Tintaí Cú Chulaind aitheruch i mMag Murthemne. Ba diliu laiss imdegail a mennato fessin. (TBC-I, 47; l. 1527-1528)
Cú Chulainn turned back again into Mag Muirthemne. He preferred to guard his own homeland. (TBC-I, 167)
Conid iar sain da tarraid Cú Chulaind atúaid dorísi do imdegail 7 do imdítin a c[h]rích 7 a f[h]eraind fodessin, dáig ba handsa lais andá crích 7 ferrand neich n-aile.
(TBC-II, 48; l. 1764-1766)
After that Cú Chulainn came southwards again to protect and guard his own land and territory, for it was dearer to him than the land and territory of any other. (TBC-II, 187)
Perhaps these verses express the symbolic last straw for a small group of defenders who refuse to cover territory beyond their own if further help cannot be mustered.
In reality, defense must always have been of a local nature, and the saga contains additional depictions of the local nature of combat. After the Ulster heroes have at last arisen from their magically induced birth-pangs, the story teller shows them coming to the defense one by one before Conchobor even hears about the raid; and the messenger carrying news of the raid to the king is not well heeded until he is decapitated by accident (literally losing his head in frustration?) and his head continues to utter warnings (TBC-I, 217; TBC-II, 247). It seems as if organized defense cannot occur until actual blood is witnessed or until the message is truly believed (in this case, the warrior's resolve to carry the news seems to jerk Conchobor out of his complacency, forcing him to pledge resistance). Only at the end of the saga is any organized army formed. This pattern seems logical and realistic. Any raid would have to be handled by people who are the first victims, and organized efforts would necessarily follow once the people somewhat removed from the locale of the raid were convinced of the crisis. The ephemeral power structure of chiefdoms dictates this strategy because leadership is not so encompassing as to permit vast allocations of men and resources by any another means than persuasion. As I noted earlier, a chief, noble, or "big man" could only call his few clients to war, while his clients' clients were not obligated to go to war for their lord's lord.
The nature of local defense requires a kind of traditional guarding of one's fords with the expectation that other territories are similarly watched and that allies may eventually arrive. Cú Chulainn begins the saga as a generous hero, trying to defend more than his own territory, although he eventually does return to defend home turf. The saga leaves us with the image of a perverted local defense — one man dashing across the countryside, staying the army where he can: a feat made difficult because the invaders have split up (TBC-I, 167; TBC-II, 187), perhaps to exploit Cú Chulainn's lone ritual defence. The invaders can exploit the ritual because of the apparent rules — heroes must be present at every regular entrance into tribal domains if broad expanses are to be defended with controlled warfare. The pattern of the saga is a plea for internal cooperation among fellow tribesfolk; the plea suggests that ritual is fine as long as it is not stretched too far, a message echoed by other tales in the tradition for other purposes, which I discuss later in this chapter.
The Special Motifs of Defense
The ritual surrounding fords and ford defense may have been so important to boundary maintenance that it inspired special motifs in the folklore. Cú Chulainn himself is a character specialized in the role of defense, ritualistic or otherwise. His first youthful deed involved the slaying of the defensive hound of Culann the smith; as atonement, the boy replaces the hound and receives his name, 'The Hound of Culann', after which he seems to incorporate the virtues of defensive martial prowess (McCone 1984, 11). During the cattle-raid of Cúailnge, he is able to single-handedly defend Ulster until the Ulstermen are able to help: "Thus we see the guardian function inherited from the dog steadily expanding in scope over the years to ever more extraordinary levels, even though the direct replacement of the hound as Culann's protector was only transitory" (ibid).
In his first combat in The Boyhood Deeds, the three sons of Nechta Scéne are rather like supernatural border warriors, making Cú Chulainn's first formal combat an appropriate border foray. Here, however, he attacks rather than defends the border; this is one of the few places in the saga in which he carries out a primarily offensive action. Perhaps the episode is a special case: Cú Chulainn's rite of passage into warriorhood is appropriately carried out against people who have been killing Ulstermen. The three sons apparently live across a border, if the river outside their dwelling is any indication, and water is sometimes associated with supernatural borders. In TBC-I (145), the border here is marked by a standing stone (which is a border demarcator in some instances, as the spancel ring seems to be) with a withe (perhaps a spancel ring) around it; in TBC-II (167) the ring is a rather special iron band (a supernatural association?) thrust over the standing stone. The last brother fought is also a specialized ford-fighter. His ability to fight well in ford water provokes Cú Chulainn's charioteer to warn the hero:
"Foichle in fer n-aile dano," ol in t-ara. "Fannall a ainm-side. Ní trummu do[n]essa in n-usce oldás ela nó fandall." (TBC-I, 23; l. 741-742)
"Beware of the next man," said the charioteer. "Fannall (Swallow) is his name. He skims over water as lightly as a swan or swallow." (TBC-I, 146)
"Cóir duit arechus dúin risiút, a meic bic," bar Ibar. "Cid ón écin?" ar in mac bec. "Fandle mac Nechtain in fer atchí. Is de dia tá in t-ainm fair, mar fandaill nó mar íaraind imthéit muir. Ní chumgat snámaigi in talman ní dó."
