...dámbad áil dóib, bacóistis eter in Glassi 7 in slíab acht ní arlacair Medb, acht in slíab do chlaidi 7 do letrad rempi combad ail 7 combad athis for Ultaib...
(TBC-II, 37; l. 1366-1371)
If they wished, they could have gone between the Glaise and the mountain, but Medb did not permit it but (ordered them) to dig and hack a path for her through the mountain, so that it might be a reproach and disgrace to the Ulstermen.
Medb's action has, in effect, ignored the primacy of place-lore because as she hacks her own path, she creates her own place-name (Bernas Bó Cúailnge being the place where she hacked her way through the border), a blatant insult to accepted tradition as well as tribal politics. Early in the invasion, Medb's untraditional and pragmatic personality sets the tone for her kind of war. Perhaps an all-encompassing theme of TBC is to contrast the acceptable tradition of conduct and the unacceptable approach of an individualist
such as Medb.
The Ritual of Warfare
Place-lore and its role in defining tribal territory lead to the way in which those borders were protected: once you know where you are, you must use that knowledge. A significant part of the Táin concerns the actions that were required to hold the borders against invaders or the campaign you must mount if you wish to violate them. While we need not believe that the society depicted in the stories is an exact picture of early Irish life, we can see the tales as society's ideals, which would have been on the minds of the people as they left the story-teller's presence to go on to real-life situations.
In TBC, Cú Chulainn, a boy of seventeen years, defends Ulster single-handedly against an entire army. We might be tempted to say that the fellow is a mythically defined warrior in a warrior's fantasy. I do not think this idea is useful. Certainly the hero performs amazing feats, and, yes, the supernatural plays a large part in the stories — saga heroes must be given their full rights. Yet, Binchy (1970, 17) has commented about the ritual that characterized warfare and the importance placed on individuals in the battle:
There is ... a remarkable convention, doubtless of great antiquity, that when the king has been slain the battle is lost, no matter how advantageous the position in which he has left his army--exactly as in a game of chess. Indeed the whole pattern of tribal warfare is rather like a ritual game, and in later times the utter disregard of its rules by the Norse invaders, who insisted on continuing the battle after their leader had perished, shocked and dismayed the native chroniclers.
Perhaps something of this ritual paradigm is seen in the tradition where Cú Chulainn impedes an entire army more with the rules of ritualized war than with mythical prowess. The ritual begins with the spancel ritual, which is essentially a legal warning, a 'keep out' or 'no trespassing' symbol. From there the setting of terms and then single combat completes the ritualized attempt to avoid mass warfare. This is an approximate sequence that is duplicated occasionally before the final step: the breaking of these rules is repaid (in the tales) with mass slaughter, a pattern that is splendidly realized (although in a late insertion into the textual tradition) with the medieval equivalent of a doomsday machine.
Hobbling Armies with the Spancel Ritual
The dedicated reader (or listener) of the Táin knows the first part of the ritual, which comes even before single combat — the ritual of the spancel ring. The ring is a hobbling device for animals; generally it can mean any such device, including a tether or a rope for restricting the legs of an animal (some Middle East nomads traditionally wear a braided hobble like a head-band around their head-pieces). The Irish sagas, however, imply that the spancel is made from a pliable, wooden withe that is bound or pegged into a circle. Cú Chulainn leaves a spancel ring at the ford for the invaders to find. This device is a sign that the defender will insist on ritualized combat. One may observe that the spancel ring is not seen where the defender is standing ready at the border. Thus the ring may be part of an 'honor system' in which the invader, seeing the spancel, understands that the defender cannot be at the ford; the honorable attacker must make some sign that a challenge is underway and then wait for the defender. In the following example, the Connachtmen, led by Fergus, an exile from Ulster, come to a ford at which Cú Chulainn has made a spancel ring carved with an ogam message, for the hero has an appointment elsewhere and cannot be at the ford to meet the invaders; part of his stipulation dares the invaders to make a similar ring, as if this action required some special skill or knowledge (ogam writing might be considered a special, even magical, skill in a predominantly nonliterate society):
Asbert Medb iar tiachtian:
'Cid frisin n-anaid and?'
'Anmai,' or Fergus, 'frisin n-id n-ucut. Atá ogam inna menuc, 7 iss ed fil and: "Ná tíagar secha co-n-étar fer ro láa id samlaid cona óenláim, 7 óenslat día tá, 7 friscuriur mo phopa Fergus." Fír,' ol Fergus, 'Cú Chulaind rod lá, 7 it é a eich geltatar in mag so.'
