Chapter 5 rituals of conflict reduction in táin bó

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Single Combat as Ritual Defense
One of the most interesting features of TBC is the fact that one man's insistence on single combat causes such concern and scheming in the ranks of the invaders. At first, the invading Connachtmen follow the boundaries, that is, the rivers, until they find the fords through which they can cross. Their progress is slowed because Cú Chulainn makes stipulations, in the spancel challenge and similar challenges, that must be (should be!) honored before the invaders can move forward. Remember that the entire defending army of Ulstermen is suffering from magically-induced birth pangs from an old, yearly curse explained in another tale in the cycle — the invaders are not slowed down because they fear the Ulstermen are close behind Cú Chulainn's heels. Nevertheless they obey the injunctions inherent in the ritual and choose to camp beyond the defender's border. Later, Medb (Ailill seems more patient and honorable) loses patience and tries to ambush Cú Chulainn against the rules of fair war; at one point she also makes extravagant promises to the warrior Fer Diad (who was once Cú Chulainn's foster-brother) to convince him to fight the defender. When the rules of fair play in the single combat are broken either too frequently or too blatantly, the invader is depicted as incurring supernatural retribution through Cú Chulainn's super-heroic attacks. The saga leads us to believe that the idea of single combat was important to this society.*

Indeed, the warfare that does occur is not overly destructive for much of the story — Cú Chulainn engages in a series of single-combats to delay the invader, until the rules of fair play have been broken too many times, and only then does he snap and reply with mass destruction, as I discuss later. The story says, in effect, that defense is possible because the lone defender is armed with potent social rules, or rituals, that limit tribal warfare. Single combats are part of a complex ritual, involving various stages of conflict (including verbal duelling, attested historically and in the Irish sagas [Ross 1970, 64-65], to be discussed later).

Single combat at borders may have been a rite of passage** for young warriors, a possibility suggested in The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn, in which 'untested youth' is the theme. In one episode, Cú Chulainn's charioteer explains to a potential foe that Cú Chulainn is:

* Single combats, including ford combats, are also seen in medieval Welsh literature (Ross 1970, 63-64); thus, the pattern may be pan-Celtic.

** Similarly, Evans-Pritchard saw Nuer youths "look forward to the day when they will be able to accompany their elders on these raids against the Dinka, and as soon as youths have been initiated into manhood, they begin to plan an attack to enrich themselves [with captured cattle] and to establish their reputations as warriors." (Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 126)
--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

'Mac bec dochóid indiu ar esclu hi carpat...'" (TBC-I, 23; l. 723)


'A little lad who has come on an expedition in a chariot today...'" (TBC-I, 145)

--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

'Máethmaccaem congab armu lind...Tánic co hor cocríchi do thasselbad a delba.' (TBC-II, 30; l. 1087-1089)


'A youthful lad of ours who took up arms... He came to the edge of the marches to display his form.' (TBC-II, 168)

Single combat may also have been a ritual obligation for the honorable warrior in general in early Irish society: when Cú Chulainn sees the left board of a chariot turned against him (a traditional challenge), he says that this is an obligation (fíach) to be met (Greene 1979, 15).

Duelling is related to single combat (besides by the obvious man-to man nature of the fight) since both combats are used in divination. The law tracts include duelling as a form of legal arbitration. This falls under the category of trial by ordeal: "Another type of ordeal recognized in early Irish law is the formal duel (róe). Justice is believed to be on the side of the victor: Audacht Morainn (Recension A) advises 'do not undertake a duel in falsehood, for there has not been found and there will not be found a truer judge than a duel.'" (Kelly 1988, 211). Duels had to be fought according to rules of place and time — for example, duels could not be fought on church land, at a king's fort, or on the green of a poet or hospitaller (ibid, 212); thus a duel seems to have been ritualized rather like a single combat as shown in the sagas, which took place usually at borders and according to the rules of fair play. Although a duel is not necessarily a single combat pitting champions of one tribe against the other (although for tribes linked by treaties and bound to honor traditional laws with each other, it could well be), this law indicates the possible religious superstition behind formalized single combats. Possibly a similar background of superstitious belief contributed to the ritual of single combats between tribes at borderlands.

