You might wonder, why are salmon wise? Their ability to return to their birthplace to spawn may have given rise to the idea that they had special knowledge. Their travelling between salt and fresh water shows an adaptability most fish don’t have, and their jumping (immortalized in the Celtic warrior’s salmon leap) is impressive, and gives them their English name (from Latin salire, to jump).
The original wise salmon (Irish bradán feasa) lived in the well of Segais, living off the hazelnuts dropped by the nine trees that circled it. These nuts caused little bubbles of inspiration to rise as they fell into the water, and anyone who ate the nuts or the salmon would be instantly enlightened. (The Shannon version has a rowan-tree, with the salmon eating its berries, and becoming red-spotted as well as wise.)
Two different, but similar stories make this well the source of the Boyne or the Shannon. In each case the waters rose from the well to punish a woman presumptuous enough to challenge the taboo against any female approaching it.
The better-known version tells how the cow-goddess Boand was drowned by the waters, after she defied her husband Nechtan, who kept the well. The salmon, sometimes called Fintan, got out into the river, and was later caught by Finn mac Cool while he served the seer Finn Eces. (Beresford Ellis: 184-5)
Finn mac Cool and Finn Eces
The story of Finn and the salmon comes from the Boyhood Deeds of Finn, a 12th-century manuscript. It has a number of similarities to a similar set of tales about Cúchulainn, following the warrior/hero trajectory of gaining a name, a magical weapon and time spent with a mentor (both study under warrior women, which must be an Irish touch).
In fact, Finn encounters several mentors during his early career. The poet Finn Eces shows remarkable generosity and restraint in this story, considering that he had sought the salmon himself for seven years.
His last name means “seer, scholar, sage or poet” (McKillop: 228), so “Finn the Seer”. Although his foresight was a little off; this may be why he names the boy Finn after he is enlightened. (A variant tradition is that his hair turned white when he gained wisdom and so the poet called him Finn.)
The story of the salmon begins after Finn 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 he presumably sought immunity that way:
Finn bade farewell to Crimall, and went to learn poetry from Finneces, who was on the Boyne. He durst not remain in Ireland else, until he took to poetry, for fear of the sons of Urgriu, and of the sons of Morna.
Seven years Finneces had been on the Boyne, watching the salmon of Fec’s Pool; for it had been prophesied of him that he would eat the salmon of Fee, after which nothing would remain unknown to him. The salmon was found, and Demne was then ordered to cook it; and the poet told him not to eat anything of the salmon. The youth brought him the salmon after cooking it. “Hast thou eaten any of the salmon, my lad?” said the poet.
“No,” said the youth, “but I burned my thumb, and put it into my mouth afterwards.”
“What is thy name, my lad?” said he.
“Demne,” said the youth. “Finn is thy name, my lad,” said he; “and to thee was the salmon given to be eaten, and indeed thou art the Finn.” Thereupon the youth ate the salmon. It is that which gave the knowledge to Finn, so that, whenever he put his thumb into his mouth and sang through teinm laida, then whatever he had been ignorant of would be revealed to him.
He learnt the three things that constitute a poet: teinm laida, imbas forosna, and dichetul dichennaib.
To show that he had learned poetry, he then composed a poem on the spot, and went off to study with a master poet. In a sense, this story suffers from an excess of Finns: Finn mac Cool, Finn Eces, the salmon, sometimes known as Fintan, and the Fintan whose son Finn goes off to study with.
In this story the salmon lives in Fiac’s Pool, along the Boyne near Rosnaree in Meath. This puts it in the sacred middle of Ireland, and connects his salmon to the ones who lived in the pool that the goddess Boand violated. From this came the legend of Fintan the salmon, who was sometimes confused with another Fintan, a poet and wise man.
Fintan mac Bochra
Briefly, this Fintan and his wife Cessair came with a number of others to settle in Ireland, but the rest all drowned in Noah’s flood. As a result, he and a hawk were the oldest beings in Ireland, as they both proved in a poem called the Hawk of Achill.
In it Fintan describes his career from his arrival in Ireland, through various transformations, including time as a salmon. He and the Hawk had a fateful meeting during his salmon-phase:
20. A hawk came out of cold Achill,
Above the river-mouth of Assaroe;
I will not hide the fact, mysterious as it was,
He carried away with him one of my eyes.
21. From that night ‘The Blind One of Assaroe’
I was named; it was a cruel act,
From that out I am without my eye:
Small wonder for me to be aged.
26. For five hundred years I have been blind
As a long-sided heavy salmon,
On lochs, on diverse rivers,
On every rich clear-flowing sea.
27. For fifty years I was an eagle,
Few were the birds that would fill my place;
A hundred years happily
I was a stately blue-eyed falcon.
Like the giant Vafthrudnir in Norse myth, Fintan is wise because he has lived a long time and knows all the history. His transformations add another dimension to the story since he knows what it is be a salmon, an eagle and a falcon as well.
In the poem he says that during his time as a salmon he has visited all the major rivers in Ireland, which would be another source of wisdom. The climax of his travels is Asseroe, whose famous waterfall defeated him.
