This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any discrepancies or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
We have reached the final episode of this the second season of Unreal. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing these tales.
I thought that I would end the season with the story of a beginning.
The tale of the Salmon of Knowledge is a boyhood legend of the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. It tells how Fionn got his name, and his wisdom, and fulfilled a prophecy of the coming of a man who would unite a mighty group of warriors do great things in Ireland in the many years to come. It’s a story about becoming – of a hero before he was a hero – and despite its simplicity, the tale has become one of the most famous and well-loved stories of Irish in mythology. Everyone in Ireland knows the story. But you might be surprised by its roots!
I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
Fionn Mac Cumhaill is known for many things. Brave, chivalrous and fierce in battle, as leader of the Fianna he became known in life as one of Ireland’s greatest heroes. But he was also known throughout Ireland for his incredible wisdom and poetry. Tales of Fionn, both in Manuscript and in oral tradition, tell of his gift of poetic talent and prophecy. This gift took on quite a strange form. It was said that whenever he brought his thumb to his mouth, Fionn could call to mind all the knowledge of the world – past, present, and future – a gift which came very much in handy when he needed to settle a dispute, or think of a way to outsmart his enemies.
There are many different versions of Fionn gaining knowledge through his thumb in medieval manuscripts, and they didn’t all involve a salmon. In one story, Fionn went hunting with the Fianna near the banks of the Suir. While they were camping in the evening, a strange man emerged from a fairy-knoll nearby, and made off with all of their food. The next night the same thing happened, and it happened again for a third night – much to the anger of the hungry Fianna. Finally, Fionn went ahead of the man, whose name was Cúldub to the fairy mound. As Cúldub was about to enter through the small door of the fairy-mound, Fionn stuck out his hand and tried to catch him. At the same time, a fairy woman was on her way out, with a jug of drink in her hand. She helped Cúldub get inside away from Fionn’s clutches, spilling her drink onto Fionn’s hand as she did so. And as she slammed closed the door to the fairy realm, Fionn’s finger became jammed between the door and the post. Fionn wrenched his finger free with a yell of pain, and he put it in his mouth to cool the pain. But the fairy liquid that had fallen on his hand was enchanted, and when he opened his mouth, Fionn found himself chanting in a strange language, and seeing strange visions of poetry and prophecy that gave him knowledge in years to come.
In another story, Fionn explains his gift by telling of how he visited a place called the fountain of the moon, which belonged to a man of the Tuatha De Danann, the tribe of the gods. Anyone who drank of the water of this fountain would become a true prophet. It cost a high price though – three hundred coins of red gold for a sip, and was guarded fiercely by the three daughters of Beag Buan, Teisionn, Teithcheann, and Armhach. One day, Fionn was hunting in the woods nearby, and as he approached the fountain the three women rushed forward to stop him from getting closer. Teisionn had a jug of the fountain water in her hand, and as she tried to stop him, she splashed the water all over Fionn. Some of the water passed into Fionn’s mouth, and ever since then he had been gifted with foresight and prophecy.
Interestingly, Fionn is far from the only mythological hero to stumble upon a gift of wisdom by accident. Tales like these were famous across Britain and Scandinavia, with different unwitting figures gaining knowledge through spilled liquid and burned fingers.
In Norse mythology, the hero Sigurd was raised by a man called Regin and told to kill a monstrous dragon. Sigurd slayed the dragon, and afterwards, Regin ordered him to cook the dragon’s heart, which contained many magical properties and enchantments. But as Sigurd cooked the heart, some of the dragon’s hot blood came spilling out onto his finger and burned it. When Sigurd put his finger into his mouth to cool it, he found that the dragon’s magical knowledge passed to him. Suddenly, he could understand the language of birds. This story has a much bloodier ending than Fionn’s legend – when Sigurd speaks with the birds, he learns that his master Regin is plotting to kill him. So Sigurd kills Regin first. He chops off Regin’s head, eats the rest of the dragon’s heart, then drinks and bathes in the blood of both his slain foes, to strengthen his body for future battles.
