Finn: the judge, the poet, and the king

There are many figures in Irish myth and legend whose names are Finn or Find, or some variation, such as Fintan. Many of these are associated with inspiration and wisdom, and some also tap in the archetypes of the divine child and poet. The name means “fair, bright, white, lustrous, light-hued”, which connects it to Welsh Gwyn and the Gaulish god Vindonnus.

An original Find?

Daithai O hOgain (208-10) has argued for a cult of Find, located around the Boyne Valley:

Find: Name of an ancient personification of wisdom, many vestiges of whom are found in the early literature. In archaic Old Irish, the form of the name would have been ‘Vind-‘, and this is cognate with Celtic ‘Vindos’.

Unfortunately for O hOgain’s argument, he has to admit that there is no actual record of any god Find, and he is not listed among the Tuatha de Danann. His thesis seems to be that since we know that Finn and Find are cognate to other Celtic words for “wisdom”, there must have once been a Find from whom the others descended. So he therefore posits Find as the original seer-god, with the cow goddess Boann (who gave her name to the Boyne) as his partner.

His clinching piece of evidence is that Ptolemy’s Geography lists the Boyne river as the buvinda, which he traces to the word for cow, bo, and vind, which he links to “find”. He assumes from this a cult of a wise seer with a magical cow. However, the only thing we actually know from sources is that the cow-goddess Boann is linked to the Boyne River, and that her husband was Nechtan. He may well have been wise, but he was no Finn.

It’s certainly tempting to trace the many Finns and Finds back to one original Find, who then can be made into pan-Celtic *Vindos, but I suspect the relationship is a lot looser than that. The various Finns and Finds may have some aspects in common with Gwynn ap Nudd and the Gaulish Vindonnus, but not enough to make me feel that they are the same. (See my post on Gwyn and Finn mac Cool for more on this.)

1280px-Valley_of_the_river_Boyne

Boyne Valley (Wikimedia)

Find Éber

The mythological history of Ireland is called the Book of Invasions, and the Milesians were the last of these invaders. These were led by the eight sons of Mil, including the Hades-like Donn, the poet and judge Amairgen, and the two future kings Find Eber and Eremon.

After the Milesians took Ireland, Amairgen ruled that Find Eber should take the south, and Eremon the north as their realms. Eber was not happy about this, feeling that he had the smaller portion, and after a year he began a war with his brother, which ended with him being killed.

Since Eber Donn (dark) died before reaching shore, and was the first of the Milesians to die, he became creatively confused with Donn the god of the dead. Eber Finn (light), on the other hand, became part of a proverb about the ancestry of the Irish: macc Ébir, macc Éremóin, or “sons of Eber, sons of Eremon”. (MacKillop: 166) This would seem to point to a contrast between the death-god and the ancestor of all.

However, while Find Eber would seem to be a good candidate for our Finn-figure, it’s Amairgen who actually fills the judge/poet role.

Find File: legendary king and poet

Find File1 was a legendary king of the Leinstermen, whose fort was at Dun Ailinne in Kildare. He gets a mention in the first chapter of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, when Medb boasts of the kings who wooed her. Some genealogical poems are attributed to him.

His whole family seems to have been royal; his brother Caibre mac Fer became king of Tara, and his son Concobar the king of Ireland.

His father was Ros Ruadh, a “red” name that some connect to the Irish high god the Dagda, whose by-name was Ruad Ro-fessa, the Red/Mighty One of Great Wisdom. (This was also the name of the salmon of wisdom in the Finn mac Cool story; these elements seem to shift around.)

Fintan mac Bochra

A seer, who lived many hundreds of years, taking on different forms, and thus gained great knowledge. He came to Ireland with Cessair, whom he married. All but him were drowned in the Flood (Noah’s; this story tries to reconcile Irish and Biblical traditions). There were 50 women and three men; when the other two men died, Fintan fled from the women, who all perished in the Flood.

A poem ascribed to him says that he hid out in the earth at Tul Tuinne in Co. Tipperary, and waited out the flood there. He took another wife later, Lugh’s sister Ébliu.

