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The Salmon of Knowledge

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Fenian Cycle

The source of Fionn Mac Cumhaills wisdom, The Salmon of Knowledge

Here is the story of how Fionn MacCumhaill gained the knowledge of the world. And wouldn't it be a great thing to know it all? Still, knowledge and wisdom must be balanced, and this was known to the young man called Fionn, which means fair and bright. He was fleeing from the warriors who had murdered his father when he came upon the hiding place of the last of the old Fianna who refused to serve under the killers. He'd found them by means of the magical tokens stored in his father's crane skin bag, which he'd taken from the first man to strike at his father.

They were overjoyed to find him, and promised they would follow his lead, but he was only a youth and still too green a sapling. They sent him away to study poetry and learn the ways of the world from the poet and seer Finegas. Finegas had a reputation for being crafty in word and deed, as well as deep in the lore of the old Tuatha, and he'd made his home beside the river Boyne in the hopes of catching the salmon of knowledge.

This salmon was no ordinary fish, not at all, for it had eaten one acorn from each of the seven trees which grew beside the well of secrets, each bringing its own understanding.

Now Fionn was travelling under a false name, that of Deimne, as he was a marked man and hunted by grim warriors, the sons of Morna, throughout the land. And it was just as well since Finegas had been granted a prophecy years earlier - that he would find and catch the salmon, but he would not eat of it! Instead a young man called Fionn would take his part, and had he known as much he might have made an effort to turn aside the foretelling.

But Deimne he saw was a fine and pleasant young fellow and he let him stay, for he was useful about the house.

In return for instruction Deimne, as we shall call him, had taken over the service of his master's hut, and as he went about the household duties, drawing the water, lighting the fire, and carrying rushes for the floor and the beds, he thought over all the poet had taught him, and his mind dwelt on the rules of metre, the cunningness of words, and the need for a clean, brave mind.

But in his many thoughts he yet remembered the salmon of knowledge as eagerly as his master did. He already venerated Finegas for his great learning, his poetic skill, for a hundred reasons but, looking on him as the ordained eater of the Salmon of Knowledge, he venerated him to the edge of measure. Indeed, he loved as well as venerated this master because of his unfailing kindness, his patience, his readiness to teach, and his skill in teaching.

And one day Deimne asked Finegas about the salmon.

"Here is a question," he said. "How does this salmon get wisdom into his flesh?"

"There is a hazel bush overhanging a secret pool in a secret place. The Nuts of Knowledge drop from the Sacred Bush into the pool, and as they float, a salmon takes them in his mouth and eats them."

"It would be almost as easy," the boy responded, "if one were to set on the track of the Sacred Hazel and eat the nuts straight from the bush."

"That would be very easy," said the poet, "and yet it is not as easy as that, for the bush can only be found by its own knowledge, and that knowledge can only be got by eating the nuts, and the nuts can only be got by eating the salmon."

"We must wait for the salmon," said Deimne with frustration and yet acceptance of how things were.

Life continued for him in a round of timeless time, wherein days and nights were uneventful and were yet filled with interest. As the day packed its load of strength into his frame, so it added its store of knowledge to his mind, and each night sealed the twain, for it is in the night that we make secure what we have gathered in the day.

If he had told of these days he would have told of a succession of meals and sleeps, and of an endless conversation, from which his mind would now and again slip away to a solitude of its own, where, in large hazy atmospheres, it swung and drifted and reposed. Then he would be back again, and it was a pleasure for him to catch up on the thought that was forward and re-create for it all the matter he had missed.

But he could not often make these sleepy sallies, his master was too experienced a teacher to allow any such bright-faced, eager-eyed abstractions, and as the druid women had switched his legs around a tree, so Finegas chased his mind, demanding sense in his questions and understanding in his replies.

To ask questions can become the laziest and wobbliest occupation of a mind, but when you must yourself answer the problem that you have posed, you will meditate your question with care and frame it with precision.

Deimne's mind learned to jump in a bumpier field than that in which he had chased rabbits. And when he had asked his question, and given his own answer to it, Finegas would take the matter up and make clear to him where the query was badly formed or at what point the answer had begun to go astray, so that he came to understand by what successions a good question grows at last to a good answer.

And one day it came to pass that Finegas finally caught the salmon, and thinking himself safe from the prophecy he smiled and showed it to Deimne in a shallow wicker basket. Before getting a promise from the boy not to eat the tiniest piece as it was roasted, he took himself away for a short time.

Deimne with great care took the salmon to the fire and cooked it, and when Finegas returned he looked upon the lad and saw that he had changed in ways hard to describe, but changed nonetheless. He asked Deimne had he tasted of the fish at all.

"I did taste it by chance," Deimne laughed, "for while the fish was roasting a great blister rose on its skin. I did not like the look of that blister, and I pressed it down with my thumb. That burned my thumb, so I popped it in my mouth to heal the smart. If your salmon tastes as nice as my thumb did," he laughed, "it will taste very nice."

"What did you say your name was, dear heart?" the poet asked.

"I said my name was Deimne."

"Your name is not Deimne," said the mild man, "your name is Fionn."

"That is true," the boy answered, "but I do not know how you know it!"

And the poet was resigned to having fulfilled the prophecy, but he was not dismayed, for Fionn in his own newfound wisdom made a new prophecy, that the poet would catch another such salmon and eat it for himself, and so the heart of Finegas was filled with gladness. And from then Fionn only had to put his thumb in his mouth to know many things, and the best answer to complicated questons which baffle philosophers even today.

The very spot where Fionn is said to have tasted of the salmon of knowledge is marked below.


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