Ocus dambeir i lláim in druad, 7 cachain Fergus in láid so sís:
'Id inso, ced sloindnes dún?
Ind id cia fo tá a rún?
Cía lín ro lá insé,
inn úat[h]ed nó in sochaide?
In déne erchóit don [t]slúag
má docóiset ude n-úad?
Finnaid, a druíde, ní ar sin
cid frisi farcbad in t-id.'
In druí dixit:
'Crephnas churad caur rod lá
lánaingces for erreda,
astúd rurech ferg i ndá
óenfer co-n-óenláim ro lá.
'In nách diá réir slúag ind rig
inge má ro choilled fír
conid ro lá úaib nammá
óenfer amal fer ro lá.
Nocon fetur acht insin
ní frisi corthe in t-id.'
Id inso .c. s.
Asbert Fergus íarom friu:
'Má sáraigthe in n-id se,' ol sé, 'nó má thíastá secha, cia beith i lláim duni nó i taig fó glas, ricfe i dead ind fir ro scríb in n-ogum n-ind, 7 génaid-side guin dune díb ría mmatain mani láa nech úaib id samlaid.' (TBC-I, 9-10; l. 266-297)
When Medb arrived she asked:
'Why are you waiting here?'
'We are waiting,' said Fergus, 'because of yonder withe. There is on its peg an ogam inscription which reads: "Let none go past till there be found a man to throw a withe made of one branch as it is in the same way with one hand. But I except my friend Fergus." In truth,' said Fergus, 'it is Cú Chulainn who has cast it and it is his horses which grazed this plain.'
And he put the withe in the druid's hand and chanted this song:
'Here is a withe. What is its message for us? What is its secret meaning? And how many put it there? Was it few or many?
'Will it bring ruin on the army if they go past it? Find out, O ye druids, why the withe was left there.'
A druid answered:
'A hero cast it there, a swift cutting (?) of a hero, a source of perplexity to warriors, containment of chiefs with their followers. One man cast it there with one hand.
'Does not the king's army obey him unless they have broken faith? I know no reason why the withe was cast there save that one of you should cast a withe even as one man did.'
Then Fergus said to them:
'If ye flout this withe or if ye go past it, though it be a man's possession or in a locked house, it will go after the man who wrote the ogam inscription, and he will kill one of you before morning unless one of you cast a withe in like manner. (TBC-I, 132-133)
Táncatar mathi Hérend connici in corthi 7 gabsat oc fégad [na] ingelta ro geltsat na eich immon corthi 7 gabsat oc fégad ind idi barbarda forácaib in rígnia immun corthi. Ocus gebid Ailill in n-id inna láim 7 tuc i lláim Fergusa 7 airlégais Fergus in n-ainm n-oguim baí 'na menuc ind eda 7 innisis Fergus d'feraib Hérend inní ro chan in t-ainm oguim baí 'sin menuc. Ocus is amlaid ro gab icá innisin 7 doringni láid:
'...Mad dia tístai sécha innocht
can anad aice i llongphort,
dabarró in Cú cirres cach n-om;
táir foraib a sár[u]god.
'Co tabair irchóit don tslúag
mad dia mberthai uide úad;
finnaid, a druíde, and sain
cid imma ndernad in t-id.
'Crefnas curad cur ro lá,
lánaircess fri ecrata.
Costud ruirech, fer co ndáil,
ras cuir oenfer dá óenláim. ...'
Aithi na laide sin: 'Atbiur-sa mo bréthir frib,' ar Fergus, 'mad dia sárgid in n-id sin 7 in rígnía doringni can aidchi ndúnaid 7 longphuirt sund ná co nderna fer úaib id a mac samla sút ar óenchois 7 óensuil 7 óenlaim feib doringni-sium, cid airchind bes-sum fó thalmain nó i tig fó dúnud conáirgife guin 7 fuligud dúib ria tráth éirge immbárach diana sárgid.'
(TBC-II, 14-15; l. 471-507)
The nobles of Ireland came to the pillar stone and began to survey the grazing which the horses had made around the stone and gaze at the barbaric ring which the royal hero had left around the stone. And Ailill took the ring in his hand and gave it to Fergus and Fergus read out the ogam inscription that was on the peg of the ring and told the men of Ireland what the inscription meant. And as he began to tell them he made the lay:
"...If ye go past it tonight and do not stay in camp beside it, the Hound who mangles all flesh [Cú Chulainn] will come upon you. Shame to you if ye flout it.
