomorians, and Bran's power is clearly wed to a uniting with the Fomorians. The tales of the Welsh Celts are not devoid of Fomorian figures, and they most often appear as Otherwordly figures, frequently come forth from the hollow hills and the realm of Faery.

One of the most distinctly Fomorian figures to appear in the Welsh context is the odd god encountered by Cynon and Owein in the Mabinogion. This god was black and larger than any two men. He stood upon a large mound with one eye in his forehead and only one leg. We see here a clear depiction of a Fomorian. This god summons forth all the animals of the wild and they, in turn, do him homage. This figure serves as an otherworldly guide and challenger, a theme that shows up consistently in the Welsh tales. Throughout Welsh mythology the worldly power of gods and kings depends upon complex and often uneasy relationships forged with the forces of the Otherworld. It is from the Otherworld, the land of faery, hidden within the hollow hills that the quests and tests of Arthurian knighthood originate and it is from here that the great treasures of Britain derive. Frequently the oddity of this arrangement is overlooked because the old Welsh tales had turned gods into kings and their families so that the Otherworld challenges and quests are frequently taken to reflect the relations of gods and men. In fact, however, the Otherworld pacts, challenges, riddles and quests are not originally or primarily a concern of men but rather of gods and gods, it reflects the uneasy peace between the Celtic deities and their Fomorian predecessors. The final "war" we encounter, then, is the cold war between the worldly gods and Otherworld land of faery. And so, faery stories depict the ongoing struggle to maintain relations with the ancient Fomorians.

We can find on odd parallel of this in the topic of the Vanir within Norse culture that was discussed in my previous post. The Vanir live in Vaneheim which is also the land of the Light Elves. It has even been theorized that the Vanir are the answer to a odd riddle in Norse mythology. The gods derive from three brothers who first formed the world out of the body of the giant Ymir. One of them is Odin, but the other two seem to have no place in the rest of Norse mythology or, rather, their place has been lost and forgotten. One might speculate, however, that Odin's two brothers give birth to a light and dark strain of other-gods, the Vanir, from whom derive the light and dark elves. This sets up a similar theme of an ancient group of Other Gods from whom originates the world of faeries and elves.

If these ideas are correct then, in the same way that Norse magic derives from a hidden source in the Vanir/Celt as discussed previously, Celtic magic and the power of the gods derives largely from the older hidden strain of the Fomorian-Faery pantheons frequently represented by the King of the Otherworld and leader of the Wild Hunt, Gwynn ap Nudd.     

The Wild Hunt

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