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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Myth and Reality

Myth and  Reality

by C. A. Asbrey

Every culture has myths and legends, and they generally end up as tales which we love to tell, and retell, down the generations. As we do so, they morph and alter, and those almost imperceptible changes finally add up to a huge shift over the centuries. When we strip them back, we might be surprised to find that there are basic truths behind the stories. It's even more surprising to find that modern scientific advances are helping us find them. It's interesting to juxtapose what we can prove against the ancient legends, or what is just too much of a coincidence to ignore. 

Archaeology shows that Ireland was originally inhabited around 33,000 years ago. Why am I using Ireland? Because there's actually no such thing as the modern construct of the Celt. There was a loose confederation of tribes and settlers from Europe who gradually ventured as far as they could go by walking over the old land bridge of Doggerland, or by boat, hugging the coast as they went. They spoke the Goidelic group of Indo-European languages, but the first settlers spoke a different tongue, and are not considered to be Celtic in modern terms.  Interestingly, the study of linguistic links between languages matches the genetic studies of human dispersals of ancient peoples. Modern Ireland still has a distinct genetic legacy on the fringes and in more remote areas, so they link the people directly to the times ancient European and British myths originated. Also, being in the edge of the known world, their genes mixed less in ancient times, so their stories link to a distinctly less-mixed heritage than in the melting pot of mainland Europe where people went to and fro. Their stories of very ancient times give us an insight to the Palaeolithic age  - albeit a tenuous one. Their story is a stripped-down version of the tale of Europe's ancient history.    

Professor Bradley of Trinity University in Dublin, says that the very first Irish probably looked very much like the recently published pictures of Cheddar Man. Whilst there has been some scientific debate over whether or not the presence of the genes actually reflect the real skin colour, it does fit with the mythology. 

“The earliest Irish would have been the same as Cheddar Man and would have had darker skin than we have today,” Prof Bradley said. “We think [ancient Irish populations] would be similar. The current, very light skin we have in Ireland now is at the endpoint of thousands of years of surviving in a climate where there’s very little sun. It’s an adaptation to the need to synthesise vitamin D in skin. It has taken thousands of years for it to become like it is today.” Prof Bradley added that his findings suggest that early Irish men and women originated from areas such as Spain and Luxembourg.

Similarly, Cheddar Man’s tribe migrated to Britain at the end of the last Ice Age and shared DNA with individuals in Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary. They ate a lot of fish, hunted wild boar and gathered plants and nuts.  

Cheddar Man


Brownies are found in various versions in western European folklore. In some versions, they are domesticated house elves. In others, they are mischievous or even downright malicious. They are said to be hairy, and brown-skinned. The height varies. In more modern times, they are small and wizened, but the more ancient tales speak of them being human height, albeit slightly less tall than their fairer-skinned companions. For centuries, historians dismissed the idea of modern Northern Europeans having dark skin only 7,000 years ago, but advances in genetics show that as recently as 4,300 years ago, various waves of migrations meant that Western Europe was a mix of skin colours and tribes. Some were taller than others.
A Fomorian
A recent study in Sweden found that the people carried both light skin gene variants, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2, as well as a third gene, HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes and may also contribute to light skin and blond hair.  These were not found in early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary. These had darker skin, and lacked the SLC24A5 and SLC45A2, which help lead to depigmentation. 

Was one of these tribes the Brownies of legend, the first hunter-gatherers still living in Ireland when later waves of immigration brought their genes for lighter skin? The Scottish Gaelic  names for them are gruagach or brùnaidh. The first word means hairy, and the second means brownie. The first people to populate the British Isles, and Ireland, have genes which cause both. To this day women from the Celtic fringes know their hirsuteness comes from their ancestors, and very few are grateful for it. 

Could these tales of the dark-skinned peoples have morphed into the mythical brownies? And were the tales of them only coming out to work, but being subversive wherever they could, reflect enslavement, or serfdom, to the next wave of invaders? We've seen that happen repeatedly in history. The gruagach was an expert hunter to whom the early farmers turned for protection of their herds. This also chimes with known history. The first inhabitants were hunter-gatherers. The next wave of invasion brought pastoralists - rudimentary farming and animal herding - often moving from place to place to exploit the next pasture and be in the right place to exploit for seasonal food sources. All the legends have versions of work in exchange for food or practical goods. It would appear that they had no concept of money, but that doesn't tend to be useful to hunter-gatherers anywhere in the world. The brownies were also quick to anger, and would take revenge on those who slighted them. That speaks of someone who doesn't need to rely on staying as part of the community to survive - of an outsider to the mainstream. In Ireland they are called Lucharacháin. the origins of the word 'Leprechaun', meaning“Little, Small (Dwarf, Pygmy) person.

