The salmon of the River Cong didn’t strike me as particularly wise when I passed the other day. A savagely beautiful day, the fish were leaping in great numbers and to surprising height while I sat watching them from the river bank, thinking of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge.
Tradition has it that the well of Seghais (the source of the River Boyne) was encircled by hazel trees that dropped their nuts (often used by our ancestors as a metaphor for wisdom) into the water. These floated downriver where they were eaten by a salmon that, by consuming the nuts, absorbed all the wisdom and knowledge of the hazel trees and, thus, became the fabled Salmon of Knowledge. By eating the Salmon, the understanding was that a person could, in turn, obtain that knowledge too.
Naturally, it’s all a bit more complicated than that.
It seems strange now but, in fact, the whole Salmon of Knowledge story is actually a relatively recent addition to the canon of Fenian literature (believed to have been introduced sometime in the 10th century). In the earliest versions of this story, Fionn actually acquires imbas by entering a síd (a dwelling of the Otherworld inhabitants) and swallowing water from a well located there. The Salmon was actually added in at a later date through confusion with another, similar story. Despite this mistake, most people have always enjoyed the concept of the Salmon and, hence, it’s actually out-lived the earlier stories.
At heart, of course, this tale is all about the acquisition of exclusive or forbidden knowledge (Imbas) by a hero, a story you’ll find in most other cultures. Welsh mythology, for example has a very similar version outlined in Historia Taliesin (The Tale of Taliesin) which describes how the early Brythonic poet Taliesin (Gwion Bach in the story) acquired the gift of knowledge by stealing three magic drops from Cerodwen’s cauldron.
Similarly, in Norse mythology there’s a version of the story where the legendary hero Sigurd, having killed a dragon, is asked by his comrade Regin to roast the dragon’s heart. While Sigurd is carrying out this task, a sudden spurt of blood from the heart burns his thumb and, putting it into his mouth to cool it, he finds he’s received the knowledge to understand the speech of birds. Afterwards, when he eats the dragon heart he gains the gift of ‘prophesy’, just as Fionn does.
If you look at one of the creation stories in the Book of Genesis, of course, you’ll also find that similar pattern where Eve takes a bite out of the apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge. It just goes to show how old stories hide many truths that go deeper than the literal ones