Muddy Waters and Muddier Bloodlines: Fosterage in Early Ireland

Like most Irish Polytheists, I have a hard time keeping the relations of the Tuatha Dé Danann straight at times. In all honesty, it’s really not all that far off the mark to say that if even one thing is consistent about the surviving Irish Lore… It’s that Irish Lore is incredibly inconsistent. This is particularly true when it comes to Bloodlines; while the family unit was arguably an important part of Irish society, the fact of the matter is that Irish Bloodlines in Lore are often murkier than a freshly stepped in puddle- if not far, far murkier than that.

The issues of murky Bloodlines was highlighted for me when I first converted to Irish Polytheism. I had an aha! moment one night about a year later, though, and came to a sort of conclusion. Still, that conclusion needed a lot more research and it sort of fell into the backgound. Over the last few days, though, this issue was brought back into the forefront of my thought as I worked on some simple educational pages concerning the Deities I worship; like always, I got to the Bloodlines and entered a tangled web of confusion.

For instance, who were Fliadhais’ children? Most sources will tell you some combination of Bé Téite, Fand, Bé Chuille, Arden / Argoen, Dinand, and Nia Ségamain. Likewise, Airmedh’s siblings are often listed as any combination of Miach, Ormiach, Cian, Ochtriuile, Cethe, Cu and Etan. Hardly any of them will give you the same answer as another, either. On the other side of the fence, too, we have Brighid who is listed as not only the Mother of the Dagda, but also his Daugher and his lover- which, honestly, represents a whole other issue.

On and on this issue goes when it comes to Irish Lore, and there really doesn’t seem to be an end point to it. There are a lot of reasons why these contradictions might occur in Lore, though.

For one, Irish culture was based largely in Oral Tradition before Christianization. It’s true that Oral Traditions are incredibly complex and have a wider range of impact compared to written traditions (which require literacy); they’re often far better at recording and transmitting cultural data than other methods. But if we know anything about Oral Traditions it’s that, despite their impact, they’re largely unreliable systems for a number of reasons. Notable among those reasons is the fact that storytellers often put their own spin on tales. With Oral Traditions it’s also easy to get your chronology mixed up, lending a hand to the confusion.

For another,the Monks did likely mess with Lore during Ireland’s conversion. Yes, they’re responsible for preserving of the bulk of Lore we have today; without them we likely wouldn’t have near as much as we do now (Oral Traditions are funny like that)… But like with the storytellers of old, they weren’t exactly lacking in bias. What didn’t fit the Christian worldview was often changed, or discarded entirely- and the Irish weren’t the only ones affected by their heavy handedness in this area. The Norse were, too, and such tampering can further muddy already muddied waters.

And then there’s the fact that several names acted not only as names for singular figures… But also as formal or informal titles for entire groups of them. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to The Morrigan; the Morrigan is not only herself a singular entity, but her name functions as a title that has been lorically applied to the likes of Badb Catha, Macha, Némain, Fea, Bé Neit, and others- some of them at the same time, even. Cailleach is another good mention of dual natured names like this. As a result, sometimes it can be incredibly difficult to suss out who is actually being spoken about unless they’re directly named alongside the title in that instance.

This is par for the course when it comes to navigating Irish Lore; sources often contradict themselves when it concerns who was related to, doing the do with, or married to who. Unfortunately, though, it can’t always be chalked up to different time periods, poor interpretive methods, or other causes. So then what are the real connections of the Tuatha Dé Danann? Quite frankly, we just don’t know… We don’t know, and we’ll probably never know… But I might just have a theory.

Enter Fosterage. Fosterage was a well established Irish system wherein a minor child from one family would live with, be raised and cared for by, and receive an education from another family. Sometimes this would be until they came of age (fourteen for Females, and seventeen for Males), but some children- particularly those of wealthy families- could be shuffled about to several Foster Families throughout the course of their childhood.

