I’ve decided to share an essay I wrote for Air N-Aithesc (Lughnasadh/Samhain 2015) issue here. This exploration was generated out of my filidecht work which has brought me to this awesome god(s).
Catching Wisdom: Nuadhu, Nechtan, Nodens
The god who is willing to play a high price for justice, for the protection of his tribe, is found in many Indo-European religions. In the Irish pantheon we find Nuadhu, often known as Nuadhu Airgetlam (Silver Hand or Arm). The lore tells us that it was under the leadership of Nuadhu that the gods came to Ireland from the four cities of magic and learning in the north, where they had previously resided. In his most famous myth, He loses his arm in the First Battle of Maige Tuired. He who has held the kingship among the gods, steps down, as the king must be unblemished and whole—steps down of His own accord. The physician gods Dian Cecht and his son Miach come to strife over the replacement: flesh restored by spells (Miach) or a beautiful silver prosthesis (Dian Cecht). With the perfectly usable silver one Nuadhu was enabled to receive the kingship again. The context is the First Battle of Maige Tuired: this divine war puts him into the heart of the Indo-European myth of the battle of the gods, which was probably part of his cultus (Ó hÓgain, Myth 326). There are parallels with the Norse Tyr who lost an arm to the Fenris wolf here (Puhvel 199). Nuadhu’s arm was severed in combat with Sreang, a Fir Bolg warrior; His comrades had intervened and brought him off the battlefield but the next day He was back on it. He entreated Sreang to tie up his right arm so they could resume combat fairly, but the Fir Bolg warrior refused. The Tuatha De Danann stepped in in what They thought would be Nuadhu’s destruction, offering the province of Connacht to the Fir Bolg, which they rejected (Ó hÓgain, Myth 326). Justice, doing the right thing, is a key aspect of Nuadhu but there is much more to Him, and associations with healing and the poetry and the fire in water complex will be explored here.
Nuadhu also has important water associations. One of the poetic kennings for the Boyne river is “the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu” (Ó hÓgain, Sacred Isle 136). He appears to be the same as Nechtan who is named as the husband of Boann (and I will precede here from that perspective). This river association is particularly interesting, as the Boyne River was considered the primal river, a source of sacred wisdom. The first reference to it is from Claudius Ptolemaus in the early 2nd century CE who labeled it Buvinda. The Celticist Dr. Dáithí Ó hÓgain says the early Irish form would have been *Bou-vinda, meaning ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’” (Myth 110). She dwelt at the source of the river, a well surrounded by nine hazel trees, whose nuts contained imbas, and when these fell into the water they were consumed by the salmon who in turn held the wisdom in their flesh.
In a well known tale1 Boann disobeys Nechtan’s command that only He and his cupbearers can approach the well; if anyone else did, then their eyes would supposedly burst (Puhvel 279). But Boann disregards this and Her transgression ushers a flood as waters gush forth and create the river, which bears Her name. As She fled from the three gushes She was injured, losing a hand, an eye, and a foot as She ran all the way to the sea. While this could be given a misogynistic interpretation, it actually conceals mystery (Carey 170). There is an allusion to the Irish magical practice of closing one eye, standing on one foot, and holding up one hand, hinting at Her agency and intentions in this ‘transgression’. It also references a much wider Indo-European association of wisdom being associated not only with wells/pools, but with eyes. As Carey mentions, the word for eye and spring can be the same in Celtic languages, citing the hot springs of Bath, which were called the Waters of the Eye, that is of the goddess Sulis Minerva (171).
Ó hÓgain asserts that Boann would have originally been the sacred cow who gives the milk to an archetypal seer-poet named Find, whom Ó hÓgain states is “an early personification of wisdom, many vestiges of whom are found in the early literature” (Myth 208), whose reflex would be Finn the Poet whom the hero Fionn MacCumhaill goes to learn poetcraft from in the Fenian tradition (Nagy 179). This implicitly associates the river with sacred milk. Indian tradition also names rivers as being the milk that flows from mystical cows (Ó hÓgain, Myth 49). Nuadhu is named as an ancestor of both Fionn MacCumhaill and of Finn or Find the Poet. In Find’s lore, He is also called Nuadha Find-Eces, that is Nuadha the Far-Seer Find who was associated with a wise salmon; Ó hÓgain states that Nuadha’s cultus may well have absorbed the lore of this earlier wisdom figure of the Boyne river valley (Myth 210).
