The character of Cuchulain has always fascinated me, ever since I first read his adventures at the age of nine. Discovering him along with the Iliad and the Odyssey proved to be one of the key formative events in my life. It led to a lifetime of reading mythology, of digging deeply into the sources for those myths, and how subsequent centuries of literature use myth to deepen and broaden fiction, poetry and drama.
My chief source as a young lad was Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), supplemented by her Gods and Fighting Men (1904). Bulfinch’s Mythology added to the mix, as did Yeats’ poetry and plays about “The Hound of Ulster.” In fact, it was Yeats’ use of Irish Mythology that first drew me to him. Later, the genius of the work itself . . .
Yeats and Lady Gregory were fascinated by the idea of an Irish national literature, with reviving it, with ensuring its survival. While they were sometimes mocked for their perhaps too romantic view of the past, of certain misty corners of Ireland and its history, they did manage to gather and disseminate a host of beautiful myths and legends, new versions of those myths and legends, and new poetry about that misty past.
While Greek and Roman myths still receive the lion’s share of focus, Irish myth contains aspects unknown to both those ancient mythologies . . . a deeper, more personalized, living sense of individual tragedy and suffering, a greater degree of raw emotion and sentiment, perhaps a more powerful swing of those emotions. It is also closer to many of us in theme, terrain, and repercussions. Studying Shakespeare, for instance, is greatly enhanced if one knows Irish sources. Reading Athurian legend is also enlivened when one knows its Irish (and more generally, Celtic) roots.
Of course, myths and legends across the globe, in all cultures, in all geographies, deserve increased attention and study. Such pioneers in that field as Jane Harrison, Jessie L. Weston, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and, more recently, Roberto Calasso, provide excellent guides. Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), for example, is one of the finest entrees to the world of the Fisher King and Holy Grail stories. It is also a key to understanding T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Perhaps the bottom line for me is this: These myths and legends, especially those of Irish provenance, kick the imagination into high gear again and again, and send us in a thousand new directions, chasing down mysteries of the human experience. They send us both inside and outside those mysteries.
Unlike modern-day derivatives, they also have the added weight of their ancientness, their centuries of survival. While survival, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a good indication of worth — with all the factors, including luck that this entails. At the very least, it tells us that men and women thought enough of these works through the ages to keep them alive. There are some traditions worth fighting for.