Although I have read but one translation of Irish mythology, it was lengthy and complete and gave me a decent picture of the scope of Irish myth. I am not an expert in this realm in the slightest, but I am a ponderer, which counts for something—especially when that pondering mind has been marinated in Socratic discussion for a significant portion of its life. But I digress! I happen to be reading various different mythologies at the moment and my mind has been dwelling on their differences. One way to discover the values of a culture is to look at their stories and the heroes in their stories. I was thinking about Finn MacCumhal the other day and considering what his character says about the values of the Irish around that time. Look at this paragraph:
And as to Finn himself, he was a king and a seer and a poet; a Druid and a knowledgeable man; and everything he said was sweet-sounding to his people. And a better fighting man than Finn never struck his hand into a king’s hand, and whatever any one ever said of him, he was three times better. And of his justice it used to be said, that if his enemy and his own son had come before him to be judged, it is a fair judgment he would have given between them. And as to his generosity it used to be said, he never denied any man as long as he had a mouth to eat with, and legs to bring away what he gave him; and he left no woman without her bride-price, and no man without his pay; and he never promised at night what he would not fulfil on the morrow, and he never promised in the day what he would not fulfil at night, and he never forsook his right-hand friend. And if he was quiet in peace he was angry in battle, and Oisin his son and Osgar his son’s son followed him in that.1
This is high praise! According to the author, Finn MacCumhal is indeed the best of men. Assuming that everything the author says here is considered worthy of praise, I think we can safely take our analysis of the ideal Irish warrior from this paragraph.
The author says Finn is “a king and a seer and a poet; a Druid and a knowledgeable man.” The fact that he possesses all these qualities is worth noting. Finn is not merely a warrior, he is a leader in politics (“a king”), familiar with the arts (“a poet”), a leading religious man (“a Druid”), and respected in judgement and problem-solving (“a knowledgeable man”). I doubt expertise in all these areas was expected of any man other than a king, but this offers us an idea of what the Irish expected from a great leader.
There are other traits that Finn exhibits, though, that seem more applicable to the average warrior. Finn is a strong, skilled fighter. He is fair in judgement, regardless of his relationship to the people he is judging. Generosity and open-handedness are important also2: Finn is free with his possessions and does not cheat those who work for him. He is honourable and keeps his promises and boasts. He is faithful, never forsaking his friends and allies.
The last sentence is more difficult. The author says, “And if he was quiet in peace, he was angry in battle.” There is some syntax here, carried over from the Irish tongue, which blurs what the sentence might mean if put into colloquial English. However, if I take the whole scope of Irish myth into perspective, including quotes from other parts of this particular book, I might say two things. (1) That the Irish value gentleness almost as much as they do violent war. This is only a guess—I must consider this more, so pray do not write an essay on this subject citing me as a credible source! Or (2) that Finn did not search for war during peacetime. Instead, he was content to enjoy peace without seeking war needlessly, but also fighting with all his strength when he needed to.
Keeping in mind that Finn MacCumhal is exceptionally great, especially as regards his fighting strength, we can now draw a decent picture of a noble Irish warrior. He would be a fair judge, generous with his possessions, and honourable—keeping his boasts and not saying more than he was capable of performing. He would be faithful, fighting for his allies in times of war and keeping peace in peacetime.
Now that we have an idea of the ideal Irish warrior, it would be fascinating to compare this sketch to that of a Greek warrior, or some hero from a different mythological cycle. But that is a discussion for another time.
1Lady Augusta Gregory, Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology, Gods and Fighting Men, Part II, Book I, Chapter I
2This is a theme in Anglo-Saxon literature as well, where it is understood that a good prince provides for his people. Examples of this can be seen in Beowulf.
2 thoughts on “Finn MacCumhal as the Best of Men”
I remember that when I taught in Zambia as a young man I learned that my African colleagues were expected to share their blessing, that is their income, not only among their immediate family but their extended family also. And the higher the status the greater the generosity expected.
Generosity as an honourable duty is certainly not a concept limited to ancient Ireland. It is found in different forms all over the world–both in stories, and out of them.
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