RITUALS OF CONFLICT REDUCTION IN
TÁIN BÓ CÚAILNGE AND OTHER EARLY IRISH TALES1
Anyone who remembers childhood can recall the boundaries between his own gang and the next. For childish empires carve up space as quickly as do full-grown warrior bands. (The Irish Countryman, Arensberg 1959, 108)
A Specialization of the Ulster Cycle
This chapter is about boundaries between 'gangs' carved up by both full-grown warriors and a boy — all of which is played out within the framework of cattle raiding and status competitions. These themes are important to Irish heroic literature, although to some readers they may not seem particularly heroic. Indeed, the heroic literature of medieval Ireland's Ulster Cycle first drew my interest because it does not fit the mold of other European epics. The Ulster Cycle defies categorization as either epic poetry or folktale, yet its terse prose interspersed with occasional runs of poetry echoes with the elements of both folktale and epic (see Tymoczko 1983 for details on the form of Táin Bó Cúailnge, 'The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge').*
* Hereafter abbreviated as TBC. When citing from the original texts, I will refer to TBC as both TBC-I for the older Recension I version (O'Rahilly 1976), and TBC-II (O'Rahilly 1967) for the later Recension II. See Chapter 2 for a discussion of the TBC texts. To refresh the memory about basic textual matters: Recension I is incomplete, sometimes summarized, and is a bad job of compiling. But its language seems to be of the eighth century (making TBC-I our earliest version), when Ireland was probably organized as chiefdoms. Recension II represents a version heavily edited for clarity and consistency by a twelfth-century scribe and is a version further than TBC-I from circulation in oral tradition and closer an era of greater social complexity (perhaps stratified or state society). But Recension II is easier to follow and more complete. Citing both versions here permits the reader a relatively complete view of the medieval TBC tradition.
And of course, the stories of the cycle can startle the modern reader with their seemingly unusual mixture of high drama and rough humor (see Tymoczko 1983, 8 for a summary). Literary scholars who are accustomed to conventional works do not often raise the Ulster Cycle as an example of sophistication, but I suggest that the tradition is not a primitive form of art but is rather a sophisticated narrative tradition that was vital to ancient Irish life. Specifically, some tales of the Ulster Cycle may have functioned to depict and support rituals that controlled the destructive effects of inter- and intratribal conflicts. The rituals depicted in the tales often seem dependent on a chiefdom-level of society.
I will focus on three tales of the cycle. TBC depicts rituals that helped define borders and regulate contacts across them, especially by reducing the possibility of mass warfare; Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó ('The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig') depicts the channeling of intertribal hostilities over status into verbal rather than physical combat; and Fled Bricrend ('The Feast of Bricriu') comments upon the arrogance and danger of status pursuits by making them comically penalizing. All of these patterns of narrative, which may have reflected categories of actual behavior, depict the ideal rituals of conflict reduction of the early Irish period (from about the sixth century A.D. to the twelfth century) and the consequences of ignoring them.
I will summarize TBC here; the other tales will be summarized when they are discussed. Murphy's Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland (1961) is useful as a general introduction to early Irish tradition. I have culled elements of the following synopses from this book and added my own comments.
The central tale of the [Ulster] cycle is Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle-spoil of Cooley). It tells how Cú Chulainn (The Hound of Culann), while still a youth, held up an army of Connacht invaders while awaiting the arrival of the other Ulidians, who were perforce inactive because of a strange illness which used to attack them periodically, the ces noinden or 'nine days illness', traced by modern anthropologists to a primitive couvade ceremony. (1961, 37).
I add that the saga proceeds literally behind the army of the invaders as they seek entrance to the district of Cooley (the peninsula next to Carlingford Lough, on the east coast, immediately south of the border of Northern Ireland). We also follow Cú Chulainn as he moves from ford to ford, defending the borders with a series of single combats and guerilla warfare when the invaders refuse to play fair. The tale is full of place-name stories that explain now natural and man-made features originated, and of sometimes enigmatic rituals, rules, and truces that govern the conflicts. As the end of the saga nears, the Ulstermen arise from their pangs and begin gathering for the final battle that routs the invaders. The founding cause of the battle — Medb's desire to add Ulster's biggest bull to her herd so that her wealth will equal her husband's — is de-emphasized until the end of the saga, when the bulls fight and die.
