Double Trouble | Twins in Irish Mythology
Updated: May 9
There are lots of famous twins in world mythology, but in Ireland’s legends we hear more about the triple aspect of our ancient gods and goddesses.
The Trí de Dana, for instance, also known as the Three Gods of Art, comprised Goibniu the Smith, Luchtaine the Carpenter and Credne the Goldsmith. The Morrígán was composed of the three sisters of war, life and death, Macha, Bodb and Nemain/ Anann.
There were also twins though. Early legend speaks of the eternal battle between the Holly King and his twin brother, the Oak King.
This constant struggle signifies the wax and wane of the seasons; for one half of the year the Oak King is winning, and the world is dressed in summer green finery, the air warmed by the sun, the earth blessed with fruitfulness. But then the Holly King gains control of the battle, and the world slips into the dark half of the year as winter strips heat and light from the land, and life withers and dies.
It was often perceived that the birth of twins was a supernatural affair, which some cultures revered, and some punished. Twins were thought to be the result of two fathers, usually one divine and one mortal; this is called superfetatation (isn’t there always a posh long word for everything?).
As such they often embodied polarised characteristics; one would be a child of light, the other of darkness, always battling for mastery of the other. Such siblings are known as Divine Twins.
Bran and Sceolán were twin hounds belonging to Irish mythological hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill. Unbeknown to Fionn, these two faithful companions were actually the offspring of his aunt, Tuireann. She had been kidnapped and transformed into a wolfhound by Uchtdealb, a woman of the Sidhe who was jealous of Iollan‘s love for her.
Uchtdealb gave the hound Tuireann, who was already pregnant by this time, to a chieftain who was notorious for his dislike of dogs. She hunted well for him and gained his admiration, and when her time came, she gave birth to twin pups.
Tuireann was eventually restored to her human form, but the pups, who had not been born human, were forced to live out their lives as hounds. The chieftain gave them to Fionn. Their human-like intelligence coupled with their animal instinct and prowess soon led them to became great hunters and fighters, and they were renowned and admired the length and breadth of the land.
The Curse of Macha is a tragic story. Macha, the daughter of Aodh Ruad, was forced to run a race against the King of Ulster’s chariot horses, even though she was heavily pregnant. She won the race, but went into labour and collapsed on the finish line, where she gave birth to twin sons, Fedach and Fomfor.
Most versions of the story claim that she died, and that with her dying breath, she cursed the men of Ulster so that they would all suffer with the pangs of labour, and thus be rendered unable to fight. This was to have a dire effect later on in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, when the warriors were forced to wait several days for the pains to fade before they were fit to ride into battle.
It’s also quite amusing to me that a woman could run a race and win it whilst in labour, but that the men lay in their beds unable to accomplish anything.
Another version of the story I came across recently, however, claims that after giving birth and making her curse, Macha went on to rule as High Queen of Ireland for twenty five years of glory and prosperity. The place where she built her home is still known as Emain Macha, which means ‘twins of Macha’, although it also known by the more modern name of Navan Fort.
Most people know Macha as one of the triad sisters of the Morrígán. She was the wife of Danann king, Nuada Argetlamh, and is also thought to have links with horses. In any case, it is she who gave Irish hero Cúchulainn the gift of his famous chariot horses, the twins Liath Macha, which means ‘the grey of Macha’, and Dub Sainglend, meaning ‘black of Saingliu’. Cúchullain leapt onto their backs and rode them all around Ireland until they were finally tamed.
In Cúchulainn’s final battle, Liath Macha was injured by a spear thrown by Lugaid mac Con Roí. He returned to the pool of Linn Liaith in the mountains of Sliab Fuait, where Cúchulainn had originally found him, presumably for healing.
Dub Sainglend continued to pull the chariot alone, but Lugaid’s next spear hit Cúchulainn. Dub Sainglend didn’t stop, and Liath Macha returned to protect him, killing fifty of the enemy with his teeth and another thirty with each of his hooves.
Some schools of thought perceive Amergin and Donn of the Milesians as divine twins in some kind of pagan creation story. As a poet, Amergin is seen as the child of light and inspiration, while Donn, who died on board before the battle for Ireland had even commenced, is thought to be the self-sacrificing dark lord of the dead.
As far as I know, there was no battle for dominance between them. And of course there is a wealth of lore about prior inhabitants of Eire, including the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danann, so I’m guessing the world had pretty much already been created.
Amergin’s surviving brothers, however, tell a different story. After their victory over the Tuatha de Danann, the land was divided between Eber and Eremon. Eremon took the north, and the younger brother, Eber took the south. They ruled their respective areas peaceably for a year, but Eber was not satisfied; he wanted it all. The two brothers fought a battle, and Eremon won, becoming High King over all of Ireland.
In Ireland today, the Tánaiste is the deputy prime minister. In ancient times, and into the seventeenth century, actually, kings and chieftains were elected from the righdamhna, meaning ‘kingly material’. The táinaiste was chosen from the same group as assistant, or second in command following the kings death, until a new chieftain was chosen. He was selected for his talent and strength and other personal attributes, rather than lineage or prestige.
Cormac mac Airt, for example, had his eldest son as his Tánaiste, but when the young man was killed, another roydammna, Eochaid Gonnat was selected as his replacement.
It is thought that this tradition could have derived from the Celtic belief of the power of twins, and that this power could be accessed even when the twinning was symbolic.
Over here, children who are born within a year of each other are known as Irish twins. My sister and I were born twelve months and three weeks apart, and we were always being mistaken for each other when we were younger.
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