The Welsh tale of Taliesen the poet is also similar. A young boy called Gwion Bach worked as a servant for Ceridwen, a powerful enchantress. Ceridwen was concocting a special potion that took a year and a day to brew. The first three drops of the potion would give whoever drank the gift of wisdom and inspiration – but the rest of the potion was poisonous. Ceridwen intended the potion for her son, an ugly and stupid man named Morfran, and she ordered her servant Gwion to spend every day stoking the fire and stirring the cauldron to prepare it. But one day, while Ceridwen was sleeping, the potion bubbled over, and three drops fell onto Gwion’s thumb as he stirred. He stuck his thumb in his mouth to cool the burn, and immediately, of course, he became wise.
And as soon as he was wise, Gwion became afraid. He suddenly understood just how angry Ceridwen was going to be when she realised what had happened. He fled the dwelling, and used his new powers to turn himself into a hare. Furious, Ceridwen chased him, transforming herself into a greyhound. Gwion turned into a fish, jumping into the river – but Ceridwen turned into an otter. On the chase went, with Gwion transforming into a bird, and finally into a single grain of corn. When Ceridwen saw this, she turned herself into a black hen. She pecked around the barn where Gwion lay – and then she swallowed him whole.
Some time later, Ceridwen gave birth to a boy, and she knew this was Gwion, reborn again from the corn seed in her stomach. Ceridwen had made up her mind to kill the child, but when she looked into his handsome face, she found that she could not bear to do it. So she placed the baby into a leather bag, and sent it floating down the river. When the baby Gwion was found, he was called Taliesen, and with his gift of wisdom he grew up to become one of Wales’ greatest poets.
But of all these stories of accidental wisdom, the tale of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge has come to dominate. Perhaps it’s the simplicity – there are no dragons to be slain in this story, no magic potions to drink or shape-shifting witches to defeat. There is simply a salmon, humble and plain, but holding within it all the knowledge there is in the world.
The Salmon of Knowledge is an interesting concept. In Irish it was called the Eo Feasa, or the Bradán Feasa, and it was used by medieval poets and scribes as a metaphor for inspiration. In the manuscripts they wrote, they often spoke wishfully of a salmon that would come to inspire their poetry. “If I had but eaten of the salmon of knowledge” was a phrase often uttered or written, when they struggled to find the words to describe the story or idea they were trying to tell.
In some of the versions of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge, the Salmon is given the name of Fintan. This comes from a legend I spoke about in my last episode – the story of Fintan Mac Bochra, a man who survived the biblical flood of Noah, then lived as a salmon for several centuries afterwards. Fintan was certainly known for his knowledge and wisdom. Through his long life, he had seen the changes that had come on Ireland, and became a poet and seer, known as Fintan the wise. But Fintan was not the salmon tasted by Fionn Mac Cumhaill, for the simple reason that he wasn’t eaten at all – he lived on for many years later, taking the shape of other animals and birds, before finally returning to his human form. So although he was indeed a wise salmon, he was not the salmon of wisdom that we’re discussing!
But there is a more complex story of how the salmon of knowledge came to be. It’s found in the dindsenchas, or lore of place names, mentioned in passing in a legend describing how the river Shannon got its name.
At a place called the well of Connla, there stood a thicket of hazel trees, that flowered and grew nuts at the same time every year. These were the hazel trees of science, poetry and inspiration. This was a magical place. It was, the story goes “under a darksome mist of wizardry” and the hazel trees themselves were described as being “music-haunted,” filled with wisdom.
From these trees, rich crimson hazelnuts grew, teeming with all the poetic knowledge of the world. The nuts, when they ripened would fall down into Connla’s well, and into the seven streams that sprang from it, filling the streams with their enchanted purple bubbles. Scattered below on the river beds, these little hazelnuts were enticing food for the salmon that swam nearby. But the juice of these nuts was enchanted, and as the salmon chewed on them, they would gain the knowledge the hazels held. So too, by catching and eating the salmon could the aspiring poets of medieval times gain the poetic inspiration they longed for. You could tell which of the salmon had gained the wisdom of the hazelnuts by the purple spots that appeared on their bellies from the juice.
