One of the more mysterious mentions of the legendary hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill in the indigenous literatures of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man is “Finn and the Man in the Tree”, a short 8th century Old Irish text containing several Latin words or phrases. It is found in the Seanchas Mhór, an important compendium of Medieval Irish law tracts, where it is used to illustrate the divinatory practice of iomas forosna (“illuminating knowledge”). The first part of the story explains how Fionn acquired this ability by catching a finger in the door of a Sí or Otherworld residence (alternative origins for the skill exist in other texts). The second half shows Fionn using this preternatural skill to identify an exiled member of the fianna, Dearg Corra, who is discovered sitting in a tree with three animal companions nearby, a blackbird, a stag and a bowl-bound trout. In a study for the e-Keltoi journal William Sayers argues that the literary motifs used in the tale refer to an Irish and Celtic division of the universe into three parts or worlds. He describes this as a:
“…tripartite cosmos that is also represented symbolically in the blackbird, stag, and trout.
Although the evidence is allusive and never as explicit as a statement of preserved prior belief, durable sets of motifs and far-reaching homological correspondences among these sets suggest an archaic Celtic conception of an equilibrated tripartite cosmos comprising 1) the sky or heavens, 2) the earth’s surface, the human world, and 3) the underearth and undersea. Christian theology, with its linear, rather than cyclic, time, and hierarchy of heaven above and hell below, modified the pagan worldview in both subtle and far-reaching ways and the synthesis as we meet it in the learned and narrative Irish texts of the early Middle Ages is distinctive. The two spatial co-ordinates—vertical and horizontal—organize cosmological motifs in early Irish literature: “vertical” but not necessarily hierarchized triadic sets and their “horizontal” extensions through homological correspondences that may vary in scalar terms. We may imagine a grid with such groupings as 1) elemental dimensions (heaven; earth’s surface; underearth and undersea); 2) social estate (kings, priests, lawmen, poets, historians; warriors; hospitallers, cultivators, herdsmen, hunters); 3) body parts (head, eyes, faculty of speech; arms, upper torso; lower torso, legs); 4) royal sins (injustice, sacrilege; cowardice, misuse of military force; economic extortion, sexual abuse); 5) punishments (hanging; wounding with weapons; pits, prisons); 6) colors (white; red; blue/green/black); and so on.
Three understudied reflections of the tripartite cosmos and its homological extensions that may be reviewed prior to a reconsideration of “the man in the tree” are water-fowl in early Irish narrative, the incantatory human stance called corrguinecht, and standing stones, sacred trees, and other expressions of the axis mundi. Water fowl often occur in the run-up to the central action of several Irish tales. They are elusive, when hunted by Cú Chulainn and his fellow Ulstermen in Serglige Con Culainn (The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn), or tauntingly joined by chains of red gold as they fly overhead. Such birds are hypostases of women from the síd or “fairy mound”. In linking the water fowl motif with cosmic organization, we may identify the bird’s trifunctionality in its ability to fly in the air, walk on land, and stand or swim in water. The crane, to take one gawky but graceful example, thus comprehensively resumes the inherent verticality of such phrasings as heaven, earth, and undersea. In early Irish texts the magic-working technique called corrguinecht (perhaps with an allusion to corr “crane”) is an attribute of superior figures (euhemerized gods) and of sorcerers. A vow or curse is given greater efficacy by the practitioner, with one eye closed, reciting in one breath into the fist of one hand, while standing on one leg (on occasion by a doorpost, see below). The three cosmic components are here implicated in the following equivalences: eye, breath (head) = sky; fist (as part of the arms and torso) = earth’s surface; leg = underearth, all joined along the axis of the human body. The vertical position is combined with a reduction of the binary or dual (in a sense, horizontal and lateral) to the unitary, in what seems both a sacrifice and compensatory intensification of power (cf. the potent one-eyed and one-armed figures of many earlier and medieval literatures, not least Norse Óðinn and Týr). While not always an inimical or anti-social act, corrguinecht is performed alone and seeks to alter the course of events. The vertical axis that informs most allusions to a tripartite cosmos is also to be found in a variety of other metonyms, miniatures, or compressions of various kinds—all instantiations of the fundamental cosmic integrity.