Pastoralism in Ireland
A consideration of tribal borders in Ireland necessarily involves the pastoral (or semi-nomadic) nature of early Irish culture, since people who travel frequently may complicate the concerns of territorial rights of both fellow tribesfolk and rivals. The nature of pastoralism and nomadism in general is not a simple one (Salzman 1972, 67). There are various kinds of pastoralism from the cyclic wanderers such as the Bedouins, who until recently did not much engage in settled life or agriculture, to the part-time pastoralists associated with a central farming settlement, which appears to be the situation in medieval Ireland. But we must be cautious in defining Celtic pastoralism; that is, we should not apply too much the classical authors' descriptions of massive Celtic migrations on the European continent. As Byrne (1971, 139) writes:
The economy of the Irish túath is a subject requiring much further research, but it is quite certain that any imaginative picture of nomad pastoralists roaming the about the country at will cannot correspond to historical reality. The laws are explicit that both noble and commoner were engaged in tillage as well as pastoral farming...Practice no doubt varied from region to region and from century to century: then as now more intensive tillage must have been commoner in some areas than in others...But on the whole, primitive conditions could not have afforded the economic sub-structure for real specialization, and mixed farming must have been the norm.
Mixed farming has advantages, which Lees and Bates (1974, 188) indicate:
Since the areas where rainfall is sufficient for agriculture are also in or near zones of natural pasture, we would assume little difficulty in labor allocation between the two modes of production (agricultural and pastoral) in such areas. Here, a high degree of sedentary or short-range transhumant pastoralism is feasible. In fact, it would appear to be quite advantageous. While pastoral husbandry, like agriculture, is subject to environmental hazards, it allows for some avoidance of risk under certain conditions. Unlike planted crops, herds can be moved to more favorable areas in times of local drought or other disaster.
Transhumant pastoralism was generally practiced until the nineteenth century in some parts of Ireland; cattle were driven to moorland or upland pastures in the summer months while the land was under tillage; cattle would be driven back in the winter and allowed to wander freely in the inner fields and nearby pastures. It is tempting to apply such descriptions to create a picture of early Irish transhumance, although it must be done with caution: "Only in certain túatha can summer pasturage have been a practical proposition or indeed a geographical possibility" (Byrne 1971, 140). Additionally, the distance to summer and winter pastures may not have been great since the region of each tribe was relatively small (ibid). Therefore our picture of Irish pastoralism must be open to the variability of the practice although it is certain that it significantly shaped culture on the island.
Pastoralism and Borderlands
Boundaries hold importance in many societies, and their integrity has been the source of many disputes. As the Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend states:
To prevent the encroachment of neighbors or neighboring peoples, folk customs have developed and laws have been passed. Natural landmarks such as rivers, trees, boulders, seas, and mountains, and artificial landmarks such as boundary stones, pillars, posts, hedges, walls, or fences have been employed throughout the world. Trespass was and is usually considered a crime. Trespassers were often killed when caught, or punished by mutilation (India), and quarrels were frequently settled at the boundary stones.
Boundary markers or stones were regarded as sacred by many peoples... Cruel and severe punishments were meted out to those who removed landmarks. (Leach 1972, 58)
Many of these themes, especially the use of landmarks and the concern about trespass, will be encountered as we delve deeply into the early Irish lore of border behavior.
The Magic and Law in Borders
Boundaries in Celtic society reflect the aura of sanctity that hovers around borders world-wide. Borders between seasons held magical significance for the Celts (Rees and Rees 1961, 92 ff.), and this significance held true for political lines, as well:
[B]oundaries between territories, like boundaries between years and between seasons, are lines along which the supernatural intrudes through the surface of existence. ...This mysterious character of boundaries (which usually follow rivers and streams) enhances the significance of combats at fords, which are a recurrent feature of Celtic story. Fought at such a place a combat partakes in some measure of the nature of divination rite, as do contests engaged in at the boundaries of seasons. (Rees and Rees 1961, 94)
As we shall see, single combat at borders seems to have the power of divination* when the opposing sides bow to the rules and consequences of the combats and thereby reduce destructiveness.
