Tain Tuesday

Táin Tuesday: The Wealth of a King

This is a continuation of “How Conchobar was begotten, and how he took the Kingship of Ulster” but whereas the first part of the story I feel is more his mother Ness’s story (of being a mastermind and all around sharp lady), the second part of the story tells us more about what is to be expected from Kingship, idealized and legendary kingship, but in the paragons of myth we can find the lessons of the mundane. The first paragraph extols Conchobar’s virtues and how beloved of Ulster he was. There are the things you would expect such as:

There was no wiser being in the world. He never gave judgement until it was  ripe, for fear it might be wrong and the crops worsen. – Kinsella

Now later on we may talk about how true this statement actually is in reference to some the judgments he actually makes as King. But for now it is a telling piece of what is valued in a leader and very neatly and simply showcases the connection between sovereignty and the land.  This is a theme that you might have heard espoused before, especially if you have been looking into or have any connections with any of the many Irish Sovereignty Goddesses. Cue the Morrighan, Macha, Aine, just to name a few. I feel like there is a lot that could be said about this connection, but the one thing that strikes me in this reading may be the simplest. The sacred connection between mankind and the land.

If we concentrate down this, the king’s actions/words/being can cause crops to worsen and the people to suffer, we clearly see the ownership of stewardship in all things. We as human beings are not separate from the land that we live on.  This is a very animist view of things, and further gets complicated for those of us on U.S. soil and other places wherein colonialism has left us a history to have to weigh-in. But the solid foundation that there is a sacred connection between all of our actions and the land seems pretty clear and worth remembering. This simple foundation gives weight to the meaning of offerings, to seeing signs and omens in the day to day life, to cultivating the skills of wisdom and judgement. Because ultimately if you are taking on the mantle of personal sovereignty then you are taking up the mantle of your actions, your words, having profound affect on your world.

There are things that make the modern person raise an eyebrow and make a face, namely these:

So high was their regard for him that every man in Ulster that took a girl in marriage let her sleep the first night with Conchobor, so as to have him first in the family[…]Any Ulsterman who gave him a bed for the night gave him his wife as well to sleep with.

Ahhh Ancient times, when men were men and women were chattle. Now besides this being a very sexist way of showing the adoration and love Ulster had for it’s king it may also show a bit more of the practice of Ancestor worship and the ties of kingship. There is an interesting article written by Fedelm Cruithn titled A Semiotics of Kingship in the Tain which goes deeper into the topics that I am brushing over, but talks directly about this connection:

The Táin also indicates a very important relationship between the king’s popularity and his genealogy. The men of Ulster worship Conchobor so highly, they allow their new brides to sleep with him on the first night, in order to “have him first in the family.” (Kinsella 4) Try to imagine an Egyptian king sleeping with the wife of every man in Egypt! In this part of The Táin, there seems to be a break from the droit de cuissage or ius primæ nocti, (law of the first night), which reflects the right of a ruling man to “sample the wares” of his family subjects. In this instance, there’s a peculiar combination of a worshipful gesture made by free men honouring their beloved king and a genealogical insurance policy for the tribe: a figure of royal blood who shares his blood with the people of his kingdom. This points to the possibility that in Celtic kingship, unlike many other sovereignty traditions, the king was not only expected to be of perfect stock, but was also expected to revitalise and perfect the stock of the tribe. In this way, Conchobor becomes a prize breeding bull, woven into the very fabric of a story about the royal cattle theft of a sacred bull. (Mac Cana 52)

This idea of genealogy, of being descendants of legendary heroes, and even the Gods themselves, is not a new idea or one that is only found in the Celtic context. While overall interesting to think about on it’s own, for me personally it just throws more weight into the respectful practice of Ancestor worship. These Legendary Heroes and Kings were looked on as family, as kin.

Extrapolating further and tying this back into the ideas of personal sovereignty in the modern context, this close connection of king and people teaches me that those that I consider part of my tribe, my community should be treated as family. Again writing that out seems like such a given, but I was lucky enough to grow up in a family were taking care of each other is given. It is easy for me coming from that background to extend that outward to know that there are times when the good of the all is more important, and that these duties when founded in love hold great rewards.

The last part of this tale goes on in great detail on the houses and wealth of the mighty King. Of note that he had three houses each with a different task. Lets just go ahead and point out that three is a number of great weight in the Irish world and it will be something to look for in future. Craebruad the Red Branch, Tete Brec the Twinkling Hoard, and Craebderg the Ruddy Branch.

