Notes from Limmud 2015
Judaism, Mediaeval Ireland, and how Moses received a Gaelic ten commandments
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
Jews have an interesting place in Lebor Gabála Éren(n), The Book of the Taking of Ireland. To read more, as a first introduction go to the Bodleian Library, which has seven different copies of this, each representing a different recension of the book—the book was written and rewritten at least seven times between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries.
It is written two thirds in Irish, in one of the three official dialects of the language—Connaught Irish in this case—and the remainder in Latin. From the late 1930s to the 1940s it was translated into English.
This book, which has one of the most favourable descriptions of Jews in any mediaeval text, represents a period of long and fruitful interchange between the monks of Ireland and Armenian priests in the Promised Land in the twelfth to the end of the thirteenth century, when there was an intense period of pilgrimages of Irish monks to the Holy Land.
One of the places that preserves the memories of those visits is the Church of St James in Jerusalem, an extremely beautiful Armenian church; there are [there] documents and even artistic records of the visits of the Irish.
More recent research about the Celtic swirls on the high crosses in Ireland, which were once attributed to the time of Newgrange [early third millennium BCE], has now put the origin of the swirly curlicues later. What you see in Newgrange is of Iberian origin, and the plantlike decoration on the crosses of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries comes from the connection with the Holy Land.
The Book of the Taking of Ireland is famous (amongst intellectuals) in Ireland because it is the one Irish text which deals at length with the Exodus from Egypt, and the important role of the Celts in fighting off Pharaoh. Why is this [account] not in the Bible? Books were lost. and the same way Moses is not mention in the Egyptian sources, the story of Goidelas is not mentioned in the Torah, but it's fine because he turns up later in Mishnaic sources, though with a different name (!).
This idea of rewriting Celtic history to insert parts into the Bible and vice versa is not new. In Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, the Stone of Scone was Jacob's pillow when he dreamed of the angels on the ladder; and there were many attempt to connect the British and Saxon dynasties with the Israelite kings.
This process happens all over the place: when a new people appears they legitimise themselves by giving themselves an older basis. For example, when the Aztec empire sprung up, having moved from the American southwest a century beforehand, they claimed the thousand year old city we know today as Teotihuacán as their ancestral city, and gave it a Nahuatl name.
Geoffrey of Monmouth felt the need to give all the British lineages a Biblical legitimacy. The Celts were the people in Britain who had been Christians for the longest. Before Henry VIII, Christianity in Ireland was fairly syncretistic. Where it is extraordinary is in incorporating Jewish elements in a positive way.
Geoffrey of Monmouth is neutral, neither negative nor positive towards the Jews. In the history of the Kings of Britain, the British lineages are attributed a Trojan origin, and Israelite elements are inserted into the history. But Geoffrey of Monmouth does not want to play up the Jewish part too far. The Irish monks had no such qualms. They really liked Jews, to the point of seeing no need to convert them, with one small exception at the end, where Moses talks to Goidelas, who says gently, you might accept Jesus, and Moses says not now, and Goidelas says oh, okay.
One question they ask (and answer) is why two of the most popular surnames of the Irish Middle Ages (and to today) are Kohan and Levy (still found in the west of Ireland today). These names were bestowed upon us by Moses, they said, when we sojourned with him at Sinai.
So what's the story?
The first relevant character is the daughter of Pharaoh. She's never stated to be the same as the one who took Moses from the Nile, but it's insinuated. But she's not called Batya [or Tharmuth]; she's called Scota. So the Irish (the Scots originally being Irish) are claiming to be of royal descent.
She's very sympathetic to the plight of the Hebrew slaves, so sympathetic that rather than marry the prince she is betrothed to, she falls in love with a red-haired, green-eyed warrior (that's the Irish describing themselves).
From an archaeological perspective, Gerhard Herm asks this question in The Celts. In the Egyptian sources, in the time of Rameses I and Rameses II, there are references to the Peoples of the Sea, nicknamed by the Egyptians as the Hyksos. They are described as having hair the colour of fire and green eyes; this would have looked unusual to the Egyptians of the time. (It would have looked less unusual to Egyptians of later times; Cleopatra is described as being red-headed.)
[Except that the Gaels came, along with the rest of the Celts, from central Europe (the La Tène archaeological culture, which flourished around the time of the Jews' Babylonian exile; which developed out of the earlier Hallstatt archaeological culture, which originated a century or two after the time of the Exodus, and there is no archaeological or genetic evidence I am aware of connecting the proto-Celts with the Asiatic Hyksos or the (AIUI) separate Sea Peoples.]
