The Milesian Invasion

In “Spain,” a man named Bregon built a very tall watchtower. Bregon’s son, Ith, liked to climb the tower and look out over the sea. One very clear winter’s day, he noticed a land he had never seen before. Ith decided he wanted to explore it further, so he set sail with ninety warriors for the strange new land.

The land Ith had seen was, of course, Ireland. At that time, there were three Danaan kings—Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Greine—who ruled Ireland. As Ith landed, he noticed the three rulers arguing. They were bickering over how to divide the country.

Seeing the stranger approach, the kings asked Ith to help them decide. Ith had no practical advice, but instead told the kings to act according to the laws of justice. He then praised the country for its moderate climate and abundance of good food, such as fish, wheat, honey, and fruit.

When the kings heard the newcomer, they began to worry that he was plotting to overtake their country. They killed him on the spot, but spared his followers, who were allowed to return to Spain with the body.

The people of Spain were furious to learn of Ith’s death. His nephew, Mil Espaine, determined to go to Ireland to avenge his death. He set sail with his family and thirty-six chiefs and their families.

Among the Milesians, as they came to be known, was Mil Espaine’s son, Amairgin. Amairgin was a poet and a powerful druid, or magician. Upon landing on the Irish coast, Amairgin recited a poem, asking the land and its resources to side with Mil Espaine and his followers.

The group made their way to Tara, the capital and palace of the Danaans. A short way into their march, they met up with Banba, the wife of Mac Cuill. Banba greeted the Milesians warmly.

While she was not happy to hear they had arrived to conquer Ireland, she asked that the island be named after her should they win. Amairgin promised it would be so. Further along, the Milesians met up with another goddess, Fotla, wife of Mac Cecht. She made the same request as Banba. Amairgin again responded that it would be so.

Finally, as the group proceeded to the center of the island, they met Eriu, wife of Mac Greine. Eriu greeted the Milesians most warmly of all. She welcomed the group to the fair island and prophesized that the human race would be the most perfect the land would ever know. She turned to Amairgin.

Like Banba and Fotla, she asked that the island bear her name should the Milesians be successful in their battle. Amairgin answered that Eriu would be the country’s principal name. (While all three names have been used to describe Ireland, it is only Eriu, or Erin in a different form, that remains as a poetic nickname for the island.)

After leaving Eriu, the Milesians made the last leg of their journey to Tara. There, they found Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht, and Mac Greine waiting for them. The kings and other Danaans complained that the humans had not followed the laws of warfare.

According to ancient traditions, invaders were required to give the inhabitants of a country advance notice of an attack. The Milesians admitted that they had not done this. To settle the matter, the two sides decided to present their case to Amairgin.

The Danaans had great respect for the druid. Even so, they threatened to kill him immediately if his decision obviously favored the Milesians. After careful consideration, Amairgin came to a verdict, which was considered the first judgment ever delivered in Ireland.

He agreed that the Milesians acted unfairly and took the Danaans by surprise. To make up for this, the Milesians had to retreat out to sea the length of nine waves. If they were able to return to shore, they would have rightfully earned the land as their own.

Both sides felt Amairgin’s judgment was a fair one. The Milesians retreated to their ship and sailed nine wave lengths back from the shore. Once the signal was given to attack, the Milesians began paddling.

Despite their immense effort, however, the Milesians realized they were not making any progress. Unbeknownst to them, the gods had combined all their powers to create a strong wind to keep the Milesians in place.

At first the Milesians thought it might be a natural storm that was hindering them. They sent a man to climb the highest mast to see if the wind was indeed caused by a storm. The man quickly climbed up and then back down.

He reported that no storm could be seen on the horizon and that the wind must therefore be supernatural in origin. Amairgin quickly took control of the situation. He chanted a poem that called out to the powers of the land itself—powers far greater than even those of the gods. The land of Ireland responded to Amairgin’s spell and the winds soon died down.

The Milesians continued to shore. Once they landed, Amairgin called out to the sea, as he had done with the land. With these forces behind them, the humans began their assault on the gods. The three Danaan kings and their wives were killed in battle. The Milesian invasion was successful and they took over rule of the country.

While the Danaans were defeated, however, they did not withdraw from Ireland altogether. Using their magical powers, they made themselves invisible to the majority of humans.

From that day forward, Ireland was divided into two realms—the earthly and the spiritual. While the humans ruled the earthly domain, the Danaans dwelled silently and invisibly in the spirit world. They made their homes under mounds or hills, known as síd. The gods became known as “the people of the hills.”

Every male god was imagined as a Fear-síd, meaning “man of the hill.” Goddesses were called Ban-síd, or “woman of the hill.” Over the years, the words have evolved into their present forms: “fairy” and “banshee.” Both of these characters remain popular in Irish folklore today.

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