* Tacitus wrote that the Germans of the first century used single combat as a ritual of divination: "They contrive somehow to secure a captive of the nation with which they are at war and match him against a champion of their own, each being armed with his national weapons. The victory of one or the other is thought to forecast the issue of the war" (Tacitus 1977 rpt./1948, 110).
Pastoralism makes border behaviors interesting because it directly affects the integrity of tribal borders. The movement of people and animals toward valuable grazing areas could be a constant challenge to the territorial concerns of neighbors. Historical sources indicate that life in early Ireland was a not simple act of staying on one's own side of a line. Ireland's ancient laws, chronicles, and sagas were often concerned with trespassing. The entire TBC concerns a massive trespass, one might say, of Connacht's army into Ulster's territory. In the law tracts, trespass is handled with detail. One might fear a squatter on one's land, for example, because, "It is an offense to squat or farm on another's land without permission. However...a man can establish right of ownership of land if his presence thereon is uncontested for a period of time" (Kelly 1988, 109). An offense against property includes 'animal trespass'. Kelly (1988, 142-143) writes:
Most of Bretha Comaithchesa 'the judgements of neighbourhood'...deals with damage to land and crops by the domestic animals of a neighbour — clearly a major source of legal action in early Ireland, as in any mixed farming community. To lessen the chance of dispute, each farmer gives a fore-pledge...to his neighbours, which becomes forfeit in the event of trespass. ...Bretha Comaithchesa and other texts discuss in great detail the various forms of animal trespass. The general principle is the obvious one of relating the amount of compensation to the amount of damage done. Hence, the penalty when cattle break into meadow is twice as much as when they break into moorland or after-grass. Similarly, grazing-trespass in winter when grass is scarce entails a heavier fine than in summer. ...Where there is malice or neglect on the part of the owner of trespassing livestock, the penalty is greater, as it is counted as 'human trespass' (duine-chaithig) rather than an 'animal trespass' (rop-chaithig). This applies where a farmer drives his cattle onto his neighbor's land, or deliberately breaks down a fence.
Circumstances Behind Boundary Behaviors
If boundaries were especially important in the early Irish period, we must trace the factors that made them such a critical issue. O'Riain (1972, 66) writes that population growth stimulated the development of Irish boundary institutions. Growth appears to have occurred between 600 and 800 A.D. (O'Corrain 1972, 48); there is evidence that this growth was a harmful one at times. One record hints that a famine occurred in 665 A.D. because husbandmen were not allotted enough land (Mac Niocaill 1972, 66). While we may be skeptical about medieval explanations for disease, the annal entry suggests that a concern about land hunger existed. Furthermore, an archaic law stated that deficient estates could be supplemented by unappropriated lands; yet by 800 A.D. very little unappropriated land existed (O'Corrain 1972, 49). Let us examine the consequences of relatively dense population for a semi-pastoral culture.
Although Ireland was not overpopulated by modern standards, we must measure the idea of crowding by ancient standards. For example, pre-Norman Ireland may have had a population of under 500,000 (Byrne 1971, 160). That number does not sound too high. Today, Ireland's population is in the millions, and although the landscape is well used, one does not see crowds of people rubbing elbows. But such a viewpoint must be tempered by several facts. First, the population of Ireland is now sedentary, and boundaries are surveyed and set and laws are established by an accepted state government. Second, agriculture is now a highly refined science; modern farmers have agricultural surplus and efficient storage techniques for food and fodder (of course, some foods are imported). The effects of higher population are not so much felt today because farms and the economy in general yield more than ever before.
