Mythic Monday: Formidable Finn MacCool

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Finn MacCool stands out among the Fianna. Credit: © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Images

This week’s Mythic Monday returns to the misty shores of Ireland. Heroic tales, romances, and sagas make up a major part of early Irish literature. These works are based on legends and were probably recorded from about A.D. 700 into the 1200’s. One of the most familiar figures of early Irish lore is Finn MacCool (or Fionn mac Cumhaill in Irish). He was the leader of the Fianna, a band of mythical Irish warriors who were said to have roamed Ireland about A.D. 200. Finn and the Fianna were famous for their great size and strength. Some legends put Finn at over 50 feet (15 meters) tall! In addition to his formidable physical presence, Finn was known for his generosity and wisdom. His legend was big enough to jump the sea from Ireland, because he appears in the mythologies of Scotland (often as Fingal) and the Isle of Man as well.

Finn MacCool’s immense size may have been magically genetic, but his wisdom came to him in an unusual way. Several tales tell how he burned his thumb while cooking the salmon of knowledge, a mythical creature of Ireland’s River Boyne said to possess all the world’s knowledge. To ease the pain of the burn, Finn put his thumb in his mouth, tasting the hot grease from the fish and thereby acquiring the salmon’s vast wisdom. From that day, Finn had only to put his thumb in his mouth when he was perplexed to discover the solution to a problem.

Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway is said to be the remains of a bridge Finn MacCool built to reach Scotland. Credit: © Shutterstock

Another story tells how Finn created the Giant’s Causeway, an unusual rock formation along the north coast of Northern Ireland. Finn got into a shouting match with a rival Scottish giant known as Benandonner, but the Irish Sea prevented them from settling their quarrel with fists. Always spoiling for a fight, Finn tossed giant stones in the sea to create a bridge for the giants to cross and meet in battle. Finn had second thoughts, however, when he saw the fearsome Benandonner, and he ran home where his wife disguised him as a baby. After Benandonner arrived and saw the “baby,” he too decided against a fight, reckoning that Finn must be astronomically big to have a baby that size. As Benandonner fled home to Scotland, he tore up the bridge to keep from being followed, leaving only the Giant’s Causeway still standing. Geologists credit the contraction of a lava flow for the curious rock formation.

In the 1800's, a group of Irish nationalists seeking independence from the United Kingdom called themselves Fenians after the legends of Finn and the Fianna. Today, the name of one of Ireland’s major political parties, Fianna Fáil, also recalls the mythological days of yore.

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