If ye go on your way from it, it brings ruin on the host. Find out, O druids, why the ring was made.'
'It was the swift cutting (?) of a hero. A hero cast it. It is is a snare for enemies. One man — the sustainer of lords, a man of battle (?) — cast it there with one hand..."
After that lay Fergus said: 'I swear to you that if ye flout that ring and the royal hero who made it and do not spend a night here in encampment until one of you make a similar ring, standing on one foot and using one eye and one hand as he did, even though (that hero) be hidden underground or in a locked house, he will slay and wound you before the hour of rising on the morrow, if ye flout it.' (TBC-II, 150-151)
The use of the spancel hoop is wonderfully logical: a culture dealing every day with livestock would certainly be familiar with animal hobbles, and the spancel ring as an object to restrict the movement of cows becomes a symbol for restricted human movement.
Variations on the theme do exist. At the next ford Cú Chulainn cuts a forked pole from a tree and inscribes his ogam challenge on it, and leaves it in the middle of the ford to block passage ritually and physically (TBC-I, 134; TBC-II, 153). Fergus is the only man able to leap this hurdle in his chariot (TBC-I, 134; TBC-II, 155). The theme of the 'dare' is interesting. If the hero is not present to face a challenge, at least the invader must produce a champion to meet the 'challenge of the feat', as we might call it. Either way, the invaders must trust to the good fortune of having a suitable champion among them.
Public witnessing of this met-and-matched feat may also be a component of the ritual. The details of the feat — evidence of the single-cut that made the pole — must be observed and thus seem to be accorded the respect of divination. In TBC-I, Ailill marks the hero's feat; Cú Chulainn has decorated the pole with trophy heads:
'Is machtad,' ol Ailill, 'a thraite ro bíth in cethror.'
'Nápad ed bas machdad lat,' ol Fergus. 'Bad béim na gabla dia bun óenbeim, 7 mássu óenleód a bun, is crichidiu de, 7 a intádud in tucht sa, ol ní claide ro clas rempe 7 is a íathur carpait ro lád co n-óenláim.'
'Dingaib dind in n-ecin seo, a Fergus,' ol Medb.
'Tucaid carpat dam-sa trá,' ol Fergus, 'conda tuc-sa ass co ndercaiss inn óenleód a bun.'
Brissis Fergus íarom cethri carptiu déac día carptib combo assa charput fessin dosbert a talmain co n-aca ba hóenleód a bun. (TBC-I, 11-12; l. 346-355)
'It is marvellous,' said Ailill, 'how quickly the four were slain.'
'Do not think that marvellous,' said Fergus, 'but rather the cutting of the forked branch from its root with one blow, and if its end shows one cutting, it is the greater achievement, and (it is marvellous) that it should have been driven in this manner, for no hole was dug for it but it was cast from the back of a chariot with one hand.'
'Deliver us from this difficulty, Fergus,' said Medb.
'Give me a chariot then,' said Fergus, 'that I may pull the branch out so that it may be seen if its end shows one cutting.'
Then Fergus smashed fourteen of their chariots but from his own chariot he drew the forked branch out of the ground and he saw that its end was one cutting.' (TBC-I, 134)
(In TBC-II, Fergus hands Ailill the forked pole for his observation:)
'Crichiditi lim-sa in gabul,' ar Ailill, 'dáig is óentescad atchíu-sa bun barr furri.' (TBC-II, 19; l. 661-662);
'The fork seems all the more perfect to me,' said Ailill, 'in that it is a single cutting I see on it from top to bottom.'
The making of the pole is a feat, as is the throwing of it. Thus the two opponents, Cú Chulainn and Fergus, gain honor from this ritual contest.
The rule of the spancel ritual required the intruder to halt when he found a ring at a ford. The intruder might opt to stop there and avoid a conflict, as Ailill and Medb do at first (TBC-I, 133; TBC-II, 151); here, obeying the spancel ring is part of the honor system mentioned above (as when we honor a 'no trespassing' sign), rather than magic. And the consequences for not following the ritual are seen in this text: a destructive guerilla war, which we might see as being a war that affords no honor because of its impersonal nature.