Another poem, the Hawk of Achill, is a dialogue between Fintan and a hawk, the two oldest creatures in Ireland. He tells his story from the Flood (when he was 15) through all his transformations into a one-eyed salmon, an eagle, and a falcon before becoming human again. The hawk, too, has lived through the settlements of Ireland, including the Battle of Mag Tuiread and the coming of Cúchulainn.

A recurring theme in Fintan’s lore is that he is the uber-poet and seer, knowing all history. In The Settling of the Manor of Tara he appears before the real-life king Diarmaid mac Cearrbheoil, answering every question the king and the assembly at Tara could ask him. Finally, he settles the vexed question of where the king should have his court, which is why Tara is in the centre of Ireland, and not in any of the four provinces.

The salmon of knowledge was called Fintan in some early literature; another name was Goll Essa Ruiad (One-Eyed of the Red Waterfall), which reminds me of Fintan’s time as a one-eyed salmon. (MacKillop: 230) I will be posting about the salmon of wisdom in the near future, and its connection to Finn mac Cool and his mentor Finn Eces.

 Finn Fearadhach and Morann

The Book of Invasions tells how during the time of the Milesians, a plebeian rebellion set Cairbre Cinn-Cait (Cat-Head) on the throne. His first two sons were born with cauls, and Cairbre had them drowned. The third, Morann, spoke to the soldiers as they threw him in the sea, saying that the wave breaking over his head was “a great billow”.

They pitied him, and perhaps were slightly unnerved by the talking infant, so they gave him to a smith to rear. Later Caibre encountered the smith and the wonder child, which he declared to be worth his weight in silver and gold. When he learned that the baby was his own son, he took him back to rear. (No word on whether he paid up.)

Morann became the chief-judge of Ireland, and one story tells that his caul remained around his neck, and would tighten if he were about to give an unfair judgement. After his father died, Morann decided to hand the throne back to the Milesians, and went to Scotland to get Feradach Finnfechtnach back as king.

Their two stories intertwine here, because Feradach was also a threatened child; his mother fled to Scotland after someone tried to kill him before he was even born. MacKillop suggests that Morann and Feradach may be the same person. (213) O hOgain (306) thinks Morann is derived from Mor-Fhind, “Great Find”, linking the divine child and judge to his proposed cult of Find.

Other Finns included the Finn Eamhna, or triplet Finns who were killed by their father in battle, the saint Fionán Cam who was conceived after his mother dreamed of a golden salmon2, and the fairy king Finnbheara.


1. Be careful how you Google “Find File”, as the search engine will read it as a command rather than the name of an Irish king.
2. An earlier, more robust, version of the saint’s legend says the salmon actually impregnated his mother while she was bathing in the Lake of Kilkenny.

References:
Bondarenko, Grigory 2012: “Fintan Mac Bóchra: Irish Synthetic History Revisited”, Transforming Traditions: Studies in Archaeology, Comparative Linguistics and Narrative: 129-47. (academia.edu)
Hull, Eleanor 1932: “The hawk of Achill or the legend of the oldest animals”, Folk-Lore 43/4: 376-409. (JSTOR)
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
O hOgain, Daithi 1991: Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of Irish Folk Tradition, MacMillan.

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7 thoughts on “Finn: the judge, the poet, and the king

  1. peter

    A salmon of wisdom below a waterfall? That’s interesting. It reminds me to the dwarf Andvari under the waterfall and Loki as a salmon. Both might refer to Piscis Australis under the water pouring out of the urn of Aquarius. The one eye might be Fomalhaut and it could also be the eye of Odin hidden in a well.

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  2. solsdottir Post author

    That’s an interesting idea. I like the idea of Fomalhaut as Odin’s eye. I guess you could see Aquarius and Piscus Australis as Mimir?

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  3. Peter

    Mimir is drinking daily from Valfather’s pledge. My theory is that the pledge is not the eye of Odin hidden in the well but the urn of Aquarius with the water (or mead) that is flowing into the mouth of the fish. That’s why I assume that Mimir is rather the fish than Aquarius.

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  4. Pingback: The Salmon of Wisdom – WE ARE STAR STUFF

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