I live very near a small fresh water estuary and salmon hatchery in Washington state. This month, the Pacific salmon are swimming upstream to spawn. They are stunning; gorgeous silver scales with bands and spots of pink and green, even blue. They are much larger than I’d expected; many are well over a foot in size, and wider than the palm of my hand.
These salmon have come from miles away, upstream, over rapids and falls and fish ladders to arrive at their original hatchery, where they jump over a series of fish ladders, to reach their home. There they will remain to spawn (and then die), or in some cases, to continue upstream to a different estuary, or even out to sea.
The annual return of the Pacific salmon (and steelhead trout) to Puget Sound rivers always reminds me of the importance of salmon in medieval Irish texts. The value placed on salmon by the ancient Celts and North American First Nations peoples is similar, in terms of both the salmon’s intrinsic value as a crucial part of people’s diet, and their value as a crucial cultural symbol.
Given the value salmon offer as food items, and the seasonal aspect of the salmon spawn, the return of the salmon every year had to have been a momentous occasion to the ancient Celts just as it was (and is) for First Nations peoples in the Pacific Northwest, as the Salish celebration of the First Salmon’s return suggests.
The salmon’s ability to remember, and navigate to its own birth place to spawn suggests wisdom beyond the ordinary. Words for salmon (eó, eú, éicne in Irish, eog in Welsh) are parts of a number names, for both people and places. The place name Leixlip, in County Kildare along the river Liffey is derived from the Norse of the Viking settlers who traveled up the Liffey, and settled; in Old Norse Leixlip is leax hlaup or “salmon leap,” a name that is likely a reference to the annual return of the salmon from the Atlantic to swim up the Liffey to spawn.
Lushootseed, one of the the Salish-family language used by First Nations peoples in the Puget Sound, is equally rich with salmon references, in place names. It’s also a cultural rich with stories. One of the Salish stories explains why salmon return from the sea, swimming up river to spawn, and then die, except for the Steeleye.
The story goes like this:
Once long ago when the Salish were starving, Raven searched for help, and discovered Salmon Woman and her children Sockeye, and Steelhead and Coho and King salmon. Raven persuaded Salmon Woman to marry him and she gave her children to the Salish so they would not starve.
Because the salmon were abundant, in time the Salish forgot their hunger and their desperation. They began to be greedy and over fished. Salmon Woman called her children back to her, and left the Salish, returning to the sea and the longhouse of her father, the Salmon Chief. She vowed never to return to land and the Salish, and soon the Salish again knew starvation and hunger.
Raven begged his wife to forgive the people and return to them with her children. Eventually, he persuade Salmon woman to return, but first she changed her children’s lifecycle to teach the Salish a lesson.
Before this, the salmon at the mouth of the river, near the Salish village, all year long. But Salmon Woman changed her children so that the salmon would spawn upriver, then return to the ocean, and not return to the Salish until spawning season.
The Salish were instructed never to go up river to harvest the salmon, and instead to only take salmon during the harvest moons. But not everyone heard the instructions. Bear, Raven’s brother, was one who did not hear. One year when Bear’s wife was pregnant, Raven was hunting and fishing for Bear’s family, because Bear’s wife was pregnant, a status that was much valued by the Salish.
Bear became bored and restless. He decided to hunt salmon, and went upriver. But each salmon species he touched died, and floated down stream, the coho, the chinook, the chum, the sockeye, all died as soon as he touched them.
The Salish people became worried about starving. They called Raven and asked to find Bear, and stop him. Raven knew his brother was upriver where the salmon spawning beds were, and he hurried to stop him.
But Raven was too late. When Raven arrived at the spawning grounds, Bear has already touched every species of salmon.
Except one, the steelhead.
And that is why even today, when other species of salmon return to spawn and then dies, the steelhead survives spawning and swims out to the ocean.
This tale* serves a number of functions, beyond explaining the miraculous return of salmon to spawn after a year at sea. It also teaches the importance of seasonal fishing, and restraint; notice, for instance, that just as Raven hunts for his brother’s family, a family about to be increased with the birth of a child, they do not hunt the salmon while they are spawning.
That drive to return to where they were born in order to spawn, has helped the salmon take a special place in Celtic myth. Salmon are otherworldly animals in Irish myth; their spots are one of the markers of such creatures.The salmon’s spots are because salmon eat the hazelnuts of the nine hazels of wisdom, one of which grows at the heads of each of the seven primary rivers of Ireland, one at Connla’s Well, and one at the Well of Segais. Salmon are said to bear a spot for each hazelnut they have consumed.
In Irish tradition, salmon are ultimately responsible for the preternatural knowledge of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. In one version of the myth, the poet Finnécces (etymologically Finnécces means “white salmon.”) has been trying to catch Fintan, the ancient salmon of knowledge that lived at the base of the Boyne. He finally managed to catch the salmon and is cooking the fish prior to consuming it. Along comes the youthful Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Having touched the salmon on the fire, and burned his thumb, Fionn stuck it in his mouth—thus gaining the otherworldly oracular wisdom Finn had intended for himself by consuming the salmon. From that point on, Fionn merely sucks his thumb, and gains the answer to any question.
For the Irish, the salmon’s miraculous return is seen as a sign of wisdom, and the power of memory. In Welsh myth, in the tale of Culwch ac Olwen, the salmon Lyn Llyw in the Severn, is the oldest of all living creatures, and one of the forty wisest animals. It is Lyn Llyw who tells the hero Culwch where Mabon is held prisoner, the ultimate task Culwch must perform in order to win Olwn from her father. Salmon are important iconographically, even for the ancient Gauls. One relief on a Gaulish altar shows a human head between two very large salmon; another altar, this time Gallo-Roman, depicts a strikingly-salmon looking fish talking into the ear of a human head, as if imparting wisdom directly
At the Romano-British temple at Lydney Park above the Severn estuary, dedicated to the god Nodons, the god is shown seated, fishing, with a salmon on his line. Nodons, or Nudd, is linguistically related to the Irish deity Nuadu, and to the Welsh mythological figure Lludd Llaw Ereint.
It is equally telling that salmon have been over fished in Ireland and Scotland; indeed, the Atlantic salmon is largely a farmed fish now, with what few Atlantic salmon that remain in the wild protected as endangered species. I wish the Celts had learned the Salish lesson about seasonal moderation.
* There are several versions by various Salish story tellers of this tale. I’ve merely paraphrased the high points of one version. See the original version here. But see alternate versions too, like this one from Marguerite Which-Ta-lum and this one from Jewell Praying Wolf James.