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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Hero-Tales of Ireland

 


Hero-Tales of Ireland

COLLECTED BY

JEREMIAH CURTIN


Of the pre-Christian beliefs of the Kelts, not much is known yet in detail and with certainty. What we may say at present is this, that they form a very interesting[xvii] variant of that aforementioned Œcumenical religion held in early ages by all men. The peculiarities and value of the variant will be shown when the tales, beliefs, and literary monuments of the race are brought fully into evidence.

Now that some statement has been made touching Indian tales and their contents, we may give, for purposes of comparison, two or three of them, either in part or condensed. These examples may serve to show what Gaelic tales were before they were modified in structure, and before human substitutes were put in place of the primitive heroes.

It should be stated here that these accounts of a former people, and the life of the world before this, as given in the tales, were delivered in one place and another by some of these “former people” who were the last to be transformed, and who found means to give needful instruction to men. On the Klamath River, in Northwestern California, there is a sacred tree, a former divinity, which has been a great source of revelation. On a branch of the Upper Columbia is a rock which has told whole histories of a world before this.

Among the Iroquois, I found a story in possession of a doctor,—that is, a magician, or sorcerer,—who, so far as I could learn, was the only man who knew it, though others knew of it. This story is in substance as follows:

Once there was an orphan boy who had no friends; a poor, childless widow took the little fellow, and reared him. When the boy had grown up somewhat, he was very fond of bows and arrows, became a wonderful shot. As is[xviii] usual with orphans, he was wiser than others, and was able to hunt when much smaller than his comrades.

He began to kill birds for his foster-mother; gradually he went farther from home, and found more game. The widow had plenty in her house now, and something to give her friends. The boy and the woman lived on in this fashion a whole year. He was good, thoughtful, serious, a wise boy, and brought game every day. The widow was happy with her foster-son.

At last he came late one evening, later than ever before, and hadn’t half so much game.

“Why so late, my son; and why have you so little game?” asked the widow.

“Oh, my mother, game is getting scarce around here; I had to go far to find any, and then it was too late to kill more.”

The next day he was late again, a little later than the day before, and had no more game; he gave the same excuse. This conduct continued a week; the woman grew suspicious, and sent out a boy to follow her foster-son, and see what he was doing.

Now what had happened to the boy? He had gone far into the forest on the day when he was belated, farther than ever before. In a thick and dense place he found a round, grassy opening; in the middle of this space was a large rock, shaped like a millstone, and lying on one side, the upper part was flat and level. He placed his birds on the rock, sprang up, and sat on it to rest; the time was just after midday. While he was sitting there, he heard[xix] a voice in the stone, which asked: “Do you want me to tell a story?” He was astonished, said nothing. Again the voice spoke, and he answered: “Yes, tell me a story.”

The voice began, and told him a wonderful story, such as he had never heard before. He was delighted; never had he known such pleasure. About the middle of the afternoon, the story was finished; and the voice said: “Now, you must give me your birds for the story; leave them where you put them.” He went away toward home, shot what birds he could find, but did not kill many.

He came the next day, with birds, and heard a second story; and so it went on till the eighth day, when the boy sent by the foster-mother followed secretly. That boy heard the story too, discovered himself, and promised not to tell. Two days later the widow sent a second boy to watch those two, and three days after that a third one. The boys were true to the orphan, however, and would not tell; the magic of the stories overcame them.

At last the woman went to the chief with her trouble; he sent a man to watch the boys. This man joined the boys, and would not tell. The chief then sent his most trusty friend, whom nothing could turn aside from his errand. He came on the boys and the man, while they were listening to a story, and threatened them, was very angry. The voice stopped then, and said: “I will tell no more to-day; but, you boys and you men, listen to me, take a message to the chief and the people,—tell them to come here to-morrow, to come all of them, for I have a great word to say to every person.”

[xx]

The boys and men went home, and delivered the message. On the following day, the whole people went out in a body. They cleared away the thick grass in the open space; and all sat down around the stone, from which the voice came as follows:—

“Now, you chief and you people, there was a world before this, and a people different from the people in the world now,—another kind of people. I am going to tell you of that people. I will tell you all about them,—what they did; how they fixed this world; and what they became themselves. You will come here every day till I have told all the stories of the former people; and each time you will bring a little present of what you have at home.”

The stone began, told a story that day, told more the next day. The people came day after day, week after week, till the stone told all it knew. Then it said: “You have heard all the stories of the former world; you will keep them, preserve them as long as you live. In after times some man will remember nearly all of these stories; another will remember a good many; a third, not so many; a fourth man, a few; a fifth, one story; a sixth, parts of some stories, but not all of any story. No man will remember every story; only the whole people can remember 

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