Chapter 5 rituals of conflict reduction in táin bó

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The Setting of Terms
Whether broached by an individual or an army, borders were defended first with ritual. But ritual requires agreement upon general rules by the parties involved, and in TBC, the setting of terms to control warfare is frequent. At least one composer states this ideal directly: in Aided Finn ('The Death of Finn'), the composer says that battle with no terms is not good (Cross and Slover 1969, 431).* In TBC, Cú Chulainn proposes the following terms when Medb pleads for the cessation of Cú Chulainn's slinging, as reported to Ailill and Medb by Fergus:
--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

'Rafetar-sa,' or Fergus. 'Dam-sa ararocles in fer a foilsigud, 7 immorro ní less dúib-si. Ocus iss ed inso in choma,' or Fergus. '.i. áth forsi ngénathar a gléo 7 a chomrac fri óenfer arná ructhar ind éit de sin láa co n-aidchi dús in táir cobair Ulad fóo. Ocus machdad lim-sa,' ol Fergus, 'a fot co tecat-side assa cessaib.' (TBC-I, 40; l. 1280-1284)


These then are the terms: that for a day and a night the cattle shall not be taken away from the ford on which he shall fight in single combat, in the hope that help may come from the Ulstermen to him. (TBC-I, 160)

* During intra-tribal raiding, the Nuer of Africa also had terms to limit destruction among themselves; "women and children were not molested, huts and byres were not destroyed, and captives were not taken." (Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 121). Raids on other ethnic groups such as the Dinka were not so governed, however: older women and babies could be clubbed, homesteads burned, and captives taken (ibid, 128-129).
--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

'Oenfer do feraib Hérend do chomruc fris cach dia. I[n] fat bethir icá marbad ind fir sin. imthect do lécud don tslúag frissin. Mat thairc dano in fer sin do marbad, láech aile for áth dó-som nó nechtar de longphort 7 dúnad do gábail d'feraib Hérend and sin solustráth érge arna-bárach... '

(TBC-II, 42; l. 1550-1555)


That one man from the men of Ireland should fight him every day. While that man is being killed, the army to be permitted to continue their march. Then when he has killed that man, another warrior to be sent to him at the ford or else the men of Ireland to remain in camp until the bright hour of sunrise on the morrow. (TBC-II, 181)
TBC-I states most explicitly the advantages of single combat: the delay of plundering, the buying of time for help to arrive. TBC-II states the delaying action on challengers alone, the army being permitted to continue, unless a challenger is not found. What becomes of plundered cattle while the army moves on is unclear in TBC-II.

Medb had to make two offers of terms before Cú Chulainn would agree; the price he asks — the single combat ritual defined above — is heavy enough to have made Medb avoid offering it in the first place. In TBC-I, Ailill says:

--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

'Is assu ém dú fer cech laí andás a cét cach n-aidchi.'

(TBC-I, 40; l. 1285-1286)


"It is better for us lose one man every day than a hundred men every night [from Cú Chulainn's guerilla warfare]"(160).
--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

(In TBC-II, Ailill feels that the terms are grievous but here Medb uses Ailill's Recension I words:)

'...dáig ar bíth iss assu lind óenláech úaind cach laí dó-som oldás cét láech cach n-aidchi.' (TBC-II, 42; l. 1558-1559)


"It is better to lose one man every day than a hundred men every night " (TBC-II, 181).
In both Recensions, the deal with Cú Chulainn is sealed with sureties, using Fergus as a middle-man. I think Ailill's and Medb's statements are the tradition's best reason for the single combat ritual. Even if warriors of Cú Chulainn's legendary type are not historical realities, the hero is an effective symbol for the entire defensive community of a tribe, and the fear of losing men in mass warfare is an extension of every reasonable person's fear of warfare with no rules.

The ritual of single combat proceeds after terms are set. Among the first terms of the ritual seems to be the point of who approaches whom at the ford — it seems to be a point of honor, or even of law. As the ritual begins, the defender waits for challengers at the ford. In the first single combat in the Táin, after terms are first set, Etarcomal, a young warrior, challenges Cú Chulainn on the morrow, who replies:

'...gid moch thís, fogéba-su missi sund.'

