What is so special about Mongán?
Mongán is no longer a well-known figure in Irish mythology; and yet we have found ourselves giving three full podcast episodes to exploring his stories. In the Irish annals (3.1), Mongán was referenced as a king who died in 625 CE. There is also an existing prose text and a couple of poems which relate a meeting between him and Colmcille (1.3; 4.11). If we wish to follow the questing beast of historicity, then, given their allotted dates, these two could possibly have met. As we commented in the episode (4.11), St Adomnán gives Colmcille’s dates as 521 to 591. The saint might have met Mongán on one of his rare visits to Ireland later in his life! Theoretically, it could have even been the Convention of Druim Cett (Limavady, Co Derry) in 575. The locations are appropriate, at least.
Mongán is, of course, far more than just a name in the annals, and it is his fascinating complexity that has lead us to give so much attention to the available texts from his story cycle (1). Mongán shares many elements with familiar epic heroes, i.e. a marvellous or hidden birth; childhood feats; powers and achievements beyond the usual; a quest or forays into an unfamiliar or dangerous environment, sometimes supernatural; and a dramatic and memorable death.
What is particular to Mongán is that he is not flung into his hero role, reluctantly or otherwise. His intended ‘destiny’ is specific. He has inherited a twofold nature from his duel parentage, and this enables him to combine a double role in the mortal world. Born to a mortal mother and accepted as an adopted son by a mortal king, he is, therefore, qualified to become a warrior-leader. As the immortal son of Manannán, on the other hand, he is authorised by the Otherworld to function as an inspired poet and seer. If the role of the ‘warrior-king’ is to maintain the natural order by giving fair (true) judgement and upholding the honour of his túath; then the role of the ‘king’s poet’ is to provide his chieftain with the knowledge and guidance required for his rule to succeed. The poet will augment his king’s reputation with praise when he is effective, or will censure him with satire if he fails. Satire may even put an end to his rule. However, the poet must be ready, in his turn, to demonstrate that he has the ability and authority to fully undertake the role.
The story of Mongán’s miraculous birth begins long before he was even conceived. The whole point of the Immrám Brain (4.01) is to provide an audience for Manannán to announce his plan to conceive this ‘saviour’ child. The Otherworld woman, who comes to offer Bran the apple branch that will entice him to begin his voyage, describes the wonders of the Otherworld in scintillating detail. It is this land that informs the paternal half of Mongán’s heritage:
fair streams of silver, cloths of gold
they give welcome, all great draughts..
Manannán even anticipates Mongán’s poetic shape-shifting wordplay:
He will be a speckled salmon in a full pool,
He will be a seal, he will be a fair-white swan.
Mongán references this poetical style in his later conversation with Colmcille:
I have grazed it when I was a stag; I have swum it when I was a salmon, when I was a seal; I have run upon it when I was a wolf
Manannán manages the conception of his son without difficulty, offering the queen his help for her husband. King Fiachna is being threatened by a ferocious enemy. The help is offered in exchange for the opportunity to sleep with the queen. She agrees, and Manannán, honourably, tells her that he will inform Fiachna of her ‘sacrifice’. A later 14th century version of this story offers a lively alternative threat to Fiachna from venomous sheep! The child is given the name Mongán, meaning ‘flowing hair’.
As can be expected, Mongán shows his quality while hardly more than a child. However, unlike so many familiar heroes, he does not demonstrate super-human strength, fleetness of foot, or skill at hunting. He neither grows unusually rapidly, nor gets to wield a memorable weapon. Mongán is not granted an Otherworld gift, because he is already part of the Otherworld, and so has directly inherited the gifts of poetry and seer-ship. This is demonstrated in the story Why Mongán was Deprived of Noble Issue. Here, Mongán sets out to prove that Eochu Rígéigeas, chief poet of Ireland, is not fit to hold such a role. The young boy arranges, in a manner that remains undefined in the story, a series of poetic tests in which Eochu fails in his ability to ‘read’ the landscape. He has not the dindshenchas knowledge that all poets should hold ready. Unfortunately, it seems that the royal poet retains the ability to curse, and prophesies that Mongán will never have legitimate offspring. However, Mongán’s role is not to found a dynasty. This is not a part of his purpose. So Eochu is merely predicting the future. The meeting with Colmcille should also be listed among Mongán’s youthful exploits. In“The conversation of Colmcille and the youth at Carn Eolairg”, Mongán demonstrates his own dindshenchas knowledge by showing how well he is able to ‘read’ the landscape. Mongán also uses this opportunity to drop the hint that he has lived through many generations, or has lived in the mortal and immortal world over many periods.
