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Every year for Saint Patrick’s Day, I have put up a post about Celtic mythology/folklore.  In the past these have been about magical beings like leprechauns, the Leannán Sídhe, or the horrifying Sluagh. Sometimes these posts have been complete stories like the tale of Oisín and the princess from Tír na nÓg, the land of the forever young (shudder).  These myths are metaphors for the beauty and sadness of life.  they focus on the impossible paradoxes of people’s hearts.  Yet lately my personal focus has been on fish-themed art which is symbolic of humankind’s increasingly problematic relationship with nature itself–our never-ending drive to consume the world of life that we are inextricably part of.  What if there were a tale that combined these elements?

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Well…in the most ancient Irish myths there was a figure known as the bradán feasa, “the salmon of knowledge.”  The salmon was an ordinary salmon who ate nine hazelnuts which fell from the tree of knowledge and tumbled into the mortal world.  The fish knew all of the wisdom of nature: it knew the reason the sun shines, the mysteries of the deep ocean, and the secrets of the green forest…it even knew the hidden truths of people’s hearts and why they do what they do. 

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For years and years the great sage Finegas fished the River Boyne trying to catch the salmon so he could devour it and gain its knowledge of all things.  The salmon (obviously) already knew what Finegas was up to, and it was no easy prey, but alas, it also knew the end of the myth and so, one day, it reluctantly succumbed to Finegas’ hook.  Finegas was exultant.  Soon he would know all of the hidden secrets of the world. He gave the fish to his apprentice, Fionn, to cook along with explicit instructions not to eat a single bite of the fish. Dutifully Fionn built a great blaze and set about cooking the enormous fish, but as he repositioned the bronze cooking vessel, he burnt his thumb and he unthinkingly popped his finger into his mouth.  

Fish Chef (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink and colored pencil

Fish Cook (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Ink and Colored Pencil

All of the salmon’s knowledge from the divine tree of knowledge flowed through one drop of fish fat into the mind of Fionn.  Awakening from his slumber to partake of his repast, Finegas looked into the eyes of his servant and he knew at once that the divine secrets of the universe were for the next generation not for the aged sage.  That servant boy, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, would become the greatest hero of Ireland, the eponymous figure at the center of the Fenian cycle.  His deeds and his loves were legend and his myth will never die.  Indeed, Fionn himself will never die: he sleeps…elsewhere… beyond the turnings of the world.  One day, in Ireland’s hour of greatest need he will reawaken and bring back the salmon’s knowledge to the dying world. But that is another story…   

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Our Lady of the Barren Tree (Petrus Christus, ca. 1465)

Here is a tiny painting by Petrus Christus who worked in Bruges during the middle of the fifteenth century.  Painted around 1456, and measuring a mere 5 3/4 x 4 7/8 inches, the painting shows the virgin mother standing in the hollow of a darkened thorn tree holding the infant Jesus.  The imagery is unusual for Christian religious art.  The tree may stand for the long lost tree of knowledge–barren since the expulsion from paradise, but about to be brought back to life by Jesus.  Alternately the image may have an idiosyncratic meaning:  Christus belonged to “the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree” and probably painted this work as personal devotional object for a wealthy fellow member.  Whatever the exact meaning, the barren tree’s wicked thorns certainly foreshadow the crown of thorns and Christ’s execution on the Cross.  The tree is hung with lower-case letter “a”s fashioned of gold.  The symbolic meaning of the letters is somewhat obscure—the most likely possibility is that they stand for “Ave Marias” and represent the 15 mysteries of the Rosary (a widespread devotional rite which represents the life of Jesus).  However they might also allude to knowledge outright, or to some personal reference (one must avoid the urge to think they represent the grade inflation now so rampant in the academic sphere).  Whatever its meaning, this little painting is a triumph of mysterious late-gothic mood.

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