|An Ethnographic Analogy with Irish Wars and Rituals
Before going on, I must add that my theory for ritualized warfare in Ireland is not without a parallel in the ethnographic record. Rappaport (1967) and M. Harris (1974, 35-79) have written about ritual warfare of the Maring people of highland New Guinea. These tribal people practice a slash-and-burn style of agriculture in which large areas of previously gardened forest must lie fallow for several years to recover before being used again. They also raise pigs, and their warfare centers around an approximately 12-year cycle which culminates in a great sacrifice of pigs (for their ancestors' spirits) and a war with neighboring peoples in which victors gain the fallow territory. Interestingly enough, fallow territory forms borders between these warring parties.
As M. Harris writes, the warfare begins quite openly as a warring party begins a loud public ritual (kaiko) to gather allies. Thus the intention to make war is advertised. Slaughtered pigs are given to allies who agree to go to war with the group. They hope that the opulence of the ritual will demoralize the enemy. Intermediaries go between the warring parties and help select an agreed-upon battlefield situated at unforested (previously gardened, now fallow) land on their mutual borders. Fighting begins on the agreed-upon day (as seems to happen in TBC's final battle).
The fighting begins with long-distance arrow fire that causes few if any casualties, while allies on both sides try to end the war when someone is seriously injured. But if the war continues, fighting contracts to close quarters, where spears and axes result in a death. At the first death, both sides retire to their villages for one or two days either to conduct funeral rites or praise ancestors. Fighting resumes if both sides remain evenly matched, although as the allies tire and leave for their own homes, the stronger side may succeed in routing the enemy.
In the rout, for the first time many people are killed, usually stragglers, since the victors do not pursue the enemy. The losing side goes to live among its allies while the victors destroy their village, fruit trees, gardens, and adult pigs, and keep the young pigs. This destruction is meant to discourage the losing side from returning to its land. The fallow border lands will now be cultivated by the victors and the allies, while the abandoned central gardening areas will be left fallow for several years. This is the new borderland, which will be occupied by the victors after several years, or contended for by the losers.
Not coincidentally, the next war will again occur when one or the other side again has enough pigs to sacrifice to the ancestors in another kaiko ritual. This is because the warfare just described is actually a ritual that maintains an ecological balance in this society.
During the roughly 12-year cycle of war, production, and sacrifice, tribes rush to raise pigs to give a kaiko ritual before all others. The impetus for the ritual begins when tensions rise in the village. The tensions rise because 1) the simple act of raising pigs (which compete with humans for garden produce and also break into gardens when hungry) becomes burdensome when the animals are populous, and 2) distant gardens created to support both pigs and people require extra walking and some settlement dispersal, which is burdensome and dangerous (dispersed groups being less able to defend themselves). Worries, and quarrels with husbands (the burden falling mainly to the women), signal the time to thank the ancestors in a pig sacrifice (kaiko) and to make war to gain more territory.
It is not coincidental that a group has enough pigs for this ritual when the forest has grown back over their former enemies' central gardening area, which had become the new border after the last war. Reforestation — to the extent that will permit an ecologically safe return to the fallow land — occurs in roughly 10 to 12 years, the same cycle as the kaiko ritual. Thus warfare, agriculture, and ritual are locked into a pattern that ensures the Maring will not permanently degrade their land for farming. Wars and routs ensure 1) that part of the land will remain fallow and recover, and 2) that more populous groups win extra land to adjust the person-to-land relationship in the region. Of course, the Maring do not necessarily see it this way. As they view it, they do not return to immediately occupy the losers' central garden area because they fear the spirits of the losers' ancestors.
The warfare carried out by the Maring does result in casualties. However, during the opening kaiko ritual there is ample opportunity for the defenders to gage the strength of the enemy. Demoralization at a strong showing may disaffect allies and help end the war sooner. At the end of the first stage of war, in which the first casualty occurs, there is again another opportunity for allies to get of the war and convince the attacker and defender to end fighting soon. Wars that drag on after all this will simply irritate allies, who will depart.
