Tag Archives: Tain

Celtic Women: Victims and Victimizers

Celtic Women: Victims and Victimizers

Women of both Irish and Welsh Celtic mythology are integral parts of the stories they inhabit, however unflattering their portrayals may be. Even in stories where they are unnamed, imprisoned, or have little to no actual dialogue, the entire plot can hinge on a single action by the woman in question. However, how these separate mythologies portray these women could not be more different or polarized.
The first woman who stands out is Medb, the goddess/queen of Connacht from The Tain. She is arguably the catalyst for the events of the entire story. Her vain and competitive nature causes her to strike a bet with her husband, Ailill, to see who has the most wealth. When she comes up slightly short in the comparison, she launches a war to steal the prize bull of Dáire mac Fiachna (The Tain 58). It is this ruthless, blind ambitiousness that compels her character throughout the tale, and drives the fates of every man, woman, and child caught up in her wake. While Medb is clearly a very “strong female character” (a term I personally hate. You would never refer to Cu Chulainn as a “strong male character”), her degree of selfishness and willingness to throw her own people into a “warp spasm” meat grinder over and over again for a minor gain in wealth casts her in the role of the villain in this story. While Cu Chulainn is a trickster hero, Fergus is the Voice of Reason, and Ailill is the obedient husband, Medb’s heartlessness casts her as the sole legitimate antagonist in the book. What makes Medb intriguing is that her character is not portrayed as being being much different from a male. Unlike most modern female villains, she is not shown as a femme fatale of unsurpassing beauty. While she is not afraid to use her sexuality to get what she wants, she makes it clear that this is literally at her pleasure. You are left with the impression that she puts sex on the table more because she would like to bed the man in question than she thinks it will sincerely help manipulate him. Her sexuality is so completely within her control that she even outright states that one of the reasons she married Ailill was his lack of jealousy, for “if I married a jealous man that would be wrong too: I have never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.” (The Tain 53). Unlike so many other stories we have read, Medb has no fear of retribution for extramarital dalliances. She is also clearly in charge on the battlefield, if not particularly honorable, and her armies follow her in spite of some extremely questionable decisions. Clearly, there is some precedent set to instill that degree of loyalty. It is only at the end that they question her ability to lead (The Tain 251). She is determined, she is strong, she is flawed, and she is one of most real female characters we have read in both the Celtic and the Norse mythologies. The unsavory nature of her personality only serves to put her on equal footing with the men of the story, who are not much more honorable in most cases. She is painted as neither virtuous womanhood nor a spiteful bitch goddess. She is a person first, a woman second.
Contrast this with a character like Branwen from the Second Branch of The Mabinogion. Branwen is a paper doll character. She has no dimension or desire, no personal ambitions or personal quirks. She exists simply as a reason for war. She is a pawn in the games of men. When Matholwch shows up out of the blue to seek her hand in marriage, the entire proceeding is treated as if he and Llyr were trading livestock. Matholwch has not even seen Branwen at this point. When she is finally introduced, we are only told of her beauty, nothing more. She does not even speak until close to the end of the story, and then it is only in response to questions posed her about the invading Welsh armies. The very first words we hear her speak are “Though, I am no “lady” (The Mabinogion 29). Her abnegation of her status (intended ironically or otherwise) is glaring in light of her helpless enslavement and persecution as Matholwch’s chattel. We know her by the things that are done to her, not the things that she does. Her character drives the plot, not because she is at the helm or because of any manipulation on her part, but because she plays the same role as the coveted bull in The Tain. The horses that were mutilated by Efnysien play a role that is almost equal in importance to the plot (The Mabinogion 23), and receive almost as much description as Branwen .
We can see that the juxtaposition between these two women is striking. The fact that both manage to influence their stories to the degree they do despite their clear differences is interesting in light of the fact that they both come from cultures of Celtic origins and the stories were both written down around the 11th-12th century. The Irish Medb is an empowered, if not always likeable, queen who’s ambition propels the story forward. Branwen is a puppet, and a victim to her circumstances who’s presences propels the story forward. These disparate women serve as good examples of how women are portrayed in their respective mythologies as well as how their mythologies treat their women.

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.

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.



I think I have figured out my problem with writing the journal entries, especially for the Celtic portion of the class. I am so accustom to writing in this very formal, dry tone for my clergy classes, and I am really wanting to just let loose and blather on here. So, I’ma gonna blather, mmm kay?

I am still feeling a love/hate thing with The Tain. When it is good, it is brilliant. This is one of the most amazingly quotable books ever written. Seriously, these are better comebacks than you will find at a Dean Martin roast. There is this deadpan humor that absolutely floors me. The things people say when they are dying are bizarre, I can’t even tell if they are supposed to be humorous or not. When he kills Ferdia, Ferdia actually says, “That is enough now. I’ll die of that”. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or not. On the one hand, the scene is very serious and poignant, as Cuchulainn is killing his foster brother by Scathach. On the other hand, what a weird and wonderful thing to to say. The death of Etarcomol is gruesome, but so extreme and outrageous it’s hard to see it as less than extremely gory slapstick. It’s like a Monty Python skit. The sheer volume of effortlessly brutal slayings in this book is absurd, even by mythological standards. I find the non-stop onslaught of hyperbolic narrative of Cuchulainn’s deeds extraordinary. In almost every hero myth I have ever encountered we are reminded how exceptional and superhuman the hero is, but Cuchulainn edges into the realm of the Tall Tale. He doesn’t just kill men, he obliterates them. In the words of my husband, “I’ma gonna kill ya, swim across the River Styx, and kill ya again! All without mah water wings!” (My husband does the best redneck battle taunts you have ever heard. Of course, he also once chased a friend’s abusive boyfriend through the soft North Carolina night while brandishing a trident, so yeah, he is no stranger to the warp spasm. I have no idea where he got a trident, however, if nothing else it. worked as a psychological deterrent and the guy stopped hurting his girlfriend). He is the ultimate in swagger, capable of “feats” and stunts that aren’t even superhuman, they defy all laws of natural reason.

I wanted to add that I was a bit befuddled at his encounter with The Morrigan. I am wondering if there will be more on that later, but it was a bit of a head scratcher for me. What does she want? Why? The only way we know it is specifically her is the fact that the title of the chapter mentions her. I know from outside reading that she is associated with cattle as well as war, but I guess I am stuck in the Norse paradigm of fate being something already determined, so her attempts to change the course of battle are hard for me to understand. I do find the overlap between her and the valkyries fascinating. She is a chooser of the slain in her own right, and associated with crows and ravens. I also find it telling that the Celts, who were a pastoral culture prone to cattle raids, would combine their Cattle Goddess (usually the Cow Goddess is a nurturing, life affirming figure) with their War Goddess. She’s like a mythical Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, two great tastes that taste great together. I must learn more about this…

I feel like I really need a stronger background in this subject matter to fully appreciate it. I should have spent this past week studying this, but I was wrapped up in working on my research paper, practicing the ukulele, catching up on housework, and getting ready for Yule. Now I just feel like a chump, since we are almost done with the book and I don’t have nearly the depth of understanding I would like to have. Of course, it’s taken years to have the modest level of understanding I have of Norse mythology, so I am probably expecting way too much of myself. It’s more than just knowing the stories, it’s knowing what the stories are about, what they most likely meant to the people who told them. I just don’t have the broad spectrum of knowledge behind it to feel confident in how I am interpreting the story.



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?