Apparently the terms of the ritual in TBC are to last only a day, because the next day the invaders go to the next district (TBC-II, 152; in TBC-I, 133, Ailill agrees to go to the end of a forest and no farther). Then, evidently, they move on, because Cú Chulainn arrives late from this tryst and misses the army. Here we must decode a vaguely indicated series of events — the terms under which invaders can carry out their invasion. Although much space is devoted to decoding the spancel challenge and elucidating Cú Chulainn's intent, and Ailill even says he has no intention of flouting the hero, sending his army southward to encamp (TBC-II, 151; in TBC-I, as stated above, the army removes to a wood), in this instance, the text does not clarify whether the invaders skirt the border to the next ford or march straight through the border (against the rules?). The invaders indeed move ahead despite the spancel challenge, as we learn several lines later, when Cú Chulainn returns from a tryst:
'Ní má lodmar dó,' ol Cú Chulaind, 'ná mertamar Ultu. Ro léicsam slóg forru cen airfius...' (TBC-I, 10; l. 315-316).
'Would that we had not gone thither nor betrayed the men of Ulster,' cried Cú Chulainn. 'We have let the enemy host come upon them unawares. ...' (TBC-I, 133).
(In TBC-II, he laments that he has been remiss in his duties, because:)
'Lodatar fir Hérend sechund i crích nUlad.'
(TBC-II, 15; l. 535-536)
"The men of Ireland have gone past us into Ulster."
The rules pertaining to the movement of armies are vague. Later in the tale, Medb moves ahead with a third of the army and plunders the land, with Cú Chulainn following (TBC-I, 166; TBC-II, 187). The author summarizes several combats, although he does not say whether or not these combats are ambushes or single combats delaying Medb's progress. Then Cú Chulainn heads back south to protect his own land. During this time Cú Chulainn fights and kills a warrior named Buide; the author notes:
Sraithe din chertgaí co lluid i nderc a oxaille co mmebaid i ndé ind óe altarrach resin gaí.
Gontai sin fora áth. Is de atá Ath mBude.
Berair in tarb isin dúnad la sodain.
(TBC-I, 46-47; l. 1504-1507)
He [Cú Chulainn] cast a small spear at him and it went into his armpit, and his liver on the other side broke in two at the impact of the spear. Cú Chulainn killed him at his ford. Hence the place-name Ath mBuide [ford of Buide].
Thereupon the bull [the Donn of Cúailnge] was brought into the encampment.
Cian gar ro bátar forinn uropair sin ic clóechlod na dá chertgae, dáig ní fo chétóir conarnic úadib, rucad in Dond Cúalnge irrithur 7 i fúatach úadib dochum longphuirt uadib amal as dech berair mart longphuirt. Conid ésin méla 7 mertain 7 meraigecht is mó tucad for Coin Culaind forsin tslúagud sa. (TBC-II, 48; l. 1784-1788)
While they were thus engaged exchanging the two short spears — for not at once did they finish — the Donn Cúailnge [the great bull that is the goal of the invaders] was carried off hastily and forcibly from them to the encampment as any cow might be taken. That was the greatest reproach and grief and madness that was inflicted on Cú Chulainn in this hosting
Does this mean that Cú Chulainn, while engaged with a champion, can be bypassed by others who carry on the plundering? Fergus, at a later point, elucidates the rules of delay after yet another invader (Cúr mac Da Lóth) has fallen at the ford:
'Mánop gaib far nglinne,' ol sé, 'anaid sund co bárach.'
(TBC-I, 53; l. 1730)
'If your surety binds you,' said he [Fergus], 'stay here until tomorrow.'" (TBC-I, 173).
'Dán fargabat far cuir 7 far rátha ifechtsa,' bar Fergus, 'láech aile for áth dó sút, nó gabaid dúnad 7 longphort sund co solustráth n-éirge imbárach, dáig darochair Cúr mac Da Lóth.'
(TBC-II, 50: l. 1850-1852)
'If your securities and guarantees now bind you...send another warrior to meet yon man [Cú Chulainn] at the ford, or else remain here in your camp until the bright hour of sunrise tomorrow, for Cúr mac Da Lóth has fallen'" (TBC-II, 190).
