Friday, September 28, 2018

Oisin, through Yeats: Irish myth. Eternal youth returns, ages, argues with St. Patrick; and nails it.

Versions of Oisin:  Celtic mythology. From the mists to the startling confrontation, or simple consoling meeting, with St. Patrick.

1.  In old Gaelie mythology, oldest version, not the one seen by casual internet searches, Oisin was a young warrior who, by marrying the king's daughter in Tir na nOg, the land of eternal youth, caused the king's Druidic bewitching, the spell upon her, to lift. Go to this site for oldest tales, non-Disneyed:

Background:  The king had learned from his Druid that he would indeed rule without being displaced, despite the 7-year competition by which he could be toppled from his great chair.  Only his own son-in-law might yet beat him out. The king, then, caused his daughter, named Niamh in later tales, to sprout a pig's head instead of her own, so that none would marry her. 

Thus pig-headed, she went to the now-regretful Druid, who told her what she could do.  She could go to Erin and bring back a husband. She did, found Oisin, he did, and the beauty returned.  He returned with her to Tir na nOg and indeed became king. End of story.

2.  Another version of Oisin is a Rip Van Oisin who returns from the land of eternal youth, Tir na nOg, after hundreds of years, is tainted, and ages.  

2.1  Then what? Pick the simplistic, or the complex account:  Versions differ, for different reasons. In each, the mythic hero, as he dies from the taint of having touched earth on his return for a visit, seeks out St. Patrick who has appeared meanwhile, during Oisin's long absence. 

St. Patrick, 385-461 CE, as a historic figure long post-dates the age of myth.  No problem.  Oisin cannot return to Tir na nOg in time. Changing cultures and religions juxtapose, merge. 

The simplistic view is that Christianity through St. Patrick's listening to Oisin's tale, comforts Oisin, and peace of mind descends upon the dying who has been heard.  That version is the new-culture promoting one:  Oisin and Patrick benignly chat. See

2.2  The complex view, which takes digging, is found in Yeats, and others.

William Butler Yeats reports Oisin's bitterness, at the practices he finds upon returning from the blessed land of the hunt, his love, and the young. Oisin bemoans the fasting and prayers he finds, and hates -- suggesting a sterility that is new to him in his old country, as he ages to death? He gave up Tir na nOg for this? 

Look what St. Patrick's faith has brought. Others also report this confrontation as an argument, not a seeking of peace: See the argument of Oisin against Christianity at
Read Yeats:   His Oisin is not benign.  Scroll down at the epic poem, The Wanderings of Oisin. Find the whole at
"O Patrick! for a hundred years
The gentle Niamh was my wife;
But now two things devour my life;
The things that most of all I hate:
Fasting and prayers."
Fasting and prayers.  This is to replace the joy of life?  Why live, suggests Oisin.

3.  The details: Wonderful.

Envision:  Oisin of Gaelic mythology came back across the seas of Ireland, Scotland, Hebridean islands, after centuries of not aging in a land of ever-youth.  He had ridden there with the princess Niamh, his love of the flowing hair and on he white mare.  The mare could span the seas from here to there, and Oisin stayed with his hunting and joys until, a Gaelic Winkle, he returned, nostalgic, perhaps.  Oisin found everyone long gone, however, and his castle a ruin.  He picked up a clod of earth (did the horse stumble, did he stop to help move a boulder with his great strength, had Niamh warned him against taint), and the protective bubble of youth and health fell away.  He sought out St. Patrick -- in a feat connecting the old beliefs with the new.

4. Ask: Is that meeting in extremis between Patrick and Celtic Oisin for the purpose of consolation and peace on the hero's last journey, a boon to be delivered through Christianity, the new ways? Yes, say the usual translations for public consumption, as Christianity had taken root in Oisin's absence.

Or are those accounts watered down, the pablum of cultural overlay to beef up the current context. Other versions, including that of William Butler Yeats, W.B.Yeats in 1889, say not so.

What other cultures have the story cycle? What does it mean, other than riveting attention to aging itself and the blessing of health and vitality, how fragile that state is, what tables it, what action when it falls, what is the trigger.
  • Think back to Yeats' role, in forging, focusing on preserving Irish identity. In 1889, William Butler Yeats brought Oisin to the fore in his epic poem. The hero, thrown when the white mare falters, picks up a clod of earth to take back with him for his return to the joys he now appreciates. 
  • Morals.  Leave old baggage behind? Follow directives, as Niamh told him, not to bring anything back.  Is that like Greek Persephone who ate the pomegranate seeds, and as a result had to live in the underworld 6 months of every year. 
5. Eternal human issue: Effect of belief and practice on the quality of life. 

Look back at the Irish-early Scot traditions, Hebrides areas, islands, the sea between. Visit in your mind when Oisin, likely of some history and myth, came before Saint Patrick, of some known history and embellished by myth, told Patrick the story of his red-headed love, Niamh, once the pig-headed, say earlier versions. And the listening in itself mattered, without counternarrative. And Oisin's journey, on trust and adventure, and the magical land of Tir na nOg, still makes a difference to people who learn of it, and identify in some way. Once Oisin was finished telling his story to one who actually listened, Oisin crossed out of this lifetime, and he was at last at peace. Stories. Like medicine. Change, take different roots, affect each in his own way.

6.  Cast spells on women, so men can manage their marriages. Can a girl even trust her father, or is his drive to power placed ahead of relationship every time.
Yea. Oyez. Selah.

Hear Yeats, this long-past copyright, in the epie:   Oisin's plaint.

O Patrick! for a hundred years
I chased upon that woody shore
The deer, the badger, and the boar.

O Patrick! for a hundred years
At evening on the glimmering sands,
Beside the piled-up hunting spears,
These now outworn and withered hands
Wrestled among the island bands.

O Patrick! for a hundred years
We went a-fishing in long boats
With bending sterns and bending bows,
And carven figures on their prows
Of bitterns and fish-eating stoats.

O Patrick! for a hundred years
The gentle Niamh was my wife;
But now two things devour my life;
The things that most of all I hate:
Fasting and prayers. 

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