Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn Mac Cool) was an Irish warrior hero who features in stories from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He also features in the folklore of Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Fionn was the son of Cumhaill, the leader of the Fianna, and Muirne, daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat. As Muirne’s father was against the match, a battle ensued which killed Cumhaill. Muirne, already pregnant, was spared, however her child Fionn was put under the protection of Fiacal mac Conchinn and his wife Bodhmall. A warrior woman, Liath Luachra, taught Fionn the arts of war, hunting and magic.
One story tells of the young Fionn meeting the druid and poet Finn Eces / Finnegas, who was trying to catch the Salmon of Knowledge in the River Boyne. It was said whoever ate the salmon would gain all the knowledge in the world. Finnegas caught the salmon and told Fionn to cook it up for him. While cooking, Fionn burned his thumb and instinctively put it in his mouth, thus gaining all of the salmon’s wisdom. From then on, Fionn would suck his thumb to learn about upcoming events. Interestingly, this story is very similar to that of Gwion Bach/ Taliesin stirring Cerridwen’s cauldron of knowledge.
Fionn became the leader of the Fianna, or Fenians, the protectors of Ireland, made up of warriors as well as druids, physicians, and musicians. While hunting with the Fianna, Fionn met the beautiful Sadbh, who had been turned into a deer by the druid Fear Doirich after she refused to marry him. The power of the Fianna blocked the magic of Fear Doirich, allowing Sadbh to transform back into her human form and marry Fionn. However Sadbh roamed too far one day and Fear Doirich was able to turn her back into a deer. For years Fionn searched for Sadbh, and although she was never found, he eventually found their son Oisín, who later became one of the greatest Fianna poets.
The most famous stories of Fionn describe him as magical giant. He has been credited with creating many landforms in the UK and Ireland, including the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. According to legend, Fionn was challenged by the Scottish giant Benandonner to a fight. Fionn built a causeway of stepping stones across the North Channel so they could cross without getting their feet wet. Hearing how Benandonner was much larger then him, Fionn became fearful of his opponent. Fionn’s wife Oonagh disguised Fionn as a baby and put him in a large cradle. When Benandonner saw Fionn’s ‘baby’, he feared his father Fionn must be even larger and quickly ran back to Scotland. As he ran across the causeway, it was torn up and created the Giant’s Causeway as we see it today. Similar basalt columns are found at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa, indicating a possible origin of the story.
There is no record of Fionn’s death, with some saying that he is not dead at all. They say he is sleeping in the Otherworld, or in a cave beneath Ireland with the rest of the Fianna, and will one day rise again to defend Ireland when he is needed the most.
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