Craebruad, was where the kings sat and presumably where Conchobor lived. We are told that it is the Red Branch and red is for royalty. This is just flat out interesting to me and endearing to me. Red is not usually the color associated with royalty, that would be purple. It could very well be that there was not readily available dye for making purple at the time, one of the leading facts to purples elevation to royalty in other places and times. But I’m inclined to think not…I could be wrong, but having seen a lot of the craft work of Ancient Ireland and knowing that they did have some contact and trade with the outside world if only from Viking influence it seems far fetched to believe that purple was just not a color they could replicate. So then why the elevation of red? In Rome red was the color of the army, due mostly to the great availability and thus cost effectiveness of the color. Gotta love the Romans and their keen accounting skills. But then that is just it, red is the color of war. Red is the color of blood and passion. I would even venture to say that red is the color of courage. Could this also be a contributing factor to it’s royal associations in Ancient Ireland, where valor and courage were such prized items? Another interesting note is that red usually helps to depict Otherworldly things, White animals with red ears and so forth. Perhaps this too tied the Kingship and royalty to the spiritual and sacred.

All and all I find it a fascinating tidbit. Not the least of which is that Red is a color I associate very clearly with.

But what of the other houses? Tete Brec, is the place that holds all the beautiful and deadly weapons and armor of legendary heroes. Everything from Cuchulainn’s shield to everyone else’s and their goblets and javelins and swords beside. And in Craebderg is where all “the severed heads and spoils” were kept.  There are several ways that these houses could be analyzed, but again on this reading I am struck by Craebruad representing the King’s duties to politics and the people. Such a fine house with all it’s decorations and trimmings much play host to many heroes and Chiefs, foraging alliances and offering hospitality.  A point underlined by Gerg’s vat, from which at any time 30 men may be drinking from it in Conchobor’s room and the vat is always full. Such abundance and generosity are things that a sovereign must maintain. With Tete Brec I see the need to maintain protection, an entire house filled with arms and shields of mighty warriors, of whom may be called upon at any moment. It speaks to the bravery and the heroism that is idealized in sovereignty. And then Craebderg, the ruddy branch, where we see that bravery and heroism has been tested and proven true. This is not just a king who speaks of valor but who has the proof of those swords and shields in a house all of their own. The grandeur and glory must not be without merit.

This speaks to the heroic morality versus the passive morality that is seen elsewhere, and was one of the key things that turned me away from Judeo-Christian religions. With them it is all about the things that you should not do. Whereas to me being judged and held to your actions is more in alignment with the make up of my soul. I am not a “good person” because I do not steal or any number of the other tenets of “Thou shall not”. It is through my actions based on the real features of the situations that mold and shape me. Just as it is that Conchobor’s actions, be them in judgement or on the battle field is what molds and shapes him into a legendary king.


Táin Tuesdays : Nes the Mastermind

I think at this point it is safe to assume this will be a biweekly posting, as frankly dear people, my life is just too busy for weekly.

Now, I was originally going to call this post “Enter Conchobor aka Nes is a Mastermind” but then decided to cut with the pretense that I gave one boar’s fart about Conchobor in this at all. The tale for this tuesday is technically called “How Conchobor was begotten, and how he took the Kingship of Ulster” but honestly…the child Conchobor did just about nothing, it was all his mother. While yes Conchobor is the subject of this tale he is not by any means the driving force. Credit where it is due people it was all Nes.

And really no matter what version of the tale of the birth of the legendary king Conchobor this seems to be true.

Because my good people there is another version of the birth of Conchobor, one I have to say I much prefer, and one that showcases more of Nes’s prowess. For a run down of that tale (that I do not actually know where the original text is from) see here. But so that I don’t wander too far into the realm of “same story different version and all are true.” We will stick to what Kinsella chose to tell us.

In Kinsella’s tale Nes is out with her royal women and happens to pass the druid Cathbad and ask him what the present hour is lucky for? And in what my imagination can only conjure up as an ancient Irish smarmy bar line he replies with “Begetting a king on a queen.” Following that up with a prophecy about a son being conceived now would be legendary and known throughout all of Ireland. Nes seeing no other male around, takes Cathbad to her bed and is pregnant for 3 years and 3 months.

Now…Frankly this little part of the story gives me way more questions than anything else. Like, what is the meaning of this 3 years 3 months pregnancy nonsense? Is this just a literary device to signify to the the audience that Conchobor is in fact not like mortal men? If so talk about being heavy handed with your literary devices. I mean seriously that is a curse on Nes, is what that is. Granted I am somewhat pregnancy phobic but even the ladies that I know who have been keen on the begetting of children usually want to be done with it and threaten to forcibly remove said child by month nine. The womb and mind shutter at the thought of 3 freaking years. But I digress.

The other tid bit of this that makes me weep at my lack of knowledge is the mention of Conchobor’s birth at the feast of Othar. I have not been able to find anything on what exactly this feast is and I would very much like to as it seems mentioning it specifically must indicate something.