The tale of Connla’s well goes on to tell of a beautiful maiden called Sinann, of the Land of Promise or the Otherworld, who had every talent and accomplishment that a woman could have. The only thing she was lacking in were the mystic arts, for men alone, it was said, could possess them. One day as she was walking by a small stream, Sinann spotted the strange purple bubbles on the surface of the water. Realising that the bubbles came from the mystical hazels that would give her the gift she longed for, Sinnan followed them along the stream until she reached the Connla’s well. Now, Connla’s well was a place forbidden entirely to women. And when Sinnan approached it, the waters rose up and drowned her, carrying her body to the great river they led to. This river is now known as the Shannon, in memory of Sinnan and the knowledge she gave her life to possess.
Fionn’s encounter with the salmon doesn’t take place on the Shannon however. It takes place on the banks of the river Boyne, in the east of Ireland. But actually, the origin story for the River Boyne is very similar – also telling of a woman who drowned, giving her life for the secrets of a magic well, and giving her name to the river that sprang up against her.
A man called Nechtain had a secret well with a terrible curse. The waters of this well were said to be so evil and dangerous that if anyone other than Nechtain or his three cup-bearers were to look upon it, their two eyes would burst in their head, and they would be forever scarred. But one day, Nechtain’s proud wife Boand, came to test the well’s powers. Boand had cheated on Nechtain, sleeping with the chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann, whose name was Dagda. Dagda had made her pregnant and brought her to the point of birth in a single day, but Boand was sure that if she could just reach the well and bathe in it, she would be able to disguise her pregnancy. Boand walked three times around the well of Nechtain. But as she did so, three great waves burst from it, one against her foot, one against her eye, and one against her hand, shattering each of them and leaving her badly scarred. In desperation, Boand rushed to the sea, but every way she turned the cold white water followed her, carving a river through the land, which has become known as the Boyne in Boand’s memory today. Before she drowned, Boand gave birth to a boy whose name was Aengus, who himself became a great figure in Irish mythology, known for his heroism and his poetic visions.
So it seems likely that the story of Fionn and the salmon of knowledge takes its inspiration from both of these tales of magical rivers – set on the river Boyne of Boand’s tale, but with the nuts, fish and knowledge of Sinnan’s.
But The Boyish Exploits of Finn, in which the tale is told, makes no reference to any of these stories. It simply takes it for granted that there is a Salmon of Knowledge that you can catch to give you wisdom. There is no explanation given – it just exists. You are supposed to know this when you hear the story. When it was told in the past, presumably the people who heard it would have had the context, and wouldn’t have needed to know any more. Nowadays, though a little more explanation is needed!
The Boyish Exploits of Finn tells the story of Fionn’s birth and early life. It had long been prophecied that a man called Fionn would come to the Boyne, eat of the salmon of knowledge, and gain all the wisdom there was to be had in in the world. Obviously , this prophecy referred to Fionn son of Cumhall. There’s just one problem – Fionn wasn’t called Fionn when he was a boy. When he was born, he was given the name of Deimne. As a young boy, Deimne was sent to live with two warrior women, for his protection and training – Bodhmall the Druidess and Liath Luachra. His foster mothers taught him everything he knew about hunting and fighting, and soon he was ready to set out alone, and make his name in the world. One day, Deimne went out to the plain of the Liffey, and came across some other boys hurling. He challenged them to a game, and each day he played head to head with a different boy from the group, beating every one of them. Finally the whole team of boys played a match against Deimne together, but once again, Deimne was victorious.
What is your name? the boys asked in wonder.
Deimne, he replied.
