The Salmon of Wisdom or An Bradan Feasa

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    david poole

      The Salmon of Wisdom or An Bradan Feasa

      I have composed the following story using a variety of different sources and rewritten parts of it in order to make the story flow. I found significant differences within different variations of the story; each version tells this story in a different way. I have tried to bring all of the different variations together in a way which makes sense. I don’t know whether this version of the story is accurate to what it should be; I am mainly trying to tell a story, not to write an essay with this piece.

      The story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill (mac, son of) and the salmon comes from a 12th-century manuscript called The Boyhood Deeds Of Fionn, part of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. Fionn was the leader of a heroic band of warriors and hunters called the Fianna. His story has certain similarities to that of Cúchulainn. These include the warrior/hero story of gaining a name, acquiring a magical weapon and spending time with a mentor. Fionn’s last name means “seer, scholar, sage or poet”, hence his title, “Finn the Seer”. Fionn encounters several mentors during his early career. The poet Finneces shows remarkable generosity and restraint in this story, considering that he had sought the salmon himself for seven years.

      The first people in Ireland were Both, his daughter Caesar, her husband Fintan mac Bóchra (The Wise), Ladhra and some fifty virgins. One day Ladhra left the family behind, then Both died leaving Fintan with Ceasair and the fifty women. This was all too much for Fintan so he left too. Grief caused Ceasair to fall into a deep melancholy and so she died. Not long after this a great flood occurred. Fintan mac Bochra became a salmon and so survived.

      When the waters finally receded Fintan swam up to the Boyne River from the sea, finding a deep pool in which he could recover, the Well of Segais or Tobar Segais. Around this pool grew nine hazel trees with nine nuts filled with all the knowledge of the world. The seasons passed and autumn came. The nuts of wisdom matured and fell into the pool where Fintan was swimming. He devoured each nut as it entered the pool and so gained all of their wisdom. Because of this he became known as An Bradán Feasa or Bradán an Eolais, the Salmon of Knowledge.

      Centuries later the people finally returned. Some of them became aware of the Salmon but no one ever caught it. One day Finneces, a druid poet, came to the Boyne valley to make his home. His dream was that he would be able to catch Fintan and consume him, so gaining all of the salmon’s knowledge.
      A great leader named Cumhaill, head of Clan Bascna and leader of the Fianna, fell in love with Muirne, daughter of Tadg the druid, who lived on Hill of Allen. Tadg’s refused to let Cumhaill take Muirne’s hand in marriage but the couple decided to get together anyway regardless of his wishes. When Tadg heard the news, he was so furious that he went to the King, Conn, who gathered many chiefs and soldiers from Clan Morna to fight Cumhaill for Muirne’s return.

      The two clans met at Cuca, near Castleknock. Cumhaill fought bravely but in spite of this his small army was overpowered and he was killed. The leader of Clan Morna was rewarded with the honor of replacing Cumhaill as head of the Fianna. When Muirne realized her husband had been killed, she returned to her father’s castle on Hill of Allen, but Tadg was still angry with her and banished her from his home.

      Frightened and scared for her safety, Muirne fled to Conn and asked him to take her in, which he did. Not long after, Muirne gave birth to a baby boy – son of Cumhaill – and she called him Demne. Muirne knew Demne would never be safe from Clan of Morna, so she sent the baby to be raised by two of her closest servants, women who knew how to survive in the wilderness. It was with these two women that Demne was raised, deep in the forest in a hidden house of mud and branches.

      Over years, Demne’s carers taught him to be a great hunter and tracker. As he grew older, Demne’s curiosity brought him out of woods into a clearing where other boys his own age were playing hurling on the field. Demne joined the game and proved to be by far the strongest and most skilled player, beating all other boys single-handedly before retreating back into the forest.

      The chieftain’s son was jealous of Demne’s prowess, and next day when he returned to play, he turned all other boys against him and chased him out of the clearing.Demne’s carers knew that his secret identity would be revealed and he would only be safe if he left the forest and traveled south to hide once again from Clan Morna.

      Demne traveled until he reached Kerry and sought refuge with the King of Bantry, but when the King saw the handsome young traveler, he recognized Demne as Cumhaill’s son. The King told him to leave, as he could not protect him, and once more, Demne traveled until he settled with his uncle. Here, he was protected and told stories of his father the great warrior, and of Fianna.
      Demne soon made the decision to take back his birthright as leader of the Fianna by fighting Mac Morna, but he knew first he must become the greatest hunter and wisest poet.

      The story of the salmon begins after Demne has killed the man who killed his father, and generally made Ireland too hot to hold him. (He had killed several other men and boys as well.) Poets, however, were sacrosanct, and so Demne sought immunity that way: There was no other way for him to remain safe unless he took to poetry, for fear of the sons of Urge, and of the sons of Morna.

      Demne eventually became a fine young man, with a very fair appearance. His vengeful grandfather Tadg and the leader of Fianna remained a threat. It was decided that Demne would be placed into the care of the druidess Bodh Mall and her husband Fiscal mac Conchinn, where he would become a student under Finneces the poet. Define bid farewell to Crimall and was sent to the druid’s settlement along the River Boyne. This was considered to be customary in those days, where poets could teach young men the ways of warriors.