Contrary to some Fosterage Systems found in other cultures, Irish Fosterage wasn’t limited only to the wealthy, either. Instead, it was practiced widely by almost all castes in Irish Society- though lawful expectations as to the care of the child determined who was more likely to foster children of what ranks. Speaking of those laws, Fosterage was so widely practiced in Ireland that despite its practice not being law, pretty elaborate laws were developed in order to regulate the system. These laws covered everything from how the Children were to be treated while being Fostered, to what they ate and what colors they wore during their fosterage, and the education they were expected to receive. They even went so far as to define who paid who when a child was injured during their Fosterage (depending on the circumstance of the injury).

Irish dedication to the system is almost the stuff of legends as well; it’s estimated that by the fifth century, the practice was already solidified in Irish Culture. When the Anglo-Norman invasion occurred, even the Normans adopted the practice in order to foster alliances with the Irish people. The practice was so ingrained into Irish culture, even, that not even the Statutes of Kilkenny (passed in 1366) could do much to dissuade the land of the custom.

Now no one knows exactly why the Irish continued to practice Fosterage for so long- or insist on doing so, so stubbornly. Some believe that it was a cultural practice specifically meant to strengthen communal ties. More believe that it was a way to gain political alliances, skills, and other things the family needed. Others believe it helped ensure that all people had someone to take care of them in old age; plenty of conjecture exists concerning the why‘s, but as Library Ireland states:

It is not clear what, besides the force of habit, was the motive for it; but its practice, whether designed for that end or not, helped materially to strengthen the natural ties of kinship and sympathy which bound the chief and clan or the flaith and sept together.

What is perhaps the most striking thing about the irish Fosterage System- as noted by Library Ireland in the above passage- are the types of bonds that it inarguably created… Particularly between the children who were fostered, and the families who fostered them. The Irish Fireside Podcast and Blog elaborates on this a bit more, stating:

Even after the children returned to the birth clan, around age 14 for girls and 17 for boys, the foster family was held in high regard. The child was expected to care for his foster parents in their old age, and if the child was at some point killed, not only was the birth family entitled to an honor price, but so was the foster family. Children were often more emotionally attached to their foster parents than to their natural parents. Clearly strong bonds were formed.

Telling confirmation of the strength of these bonds, however, comes from a report submitted by one Sir John Davies, the Attorney General of Ireland; submitted in 1612 to King James I, Sir Davies had this to write about Irish Fosterage:

[T]hey put away all their children to fosterers, the potent and the rich men selling, the meaner sort buying the alterage [fostering, Irish altram] of their children. And the reason is because in the opinion of this people fostering hath always been a stronger alliance than blood, and the foster-children do love and are beloved of their foster-fathers and their sept more than of their own natural parents and kindred, and do participate of their means more frankly, and do adhere unto them in all fortunes with more affection and constancy […] [Parkes]

With the emphasis on Fosterage in Early Ireland- and the bonds it created between those who participated- it’s not hard to believe that the Tuatha Dé Danann would have likewise participated in this practice even if only from a Loric standpoint. But if Fosterage was indeed practiced by them, then why is there no mention of it in surviving lore? Several potential reasons for this may exist.

For one, surviving lore was arguably tampered with- and the English were certainly not fond of the irish System of Fosterage. It’s possible it could have been included in Lore (and we do have record of it appearing in some myths, such as in the case of Irish Hero Cú Chulainn), but was largely stripped from these sources later on. This, however, doesn’t account for why it appears in some myths and not others.

Another possibility is that it was so commonplace in Irish Culture that the distinction never needed to be made at all. This especially becomes a possibility when one takes into account the fact that these distinctions were also rarely made in Irish Society itself; for all intents and purposes, the Foster Family became a second legal and communal family to the fostered child upon completion of Fosterage. Why need to distinguish between Foster and Biological when they were almost one in the same anyways?

Whatever the reason it doesn’t actually appear in the myths, though… I certainly believe that the reason Bloodlines in Irish Lore are so murky, is potentially because of Fosterage. So what are your opinions?


For a list of IriPol resources, including those I used to inform the opinions mentioned in this article, please view this page here.

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