The use of the single-combat ritual is summarized in The Boyhood Deeds, where Ibar, who is young Cú Chulainn's charioteer during the boy's first day out in warrior equipment, brings the boy around Ulster's border:
--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

Tecat di sudiu co Slíab Fúait. Forreccat Conall Cernach and. Do Chonall dano dorala imdegail in chóicid a llá sin, fo bíth no bíid cach láth gaile do Ultaib a láa hi Sléib Fúait fri snádud neich dothíssad co n-airchetul nó do chomroc fri fer, combad and sin condrístá fris arná téised nech dochum nEmna cen rathugud.

(TBC-I, 21; l. 666-670)


Thence they came to Slíab [slíab = 'mountain'] Fúait where they found Conall Cernach. It had fallen to Conall to guard the province that day. For each warrior of the Ulstermen spent a day in turn in Slíab Fúait, to protect anyone who came that way with poetry or with challenge to battle, so that there he might be encountered and so that no one should go unnoticed into Emain. (TBC-I, 143-144)
--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

(In the Recension II variant of this episode, Cú Chulainn asks Ibar whether he knows why a certain ford is named Ath na Foraire, 'Ford of the Guard':)

"Rafetar-sa omm," bar Ibar. "Dargláech de Ultaib bís ic foraire 7 ic forcomét and arná tíset óic echtranna i nUltu do fúacra comraic forru, corop é in láech [sin] conairr comrac dar cend in chóicid uli. Dá ndig dano áes dána fo dímaig a Ultaib 7 assin chóiciud, corop é conairr séta 7 máine dar cend aenig in chóicid dóib. Dá tí dano áes dána 'sin crich, corop é in fer [sin] bas chommairge dóib co rrosset colbo Conchobuir, corop siat a dúana-sain 7 a dréchta gabtair ar tús i nEmain ar ríchtain."

(TBC-II, 27; l. 995-1003)


"I do indeed," said Ibar. "A goodly warrior of the Ulstermen is always there, keeping watch and ward so that no warriors or strangers come to Ulster to challenge them to battle and that he may be the champion to give battle on behalf of the whole province. And if poets leave the Ulstermen and the province unsatisfied, that he may be the one to give them treasures and valuables for the honor of the province. If poets come into the land, that he may be the man who will be their surety until they reach Conchobor's couch and that their poems and songs may be the first to be recited in Emain on their arrival."

(TBC-II, 165)
These explanations emphasize not only the defensive importance of the border warrior representing his tribal group but also his other ritualistic obligations in making the border a buffer regulating contact between tribes, as O'Riain (1972) has written.

Note how much the border guard's duties described above are focussed on the greeting of a poet. Indeed, we should consider the office of the poet as one of the border institutions. They were a kind of social glue because poets of different túatha communicated with each other by travelling — unlike others, poets had rights outside of their home tribe (Kelly 1988, 46). Perhaps these travelling poets are responsible for another border mechanism — place-lore — and spread the traditional place-lore, ensuring that the lore became traditional: that is, became shared so that the various territories might be divided by relatively well-recognized borders.

Beyond the utility of single combat in proving prowess, confirming warrior status, and expressing the general ritual obligations of border wardens, single combat could effectively draw strength from the parties of invaders, and therein may lie the deeper reason behind the emphasis of the idea. This feature of the ritual is possible because of the chiefdom level of social relationships in the society, in which followers are required to remain loyal only to their own patron and not any others of his or even higher rank. For example, champions are probably drawn from the ranks of the nobility, the people trained in war. Nobles are also lords in their own right, having clients beholden to them. In the Irish type of the chiefdom, clients are obligated to attend military hostings that their immediate lord requires, but are not required to follow the commands of their lord's peers or their lord's own lord (Binchy 1970, 31). Thus to delay one champion is also to delay his followers, who probably will politely refuse to go where their lord cannot or will not. This is the main feature of Irish society that made ritualized single combats an effective tactic in slowing warfare. (See Note 3.) Ritual mediates materialistic imperatives.

Finally, even if those not participating in the single combat (as either challenger or follower of the challenger) are free to move on, they simply may not have wanted to, since to go forward into enemy territory with depleted forces might be foolhardy; and the prospects of watching a good fight may have been ample payment for delaying the raid. Thus, when Cú Chulainn is to fight Fer Diad, Cú Chulainn's charioteer remarks:

'Is amlaid doraga Fer Diad dot indsaigid-so fo núamaisi figi 7 ber[r]tha 7 foilc[th]i 7 fothraicthi, 7 ceithre cóicid hÉrenn lais do fégad in chomlaind.' (TBC-I, 85; l. 2809-2810)


"Fer Diad will come against you freshly beautified, washed and bathed, with hair plaited and beard shorn, and the four provinces of Ireland will come with him to watch the fight."