In any event Nes in this story takes the lead to making herself a son, a son who will be legendary, a son who will be king. Which I have to say is pretty interesting from ancient female character, and once again I am reminded that I need to pursue a more in depth study of women and their roles in Iron Age and Ancient Ireland. There was a book that I saw many years ago that seemed a good place to start but have since lost all recognition of. If anyone has recommendations on the subject, please by all means.

But from my unstudied modern point of view I have to say that I am impressed by the gumption that is shown here. In a lot of stories even today women’s motivation for having children is rarely ever cast in the light of being for glory or power. And if it is there is a certain amount of vilification that seems to be absent here. Men want children to carry on their lineage, to build empires in their name, that is acceptable and understood. But to see it here, and in this story coming solely from Nes, the mother is refreshing and interesting.

My interest is furthered peaked when the extent of Nes’s skills in political intrigue and the game of power come into plain view in the telling of how Conchobor “took” the throne. The long and the short of it is that Nes used her cunning and assets to gain the thrown for her son. She convinces the current Ulster King Fergus (you remember Fergus, the spirit of whom brought back the Tain in the future.) to let seven year old Conchobor be King in name for a year, so that his children could claim being the son of a King. Fergus agrees so that Nes will marry him and immediately Nes starts pulling strings to secure the throne for Conchobor. Kinsella tells us that she instructs Conchobor, his foster parents (that’s right she didn’t even raise the boy herself, take that gender roles!), and his entire household to steal from one half of the kingdom and give it to the other half. I have to say this feels like…something is missing. Mainly which half is being stolen from, and why are their no ramifications for this? Are they stealing from the rich and re-distrubuting the wealth? But that doesn’t entirely seem like a likely plan to win over the court. Are they stealing from Fergus supporters and then giving to people who will later be influential in who keeps the throne? This is about the time that I remind myself that this story was written down by Monks after generations of oral tradition and it’s entirely possible that many details have fallen to the wayside.

Needless to say this combined with Nes paying off the Warrior elite with her own money, led to the men of Ulster deciding that there were no taksey backseies for Fergus, and Conchobor was King.

Things that I love about this. Again Nes’s complete unabandoned power play here, bonus points for not a hint of wickedness being thrown her way for being so cunning and for being a woman. Which is kinda impressive considering again it was Monks writing this stuff down.

But also the rewarding of cleverness. Not just cleverness but downright trickery. I suppose this is an odd thing to like, as well in a modern light it appears to be awarding duplicitness, but it clearly shows that success is about being vigilant, and puts an emphasis on more than just strength. It acknowledges a different type of power than the physical. Which isn’t always something that is underlined. You don’t just get to be King because you are strong. You also have to have the support of the people. You also have to just be smart enough to not be tricked out of your position. It is the first showing that being in such a position of leadership and privileged and power comes with being constantly held to a standard, but more importantly that failure to meet that standard will in fact lose you that position. Again something that is illustrated in other tales.

It is this idea that is foundational to my own coda of living. Interestingly it was an idea of leadership that was first introduced to me by my Marine Corp father, and was a major connection that I had to Celtic mythology and history. It is an idea that leadership is not a given, it is not merely ordained by some higher authority, although clearly lineage is still a major factor here historically. But that lineage is not the end all deciding factor. The King is not ordained by god and thus unremovable. Now I don’t literally to the letter follow with the ideas of kingship/leadership as outlined in the Tain or other mythology cycles, as my modern sensibilities cannot get behind discounting a leader based on physical defect or injury. But I do believe and put a lot of weight in leaders having to be proven capable and continuously capable of their position.

Going back in this tale, the other take away I have from this is the validity and faith in Druids prophecy. Remember the whole start of this plot of Nes was started by a Druid giving an on the spot prophecy of the hour. Which illustrates the skill that is expected of a Druid, but also the weight that their prophecies held. Nes is now moving and making large political movements based on that prophecy, on that guarantee of what Conchobor will become. So true divination, true prophecy is a real tangible thing, and is something that is worthy of moving in congruence with. Now granted, I do not consider myself a Druid, nor do I actually think that Druidry is something that can be recreated in the modern world. But it adds to the importance of divination and being open to messages from the beyond. I would have dearly loved for the story to give us some hint into how Cathbad made his prophecy about the hour of the day, but alas.

Now there is still more to delve into in this little tale. A very detailed description of Conchobor’s kingship and what type of king he is and the houses he keeps etc. I have decided to go ahead and post what I have here and make that a separate post.

As before please go ahead and let me know your own interpretations or insights! Hopefully I’ll have the second have of this post up on Thursday.




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.