What better place to start with the story of the Irish in Canada than the great North Atlantic Ocean that separates and unites us. Our relationship has been define by the crossings of the North Atlantic, or more accurately the north-North Atlantic. The shortest distance between Europe and Canada is between Ireland’s south western County Kerry and Newfoundland. It is a storied place, the Atlantic.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot actually when it comes to the Atlantic Ocean. Though often crossed, few know off-hand the origin of its title. The story of how the Titan Atlas gave the ocean its name takes us deep in humanity’s earliest culture, linking ancient Greece with the trickster Coyote, rabbit and raven of First Nations’ origin stories, with the heroes of Irish mythology and the saints of early Christian Ireland.
Atlantic means the sea of Atlas, a Titan from Greek mythology. The Titans were an early race of gods. The Titan Cronus had deposed his father, the sky god Uranus, at the urging of his mother, the earth goddess Gaia. Uranus was an intolerant father, to put it mildly, and as soon as his children were born he imprisoned them in their mother’s womb. This, naturally, annoyed Gaia.
Cronus was the last and only one of Gaia’s twelve children to take up her challenge to overthrow her despotic husband by castrating him with a diamond sickle. He had his chance when Uranus came to lie with Gaia (such a Freudian image of a sickle bearing son in the womb would give the stoutest man pause). Uranus’s severed genitals were cast in the sea. From the sea foam of semen and blood Aphrodite appeared.
Cronus ruled heaven and earth with his sister Rhea. The fallen Uranus had cursed Cronus to suffer too an overthrow by his children so Cronos took the precaution of eating them. Rhea, with help from her mother Gaia, saved Zeus from this fate through trickery, so that Zeus could in turn overthrow Cronos. While Atlas, a grandchild of Cronus, sided with his grandfather, Atlas’s brother Prometheus joined with Zeus. Instead of condemning Atlas to the abyss of Tartarus, however, the victorious Zeus commanded Atlas to hold up the sky from the far west. The Greek world view explains this choice.
Up to the time of Homer, the Greeks believed that the earth was a flat disc, surrounded by a circular river, Oceanus, a primordial soup from which all things came. The Mediterranean was an internal sea to the Greeks and Oceanus lay beyond the Pillars of Heracles, the straits of Gibraltar. Hades, the world of the dead, lay on the banks of Oceanus. Helios, the sun god, drove his chariot each day from beneath Oceanus in the east over the earth and descended in the west, where day met night and the sky the sea.
In all this, Oceanus was a cold and forbidding place outside the Greek world. It was a fitting location for the banishment of a Titan. So that part of Oceanus then came to bear Atlas’s name, the sea of Atlas. Atlas’s connection with the sea was established early since his mother was an Oceanid or sea-nymph named Clymene and his father lapetus or Japetus (later appropriated as a son of Noah, Japhet).
The Titans were intimately bound up in the story of the human race, succoring them even at great cost to themselves. Atlas’s brother, Prometheus, gifted humanity fire stolen from Mount Olympus, along with knowledge of metallurgy, architecture, mathematics, medicine, and much more. He was also said to have given man a portion of the gifts of each animal. In punishment, Zeus condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock and his liver eaten every day by an eagle. In further punishment, Zeus gave Pandora as a wife to another brother of Atlas, Epimetheus. She had been created by the Olympians on Zeus’s instruction with all the qualities of beauty and cunning. Prometheus, who had the power of foresight, had warned Epimetheus not to accept any gift from Zeus, but he ignored the advice and accepted Pandora. Epimetheus had a box or jar in his house which he had been told never to open. Pandora however could not resist the temptation and opened it, just enough time to release disease on mankind but not long enough to release hope. In his wisdom, Prometheus took foreknowledge from mankind but gifted it hope.
Since Prometheus had the gift of foresight, he knew the forthcoming punishment for helping humanity. His affinity with humans may be explained by one legend that he was in fact their creator. He moulded them from mud and water while Athene blow life in them with the wind. In another telling, Zeus decided to destroy humanity but Prometheus saved his son Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha by telling them to build a ship to withstand the coming flood. When the flood receded, their ship was perched on Mount Parnassus. Their son Hellen was the progenitor of all the Hellenes, hence the term Hellenistic. Another version has Zeus ordering Prometheus and Athene to recreate mankind after the flood.