(TBC-II, 31; l. 1133-1137)
"You should have a care for yon fellow, little lad," said Ibar. "Why so?" said the boy. "The man you see is Faindle mac Nechtain, and he is called so because he travels over water like a swallow or squirrel. The swimmers of the world cannot cope with him." (TBC-II, 169)
Cú Chulainn's reply to Ibar in both versions is similar — he reminds him how lightly he himself treads water back at Emain Macha (ibid). In another example, Cú Chulainn is said to be especially skilled at fighting in the water. In a duel with Fer Diad, Fer Diad offers Cú Chulainn the choice of warfare for the day:
'Tiagam far cluchi inn átha iarum,' bar Cú Chulaind. 'Tecam ám,' bar Fer Diad. Gi 'tubairt Fer Diad inní sein, is air is doilgiu leis daraged, dáig rafitir iss ass ra forrged Cú Chulaind cach caur 7 cach cathmílid condriced friss bar cluchi inn átha.
(TBC-II, 91; l. 3282-3286)
'Let us perform the "feat of the ford" then,' said Cú Chulainn. 'Let us do so indeed,' said Fer Diad. But though he said that, it was the feat he deemed hardest to encounter for he knew that it was at the 'feat of the ford' that Cú Chulainn overthrew every champion and every warrior he encountered (TBC-II, 227).
(In TBC-I, the composer states only:)
Is íarom lotar do chluichiu an átha connigset ind ro múin Scáthach dóib díb línaibh. Cloisid Fer Diad 7 Cú Chulaind clesa ingantai. (TBC-I, 93; l. 3088-3090)
Then they betook themselves to the 'ford feat,' and did all that Scáthach had taught both of them. They performed wonderful feats. (TBC-I, 207).
The steps of single combat at fords also progress in difficulty and closeness in this passage. As Cú Chulainn fights Fer Diad, the combat begins with missiles and incrementally moves to weapons suitable for increasingly closer combat (Patrick Ford, personal communication 1984; see TBC-II 222 ff.; but TBC-I [206-208] records only the 'ford feat' and then the gáe bolga, which slays Fer Diad). The actual fight in the water of the ford is saved until last. The sequence of these events is logical, even well-ordered in a literary sense, signalling the ritual significance of ford-fighting, making Cú Chulainn into an archetypal ford-warrior — that is, at least in this late interpolation into the saga (see O'Rahilly 1976, 275 for a discussion about the date of this episode; also refer back to the textual discussion in Chapter 2). The unanswered question is this: is the Fer Diad interpolation an individual (nontraditional) literary creation or a reflection of traditional material, perhaps of a variant tradition, that the later interpolator supplies to fit his sense of completeness? As discussed above, similarly structured fights with Lóch (who died via the gáe bolga and is treated with respect as he dies, as was Fer Diad; TBC-I, 181; TBC-II, 194) and Fer Báeth (who was a foster brother, as was Fer Diad; TBC-I, 175; TBC-II, 191) suggest that the themes and motifs of the episode are not out of place in the tradition.
Cú Chulainn's magic weapon, the gáe bolga ('the bagged spear'), seems to be a special weapon for fighting in fords. This has not been the first time specialized weapons are mentioned in the saga. Earlier, when the prophetess Feidelm is foretelling Cú Chulainn's birth and defense of the province, she says:
'Atchíu fer mór forsin maig
dobeir tres dona slógaib
cet[h]ri claidbíni cles n-án
fil i cechtar a dá lam.
