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.