Another aspect of the five waves of invasion is that Brownies are linked to the Fomorians. Both sets of people were there at the same time in primordial history. But where the Brownies were small, and fairly cooperative, the Fomorians were large, warlike, and dangerous. Does that reflect two sets of people sharing Ireland? Europe certainly had various tribes competing with each other at that time. It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that Ireland did too. When the first wave of invasion came from The Partholans, the Fomorians were already there. Whilst myth portrays them as hostile beings who lived under the sea, and more tellingly, under the land, they were said to be larger and more hostile than the Lucharacháin. Some legends describe them as having monstrous animal heads and one eye, but other ancient texts portray them as "darkly beautiful."  They were later conflated with any pirates or sea-raiders, but were they another tribe? Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, and expert in Irish mythology, interprets the name Fomorian as meaning "inferior" or "latent demons", saying the Fomorians are "like the powers of chaos, ever latent and hostile to cosmic order"
12,000 years ago

Legends say that when the Fomorians arrived in Ireland, there were three lakes and nine rivers set in a vast plain, and was a vastly different topography than today. We know that could not have been accurate as even today there are over 6,000 natural lakes in Ireland. But could it have been a description of Doggerland? Archaeology shows that people walked across the land bank joining Britain to Europe before melting glaciers flooded Doggerland. Divers can still find worked flints under the sea as evidence of human activity. Doggerland flooded 8,200 years ago, but there's evidence of humans in the British Isles for around 10,000 years. Ireland was glaciated and land-locked with continental Europe. It's clear that nomadic people could arrive by land or sea.

One theory is that some people walked across Europe, and others arrived by boat. There is a tiny percentage of R1a and R1a1 genes, which are Balto-Slavic, in the Irish population. A rough translation of the old Irish version of the Fomerians means, "under the sea." But in Georgian, one of the oldest language groups in the world, "Pomerians" means "by the sea," which makes more sense. And in ancient Indo-European Goidelic tongues the ability to pronounce 'p' didn't develop until Brythonic appeared thousands of years later.  It is worth stating at this point, that the languages spoken at the time of the Fomorians and Partholans were pre-Goidelic, and therefore not Celtic. 

A gigantic, yet deformed, group of violent people called the Fomorians were the main rival of the Partholans, and they fought viciously for control of the island. Eventually, it is believed that the Partholans gained the upper hand and drove the Fomorians out to sea. However his clan did not get to stay long enough to make wholesale changes to the country as the conquering crew was all wiped out by plague within 40 years of arriving. The Formorians were not wiped out, though. They were encountered by later arrivals in the country.

Were the Fomhóraigh (Fomorions), a race of supernatural people found in the folklore traditions of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, early travellers from the Baltic? Who knows, but their genes got there somehow, and are amongst the oldest in the Celtic fringes. They were certainly warlike, and their skills at producing and using weapons was part of their legend. The Hamburgian culture was a Late Upper Paleolithic culture of reindeer hunters who were replaced by various waves of invasions in the Baltic region. Their work was characterized by shouldered points and zinken tools, which were used as chisels when working with antler. In the British Isles and Ireland there was a group whose work was specific enough to gain a name of its own, Cresswellian.

They produced scrapers made from long, straight blades. A special technique was employed to remove blades from a core through striking in a single direction, leaving a distinct 'spur' on the platform. The tools were made using a soft hammerstone or an antler hammer. Their diet included horse, deer, hare, reindeer, mammoth, antelope, wild cow, bear, lynx, and wolf. Cave remains show signs of cannibalism too; with skinning, removal of marrow and dismemberment.  It's not known if the cannibalism was part of a ritual, or simply a food source. Treatment of skulls do indicate that there may have been a religious element. If the possibility of ferocious hunters who turned to cannibalism in caves doesn't fit the bill of a netherworld demon, I don't know who does.

Another convincing piece of evidence is that elsewhere in Europe their fellow tribes and septs suggest that exchange of goods, and the sending out of specialised expeditions seeking raw materials may have been practised. The genes are not the only evidence from the Baltic region. Amber beads from that area have also been found in the UK and Ireland. 

The Partholons were the first wave of invaders. They arrived in boats, and the Fomorians were a formidable opponent. It's a difficult job to work out who the Partholons were, as there has been a definite effort to demonize the people of the pre-Christian era, and to glorify the later peoples who converted. And the deliberate alterations obscure the previous oral histories. Some versions show Partholon turning up in a boat with a few close relatives. Others say that he had to flee his previous homeland as he had killed his father, but turned up with a thousand men. Some stories say he came from Greece, others say he came from Spain. We simply don't know. It's unlikely a small family would last long against the Fomorians, so I tend to be drawn to the theory that it was a full-scale invasion. Again, the stories vary. Some say that Partholon and his men drove the Fomorians into the sea. Others say they were defeated on a battle in the great plain in the Battle of Mag Itha. The location is disputed, but they say it may have been in Donegal, with the Fomorians' stronghold in Sligo. Once more, differing versions tell us that 300, 800, or all the Fomorians fought and died. Other outcomes say that as they were supernatural, they were able to continue to fight with one arm and one leg. 
Creswell point

It is unlikely that they were all killed, as Fomorians were certainly still around in legends after the Partholons died out in some kind of plague. One thing is of note about the Partholons. 