All of this has led me to explore His role in filidecht. And right into the problem/situation of Nechtan. Necht may have been an ancient word for water (Ó hÓgain, Myth 326) and comes from a root for washing, with additional meanings of clear, pure, white (eDIL). Alternatively, it may derive from the other meaning of necht, that is nephew, which will be considered later. ÓhÓgain states that Nechtan was a “pseudonym” for Nuadhu who was also known as Nuadha Necht. As we’ve seen, His well was said to be at the source of the Boyne, which we have already seen was considered the ‘archetypal’ river. The salmon that Fionn MacCumhall caught and which illuminated him, was originally ‘intended’ for a seer known as Finneigeas and also as Nuadhu Finnegeas, further associating him with the seer-poet tradition. Fionn is as much a seer-poet as an outlaw warrior; he cooked the salmon of wisdom for his teacher Finnaigeas, who’d already fished seven years for this fish and who asked his new guest/pupil (gilla) to do the cooking. Doing so, Fionn burnt his thumb, and put it into his mouth to suck on and was flooded with imbas (Nagy). The image echoes the Norse Sigurd, the dragon-slayer who while cooking the heart of the dragon burnt his thumb and realized through the resultant illumination that his companion sought to kill him. Ó hÓgain believes that Norse and Irish stories influenced each other in a complicated way during the 10th century (216). There are the well-known parallels with the Welsh Gwion Bach attending Cerridwen’s cauldron and licking the spatters that landed on his skin, and the ensuing chase, transformations, and rebirth as poet/prophet Taliesin (Ford 20).
Nuadha has a parallel and cognate in Britonnic lore, Nodons or Nodens, a god who had a temple at Lydney in what is now the county of Gloucestershire on the bank of the river Severn near the English/Welsh border. The Roman era temple is located on a bluff over the river, which is famous for its tidal bore, a huge incoming tidal wave that surges far upriver. The temple is believed to have been a site of incubation2 for pilgrims seeking healing, and who would stay overnight hoping for a visionary dream. This god was associated with dogs, evoking the hunt. In the interpretatio Romano, He was synchronized with Mars who besides having war attributes was a god of agriculture and had associations with water (Jones). At Chesterholm in north Britain, an inscription synchronizes Nodens with Neptune. He was syncretized at Lancaster with Mars where two such inscriptions of Mars Nodens have been found (Green, Dictionary 162). Dogs, while symbolizing hunting, also symbolized healing; belief in the healing powers of dogs are widespread (and reappearing in current western medicine). Besides war and water, Mars also was associated with healing, so the dogs could represent both strands. Nine striking canine images were excavated from the temple (Green 162).
Nodens also has a syncretism at Lydney with Silvanus, a forest and hunting deity (Green, Gods 148). Silvanus was a Roman god of the forest and wild places, boundaries, and with some agricultural attributes, as one of His attributes is the falx, a sickle. Important in terms of Lydney is his association with sight hounds. This fairly elaborate and large temple with its guest house for the pilgrims. The temple has depictions with marine imagery: there is a mosaic in the cella of a marine scene, a bronze relief of a sea god, and a diadem was found that shows a god driving a quadriga (chariot) adorned with tritons and anchors, in other words a Neptune like figure, though Green rather surprisingly states Him to be a solar god (Green, Gods 148).
This is a good place to think about synchronization: while this is often thought to be an actual equation of two deities, as is so prevalent in western occultism and Neopaganism, it can just as well be thought that analogical comparisons are being made, that is similes: Nodens is like Neptune, or like Silvanus in some way3. Carefully considering these comparisons made in the Romano-Brittonic practices can shed light on qualities of deities so synchronized (and indirectly of Nuadhu). Neptune might seem an odd one at first, but His earliest role was an association with springs before becoming merged with the Greek Poseidon and thought of as oceanic (even Poseidon appears to have had archaic associations of the chthonic). A lot of coins were found at Lydney; one of them suggestively has a figure catching a salmon (Ó hÓgain, Sacred Isle 136). A reconstructed IE proto-myth as elaborated by Jean Puhvel finds another connection between Nechtan/Nodens and Neptune. The other possible root of the name is the other meaning of ‘necht’, which means nephew, which would prove a philological linkage with the Indo-Iranian deity Apam Napat found in Vedic and Avestan sources and whose name would then share a root with Nechtan and is the ‘Nept’ in Neptunus, as well, argues Puhvel (279). Even Rome had a historicized version of a fire in the waters myth; in its case, the Alban Lake was said to have overflowed its volcanic crater during the war with the neighboring Etruscan city of Veii (Puhvel 279).
Proinsias MacCana notes the etymological equivalence of Nudd, who would be the same as Nodens and of Nuadhu (69). However, because the god who was worshiped at Lydney and whose temple dates to the 3th century and was renovated in the next (Green, Gods 147), was part of a heavily synchronized cult, he states “that some of these would suggest that the god had strong aquatic associations, and yet these are not noticeably reflected in the legends of Nuadhu and his Welsh congeners” (MacCana 69). However, if we accept Nechtan as Nuadhu, this really isn’t true. The Welsh tradition comes down more blurred, but a parallel is that both Nudd and Nuadhu were portrayed as governing realms threatened by chaotic forces, with Llud’s kingdom threatened by the invasion of the magical people known as the Coraniad in the tale “Lludd and Llefelys”, included in the Mabinogi (MacCana 69). Nuadha/Nechtan/Nodens could have strong ‘functions’ in the primal struggle of chaos/cosmos reflected in the domains of war, medicine, and art.
