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Salmon of Knowledge, Cat-Art

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Finn mac Cumhail and the Salmon of Knowledge


This tale is part of the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology and tells the story of how the boy Demne became a wise man who would go on to lead a band of hunters and warriors known as the Fiana. This story, like other Irish myths, was passed down orally until the Western alphabet came to Ireland with Christianity and the monks transcribed many of the tales that were precious to the Irish people. Ogham, the ancient Celtic script, had been used for inscriptions, not for recording long stories.


Demne was the son of Cumhail mac Art; a warrior killed before his mother gave birth to him. Fearing for her son's safety at the hands of her husband's killers, she sent him away to be raised by a woman warrior and druidess. They taught him first to be a hunter. When he raced and caught wild deer and brought them back to the women who raised him they decided it was time for him to learn the skills of a warrior.


Not long afterward, Demne came upon a group of boys playing hurley. For several days running he beat them single-handedly, first a quarter of the boys, then half, and finally the entire group. The defeated boys complained about their shameful defeat to their chieftain and at the chieftain's suggestion plotted to kill Demne. They attempted an attack in the water but Demne not only saved his own life but also drowned several of them.


Unable to avoid pursuit by his father's enemies, Demne decided to become a poet. A poet's status in the Celtic society was so high that being a member of that profession would shield him from harm. He took up study with a poet named Finneces who lived near the River Boyne.


The River Boyne was home to a magical salmon that ate nuts from a hazel tree and was known as the Salmon of Knowledge. A druid had foretold that whoever ate first of the flesh of that magical salmon would have knowledge of all things. After many years of watching the salmon, Finneces finally caught it and told his apprentice Demne to cook the fish.


A hunter and warrior Demne might have been but those skills would not protect him from the burning his thumb while the salmon was cooking. He sucked his thumb to ease the pain, thereby tasting the salmon. Demne told Finneces what had happened and his mentor decreed that the young Demne was the one intended to eat the salmon and changed his name to "Finn". Henceforth known as Finn mac Cumhail, he received three gifts that would make him a great poet: magic, great insight, and the power of words.


by Pat Friend


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Taken on April 26, 2008