Salmon of Knowledge
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The Salmon of Knowledge (Irish: bradán feasa) is a creature figuring in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, sometimes identified with Fintan mac Bóchra, who was known as "The Wise" and was once transformed into a salmon.
The Salmon story figures prominently in The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, which recounts the early adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill. According to the story, an ordinary salmon ate nine hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom (an Tobar Segais) from nine hazel trees that surrounded the well. By this act, the salmon gained all the world's knowledge. The first person to eat of its flesh would in turn gain this knowledge.
The poet Finn Eces (or Finegas) spent seven years fishing for this salmon. Finally Finn caught the salmon and gave the fish to Fionn, his servant and son of Cumhaill, with instructions to cook it but on no account to eat any of it. Fionn cooked the salmon, turning it over and over, but when he touched the fish with his thumb to see if it was cooked, he burnt his finger on a drop of hot cooking fish fat. Fionn sucked on his burned finger to ease the pain. Little did Fionn know that all of the salmon's wisdom had been concentrated into that one drop of fish fat. When he brought the cooked meal to Finn Eces, his master saw that the boy's eyes shone with a previously unseen wisdom. Finn Eces asked Fionn if he had eaten any of the salmon. Answering no, the boy explained what had happened. Finn Eces realized that Fionn had received the wisdom of the salmon, so gave him the rest of the fish to eat. Fionn ate the salmon and in so doing gained all the knowledge of the world. Throughout the rest of his life, Fionn could draw upon this knowledge merely by biting his thumb. The deep knowledge and wisdom gained from the Salmon of Knowledge allowed Fionn to become the leader of the Fianna, the famed heroes of Irish myth.
In Irish mythology, several primordial beings that personify old age and ancient knowledge are described as taking the shape of a salmon. Most notably, this includes Fintan mac Bóchra and Tuan mac Cairill.
In the Icelandic Volsunga Saga (late 13th century), several motifs recur, as well: Odin, Loki, and Hœnir slew an otter that they later found to be the son of the dwarf Hreidmar. The treasure Hreidmar was receiving as ransom was then protected by his son Fafnir, who took the shape of a serpent or dragon. On behalf of his brother Regin, Fafnir was later slain by Sigurd. Regin asked Sigurd to cook Fafnir's heart for him to eat, but, like Fionn, Sigurd tasted it and gained the knowledge of the speech of birds. Thus he learnt about Regin's treachery and confronted him. Similarly, Saxo Grammaticus (Gesta Danorum, V.2.6-V.2.8, 12th c.) describes how Eric acquired eloquence and wisdom by eating the snake-infested stew his step-mother Kraka had prepared for his half-brother Roller.
The motif is well-known in European fairy tales and corresponds to Aarne–Thompson type 673 (KHM 17, see The White Serpent's flesh), frequently found in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, in the Baltic countries and occasionally also outside Europe. As both the majority of fairy tales and the Germanic versions point to a serpent being digested, but not a salmon, it seems likely that the salmon is a substitute for an original serpent.
In popular culture
The Salmon of Knowledge is briefly featured in the 1973 film The Wicker Man. While Sergeant Neil Howie searches the town for a missing girl, he opens a cupboard to reveal a fish costume. The house owner says the costume is his and that it is The Salmon of Knowledge.
In 1999, in celebration of the return of fish to the River Lagan, the city of Belfast erected a sculpture titled The Salmon of Knowledge but locally called The Big Fish. Each tile used to make the sculpture references part of Belfast's history. If following the local folklore, wisdom can still be gained by kissing the sculpture of The Salmon of Knowledge today.
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- Ériu. Royal Irish Academy. 1904. pp. Kuno Meyer, "The Boyish Exploits of Finn", pp. 185–186.
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- "The life of Taliesin the bard". BBC Wales. Retrieved 18 June 2020.
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- Saxo (Grammaticus) (2015). Gesta Danorum. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820523-4.
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- "The Big Fish". Guide to Public Art. Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Archived from the original on 22 January 2003.