(TBC-II, 44; l. 1622-1623)


'...however early you come, you will find me here'

(TBC-II, 183; no similar statement in the TBC-I, [161-163] version of the episode).
When Etarcomal decides to turn around and go back to the hero, Cú Chulainn is loath to fight him but rushes to the ford to be first there.
'Ní miad lim-sa diam túscu dó icond áth ná dam-sa.'

(TBC-II, 45; l. 1640-1641)


'I do not deem it honourable that he should reach the ford before me.' (TBC-II, 184; not in TBC-I).

Later in the saga, Cú Chulainn berates Fer Diad for reaching the ford ahead of him.
'...rapo chóru dam-sa fálti d'ferthain frit-siu ná dait-siu a ferthain rum-sa, dáig is tú daríacht in crích 7 in cóiced i tú-sa...'

(TBC-II, 81; l. 2931-2933)


' were fitter that I should welcome you rather than that you should welcome me, for it is you who have come to the country and province in which I dwell...' (TBC-II, 218; not in TBC-I).

The initiation of contact may be rife with status implications in human society generally. In Wolof society (an ethnic group in modern Senegal) this is true during ritual greetings, although in a sense reversed from the case of waiting at border posts in TBC; in the Wolof community, people seek to define their status by who initiates the greeting, the initiator being perceived as the one of lower status (Irvine 1989, 174-175).

As a final thought, I suggest that the setting of terms in combat may have extended to the actual scheduling of warfare. For example, when Ailill's and Medb's daughter, Finnabair, sees Rochad, her first love, among the Ulstermen, they say:

--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

'Má rodcarais didiu,' or Ailill 7 Medb, 'guid ossad dó co tí la Conc[h]obar don chath, 7 foí lais ambárach d'adaig.'

(TBC-I, 101; l. 3350-3351)


'If you have loved him,' said Ailill and Medb, 'crave a truce of until such time as he comes with Conchoboar to the great battle, and spend tomorrow night with him.' (TBC-I, 214).
--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

Má ra charais, a ingen, fáe leis dádaig 7 guid fossad dún fair dona slúagaib go tí chucaind do ló in mórchatha airm condricfat cethri ollchóicid Hérend for Gárig 7 Ilgárig i cath Tána Bó Cúalnge.' (TBC-II, 107; l. 3868-3870)


'If you loved him, my daughter, spend tonight with him and ask him for a truce for us with the host until he come to us on the day of the great battle where the four great provinces of Ireland will meet at Gaireach and Ilgairech at the battle of the Foray of Cúailnge.' (TBC-II, 242).

Medb and Ailill speak as if they know the outcome of the foray. Certainly the composers of the saga did, because they were composing within known oral tradition. Possibly, though, Medb and Ailill speak with foreknowledge because war is a "ritual game" as Binchy noted (cited above), and the game seems to have included a mutual scheduling of its major phases agreed upon by invader and defender (as the Maring scheduled their own border fights, which I discussed earlier; note also that the Aztecs scheduled battles with neighboring states [Anawalt and Berdan 1992, 79]). In another such truce, the invaders convince another set of defenders to postpone fighting until the great battle (TBC-II, 245; not in TBC-I.)

Perhaps this particular truce that Medb wishes to arrange also staves off battle damage until the great war to follow. Throughout this later part of TBC we witness small battles as the raiders move into Cúailnge. We also witness other truces made; in fact, Cú Chulainn's last deed in the saga is to grant Medb and her army protection as they leave his territory:

--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

Adnaig idnacol forru síar co lotar for Ath Lúain [7] tairsis didiu (TBC-I, 123; l. 4116-4118)


He convoyed them west to Ath Lúain and across the ford too. (TBC-I, 236)

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

(In TBC-II, Medb explicitly asks for protection of her army:)

'In slúag sa bar th'einech 7 ardo chommairgi go rrosset dar Ath Mór síar.' (TBC-II, 134; l. 4836-4837)


