Lesson #383: Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Split Boulder

The Irish oral tradition is so fantastic. If you’ve never read The Táinin my opinion the most fun and exciting part of the Ulster Cycle –I’d encourage you to do so. It’s good stuff ! Then again, I absolutely love the old sagas/epics. I have a lot of them in my personal library.

I was watching the latest McDonagh (John Michael of The Guard, not Martin of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths)/Gleeson project, Calvary today. Because I like black comedies best of all. Though Calvary isn’t really haha funny like The Guard is, it’s still got its moments.* And on the whole, it’s very, very good. Anyway, there’s a part where Brendan Gleeson’s character is telling his daughter about the legend of the split rock — because they’re at the split rock — and it’s really very interesting.

I’m not as familiar with Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool as you’ve all probably heard him called, because English) as I am with Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, but I know the basics. He was a mythological warrior who shows up in the Fenian Cycle, but also in legends originating in Scotland and the Isle of Man.** Fionn had a band of followers called the Fianna.*** He’s also, in some legends, referred to as the giant responsible for building a series of stepping stones from the North of Ireland over to Scotland; it is for him that Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave — in tribute of which one of my favourite pieces of music was composed — are named.

Anyway…the boulder. In Co. Sligo, near the town of Easkey, there’s a giant rock that’s been split in two. Science blames the last ice age, but science is unimaginative. Legend has it that Fionn and another giant by the name of Cicsatóin (or just members of the Fianna, depending on what you read), were hanging out one day. The pair decided to make a game of throwing a pair of massive boulders from their place in the Ox Mountains into the sea, 20 miles away. Cicsatóin succeeded****; Fionn did not. Enraged, he strode down to the rock and whacked it with his sword, splitting it in two. According to legend, you can safely pass through the boulder twice, but a third attempt will end in you being smushed by the rock.

You can read more here and here. And probably in the Fenian Cycle, which I can’t find you full text of, but there’s a pretty good synopsis here. As this is all legend, these aren’t exactly what one would call credible sources, but it’s legend, and part of the fun of legends is that they aren’t verifiable.

*And also, Aiden Gillen with his proper accent, which took some getting used to after years of hearing him as Littlefinger.

**My favourite of the stories I know tells how Fionn created both the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh when ripped up a part of the land to throw it at a Scottish rival. He missed, and the land wound up in the Irish Sea.

***Yes, that is where Fianna Fáil comes from.

****Legend also has it this is why the waters around Easkey have such good surfing.

Lesson #289: Krakow’s Dragon

Last week, I came back from a month abroad. In fairness, the last week of the trip was back in my home country for a family gathering, so it’s not all glamour, but the other three weeks were a nearly 5000km road trip around Europe with the best Swede I know.*

One of our stops was Krakow, which was an alternative to Budapest. It hadn’t been on the original itinerary — or, in fact, on any of the three iterations that followed the original itinerary — but as he was in Budapest last year, I was there fairly recently, and neither of us had ever been to Poland, we settled on Krakow. It turns out, that was probably the best decision we made about the trip because Poland was super awesome and both of us left swearing we’d go back. The Polish people were phenomenal.

However, as a result of the Polish people being phenomenal, we saw very little in the way of touristy stuff while we were there. We were adopted by a local and his friends and they took us out to restaurants and drove us to burial mounds and drank with us in pubs and insisted we join their after hours, basement poker game (at which I won quite a tidy sum of money despite being a terrible poker player). So when I was reading up on something today and there was mention of a dragon, — something that had come into play in cloud formations in Croatia — I sent the Swede an text that said, “we’ll have to go back…we missed the dragon!”

Anyway, the Wawel Dragon has existed in legend since at least the 12th century when Wincenty Kadłubek wrote about it in his chronicle of Polish history. According to the legend, the dragon lived in a cave at the base of Wawel Hill before Krakow was established and was defeated by Prince Krakus, who went on to found Krakow and built his castle on Wawel Hill.

Of course, this was later (in the 17th century) changed to include a princess (Wanda) and a poor shoemaker because that’s a better story…that version goes: the King, tired of the dragon having his way with the livestock of his people, and having offered the dragon every virgin around except his daughter, offered up his daughter’s hand to anyone who could slay the dragon. Enter a cobbler called Skuba who covers a mass of sulfur with a sheep (or cow, depending on which version you’re reading) hide and tricks the dragon into eating it. Unable to slake his thirst in the Vistula River — which runs through Krakow** — the dragon eventually explodes and Skuba and Wanda live happily ever after.***

*Yes, it was effing awesome, thank you for asking!

