Lately stories are calling out to me as I walk by the bookcase, its almost as if I’m being accosted by them! One story from “The People of the Sea” by David Thomson popped out, near the end of the book. Thomson shares a story of how the Seals came to be – it has so many interesting twists and turns I had to share it here.
Celtophiles will recognize immediately the names of Balor (king of the Fomorians), his daughter Ethniu, and Lugh, his grandson who ultimately slays him. This version is more of a local tale, not only one of a hero coming into the fullness of his power but also a story of the forces of blight and famine being driven from the land, and of course somehow through it all the Seals are born into the world.
In this version Lugh is fathered by a young man in the midst of an initiation of his own, the youngest of the three brothers Cian (note how the hero Cian has become the brothers Kane in this more recent version). Glas Ghaibhne was involved, that cow (yes actually a cow) shows up everywhere in Irish myth, seems a cow that can provide twenty times the milk of any cow was very popular back then. In this tale she was owned by a renown blacksmith (understood by some to be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann) who repaid those who watched over Glas with a fine sword fresh from his hammer and anvil. This was no easy task as Glas wandered as much as sixty miles a day, making that much milk takes a lot of grazing.
The three Cian brothers thought they’d watch over Glas and earn themselves some fine swords. The two older brothers did so successfully, each earning a new sword from Smithy, but the youngest was not so successful. Perhaps its because the day was wet, perhaps because he was not yet a man, but he slipped and turned away from Glas for only a moment, but that was enough. When he sat up she was gone.
This is when the story really picks up for me…
As is often the case in these sorts of affairs, the Smithy gave him a year and a day to find that cow he lost and bring her home. Hmmm, a year and a day sounds like the perfect amount of time to fully transform someone, perhaps to make a boy into a man? Its clear that at this point our youngest Cian has set off on the quest of manhood, having failed to prove himself by watching over a cow. The world had greater things in store for him than successful-cow-watcher, he set off with his brothers to find that Glas. They didn’t have to sail too long, as they came to a low island with a man toiling away building a fence to keep out the ocean.
“What are you on about man…why are you trying to keep out the Ocean with that thin wattle?” The youngest Cian often spoke without thinking, as was typical of young people then, just as it is now.
“My task is no more crazy than the one you’re on. I can see it plain as day, you’re here to bring Glas Ghaibhne back to the Smithy. At least I’m under a spell forcing me to build this ridiculous fence, you’re here because you lost Glas!”
That took young Cian back a bit. Who was this man, how did he know so much and what was this island of enchantment about? Clearly he was in over his head, even with his grown brothers with him.
“This here is the island of Balor Beimnech, the Fomorian with the one eye in his head that when open, kills all it sees. He’s got your cow and he won’t give it up so long as he lives.”
Shit. Thats what the young Cian must have been thinking. First I lose the damned enchanted cow, how am I supposed to kill a Fomorian, and without a decent sword!
“You can’t kill Balor, only his own grandson can kill him, and he’s not been born yet. We’ve got to give Balor a grandson. I say we because our fates are entwined you and I. So long as Balor is alive I’ll be working here, building useless fences to keep out the Ocean, and you’ll not win Glas back!”
“How can I give Balor a grandson? I don’t have a wife.”
“No but Balor has a daughter, one he hides away from the world for fear she’ll bring a son into the world. She’s never seen a man, never even heard the name of a man.”
“So I have to make love with Balors daughter in order to get the Cow?” He thought he could do this, he was after all a young man in his prime.
“Yes, but first you’ll have to make love with 900 other women.”
“900 women, you’ve got to be mad. Why do I have to do that?” Young Cian was understandably frightened by the prospect. Staring down an Earth destroying Fomorian was one thing, 900 women in bed was another thing entirely.
“Yes you see Balor has those 900 women guarding his daughter, if you make love to her and not each one of them, jealousy will drive them to tell Balor what you’ve done and he’s sure to kill you with the blink of an eye. You must make love to each woman, but don’t worry, I’ll give you a belt so that with each woman you’ll be as ready as you were when you started.”
Yes, there is a magic sex belt.
At this point in the story its important to place this whole thing within a Christian context. The gentleman telling this story undoubtedly considered himself to be a good Christian (as it was told at some point in the 1940’s or ’50’s), so he passed over the point of the magic sex-belt fairly quickly. If you listen to Saint Patrick, the pre-Christian Irish were much less reserved to about sex, in fact they were probably the most sexually active people in known history. I think its fair to say that the mention of a magic sex belt would have resulted in an epic quest to find such a belt. Likely wars were waged over rumors of such belts. “The Great Belt Wars” seem to have been lost to history however, so we’re left to wonder about the subtext here.
Lasciviousness aside, in a weird way, the gift of the sex belt takes the man’s task out of the mundane and into the sublime. No longer will his many, many sex acts be about the physicality sex (the belt takes care of that), no he has to woo each woman as if she mattered as much as the last, and indeed as the next. This is about quelling the jealousy of 900 women through love. He has to learn to treat every woman with the same grace with which he will ultimately treat his paramore. He must do this at least 900 times over the next 9 months until he has sired a child with each woman.