(TBC-I, 201; not in TBC-II)

We must not underestimate this drain of strength. One champion and his followers may well have constituted a sizable percentage of a raiding party in many instances. To illustrate this idea, consider the the likely size of armies in this early period.

Despite the apparent magnitude of armies in the sagas (the composers would have us believe that thousands of warriors were involved), the actual figures may not have been too high in these localized conflicts in a country with low population density. We surely must take such numbers of warriors as either heroic exaggeration or our misinterpretation: thus an army of 3,000 (the tricha cét ['thirty-hundred'] in the saga) could have meant the able-bodied males of proper age and status that a tribe of the ideal population number of 3,000 would ideally be able to muster. As Byrne (1971, 159) writes, "...3,000 was probably the conventional estimate of a túath's total population, and the term was applied secondarily to its sluagad or 'rising out' [for an army]. The conventional estimate of the latter seems to have been the more realistic number of 700..." Indeed, the law tract Críth Gablach recognizes a rí buiden 'king of troops' whose measure is secht cét 'seven hundred' (ibid).

Warfare in chiefdoms is often a limited affair. To provide an ethnographic analogy, wars observed in highland New Guinea rarely lasted longer than two or three days and "concentrated little energy," with intervening periods of peace of much greater duration (Fried 1967, 179). Discipline was poor, so poor that armies did not provide for a succession of a commander when their leader fell; thus some armies withdrew near the moment of victory if their leader fell (Fried 1967, 182), an event reminding of Irish practice before the 'practical' (as opposed to ritual) Viking wars.

In Europe and the western isles, it was only in later medieval times that different economies and political systems made possible the levying of thousands of soldiers, and even these occasions were probably major events of great drain on the involved nations. For example, only after changes in Europe's economic structure through the eleventh through thirteenth centuries were French lords able to hire soldiers (besides using their perhaps unreliable vassals) to conduct lengthy sieges against recalcitrant vassals, although this was considered to be an expensive matter until the thirteenth century (Painter, 1951, 15-17). English armies were also relatively small until the late Middle Ages:

...When he [King John] invaded Ireland in 1210, he seems to have led about 1,200 knights and probably half as many crossbowmen. At the battle of Lincoln in 1217, one side had 400 knights and 300 crossbowmen while the other had 600 knights and some 1,000 miscellaneous infantry. By the latter part of the thirteenth century the English kings were using infantry drafted from the shires, and armies grew rather larger. Edward I seems to have had at times as many as 15,000 infantry and 3,000 horsemen (ibid, 132).
As a general measure of the size of early raiding parties, consider a find from Denmark of about A.D. 200. Danish archaeologists have recovered what may have been sacrificed war booty, a hoard of roughly 150 sets of spears and shields, with some swords and horse trappings, which suggests the number of the army (Jensen 1982, 263). It is impossible to say whether this number should be considered a small, average, or large war party, or even whether the depositions are entirely of the vanquished. Notably, this number of participants echoes with the traditional formula "three fifties" often used in the Irish saga as the number of men in a raid (for example, see TBC-I, 214, 215, and 219, and TBC-II, 241, although TBC-II may sometimes use more inflated terms such as "thirty hundred" [see p. 249] where TBC-I uses the 'three fifties' motif). Still more interesting is the hosting of Ulster warriors toward the end of TBC, where the individual names and sometimes territories of arriving warriors are recorded; in TBC-I, I count 130 individuals (p. 218), and in TBC-II, 123 (pp. 247-249). Despite other parts of TBC in which hundreds or thousands are said to fight, this episode may reflect a realistic number of high-status warriors and their followers that a tribe could expect to muster during a major hosting.

A historical chronicle from Ireland, The Annals of the Four Masters, does record yearly death tolls of famous men (including chiefs, nobles, abbots, and the occasional scribe!) and can offer some insight into the magnitude of warfare. The record notes whether deaths result from wars, murders, and, presumably, natural causes (the chronicles usually state when deaths are from battle or murder, and otherwise simply records the death with no description of cause). The chronicle begins with the seventh century and ends at the seventeenth. Generally, the death notices seem to become more detailed through time, although clearly the chroniclers had little interest in the death tolls of the lords' followers. I have extracted and summarized some sample information from the early period; I confined citations only to deaths stated to have been caused in a battle (all citations are from O'Donovan 1966):

