The Well of Segais and The Salmon of Wisdom
Celtic legend has it that the salmon is the oldest of all living creatures. Like other indigenous peoples, the Celts believed animals had spirits and that each species held unique energies or values. Some were imbued with healing properties (like Native American medicine spirits), others were considered omens or charms. The salmon represented wisdom.
In my first book, Celtic Spirit, I give the task of telling the story of the salmon to Nathan, the precocious preteen whose fascination with Harry Potter opens him to magic and mystery. The tour guide Dorrie introduces his talk to the group.
“As you may have noticed, our own Nathan has been reading up on Druid tradition in his cards and books and sticks. We have asked him tonight to tell the story of The Well of Segais. Are you ready, Nathan?”
“Aye, I am”, says Nathan in his best imitation of an Irish brogue, which, thankfully, he does not try to use further in his presentation.
“As we all are discovering, most Irish stories have a number of versions. The story of the Well of Segais that I will tell tonight is about the time when Finn MacCool ---that’s the English version of his name, I can’t pronounce the Gaelic one---was a boy and how he came to have the wisdom of the salmon.
“You see, there were nine hazelnut trees growing around the sacred pool of water created by the well. Nine is a magic number and hazel wood is the ninth tree of the ogham. These were the trees of wisdom. They say the purplish nuts dropped into the pool and the shells came off, leaving ‘kernels of wisdom’ for the salmon to eat.
“Some say there was also a beautiful fountain created by the well as the water surfaced. As the nuts dropped into the pool, the salmon ate the nuts and grew wiser and wiser. Now the salmon is the oldest of animals, so they have accumulated the most wisdom.
“One day a boy seeking to learn poetry finds a giant, who is also a poet, by the banks of the Boyne. The giant had been seeking the salmon for seven years. Now he has found and caught it and is going to cook it. He allows the boy to stir the cauldron but makes the boy promise not to touch or eat the flesh of the salmon. It is for the giant only to eat.
“But while stirring the pot, the juice of the salmon splashes out onto the boy. The boy licks his thumb to soothe the burning feeling. As he does so, he unintentionally breaks the rule. And, by tasting the salmon, he is the one who gets the wisdom. The giant is really mad. But he is also smart. He accepts that it was meant to be. He names the boy Finn, meaning the Fair One. And so it was that from that day forward, Finn could put his thumb in his mouth and foresee the future.
“The rest is a story for another day, as they say.”
The salmon is a modern-day symbol as well. I choose this picture of a local Glaswegian catching a salmon along Galway City’s Riverwalk to remind us that our future depends on us having the wisdom to protect our precious waters and environment. Throughout time, the Celts have kept their connection and appreciation of the earth and its waters. Today, Ireland is one of the most environmentally conscious nations in the world. May we all follow their lead.