The Big Fish, a 33-foot-long ceramic sculpture by installed in 1999 on Donegall Quay in Belfast, Northern Ireland, represents Fintan, the legendary Salmon of Knowledge. Kissing the sculpture is said to impart wisdom

If you’re Irish, you know the Fianna as a band of fighters, the mythic heroes of thousands of stories told mainly in verse from across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

But you may not know that their most famous leader is said to have gained his wisdom from a legendary salmon named Fintan.

But first a little history…

While the legend of the Fianna has been embellished by myth and folklore, the term fian probably came from a group of real people called the Féine who dominated the midlands of Ireland from roughly the fifth to 10th centuries. Immediately before and after Roman rule, the Féine grew wealthy from piracy along the western and southern coasts of Britain (Na Fianna, 2016).

Young noble boys were sent away at a young age in those days. As teens, they could join a fian, a small group who had not yet inherited property, and live in the wilderness (Na Fianna, 2016). These boys, and a few girls, could recite and compose poetry and pass athletic tests like pulling a thorn from their foot while running at top speed (Isaac, 2020). Fianna, the plural, meant “wilderness/wild ones.”

Some of these teen rebels never settled down but became a pool of fighters available for hire to police conflicts between warring families or kingdoms (Na Fianna, 2016).

How the most famous leader of the fierce Fianna came to be

Finn McCool
Fionn mac Cumhaill meets his father's old retainers in the forests of Connacht; illustration by Stephen Reid.

The legend has it that as a boy, Fionn mac Cumhaill was sent to live with a poet, Finnécces, on the banks of the River Boyne.

Finnécces (which can be translated as “white salmon”; you’ll also see this name rendered as Finnegas) had vast knowledge. He knew a story from the ancient druids of a salmon who had eaten nuts from magical hazel trees and acquired all the knowledge of the world. The druids prophesized that the man who ate Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge, would become wisest of all.

Soon after Fionn arrived, Finnécces went fishing and caught Fintan. Reeling the fish in, he carried it to Fionn and ordered him to cook it. But don’t eat a single bite, he told Fionn.

Finnécces went to gather firewood and returned to see the salmon ready to eat. He asked Fionn if he had eaten any.

No, said Fionn, but he confessed that he touched the hot salmon while cooking it. This had burned his thumb, and he reflexively put his thumb in his mouth.  

The wisest of all

Finnécces then ordered Fionn to eat the whole salmon, understanding that the boy would become the wisest of all. After the boy ate Fintan, Finnécces ordered him to put his thumb in his mouth and at that moment, the tale goes, all the wisdom of the world rushed into the boy’s mind (The Salmon of Knowledge, 2020).

From that point on, to know the answer to any question, he merely had to suck his thumb.

In the early tales, Fionn is a loner and a seer. Over time, the Fianna gathered around him, much like the medieval warriors around King Arthur and Robin Hood.

It’s easy to imagine that salmon struck the Celts as intelligent because they traveled far and remembered how to return to their breeding grounds. Salmon bear spots, say the Irish, because of the hazelnuts they have eaten, one spot for each hazelnut from the nine hazel trees of wisdom, one of which grows at the head of each of the seven big rivers of Ireland (Spangenberg).

And of course, it’s possible that the Celts believed that salmon were intelligent because they noticed that the humans who ate them regularly seemed to become smarter than those who did not.

“Fish is brain food” is a very old idea indeed.   

Sources:

Isaac, A. Who were the Fianna? https://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com/post/who-were-the-fianna  Published May 11, 2020.

Na Fianna. https://ansionnachfionn.com/seanchas-mythology/na-fianna/  Published August 19, 2016.

O’Sullivan, Brian. The True Story behind 'The Fianna'. (n.d.). https://irishimbasbooks.com/the-true-story-behind-the-fianna/ Retrieved November 03, 2020.

Spangenberg, L Salmon and the Celts.https://www.digitalmedievalist.com/2009/09/12/salmon-and-the-celts/ Published August 6, 2020.

The Salmon of Knowledge. http://www.askaboutireland.ie/reading-room/life-society/irish-language-legends/the-salmon-of-knowledge/index.xml   Retrieved November 3, 2020.