      It was because of his vast knowledge that Fionn had been sent to learn from Finneces. Fionn loved to listen to the old man’s wonderful stories and his many words of wisdom which he too, in time, would learn to recite. In exchange for the wisdom Finances would pass on to him Fionn would help about the house, cooking, cleaning and fishing for the old man.

      As well as being renowned for his skills in composing and reciting poetry Finneces knew more about the ways of the world, including the secrets of the birds and animals and plants and stars, than any other man in Ireland. Finneces had been waiting for seven years for a chance to catch and eat the salmon of wisdom, yet he had never been able to do so. For a long time the druids had spoken of the magic of the Well of Segais, and of the salmon which could pass on all knowledge to anyone who might be able to catch and to eat it.

      “What is your name boy?” said Finneces one day.

      “Demne”, he said.

      “No, but Fionn is your name,” said Finneces, “on account of your unusually fair appearance.”

      ‘Is there a way to know everything?’ Fionn asked him. Finneces knew the answer to this, but as he desired the salmon for himself he remained silent.
      Finneces taught Fionn everything which he knew about the druidic arts but never lost the hope that one day he would catch and eat the Salmon of Knowledge for himself. In spite of Finneces’ vast knowledge, he did not know everything and there were times when Fionn’s endless curiosity got the better of him, and he was left unable to answer the young boy’s questions.

      Every day Finneces cast his fishing line into the Boyne in the hope that the fish would be hooked. One day he finally saw the salmon. He tried to avoid looking into its eyes but did do so, and immediately fell fast asleep. Fionn saw what was happening and managed to wake Finances before the salmon could escape. Finneces got Fionn to fetch a cloth and used this to cover his eyes. For hours Finneces struggled and at last, as night was falling, he caught the fish.

      He called Fionn and demanded that the lad set about building a fire with which to cook the fish.

      “Clean and cook the fish but do not taste it”, said Finneces.

      Fionn promised that this would not happen.

      Finneces was thrilled by the discovery which had been made. Not only would he be the wisest druid in Ireland but also the wisest man in the world. Exhausted by everything which had happened Finneces took to his bed.

      Fionn put the salmon on a spit over the fire and started to cook it. After some time it was finally ready so Fionn called Finneces to come. However, by chance some burning fat from the fish spat out onto Fionn’s thumb and he was burned. Fionn immediately stuck his thumb into his mouth. Finneces arrived and straight away recognised that there was something different about young Fionn.

      “Have you eaten any of the salmon, boy?”, demanded Finneces.

      “No,” said Fionn, “I burned my thumb, and put it straight into my mouth.”

      Finneces realised at once that it was not his destiny to receive the wisdom from the salmon, but the destiny of Fionn instead.

      “The salmon was surely given to you to be eaten,” he said. “You have tasted the Salmon of Knowledge; in you the prophecy is fulfilled. You are the one who was meant to gain all the knowledge of the world.’So he offered the salmon to Fionn to eat, which he did, gaining the rest of the knowledge.

      ‘If it was your thumb you first burnt, then place it in your mouth,’ said Finneces. Fionn immediately did so and gained a great sense of awareness of many things. From that time on, whenever Fionn put his thumb into his mouth and sang through teinm laida he would immediately learn of whatever he had been ignorant of.

      “You must go now! There is nothing more I can teach you,” Finneces informed him, “You are destined to become a wise poet, warrior and leader.”
      Fionn learned that there are three things which constitute a poet: teinm laida, imbas forosnai, and tichetul chennai.

      He immediately made the following lay to prove his skill:

      May-day, season surpassing! Splendid is color then. Blackbirds sing a full lay, if there be a slender shaft of day.
      The dust-colored cuckoo calls aloud: Welcome, splendid summer! The bitterness of bad weather is past, the boughs of the wood are a thicket.
      Summer cuts the river down, the swift herd of horses seeks the pool, the long hair of the heather is outspread, the soft white bog-down grows.
      Panic startles the heart of the deer, the smooth sea runs apace-season when ocean sinks asleep-blossom covers the world.
      Bees with puny strength carry a goodly burden, the harvest of blossoms; up the mountain-side kine take with them mud, the ant makes a rich meal.
      The harp of the forest sounds music, the sail gathers-perfect peace. Color has settled on every height, haze on the lake of full waters.
      The corncrake, a strenuous bard, discourses; the lofty virgin waterfall sings a welcome to the warm pool; the talk of the rushes is come.
      Light swallows dart aloft, loud melody reaches round the hill, the soft rich mast buds, the stuttering quagmire rehearses.
      The peat-bog is as the raven’s coat, the loud cuckoo bids welcome, the speckled fish leaps, strong is the bound of the swift warrior.
      Man flourishes, the maiden buds in her fair strong pride; perfect each forest from top to ground, perfect each great stately plain.
      Delightful is the season’s splendor, rough winter has gone, white is every fruitful wood, a joyous peace in summer.
      A flock of birds settles in the midst of meadows; the green field rustles, wherein is a brawling white stream.
      A wild longing is on you to race horses, the ranked host is ranged around:
      A bright shaft has been shot into the land, so that the water-flag is gold beneath it.
      A timorous tiny persistent little fellow sings at the top of his voice, the lark sings clear tidings: surpassing May-day of delicate colors!

      After this night Fionn became the greatest hero among all of the men of Ireland.

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