As many of you will already know, I have recently entered into an exchange of essays with my friend Jesse Hake. We are exploring a number of interrelated topics surrounding the huge and fascinating topic of the atemporal fall from Eden. We began our dialogue last week by making opening statements, you can read his HERE and mine HERE.
A couple days ago he posted an excellent response which you can read HERE. Family life with a new baby means I’m going to need a couple weeks to read, think, and write before I can make a proper response. In the meantime, I went through my numerous google docs and found something that I hope will introduce some helpful insights to the larger conversation. It is fairly long, so I will share it as two essays over the next two weeks.
Before we began our exchange of essays, Jesse wrote a guest post that received a lot of positive feedback from people in our community. He asked a wonderful question: can Christianity be saved by fairies? You can read it HERE. My next two essays will bring the fairies into our conversation by exploring the connection between the spirits of the hills and seas and the garden of Eden in medieval Irish literature. The old gods of Ireland were called the Tuatha Dé Danann (the tribe of the goddess Danu) and likely morphed over time into what we call fairies today.
In this article I will share some insights I’ve gleaned from Celtic mythology, in particular, The Wooing of Étaín. Even though this story is about the gods of pre-Christian Ireland, it was written down by Christian monks in the eighth or ninth century and carries the wisdom of both traditions at once.
As the title suggests, the story is about courtship. Mider (one of Étaín’s suitors) sang her a love song inviting her to live with him in his fairy mound, a spiritual home in the depths of the earth. The song is primarily a description of life in the spiritual world, meant to entice her with its beauty.
Étaín was already married when Mider approached her with his request. However, she decided to switch husbands under the condition that Mider get her current husband’s permission first. After Mider underwent many trials, her husband finally gave them his blessing in the hall of chieftains. They embraced each other and ascended through the skylight in the house, transforming into swans, and disappearing into the night.
As interesting as the whole story is, we will only be focusing on the description of the spirit world Mider provides. He calls Étaín by the name Bé Find in the song, which means “fair woman.” It is possible that the song uses a different name because it was not originally part of the story. It may have been integrated into the tale by the scribes who compiled it. If that is the case, the song is likely older than the rest of the text.
Bé Find, will you come with me to a wondrous land where there is music? Hair is like the blooming primrose there; smooth bodies are the colour of snow. There, there is neither mine nor yours; bright are teeth, dark are brows. A delight to the eye the number of our hosts, the colour of foxglove every cheek. The colour of the plain-pink every neck, a delight to the eye blackbirds’ eggs; though fair to the eye Mag Fáil, it is a desert next to Mag Már. Intoxicating the ale of Inish Fáil; more intoxicating by far than that of Tír Már. A wonderful land that I describe: youth does not precede age. Warm, sweet streams throughout the land, your choice of mead and wine. A distinguished people, without blemish, conceived without sin or crime. We see everyone everywhere, and no one sees us: the darkness of Adam’s sin prevents our being discerned. Woman, if you come to my bright people, you will have a crown of gold for your head; honey, wine, fresh milk to drink you will have with me there, Bé Find. (Trans by Jeffrey Gantz)
Mider’s song describes the spiritual world of the Tuatha Dé Danann with language that is familiar from other medieval Irish texts such as The Voyage of Brendan and The Voyage of Bran. In all these stories the indigenous Irish understanding of the spirit world blends with Christian cosmology in a harmonious way.
The music in the realm of the Tuatha Dé Danann can be thought of as the music sung by the angels in heaven. It beckons heroes like Bran to set out on wild adventures and invites saints like Brendan to learn the wisdom of the birds. It is the song of creation, the harmony that unites all things. This is the theme of my book Psalter of the Birds.
Mider describes the spirit world as one where there are no private possessions, everyone is in perfect health, and there is no crime. In this hidden place, youth does not precede age because time is not linear. Its inhabitants are able to see everyone everywhere, because their relationship to space and dimension is not linear either. For the Tuatha Dé Danann, everything is wibbly wobbly timey wimey, as Dr Who would say. One of my favourite bits from Jesus describes the kingdom of God in similarly amorphous terms.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”Luke 17:20-21 NRSVUE
The Greek word ἐντὸς which is here translated as “among you” could also be translated as “within you.” The fact that the kingdom of God can be described as either within or without means that it is not located in any particular place. This correlates with the way the Tuatha Dé Danann can see everyone everywhere. The Pharisee asked Jesus specifically about the timing of the kingdom of God and Jesus replied with another paradox, saying that it is already in our midst and that it is yet to come. This corresponds to the way the Tuatha Dé Danann do not perceive time as a linear sequence either.
After Jesus gives this answer to the Pharisee, he explains it on a deeper level to his disciples. He evokes stories from the scriptures and teaches them about detachment, saying that we must be willing to let go of our possessions and securities on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. It is important to note that he uses the word “revealed” because it implies that he is already in their midst, yet they do not have eyes to see.
In Mider’s song, he talks about spiritual vision in much the same way that Jesus is doing here. The race of Adam has eyes but does not see. The realm of the Tuatha Dé Danann is all around them but they do not perceive it. According to mider, human beings have somehow been injured by Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden and the consequence of this is that they no longer see into the depths of reality in the same way the Tuatha Dé Danann do.
The implication of all this is that the Tuatha Dé Danann somehow represent an unfallen aspect of creation, existing unperceived all around us. The way they are is the way we would be if Adam had not sinned and, at least in theory, the way we will be in the kingdom of God when we return to our original harmony like the prodigal son.
By making a connection between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the garden of Eden, the Christian monks who wrote down this pagan tale are giving the gods of their ancestors a home in their relatively new religious worldview. We can see this in other works of Irish literature as well, such as the interactions between Patrick and pagan heroes like Oisín, and Caílte. It is also a theme in the poetry of the Welsh bard Taliesin. Perhaps this can be of value to those in the present who wish to honour the spirits of the land while being true to their Christian faith.
I’m not sure how or if this will be woven into my own theology in the days to come, but I find it fascinating nonetheless. My essay next week will use Eriugena’s theology to explore how the darkness of Adam’s sin prevents us from seeing spiritual realities with our inner eyes.
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