entry for 646 A.D.: Aenghus son of Domhnall and Cathasach son of Domhnall Breac slain at the battle of Dun-Crimthainn (p. 263);
649: Marcan son of Toimen, chief of Ui-Maine slain at the battle of Airther-Seola (265);
650: Cumascach son of Suibhne chief of Cinel-Eoghain slain at the battle of Fleascach (ibid);
660: Conaing so of Conall, Ulltan son Ernaine chief of Cianachta, Ceannfaeladh son of Geirtidi chief of Cianachta, and Faelchu son of Maelumha slain at the battle of Ogamhain (271);
718: Fearghal son of Maelduin and 21 "chieftains and leaders of Leath-Chuinn" fell at the battle of Almhain (the chronicle lists their names, five of whom are called chiefs and 10 being called simply "of the race of Maelfithrigh," plus 160 "of Fearghal's satellites, and numbers of others, were slain besides these nobles" (317-319); The latter deaths were "the losses of the chieftains and leaders of the North" (meaning, of Connacht). Losses from the "South" (Leinster) include nine men, none of whom are called chiefs (317).
[Curiously, this entry notes that the "race of Conn" brought 21,000 men to the fight, and the Leinstermen brought 9,000 (ibid, 317); 7,000 were said to have fallen in the battle (p. 319). It is curious that Fearghal's "satellites, and numbers of others" slain "besides these nobles" should number 160! Who accounted for the remainder of the thousands of fallen? Since this battle became legendary, perhaps the figures come from the sagas (Tymoczko, personal communication 1992). Clearly, the chronicle exaggerates, and the number 160 better fits the size of early medieval armies.]
719: Fogartach son of Niall slain at the battle of Delgean (319);
833: a battle won against the Danes is recorded in which "many were slain" (449);
834: Feidhlimidh son of Crimhthann king of Caiseal defeated (but not slain?) by Cathal son of Aillil in which "many were slain" (451);
876: Bolgodhar son of Maelceir slain at Fulachta; a second entry either continues on this battle or records a second battle at Fulachta in which the South Leinstermen were slaughtered, with Dunog son of Anmchadh and Dubhthoirthrigh son of Maelduin died "together with two hundred men, [who were cut off] by slaying and drowning; Flannabhra lord of Gabhra and "many others along with him" were slain at Inneoin (523);
900: one-hundred-ten people "among whom was Techtegan, son of Uamnachan, lord of Eili, and many others [of distinction]," were slain by the Osraighi (561).
This sample of entries suggests the range of death records in the annals. Often only the chief's death in battle is noted; sometimes the deaths of nobles and "others" — presumably their clients — are noted. Importantly, mass deaths numbering in the low hundreds (ignoring the uncommon claim of thousands of fallen men as exaggeration bordering on fantasy, a motif that occurs only in the legendary battle, as I have said above) are occasionally noted and seem to compare well with the small sizes of early medieval armies.

Above, I suggested that an ideal hosting of males old enough and healthy enough to fight amounts to 700 warriors. This is a reasonably small army, one that might give rise to the casualties noted in the annals and observed in the Danish archaeological site discussed above. Be that as it may, we cannot expect that all of the families from whom this number can be culled will agree to go on a raid or even be needed on a raid, given the complex politics of kinship and alliance in a chiefdom. Additionally, mustering this many people at the same time or for a very long time would be difficult, given the logistical difficulties of travel and transport in early medieval times. If we posit that only the joint family (fine) is involved in the more localized raids, suggesting a group number of 100 for convenience, then only 25 war-ready adult males are available (using the about same ratio of males able to fight as used for the tribal example, above). Thus, in both a tribal or a family raid as I have posited here, the defeat of just one champion with a few followers ties up a large percentage of a raid if he engages in single combat at a ford; note, however, that battles traditionally ended with the death of one tribe's king (Binchy 1970, 17), reminding us of tribal wars in New Guinea cited above, in which armies withdrew when their leader fell, since no provision for succession had been made (Fried 1967, 182). If a similar pattern held true for local Irish champions — heads of fine at war or nobles defending local turf — then their fall might have suddenly and effectively stopped a raid. From these effects subtract other losses of support involving sprained ankles, internal squabbles, sickness from bad food or exposure, and war-related injuries. To illustrate this latter possibility, we can observe a good ethnographic analogy with the Maring people of New Guinea: when a group goes to war with its allies, the allies become restless and go home if the war drags on too long (M. Harris 1974, 64). Finally, any delay in advance also helps deplete the invaders' food supply and keeps them exposed to the elements (the composer of the epic describes at one point the invaders suffering during bad weather; see TBC-I, 133; TBC-II, 151-152) The effectiveness of this seemingly odd ritual and its rules now becomes clearer.

