Sunday, September 4, 2011

The problem of Tethra

The wikipedia article on Tethra reads as follows:
In Irish mythology, Tethra of the Fomorians ruled Mag Mell after dying in the Second Battle of Mag Tuiredh.
There is a second section on a possible etymology of the name, which is actually longer than the entry above. Alright, aside from this wiki stub needing a citation and an expansion, what is the point? Well that is sort of the gist of it, and perhaps a wider issue in researching and perhaps understanding Irish myth; so much of what we have is just stubs. Extensive lists of Names mentioned here and there but no narratives really dealing with those characters. Of course there are many examples of just the opposite, characters who have grand, sweeping narrative who play central roles in the mythology, who wouldn't you know it tend to have the larger modern cults. I can't really fault people for being able to relate to characters we can know something about, as opposed to those who we know little, but it makes me realize just how much we do not have.

I titled this post "the problem of Tethra" because I believe he encapsulates many of the questions which, I believe, can seriously inform or impact how one understands pre-Christian Irish myth and the theology derived from it. The first place I ever came across the name Tethra, was in the LGE where Amergin makes mention of his name:
"Who calleth the cattle from the House of Tethys?
On whom do the cattle of Tethys smile?"
Every interpretation I have read about this line of poetry (which in most versions has "Tethys" as "Tethra") explains that the "cattle of Tethra" refer to fish, which I find difficult to disagree with.  So the logical conclusion drawn from this is that Tethra has some connection with the sea, or at least some environ where fish would live. One could postulate a river, but tradition represents rivers as distinctly feminine, and this in turn tends towards a gender division being observed; the ocean/sea is the realm of gods (Tethra, Lir, Manannan) and rivers that of goddesses (Boand, Sinann, etc.). So the idea that Tethra was (is) some sort of god who is associated with the Sea is a common one. There are other references to Tethra which mentions his "cattle". In "The wooing of Emer", when Cuchulain first speaks to Emer, she asks him where he has slept, to which he replies, "‘We slept,’ he said, ‘in the house of the man who tends the cattle of the plain of Tethra.’" A few lines down, he also makes mention of "Tethra, king of the Fomori." This second association is the one in which we actually learn that Tethra is not only a member of the Fomorians, but also a king.

So, next up are the references we've got to Tethra where he is identified as a Fomorian and a king, which come during the narrative of CMT. While the author expounds on the harsh conditions the TDD were forced to endure under the rule of Bres, we learn who among the Fomorians the tribute is being given:
"Now when Bres had assumed the kingship, Fomorians, even Indech son of De Domnann and Elatha son of Delbaeth, and Tethra, three Fomorian kings, bound their tribute upon Ireland, so that there was not a smoke from a roof in Ireland that was not under tribute to them." (Source, pg. 63-65)
Other than this Tethra is one of the Fomorian combatants who goes up against the TDD. Even in this, though, we get very little information about him.
"In that fight, then, Ogma the champion found Orna the sword of Tethra, a king of the Fomorians. Ogma unsheathed the sword and cleansed it. Then the sword related whatsoever had been done by it; for it was the custom of swords at that time, when unsheathed, to set forth the deeds that had been done by them."
So there is nothing else mentioned about Tethra in CMT, in fact his name only comes up twice in the entire narrative. He is a Fomorian king, and he has a magical sword named Orna. His fate in the battle is never mentioned; the only sure thing is that he looses his sword, Orna. Ogma ends up finding and claiming the sword Orna, which when unsheathed tells him of the deeds it has done, as was the style at the time. Outside of this, there isn't anything which speaks to his fate or his character. On the other hand, Tethra is invoked in some very conspicuous places. Both Amergain and CuChulain make mention of his name, as it pertains to his "cattle". However, in both cycles, the Fomorians had long been subdued by the TDD, and one would assume that deities associated with the TDD, such as Lir or Manannan would be the prime candidates for such invocations. The question then is why was that not the case?