To move closer to the anecdote of Finn and Derg Corra, the widespread conception of a cosmic or world tree—its roots in the underearth, the tips of its branches in the heavens, and the ceaseless activity of our best-known world throughout its boughs and foliage—has homologues in the various sacred trees (bile) of early Ireland that also served, it is believed, as traditional territorial boundary markers. Standing stones may offer a fainter echo of this conception. A similar linearity is telescoped in the image of the doorpost to a hall, which has two coordinates, since, with its lintel and threshold, it also marks, horizontally, a limes, a threshold between the civilized, hierarchized, ruled Within of the royal hall and the wild, amorphous, and unruly Without of the forest, moor, and shore. In exercises of metonymical sacralization it would seem that almost any site on earth could be chosen and given provisional but heightened status as a kind of omphalos, an entry to, or contact point with, the whole cosmic force-field.”
While I agree with most of the analysis offered here (and I recommend reading the article in its entirety) I am less than convinced that the pre-Christian Irish, Scots and Manx believed in the concept of an axis mundi (a Latin term used in modern studies of ancient mythologies to indicate a world tree or world pillar that normally lies at the geographical centre of the universe, often binding different levels of it together). There is no denying that sacred trees (and groves) were part of Gaelic and Celtic culture in general. The Irish language uses the words bile “scared tree” and crann beatha “tree of life” to indicate trees that were held to be of great significance, usually in association with mytho-historical legends. Many Irish kingdoms had a bile within their territory, often in a central region, which was venerated by the local population and held to be of import to the kingdom’s well-being (military raids to cut down or burn these trees by external enemies were not unknown well into the historical era). Such trees were usually associated the Otherworld People, the Tuatha Dé Danann and Aos Sí, and this along with their origin-stories was normally why they were given such prestige and respect. A distant echo of this survived into the 20th century with the untouchable “fairy trees” that used to proliferate across the Irish countryside (though it is debatable if such a tradition still survives in these venal times).
However that does not mean that every tree was sacred or held to be of significance to the gods in pre-Christian and early Medieval Ireland. Timber and wood were essential materials in the ancient Irish economy and indeed many woods and forests were privately owned. By the 8th century CE some of the great monastic-towns had become mercantile corporations with a considerable investment in forestry, in the process taking ownership of many hitherto wilderness lands (which of course placed them at odds with the youthful or property-free hunter-warrior bands of the historic fianna who traditionally regarded such regions as their own). So while some trees were honoured most were not.
Likewise the use of galláin or standing-stones to indicate the sites of ancient burials or battles, sacred areas or as boundary markers, was a mixture of the religious and the practical. The stones were clearly of some significance and some could be carved or inscribed with Ogham writing but one rarely reads of anything approaching worship. It should be stressed that contrary to some popular modern myths neither the Irish nor the Celts in general believed in “nature spirits” or that all trees or stones had some form of animate life. Yes, certain stones could cry out at the touch of a king or such-like, but they were very much the exception and the thinking behind it not readily reducible to that of spirits within.
By far the most common division of the universe in the Gaelic traditions of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man is the duality presented by the surface world and that of the subterranean/submaritime Sí or Otherworld (depending on the context the Irish word Sí means both “the Otherworld” in general and specifically a single “Otherworld residence, territory”). While the surface world is the home of mankind the latter form’s the home of the ancient gods and goddesses of the north-western Celts albeit carefully rearranged and disguised in literary dress as the Tuatha Dé Danann and Aos Sí by the Irish monastic scribes. The Otherworld People lived in a parallel world beneath our own, with its own sky, sun, lands and seas, only of far greater beauty and wonder. This idealized version of the world above was reached in part through the ancient burial mounds and other prehistoric monuments that dotted the landscapes of western Europe and which were often presented as the concealed residences of the leading lords or kings of the Otherworld folk (hence the dual meaning of the word Sí). Alternatively it could be reached through caves, under springs or lakes, under or across the sea, through mists or simply though sudden revelation.