Thus, while this is not warfare where everybody goes home with honorable scratches and flowers tied to spearheads, the controls on the warfare seem to reduce casualties and end the war as soon as territory is ceded by the routed force. We should keep this observed pattern in mind as we study the various patterns of warfare in early Ireland and the way the sagas depict the operation of conflicts.
* * *
This study now considers TBC to test the hypothesis that, far from being a primitive literature, early Irish narrative tradition was a highly specialized mechanism that helped to regulate, through the presentation of literary models, a critical area of Irish life — the tribal boundaries. Additionally, consideration of other early Irish tales suggests that depictions of status rituals extended the concern about conflicts to within the tribe itself.
Historical Reality Behind Border Behaviors
All societies are concerned with maintaining their borders in the face of competing groups, but the concept of territoriality to the tribesfolk of early medieval Ireland may have held particular importance because of the factors that I have discussed and because of the autonomous nature of chiefdoms, which tend toward political disunity rather than wide integration as occurs in a state. Evidence suggests that such disunity was indeed disadvantageous to the populations in general; Earle (1987, 291) notes that the largest chiefly confederations seem to prosper more than smaller units, as evidenced by reduced conflicts and increased nutrition. In Irish society, borders were important enough to have had their demarcators recognized and defined to the utmost detail in a commentary to an early law tract: "rivers, lakes, sources, trees or woods of various kinds and species, stones of various types, marshy or waste areas, and some man-made features" (O'Riain 1972, 17). These descriptions are quite specific, indicating how precise the notation of boundary areas could be.
We should proceed by understanding that boundaries are not simple 'walls' between tribes that forbid contact. When we understand borders as mechanisms that regulate contact between tribes, we are ready to understand the complexity of behavior that is inherent in the idea of territoriality. Borders are buffer zones that regulate the kind and quantity of communications between tribes.*
O'Riain (1972, 14-24) identifies several aspects of boundary behavior in Celtic society; he suggests that boundaries became sites for assemblies and sanctuaries. He summarizes these features in early Irish society:
(i) Permanent settlements of a Christian character, as well as dwellings associated with other members of the professional classes, were regularly established in boundary areas.
(ii) Political headquarters were commonly set up in boundary areas.
(iii) At least one system of roads, and an important one at that, ran immediately parallel to or coincided with territorial boundaries.
* Evidence for this kind of 'porosity' is available from modern ethnographic observations: when the Nuer of Africa captured Dinka tribespeople, the Dinka would visit their captive relations during times of peace (Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 130).
(iv) All important types of assembly, including synods, patterns, fairs, and inaugural ceremonies, were regularly convened to boundary areas.
(v) Mobilization and the ensuing hostile encounters occurred regularly in boundary areas. (1972, 25)
O'Riain further suggests that boundaries were for the Celts specialized institutions for facilitating communication between tribes:
What prompted these people to locate the most important institutions of their society on the peripheries of the lands which belonged to them? It appears to me that the purpose was basically a mediatory one. We have seen that assemblies were one of the primary features of boundary association. These involved in effect the fusing together of separate peoples, even if only for purposes of religion or trade initially, and should be taken as an illustration of the idea that boundary lines in Celtic society forged rather than severed links. (1972, 26)
Borders were political zones at which kings convened hostings to prepare for war or witness treaties, places that "...in Ireland, as in other societies, once determined, were regarded by the people within them as sacrosanct and inviolate. Indeed, the prowess of a king was often measured in terms of his ability to defend the boundaries of his people" (O'Riain 1974, 72).
O'Riain (1974, 76) notes that actual battles in early Ireland occurred exclusively at borders, a fact pointing to the deep ritualistic significance of these regions. Similarly, TBC depicts single combat as a border event, since such combat often occurs at river fords, rivers themselves being common border demarcators.
In summary, if the places and people associated with the borderlands functioned as mediators between tribes, then I suggest the story traditions devoted to hostile contacts near borders were also a mechanism to help society regulate these kinds of conflicts.
The Expression of Borders in the Sagas
The Focus on Place-Name Lore
Narrative mechanisms for maintaining tribal boundaries can be found in the Ulster Cycle. Straight away any reader of these tales, even in translation, cannot fail to note the importance placed on onomastic lore, or the folklore that explains features of the landscape. Place-name lore is a system of easily accessible information analogous to a 'mental' map. Furthermore, the reader will note the ritual that characterizes fights near traditional boundary markers such as standing stones and rivers. For example, in TBC the warriors from Connacht are stopped at a river crossing simply because an Ulster hero has left a message there stipulating that no one can cross the border unless some feat is performed (TBC-I, 9-10; l. 266-297, 132-133 in translation; TBC-II, 14-15; l. 471-507, 150-151 in translation). The practical reader says "Why not just go across? There's no army there to stop you." But the invaders seriously ponder this challenge. Scenes like this teach us about the ritual that overlies the borderlands; we can begin to understand how the ancient poets composed tales to teach the audience how to treat the territory whose integrity was the permeable skin of the tribe it surrounded. TBC is an excellent example with which to explain these ideas, and my analysis will focus on it.
Place-Lore: The Mental Map
The first line of border information is contained in place-lore. The lore of place-names is probably of general use to people who often travel across the landscape, as may be indicated by modern nomads like the Saami reindeer herders of Lapland, who retell the names of old landmarks during migrations and shorter excursions (Anderson 1985, 529). But to my knowledge the lore of landmarks finds no greater development than in early Irish tradition. We cannot turn a page without seeing a reference to a place-name and how the feature came to be named.
Landmarks appear in many places in the saga literature. In The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, a road is mentioned as a boundary (Cross and Slover 1969*, 101). In TBC we note a pillar-stone on a boundary (TBC-II 207); Cú Chulainn is shown slaying a warrior who is standing on a mound (TBC-I, 150; TBC-II, 172); mounds and stones are associated with Cú Chulainn's earliest defining deed, the day he had to slay Culann's hound and take its place as a guardian (TBC-I, 142; TBC-II, 162; a hound is a guardian creature, as are warriors: McCone equates the two [1984, 10]). Early Irish tradition as a whole associates guardianship and single combat (itself often a defensive behavior to stall invaders, among other
* I will cite Tom Pete Cross's and Clark Harris Slover's popular edition of Irish translations, Ancient Irish Tales (1969 rpt/1936; revised by Charles Dunn, who added a bibliography that shows the tales' relation to the original Irish texts). This edition is accessible and is itself a collection of tales translated by the recognized authorities in Irish studies. As Dunn writes, "In most cases, they [Cross and Slover] reworded or modernized or even corrected the earlier translations which they were using" (p. 601).
functions). Additionally, stones, man-made features, and natural features such as rivers were boundary markers in Ireland, delimited in commentary on an ancient law tract (O'Riain 1972, 17). The traditional connection between borders, warriors, and some of the saga themes is apparent since many of the battles in TBC occur near rivers, hills, large stones, etc., all of which are traditional boundary zones, according to O'Riain.
If Cú Chulainn's 'Boyhood Deeds' (an episode of TBC, possibly once a separate saga) is a trustworthy indicator, then instruction in pertinent place-lore may have formed part of the initiation rite of a warrior or of some other stage of a youth's training. When young Cú Chulainn rides in Conchobor's chariot after taking his first arms, the charioteer instructs the boy after bringing him to the border. They go to a summit of a hill to see the sights (to which even the modern countryperson may take a foreign visitor — a kind of initiate? — to be instructed in place-lore, as I discovered during 1980 and 1988 fieldwork in central Ireland):
Asbert in t-ara fri Coin Chulaind ara n-urthaitís do Emain co társitís ól and.