'That this army may be under your protection and safeguard till they have gone westwards past Ath Mór.' (TBC-II, 270)
Note that both recensions mention passage of the army past a ford, a boundary, perhaps. Cú Chulainn evidently operates under an archaic set of Geneva Convention rules and does not harass the vanquished army. Terms and truces with enemies are another part of the ritual to forestall damage until scheduled battles and to continue limiting the damage afterwards. These ideals are good ones in any society in which laws are prosecuted by the individual and not by a state. For instance, legal action must be prosecuted by the plaintiff, such as the formal, public seizure of the defendant's property to enforce a claim (see Kelly 1988, 177 ff.); also, "When a member of the a kin-group is illegally killed, his or her kinsmen get a share of the éraic or 'body-fine'. If the culprit fails to pay, the kinsmen are expected to prosecute a blood-feud against him" (ibid, 13). Certainly these limiting rituals are good ideals for any society that encourages the individual and family to avenge some damages in blood feuds and counter feuds. (See Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 150ff and 160-161. on the occurrence and longevity of blood feuds among Nuer.)
The Rules of Fair Play
Of course, the rules of fair play are related to the rule of single combat (Ross 1970, 63). In fact, these rules allow single combat to exist, and they are invoked several times in the Táin and in other Irish tale cycles (for example, see The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel [Cross and Slover 1969, 104] and The Death of Finn [ibid 427]).

First, of course, single combat implies a one-on-one combat, which may or may not be witnessed by an audience. If we wish to consider the late (eleventh-century*) Fer Diad episode as representative of earlier customs, then the choice of weapons follows ritual rules: Fer Diad came first to the ford, and so Cú Chulainn offers him the first choice of weapons; thereafter, they alternate the choice of weapons (this aspect is revealed only in the more fully told episode in TBC-II, 222 ff.).

Next, the rule of fair play: it means simply that, while engaged in single combat, neither of the opponents can be aided by

* A form of the Fer Diad story may have existed in the tenth-century, and the central motif of the tale — the fight between foster brothers — seems to have been traditional, cp. the fight with Lóch and Fer Báeth, the latter also dying via the gáe bolga, Cú Chulainn's special weapon; see O'Rahilly 1976, 275.

additional combatants (cp. Nuer practices in Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 151-152).* As a corollary, ambushes of a single warrior by many warriors are depicted in the worst light. At one point Medb tires of being delayed by set terms, and after losing her champions in a string of defeats, she has Cú Chulainn ambushed:
--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

Iar sin tra foídis Medb cét fer día sainmuintir do guin Con Culaind. Nos geogain-seom uli íarom for Ath Chéit Chúile. (TBC-I, 63; l. 2067-2068)


Then Medb sent out a hundred men of her household to kill Cú Chulainn but he slew them all at Ath Chéit Chúile. (TBC-I, 182)

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

And sain faítti Medb in sessiur úadi i n-óenfecht do fúapairt Con Culaind .i. Traig 7 Dorn 7 Dernu, Col 7 Accuis 7 Eraísi. Tri ferdruíd 7 trí bandruíd. Basrópart Cú Chulaind síat co torchratar lais. Ára brissed fír breth for Coin Culaind 7 comlund óenfir, gebis Cú Chulaind a chrantabaill 7 basrópart in slúag do díburgun a Delggain andess in lá sain. Giambtar liri fir Hérend in lá sin, barémid nech díb a aged do soud fodess in lá sin do choin nó ech nó duine. (TBC-II, 57; l. 2095-2102)


Then Medb sent forth six together to attack Cú Chulainn, to wit, Traig and Dorn and Dernu, Col and Accuis and Eraise, three druids and three druidesses. [Note that in TBC-I, 182, these people appear to have fallen in fair single combat. After these successes, Medb sends the hundred men to ambush him, as told above.] Cú Chulainn attacked them and they fell by him. Since the terms of fair play and single combat had been broken against Cú Chulainn, he took his sling and began to shoot at the host that day northwards from Delga. Though the men of Ireland were numerous that day, not one of them could turn southwards, neither hound nor horse nor man. (TBC-II, 196)

* But note that Cú Chulainn cheats in his combat with Fer Diad by using his special weapon, the gáe bolga 'the bagged spear', which his charioteer passes to him by the odd technique of throwing or floating it to him downstream (TBC-I, 207; TBC-II, 228-229); much about the gáe bolga is strange.

