Tag Archives: Cu Chulainn

The Good Son- The Tain and the Mabinogion

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.

Mythology from a Very Rambling Pagan Perspective

Mythology from a Very Rambling Pagan Perspective

So, you want to talk about the nature of mythology. Unfortunately, in my case, that means talking about Paganism, since mythology is the source of my personal belief system. And I apologize for the rambling tone, but its hard to put into a straight up narrative. My personal take is somewhat along the lines of Jung, that mythology is basically the dream of humanity. Much like our dreams serve to work through the complexities and conflicts in our subconscious, myth serves to do the same for the collective unconsciousness. In the Pagan community, there is a lot of debate about the nature of the gods. Beliefs run from almost a secular humanist attitude, to what we refer to as “sock puppeting”, where people believe their personal relationship with a god to be so personal, they almost treat them like they are an imaginary friend. Seriously, I have heard people talk about hanging out and watching tv with Loki. It’s… sad, to say the least. I think this puts me and others like me in an unusual category, since for most people this class would be little more than an academic exercise, and they could freely speculate on the purpose mythology serves on a literary, historical, or psychological level. For those of us who actually believe and celebrate these stories, the question is about the issue my personal faith. Talk about a can of worms! While I am no stranger to the “woo woo” of the universe (show me a Pagan who hasn’t had a mystical experience of some kind and I will show you a Catholic), I can’t say that I (or most Pagans I associate with personally) take these stories as literal events, nor do I think most of us believe there is a group of immortal people living in the sky looking down at humanity with a judgmental eye. However, we still believe these things to be quite real, even though we understand this to be contradictory. The best I can describe it is that is is sort of like when you have a very vivid dream that you can’t get out of your head. It seems real, and even if you know that it isn’t, it haunts your reality, changes the way you look at things. There are levels to reality, mythology serves to wipe some of the dust off the windows between worlds. We tend to think of mythology as being only the stories of ancient religions and tribal beliefs. We forget that Christianity is mythology as well. Mythology does not mean some dusty old story with little relevance to modern life. Mythology is alive and adaptable. Pagans tend to be people who have found solace in a different world view than the Abrahamic religions and Eastern philosophies offered on the census sheet. Mythology provides a mirror to our world and ourselves, a way of looking outward as well as inward. It informs our life decisions, or modes of behavior. We model ourselves after figures in myth. Christians ask themselves “what would Jesus do?”. Likewise, Pagans tend to take the values set forth in their mythology to imitate. In modern Heathenry (you asked if Heathenry was a Pagan movement. It is a blanket term for the followers of the Norse and Germanic Pagan movement, which is actually quite varied and comes in many flavors), you tend to see people who value bravery, adventure, hospitality, kinship, and self-reliance. In followers of the Hellenic traditions, there tends to be an emphasis on intellectualism, mysticism, or artistry. The followers of the Celtic traditions tend to be a little more female-centric and nature oriented, and so on. Mythology is a blueprint to these ways of living. It provides characters who are archetypes for the people we would like to be (or avoid being in some cases). Whether you are the Hero, the Earth Mother, the Trickster, the Sheildmaiden, or the Shaman, mythology has it. Contrary to how many people view Pagans, this isn’t an elaborate game of make-believe or some Ren Faire fantasy. Maybe I feel this way because I tend to see people as their archetypes (of which we each have many), and I tend to see the world in mythic terms. Everything in life has significance, we are all stars of our own epics, we all possess the ability to become something more transcendent than the person who pays the bills, needs to get the car fixed, and gets heartburn every time they eat raw onion. Paganism is about recognizing these qualities within yourself and others and living your life in celebration of that. We are all Odin, Freyja, Medb, Cu Chulainn, and Peredur, and our world is filled with magic. That is the purpose mythology serves for me.

