Táin Tuesday: Before the Táin

Well this project took a little longer to get off the ground than anticipated. But now that I have both books in hand and have a few moments to peruse both I see that this isn’t going to be as straight forward as reading chapter by chapter of each one.

For the duration of this project I will be referring to the two versions by the last name of their translators. So, The Táin by Thomas Kinsella will hereforto be known as Kinsella and The Táin by Ciaran Carson will hereafter be known as Carson.

On the initial examination of both books it immediately struck me that the Carson does not begin in the same place at the Kinsella. Whereas Kinsella begins “Before the Táin” and includes the birth and rise of power of Conchobor, the story of the sons of the Uisliu, and the Pangs of Ulster. The Carson begins with the actual cattle raid with Medb and Aililli talking in bed. This is an interesting choice and I will go back and read Carson’s introduction to see if he explains that choice here. Maybe it’s the old stubborn person in me but I feel like leaving out those stories at the beginning leaves out a lot of the context for the cattle raid itself. Though I suppose I only associate them with the Táin because the Kinsella version was the first version I read. But to me they were world builders and set the stage for what was to come. Especially the Pains of Ulster! But then I am rather fond of that story and could be very bias at the moment.

But since I do find those stories to be important and since they are in the Kinsella, I will begin with my take aways and overviews of them and when the two version meet then we will have comparison. Seems fair enough to me.

With that said we being “Before the Táin

In Kinsella’s notes he attributes this anecdotal text to the ninth century text in the Book of Leinster. I have to say that it does have a different feel and sound to me than some of the other parts of Kinsella, but I wonder how much of that is Kinella’s own voice coming to the translation.

In any event this short little story tells us that the knowledge and story of the Táin itself was once lost or at the least not know in its entirety. And in the fashion of all good important myths and legends had to be quested for and sought out.

Now you may be asking “What can you possibly get out of this tiny little story?”

Well, not a huge amount but some things in my practice are certainly underlined and other things that I have known but not paid as great attention to are brought to the forefront.

In the start of this story it is plan that the “Poets of Ireland” have convened to see if they could all remember the story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. This illustrates that the poets or bards were very much the history keepers. This is something that my previous research already told me, but it is them all discovering that they only know parts of the story and then deciding it was important to go and find the whole tale again that helps brings few things into focus for me.

First, that people especially educated people, and I will go a step farther and say probably especially educated people who considered themselves or were considered by their community to be spiritual leaders, had A LOT memorized. And by memorized I don’t just mean they  had the cliff notes version that I could tell you off the cuff, I mean it was in verse. Word for word, line for line, verbatim. This doesn’t just apply to Ireland of course, the ancient world in general seems to have this trait. A trait that we of modern times have fallen behind on and something I would like very much to work on. This isn’t to say that I’m going to memorize the Tain line for line, but who knows maybe someday. But I do want to memorize more prayers and songs, reading this helps to solidify my dedication to that cause. Also to you know…write more lol.

Second is a little more…spiritual practice-ish. In the story Muirgen, the son of the great poet teacher who set the challenge before them all, finds the gravestone of Fergus mac Roich (deposed King of Ulster who aids Queen Medb in the Raid) and entreats him in verse to tell the whole tale. A mist comes over Muirgen for three days and three nights he cannot be found. In that time Fergus appears before him (dressed spectacularly I might add) and recites the whole thing.   Thus Muirgen is able to return from the quest victorious and the Tain is returned to Ireland in full.

There is quite a bit in that little story. We see that there is a strong ancestral connection, even to figures of myth and legend. That they are real, that they are able to speak and teach us even after death. That is something that I have always connected with. That tangible thread of spirit that links the living to the dead, and the living to their ancestral and mythical past. It is a huge part of what brought me to the Gaelic Polytheist path. I started out following the threads of these same stories and heroes. Ok maybe it didn’t start here it started over a bit of water with King Arthur and his lot but still it didn’t take long to find my way to Erin.  For me this underlines the already standing practice of honoring and learning from the Beloved Dead. It is something that a lot of CR sites and Gaelic Polytheist talk about. Clearly with good reason.

The other thing that I note here and just sort of put on my List-of-things-to-look-for further in this reading, is the mist. The mist came and then knowledge from the beyond was received. There are several different things I can take away from this. One is that there may be future connection between the mist/fog and the dead/supernatural. My other research and knowledge and just flat-out gut says that this is so, but I will make note of it here and see how often this occurs.

Because then I can start and pay more attention to the mist and fog. I live in an area where it is not a stranger to me. Perhaps next time I look outside and see the mists at my door I will leave out an offering to passing spirits. Or it occurs to me that in times when the mist is coming in may be a good time to try to contact the Beloved Dead more easily. Things to think on, things to see how they can fit in my life.

