The Salmon of Knowledge
The legend tells the story of how a boy called Fionn became a wise man by being the first person to eat the Salmon of Knowledge. Fionn would go on to lead a band of hunters and warriors known as the Fiana and become one of the greatest heroes in Celtic Mythology.
The story is set at the River Boyne which is at it’s largest flowing through counties Louth and Meath in Ireland. In this river lived a magical salmon. Its skin shone like silver and it ate hazel that grew on the riverbank. The fish was called the Salmon of Knowledge. A druid had foretold that anyone who ate the salmon would gain its magical powers and have the knowledge of all things. An old poet Finnegas who lived along the Boyne and had spent many years trying to catch the salmon. He had hoped to be the first to eat it and gain its magical powers.
One day a young boy came running towards him. “Who are you?” asked Finnegas, “why are you running?”. My name is Fionn said the boy. “My father has been killed in battle, now his enemies want to kill me too”. “Do not be afraid”, said Finnegas kindly. “Stay with me and I will look after you”. Fionn lived happily with Finnegas learning to be a poet. A poet was held in high esteem in Celtic civilization. Fionn thought that by becoming a poet of high esteem he would be protected from the warriors. In return Fionn would spend the day cleaning the hut and cooking the meals at night. He loved to listen to the old man telling wonderful stories.
One day Finnegas went out fishing as usual trying to catch the salmon. After a short time he came rushing to the door of the hut. In his hands he carried a huge fish. “I have caught the Salmon of Knowledge,” he cried happily. “Now I will have great knowledge”. Quickly Fionn lit a fire and soon the salmon was cooking. “Look after the fish, while I get some more firewood,” ordered Finnegas, “but you are not to taste it”, he warned Fionn.
Fionn sat watching the salmon cooking over the fire. He sat there dreaming of what wonderful powers the salmon would bring. As he sat dreaming looking at the salmon cooking he noticed a blister rising on the cooking salmon. Not thinking he burst the blister and in the process burn’t his finger. Automatically he put his finger in his mouth to cool it down. Unknowingly he was the first to tast the Salmon of Knowledge. Finnegas came back and Fionn told him what had happened. Finnegas decreed “You will gain great powers, you must now go and become leader of the Fianna.” and so it was.
With Finegas, Finn learned the three things that make a poet, and they are Fire of Song, and Light of Knowledge, and the Art of Extempore Recitation. Before he departed he made this lay to prove his art, and it is called “The Song of Finn in Praise of May”:—
May Day! delightful day!
Bright colours play the vales along. Now wakes at morning’s slender ray,
Wild and gay, the blackbird’s song.
Now comes the bird of dusty hue,
The loud cuckoo, the summer-lover; Branching trees are thick with leaves;
The bitter, evil time is over.
Swift horses gather nigh
Where half dry the river goes; Tufted heather crowns the height;
Weak and white the bogdown blows.
Corncrake sings from eve till morn,
Deep in corn, a strenuous bard! Sings the virgin waterfall,
White and tall, her one sweet word.
Loaded bees of little power
Goodly flower-harvest win; Cattle roam with muddy flanks;
Busy ants go out and in.
Through, the wild harp of the wood
Making music roars the gale— Now it slumbers without motion,
On the ocean sleeps the sail.
Men grow mighty in the May,
Proud and gay the maidens grow; Fair is every wooded height;
Fair and bright the plain below.
A bright shaft has smit the streams,
With gold gleams the water-flag; Leaps the fish, and on the hills
Ardour thrills the flying stag.
Carols loud the lark on high,
Small and shy, his tireless lay, Singing in wildest, merriest mood
Of delicate-hued, delightful May.