Some say that when the fairy folk ruled Ireland, they had a well beneath the sea where the nine hazel trees of wisdom grew. At the given hour these nine trees would blossom and fruit and drop their nuts onto the surface of the water, where five salmon waited to eat them. The nuts contained all wisdom, poetic inspiration, and the gift of second sight. Whoever caught one of these salmon and ate the first three bites of its flesh would acquire this wisdom and become a great poet.
Every creative enterprise unfolds in accord with the image that guides it. Sometimes the image is given with the process but it can also be chosen, and attention to the operative metaphors enhances the collaboration with the unseen sought by every artist and poet. My exploration of this relationship began with James Hillman’s suggestion that we “entertain” ideas. For years, I’ve begun most creative projects by imagining myself straightening up my house, setting up a tea table with fresh flowers, and patiently waiting (well, sometimes) by the open door for an idea or two to arrive. These guests are vaguely imagined in human form, like Greek Muses. They are invariably courteous and well dressed, but lately my dates for coffee or a late night scotch (only with the most compatible) have been replaced with the image of fish and fishing found in the Celtic story “Finn and the Salmon of Knowledge.”
The image of the fish as the embodiment of vital, living contents of the psyche has a long mythological history, and the metaphor of fishing is often used to describe the search for inspiration. Arlo Guthrie said, “Songwriting is like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something,”—so stay upstream from Bob Dylan1. In fairy tales, fishing signals a waiting readiness for something to happen. Robert Bly writes that, “Fishing is a kind of dreaming in daylight, a longing for what is below.”2 What takes the bait will be a catalyst for transformation.
Fishing requires patience and receptivity, two qualities that are indispensable to any creative encounter, and it involves water, the origin of life and archetypal Source, or what Gretel Ehrlich calls the “creative swill.” Water, she writes, “carries, weightlessly, the imponderable things in our lives: death and creation.”3 The language of fishing also provides a number of provocative metaphors: tackle, cast, troll, lure, snag, plumb, wade, and flounder, for example.
But as any skilled fisher person knows, the object is not merely to catch fish, but to catch the right fish, the big or wily fish, or the right kind of fish. Fish that are too small or otherwise inappropriate get released and thrown back. Finn, the druid poet and fisherman in the story, was a man in search of deep knowledge. He studied the ancient lore about the hazels, the salmon, and the gifts of wisdom and poetic inspiration. He was fishing for the Salmon of Knowledge.
Salmon are distinguished from most other fish by their ability to live in fresh and salt water. They are born in fresh water rivers and streams and make their way to the sea. Salmon return to their freshwater birthplace to spawn after one to five years of swimming in the open ocean. The majority of them die in the process. The tenacity they display in this endeavor, and their astonishing accuracy in locating the place of their birth, may remind us that the creative act is always an act of remembrance and that memory is instinctual, especially memories of our beginnings.
The particular salmon in Finn’s story lived in a deep pool overhung with trees in a curve of the Boyne River. Finn tracks the fish to this spot and he spends seven years trying to catch it. The image of the solitary poet evokes the combination of focus, stillness, and relaxed alertness that characterize much creative work. Finn is methodical, purposeful, and watchful. He devotes all of his energies to this task, even lives on the riverbank, because he knows of a prophecy that a man named Finn will eat this very fish.
With every failed attempt he learns more about this fish and his desire for it. The attitude of active waiting extends to the salmon, who we sense drawing near according to the logic of instinctual memory. The salmon took the nut when it fell into the water. He will take the hook too, when the right moment arrives to surrender his gifts. It’s merely a matter of time and patient effort.
At last Finn catches the fish. Feverish with anticipation, he builds a fire and puts the salmon on the spit. The cooking has to be exactly right. The fire has to be the right temperature and the fish has to be turned at the right speed. Everything is going perfectly when Finn notices that the coals are beginning to burn a bit low. But the salmon is not done. Now what? He is out of dry sticks but if he leaves the fish to gather more wood it will burn on one side and the Salmon of Knowledge will be ruined.
At that moment, a young man wanders onto the riverbank. He is so entranced by the beauty of the place that he doesn’t notice the man by his fire until Finn calls to him. “Boy,” Finn says, “I am so glad to see you. You’ve come at just the right time. I have a beautiful salmon cooking but I need more wood. I’ll give you a silver penny if you’ll come over here and turn the spit. The young man was good hearted and immediately came to the fire. “ Turn it just like this, “ Finn told him, “The consequences of burning this salmon would be terrible. I won’t be gone long, but you must look me in the eye and swear by all that’s true that you will not eat one morsel of the salmon while I’m gone. ”
The young man made the oath and Finn left to gather wood. The young man sat by the fire and carefully turned the spit. But the sound of the birds and the light on the water called to him and his attention drifted away from his task for a minute or two. He stopped turning the fish. When he realized his error, it was too late. There was a blister the size of this thumb on the underside of the fish. He started to turn the spit faster but of course, this did no good. So he tried to flatten the blistered skin with his thumb. The skin broke and three red-hot drops of fish oil fell onto his thumb.
Now, the young man is also named Finn, and when he puts his burning finger into his mouth he receives the wisdom and poetic inspiration from the salmon. When the other Finn returned with an armful of wood and looked into the young man’s eyes, he immediately knew that fate had intervened. Only destiny could explain the beautifully simple confluence of right place, right time, and simple accident for Finn the poet, Finn the younger (Mac Cumhaill to be precise), and the fish.
If you identify with Finn the poet, this is a challenging moment. You may decide that “fishing for the Salmon of Knowledge” is not your image of choice for the creative process. If you see yourself as the young Finn, you may be doing a little jig. Which Finn are you? Finn the poet, who loses the salmon after seven years of dedicated effort?— or young Finn, who blunders into eating the first bite? The Finn who values poetic inspiration so much that he spends his life trying to acquire it—or the Finn who is wandering around listening to birdsong?
Good fishing is a blend of craft and serendipity, and there is only one Finn on the riverbank. Catching and eating the salmon belong together. So do methodical plans, accidents, and blunders, research and reverie, the focused pursuit of the particular, aimless wandering,and immersion in the multiple delights of the world. These are all aspects of the creative process. What unites them is the nature of the process—and the fish.
In time past, the Irish poets said, “Unless I had eaten the Salmon of Knowledge I could not describe it.” In his movement from fresh water to salty sea, the salmon learns and adapts to worlds that differ in ways humans can scarcely imagine. The ocean brine pickles or purifies. What fortitude or flexibility must be required to resist these two effects? That ability once possessed, now lies dormant in our cells. Having emerged from the magic currents of the world we can’t go back—not that far back. But we can cast a line into the waters of imagination and memory and catch an ancient fish.
1 Paul Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting 4th Edition, (New York: Da Capo Press, 2003), 71.
2 Robert Bly and Marion Woodman, The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine,
(New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1998), 8.
3 Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces, (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 83.
Catherine Svehla, Ph.D. is an independent myth scholar, storyteller, and artist. She is the founder of Mythic Mojo, where she creates story-based classes and programs that demonstrate the relevance of mythology to contemporary life, and the host of Myth in the Mojave, a weekly online radio show that airs on Radio Free Joshua Tree and reaches an international audience. Visit www.mythicmojo.com and w