The ancient stories of Ireland are not collected in one singular tome, but gleaned from decades of effort across a variety of manuscripts. In order to provide some timeline in which to explore the currently translated body of lore the academic structure of Cycles was established. Exploring these story cycles and the many tales within is how we connect to the rich mythology of Irish paganism.
A Collection of Many Books
To understand the rich mythology of Irish Paganism is not something one can summarise down into a few hundred words in a blog post, but maybe we can touch on somethings which will help guide the explorer as they delve into the worlds of these words.
Irish Pagan mythology comes out of the records of the earliest monastic settlements in Ireland. With the establishment of these centres of teaching and learning, knowledge began to move out of the oral traditions and find its way into books. Yet not everything that went into these tomes was solely of christian focus, for among the records kept in these monasteries we find retellings of the oldest stories of Ireland’s ancient past.
Thanks to scientific and academic resources we are able to date the origins of these large volumes such as the Book of Leinster, the Book of the Dun Cow, and the Yellow Book of Lecan, to the 12th to 14th century. Yet though the physical form can be placed to Ireland’s mediaeval period, the language form in some of these works can be dated to the 9th century indicating that some of these tales may have been copied from older manuscripts now lost to the ravages of time.
So with so many varied sources, it’s no wonder that we have so many versions of the tales, but even more fascinating that despite their differences there is so much that each version has in common. Of course once we have the sources, how do we review and reconcile them?
The Concept of Cycles
As exploration began of these ancient works those in academic circles needed some way to group the content so that it could, not just be catalogued, but also compared like for like.
This is where the concept of the story cycles comes into being. Instead of just grouping the works by their source document or their date, an additional grouping was created to gather the information by their content and themes.
The records were collectively grouped by their overarching topic, or the approximate time frames they dealt with as follows:
- The Mythological Cycle
- the themes of the stories and the archeological history of Ireland we can see that it covers the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, as well as the beginnings of the Bronze Age.
- The Ulster Cycle
- The themes we see through these tales are the life cycles and grand deeds of Kings and Heroes. We see how the advent of farming in the previous ages has led to larger more structured communities of people with power structures, trade, wealth (measured in cattle) and conflict from raids to island spanning conflicts.
- The Fenian Cycle / Ossianic Cycle
- The themes we see through these tales are again of the power of tribal Ireland, but that there were those who existed outside the rule of one particular king, the Fianna. These bands of warriors would exist in the wild places of Ireland, but offer their service to various kings in exchange for food and board in winter, but also objects of wealth during warm months. A tale speaks of Fionn gathering up silver chalices to give to Cormac as a sign of fealty. This shows that the wealth of Ireland has moved from cattle to items of perceived intrinsic value.
- The Historical Cycle / Cycle Of Kings
- Here is where we find most of the genealogies detailing the order, virtues and in some cases vices of various kings who ruled in Ireland. Also stories about the origins of some tribes such as the Déisi, accounts of battles like the Battle of Mag Mucrama, as well as information on certain rites and customs. It is believed to form the bridge of record from the mythical to the historical including kings from Cormac mac Airt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Conn of the Hundred Battles, up to King Brian Boru. Brian Boru is known to be a fully historical figure from his recorded conflicts in c. 1000 AD.
A Matter of Bias and Perspective.
When we look at these ancient works as Irish Pagans it is with much gratitude yet also sadness. The themes and tales speak of a land that is very much removed from the island and its peoples as it exists today. Of course much of what we have is better, yet there is much that was taken from us by the many successive colonisations which occurred upon our island.
We have large tracts of short pieces of information known as the Dindshenchas, or Lore of names and places. In these shorts we are given insight into origins of the names of various locations on the island, some names that are still upon the land today. Yet in many more spots all we have is small references to tales that we no longer have, brief mentions of heroes, or Gods alluding to stories that may once have been so well known that they didn’t need to be written down.
Other challenges for some pagans is the providence of these tales given that those who documented them were part of a christian institution. For all that we should acknowledge these concerns, it is worth remembering that these monks were also Irish and for them these tales were not some apocryphal doctrine, but a record of the origins of much of Irish history, culture, and the origins of the peoples of the island. Indeed many of the stories as they appear seem to be faithfully recorded from the direct oral retelling without corruption to the main tale as we see whatever christian bias displayed in parentheses or in comments written in the margins.
What is beyond dispute though must be the fact that, given the concerted and repeated efforts of the varied colonising influences on the island to eradicate records of a strong and capable Irish culture, these early christian monks efforts to record these tales, glossaries, and annals is fundamental to the continuance of Ireland’s ancient identity to this day.
Lost in the Lore
How then does this work for those seeking a path of Irish Paganism in our modern era?
Well almost all of what is known of Ireland’s sacred spiritual places, deities, practices and more comes from this rich mythology of Irish paganism. From the names of the Gods their places and practices, so interlinked not just with the land of the island, but with the peoples of that land and their descendants.
There is no unbroken line of Irish spirituality given the extensive and targeting attempts to eradicate or debase the peoples from our island. What we have left are these records from our past and within them, lost amongst the lore are the seeds of our peoples older practices.
At the Irish Pagan School we avoid the term reconstructionism as this, for us, implies a certain curated approach which we have seen lead to a form of selective spirituality. Instead we are not curating but cultivating. Doing our best to decolonise our spiritual practices, explore the roots of modern paganism and where possible clear away that which does not belong.
Our hope is that we can take these ancient seeds from this rich mythology of Irish paganism and reconnect them with the land and the many different peoples of our island today. An island that still carries the names, places and indeed energies of our ancient origins. We are not creating some cobbled together collective of spiritual pathways from around the globe and trying to nativise it. We are making space for that which has always been here to take root once more and grow tall and strong in our world again.
Where To Now?
If you think that Irish Paganism as we teach sounds interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: