The Good Son
There are surprisingly few similarities between the Celtic Irish mythology of The Tain and the Celtic Welsh mythology of The Mabinogion. The characterizations are vastly different, the settings are different, the social etiquette is different, even the combat styles are different. One place we see some degree of consistency is in the symbols that surround the two main heroes, Cu Chulainn and Pryderi. Many of the symbols we see in The Tain regarding Cu Chulainn are used in The Mabinogion to describe Pryderi, in spite of being very different stories written in very different styles about very different heroes.
One of the most visible examples of this symbolism is in the origins of the heroes Cu Chulainn and Pryderi. Both of their birth stories have the conspicuous presence of horses on the night of their birth. Cu Chulainn’s birth story is complicated, as he is in a way thrice conceived (and I just had an occasion to use the word “thrice” for the first time ever). The first time, Deichtine and Conchobar take shelter at house where the host’s wife goes into labor and gives birth to a boy. At the same time, a mare gives birth to two foals (The Tain 22). The next morning, the house is gone, but the boy and the foals remain. The boy survives for a few years, raised by Deichtine, but dies in early childhood. Later, she is visited by the god Lugh, who tells her he was the host the evening the child was born, and he makes her pregnant through mystical means. This baby dies before birth and is “reabsorbed” by Deichtine, and she finds herself a virgin once more (which is quite convenient). She eventually conceives Cu Chulainn by her husband, and although these seem to be separate events, they are told in a way that implies they are all somehow required in the conception of Cu Chulainn. It is as if his essence had to be filtered and distilled in this process somehow, so he could become the hero he was meant to be.
On the night of Pryderi’s birth, he vanishes from Rhiannon’s care and appears at a manor where a lord is standing watch against a great beast that is killing a newborn foal every year on that night (The Mabinogion 17). When a giant claw comes in through the window and snatches the foal, the lord hacks of the beast’s hand and gives chase. It is then that he finds the infant Pryderi and decides to raise him as his own. In this way, Pryderi is symbolically the result of multiple births, the first to his mother, Rhiannon, and the second when the lord finds and rescues him. It can be argued that his return to his real parents could be construed as a third rebirth, although that argument is a bit of stretch.
The presence of the foals, born the same night as the hero, is significant. That the horse was a symbol of fertility is not in doubt, look no further than Macha giving birth while racing against horses in The Tain to confirm that this is more than coincidence, it is a reoccurring theme (The Tain 7). In a culture that relies on the horse in battle, the horse would have held a great deal of significance as a symbol of authority and military strength. The horses being born into the world at the same time as the heroes is the equivalent of being born with a sword in your hand. It signifies his future power.
Another similarity is that neither hero goes by his name given at birth. Cu Chulainn is born Sétanta and gains the name Cu Chulainn after he kills Culann’s hound in self-defense and agrees to become its replacement, becoming “the Hound of Culann” (The Tain 84). This is his rite of passage and the point where he becomes a sworn warrior. Similarly, Pryderi starts life named Gwri by his foster parents. When his foster parents realize he is the son of Rhiannon and Pwyll and return him to the castle, his real parents rename him Pryderi, the name he will wear as ruler of the land he will now inherit (The Mabinogion 20).
Our heroes also share the common trait of accelerated growth in early childhood. This serves to set them apart from the rest of the mortal world. These heroes are, after all, more or less demigods. Cu Chulainn is the son of Lugh, and is therefore half god. Pryderi is the son of Rhiannon, and is therefore half god as well. Their accelerated growth signifies this aspect of the divine within them, as if their mortal bodies can not contain the power within them. We see similar tales of mythological figures maturing at unnatural rates in the story of Väinämöinen in the Kalevala, who is born to Ilmatar a fully formed 700 year old man, or Athena springing from Zeus’ head fully formed.
These similarities in early childhood point to both Pryderi and Cu Chulainn possibly being a common archetypal Celtic hero. Both heroes are born under auspicious circumstances and in the presence of horses, both heroes have a specific identity that they assume once they ascend from boyhood to manhood. These similarities seem to be the ingredients that are used to signify that they are heroes of supernatural origin and destined for great things.