Sunday, August 26, 2012

Things I learned from the Táin.

Of all the texts to which I find myself going back, over and over and over again, the Táin Bó Cualigne is the foremost in my library. It is also the single oldest actual book that I own; well that is expressly Celtic in nature, as I picked in up in my first year when doing a minor in Celtic Studies seemed like a viable option for my then career goals. My copy is a little under 10 years old, and while I am very protective and particular about my books, its age does show. The crease along the spine, the accidentally dog eared corners, the multicoloured flags which protrude at sharp angles, marking my favourite bits. This text was, among other things, my first real introduction to Celtic lit. And the great thing about the text itself, is that no matter how many times I have read it, I still manage to find something new with each turn.

To this day, I still wish that at some point in the future Zach Snyder or Frank Miller will catch a whiff of it and make a 300 style version of it. For Snyder, the book lends itself to cinematic duels or glorious battles; I think of all that was done with 300, the hypermasculinity, the over the top gore, the wholly pointless sex scene and subplots and then look at the Tain and think, the whole thing is ready made for a big screen adaptation. Miller, well he'll finally have a female character he won't have to over sexualize because its difficult to outdo Medb in that regard, and it has an inborn misogyny to boot! I'm still kind of hoping that "Hound" will eventually get made, despite my misgivings about trying to make Cú into a figure who "realizes the futility of war". You can have anti-war narratives, you can have actual epics which very well may have been written specifically as anti-war stories (Caroline Alexander does an admirable job of arguing this point about the Illiad). The Ulster Cycle, however, and the Tain in particular, are not and can not be interpreted as such. Does my desire to see Cú on the big screen outweigh my desire for things to be as they are? Well I know if they released it, I'd see it. Mind, since its got two very big things going for it, the Irish mythic narrative coupled with the fact that it would be animated; it is a combination i would find hard to resist.

Getting back on track though, things I learned from the Tain:

Don't fuck with Dog Boy

Blunt, crude, but none the less true. Regardless of his prowess, which is shown time and time again. Regardless of the fact that Fergus and the other Ulster exiles extol Cú's prowess and skill, men keep challenging him, and end up in the ground. Eventually Aillil and Medb figure this out, and have to resort to getting various warriors sloshed, and then promising them their daughter and a dowry to boot, to get men to fight Cúchulain in single combat. There is of course, outside the single combats, untold slaughter throughout the narrative, and the hyperbole is in fine form, most notably "The sixfold slaughter", where the number killed matches the grains of sand on a beach, or number among the stars. Depopulating the entirety of the country of Ireland not withstanding, Cú is not someone you want to find yourself opposed to on a battlefield.

Brushing off goddesses is a terrible idea

Now, this is a little bit of a cheat, since one of the tales is a "fore tale" (remscéla), but it has such a lasting impact on the events of the Táin, that it is referenced several times. I refer of course to the "pangs of the Ulstermen" or "Macha's curse". Macha, clearly an otherworldly figure, marries a (guy) and settles down. The guy is a twit, and openly brags that his wife could outrun Conchobar's horses. This is of course overheard and he is forced to have his wife, who is heavy with child, to run a race against said horses, or have her husband killed. She begs not to be forced to run, but Choncobar in a shining example of his baser self, forces her to do so. She runs, wins, and then immediately goes into labour. She curses the Ulstermen, that in their darkest hour, their moment of greatest need, they will all be afflicted with the pains of a woman in birth. Macha proceeds to give birth to two horses, and then dies. The message is pretty clear though, and the consequences of Choncobars cruelty is dire. Of course, there is also an argument to be made that given the nature of boasts, and of the honour of the king being sullied by not meeting such a boast, plus the idea of the 'pangs" as a literary device which brings all the more honour to Cú himself (facilitating the need for him to be a one man army), Conchobar can certainly be a more morally complex character than my above critique allows for. Hooray for multifaceted understanding!

The second, and probably more widely known, is Cú's rejection of An Morrigan. The whole scenario appears to be the worse for An Morrigan, as she winds up disfigured, and is only able to be restored by Cúchulain himself, and then only through a ruse. This is true enough, but one must also keep in mind the lesson above, DFWC. It has been established through the tales, and again owing to scribal enhumerization, that humans can overcome and defeat the gods. I am suspicious at this more literal understanding, and doubt to a large degree that this idea was in fact pre-Christian. Now, on the other hand, heroes do fight and defeat otherworldy figures on a regular basis, and Cu is a perfect example of that. That the exemplary tribal hero is able to withstand not only his countrymen, but the gods themselves, is simply the extreme end of his function. The initial set up, however, bears some consideration as well; An Morrigan approaches Cú in the guise of a beautiful woman, proclaims her love for him, offers her assistance, and only when mockingly rejected does she threaten him. The interpretation of this scene I tend to favour, follows that as Cú is in essence the ultimate warrior, and An Morrigan presides over war and slaughter, that she would naturally be drawn to him, seek him out and offer Cú her patronage. Cú rejects this offer, and since there are those wonderful misogynistic overtones, does so in a pretty mocking way. An Morrigan rankles at being spurned, and subsequently causes a lot of difficulty for Cú shortly thereafter.

The overall lessons in both of these narrations, is one which can be gleaned from almost any of the tales where humans interact with the gods; cooperation is mutually beneficial and animosity is mutually destructive. Spurning goddesses is a terrible idea.

Words are powerful

The Tain proper starts off with a narrative usually called "the pillow talk", in which Medb and Aillil compare their fortunes, and results in Medb seeking the loan of the Donn Culaigne. A deal is brokered, everyone on both sides are happy, and then a man too deep into his cups remarks that its just as well that everything worked out, because they would have taken the bull by force. This gets back to (owner of the Donn) and he is understandably pissed; subsequently he rejects the offer, and Medb tries to take the bull by force. Thousands die, because a guy made a stupid (but none the less true) boast. Thousands die because of a few simple words, and the matter of honour and pride.