But this was not the case in the early periods. Then, as now, Ireland was graced with a relatively temperate climate that encouraged the growth of large herds and, therefore, encouraged pastoralism. This pastoralism was not confined to privately owned farms that had well-defined hedges and fences, but rather we should imagine the ancient herders as traveling further across the joint tribal land than the modern farmer does within his privately owned pastures. Also, consider that ancient farmers may have relied more on their livestock for subsistence than modern farmers — they were not protected from agricultural catastrophes by a diversity of foods, the storage of food and fodder, or by the surpluses of a complex state society. For instance, the fair climate allowed herds to graze year round, so storage technology such as byres was not well developed, if at all, and hay was not cut for storage; but an unusually harsh winter might decimate cattle suddenly (O'Corrain 1972, 54).
Indeed, TBC does seem to take place during the winter, a possibility that makes sense because of the potential cattle decimations discussed above and because of the "food energy pulse" of post-harvest days. The poet stresses more than once that the season is winter, in both recensions. The Connachtmen are shown to be suffering a harsh winter snowfall; their hardships are made quite evident. See, for example, TBC-I, 133; TBC-II, 151-152. Cú Chulainn's single-handed fight against Connacht is said to have occurred through the three months of winter, in TBC-I (216), and between the beginning of the season of Samain, which begins November 1, to the beginning of Imbolc, or spring, February 1, in TBC-II (244). By analogy, anthropologists have found that "rituals of rebellion" have occurred in Africa during seasonal changes that bring about increased nutrition. Dirks (1988, 859) writes,
The ripening of the first fruits of the year and the onset of harvest set into motion disruptive forces nearly everywhere in Southwest Africa. Most tribes experienced an annual spell of semi-starvation. While so-called hungry months lasted, inanition put a damper on social activities. But as soon as there was more to eat, people embarked on an intense round of convivial events. At the same time they also returned to unfriendly pursuits, such as intracommunity quarreling and war. ...the heavy demands of ceremony at this time, including those associated with kingship rites, functioned to release this surge of energy and emotions in a measured and controlled manner. So channeled and over the long run, these discharges resulted more in enactments of unity than in animosity.
Note that the tribesfolk can speak for themselves on this subject, as Evans-Pritchard (1968 rpt./1940, 84) observed of the Nuer of Africa (the Nuer, organized as chiefdoms, at least until the early 1940s, in what is now part of Sudan, were both agriculturalists and pastoralists): "Nuer say that hunger and war are bad companions and that they are too hungry to fight in the full dry season."
Although Ireland is far from Africa, note some similarities; Ireland also seemed to have engaged in ceremonies during harvest — the beginning of Samain on November 1 was a time of assemblies (in which political affairs were settled), feasting, and games (see Rees and Rees 1961, 156, 168-171 for some examples). If TBC is any evidence, hostilities could also take place at this time; certainly the harvest would be the best time to equip a war-band with food for a raid of any proportion and would be a time when men were free from some agricultural labor. And as I will be discussing throughout this chapter, the war depicted in TBC was far from lacking in social amenities — truces, terms of warfare, and other ritual practices that avoided or reduced destruction of life were factors in this great raid. The comparison with the African harvest and associated behaviors is not out of place and ties medieval Irish behavior, including depiction of ritual behavior in the sagas, with the material pressures acting on society.
Herding Population, Division of Labor, and Conflict
The material pressures on Irish society could be worsened by the division of labor during herding and the actual numbers of people involved in herding. Let us consider the percentage of people actually involved in pastoral pursuits. This is a useful topic, since the level of tensions between rival tribes may have been dependent upon the number of people who were herding cattle — the more herders, the more potential for controlled movement across the landscape. This potential carries two possibilities — that the herders might be well able to keep their cattle off the grass of rivals, or that the herders would be well able to bring their cattle quickly to the grazing grounds of their rivals. Good organization in the pastures could be both protection and weapon.
In estimating the size of the herding population, we must realize that not every region of Ireland invested in livestock to the same degree (Byrne 1971, 139). No doubt people living in prime agricultural land relied mostly on growing their food, and at the other extreme, people living near extensive moors and uplands relied heavily on their livestock (note, though, that the climate was slightly colder in early medieval times than at present, probably making more land marginal, fitter for rough grazing). In medieval times, cattle was herded by youths (O'Corrain 1972, 53-54), a behavior continued almost to modern times. We must also use ethnographic analogies, though their relevance to the medieval situation is not certain. Let us make an analogy and support it with general information on other pastoral peoples as much as possible. For example, in nineteenth-century Londonderry, males and females from 10 to 16 years of age were used to herd cattle in the moors and upland pastures of summer (Evans 1957, 36). Other nomadic peoples today also employ children to care for cattle: in general, responsibility in pastoral communities is given to children at relatively early ages (Goldschmidt 1976, 21; compare also recent Nuer [Africa] practices: Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 61). This fact tempts us to see Cú Chulainn's (the 17-year-old hero of TBC) youthful responsibilities in a revealing light.