**No, I did not find a way to get into the Vistula. Failure on my part, I know.

***More information here, here, and here, among many, many other places

Lesson #81: Jack o’ Lanterns

Yes, I am aware that Halloween is not for another 8 months. But I saw this picture today and it cracked me up. Because I’m twisted like that.

The thing I love about things like jack o’ lanterns is that they have a legend attached to them. It’s not like someone just one day decided that it would be cool. And while you might think that the tradition is an American one (since pumpkins are native to the new world*), you’d be wrong.

The jack o’ lantern tradition comes from the British Isles where the Irish and Scots traditionally used turnips or potatoes and the English used beets to ward off evil spirits. And Jack of the Lantern.

Specifically, the legend is Irish and it tells the story of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack tricked the devil. Twice. Apparently the devil’s an idiot in Irish folklore. Anyway, the story goes that Jack invited the devil to share a drink with him. Not wanting to pay the bill, he talked the devil into turning himself into money so he could pay the bill, which the devil did. But instead of paying the bill, Stingy Jack kept the coin and put it in his pocket next to a silver cross to prevent the devil from changing back into whatever form it is the devil shows himself in normally. After a while, Jack decided to let the devil out on the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year and that if he died, the devil wouldn’t claim his soul. After a year, the devil shows up (for kicks apparently) and gets duped again in the same way.** Anyway, this time Jack tricks him into turning into a fruit and putting himself on a tree, which Jack then carves a cross into. So after a while, Jack lets him out again on the condition that he not bother Jack for ten years and should he die, his soul would remain unclaimed. Soon after Jack and the devil make this deal, Jack dies, but since he’s not exactly an upstanding citizen, he can’t get into heaven. But the devil can’t claim him either. Instead the devil gives him a handful of coal to light up the night and sends him on his way. So Jack carves a lamp out of a turnip and wanders off into the night. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since.***

*Which explains why I couldn’t find any pumpkin with which to make pie last fall.

**Like I said, the devil’s not too smart in Irish folklore.

***More reading here.

Lesson #70: Orion

Orion is one of about four constellations I can find and name. Astronomy? Not my strong suit. I like the science of space, but don’t necessarily care about the constant of it. It just sort of is.

In the literary tradition, however, Orion is a Greek legend and his existence as a constellation predates the oldest Greek piece of literature (Homer’s Iliad* where he is mentioned as a constellation…he is met in The Odyssey as a hunter in the underworld). In the mythology, Orion is the son of Poseidon and Euryale (one of the gorgons) and is said to be a great hunter. All that aside, he’s not exactly the most upstanding character. In his early days, impatient at the slow pace of wedding arrangements to Merope, Orion raped her and, as a result, was separated from his eyes by the king, Oenopion. Later, he ran into Hephaestus who gave him a boy as a guide and when Orion faced the east as the sun rose, his sight was restored. The angry Orion then went in search of Oenopion, in order to kill him, but Hephaestus had foreseen that point and stashed Oenopion away. Instead, Orion decided to hang out and be Eos’ sex slave for a while. There’s no explanation for why the two were parted, but they were and Orion went on to become a follower of Artemis, who ended up killing him in the end. Stories vary as to why or how, but all of them attribute his death to Artemis whether by Apollo’s deceit (which leads to her shooting him in the head with an arrow) or as a punishment (in which he is poisoned by a scorpion in retribution for his bloodlust towards the animals of earth).**

*I promise this wasn’t mentioned by design — I truly didn’t know that — but secretly I’m hoping that if I mention it often enough, you’ll go read it. Because it’s awesome.

**More can be read here and here.

Lesson #35: In Heaven, There is Beer

Well, if you believe in Norse mythology, then in heaven there is beer. Sort of. Really, it’s mead. Which can be made with hops to be beer-like, but usually it isn’t, so it’s more like wine.

In Norse mythology, when a person dies in battle, they are transported by valkyries to a giant hall in Asgard called Valhalla, which is overseen by the god Odin.*

In Valhalla, there is a goat called Heiðrún (Heidrun), who eats leaves and produces an endless supply of mead from her teats.**

So basically, if you were a Norse warrior and you fell in battle, you had a pretty sweet afterlife waiting for you.

*Yes, Wagner had an obsession with Norse mythology and that’s where we got one of the greatest compositions in the history of music, The Ring Cycle, an epic four-opera (The Rhinegold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods) series which includes one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, ‘Siegfried’s Funeral March’ from Twilight of the Gods.

**There’s a meadery in Northern California called Heidrun Meadery. Which is awesome!