There are a few further stories of Mongán’s life. None of them concern battle-prowess. “Scéil Mongán” shows the manner in which he tests the poetic training of a student by sending him on a quest to fetch an item from the ‘hollow hills’. It is an odd little story, in that absolutely nothing goes wrong. The student does exactly what he is told to do and gains exactly the reward he was promised. However, the story indicates Mongán’s connection with, and his right to enter, the Otherworld at will. Even the intriguing story, “Mongán’s Frenzy”, tells the same tale. Mongán is unable to tell his wife why he has suffered such a ‘baile’ until seven years have passed. Even then, the story cannot be told until a particularly significant moment in time, and in a safe ‘Otherworld’ environment. In modern narrative terms, it is annoying never to be told the cause of the frenzy, but the story communicates its intention. The substance of the tale can only be told from with in the Otherworld. Another text, entitled“A story from which it is inferred that Mongán was Finn Mac Cumaill”, gives even more indications of Mongán’s ‘Otherness’. When Mongán is threatened by the demands of another poet whom he knows to be incorrect, he draws on unexpected resources. The dramatic suspense of the story builds as a strange warrior approaches, walking along or through the rivers of Ireland. This warrior turns out to be Cailte, who lets slip that Mongán is really Finn himself. After a little archaeological excavation, the error of Fergoll the poet is proven. There is one final story that should be considered. The latter part of the 14th century version of the conception and birth of Mongán also includes a fascinating narrative about the relationship of Mongán and his wife, Dubh Lacha. Mongán very nearly swaps his wife for some very attractive cattle, and the situation is only saved by her quick wits. Indeed, he spends most of the story wasting away in some variant of a ‘love-sickness’, and only recovers after he encounters the Hag of the Mill, whose name, ‘Cuimne’ mean ‘memory’. This is a delightful story with some scurrilous humour, recounted in a later, romance style. The previous tale, concerning the threat to Mongán from the poet Fergoll, also involved the potential loss of his wife. As Mongán specifically states that he will offer Fergoll anything except his kingdom or his wife, it does suggest that a story in which he had managed to give away his wife might have been already known. An earlier, oral or literary version of the Dubh Lacha story could have existed.
The Death of Mongán
Much of what is known about the death of Mongán is contained in the prophecy of Immram Brain. This includes the specific information that the son of Manannan will be killed by a stone from a dragon from over the sea. The event will be located at Senlabor and Loch Ló (modern Roscommon). As he lies dying in a pool of blood, he will be carried away by a fair host, in a wheel of cloud, to the land without sorrow. In the annals, Mongán receives his death from a slingshot cast by Artur, a Briton, son of Bicur who comes from islands to the north east, identified as Kintyre.
Mongán and Taliesin
We commented in the podcast on the similarities between Taliesin and Mongán.Is Taliesin the Welsh equivalent of Mongán? What aspects do they share in common? Taliesin is given historical dates in the Welsh annals (d. 6th century). There is also a 14th century text, a book of poems of an earlier date, of which many are attributed to Taliesin. However, just as with Mongán, there is more to Taliesin than his role of king’s poet to Urien of Rheged. He, equally, is a character whose heroic feats are poetic rather than martial.
Taliesin’s hero journey
A significant conception and birth
Taliesin, also, has experienced more than one life. He was originally a child known as Gwion Bach. In this incarnation, he is set to watch the fire under the cauldron of Caridwen, who is seeking to create a potion of inspiration to empower her deformed son, Avagddu. The brew is required to boil for a full year and a day to be effective. Just as the brew is ready, three drops leap out and burn Gwion’s finger. He cools the burn in his mouth, and therefore becomes inspired. With his new awareness he realises the importance of escaping Caridwen’s anger. There follows a magical chase, in which both Gwion and Caridwen are able to shape-shift into a series of animal forms. Eventually, Gwion hides as a grain of corn, but Caridwen, in the form of a hen, swallows him, becoming pregnant. The new-born child is so fair that Caridwen finds herself unable to kill him. She places him in a hide-covered basket and puts him in the water. Elphin, son of Gwyddno, takes him from the weir and brings him up as his son. He is given the name Taliesin, meaning, ‘radiant brow’.
Taliesin speaks poetry as a baby when rescued from the salmon-weir. However, when Elphin is imprisoned for boasting of his bard’s prowess, Taliesin, at thirteen years old, is able to silence all Maelgwn’s poets, enchanting them so they can make nothing but burbling sounds, humiliating them.
Later legend has Taliesin gaining the status of belonging to King Arthur’s round table, as well as becoming chief bard to Urien Rheged. But there are no specific tales concerning his adventures, unless he is one of the seven who accompanied Arthur in the Otherworld raid of the Preiddeu Annwn, “The Spoils of Annwn”. I am not aware of any specific death tales concerning Taliesin.