'"Acc," ol Cú Chulaind. "Ced slíab inso thall?" ol Cú Chulaind.
'"Slíab Monduir[n]d," ol in t-ara.
'"Tiagam co rísam," ol Cú Chulaind.
'"Tíagait íarum co rráncatár. Iar riachtain dóib in tslébe, imchomarcair Cú Chulaind íarom:
'"Cia carnd ngel inso thall i n-úachtor in tslébe."
'"Findcharnd," ol in t-ara.
'"Ced mag aní thall?" ol Cú chulaind.
'"Mag mBreg," ol in t-ara.
'Adfet dó dano ainm cech prímdúne eter Themair 7 Cenandas. Adfer dó chétamus a n-íathu 7 a n-áthu, a n-airdirci 7 a treba, a ndúne 7 a n-arddindgnu.
(TBC-I, 22; lines 689-702)
The charioteer told Cú Chulainn that they should go to Emain to be in time for the feasting there.
'"No" said Cú Chulainn. "What mountain is that over there?"
'"Slíab Monduirnd," said the charioteer.
'"Let us go to it," said Cú Chulainn.
'Then they went to it, and when they had reached the mountain, Cú Chulainn asked:
'"What white cairn is that over over there on the mountain-top?"
'"Finncharn," said the charioteer.
'"What plain is that yonder?" asked Cú Chulainn.
'"Mag mBreg," said the charioteer.
'So he told him the name of every chief fort between Temair and Cennannas. He named, moreover, their meadowlands and their fords, their renowned places and their dwellings, their forts and their fortified heights. (TBC-I, 144)
"Maith and, a Ibair," ar in mac bec, "tecoisc-siu dam-sa Ulaid ar cach leth dáig ním eólach-sa i crích mo phopa Conchobuir etir." Tecoiscis in gilla dó Ulaid ar cach leth úad. Tecoiscis dó cnuicc 7 céti 7 tulcha in chóiced ar cach leth. Tecoscis do maigi 7 dúne dindgnai in chóicid. (TBC-II, 29; l. 1051-1055)
"Well now, Ibar," said the boy, "teach me (all the places of) Ulster on every side for I do not know my way at all about the territory of Conchobor." The driver pointed out to him all the places of Ulster all around him. He told him the names of the hills and plains and mounds of the province on every side. He pointed out the plains and strongholds and renowned places of the province. (TBC-II 167).
Note how specific is this catalogue of places; proper names, topographical points, monuments, and places at which history ("renowned places") is connected to locale. These specific concerns suggest how important place-lore was in everyday life. Note also that the earliest recension is the more specific.
Often a place-lore episode supplies a short story of the feature's history. One citation suffices to exemplify many of these instances:
Iar sin tra foídis Medb cét fer día sainmuintir do guin Con Culaind. Nos geogain-seom uli íarom for Ath Chéit Chúile.
Is and asbert Medb:
'Is cuillend dúnd ém guin ar muintire.'
Is de atá Glaiss Chráu 7 Cuillend Cind Dúin 7 Ath Céit Chúle. (TBC-I, 63; l. 2067-2071)
Then Medb sent out a hundred men of her household to kill Cú Chulainn but he slew them all at Ath Chéit Chúile.
Whereupon Medb said:
'Indeed we deem it a crime that our people should be slain!'
Whence the place-names Glais Chró [river of gore] and Cuillenn Cind Dúin [holly-wood of the crime of the people? Liberally: forest of the crime against the people?] and Ath Céit Chúle [ford of the meeting place/deeds of the back/rear?; liberally: 'ford of the attack from the rear?]. (TBC-I, 182)
And sain fáitte Medb in cét láech i n-óenfecht do fúapairt Con Culaind. Basrópart Cú Chulaind siat uili co torchratar leiss. 'Is cuillend dúin guin ar muntiri samlaid,' ar Medb. 'Níp sé sút a chétchuillend dúin ind fir chétna,' bar Ailill. Cnid Cuillend Cind Dúni comainm béus ind inaid i mbátar ó sin & conid Áth Cró ainm ind átha fors mbátar. Dethbir ara méit dá crú 7 dá fuil dochúaid fo sruthair na haband.
