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Divine Intervention in Irish and Finnish Mythology Divine Intervention in Irish and Finnish Mythology

In Irish and Finnish mythology divine intervention is a part of life. The gods move in and out of the mortals lives and are largely indistinguishable from the mortals due to their human like stature. There is no doubt that the world of the gods was important to both mortal populations. The stories of the gods triumphs and tragedies provided the mere humans a means of understanding their world and of understanding the complexities of life and death.

Curiously, the Celts have no creation myth. The Finns, however, believed in the Cosmic Egg that cracked open and created the sky and the earth (Lonnrot 3-7). While this lack of a creation story in the Irish myths shows the largest difference found between the two traditions, their ideas on gods, magic, and fate are very similar.

In Irish myths the gods can be identified by a few distinct signs, such as the appearance of the colors red and green, on clothing or on animals. Because the Celtic gods had the power to transform themselves, it was often difficult to determine whether one was dealing with a mortal or with a god. In “The Wooing of Etain”, Oengus is fostered out to “...the house of Mider at Bri Leith in Tethbae,...” (Gantz 39). From this description, a newcomer to the Irish mythologies has no way of determining if Mider is a mortal or a god. Much later in the story, Mider “...put his right hand round Etain, and he bore her up through the skylight of the house...” (Gantz 57). Mider transforms himself and Etain into swans, proving that he is, in fact, not a mere mortal after all.

Also, the gods frequently mixed with the mortals, creating demi-gods. The hero of Celtic mythology, Cu Chulainn began life first as a god, then as a demi-god, and finally as a full fledged mortal but with god-like powers (Gantz 131-133). Cu Chulainn rushes through his life, appearing as a mortal in form but possessing incredible strength and fortitude. The Celtic gods are so human-like that it is easy to understand how real were they were to the people of Ireland.

In both traditions we find a parallel world. For the Celts, this was the Tig na nOg, the Otherworld. For the Fins, this was Tuonela, the Underworld. The Celts could reach the Otherworld through the West or through a Sid, a fairy mound. The Fins could find Tuonela in the extreme North or more commonly by having a shaman enter a ‘lovi’, a trance, which was believed to be “the gap between Heaven and Hell” (Nenonen). While the Celts believed in reincarnation and the transition from world to otherworld, from life to another life, the Finns believed that their dead were still part of the family. The majority of Finnish celebrations center around memorial celebrations for the departed. The dead were thought to still have great influence over daily decisions among the family. Alternatively, the Celts valued every living thing because they never knew where their departed had traveled to after death. Nature was very important to them as a consequence of this belief.

The idea of fate pervades both mythologies. In Celtic tradition, mortal kings were expected to ‘wed’ a god in order to maintain in power. Irish kinds had to be perfect in every way and marrying a god was thought to help the king maintain perfection. If a king lost a hand, and therefore, his kingdom, this was simply the will of the gods. These gods consisted of, for the Irish, the Tuatha de Danann. These were the magical fairy people who resided in the sids, the fairy mounds. The leader of the Tuatha was the Dagda, also known as the ancient father god.

In Irish tradition, the gods were always saddled with one or more geasa. A geiss was a taboo imposed on an individual. In Irish mythology, the geiss always is broken. Cu Chulainn breaks his geiss of not being allowed to eat dog. Conare was not allowed to hunt animals, he was told “You are not to hunt the wild beast of Cernae” (Gantz 66) but barely a page later “Conare hunted the wild beast of Cernae” (Gantz 68). It was believed that “fate could not be cheated, invariably each hero was forced to break his geis, which doomed him” (Retzlaff 12). Heros had to be tricked into breaking their geasa, because heros supposedly have no weaknessess. When Conare breaks his geiss of hunting, “...he did not perceive this until the hunt had ended” (Gantz 68).

While the styles of the mythologies of the two traditions differ on some points, the Irish mythologies and the Finnish mythologies have many similarities. The idea of fate being an inescapable thing is one of the largest similarities. Both traditions make sense of the world around them by inventing gods and utilizing magic charms and chants in an attempt to provide order to their lives.

Works Cited

Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin, 1981.

Lonnrot, Elias. The Kalevala. Trans. Magoun, Jr., Francis Peabody. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Nenonen, Marko. “The Shaman’s Journey to the Underworld”. Witchcraft, Magic, and Witch Trials in Finland. 15 May 2001. Accessed 18 March 2003. .

Retzlaff, Kay. Ireland: Its Myths and Legends. Metro Books. 1998.

July 2004

K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2006

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