Returning to the Boyne River, which was the body of its eponymous goddess Boann after Her ‘transgression’, or as Christopher Scott Thompson (with whom I agree) sees it, Her tactic to unleash the poetic waters and their wisdom for the world, it is relevant to consider that another of Her names is Segais, according to the Metrical Dinndchensas (93). In the Cauldron of Poesy text4 which provides an arcane guide to the turning of the three cauldrons that are said to be within the human constitution, and provides a guidebook to the practice of the filidh, the Boyne becomes seen as the ‘ur’ river, the original sacred river, which has many manifestations from the Tigris to the Tiber and interestingly enough, the Severn is mentioned as one of them (93) in light of the location of the temple at Lydney). According to the Cauldron text (Thompson’s translation, which incorporates the glosses; see Henry, and Breatnach for original and scholarly translations), the “joy at the coming of poetic ecstasy from the nine hazels of the Well of Wisdom in the otherworld, landing on the Boyne river as thick as a ram’s fleece and flowing against the current faster than a racing horse at the midsummer fair once every seven years. When the beams of the sun strike the plants along the Boyne, it is then that the Imbas bubbles up on them. Whomever eats them then will acquire an art” (Thompson 14). Pushing up river we must go, and like returning salmon to the headwaters, the source, the Well of Segais where Nechtan dwells with his cupbearers. His wife has disappeared into the waters, but there He can be found by the waters of life that bubble with chaos and potentiality. Such is my aisling. As the dweller at the Well of Segais, more of a pool it seems to me, I think Nechtan would Himself be intimately linked with the flow of imbas, with the Cauldron of Wisdom, which is linked with the Well of Segais in the Cauldron of Poesy text, whose nuts are stated as a source of one of the joys that this cauldron affords (Henry 125, Breatnach 67).
Again flowing out, the rush of the imbas like a stream of milk, like waters bursting a dam, like a tidal bore; the river itself, a river that has held attraction since the earliest times, the river that ran beneath the monuments of the Neolithic Irish, which the Gaels were to repopulate with their own deities as dwellers therein, and whose seer-poets (re)mythologized the rich river valley. Ó hÓgain suggests that the previously mentioned wisdom figure Find, derived from a Celtic Vindos, was thought to dwell there with a sacred cow, the source of inspiration, Bouvindos, and was seen as a bright-haired youth, hence his name, who emerged from the waters (Ó hÓgain, Myth 209). Fionn MacCumhaill in this view was to later absorb this tradition and Find would be echoed in medieval lore in other figures such as Find File, Morann, and Fionntan, the famous seer and lore keeper who had lived through many ages as an eagle, a hawk and a salmon as well as in human form and said to have come to Ireland with Cessair (Myth 224-5). Ó hÓgain writes that His name most likely comes from a “Celtic compound Vindo-senos, which would mean ‘old Find’…that Fionntan was a variant in ancient lore of the great mythical Find” (Myth 224). He suggests that around the 2nd century BCE this cult was influenced by the adoption of the cultus of Nuadhu, who was said to have a sacred salmon in the river (Myth 209). All in all, a vast tangled net of stories and lore but through which swim the central figures of wisdom, which manifests in metrical speech in illuminated states.
The etymology of Nuadhu/Nodens remains unsettled with conflicting views. They include ‘cloudmaker’ or ‘wealthy one’ (Green, Dictionary 163). Another is that it comes from an Indo-European root meaning ‘catcher’. Even J.R.R. Tolkien weighed in on this, interested as he was with Lydney Park and consulted by its excavator Sir Mortimer Wheeler (Kennedy). Ó hÓgain found the most likely meaning being catcher, acquirer or fisher, eventually going back to an Indo-European root of *neu-d, meaning to grasp (Pokorny 768), *neud, to make use of, enjoy (Watkins 60). This seems a fitting name for the catcher of fish, the catcher of the salmon, and brings us back in a skein of associations of catching wisdom and those associated with the poet wisdom tradition of filidecht. The catcher is one who is on the chase, and similarly the fisher. So I have found Nuadhu/Nechtan important in my personal practice of filidecht, from knowledge seeking, to healing and to drinking from the waters from which imbas flows. As the catcher and hunter He is one who searches, who looks, who catches. I look for him in the shining knowledge—and at the place of dangerous watery wisdom at the heart of the world where we can find both healing and wisdom. In my own aisling many of these deities work together, as one launches on this river. The gods give us multiple paths to take; often the destinations are surprising and the linkages even more so, and therein lies much change. In my personal work, I approach Nuadhu and Nechtan at different locations, but whether considered as separate or as the same, He warrants the attention and reverence of those of us fishing for imbas.
- The stories of Boann and the well of Segais can be found in various versions in the Dindshenchas, the place name lore, for example in The Bodleian Dinnsenchas 36, translated by Whitley Stokes, 1892; and The Metrical Dindsenchas 3.26-28 edited and translated by Edward Gwynn, 1913.
- Incubation, the withdrawing to a dark chamber for the purposes of a healing dream, had a widespread use in the Greco-Roman world. In the Gaelic world, it was a technique used by the poets, the filidh, for vision and composition.
- According to O’Cathasaighe, the switch to Lludd from Nudd is “owing to assimilation of the initial to that of the epithet Llaw Eraint ‘of the Silver Hand’” (48).
- The Caldron of Poesy is the name usually given to a text found in a 15th century manuscript (Breatnach 46), the oldest layer of which probably dates back to a 7th century original composition (Henry 117).
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