The boys ran off to the owner of the fort nearby and told him of Deimne and his incredible strength and ability. “He is well-shaped and fair,” the man said, “so you shall call him Fionn. But kill him, if he comes again.”
Deimne came again the next day to hurl with them again. And at once, the boys attacked him with their sticks. Deimne fought them off, knocking seven of them to the ground before he escaped into the forest. For some reason, he returned to the boys again, and this time they were swimming in the lake and challenged him to swim with them. When Deimne fought the boys this time, he drowned nine of them in the lake.
“Who drowned them” the people asked. “Fionn” came the answer from the surviving boys, giving the name that their lord had called Deimne. The news spread far and wide, and from that moment onward, Deimne was known by the people of Ireland as Fionn.
He still went on calling himself Deimne for some time after this however, until an event occurred that proved that Fionn truly was his name. The prophecy, as I had said, had told that a man called Fionn would eat of the sacred salmon in the pool of Linn Feic on the river Boyne, and in doing so would gain all the knowledge of the world for himself. Now there was an poet called Finn Eges, who, being called Finn, believed that the prophecy was about himself. So, for seven long uncomfortable years Finn Eges spent his days by the banks of the Boyne, searching and searching as the salmon swam past.
During this time, Deimne came to live with Finn Eges, to learn the art of poetry from him. While he was there, there finally came the day when, to his joy, Finn Eges caught the enchanted salmon.
“Deimne” he said to his pupil, “build a fire and cook this fish, but do not eat any part of it.”
Deimne did so willingly, and as soon as the salmon was cooked he brought it to his master to eat.
But when Finn Eges saw Deimne coming with the fish, he knew immediately that something strange had happened. Deimne had been a young man, but now his eyes were the old eyes of a sage, filled with wisdom.
“Have you eaten any part of this salmon, young man?” the poet demanded.
“No,” replied Deimne. Then he thought for a moment. “Oh,” he said, “as I cooked the salmon, a blister appeared in its skin. I poked the blister and the hot fat burned my thumb, so I put my thumb into my mouth to cool it.”
At this, Finn Eges the poet clasped his hands together and was silent for a while. Deimne waited in trepidation.
Finally Finn Eges spoke. “What is your name, boy?” he asked.
“Deimne,” the lad replied.
“No,” said Finn Eges. “Fionn is your true name. It was to you that this salmon was truly given in the prophecy. Take the salmon and eat it, Fionn son of Cumhal. And then leave this place, for there is nothing left that I can teach you.”
From that point onward, Fionn was one of Ireland’s wisest men. He held the gift of wisdom and prophecy in his thumb where the salmon had first touched him, and to use it, all he had to do was put his thumb in his mouth to think.
The story of the salmon of knowledge is one of my favourite stories of Irish folklore. On the surface it is humble and memorable, the story of a hero who entered a room as a boy to cook a fish, and came out a wise man. But as with all the best tales in mythology, it is deceptively simple, with layers of mystery between the lines. Like the knowledge within the bubble, within the hazelnut, within the salmon, the story of the salmon of the knowledge peels back its layers to reveal a wealth of wisdom and legend of Ireland’s magical becoming hidden deep in its centre. And perhaps in revealing the web of stories spinning out from its core, we can see, just for a moment what it was like to have the wisdom of Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself – the visions of past, present, and future, and all the knowledge that lies in between that filled his mind forever more.
Thanks for listening to this, the final episode of Unreal Season 2. Unreal is researched, written and created by me, Ruth Atkins. You can find links to the sources and music from today’s episode on my website, Unrealpodcast.com. You can follow the show at Unrealpod on facebook or twitter, and subscribe wherever you get your podcast. And if you enjoy the show, please do consider leaving a rating and review, or telling a friend. I have something special in mind for the next season – there will be a bit of break for the next few months while I research and prepare the new episodes, but I look forward to sharing it with you – I think it will be worth the wait! Until then, I bid you farewell. Have a wonderful summer, and go n-éirí on bóthar leat.