The text teaches that borders must be marked and watchers should be left at crossing points. Additionally, these episodes suggest that armies can proceed while a champion meets a defender but must remain if no challenger to the defender comes forward. When the champion cannot be found, apparently the invader must, as a point of honor, remain encamped until sunrise, as Fergus says; in this case the ritual of spancel and single combat delays the crossing of borders for a day. I am inferring these rules from what seems to me common sense. The saga does not elaborate directly on these topics, perhaps because it assumes the audience is familiar with the rules. Certainly, persisting vagueness in these rules reminds us that the saga is not a textbook of ritual. The saga sometimes does seem like a legal textbook in which loop-holes in the laws are illustrated; for example, the ritual does not stop the army from splitting up and finding an undefended place to cross into enemy territory.
The spancel ritual offers some strategic advantage for the defender: 1) it may delay part or all of the invader's forces; 2) if the forces split up, one remaining at the stalled site, the other moving ahead, at least the invader is weakened by the division of force; 3) stalling the invader gives the defender time to send warnings and muster forces, if he wins the combat or if the invader fails to produce a champion.
When the defenders are nearby, the invader can challenge the travel ban. Cú Chulainn challenges a spancel ban during his boyhood deeds (the material symbol of the ban in Recension II being an iron ring rather than a wooden spancel). Here he is travelling with his charioteer, Ibar, past the border territory of Ulster:
Tíagait ass íarom 7 scorit a n-eochu oc commor mána 7 aba allandess úas dún a chéle. Ocus sréthe in n-id boí forsin corthe róut a láma isin n-abaind 7 léicthe la sruth dáig ba coll ng[e]isse do maccaib Nechta Scéne aní sin.
(TBC-I, 22; l. 710-713)
Then they set off, and they unyoked their horses at the confluence of a bog and a river, on the south above the fort of the sons of Nechta Scéne. And Cú Chulainn cast the withe that was on the pillar-stone as far as his arm could throw it out into the river and let it float downstream. This violated a tabu which bound the sons of Nechta Scéne who noticed what had been done and came towards them. (TBC-I, 145)
(Note how specific Recension I is; the fortress rests at the confluence of a bog and a river, which, as O'Riain [1972, 17] has shown us, are among the traditionally recognized features marking borders.)
Lotar rempo connice in dún & tarmlaing in mac assin charput forind faithche. Amlaid boí faithchi in dúnaid 7 corthi furri 7 id iarnaidi 'na thimciull 7 id niachais éside 7 ainm n-oguim 'na menoc. Ocus is é ainm boí and: Gipé tísed in faidche, diamba gascedach, geis fair ar thecht dind faidchi cen chomrac n-óenfir do fúacra. Airlégais in macc bec in n-ainm 7 tuc a dá rigid 'mun coirthi, mar boí in coirthi cona id. Tarlaic sin linnid co toracht tond taris. "Andar lind," ar Ibar, "ní ferr sin ná a bith i fail i rraba, & rofetamar fogéba forin faidchi se aní 'coa taí iarair don chur sa .i. airdena báis 7 éca 7 aideda."
(TBC-II, 29; l. 1068-1077)
'They went on to the stronghold and the boy leapt from the chariot on to the green. Thus was the green before the stronghold: there was pillar-stone on it and around the stone an iron ring, a ring of heroic deeds, with an ogam inscription on its peg. And thus ran the inscription: if any man came on that green and if he were a warrior bearing arms, it was tabu for him to leave the green without challenging to single combat. The little boy read out the inscription and put his two arms around the stone, that is, the stone and its ring, and he pitched it into the pool and the water closed over it. 'It seems to us,' said Ibar [Cú Chulainn's charioteer] 'that that is no better than that it should remain where it was, and we know that you will find what you are looking for now, namely, symptoms of death and dissolution.' (TBC-II, 167)
But Cú Chulainn does carry on with the contest and returns victorious to Ulster with all of the trophy heads dangling from his harness. Since this episode of TBC (The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn) was once a separate saga, and the challenge ritual appears here and in the body of TBC (with Cú Chulainn symmetrically appearing as both challenger and challenged), the motif may have been generic to the tradition and the ritual generic to the culture.
The spancel ring theme is a fulcrum in events at the border — it signals that a formal border is claimed for this area and that the traveller now must turn aside, challenge, or break the rules by moving ahead. These answers are unequivocal and clarify tribal intentions. Breaking the rules of ritual — passing into a defender's territory en masse — has strategic benefit to the invader in the short term, but a heavy price is attached as the defender gradually gains a home advantage and replies with guerilla warfare: destructive, wearying, and without honor.