Let us assume conservatively (given the fact that families tended to be large in medieval farming communities to balance high infant mortality rates) that a family of 5 had 2 out of 3 surviving children old enough to herd animals (in the range of 10 to 16 years old, as observed above), and assume further that both these children would have been so used in communities that relied heavily on pastoralism. Furthermore, if married children lived with elderly parents or other kinfolk who were able to help watch the farm (i.e., watching very young children, etc.), then some of the adults may have been free to help in pastoral duties when the heaviest work of tillage was over. Adults may have been required to help make butter in situ: "There are references to women going to the herds in the mountains where they engaged in butter-making" (O'Corrain 1972, 54). Milk products would have been a summer staple (ibid, 55), and the literature has "...references to the macha samraid, the summer milking-place in the hills" (ibid). Add to these adults some adult males who may have accompanied the herders precisely for defensive purposes. I am led to think that a considerable number of people could have been travelling across their tribal outlands during the most 'pastoral' part of the year; perhaps as high as 40 percent of the communities was available, and possibly more, if older children and some adults were so employed. This possibility roughly indicates the magnitude of this society's concern with border disputes over grazing, wherein large numbers of a community could become involved in conflicts in areas of prime grazing. The larger the herd, and the more dispersed (perhaps a function of the number of people available to break up the herd to exploit various pastures), then the increased likelihood for conflicts with competing groups both within and outside their own tribe. Surely disputes could arise between the members of a tribe; probably such quarrels were mediated by the tribal laws (see Note 2). But when groups from different tribes had a quarrel, we cannot expect laws to have applied, and violence was always a potential.
Let us also imagine that the mobile elements of various communities were faced with varying fertility of pastures. The production of tribal grazing grounds was bound to vary through seasons and years, and unlike the more sedentary farmer, the herder is better prepared to rapidly move his livelihood — please forgive the clíché — to where the grass is greener. Now, also recall that the generally mild climate might complicate these matters when an unpredictably harsh winter arrived and, as I mentioned, no fodder existed to help the animals through the time. A significant portion of the community would be eager to drive their starving cattle wherever grass could be found. Of course, trespassing would have been a risky thing in an age where head-hunting may have been an acceptable hobby. But trespassing was, perhaps, an acceptable gamble when people and animals were hungry — death in warfare was a risk, but hunger was a certainty.
What I am saying is that early medieval Ireland offered considerable opportunity for border disputes involving cattle herding. Trespassing must have indeed been common, for the ancient law tracts give it detailed treatment. Where recognized roads did not exist, the tracts defined specific rules for the driving of cattle. The cattle road was called a bothár; and "The fact that the law tracts make special arrangements for cattle driving when a bothár was not available indicates that such droving roads were common" (O'Corrain 1972, 67). But sometimes trespassing went beyond risk and shouting matches between irate herders, for "military transhumance" is recorded from that time, a practice in which cattle were purposely driven to the pastures of rival neighbors (ibid, 54); and pastures (buaile) might also be raided in time of war (ibid). No doubt these occasions prompted punitive raids and became the stuff of saga. Note that this kind of transhumance occurred as late as 1390 when "... cattle themselves are being used as an aggressive weapon to wreak havoc on the enemies' lands..." (Simms 1986, 382). Apparently cattle-raiding tales such as TBC could have had some social context after the Old Irish period, perhaps into the Middle Irish period of the LL-TBC.
