Celtic Mythology: The Three Noble Strains

Healer of each wounded warrior,
Comforter of each fine woman,
Guiding refrain over the blue water,
Image-laden, sweet-sounding music! –Book of the O’Connor Don

In Celtic mythology, we’re told about The Dagda (the Good god of the Gaelic gods) who was a king within the fairy race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Dagda had a magical and enchanting harp, which he took everywhere and which would come to him when he called.

His harp had the Three Noble Strains of music bound into it. Each property or strain had a different effect on the listener:

1) The Goiltai or ‘sorrow strain’ caused people to weep.
2) The Geantrai or ‘joy strain’ encouraged people to laugh.
3) The Suantrai or ‘sleep strain’ lulled people to sleep.

A story is told of a battle between the Fomorians and the Tuatha Dé Danann where the Fomorians stole The Dagda’s harp and hung it on a wall in their hall. This enraged The Dagda and he set about retrieving the harp with the help of his son Aengus Og. They carefully advanced to the Formorians’ camp and soon heard the sounds of feasting in the hall. As they approached the doorway, they could just make out the harp hanging on the wall through the smoke and the candle light. The Dagda boldly entered the hall and summoned his harp with the enchanting words:

“Come apple-sweet murmurer.
Come, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter,
Out of the mouths of harps and bags and pipes!”

The harp immediately flew across to The Dagda, killing nine men in its wake. The Formorians were shocked into silence and in this silence, The Dagda played the Three Noble Strains upon his harp. When he played the weeping strain of the goltrai, the Formorians mourned their defeat. When he played the joyful strain of the geantrai, the Formorians fell about into laughter and drunken foolery. When he played the sleeping strain of the suantrai, the Formorians fell into a deep and profound slumber. The Dagda and Aengus Og took this opportunity to leave the Formorians camp together with the magical harp.

Other legend has it that the Dagda’s harper, Uaithne, husband of the River Goddess Boand (river Boyne), when giving birth to her first son, cried out in pain and to ease her discomfort, Uaithne played the Dagda’s healing harp and they named the child, Goltrai. At the birth of their second son, Boand laughed out loud for joy and they called their son, Geantrai. Their third and last son was the easiest birth and Boand fell asleep to Uaithne’s harp playing, so they named the child, Suantrai. Like their father, all three sons became great harpers.

It has also been said that much of the beautiful Celtic harp music that has been created since these times, has been composed by those who have overheard the fairy folk of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Adapted from Celtic Myths Retold and Interpreted

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