The important motif here is the return to a destructive, impersonal kind of war as the sling-stoning resumes (but only in TBC-II). In this guerilla warfare, social rules and honor and status can have no part because the combat is generally directed at armies rather than individuals, and death flies across a distance as opposed to the more 'intimate' single combat.

Other instances of broken rules of fair play exist in which Cú Chulainn wreaks havoc on his ambushers (for example, TBC-I, 194; TBC-II, 209, 210). One ambusher even tries to get around the rules with a legal twist — since Calatín Dana's 27 sons are of his flesh, he reasons that they all should be considered to be one warrior (recorded only in TBC-II, 209). Additionally, observe the episode in which an ex-Ulsterman, Dubthach, councils ambush against Cú Chulainn in a verse interlude, and he is answered by Fergus, another exile, but a man with an ideal of honor in war; Fergus answers the man with a kick that knocks him down. Many of the most dramatic moments in the saga are marked by the verse interludes, and it is a signal of the importance of fair play that Dubthach and Fergus formally air the two options, with Dubthach humbled both poetically (Fergus gets the last word, literally) and physically.

One peculiar pattern that may be related to fair play is the slaughter of warriors who have come in advance of the army (TBC-I, 167; TBC-II, 187; and possibly TBC-I, 134; TBC-II, 153, although these advanced warriors ambushed Cú Chulainn, and their deaths seem to be punishment for the breaking of fair play). Perhaps advanced scouts reek too much of scheming and ambushes as opposed to an honorable, open march to ritual battlefields, and thus advance comers are a crime against fair play? Certainly, they would be foreign trespassers against whom murder was legal under the Irish system of law, since they would have no rights outside of their territory (cp. law, Kelly 1988, 5*).

The rule of fair play, like the ritual of single combat in general, is designed to limit militarism by encouraging controlled warfare when warfare must occur and to limit damage in general.** For example, at one point Fergus, exiled from Ulster and in the service of Connacht, warns the Ulstermen against the oncoming army of which he is a part: the composer states, in TBC-I, that Fergus feels affection for his own kin (TBC-I, 131), and in TBC-II, that he feels affection for the Ulstermen (TBC-II, 147). It may very well be that Fergus warns his kin or former tribesfolk, but his act may also be a custom of society with a large nomadic component to it — a society in which wandering herdsmen and fixed boundaries can sometimes clash and create tensions. This motif reminded me of an institutionalized custom of the R'Wala Bedouins. If it did not reduce raiding, then it reduced the toll of raiding (the practice may also remind us of the
* Compare Nuer law: "If a man commits an offence against a fellow tribesman he places himself and his kin in a legal position towards this man and his kin, and the hostile relations that ensue can be broken down by payment of cattle. If a man commits the same act against a man of another tribe no breach of law is recognized, no obligation is felt to settle the dispute, and there is no machinery to conclude it." (Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 123-124).
** Rules limiting fights occurred among the Nuer: "Boys [of the same village] fight with spiked bracelets. Men of the same village or camp fight with clubs, for it is a convention that spears must not be used between close neighbours lest one of them be killed and the community be split by a blood-feud. It is also a convention that no third person may take part in the fight, even though he be a close kinsman of one of the combatants. ...When a fight starts between persons of different villages it is with the spear; every adult male of both communities takes part in it; and it cannot be stopped before considerable loss of life has ensued." (Evans-Pritchard 1968 rpt./1940, 151-152)

public 'pre-war warning' of the kaiko ritual of the Maring, as described earlier in this chapter). As Alois Musil observed in the 1920s:

