First, you must stand in a pit up to your knees, and with only a hazel wand for defense, fend off the spears of nine warriors standing at a distance of nine ridges of land. Next, you must escape the pursuit of several armed men. You’ll be given one tree-length’s start, but even if you escape unhurt, if a single lock is loosed from your braided hair, or if you break a single branch in your flight through the woods, or if at the end, the weapons tremble in your hands, you will fail. You must jump over a branch as high as your forehead and stoop under one as low as your knee. And, finally, while running full speed, you must pluck a thorn out of your heel without slowing (Squire, 1977, p. 207).
Right. Guess that leaves me out.
This was the initiation of any warrior who wished to join the fían (pronounced FEE-an; plural fíana, pronounced FEE-an-nah). The fían was a band of elite warriors who served the kings of Ireland, protected the coasts from invasion, and generally kept the peace. There were many grades of kings – a complex topic for another post – but certainly the higher-ranking ones would have had their own fían. And while the initiation tests mentioned above might be exaggerated with typical Celtic flair, the fían was undoubtedly comprised of men in top athletic condition, for they dwelt exclusively in the forests and lived off the land from Bealtaine (early May) to Samhain (early November). At Samhain, they were housed and fed by the people until the following Bealtaine.
This seasonal movement of the warbands brings up and interesting side note. In modern times, in most northern societies, hunting season opens in the fall, as it does here in Michigan with first bow-hunting season, then rifle season. The latter can get a bit noisy. In ancient Ireland, it closed in the fall. “Throughout northern Europe from ancient times until the late middle ages, hunting was an essential complement of the military life, serving both as an important food source and as a form of practice for warfare” (Gilbert, 1979, p. 72). Thus, throughout the dark season, the wild game would be allowed to recover while meat was consumed from domestic sources. Many stone-lined cooking sites of the fíana, call fulacht fían, have been discovered throughout Ireland by archaeologists.
“The Fianna warrior swore four things: never to take cattle by force; never to refuse a request for [hospitality]; never to retreat if outnumbered less than ten to one; and never to avenge any harm done to his kinsman. The Fianna man had to renounce family and home for a military life in which, however, he lacked for nothing. The Fianna had their own druids, doctors, poets and musicians, as well as fifty women who did nothing but make clothes for them” (Fleming et al, 2003, p. 65). The exploits of the fiana have been preserved in tales and myths of the Fenian Cycle, featuring Finn mac Cumhail.
“The quartering of the fían closed the season of true warfare, and opened what may be called the season of plotting….The annals are peppered with references to assassinations at this time. (House parties made it easy to trap and burn enemies)” (Patterson, 1994, p. 123).
Ho, ho, ho!
Fleming, F. (et al.). (2003). Heroes of the dawn: Celtic myth. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Gilbert, J. (1979). Hunting and hunting reserves in medieval Scotland. Edinburgh: John Donald.
Patterson, N. (1994). Cattle lords & clansmen: the social structure of early Ireland. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Squire, C. (1997). Celtic myths and legends. New York: Portland House.