(TBC-II, 57-58; l. 2114-2120)
Then Medb sent a hundred men together to assail Cú Chulainn. Cú Chulainn attacked them all and they fell by his hand. 'It is a hateful thing for us that our people should be slaughtered thus,' said Medb. 'That was not the first hateful thing that came to us from that man,' said Ailill. Hence Cuillend Cind Dune is still the name of the place where they were then, and Ath Cró is the name of the ford by which they were, and rightly so because of the great amount of their blood and gore which flowed with the current of the river (TBC-II, 197).
Such place-lore was a helpful device for defining the territorial markers, perhaps because the action that explains the place-name is often unusual and gory like the example above, making the association of place and narrative memorable. Also, each place has its own explanation, which aids recollection.* In another example Cú Chulainn uses his sling stone to kill Medb's small hound (TBC-I, 149; not in TBC-II). Gore running in rivers and super-heroes killing innocent puppies may offend modern tastes, but these interludes in the narrative may have been ways to help the audience remember them and, in turn, memorize place-lore to form a mental map of territory. Gory and ludicrous tales are noticeable above much of the other ordinary information that arises in a story and can be more easily ingrained into the individual and community memory. The communal nature of this body of information becomes evident when we realize that the stories were possibly part of an oral tradition that would have been spread widely by poets performing before audiences and traveling widely with their tales (unlike others, poets had rights outside of their home tribe and could travel safely
* However, in this traditional system, different regions might well have similar place-names and tale-types to explain them. For example, during fieldwork in Ireland I collected two different explanations and names for a dyke in Carrickaboy, Co. Cavan (Tarzia 1993). Another dyke in Northern Ireland shares one of the same names, "The Black Pig's Dyke," but with a different and possibly more ancient story attached (see F. Williams 1987).
between tribes [Kelly 1988, 46]). Thus in place-lore we see the generation and perpetuation of a mental-map of landmarks.
A place-lore of territorial landmarks would have been important to all members of the society, not just to the warrior class. In a semipastoral culture that was mostly nonliterate, everyone would have needed to know when they were passing near a rival's territory, within or without the tribe — this is an important concern for people herding their cattle in distant pastures, away from the safety of protected farmsteads, forts, and friends. In nonliterate society there are no 'private property' signs except for generic markers such as cairns, trees, and hills! These markers must be defined as border signs by fabulous and memorable stories.
In closing this subject I might cite a reverse example from a later part of Irish history. When seasonal pastoralism was altered to a more sedentary farming life by social changes begun by English occupation, place-lore became far less important to people who did not move so much across the landscape, as is suggested by the relatively low occurrence of place-lore in more recent folktales. The laws and law-enforcement of a state-level government reduce the legal and physcial penalties for trespassing. Also, the circumscription of legally noted (and, one might add, scientifically surveyed) boundaries, and the more sedentary settlement pattern of the modern Irish farmer, reduce the need for a widely known, land-defining place-lore.
Place-name lore can be thought of as the beginning of border ritual. In a preliterate society, only when the key places are delineated in broadly accepted tradition can there be a mental map of territory and the capability for disputes about transgressions. Then the named places become border demarcators that can be honored or ignored. TBC is indeed a tale of rules and transgressions, both of land and ritual. Medb sets the tone for the destruction of society's rituals in this saga; apparently she purposely insults Ulster's territorial integrity and ignores traditional borders by having her army cross a mountain at Bernas Bó Cúailnge rather than go by another route:
Ba ferr la suidi techt tar slíab ara marad a slicht and co bráth ar sár for Ultu" (TBC-I, 32; l. 1008-1009)
She preferred that they should go across the mountain so that the track they made might remain there for ever as an insult to the men of Ulster. (TBC-I, 153).