The Milesians: Mythic Origins of the Ancient Irish
The Milesians are a legendary race of people mentioned in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland’). According to this work, which attained its current structure during the 11 th century, the Milesians were the last wave of invaders who came to Ireland. Although the Lebor Gabála Érenn is treated today as mythology or pseudo-history, as opposed to an actual historical account, the Milesians are commonly believed to be the ancestors of the Celts.
Where Did the Milesians Come From?
The Milesians are known also as the Sons of Mil, and derive their name from a common ancestor, Mil Espaine (meaning ‘Soldier of Spain’). Although the Milesians are said to have invaded Ireland from Spain, their origins lie further east. The story of the Milesians begins with a legendary Scythian king by the name of Feinius Farsaid, who was involved in the construction of the Tower of Babel. His son was Nel, who married Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh. The couple had a son, Gaedil, the legendary ancestor of the Gaels.
The Milesians are known also as the Sons of Mil, this illustration depicts "The Coming of the Sons of Miled", in T. W. Rolleston's Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race. (Fæ / Public Domain)
When Gaedil was still a child, he was bitten by a poisonous snake. His father brought him to Moses, who cured him with his rod. Moses also prophesied that the descendants of the boy would live in a land where no venomous snakes may be found, and that they would find this land by tracking the setting of the Sun. After the Exodus, and the drowning of the pharaoh in the Red Sea, Gaedil and his family return to Scythia. Subsequently, Gaedil (or his descendants) began to wander in search for the ‘promised land’ and arrived in Spain. One of Gaedil’s descendants, Breogan, is said to have established the city of Brigantia.
The Milesians See Ireland
Spain, however, was not the ‘promised land’. Breogan had built a tower in Brigantia and one day his son, Ith, climbed it, looked across the sea, and spotted Ireland. He immediately set sail for this mysterious island, and when he arrived, encountered the Tuatha De Danann. These were a supernatural race of beings who were the most recent arrivals on the island. They are depicted as powerful wizards who came from the north and are thought to represent the pagan deities of the island before the coming of Christianity.
Ith was the Milesian who led the expedition to Ireland from the Iberian Peninsula, from Breogán's Tower Ith first saw Ireland. (Poco a poco / CC BY-SA 4.0)
For one reason or another, Ith was attacked by the Tuatha De Danann and was mortally wounded. He died at sea and his body was brought back by his followers to Brigantia. The Brigantines wanted to avenge Ith’s death, and his kinsmen, the three sons of Mil Espaine – Eber Donn (Brown Eber), Eber Finn (Fair Eber), and Eremon, led the expedition against the Tuatha De Danann. Eber Donn was not allowed to enter the ‘promised land’ and as punishment for his brutality perished before setting foot on the island.
The Milesians had much trouble with the Tuatha De Danann before they were able to conquer Ireland. For a start, they seemed to have much more trouble than Ith in locating the island. For instance, at times, they thought they sighted land but upon further inspection found nothing. Conveniently, the Milesians agreed among themselves that the Tuatha De Danann had used their magic to make the island invisible. Eventually, the Milesians were able to set foot on Ireland and claimed it as their own. The Tuatha De Danann claimed that by the rules of war, this was not a fair conquest, as they did not have an army to oppose the invaders. They suggest instead that if the Milesians were to return to their vessels and were able to land on the island once more, they would be recognized as the new masters of Ireland.
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The Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan's "Riders of the Sidhe". The Milesians met the Tuatha De Danann when they landed on Ireland. (Thomas Gun / Public Domain)
The Fight Between the Tuatha De Danann and the Milesians
The Milesians were not too keen on this, as they were highly suspicious of the Tuatha De Danann and their magic and debated the course of action they ought to take. In the end, they decided to submit the case to Amergin, the master poet, who accepted the proposition of the Tuatha De Danann. The Milesians got into their vessels and went out to sea again, after which a hurricane (allegedly summoned by the Tuatha De Danann) rose against them. The Milesians were scattered, some even losing their lives as their boats sank. Those who survived, however, managed to land on different parts of the island and launched a campaign against the Tuatha De Danann. The Milesians emerged victorious and the rulers of the Tuatha De Danann were slain in battle.
The rest of the Tuatha De Danann went underground, while Ireland was divided between Eber Finn and Eremon. The Milesians are considered to be the ancestors of the Celts, and Irish rulers who claim descent from the Milesians include Niall of the Nine Hostages, Ugaine Mor, and Conn of the Hundred Battles.
The Milesians are considered to be the ancestors of the Celts. (Иван Дулин / Public Domain)
Top image: Cliffs of Moher at sunset, Ireland. The Milesians were the last wave of invaders who came to Ireland. Source: Patryk Kosmider / Adobe.
By Wu Mingren
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