They are said to have brought the plough with them, to have cleared land for farming, and that many lakes sprung up during their tenure. They also brought cooking, domesticating cattle, and therefore possibly, the genes to digest lactose. This was a distinct advantage as it meant that there was a more predictable and ready source of nutrition. It's worth noting that the Brownies often enjoyed their work being rewarded with dairy produce, but that does not mean they were lactose-tolerant. Many old types of cheeses can be consumed by lactose intolerant people without ill effects. The rising of the lakes probably reflected retreating glaciers, and warming temperatures at the end of the ice age.

Does any of the above prove that the myth of helpful Brownies and ferocious Fomorians actually existed and lived as competing tribes? No. It's generally accepted that the Fomorians existed, and that their determination to hang onto pagan beliefs resulted in them being, quite literally, demonized. Can we prove the end of the Partholons took place as the glaciers retreated and Doggerland disappeared under the sea around 6,500 BCE? Again, no. But there are compelling elements there which make us feel that these myths could be based on real people and events. 

But that's not the end of the mythical God-Kings of the waves of invasions to Ireland. We'll look at them in another post.   


There was no reply, so Jake rapped at the door once more, harder and with more insistence. “Tibby. I can’t stay. Open this door.” 
There was something about the thick, heavy silence which felt wrong. Tibby was anything but quiet, so it was fair to assume any room containing him wouldn’t be, either. 
Jake knocked again. “Tibby?” All he could hear was the sound of his own breath echoing against the wooden door. A muscle in his jaw flexed and he felt in his pocket for the room key he’d been asked to hold. He grabbed the wooden fob and called out once more. “I’m comin’ in, Tibby. Make sure you ain’t doin’ anythin’ indecent.” He paused, running through what he knew about the man. “Or strange.” 
The key rattled in the lock and the door swung slowly open. Jake’s jaw dropped open at the carnage which greeted his horrified eyes. 
The room was awash with blood; splattered over furniture, walls, and fabrics. Gouts of gore lay littered on the floor, and adhered to the wall behind the bundle of bloody petticoats in the corner. Thick claret dripped from the drapes in a sickening seep and intestines dangled over furniture and snaked across the floor. 
Tibby lay unconscious near the door, a knife near his hand, his blood-drenched clothes stained red. Worst of all, the pale blue dress was saturated in blood and revealed what looked like a dismembered carcass beneath the pulled-back frills. 
It looked like she’d tried to hide under the bed and had been dragged out as her legs were hidden, but the torso appeared from underneath. The clothing was pulled over her head so all Jake could see were the bare bones of the ribs and the open belly covered in blood with what remained of her intestines. 
“Dear God.” Jake’s reaction to the trauma robbed his voice of its power, his eyes drawn to the intestines strewn on the floor near what what looked like half a kidney. “Tibby! What the hell have you done?” 



  1. Oh, my, Christine, you never disappoint, both with your research into ancient Ireland, and your excerpt, which is definitely in tune with Halloween yesterday. Poor Tibby. That's a lot of fascinating information to digest (no pun intended) and I look forward to future posts. Well done.

    1. Thanks so much, Elizabeth. It's amazing the rabbit holes you can disappear down doing research. I hoped people would find it interesting.

  2. Information like this is so fascinating. The migration of people and the stories that surround that movement are what keeps one searching for answers. Thank you for a fascinating post. Doris

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Doris. I find this stuff fascinating, and I hoped others would too.

    2. Tense excerpt, Christine - what a point to break off and what a question!
      Fascinating piece on ancient peoples. I remember a TV programme about Cedder Man, with his dark skin and blue eyes.
      I have an Irish background and am small and am lactose intolerant. My mum told me that waning me was the easiest task for her

    3. Thanks, Lindsay. You probably have some ancient genes. Unfortunately, I got the hairy one. Thank heavens for the many removal methods we have today. I picked Ireland because the rural areas didn't have the back-and-forth invasions mainland Europe did, so it was less mixed.

  3. This was such a well researched piece, Christine. I enjoyed reading it. I believe most legends are based on an event or a person in real history that, through the retelling generation after generation it does, indeed change into something even bigger.
    Innocent Bystander looks like a very interesting read. I wish you every success with it. All good things to you...

    1. Thanks so much, Sarah. I'm glad people enjoyed it as I had a lot of fun researching it.