Rough Week

Rough Week

This weekend it was very difficult to write. I’ve had several rather serious personal dramas fall in my lap, and even though I’ve done the reading I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing my journal. I have also been spending a large amount of time researching my research paper, and my brain is having a hard time shifting gears. I have also noticed that I am having a hard time writing about The Tain in general, even though I didn’t have a problem discussing it in class. I finally figured out that this is because there is something about the style of the tale that lends itself more to dynamic discussion rather than dry prose. I mentioned in class that I felt the Norse wrote great poetry, but the Celts told great stories. Maybe it’s because I am used to dissecting the symbolism and cultural relevance of the Norse stories, but I haven’t really gotten the feel for the Celtic stories. I find the complete futility of the entire raid baffling. All these people die to serve the egomaniacal needs of one pair of jackasses, and in the end both the bulls die anyway (cue 70s sitcom ironic trumpet “loser” sound effect). What in the heck was that all about? I keep looking for some deeper, esoteric wisdom to be gleaned from all this, but I can’t even come up with something akin to a simple moral parable. Were these stories for the sake of entertainment? Historical documentation? I think that their lack of “mythic” feel is what has made them hard for me to put into context. I can discuss what happened in the stories, but not what it means. The best I have been able to reason is that these stories aren’t any kind of moral or spiritual guide, and they aren’t strictly historical documentation, rather they feel like a map of ancient Ireland. The constant listing of names and places, who did what where, etc seems like a way of mapping out the history of the land, rather than the people. As someone who was a habitual gypsy in her youth, I often joke about how the worst thing about moving to a new town is the way people give directions based on what USED to be there. When I first moved back to Seattle from Los Angeles, I had a job in the Greenlake area. Any time I asked how to get somewhere, I was invariably told a list of directions based on where the “Honey Bear Bakery used to be”. Just this weekend, my husband and I drove to the Mukilteo area where I grew up to visit my family. We had to meet my mother at a restaurant in Everett for lunch. I knew the restaurant was where “The Ranch” used to be, and I remembered where “The Ranch” used to be because that’s where my mother met stepfather #2. I knew it was past the apartment complex where my friend Shanel and I got drunk in high school and she had a huge fight with her boyfriend, so I ended up walking 5 miles home at 3am in lousy shoes. I also knew that if we reached the mall that I worked at when I was 18 we had gone too far. By describing the landscape in a way that is relatable and personally engaging gives it meaning. Since ancient Ireland didn’t have signs, stores, and Google Maps, being able to point to the 3 hills Fergus sliced the tops off of was useful. Being able to envision Cu Chulainn’s deeds and movements across the countryside gives you a visualization of what the lay of the land is. As was pointed out in that article you sent, being able to clearly delineate property boundaries would have been crucial to a culture that practices pastoral transhumance. The seasonal migration of cattle with out barbed wire fences, maps, or signposts would risk confrontation between herdsmen, or worse you could end up not finding your pasture land if you didn’t have a way of navigating efficiently. And as anyone here can attest to, navigating in a gloomy, overcast environment without starts or sun to guide you can be tricky. By generating a history of the land with outrageous stories and great feats that carve the landscape, you create memorable landmarks to navigate and mark borders. I think this is a valuable illustration of the different functions of myth in a culture. The Norse used their myths to guide behavior and turn an eye inward. They wanted to make sense of their place in the world. The Celts wanted to describe their world to avoid conflict and strife and ensure survival.



So, I am trying to wade through this book. I have to be honest, so far this story is less than scintillating for me. There is a great deal of detail to the stories, and sometimes that makes for magnificant yarn spinning, other times it’s like painting a small room hot pink. The tale gets weighed down with the utter hyperbole and over-abundance of names and places. I think this story stars every single living human in Ireland at the time it was written. I am desperately trying to see it as more than just a really flowerey story about cattle rustling, but I have fallen asleep twice now while reading it. The thing that makes this really lame is that not all of it is bad, the parts that are good are BRILLIANT. I am trying to flesh out my knowledge of the mythoilogy outside of the Tain, but it’s a lot to read in a short amount of time.

As far as why the story is the way it is, I think I am starting to get it. I think I have found one image to completely sum up ancient Celtic culture.

Yep. That pretty much says it all.

The Táin Bó Cúailnge is about a cattle raid. Medb decides she wants Dáire’s splendiferous bull so her wealth will be equal to her husband Ailill. Of course she does, this is a perfectly reasonable justification for war. These folks declare war at the drop of a hat. I think it’s kind of interesting that they seem to hide behind the geis and other restrictions to limit the number of casualties they have and avoid battle altogether.

The Pangs of the Ulstermen is a perfect example of this. Time to march off to battle? UGH! LABOR PAINS! No war for you today my friend (or the next 5 days and 4 nights).This isn’t cowardice (I dare you to day that to their faces), it’s casualty abatement. And seriously, how many times are they going to use this gimmick? I envision their enemies rolling their eyes and checking their watches. Another way of avoiding battle? “Oops! We can’t just go charging in, the guy we want to fight has left this hobbling device here with a message! We wouldn’t want to make him mad, now, would we?”. Why waste the lives of dozens of warriors when you can just send Cú Chulainn in to do single combat with one guy? Contrary to popular belief, life was not any cheaper then than it is today, just more fleeting if you weren’t careful. A king needed his soldiers. If you can resolve a conflict with a minimum of death and without losing face, that was a win-win situation for everyone involved.

I know I am supposed to write more, but I spent all day trying to catch up and my brain is completely fried. To the point where I am adding pictures of Bugs Bunny to my mythology homework assignments. I think I am going to do better with the class discussion with this one.

(I actually started writing this before I read your email with the pages about rituals of conflict reduction. I don’t know if these subjects are related, but it would be funny if they were!)

I will leave you with a lousy haiku:

Rolling hills of green

Cú Chulainn is a bad ass

What’s with the place names?