The ancient Egyptian chronicles talk about pitched battles fought with the Hyksos, but by Rameses II some of the Hyksos had come into Egypt and married in, and some had left.
Back in the book, Scota marries Goidelas [an obviously mythical ancestor for the Gaels, the name of which originally had a DH in the middle], who is described like Finn McCool: very macho, very strong, very tattooed. What's interesting is that—indicating contact by the monks with Jews—the Gaels were described as being tattooed in the way that sons and daughters of the Israelites were not. (The prohibition in Judaism against body modification only really came strongly in in the mediaeval period.)
Note they use "Jews" and "Israelites" interchangeably; in Geoffrey of Monmouth, "Jew" is [correctly for the period] never used. This indicates contact with Jews.
Scota's marriage got her father the Pharaoh angry, and he expects her and Goidelas, who run away together with her Sea People, and camp by the shores of the Red Sea. The place that is described is the northern part of where the Red Sea flows, not far from Goshen.
They have a son, Fénius. ("Fenian" also describes the Gaels. In Irish folklore, heroes have spiritual twins; here Moses names his grandson Phinehas after Fénius.)
The slaves Scota has been sympathetic to revolt, and they are here expelled, rather than leaving of their own free will. They come to look for Scota and Goidelas because they are hungry. They left Egypt so quickly they don't have food. (The unleavened bread ran out really quickly.)
Moses and Aaron go looking for Goidelas' camp, and Aaron finds it. Moses stays back a bit, with the majority of the Israelites. Aaron goes to meet Goidelas and Goidelas receives him in his tent. He offers to give Aaron a tattoo; Aaron refuses, but they have an interchange involving jewellery instead: a bracelet from Aaron for a torc from Goidelas.
Goidelas tells Scota to prepare enough food for the Children of Israel. Many scenes detail the preparing of food for them. In one case, they prepare the meat of the Celtic sacred animal—pork—and cabbage. Aaron says, "It's the thought that counts, but we can't eat it." So he has Scota wash the cabbages to get the pork off of them.
"Can you eat meat, then?" Yes. "What kind of meat?" Bulls. So then there is a description of how the animal is to be killed. Aaron says to Goidelas, "We can't eat the blood"; Goidelas says you're missing the best part. Aaron says we eat it with parsley.
A week goes by, then a tragedy: Fénius is bitten by a serpent and falls gravely ill. Scota keens. Aaron appears and Goidelas says "I've heard your brother has a statue of a snake," called in most mediaeval texts Moses' dragon. [Sharonah referred to it as Neḥushtan, but this is an anachronism, that name dates from centuries later.] "Come with me, I'll convince Moses to help you."
So they go running off to the Israelite camp, where they are well received, but Fénius is almost dead, and Goidelas is weeping. Moses blesses them, but they don't want a blessing, they want action. Moses says, "What's the problem?" and they explain.
Moses falls on his knees (perhaps a bit more Catholic than Jewish) and asks God for guidance. God says: take Goidelas, Scota and Fénius out under the shadow of Neḥushtan. Have them face west (Tír na nÓg is in the west in Irish mythology). Take your staff and face Neḥushtan and then touch Fénius, and he will be cured. (This is after the story in which the image of the snake had cured the Israelites' plague. The image is suggestive also of the caduceus.)
Fénius is cured. Joshua appears, embraces him and says "I will teach you to be a great warrior." Fénius offers Joshua a tattoo; Joshua declines.
For two months, the Jews (following the healing of Fénius they are only called the Jews, not Israelites) and Gaels embrace, and they break bread together, and the Gaels eat pork, but not next to the Jews.
Then Pharaoh appears with his army. The Jews start weeping. Now there's a real insinuation that Scota is the same as the daughter of Pharaoh in Exodus: she says "Moses do not be afraid, I have taught you not to be afeared of Pharaoh's men."
Moses says "Okay, but I need Goidelas' help." Goidelas is happy to help. Moses invites the Gaels to the Promised Land. They say "Thanks, but we have our own Promised Land." Moses says, "God has two Promised Lands?" He says "Yes, and we have to take ours just as you have to take Canaan."
This is pretty heretical: can you really call Ireland the Promised Land? James Joyce: "You damn well can if you're Irish!"
Moses says "Okay, but we'd still like you to come." Goidelas promises to accompany them part of the way; you go first across the Red Sea whilst we fight off Pharaoh.