Another salmon of wisdom lived at Assaroe, in Ballyshannon, Northern Ireland, and in one version of the Finn story he speared the salmon of wisdom himself there. There the salmon was called Goll Essa Ruaid, the one-eyed of the red waterfall, meaning Asseroe (Eas Ruaid in Irish) and thus must be Fintan.1
A Welsh Salmon
The Welsh also had a salmon of knowledge, named Llyn Llyw, who lived in the Severn. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen tells how the band of heroes sought out various animals to help them find Mabon, and upon applying to an eagle, the oldest animal in a long catalogue, the eagle sends them on to the salmon, who was the only one it could not defeat:
So they went thither; and the Eagle said, “Salmon of Llyn Llyw, I have come to thee with an embassy from Arthur, to ask thee if thou knowest aught concerning Mabon the son of Modron, who was taken away at three nights old from his mother.” “As much as I know I will tell thee. With every tide I go along the river upwards, until I come near to the walls of Gloucester, and there have I found such wrong as I never found elsewhere; and to the end that ye may give credence thereto, let one of you go thither upon each of my two shoulders.” So Kai and Gwrhyr Gwalstawt Ieithoedd went upon the two shoulders of the salmon, and they proceeded until they came unto the wall of the prison, and they heard a great wailing and lamenting from the dungeon.
The name Llyn Llyw means “Shining Lake” and one theory is that the salmon was a personfication of the tidal surge called the Severn Bore, which no eagle could possibly hope to hold. (Its mingling of sea and river water would be very salmonid.)
Poets and Salmon
The Hawk of Achill is an unusual poem; there are many aretalogies, a deity or other sacred person’s list of their own powers or achievements2, but this is a dialogue, in which the two characters respond to each other’s histories. Two famous aretaologies, by Amairgen and Taliesen, also list their hero’s shapeshifting or incarnations, and both include time as a salmon.
Amairgen Glúingel, the bard and judge of the Milesians, recited a famous poem when he first set foot on Irish soil, which takes him through many transformations:
I am a wind of the sea
I am a wave of the sea
I am the roar of the sea
I am a stag of seven tines
I am a hawk on the cliff
I am a teardrop in the sun
I am a turning in a maze
I am a boar in valour
I am a salmon in a pool
This poem, from the Lebor Gabala Eirenn, or Book of Invasions, is presumably meant both to vaunt Amairgen’s powers and to mystically take possession of the new land. At any rate, it is interesting that the hawk and the salmon are among his many forms.
The Welsh bard Taliesin did his share of shapeshifting too:
I have been a blue salmon,
I have been a dog, a stag, a roebuck on the mountain,
A stock, a spade, an axe in the hand,
A stallion, a bull, a buck,
A grain which grew on a hill,
I was reaped, and placed in an oven,
I fell to the ground when I was being roasted
And a hen swallowed me.
For nine nights I was in her crop.
I have been dead, I have been alive,
I am Taliesin.
The story of Taliesin is very close to Finn’s. The goddess Ceridwen had a son so ugly that her only hope for his advancement was to make him a poet, and to that end she boiled up a spell in her magical cauldron. The potion needed to boil for seven years, and she got the boy Gwion Bach to tend the fire under the cauldron.
She was getting very close to boiling the formula down to the three drops she needed, when some splashed out of the cauldron and scalded the boy’s thumb, which he stuck in his mouth.
Furious, Ceridwen pursued the boy, both passing through various shapes until finally Gwion became a grain, and Ceridwen, as a hen, ate him. Nine months later she gave birth to a boy, and although she knew he was Gwion reincarnated, she could not kill so beautiful a child, and so she sewed him in a bag and set him in the river. An impoverished nobleman found the bag caught in a salmon weir, and named the boy Taliesin.
Gwion, by the way, means “fair”, like Gwyn and Finn, although the two seem to go in opposite directions with their names. The same could be said of their lives, for while Taliesin goes on from being “fair” to being reborn, Finn has no further interest in developing any magical potential, but instead becomes the leader of the fianna and a sort of King Arthur figure.
The many transformations of Taliesin, Amairgen and Fintan might explain why salmon were thought to be wise; animals that throve in two different environments and always returned home from their journeys, like the poets, seers and shamans who went into the otherworld and returned with a poem, knowledge, or a cure. Like the salmon, they overcame all obstacles and came back.
1. The falls of Assaroe, in Co. Donegal, are named for Aed Ruad, a High King of Ireland, who drowned there. Some see him as a god of fire and inspiration since his name means “Fire”, or else a king of the otherworld and ancestor, like a Northern Donn.↩
2. The Isis Aretologies are probably the most famous examples.↩
Beresford Ellis, Peter 1991: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, OUP.
Green, Miranda J. 1992: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
MacKillop, James 2004: Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
Hull, Eleanor 1932: “The hawk of Achill or the legend of the oldest animals,” Folk-Lore 43/4: 376-409. (JSTOR)
Kennedy, Gerald Conan and Daragh Smith 1993: Irish Mythology: Visiting the Places, Morrigan Books.
O hOgain, Daithi 1991: Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition, Prentice Hall.