'Dá gáe bolga immosbeir
cenmothá colg dét i[s] sleg
ardaric imbert don tslúag
sain gnim fris téit cach n-arm uád. ...' (TBC-I, 3; l. 85-93)
"I see a tall man in the plain who gives battle to the host. In each hand he holds four small swords with which to perform great deeds./He attacks with the gáe bolga and also with his ivory-hilted sword and his spear. He can ply them on the host. Each weapon as he casts it has its own special use" (TBC-I, 127)
'Cethri claidbíni cless n-án
ra fail chechtar a dá lám,
condricfa a n-imbirt for slúag,
i[s] sain gním ris téit cech n-aí úad.' (TBC-II, 7; l. 252-255)
"Four swordlets of wonderful feats he has in each hand. He will manage to ply them on the host. Each weapon has its own special purpose" (TBC-II, 144).
The gáe bolga certainly seems specialized. The composer of the Táin makes some attempt to realize the weapon in mechanical terms, but it remains vague (see TBC-I, 207; TBC-II, 229). It is apparently barbed (24 points spread out after the weapon enters), or perhaps its points may toggle like a harpoon, since Fer Diad must be cut apart to remove the weapon (TBC-II, 232). The 'bag' part could imply a sheath to keep together its various barbs or to protect this dangerous thing from the user, just as the South African hunters of the Kalahari desert, the !Kung, wrap their poisoned arrow-heads carefully in leaves then place them in a covered quiver for safe storage. But these analogies are merely the speculations of a fascinated pedant. Simply stated, the gáe bolga is enigmatic and is, perhaps, supposed to be enigmatic to bolster the sacred aura hanging about ritual border-combats. Consider that the weapon is used only during combats in the rivers and may be somehow related to the flows of the river — Cú Chulainn's charioteer may have sent it floating down the river to him during one combat; and the gáe bolga is launched from the foot, which is, after all, hidden by the water during combat in a ford. We can imagine the fears of men fighting in the water, which can conceal obstacles, offensive foot-techniques, and hidden weapons. The gáe bolga is then the materialized advantage of a warrior skilled at single combat in the water.
This weapon is also a symbol of the ultimate victory, from a male point of view. Cú Chulainn launches the weapon up Fer Diad's anus (TBC-I, 207; TBC-II, 229), perhaps as an expression of a general, male tradition of insulting rivals. The gesture of the 'finger' (possibly a predominantly male behavior), which essentially says "[I] fuck you," is a related, symbolic action to insult enemies by inferring that they symbolically have been made or can be made subordinate: into 'passive' sexual receivers (to a sexist male, his enemy is made into a 'weak' female). Dundes (1980a and 1980b) discusses these and other related folkloric concepts; I only suggest here that Cú Chulainn's mysterious weapon is the ultimate, specialized weapon in both effect and symbol.
In summary, it seems unlikely that such special literary motifs as those surrounding fords would have developed unless the ritual of single combat at the borders had some basis in reality.
Mass Warfare and the Doomsday Machine
Another manifestation of the ritual of war is the role of large armies. The armies are there in the story, but they do not have a large part in the action except to be slaughtered by the droves when the hero is overcome by his war frenzy. Some of the allies of Ailill and Medb do not even want to fight, nor are they always expected to, as we learn as Medb seeks to know which of her following are reluctant to fight (see TBC-I, 129; TBC-II, 146). Remember that the followers of subordinate kings owed the over-king no allegiance: "to them he was simply the ruler to whom their king was bound by a tie of fealty. They might, of course, have to take part in some of his campaigns, but they would do so only at the behest of their own king, under whose leadership they would fight" (Binchy 1970, 31). This loose political power is characteristic of chiefdoms: "In rank society leaders can lead, but followers may not follow. Commands are given, but sometimes they may not be obeyed. ...there are few if any effective sanctions that can be used to compel compliance" (Fried 1967, 133).
Therefore, I suggest that large armies in TBC exist only to help the poet warn about the effects of nonritualized, mass warfare. They are shadowy reminders of a king's status — as they were in historical Ireland until the Vikings brought 'realism' to war in Ireland — and are involved only in a fantastical mass slaughter when Cú Chulainn has heard of the massacre of the boy troop while he rested. At that point he harnesses his scythed chariot (TBC-I, 184 ff.; TBC-II, 199\ff.). This is a gruesome machine of whirling scythes, hooks, and spear points. Like the gáe bolga and some devices in modern science fiction, the chariot is an imaginative, doomsday machine whose possibility is symbolic but full of warning. With this hideous vehicle Cú Chulainn cuts down hundreds of enemies in a memorable scene of the results of unconstrained war within a delicate political environment. (Note, however, that this episode, like the Fer Diad episode, "...is later in language and style than the rest of the tale in Recension I" [O'Rahilly 1976, 267].)