The Red Sea parts, the Israelites cross, and the Gaels, dressed only in loincloths and lots of tattoos, fight off Pharaoh and throw his chariots into the sea.
Then follows Miriam's song [Moses' doesn't seem to get a look-in in Sharonah's version!], which is missing two lines in the Hebrew: "Thank you God, for sending us the help of the Gaels, who helped us to cross."
The Irish then spend forty years with the Jews in the wilderness; they're at Sinai, where Goidelas calms Moses down before he goes up to Mt Sinai.
(James Joyce joked that Goidelas says to Moses: "I went up to Mt Sinai first. God was going to give you fifteen commandments, but I bargained him down to ten. There's some bad news though." "What?" "Thou shalt not commit adultery is still one of the ten.")
The Irish stayed two leagues off. They watched the revelation, but God told them to hold off because they would have their own revelation at another mountain called Tara.
Moses then comes down from Sinai, but it's Goidelas who has the role of Joshua in our story about the Golden Calf, and it's Goidelas who tells Moses to go up a second time. The Irish monks are creating a patrimony for themselves helpin[g the Israelites]. Goidelas also helps in the story of Korach.
Goidelas then apologises but says "We have to go now." Moses weeps, Goidelas says "Don't worry, we will never forget you. We will tell your part in the taking of Ireland." (From the Irish point of view it's that way around and not the other!)
Moses says "I will give you a sign of the friendship of the Jews and the Gaels, and that sign will have to do with your son Fénius." "What is that sign?" says Fénius. Moses says "Because you were cured of a snakebite by my staff, I promise you that another saint will come and take the snakes out of Ireland."
In the Book of the Taking of Ireland, St Patrick (who was originally taken as a slave by the Irish), reminds the Irish that they were going to get this great blessing from Moses, and expels the snakes from Ireland.
In mediaeval Christian literature, this book is totally one of a kind, with the exception of a text from Catalonia: a great Christian cabbalist of the thirteenth century, Ramon Llull, had a great deal of respect and love for the Jewish people. [Wikipedia disagrees completely!. As a complete aside, I was surprised to encounter Llull here, having just learned of him through having read The Box of Delights a few weeks beforehand.]
The Book of the Taking of Ireland stands even more alone when Henry VIII—who continued to persecute Protestants in England even after breaking with the Roman Catholic church—started burning Catholic MSS; so many of the copies of the book in Ireland were burned. (Some were saved in Clonmacnoise, but they were saved secretly.)
In 1595 Elizabeth made a truce and became good friends with the Irish pirate queen Grace O'Malley, which lasted the eight years until they both died. [This was the subject of Sharonah's first talk at Limmud this year, which I missed. She referred to it her in each of her subsequent talks, and I can see I'm going to have to go away and read about her now!]
In 1596, Elizabeth commissioned the first translation done in England of the Bible into Irish. (The Bible had beenn translated before, from the eighth to tenth centuries.) Because of Grace O'Malley, Elizabeth had become interested in Irish and was learning the language at the time of her death.
In 1596 Elizabeth allowed open reading of Irish texts; almost immediately after ascending the throne, James banned that again.
(Andy Finkel: how does this tie in with the Irish war for independence at the time? Answer: It's no longer called that. It's the O'Malleys and Joyces [I think] against the Earl of Tyrone: They were not fighting for Irish independence, but for their tribe.)
The Book of the Taking of Ireland came out of the closet during those eight years. During that time, copies made their way to England. One copy made its way ultimately to the British Museum, the other seven to the Bodleian Library.
In the twentieth century, Conor Cruise O'Brien became extremely interested in this whole tale, though a personal friendship with a Jewish Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe.
The President of the State of Israel Chaim Herzog, who was born and raised in Ireland, was also interested in this story, as was Bob Geldof (whom Sharonah Frederick said identifies as Jewish—his father was). Herzog together with two researches from University College Galway started the research on how could Irish monks meet Jews at the time when there were no Jews in Ireland, and came to the conclusion it was in Jerusalem, after Saladin had let the Jews back into Jerusalem. Also that the contact would have been through trade in textiles, the way the majority of the Jews of Jerusalem made their living then.
The significance of this particular text is huge. Not because it's truthful, but as a fictional text it has power in portraying cross-cultural contacts. The majority of texts at that time are so negative towards Jews and Jewish tradition that this stands out so much by contrast.
Comment from Andy Finkel: This book is a counterpoint to the Norman invasion of Ireland: it's justifying the Irish's ownership of Ireland. Conor Cruise O'Brien called it the Irish counternarrative.