A different take on the time that Muirgen spent in the mist; is that a mortal was able to gain supernatural information from the beyond. Granted this was lost information that was already part of the mortal world but I don’t consider it too far a leap to see a parallel in this to the times that I go into a state of trance and come back with new inspirations, song and prayers. Now I’m sure for some that might be too great a leap in lines of thought, and that’s fine. But for me I can see how the literary use of mist that hides a person for 3 days and 3 nights could in fact be a way to describe a state of trance. Where the body remains and the mind or soul enters into the mist and beyond. Like I said perhaps too far fetched for some but it makes complete sense to me. Which makes it reassuring and helpful. It’s not something I have talked at length about as it’s hard to articulate, but I find a great connection to the divine in a trance state. Interestingly most of my trance states happen in the shower, where there is a mist in the steam and water. This is something else that is on my list of things to look out for. The connections of the divine and supernatural to water, mist, steam etc.

That my friends are my take-aways from this wee tale. Also a very good example of what the rest of this project will look like. So if this interests you please stick around! Let me know what you glean from these stories. What are the nuggets that leap out to your mind. I’d love to hear!

I’m already working on next weeks so I do hope to have these up every tuesday but you know there may be some flubs here or there lol.



  1. Thanks, really, for this. Your explanation is so valuable. The idea that ALL of the “literature” of any of the Northern cultures (I just don’t know enough about others) is that in addition to those of Erin, the same for what we now call Norse. When I was learning Old Norse, Valla and Kari did the teaching by saying/singing the material. Kari’s “tests” were always verbal. At any Blot, the opening and Hammer Rite are to be “classic” and known exactly word for word. As they taught me, when the Nordic folks knew the Christian Armies were getting closer, they shipped all the sagas, eddas, poetry and “mere” stories out of reach — to Iceland. All of that could not be loaded onto a few ships. There were several ships with good Skalds who KNEW the material. That continued for a few hundred more years, and then it was all written.

    As I was preparing for the Ordination retreat, they reminded me (oh so gently and oh so firmly) that the new Edda I made had to be “well recited” for if it was not Skaldly enough,” it would not be acceptable to Thor and Bears.

    That stuff is not MY story, rather a confirmation that your point about KNOWING all of the material word for word, exactly still exists, And is done quite well.

    I am just SO pleased that you are doing this! For it matters deeply to me, not just for the knowing, but also for the mental and especially the Spirit of these stories. The 3 day “mist” is a function in Norse as well.

    Really good stuff here! I just love it!!!!!!!!!!!!1


    1. It is great to hear that the value of memorization and recitation of stories is still very much valued to this day. Very heartening.

      I am not surprised that there is lay over on elements in Irish and Norse function, such as the mist. That could be a study all on it’s own how the too cultures interacted and where they overlayed and where they differed.

      Thank you for you interest and support in this Sunsmith 🙂

  2. I actually enjoy the story of how the Taín was recovered better than the story in the Taín – I understand the feelings, motivations, and choices of Muirgen seeking to recover the lost masterpiece of Irish literature, but I can never really understand the way most figures of the Ultonian cycle act. They seem quite alien to me.

    I do think it’s an interesting observation that mist creates, or is created by, or somehow correlates with a liminal state where contact with Ancestors and the Other World is possible. I, too, find the shower to be a place of inspiration, but in the past it was a place of anxiety for me. When I was a child, I always felt that water could cause reality itself to melt and change and shift, and I could feel everything I dreaded crowding around me when I was in the water. I still think of reality as fluid, I just have a different way of riding the fluidity now, so that it does not need to be a scary experience.

    1. I can completely relate to the disconnect with a lot of the figures in the Táin, it is one of the cycles that leaves me with more questions than anything. I frequently find myself disliking people that I feel we are suppose to be rooting for lol but more on that as it comes along.

      Happy to have corroboration of the liminal power of the shower. Interestingly I had a similar experience to yours in so far as dreading something because of it shifting, non-solid state encroaching in on reality, time and myself. Except it wasn’t the shower, it was the dark. Since childhood the dark has always been something that moved, shifted and augmented. There were things that I could almost see, the space itself seemed to come alive. The only words that come to mind are “fair teeming” because blackness, darkness was never solid for me. It was always a pixelation of color that moved and winked. As a child it was terrifying. Feeling everything moving in a erratic and unpatterned way, being unable to walk in a straight line because nothing stayed the same. Feeling as tho things and beings were closing in but being unable to actually “SEE” them. Now I can experience the dark and it’s fullness without the terror. But it was a different thing then.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences I really appreciate it.

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