A Reminder to Rath-Dwellers
Much of the tension in Ireland may have been derived from the constant concern with borders. It is a concern for all societies, certainly, but we must also account for the effects on the individual. The Irish tribesperson was intimately involved in disputes simply because the average farming/herding family was close to the peril of hostile contact. This situation, formed both by Ireland's geography and tribal politics, had ample opportunity to shape the native literature of Ireland. When I say "shape," I do not mean to say that the ancient bards were passive participants, pushed and pulled in this or that direction. The bards had their problems set out for them, and native literature was an active invention to help their communities cope with problems.
One voice speaks loudly from the page before us. Young Cú Chulainn, alone in regions far from the walled security of raths and hill-forts, and worn from much responsibility, speaks to us from TBC:
'M'óenurán dam ar étib
sech nís n-étaim nís léicim
atú ar tráthaib úaraib
m'óenurán ar iltúathaib.
'Aprad nech fri Conchobar
cía domíssed níbo rom
rucsat Meic Mágach a mbú
conda randsat etarru.
'Bec nárom nítsat ind fir
ar imad comlaind óenfir
ní rubain níth n-erred n-án
immar atú m'óenurán.' (TBC-I, 61-62; l. 2007-2022)
'I am here all alone guarding the flocks. I neither hold them back nor let them go. In the cold hours I stand alone to oppose many peoples.
'Let some one tell Conchobar that it is time for him to come to my aid. The sons of Magu have carried off their cows and shared them out amongst them. ...
'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, 180-181)
'Airg úaim, a Laíg, laíder slúaig.
Cain dam i nEmain adrúaid
am tursech cach dia 'sin chath
condam créchtach crólinnech. ...
'Apair fri Conchobor cáem
atú tursech tiachairtháeb.
Trén ra chlóechla chruth amne
mac dil drongach Dechtire.
'M'óenurán dam ar éitib
acht nís léicim, nís étaim.
Atú im ulc, ním fuil im aith,
m'óenur dam ar iláthaib. (TBC-II, 54-55; l. 2016-2031)
'Go forth from me O Laeg. Let the hosts be roused. Tell them for me in strong Emain that each day in battle I am weary, and I am wounded and bloody.
...'Tell noble Conchobor that I am weary, wounded sore in my side. Greatly has Dechtire's dear son, he of many retinues, changed in appearance.
'I am here all alone guarding the flocks, not only do I let them not go, but neither can I hold them. In evil plight I am and not in good, as I stand alone at many fords...' (TBC-II, 195).
Cú Chulainn is the character speaking here, but I wonder what memories the poem called up in scarred, old veterans with memories of young folk alone in distant pastures. It is a poem to remind the dwellers in walled forts that their kinfolk are hard pressed in the outlands, that their cattle are brought home for a hard price.
At this point I want to cite an analogous lament from the medieval Turkish saga, The Sack of the House of Salur Kazan (Sümer, Uysal, and Walker 1991, 30), in which a lone shepherd in a nomadic society defends his flock against raiders; he complains to his lord: "Six hundred infidels fell upon us, slaying my two brothers. I fought the infidels, killing three hundred of them, and I did not let them carry off your fat rams and lambs. I received three wounds, and I was alone and exhausted. ..." In another saga, The Story of Basat, Killer of the One-Eyed Giant (ibid, 125), a one-eyed giant terrorizes the Turkish nomads, and since weapons cannot hurt him, he begins eating the people with impunity: "He ate so many young shepherds and children that soon there were none left in the land, and, after the children were gone, he started eating fully grown people." If it is generally true in nomadic or pastoralist society that herding chores fall primarily to young people, then the cyclops is preying on the distant shepherds, who, as in Irish society, might be vulnerable to raids in the outlands. The cyclops is not just a monster, perhaps, but also a symbol of these depredations, just as Cú Chulainn and his hard tasks symbolize the plight of the lone Irish herder. Thus, observe the similarly heavy responsibilities falling to the outfield people in nomadic societies, which are expressed in their respective sagas.