That the role of the Titans in the Western creation myth has been lost to the public narrative is largely due to its appropriation by Christianity. Like all successful religions, Christianity built on existing belief systems and world views, reshaping them to its own ends. You can see Eve, man’s fall, the great flood, and motif of saviours crucified in the Greek stories. Focused on the Holy Land, Egypt and Rome, Christianity had no place for the Atlantic.
You can see too the resonances with origin story of the First Nations and the creation of Turtle Island. The avatar of the trickster that is Prometheus was not original to ancient Greece. As Joseph Campbell recorded in his landmark analysis of global mythologies, The Masks of God, the trickster was common throughout the creation myths of the world. He was an archetype of the world maker from the Palaeolithic era, a common cultural pool from which societies continued to draw even as they spread around the world and created distinct civilizations.
The trickster in North America, variously the Coyote and Crow in the prairies, the Master Hare in the woodlands of the North and East, and the Raven in British Colombia, can be both noble and malevolent. Where Algonquin Wisakedjak causes the great flood, Coyote is the fire stealer. The Raven is a guide. They make the world from soil scooped by a lowly but heroic creature from the ocean depths, make humans from the mud too. These world-makers bring fire and knowledge to mankind, lift us from the caves and burrows. Like the Titans, they suffer and gain shamanistic knowledge, earn wisdom and foresight, allowing them endure because they know what is coming, the end of times and even of the gods themselves.
In Irish mythology, Lugh is the closest approximation to Prometheus with much the same qualities; warrior, trickster, master craftsman, skilled in the arts, saviour and bringer of knowledge, full of defiance and guile. He is the grandson of the one-eyed Fomorian god, Balor. Like the Titans, the Fomorians were earlier primitive gods, emergent from nature, the earth and the sea. Lugh is one of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a new race on the rise like the Olympians. As in Greek mythology, the Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Dannan inter-marry but ultimately it is a competition for supremacy which the Fomorians lose.
Fosterage was characteristic of Gaelic society and Lugh was fostered to Manannán Mac Lir, the god of the sea. No surprise of course that Ireland has a rich mythology of the sea, from Hy-Brasil, the phantom island off the west coast, to Tír na nÓg, also across the sea to the west, where the Tuatha Dé Dennan live in eternal youth and feasting. Irish tales tell of men taking mermaids in human form as wives. The half-god, half-man hero Cú Chulainn is a close approximation to the Greek Heracles.
Over time, Atlas was seen as holding up not just the heavens but the earth from his domain in the far west (which actually does not make much sense; what is he standing on?) His name translates as ‘he who endures’ and strength and fortitude were his main attributes. Not surprisingly, Atlas was a useful motif in architecture so that Atlantids were the male version of Caryatids. In medicine, a pain in the neck might well start in the atlas vertebra that joins the spine to the cranium.
With the expansion of knowledge in the Medieval period, Atlas was seen as a sage and the weight of knowledge his burden. Atlas’s place between the earth and sky meant he came to be seen as father of geography and astronomy. During the Renaissance, his burden was that of government and statecraft. That Atlas could act as a conduit between celestial forces and events on the ground meant that he was associated with astrology too. Nostradamus accordingly used an image of Atlas on the frontispiece of his prophecies in 1568. Mercator named his collection of maps in 1578 ‘Atlas’ which then passed into common usage for collations of maps and indeed compilations of other kinds of guides.
On a clear day, the view of the Atlantic from Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula is breath-taking. There, in the sixth century, St Brendan and his fellow monks must have looked up from their boat-building to the vast sweep of ocean that they were planning to cross. It was literally a journey into the unknown. They would certainly have been aware of the Irish tales of heroic travels to mystical islands. They might well have been acquainted with Plato’s description of Atlantis, the utopian island lost beneath the waves. They may not have been the only ones to attempt it but we know that they returned, at least according to saga the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, the Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot. Like the Titans and the Tricksters, the monks believed that on the far side of suffering, at the end of dangerous journeys, lay the spiritual knowledge they sought. That’s a story for another day.
Ottawa, 17 November 2021
One response to “Atlantic Mythos: Of Titans, Tricksters and Irish Saints”
I’m in the midst of reading Anne Louise Avery’s new version of Reynard the Fox – the early medieval trickster, “both noble and malevolent” exactly as you say. Also passing clever, brutal, violent and loving with his family (wife Hermeline and three cubs). A brilliant story, brilliantly told.