 Again, we dive right into speculation, though some a little more grounded than some idea's I made mention of above. I do think that the notion that some of the names of the Fomorians, and their respective functions are holdovers from older cults, which would be later replaced with "newer" figures has some merit. What other explanation could be offered for the term "Tethra's cattle" or "the plain of Tethra", when much more robust and influential divine figures have more overt associations with the sea? Now, I would not go as far as say the Ree's brothers, and postulate that the Fomorians are representative of indigenous (or pre-Celtic) peoples, or even culture. I would say, however, that I do tend towards a view that the Fomorians are reflexes of more primordial deities, in the same vein as the Jotun or Titans, if not so overtly. I would ague that Tethra is a very good example of a mythic holdover, and while his practical functions were overshadowed or subsumed by Manannan (as we know as little, if not less, about Lir), the poetic or fictive functions survived into the literary tradition. Interestingly enough, the wiki article mentions that Tethra became the ruler of Mag Mell after being killed in CMT (of which there is no actual account). According to MacKillop (pg. 293), however, the three rulers of Mag Mell are: Labraid Luathlam ar Claideb, Goll mac Doilb and Boadach (who it turns out is Manannan in disguise). Again we observe the overlap of association, however tenuous, between Tethra and Manannan as deities associated with the sea. I also find it difficult to believe that a figure like Tethra is solely an invention of the literary tradition, for the same reasons.

Well, it is difficult to be certain about such interpretations. The difficulty lies with trying to determine how best to interpret CMT. Outside the pre-Christian v. post-Christian content (which arguably, is a significant obstacle), there are some strains of thought: does the narrative represent the forces of order (or beneficent deities) overcoming the forces of chaos (or malefic deities), a reflex of a common Indo-European trope? There are some threads within the text which seem to indicate that the Fomorians may have knowledge or influence about or over certain natural phenomena, which the TDD do not. Towards the end of the tale, Lugh corners Bres and asks him while he should not take his life. Bres replies: " 'The cows of Ireland will always be in milk' said Bres, ‘if I am spared.’" Lugh, then takes this information to Máeltne Mórbrethach and asks him what to make of it. Máeltne replies that "He has no power over their age or their calving, even if he controls their milk as long as they are alive." and such a guarantee isn't worth his life. Lugh returns to Bres and basically says "no dice", so Bres replies with another offer, and this is repeated three times before Bres finally tells Lugh how and when to plow. Satisfied, Lugh spares him (although in other narratives Lugh does eventually kill Bres, with a poisoned cow no less). We see then, that the Fomorians have ties to natural cycles or phenomena and that with proper bargaining, the knowledge can be gleaned from them. Thus is later reflected in the LGE, when the Milesians are forced to develop a reciprocal, as opposed to the original antagonistic, relationship with the TDD to properly grow crops and survive in Ireland. The argument could be made in the former tale, of the IE reflex of more beneficent deities overcoming the malefic ones, to the benefit of humans; then again this could be reading into things too much. But what does this have to do with Tethra? A lot, incidentally.

The "problem of Tethra", then, is really a problem indicative of the wider body of myth. Just how much of what we know is actually applicable to pre-Christian myth and belief? Most folks have decided one way or another how to understand the TDD, but the Fomorians are still a large source of mystery and even confusion. Some have opted to see them as near, if not outright, demonic; others have chosen to fall back to comparative myth and understand them as a Celtic (or at least Irish) version of the Titans or Jotun. As I mentioned before and for the reasons stated above, I tend to agree with the latter, though recognize that such comparisons can only go so far in offering an explanation of how they ought to be understood. However, there are clearly ritualized or poetic functions associated with some of the Fomorians, and so trying our best to understand their place within the broader context of Irish myth will help us in developing a more robust approach to mythic figures outside the purview of the figures who are generally accepted as deities.

1 comment:

  1. "the cattle of Tethra" remind me of the Vedic solar Cattle of Ushas, dawn, which were released by Indra, afterall CuChulain was headed east. Tethra is given as the wife of Corrgend (who is Lugh, Ailech I verse 4 - thus we see three of Lugh's wives involved with Dagda and/or his sons. Bui/Buach and Cermait. Engleic/Englec/Englic with Dagda and Oenghus and Midhir) in Ailech III. Perhaps Tethra was originally ruler, not king.