No one blames the (guy); Medb agrees with the fellow, and does precisely as he said she would. This does not, though, alter the fact that a few words can have dire consequences. The lesson then is that one should speak carefully at all times, lest they say something they can no longer take back.

Men can cry

I've already written on this particular subject, but it bears repeating that the concept of masculinity which is divorced from emotion, let alone openly grieving, is something foreign to Irish mythology. No where is this more apparent than in what could arguably be the climax of the Tain itself, and certainly is of the single combats, Cú's fight with his foster brother Ferdia. Cú, the consummate warrior who has met every challenge with bravado, even gusto, balks at the idea of fighting Ferdia. Not because he is afraid of Ferdia, but because he loves him, and it is only through trickery and the cruelty of fate that these two are now forced to face each other. The battle is bloody, brutal and much noble blood is spilled. Cú comes out on top in the end, but the cost is heavy. He openly weeps for having to have killed Ferdia, curses Aillil and Medb, and laments that such a noble soul is now gone from the world. Yet, despite the tragic nature and open weeping, there is no derision within the narrative, no chiding, snide remarks about how real mean don't cry or Cú should instead of grieving, "grow a pair". The honesty and sincerity with which the greatest ass-kicker in Irish history mourns his fallen brother is something seldom seen in modern fare, and I think is something which is sorely lacking.

Microcosmogony... probably

We, as GRP's unfortunately lack a cosmogenic narrative, and have to settle for the bits scattered through literature or the ones authors have reconstructed. One of the neat things about the Táin, though, is that it provides numerous examples of place name (and often features) origin narratives, in the same tradition which would later be dominated by the dindsenchas. Bruce Lincholn, for example, makes a compelling case for interpreting the battle between the two bulls, Finnbhennach and Donn Cuailnge, as reflective of the primordial sacrifice found in other IE cosmogenic narratives, if in the inverse (Death, War, and Sacrifice, pg. 38.) As such, the dismemberment of Finnbhennach at the horns of Donn, and the casting of his body parts over the landscape, recreates on a microcosmic scale, the original sacrifice in a theoretical cosmogenic myth. Added to this is the remscéla "The Quarrel of the Two Swinherds" (De Chopur in dá Muccida), indicates that both bulls were originally men of the otherworld who had been engaged in a contest with one another, taking mirror forms of one another, again possibly harkening back to the primordial twin motif. As such, and as the text is one of the oldest known, the tantalizing glimpses are primarily conjecture, but certainly supported by a comparison with other stories as well as those from other, but related, cultures.

Divine Intervention, yes it can happen

Considering an eariler point of dicsussion was about goddesses getting involved in the affairs of mortals, this seems redundant, except that in this case divine intervention is a literal occurance. Cúchulain, having not slept between Smahian and Imbolc, is wounded and weary. Lugh appears then, and offers to hold back the armies for three days and nights, in Cú's stead. This is a rather unique situation, as such direct divine support is not something which occurs very often in the texts. I thnk in this case it reinforces the special status of Cúchulain, and so reading too much into the idea of divine intervention as an active force is, I think, unwarranted. Something else to consider is the idea that Cúchulain is a reincarnation of Lugh; sort of difficult to grasp if the deity Cu's is supposed to be an earthly incarnation of, has just shown up to lend a long hand. Sort of encroaching into trinatarianism with this, but something to think about anyway.

This is but a handful of interesting and, for me anyway, relevant concepts explored throughout the Táin. I'm sure that there are many other things to add to this list, like the plethora of puns and one liners which are replete during the single combats. I do realize that some folks simply dislike Cúchulain for a number of legitimate reasons, but I simply can not bring myself to do likewise. Guess in the end I'm simply a fanboy at heart.


  1. One of the most important things to remember when looking at texts like this is that they were originally part of the oral tradition of the native culture but the texts themselves were written and recorded by an entirely separate cultural group.
    The oral tales that composed The Táin were written down by Christian Monks and as such we have to take into account the influence their different cultural background would have had on their interpretation of the tales.
    For example many folklorists and historians in Ireland are begining to take the opinion that Polytheism, or indeed theism at all was not present in Ireland and that figures such as the Morrigan or Lugh were closer to a form of Ancestor Reverence. The idea of them being gods most likely started with a misunderstanding on behalf of the monks themselves.
    Also if we look at ancient Irish culture, particularly at things like brehon law (which gives women quite a lot of power over their husbands) it seems far more likely that misogyny within the tale is a Christian import as it does not appear to fit with what we know of pre-christian Irish tendencies.

  2. I have to disagree with you on that one. At present the concensus among Celtic Scholars is indeed that the pre-Christian Irish were polytheists. Certainly, the debate goes on and the authenticity of the texts (or rather just how "pre-Christian" they are) is an idea that has gained more traction in the last decade.

    Further there is a significant difference between "writing" and "recording" a story. I (as are most CR's) am well aware of the fact that all extant texts were produced well into the period of Christianization, and so they will necessarily reflect the world view of the period they were penned in. Having said that, to posit that the monks were an entirely 'seperate cultural group" is simply incorrect. That the tales survived at all shows there was some desire for a degree of cultural continuity from a pre-post Christian period.

    The Brehon laws were also compiled well into the period of Christianization, and while there are certainly provisions for women made, albeit in a decidedly patriarchical society, my comment about the "inborn" mysogny was more to do with Miller than anything else.