Friday, September 20, 2013

Oisin, Niam and the Land of Youth

I now try to narrate an ancient Celtic tradition: Oisin, Niam and the Land of Youth.  Literature says that Oisín was a brave warrior, and a wise poet as well.  He was a member of the Fianna, a band of heroes who used not only to fight in the service of the kings of Ireland but to protect farmers and villagers from bandits and wild beasts as well.  Even today there are stories about them in various regions of Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland.   The version I am telling now is the one I heard in Germany when I was a visiting student at Boon University.     Oisín was the son of Finn Mac Cumhaill, the head of the Fianna clan. This is the story of Oisín  Niam and the Tir na nÓg kingdom or land of Youth: the fairy realm, a place where its inhabitants remain immortal and who do not perceive the passage of time, at least not as we simple human mortals do.

There are several version on how Oisín went to the Tir na nOg kingdom.  One version said that the Fianna were skilful hunters, one day they were following the footprints of a mysterious deer that used to  hide itself behind the stones of  the shores of Loch Lena.  After two nights tracking the deer, Oisín suddently spotted the animal which was perched on a rock. The hero tracked the deer stealthily, in doing so walked into the jungle and suddenly he came upon the magic door of Tir na nÓg. Poets and pipers claim that the threshold to Tir na nÓg is everywhere, and that anybody can come upon a gateway to the kingdom.  They say that anyone who stays in that land can spend a thousand years feeling that only a few weeks have passed. Poets also say that in the kindong of Tir na nÓg nothing is missing, in its hills and under its sky no one can get older and that - according to Galway - "all good things are there."

Other version says that when Finn and Oisín with many companions were hunting on the shores of Loch Lena they saw coming towards them a maiden, beautiful exceedingly, riding on a snow-white steed. She wore the garb of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark-brown mantle of silk, set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver shoes were on her horse's hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head. When she came near she said to Finn: “From very far away I have come, and now at last I have found you, Finn son of Cumhal.”
Then Finn said: “What is your land and race, maiden, and what do you seek from me?”
“My name,” she said, “is Niam of the Golden Hair. I am the daughter of the King of the Land of Youth, and that which has brought me here is the love of your son Oisín.” Then she turned to Oisín, and she spoke to him in the voice of one who has never asked anything but it was granted to her.
“Will you go with me, Oisín, to my father's land?”  And Oisín said: “Yes, I will go with you to the world's end”; for the fairy spell had so wrought upon his heart that he cared no more for any earthly thing but to have the love of Niam of the Head of Gold.

Then the maiden spoke of the Land Oversea to which she had summoned her lover.  And what she said seemed sweeter and more wonderful as she spoke it than anything they could afterwards remember to have heard.  Then, Oisín mount the fairy steed and hold the maiden in his arms, and before they could stir or speak she turned her horse's head and shook the ringing bridle, and down the forest glade they fled.  Never did the Fianna behold Oisín the son of Finn on earth again.

Both version converge on how Oisín met with various adventures in the Land of Youth.  But after a weeks in the Tir na nÓg  kindom - actually hundreds of years in human’s time but only a few weeks to Oisín perspective – the hero felt nostalgia for his companions in arms, his clan, the hazards and the glory anybody experiences in a battle and he wanted to come back. In Tir na nÓg he was told that hundreds of years had actually passed and that in the wake of time his brothers had already died and that the world is not the same anymore to the one he had known. But these words did not persuade the stubborn heart of the hero.  So, he decided to visit for some days the world he used to live in.  To do so, Niram lent him a very fast horse, and charged him that when he had reached his land again he must never alight from its back nor touch the soil of the earthly world with his foot, or the way of return to the Land of Youth would be barred to him for ever. That is, he would die instantly. Finally, Oisín took up his journey to Ireland.

Once there, Oisín could not find the Fianna clan.  He could not see his village either.  He saw ruins only. He could’n heard the ancient songs of his clan. Instead, he found strange buildings, and realized - with great perplexity - that humans had become smaller and slimer. It had been passed almost a thousand years, and the time of heroes was over. The warrior glanced amid the rubble that once used to be his village, a mountain spring and wanted to refresh himself. He -forgetting Niam's warming- dismounted.  No sooner his foot touched the mortal earth, than the hundreds of years that had been elusive in the fairy kingdom destroyed his body and Oisín died.