The attack is timed either for the middle of the afternoon...[or] an evening attack [is planned]. All these attacks are considered honorable, because the attacked party has time for defense. In the day time, they can see and hear; after midnight, however, and especially when the morning star appears, they are sound asleep. Both men and dogs sleep under cover in order to protect themselves against the dew and chill. An attack launched at this time is called "bejat" and is dishonorable, as the enemy cannot defend himself (Musil 1928, 524-5).
The motif of the warning also appears in the late The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne, in which Finn's son warns the two lovers that his father pursues (Ni Sheaghdha 1967, 21). The motif also appears in The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel (Cross and Slover 1969, 110), in which the raiders of the hostel light a fire to warn the defenders of their approach. Perhaps the Irish rules of fair play are related to those of their nomadic kin of another place and age, who shared similar perils.
Cú Chulainn in the (Too Common?) Role of Lone Defender
Perhaps one of the dangers of the diffuse political structure of a chiefdom and the attendant local nature of responsibility is that too much responsibility might fall on the local strongman and his group during crises. Therefore, consider that the rules of the border rituals need not be broken for the system to fall apart. In some instances — symbolized in the Táin by the magical birth-pangs of the Ulstermen — defense was not a cut-and-dried matter of single combats at borders. If widespread defense could not be rallied, the weight of political affairs would fall on lone defenders or small groups of defenders, symbolized in the saga by Cú Chulainn. In historical Ireland before the Vikings changed the nature of war, opposing armies may have been simply counted to decide who won wars. The inability to muster defenders meant you could lose a war on purely ritual grounds, without a blow between enemies. The ability — or lack of it — to muster followers has a solid drawback.

This warning is expressed in the Táin as Cú Chulainn's lament. He has been running between fords, defending Ulster, but his enemies are able legally (according to the ritual rules) to keep him busy and bypass him because no one defender can cover an army that splits up to find an undefended ford. Cú Chulainn says:

--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

'Bec nárom nítsat ind fir

ar imad comlaind óenfir

ní rubain níth n-erred n-án

immar atú m'óenurán. ...' (TBC-I, 62; l. 2019-2022)


"My enemies have almost overcome me, so many single combats have I fought. I cannot wage battle against splendid warriors as I stand here alone" (TBC-I, 181);
--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

'Nach cúala tú in cach than

clóentar gó ar úathad, fír dam.

Iss ed ná fulangar de

turscolbad na sochaide. ...' (TBC-II, 55; l. 2048-2051)


"Have you not heard at every time that one man alone is treacherously dealt with? I speak truth. But what cannot be endured is the harrying of a great army" (TBC-II, 195).
In other stanzas of this poem, in both Recensions, he continues the theme of his lone defence. Alone, Cú Chulainn can defend only one ford at a time, and the responsibility is heavy. In Cú Chulainn's lament, he says:
--------------------------TBC-I Episode-------------------------

'Aprad nech fri Conchobar

cía domíssed níbo rom

rucsat Meic Mágach a mbú

conda randsat etarru. ...' (TBC-I, 62; l. 2011-2014)


"Let some one tell Conchobar that it is time for him to come to my aid. The sons of Mágu have carried off their cows and shared them out amongst them." (TBC-I, 181)
--------------------------TBC-II Episode------------------------

(TBC-II does not have a similar statement, although the following, rather difficult verse might be considered similar in tone:)

'Conchobor ní thic immach

náco raib a lín 'sin chath,

tráth nach fálid é amne,

ansu árim a fergge.' (TBC-II, 57; l. 2088-2091)


"Conchobor comes not forth until his numbers be sufficient. While thus he is not joyful, it is harder to reckon his anger."

(TBC-II, 196)
Do these verses comprise an accusation that a chief might rely on ritual defense too long, trusting that his client's ritual defense of territory will last just long enough for the chief to gather his other followers to at last make a good showing in front of the enemy? If so, then the delaying tactic of single combat is a delicate manipulation of the circumstances of warfare. Arrive too early at the borders, and you arrive without enough of your following. Trust in the local defense wrought by allies nearest the raid, and then you arrive too late, after the allies are slaughtered, after your territory has been raided.

Perhaps this hypothetical situation explains other patterns in the saga. At one point (before his lament) Cú Chulainn goes back to his home territory after chasing Medb's advancing army and killing several champions:


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