The Milesian Legends


   Everyone's heard of the Milesian legends, the old Irish tales that trace the descent of the Irish and Scots to a King Milesius of Spain, whose three sons invaded Ireland some 1,500 years before Christ.  From Spain the tales go back to a sojourn in Egypt and an origin in Scythia.   These tales are recounted in numerous books on Irish history; even the Four Masters saw fit to include them in their compendium of Irish annals in the 17th century.  But there is no one Milesian legend; there are numerous versions, none of them agreeing completely with the others, some radically different.  In some versions it is King Milesius of Mil who led the Gaedil (Gael) to Spain.  In some versions we are told his real name was Golamh.  In other versions Gaedil glas or Gathelos led the Gaedil to Spain.  In yet another version the leader of the Gaedil on the trek to Ireland was Nel and his father Aeneas (they never stopped in Spain).  In some versions, Nel, the son of Feinius Farsaid, king of Scythia, went to Egypt and married Scota, the daughter of Pharoah.  In others a later descendant also went to Egypt and married Scota, the daughter of pharoah.  In some versions the Gaedil went from Scythia to Egypt, back to Scythia then on to Spain.   In others they went from Scythia to Egypt and back to Scythia; then from Scythia to Egypt yet again before sailing to Spain.  In at least one version they never went to Spain at all!  In some versions the sons of King Milesius were the last to invade Ireland; in others the last invasion was led by a Simon Breach.
   This is hardly the stuff of history.  You just can't have this many conflicting versions of the same tale for any of them to be true.  The fact is the Milesian legends were an invention from the very start, written and re-written by generations of Irish scribes who embellished the texts they found and re-wrote the genealogies and the accompanying story lines as well.  The tales were designed to furnish Ireland with a suitable national history similar to those being circulated in Britain and Gaul.   And these were all based on variants of the Roman national history, deduced from Trojans fleeing the burning city of Troy.  In essence the Milesian legends began as a simple Trojan legend and are no more historical than the rest.  There wasn't any King Milesius of Spain any more than there was a Brutus, the alleged founder of the Britains or Welsh; or a Thor whom the Norse claimed ruled over the city of Troy in Turkland. 
  The Milesian legends would probably by now be a mere footnote to Irish history had not the Irish bards also developed them into a complex genealogical scheme tracing the various tribes of Ireland to descendants of the three sons of King Milesius, Heremon, Heber and Ir; or to a cousin, Ith.   New generations of Irish history buffs discover them anew in the pages of John O'Hart's "Irish Pedigrees," Keating's "History of Ireland" or Seumas MacManus' "The Story of the Irish Race" and so the tales refuse to die.  No one today would think of accepting Nennius' 9th century tale of Brutus coming to Britain and founding a great nation as true history; but many cling to the Milesian legends which are nothing more than the same fabulous type of national history as some kind of genuine folk memory of the Gael.
   The difference is the Irish legends were re-written over time eventually disguising their true origin as Trojan legends.. 

   In examining the surviving versions of the Milesian legends we'll begin with the Irish redactions, then Nennius' version; several more versions are preserved in Scottish histories and manuscripts; and lastly a curious version included by Colgan in his collection of Irish Saints.

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