Nowhere does the actual sky or firmament feature as a cosmological abode. The Celtic pantheon most assuredly never dwelt in the heavens. The Celtic heaven, if we may name it as such, was below the ground and sea or it invisibly weaved its way throughout the lands of humankind. Thus the encounter with and revelation of Dearg Corra’s identity probably has more to do with revealing the presence of the Otherworld in this world than in some tripartite “sky-earth-underworld” allegory (despite the symbolic love of triads in the Celtic and Gaelic civilizations). This does not discount the importance of the day-time or night-time skies as a basic fact of nature and thus requiring a place in any ancient cosmology. The pre-modern Gaels must have had some explanation for the sky above and indeed such creatures as the Bocánaigh and Bánánaigh were inhabitants or beings of it. Likewise birds in flight or the movement of clouds could be used for divination or predicting the future (the outcome of a battle or such like). And of course the ancient Irish oath calling for the skies to fall upon the earth along with earthquakes and floods implies some sort of understood myth. But the sky, as far as one can tell, was the lesser of all the Irish literary motifs or symbolic tags.
Even in the florid descriptions of the Otherworld, where significant tress and groves abound, there is no mention of a tree that has roots and branches reaching through all the worlds or which lies at the cosmological centre of all the worlds. And while there may have existed the Ail na Míreann or great stone at Uisneach, the ancient centre of Ireland, the concept of a single “world tree” on the lines of a Yggdrasil or a world pillar seem absent from most accounts, even in allegorical terms.
Below is the original Old Irish text for the anecdote known to modern scholars in English as “Fionn and the Man in the Tree” from Kuno Meyer’s 1904 Revue Celtique edition:
Fo chosmailius dorigne Finn húa Baiscne. In tan búi in fian oc Badamair for brú Siúire dodechaidh Cúldub mac húi Birgge a síd ar Femun ut Scotti dicunt co mbert a fulacht núadaib. Co teóra aidchi amin degéni friu. Isin tres fecht iarum norat Finn co luid riam i síd ar Femun. Fortngaib Finn la techt isa síd co torchair allda anall. A ndosreng fris a láim fritninnle in ben asin tsíd & escra fliuch ina láim iar ndáil isin úair riam & doinsort a comlaid frisa síd co ndruid Finn a mér itir in comlaid & in ursain. Gabais iarom a mér ina béolu. A donic as afrithisi foopairt dicetal. Fortnosmen an imbas condebert: ‘Tair Femen fuigial formuig meis mui muic cetson sirchrand sirlúath laith find sra aulad Cúlduib chanmae.’
Cinn ree iarom dobertatar mná braite a Dún Iascaich a tír na nDésea. Dobreth ingen álainn léo. Atecoboride menma Find in ben dó. Focairdd sí menmain for in gilla búi léo .i. Dercc Corra mac húi Daigre. Ar ba hé a abras-side. Céin fonnuithea fulacht léo léim & doléim in gilla tarsin n-indiu. Tre sin didiu carais an ingen é & asbert fris laa n-aill ara tísed cuice i lighe. Ní foét són Dercc Corra déag Finn. Atagegai domnid1 dó. Cotsáid fri Finn & asbert: ‘Fortaprom ar écin!’ Asbert iarum Finn fris: ‘Éirgg es’, ol sé, ‘de m’ inchaib & rotbia essomon trí laithi & teóra n-aidchi & fomcialta-sa ó suidhiu inund!’