Hostels and Borders
Before we leave the topic of ritualized border contacts, we must not forget some of the shorter heroic tales that directly and indirectly support the cautionary themes in TBC. We shall look at Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó ('The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig') which, as does TBC, reflects the theme of conflict reduction between hostile tribes. The tale concerns a hostel that is the scene for a ritual of verbal duelling, seemingly well-suited for reducing physical violence during status competition between tribes. Fled Bricrend ('Bricriu's Feast') and Mesca Ulad ('The Intoxication of the Ulstermen') also continue the theme of status attainment and the dangers it represents — but within the tribe itself.
The Historical Function of Hostels
Hostels were a part of the general system of regulating tribal borders and perhaps of reducing conflicts. O'Riain writes that boundary institutions were well-developed in Celtic territories, and consisted in part of sanctuaries and meeting places situated near borders (1972, 14-24). The dwellings of the professional classes (such as poets) may also have been so situated; except for craftsmen's dwellings, which are associated with typical material debris, such settlements are hard to identify archaeologically, although clerical architecture is relatively easy to identify, and the clerics often inherited land from the pagan professional classes and were usually placed at borders (ibid, 19). Among the Irish manifestations of meeting places were 'hostels,' which, in the sagas, are the places where rivals are supposed to meet together peacefully. Indeed, one law states that it was illegal to hold a duel on the green of a hostel, among other places (Kelly 1988, 212). Hostels were evidently well-stocked estates run by a briugu ('hospitaller') whose role was to welcome all travellers (including a lord's retinue) and feed them (Kelly 1988, 36). As Kelly writes, "The office of briugu seems to have been one by which a wealthy man of non-noble birth could acquire high rank through displaying the hospitality and generosity so admired by the early Irish. ...The evidence of the annals shows that the office of briugu survived in recognizable form down to the 16th century" (1988, 36-37). The briugu had no military role (ibid, 36). One imagines that, ideally, no fighting would take place in such a congenial atmosphere. A traditional proverb states that the briugu dwells near a public road (ibid, 36), and O'Riain (1972, 23) points out that Mac Dathó's hostel is situated at the meeting of seven roads, and that routes tended to follow boundaries. Da Choca's hostel is similarly located; borders were no doubt the perfect setting for an institution designed to regulate intertribal contacts, a border function that O'Riain has generally demonstrated in his seminal article.
Some sense of the reality of this social position can be gained from a legal text:
A hospitaller (briugu) is of the same status as a lord (flaith) if he have twice as much again as every grade of land and tillage on account of his lineage and the excess renders of his lordship. He is not a hospitaller (briugu) who is not hundredfold (cetach). He does not exclude any condition (of person). He does not refuse any company. He does not reckon it against anyone, however often he come. He is a hospitaller (briugu) in that. He has the same honour price as the king of a petty kingdom. (túath). The superior hospitaller (briugu leitech), he has twice as much property, possesses an immovable cauldron, [and there are] three highways by him. (cited after McCone 1984, 3).
Hostels in Irish literary tradition* share similar requirements, evidencing a confident traditional basis for the tale type, and perhaps for the historical analogues. The tale Bruiden Dá Choca states, "...'each hostel used to be at the meeting of four roads. Just one thrust of his fork used to be given to each person, and there only comes his proper food out of that'" (McCone 1984, 2). McCone states that "The basic idea throughout seems to be of a feasting hall at a meeting of several thoroughfares where unlimited hospitality is dispensed to all comers from cauldrons copiae, so to speak. In the
* Hostels also figure in Fenian literature (Fenians were outlaw bands that dwelled at borderlands). For example, in The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne, 1) couriers are sent to a hostel (Ni Sheaghdha 1967, 61), 2) a hostel is said to be near a ford (a border?) (ibid, 93), and 3) an inheritance ritual is performed at a hostel (ibid, 103). The Fenians are associated with the march areas at borders, which were, perhaps, the homes of hostels, and the association of Fianna and hostels is logical. See Nagy (1981 and 1985) for a detailed discussion of Finn and the Fenians and their territorial and cultural liminality.
three tales just referred to [The Death of Celtchair, The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig, and The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel] as well as the story about Mac Da Reo's hostel the climax is a battle and slaughter that follow upon the feast" (McCone 1984, 2).
McCone (1984, 19, fn 54) notes, however, that hostelers (as well as poets) are generally depicted as peacemakers. Perhaps the nonviolent role of hostelers is reflected in the manner of peacekeeping within the hostels: in The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, the guards carry clubs rather than edged weapons (Cross and Slover 1969, 107). But in the sagas, the neutrality of hostelers could be hard pressed, as shown in The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig, summarized and discussed next.