The sagas do not mention any reliable numbers involved in raiding parties, but Aided Con Culainn ('The Death of Cú Chulainn') does mention the strategic penalty of the single combat ritual. In this example, the ritual is depicted as a fearful option, from the point of view of the invaders plotting Cú Chulainn's death. Their scheme seeks to avoid his fury so that he will not "...ask for single combat with you as he did on the raid for Cúailnge's cows" (Tymoczko 1981, 55). Evidently his adversaries fear the stalling ways of this ritual, perhaps fearing the constraining rules it would place upon their attack. This kind of desperation is reflected in the explanation for the ambush of Oengus mac Oenlaime in the Táin:
--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

Ocus asberat ind eólaig im[mus]neblaid ríam remáin co tíastais fo chlaideb oc Emain Macha acht bid ar galaib óenfir conrístá friss. Brisit fír fer fair íarom 7 ra mbeótar i n-écomlond.

(TBC-I, 76; l. 2492-2494)


Learned men say that he would have driven them on before him to be put to the sword at Emain Macha if only they [the invaders of Cúailnge] had encountered him in single combat. But they did not grant him fair play. They killed him as he fought against odds. (TBC-I, 193)
--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

Iss ed marímat eólaig dámmad ar agalib óenfir dos-fístá Oengus mac Oenlaime Gaibe ar co táetsaitis leis riam remáin reme ar galaib óenfir. Ní hed ón dogníset-som itir acht dogníth cathetarnaid imme bar cach leth go torchair accu ac Ath Da Fert i Sléib Fúait. (TBC-II, 67; l. 2442-2446)


Learned men say that that if they [the invaders of Cúailnge] had come to Oengus in single combat, they would have fallen by his hand. However that is not what they did, but an ambush was around him on every side, and he fell by them at Ath da Fhert ['Ford of the Burial Mound'] on Slíab Fúait. (TBC-II, 206)

In another instance, after Cú Chulainn has slain Fer Diad, his charioteer warns him:
'Maith, a Chúcúc,' bar Láeg, 'comérig badesta 7 daroisset fir Hérend dar saigid 7 níba cumland óenfir démait dúinn á darochair Fer Diad mac Dámain meic Dáre lat-su.'

(TBC-II, 93; l. 3381-3383)


'"Come, little hound," said Laeg, "arise now for the men of Ireland will come to attack us and it will not be single combat that they will grant us since Fer Diad mac Damáin has fallen at your hands"' (TBC-II, 229). (No similar statement in TBC-I)

A picture emerges about this ritual: single combat aids the defender but must be granted by the attacker; the attacker seems constrained to give single combat, since to refuse would potentially cause him to lose honor. Yet, the invaders have everything to lose, in a short-term strategic sense, unless they have arrived with depleted forces and wish to delay warfare until reinforcements arrive, or if 'lawless' warfare will not further their ends (in the long term, the attackers benefit from reduced causalities if the defenders cannot muster additional forces or if they fight poorly). For example, Medb asks Cú Chulainn to cease his very successful sling-stoning of her forces; this is warfare from a distance, impersonal and destructive, and so she, in effect, pleads for less destructive combat, which Cú Chulainn grants eventually (TBC-I, 158; TBC-II, 181). (His terms for the cessation of his destructive tactics are the terms for combat that I discuss below.)

Equalizing terms seem to be granted, even by a force in an advantageous position, because everybody has his much-coveted honor at stake. Honor is everything because it is a social 'currency' in such societies. To lose honor is not merely to lose someone's good opinion but means ostracism. Ostracism eventually destroys an individual's carefully cultivated relationships and, in turn, his or her material needs (in so far that social obligations form the network that allows the individual to satisfy basic needs such as food-getting). Thus single combat ritual is based upon the good graces of the enemy, but the enemy's honor and long-term livelihood is based upon his own good graces. Such a situation is possible in a chiefdom, a society in which absolute power resting in one person or institution does not exist; instead, power is gained through a mixture of persuasion, reputation, agricultural or material wealth, and prowess. Some social relationships would have been based on advantageous deals rather than master-and-slave dictations, as I discussed in Chapter 3. A ruined reputation thus would have meant a drifting away of one's clients to a lord of better reputation.

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