Gaelic Folklore for a Multi Species Future 2

By Mairéad Nic Craith, published on 23rd August 2023 in Bella Caledonia. Featured image shows illustration of the legend of Oisin’s Mother, by Arthur Rackham. Irish Fairy Tales, by James Stephens. 1920.

In the previous piece, I began by exploring the concept of Dùthchas (Scottish-Gaelic) or Dúchas (Irish-Gaelic) and considered one model of multi-species existence in Gaelic folklore. This was based on the story of the salmon of knowledge and looked at the network of collaboration among species that are connected with one another. The central character was the young Fionn Mac Cumhail who had ingested of the salmon of knowledge.

As a young warrior, Fionn regularly went hunting. One day, his hounds captured a deer whom they recognised as human. When Fionn brought her home, she was transformed back into a woman named Sadhbh. (Her deer shape was a curse from a druid whom she had refused to marry). Sadhbh was soon pregnant. When Fionn was away, the druid returned and turned Sadhbh back into a deer, whereupon she vanished. Despite his best efforts, Fionn couldn’t find her. Sometime later, Fionn found a fawn in the forest, whom he recognised as his son. Once he brought him home, the fawn turned into a boy whom Fionn named Oisín (meaning little deer). Oisín would later become one of the greatest of the Fianna. The original plot is even more complicated….

While such shapeshifting may seem fanciful today, it is quite common in traditional folk narratives. Shapeshifting occurred frequently, and shapeshifters passed through a range of animal forms – insects, birds and mammals. It seems that knowledge of and identification with the different species was regarded as an advantage for those who enjoyed it. The key message was this: relationship between Gods, humans and animals was blurred and non-hierarchical. Moreover, it was a phenomenon that accepted that the distinction between human and animal is not as clearcut as we might think. Is there something of the animal in humans and something human in animals?

Many of us with pets love our animals, and sometimes treat them as if they were almost human. This sense of companionship between humans and animals is captured in a very famous poem in Old Irish called Pangur Bán. This poem was written in the 9th century by a monk about his cat, Pangur Bán. The poem describes the harmonious existence between human and animal, but also the parallels in their activities. While the monk is hunting meaning in a manuscript, Pangur Bán is hunting mice. The cat’s eyes stare at the wall, while the monk’s eyes are fixed on the page. When the cat catches a mouse, he is delirious. The monk is equally delighted when he “catches the meaning” of a text. They both work hard in the company of one another and in parallel with one another. There is no hierarchy in the relationship in this multi-species model. Humans and animals live side by side in harmony.

Finally, I’d like to draw on the work of Scottish-Gaelic scholar Michael Newton who points to a process he calls “human-nature mirroring”. He illustrates this with reference to parallels that are perceived between humans and trees. The make-up of the tree was seen as comparable to that of the human physique, and the Gaelic terms used for the human body are the same as that for trees. People are often depicted in terms of tree metaphors. And so, for example, the phrase “it was in the timber” is used to describe something hereditary. The importance of rearing a child well is captured in the phrase: “bend the sapling and the tree won’t defy you”. It is important to note that the parallels go in both directions and are not simply a projection of human personality traits onto the natural world. The examples demonstrate agency on behalf of nature as well as humans.

The four models I have described (1) networks (2) shapeshifting (3) parallelism, and (4) mirroring illustrate that dùthchas encodes a particular way of thinking about humans and nature that is multi-species rather than anthropocentric. In the Gaelic world, humans and non-humans were not separated. There was an ecological balance between all entities. Deborah Bird Rose uses the concept of kinship with similar intent. It implies an inter-generational world that is interwoven. The interaction of different species in harmony and in equality with one another is very different from the modern hierarchy that places humans at the top of the multitude of species. This hierarchical view has been influenced by Descartes, the Enlightenment and some forms of Christianity and it is precisely this model that has led to high destruction across the planet.

So, where do we go from here?

In my two pieces I have drawn on Gaelic folktales as a ‘home-grown resource’ in Scotland. I suggest that they could be revived, re-envisaged or repurposed as an inspiration for a different future. Drawing inspiration from the Irish philosopher John Moriarty, I believe we should adopt an approach that Scottish activists McFadyen and Sandilands (2021) call ‘cultural darning and mending’. They describe this as a ‘playful approach to cultural activism’, or a future-orientated creative ethnology that engages with our folk narratives, our place-lore and traditional local knowledge. In linking our present and future to the past, we can (as Alastair McIntosh puts it) ‘re-member’ a dúchas-grounded relationship with the land – and raise consciousness about what was lost during the process of Anglicisation and colonisation. Part of this “cultural darning and mending” could involve re-visiting our traditional folk-narratives (Scots and Gaelic) and reading them ecologically. Thankfully, many activists are already engaged in such activities. Is this a theme that could be explored at next year’s international book festival, I wonder?