Adam and Eve and the Salmon of Knowledge

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

Irish Folklore/ Mythology: The Danger of the Hungry Grass!


In ancient Ireland there were patches of grass called ‘Hungry Grass’ that leapt up off the ground to swallow you whole, digest you down and spit you out like a …

Actually, er … No, wait .. Hang on.

Oh, yeah!

Hungry Grass was actually a patch of grass that was completely indistinguishable from other sections of grass but if you stood on it you were immediately overtaken by a great hunger or weariness.
And, there was A REAL RISK you might swoon to your death.

There you go. That’s much more credible.

As you can see, there’s a fair amount of shite spinning out there on the internet with respect to ‘hungry grass.’ The Celternet, as usual, has delivered some fascinating hypotheses. Read through many of the Celtic “information” websites and you’ll learn that ‘hungry grass’ was, in fact, caused by fairies (the Little People!) or leprechaun spirits (Dun-dun-dun!).

The Wikipedia entries on ‘hungry grass’ and ‘féar gorta’ are also hilariously bad and use some pretty nefarious links as references. Yet another site – my favourite – describes with great cultural authority how Hungry Hill (a mountain in Beara, West Cork, get its name due to the belief of local peasants that “many patches of Féar Gortha grew on it.” To anyone from Beara, this is, of course, not only remarkably stupid but a bit insulting.
[Note: The Irish – and real – name of the mountain is Cnoc Daod and is more likely related to the changeable weather around the summit].

The problem of course, is that most of the Celternet bloggers usually copy verbatim from outdated sources such as books by 18th and 19th century authors like William Carleton (a writer in the vein of W.B. Yeats who wrote somewhat disparagingly about jolly Irish peasants and their foolish cultural beliefs). The internet, being what it is of course, means that these errors are continuously being reproduced.

Today, given the amount of grass in Ireland, the whole concept of ‘hungry grass’ would be a bit alarming if people still believed in it. One or two hundred years ago, when scientific reasoning wasn’t particularly widespread however, it was probably a fair attempt at rationalising the unexplained deaths or episodes of fainting that would occur from time to time. The psychological impact of An Gorta Mór (the Great Famine), would also have remained very strongly in the minds of those people living after the 1850s. This is why, in most variations of the ‘hungry grass’ folklore, the effects are attributed to a person stepping on the grave or burial plot of a victim from An Gorta Mór. It’s also why (probably) the Irish term is ‘féar gorta’ which may be more accurately translated as ‘famine grass’ rather than ‘hungry grass’.

Although the superstition of ‘hungry grass’ is pretty much outdated nowadays, it’s still quite a curious concept that seems very specific to Ireland and has a lot of narrative appeal. That’s pretty much why I ended up using the concept as a minor plot device in Beara Dark Legends (where the protagonist has the supernatural power of being able to detect where dead people are buried). In that book, the protagonist is an archaeologist/historian and his success at finding ancient historical sites and bodies is very much based on that ability.

In hindsight, I suppose I’d probably have been better off making the character a mortician or a police pathologist although, to be honest, that wasn’t really my area of interest. And, besides, from Quincy to Crossing Jordan to Silent Witness and so on, that morbid area of entertainment already seems to have been adequately catered for.

It does beg the question however – how cool would it be to have a television series about an Irish pathologist? You could really have fun with that.