Luid didiu Derc Corra for loinges & arfoét caill & imtighed for luirgnib oss n-allta (si uerum est) ar a étrumai. Laa n-aill didiu do Find isin caill oc a cuingidh-som co n-aca Find in fer i n-úachtar in craind & lon for a gúalainn ndeis & find-lestar n-uma for a láimh clí, osé co n-usce & hé brecc bedcach and & dam allaith fo bun in craind & ba hé abras ind fir teinm cnó & dobered leth n-airne na cnó don lun nobíth for a gúalaind ndeis, no-ithed feisin al-leth n-aill & doicsed a uball asin lestar n-uma búi for a láimh clí & norandad i ndé & docuireth a leth don dam allaid búi fo bun in craind. No-ithad som iarom in leth n-aill & no-ibed loim fair den uisce asin lestur huma búi for a láim co mbo comól dó frisin n-iich & a n-oss & in lon. Friscomarcar didiu a muinter do Finn cia bo hé hisin crunn, ar nínathgéntar som dáigh celtair díclithe búi imbe.
Is de dobert Finn a hordain ina béolo. Addonich as eisib afrithisi fortnosna a imbus & dichan dicetal co n_eipert: ‘Con fri lon lethcno contethain cotith in dithraib Dercc Corra comól fri hich ni ba filliud fabaill a uball fín mblais cona fricarbaith mac úi co dedail Daigre.’ ‘Dercc Corra mac húi Daigre’, ol sé, ‘fil isan crund’.
What follows is my updated translation of the Myers’ original:
“When the fiann were at Badhamhair on the edge of the Siúr, Cúldubh the son of Ó Birghe came out of the Otherworld residence on Feimhean and carried off their cooking from them. For three nights he did this to them. The third time however Fionn knew and went before him to the Otherworld residence on Feimhean. Fionn laid hold of him as he went into the Otherworld residence, so that he fell inside. When he withdrew his hand, a woman met him [?] coming out of the Otherworld residence with a dripping vessel in her hand, having just distributed drink, and she jammed the door against the Otherworld residence, and Fionn squeezed his finger between the door and the post. When he put his finger into his mouth. When he took it out again he began to chant, the iomas illumines him and he said… [text never translated]
Some time afterwards they carried off captive women from Dún Iaschaigh in the land of the Déise. A beautiful girl was taken by them. Fionn’s mind desired the woman for himself. She set her heart a servant whom they had, even Dearg Cora son of Ó Daighre. For this was his was his practice. While food was being cooked by them, the servant jumped to and fro across the cooking hearth. It was for that the girl loved him. And one day she said to him that he should come to her and lie with her. Dearg Crra did not accept that on account of Fionn. She incites Fionn against him and said: ‘Let us set upon him by force!’ Thereupon Fionn said to him: ‘Go from here,’ said he, ‘out of my sight, and you shall have a truce of three days and three nights, and after that beware of me!’
Then Dearg Cora went into exile and dwelt in a wood and used to go about on shanks of deer for his lightness. One day as Fionn was in the wood seeking him he saw a man in the top of a tree, a blackbird on his right shoulder and in his left hand a white vessel of bronze, filled with water, in which was a jumping trout, and a stag at the foot of the tree. And this was the practice of the man, cracking nuts; and he would give half the kernel of a nut to the blackbird that was on his right shoulder while he would himself eat the other half; and he would take an apple out of the bronze vessel that was in his left hand, divide it in two, throw one half to the stag that was at the foot of the tree, and then eat the other half himself. And on it he would drink a sip of the bronze vessel that was in his hand, so that he and the trout and the stag and the blackbird drank together. Then his followers asked of Fionn who he in the tree was, for they did not recognise him on account of the cloak [hooded-cloak?] of concealment which he wore.
Then Fionn put his thumb into his mouth. When he took it out again, his iomas illumines him and he chanted an incantation and said: “’Its is Dearg Cora son of Ó Daighre,’ said he, ‘that is in the tree.’”