This is not a conquest of women, he is being asked to serve women, many women, so he can have the opportunity to mate with the one woman who will change his fate, and indeed ultimately the fate of all Ireland. The magic belt, bestowed by a wise (if imprisoned) man makes this all possible. But you have to show up for the magic, surrender to the quest to lay with the transformative experience. It is in that surrender, in the conjunction of his quest, the magic belt and the 900 maidens, that he becomes a man and ultimately the Selkie come into being.
“I’ve done what you said, ” he said to the mysterious fence weaver, “all 901 women have children, Balors grandson is surely the strongest of them all.” In a way his initiation ends there, he has become a man. Now he acts less as a victim of circumstance tossed about by fate, and more as a conscious agent of change.
“Great,” said the fence building man, obviously relived. “Now you’ve got to hide Lugh of the Long Arm, Balors grandson as he will come to be known, take him to your home. Yes and by the way, on your journey across the Ocean cast the rest of your children into the sea.”
Thats the way of it in these stories, at some point you’ll be ask to trust in something you really shouldn’t trust in, but you’re in a myth so you say “shit” and then you say “OK, here goes.” So the story continues merrily along, touching on many important points (how were the Femorians finally conquered, how does a man really earn his name, etc). The part of the birth of the Selkie drifts quickly by, Cian tosses the babies into the Ocean and they become Seals. Like one bit of flotsam amidst a stream flotsam. There is, of course, more to it than that.
901 minus 1.
It was on his crossing, back to the mainland, after he’d smuggled 901 babies beneath his coat and boarded his ship, all without alerting Balor, presumably at night, that he was to drop all but one of his children into the deep dark Ocean. When would it have been? Sunrise, yes I think it would have happened at sunrise after he’d been able to sail far from that enchanted island, out where he had the black depths of the Ocean beneath him.
He was a brand new father, when he left home he had no children, now he had 901! All of those newborns with nothing but his two older brothers, who were likely useless when it came to babies. That magic cow with all of her milk must have looked pretty good right now.
Did he feel a special connection to these children? Were they just part of the work of getting that damned cow back? I think not. If he had truly completed his task, wooed each woman as if she were a true lover, then surely he would see each woman’s eyes in each child’s eye. Magic sex-belt aside, he would have felt something for each child, some kinship, perhaps even responsibility.
And what of their God-father, the man still building wattle fences at the edge of the Ocean? Perhaps he’d been lonely, perhaps he was the one who needed children but had none. There he labored, trapped and alone, between land and ocean, this reality and some other, at the edge of the gateway to power. What was he thinking when he saw the young Cian approaching?
“Here’s my chance, I may be enchanted but I have some enchantments of my own to dole out.” Standing there as he did every day by the Ocean, surely he had come to know the spirits who resided there. Surely some of those spirits of the Ocean would have taken pity on him.
“We don’t like Balor any more than you,” they would say. “Not even the depths of the Ocean protect us all from his terrible eye.”
There it was, the man surely knew then he could parlay the suffering of Balor into freedom, and perhaps more.
The story goes that young Cian set Lugh down and opened his jacket and let all of the babies flow out into the sea. Cian must have said some prayer, wished for some enchantment to spare his children death. How could he hold in his own heart what he was doing?
There was something powerful in that moment. The alchemy of a newly made man, a trapped wizard or shaman standing between the worlds, his enchanted belt, and the protectors of Ethniu, all combined to transform these doomed children into the Seals we know today. Is there any wonder that those same Seals could transform into human beings? Of course they were magical creatures to being with, born of enchantment, but they were also born of human beings. Its easy to see this in their eyes, when you’re up close in the wild. Born of seduction, they are natural seducers with a great sorrow in their hearts, each and every one. They live between Ocean and shore, human and Ocean dweller, wild soul and transcendent being.
What must our mystery man have thought, tending his wattle fence when the first of his God-children hustled her fat round body up on shore? He must have been greatly pleased, perhaps he even wept. Did they cast off their skin then? Did they sing to each other grandfather and granddaughter, serenading each other to the stars and curling waves? Did they cry out for each of the distant 900 mothers?
Paying against debts that cannot be repaid.
The great eye of Balor surely blazes down over California now as I write this. The worst drought in our known history eats life here away slowly, easily, like a great endless inward flowing tide. What quest would my ancestors be undertaking now to bring life back into balance? What sacrifices would they be willing to make to set things right?
Human beings are, in some ways, havoc-wreakers. Just by following our own instincts, living out our lives, we do damage. This has never been as true as it is now, with our simplest daily activities threatening all life on the planet, but I think many peoples have carried an awareness of our impact for ages. It can be hard to come to grips with this as a young person, we wish to return to Eden, to live life perfectly, causing no damage, only nourishing the world. But this is not the life of an adult. Sometimes to make the final crossing we must pour our children into the Ocean, return home and hope for the best.
The weight of that truth, the debt of it, can never be fully repaid, but that doesn’t really matter does it? If we are in this together, each of us doing our part, the Earth understands our flawed way of being. The point is, we try, sincerely try. So we reach out to our children in the Ocean, acknowledge them as our kin, work to ease the suffering we cause them.
I hope you’ll remember Cians enchanted children today, hold them in your hearts. They carry a memory we all seem to have forgotten. That one sunrise, when the father that held them had human hands, and they were all poured into the Ocean for one glorious moment of becomming.