Even in contemporary times, we continue to pass on mistakes and errors of record, particularly where it relates to Irish mythology. Sometimes however, these mistakes are quite entertaining in their own right.
One of my favourites is the famous ‘Tests of the Fianna’ – a set of difficult trials which ancient Irish warriors reportedly had to pass if they wished to enter Fionn mac Cumhaill’s famous ‘Fianna’ war band. This set of trails is most well known as a result of T. W. Rolleston’s book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (first published in 1911) but it’s highly likely he originally gleaned the reference from Seathrún Céitinn’s flawed ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (completed in 1634). Rolleston couldn’t speak Irish so he anglicized ‘Fionn’ to ‘Finn’ and his ‘Tests of the Fianna’ goes as follows:
“In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through the forest by the Fianna. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.”
Generally speaking therefore, the ‘Test of the Fianna’ are usually summarised as follows:
Candidates for the Fianna must display competence in:
1. Jumping over a branch as tall as yourself
2. Running under a stick placed at the height of your knees
3. Plucking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed (assuming you stuck one in there in the first place!)
4. Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush
5. Learning 12 books of poetry off by heart (despite the fact that this was prehistory and there were no books in the country, not to mind the actual skill of literacy)
6. Standing in a hole up to your waist and defending against nine warriors, using only a shield and a hazel stick (because trench warfare was … er, a thing)
7. And er, …. taking no dowry with a wife.
To this day, many Irish people still refer to these tests and most have at least a passing familiarity with them. Although, if you think about it for a moment, the tests couldn’t possibly have any kind of veracity, people continue to pass them on because:
(a) they enjoy the concept; and
(b) they like lists.
I have to admit, the naive simplicity of the ‘Test for the Fianna’ has always appealed to me as well which is why it’s used in my own Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (although, to be fair, I take it all far less seriously).