Mongán, Taliesin and Finn
A resonance between the characters of Mongán and Taliesin can be demonstrated, but how are they directly connected with Finn? Finn also has a secret childhood, but there are so stories specifically giving him a magical conception or birth. He certainly exhibits exceptional abilities as a child, and, of course, gains his poetic inspiration in a similar manner to Gwion. Finn’s warrior status is undoubted, but he is also a powerful poet-seer. The story that links Mongán with Finn has been explored, both in our recent podcast episode, ‘Mongán and the Poets’. It has also been noted that Taliesin experiences a ‘pre’ life in which he began as the child, Gwion. It is this story that seems to offer a possibility of a chain of links between all the characters. It seems that Taliesin had been the child, Gwion, and Mangan had been the hero Finn. It is equally demonstrable that the names Gwion and Finn in Welsh and Irish are cognate, both meaning ‘fair’. Gwion and Finn can be further connected by the similarity of the childhood tales telling how both young heroes gained their seer-ship, i.e. their gift of poetic inspiration. The child Gwion gains the gift when three drops from Caridwen’s cauldron burn his finger, just as the blister on the salmon’s skin, as it cooks, burns the young Finn’s thumb. However, the question remains unanswered. If Gwion equates to Finn, and Mongán and Taliesin are, (or have been), Finn / Gwion; then can Mongán and Taliesin be regarded as equally connected? This question is becoming something of a Gordian, or rather, Celtic knot. In his ‘Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition’, Dr Daithi O hOgain makes a case for Finn, (or Find), as a very early child-seer who unlocks his ability by placing his thumb against his teeth. Although interesting, this does not yet provide an answer to our tangle of poets. There are also significant differences in the stories. Mongán, for example, is more closely associated with Finn as an adult hero, while Taliesin is associated with the child Gwion / Finn. This may explain why Taliesin’s childhood is hidden until his appearance in the salmon-weir, whereas Mongán’s birth is openly heralded by prophecy. It is unfortunate that while texts concerning Mongán have left us a variety of exploits and adventures, there are no recorded adult adventures of Taliesin, apart from a fragment of legend that has him rescuing a companion from a sinking coracle. Taliesin is best known through the fourteenth century book of (earlier) poetry, largely attributed to him.
Mongán, Taliesin and Arthur
Taliesin’s name is readily associated with the famous King Arthur of legend in the Welsh texts and stories. There is, however, no reason for the Irish Mongán to have had any connection with this mythical king, whose stories grew with the telling, absorbing and adapting motifs as they went. This is what makes Mongán’s death-tale so startling. Nothing is known, either in Immram Brain, or the Annals, concerning the cause of the battle of Senlabor. It is only relevant in that it brings about Mangan’s departure from the mortal world. Either the text is suggesting that he is being translated to heaven by angels, somewhat in the manner of the biblical Old Testament prophet Elijah; or, as is far more likely, he is being carried away to the Land of Promise, i.e. the Isle of Women and Bran’s ultimate destination. Put together with the, not infrequent, intimations that Mongán has lived through or over several generations and can come and go from the Blessed Isles at will, he begins to look as if he is also a proto-type ‘Once and Future King’. Even the birth of Mongán and the birth of Arthur have elements in common. In the familiar Arthurian tales, Merlin carries the, secretly fathered, infant, to a hidden place of safety until he is grown. Manannán, removes the infant Mongán to his hidden ‘Otherworld’ Isle until he is old enough to return and take up his adult role, As I understand it, the earliest mentions of Arthur appear in the Welsh annals around the 10th century. The ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ is thought to be of 9th century origin, based on linguistic evidence, although it is to be found in a later 13th or 14th century manuscript. However, the first description of the familiar ‘Death of Arthur’, and the prophecy of his future return, is not to be encountered before 1136, where it appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’. There is one more detail to add to this rich mixture. Mongán’s death is accomplished by a man whose own name is Artur and who is described as a Briton. Although probably an unexpected co-incidence, it is possible that wisps of oral stories may have inter-wound themselves, each growing on the familiarity of the other. It is equally possible that, as we have found before, a half-forgotten Irish story has acted as a prototype for a later, more familiar version. This is not a question that can be easily answered. However, it is hardly a knot that needs to be cut, Gordian-style. It may be better, rather, to appreciate and celebrate the intricacies of its interwoven complexities. Arthur, Finn, Taliesin; names that are currently familiar to all those interested in the mythology of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Mongán is sadly neglected. So, may we commend to you the most lively and entertaining stories of the Wondrous Son of Manannán. We give you Mongán, the Once and Future Poet-King.
(1) Downloadable versions of the texts (English translations)
Includes The Birth of Mongán, A Story of Mongán and A Story From Which It Was Inferred That Mongán was Finn Mac Cumall.
Note: All texts in Old or Early Middle Irish except The Conception of Mongán and Dub-Lacha’s Love for Mongán, which is 12th-14th century (Book of Fermoy).
You can read the text with links to sources here.
You can read the text with links to sources here.
(2) Podcast episodes concerning Mongan
(3) Other material
Mongán’s Death recorded at M620.7 – under heading M612 in the table of contents in the right-hand navigation frame.
Written by Dianne Evanochko as part of The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.
Translated by Sarah Higley as part of The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.