It was entirely appropriate for heroic society to be fixated on cattle raids because cows were the medium of wealth and honor in Irish society. O'Corrain writes:
Land was measured in terms of the number of cows it could maintain, legal compensations were reckoned in terms of cattle; a man's standing in society was determined by his wealth in cattle and cattle-raiding was a recognized form of warfare and of adventure for young nobles. The cow was the most immediate form of mobile wealth for raiding, for granting fiefs to clients and for paying one's debts. Too much can, however, be read into this and the legal cow, given the archaising tendencies of the law tracts, may well be a notational unit of value for which less clumsy means of exchange were frequently substituted (O'Corrain 1972, 53)
Kelly (1988, 113) also writes on the subject:
Even after coinage was introduced by the Norsemen in the early 10th century, and re-introduced by the Anglo-Normans in the early 13th century, cattle continued to be the normal currency of the Irish. As late as 1400 the Annals of Connacht record that 126 cows were paid as éraic for the accidental killing of Grigóir O Maolchonaire.
MacCana (1972, 76) thinks that both the literary and social custom of cattle raiding has depth in Celtic culture:
The tána [the Irish genre of the cattle-raid saga] are the literary reflex of a social practice which was not merely Irish, but Celtic and Indo-European, and one which is found elsewhere among cattle-rearing peoples. For the Celts the successful cattle-raid was an assertion of the the integrity of the tribal community vis-à-vis its neighbours and a vindication of its leaders' claim to primacy over his people. The same root, *ag- 'drive, pursue', from which Ir. táin 'cattle-raid' is derived, gives also Ir. ár, W. aer 'battle-slaughter' and has been taken as the source of of Ir. ág 'battle, valor'; and this lexical nexus points up the importance of cattle-raiding in the heroic ideology of the Celtic warrior class. It was, on certain occasions, at least, something of a ritual exercise; we know that in India a ritual cattle-raid was an integral part of the initiation to the kingship and there is a great deal of evidence which indicates that it once had the same function in Ireland. It is no mere accident, therefore, that the greatest of Irish tales, 'The Cattle-Raid of Cúailnge', belongs to this category of the tána.
I add that a similar focus on cattle raiding has been observed in recent times among other pastoral peoples. For example, at least until the early 1940s, the Nuer people (of what is now part of Sudan in Africa) made war primarily to gain cattle and grazing land:
Nuer war with the Dinka [their ethnic, tribal neighbors] has been almost entirely offensive and directed toward appropriation of herds and annexation of grazing grounds. Cattle have also been the chief occasion of strife among Nuer themselves. Indeed, after a successful raid on Dinka stock there is often further fighting over the booty. Moreover, Nuer tribes raid one another for cattle. ...Nuer fight on slight provocation and most willingly and frequently when a cow is at stake. On such an issue close kinsmen fight and homes are broken up. ...Nuer say that it is cattle that destroy people, for 'more people have died for the sake of a cow than for any other cause'. They have a story which tells how, when the beasts broke up their community and each went its own way and lived its own life, Man slew the mother of Cow and Buffalo. Buffalo said she would avenge her mother by attacking men in the bush, but Cow said that she would remain in the habitations of men and avenge her mother by causing endless disputes about debts, bride-wealth, and adultery, which would lead to fighting and deaths among the people. (Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 48-49).
Studies of the ancient Celtic context behind the Irish and observations of modern pastoralists help us understand the social background for certain aspects of native Irish literature. If life was to go on with some security, the disadvantages of Irish social conflicts had to be managed. I hypothesize that conflicts were managed with a combination of rules and the dread of uncontrolled warfare, intensified through literary depictions. The very rivers rise up against invaders (as they do for Achelleus in the Iliad), and the weather makes their life miserable (TBC-I, 153-154, 157; TBC-II, 175). The tale seems to say that there is a 'natural' price for intertribal warfare, and that when war becomes a large, organized affair lasting for a relatively long span of time, then both the social and physcial problems of a long-time and long-range hosting begin to complicate the more controlled nature of ritualized single-combat. The simple problems of day-to-day travel in a hostile land takes a toll. Death by cold, hunger, drowning, and guerilla warfare, and the expediency of mass slaughters is the opposite of cultural control of warfare. War now becomes slaughter in which heroic identity is lost.