Creekwalk, 1988

Cessair, Her Name

"Cessair. That's a good name."

"My father's idea of a name."

"But you use it. You don't call yourself C. Alison Smith, or whatever."

"It's not so bad."

"You know who she was, don't you? Cessair."

"Not exactly. Celtic, I guess. My father was in his Celtic phase when I was born. Or so I hear."

"Are your parents divorced?"

A slight blush. "Did I just tell you that?"

"Just a guess. You should know about your name though. Cessair was the granddaughter of Noah, in the Irish creation story. Irish creation story. The Book of Invasions, they called it. She escaped the flood by sailing to Ireland with three men and fifty women. Decided she didn't want anything to do with a God who was going to drown everyone, even the poor animals, just because he disapproved of their behavior. She was the leader of the escapees."

"That's wonderful. He never told me."

"Is that what you did? Escape?"

She dropped her eyes.

"There's a poem. It goes like this:

Ireland-whatever is asked of me
I know pleasantly,
Every taking that took her
From the beginning of the tuneful world.

"The tuneful world. That's what brought on the flood in Mesopotamia. People were making too much noise. We read it in civ, freshman year. God hated noise. What happened to Cessair?"

"When they got to Ireland the men divided up the women. She ended up with one called Fintan. He was a poet. But he left her. Decided he didn't like women after all. At least sixteen of them, which was his share. Then she was drowned in the flood, along with the rest of them. Only her husband survived to tell the tale."

"Are you divorced?" She looked directly at me, in the eyes. I liked her for it and I knew that I had to be completely honest with her, now and always. I also knew that when I told her that I had been married before that she would never completely trust me. I knew this but I didnt care, it would be one more thing that would keep a check on this... was it a love affair of sorts?


[1] The relevant passage from the Irish Lebor Gabala is as follows:

Wouldst thou know of the adventure of Cessair into the land of Ireland?

Prophets of God and His messenger had said unto Noe son of Lamech: Make thee an ark, of light timbers, for the Flood shall come, and every living thing shall be submerged by reason of the great kin-murder which Cain son of Adam wrought upon his own brother, Abel son of Adam. And not a man of the seed of Adam shall escape without falling in that catastrophe, save only thou and thy wife and thy three sons and thy three daughters, the wives of thy sons; for ye did not company with the children of Cain, inasmuch as it is thy sister whom thyself hast, and thy daughters are with thy sons.

At this point Fintan, the flood survivor poet who narrates the story, pauses, looking expectantly at his audience, like a priest at mass, and from the dark a chorus -- perhaps the older members of the audience, perhaps a chorus of acolytes, would respond in verse:

Ireland-whatever is asked of me

I know pleasantly,

Every taking that took her

From the beginning of the tuneful world.

To which the narrator would respond with the plight of one of Noah's sons:

"I," said Bith son of Noe, "what shall I do?"

"I know not," said Noe, "for it is not permitted to me to suffer thee into the ark, for the greatness of thy sinfulness. "

"I, "said Fintan son of Lamech, "what shall I do?"

"We would not stoop to the Powers," said Noe, "to suffer thee into the Ark. "

"I," said Ladra, the pilot, son of Bith, "what shall I do?"

"I know not," said Noe, "for it is not permitted to let thee into the Ark."

"I," said Cessair daughter of Bith, "what shall I do?" "I know not," said Noe, "for I have no permission to let thee into the Ark."

Noe was wroth with them then, and said: "For me, this ship is no ship of thieves, no den of robbers."

Thereafter Bith came into counsel with Fintan and Ladra and Cessair, and they said: "What shall we do for this counsel? For it is final that the Flood shall come over the earth, and how shall we make us ready?"

But now the Irish story presents a new twist:

"Easy!" said Cessair daughter of Bith. "Give submission to me, and I shall give you a manner of counsel."

"Thou shalt have that," said they.

"Take then to yourself an idol," said she. "Worship it, and sunder you from the God of Noe."

So they took a god unto themselves, and this is the counsel that it gave them: "Make ye a voyage and embark upon the sea." But they knew not, nor did their god know, when the Flood should come. Accordingly what they did was to make their Ark, and to go into it, seven years and three months before the coming of the Flood. So the flood came, drowning all creatures great and small, excepting Noah and his ark, and Cessair and her party which consisted of fifty women, Cessair's father Bith, the poet Fintan, and the pilot Ladra.

They sought out Egypt (and so forth) till they reached Spain. Storm and tempest drove them to Ireland in a space of nine days, till they landed at Dun na mBarc, behind Ireland, and they came with their women to Miledach. At that time Bun Suainme was its name, from the confluence of the Suir, the Nore and the Barrow. That is the Meeting of the Three Waters, from the mingling of the three rivers.

Again, the chorus:

Cessair came from the East, the woman was daughter of Bith; with her fifty maidens, with her three men.

However, it was not long after Cessair and her companions' daring escape from the paternal constraints of the Old Testament before they fell to quarreling among themselves. The subject was the allocation of women among the men, for though fifty women seemed to be enough to satisfy the needs of only three men, the number fifty cannot , alas, be evenly divided by three. An uneven allocation must result! Before long one of them is dead; the manner of death is a mystery; Fintan must speculate: "Ladra the pilot, the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of an excess of women -- or is it the shaft of an oar up his arse?"

But these quarrels are soon cut short by the universal flood; the island is inundated, Bith attempting to escape the waters on a mountain, Cessair in a nook in the rocks. But all but for the poet Fintan, who alone survives to tell the story, are drowned. Ireland will wait for many years before new settlers arrive.

Now it seems strange and interesting, given the traditionally paternalistic character of Irish society, that the story of the first taking of Ireland should call on the assertiveness of a woman to defy the words of the patriarch Noah, that it should be a woman who gathers a band of apostate followers, strikes out and find her own land of promise. In fact most scholars who have interpreted the story and the context of its preservation -- embodiment of a pagan myth in a proper bible story -- that the death of Cessair was only a necessity of Christian convention (just as the villain has to die in the end of a western) and that the story in its original form enthrones Cessair as the mother goddess of Ireland (the Virgin Mary if you like), whose spirit lives on among and about the Irish. And perhaps even their American descendants! And if one were to locate a time in which the goddess actively ruled Ireland, one might turn back to that time in Irish prehistory when the native people were conquered by the Beaker folk, who, according to Maria Gimbutas, would be those Indo Europeans who rode out of Asia in about 5000 BC, arriving in the British Isles in 3000 BC.

If we want to stretch this further, drawing on Maria Gimbutas' carefully worked out archaeological chronology, we can imagine a remote connection even with the events in Mesopotamia. A luxuriantly tropical world (horses galloping on the Sahara, salmon leaping in the streams of the wooded paradise of Ireland) a life of fruit and honey, egalitarian plenty, extending in both lands up to the beginning of the third millennium, followed by a worldwide climatic shock, from which mankind emerges as an imperial civilization building (all within a century) the imperial monuments of Newgrange, the pyramids, and the Zuggerants of Ur

[2] Readers who have followed the scientific side of this narrative will not be surprised to learn that the best assigned date to the mythical landing of Cessair and party on the shores of Ireland is 3200 BC. See "A Chronology of Ancient Irish Gods and the Invasions" prepared by the Neil Armstrong in connection with his interpretations of the Knowth and Newgrange archaeological sites. (Armstrong, N. L., "Irish Symbols" Mercier Press, Cork, 1989)

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