At the source of the Boyne River, where the goddess *Bou-vinda, later known as Boinn, dwelt, was a pool surrounded by nine hazel trees. The nuts of these trees contained imbas, the illuminating knowledge, and they would fall into the pool. They imbued the river water with wisdom, and it was said that those who drank of it in June would drink of imbas. Daithi O hOgain, in The Sacred Isle, suggests that this is in memory of a ritual held at that time when the water had also absorbed the heat of the summer sun (the fire in water motif). Bou-vinda, the White Cow, can be seen to be a variation on Danu as primal river goddess, and this can also be compared to Vedic traditions where the seers partook of the divine milk of a cow goddess, (as a form of liquid soma). So wisdom could be seen as emanating from whatever river a local culture saw as primary. It harks back to Indo-European sources, as among the Greeks Okeanos was conceived as a river and as generative of life (Onians). This can also be related to the tale of Cerridwen and Taliesin from Welsh lore where the boy Gwion Bach tends a cauldron brewing a liquid of inspiration (although nuts are not listed among the ingredients); licking the drops that bespatter him, he achieves the Welsh version of imbas—awen—and so illuminated becomes Taliesin, Radiant Brow.
Another embodiment of poetic wisdom is the salmon, although this is related to the nuts, as the salmon were said to feed upon the hazelnuts and so to absorb their wisdom into their flesh. Each nut eaten added a spot on the fish. Filid/draoi would wait for long periods of times, maybe a lifetime to catch the salmon of wisdom.
Imbas is found in liminal zones; the poet seeking imbas is poised between water and land, on the riverbank, where s/he waits for the salmon to swim from the otherworld. In a story of Finn (Nagy, 155) Finn apprentices with a master fili, Finn the Poet (surely his later self). As a gilla (an apprentice) his name is Demne. His master, after seven years of waiting for the salmon catches it but entrusts its cooking to the young apprentice. He tells him not to eat of it, but as Demne brings the cooked salmon to the master, he burns his thumb on it and puts his thumb in his mouth. The imbas flows into him and the master recognizes him and names the young man Finn. According to Nagy, being assigned the task of cooking the wisdom fish is possibly “the most important, symbolically charged function in the transmission of knowledge from beyond human society to the poet on the riverbank, who is to consume and utilize it on society’s behalf” (157). Raw, wild knowledge becomes cooked and accessible for other members of the community. Intriguingly, Finn becomes a bit cooked himself in the process (burning his thumb). Again the parallels with Gwion Bach in Welsh tradition are remarkable.
I find the salmon of wisdom to be an evocative symbol of ecological wisdom for our times, as this fish through its entire life cycle ties together (a religious act) forest, including those of inland mountain ranges, with the deep ocean and everything in between. As the mature salmon swim on their epic journey back to spawn in the headwaters where they were born, some die and feed a multitude of animals including the bear, and then in a further cycle through the ursine excrement, fertilize the trees, including the redwoods far from the water on the ridge tops. The ocean nutrients are deposited in the forest; this incredible interlinking reveals how this fish can represent wisdom to us in another mode today. Of course, many salmon varieties are extinct or endangered, a strong comment on industrial society’s lack of wisdom.
Patience is required in seeking imbas, the great knowledge. Observe the salmon!
Nagy, Joseph Falaky. The Wisdom of the Outlaw: the Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition.
O hOgain, Daithi. The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland.
Onians, R. R. The Origins of European Thought About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate.