|The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig: Language as Buffer
Conall Cernach is the hero of this tale, perhaps reflecting a time before Cú Chulainn prominently entered the tradition. The story is about a claim made by both Ulster and Connacht for a famous dog.
The quarrel under consideration took place at a feast prepared by Mac Da Tho, king of the Leinstermen [he may have instead represented a special kind of lord, the lord of a hostel: see McCone 1984], for the Ulidians and the men of Connacht. Ailill and Medb, on the one hand, and Conchobar mac Nessa, on the other, has asked Mac Da Tho for a famous hound which he owned. Fearing to offend either party he had promised the hound to both [which was his wife's suggestion], and by inviting both parties for the same day he hoped that the problem would be solved by the rival parties themselves, without compromising intervention on his own part. The main portion of the feast consisted of a huge pig...The question was asked how the pig should be divided. Bricriu was present and suggested that it should be divided 'in accordance with battle-victories'...Cet mac Magach of Connacht is able to win a rudely-worded [to modern ears] boasting contest against all champions from Ulster, against whom he has won victories, until Conall Cernach enters. Cet and Conall respectfully greet one another, and Cet admits Conall is superior, although Cet's brother could beat him, at which time Conall brains Cet with his brother's head and sit down to carve the pig. Conall gives a portion to Connacht that insults them, and the tale ends with "...a battle between the disappointed Connachtmen and the triumphant Ulidians in the house and outer court, the obtaining of the dog by the Ulidians and their use of it to help in the pursuit of the Connachtmen, and the death of the dog, impaled on the shaft of Ailill and Medb's chariot. (Murphy 1961, 45-49).
MacDathó is between two hostile parties. As he states:
Cú Mes-Roîda meic Dathó, ba olc lathe etha dó;
do-foeth mór fer find fria rath, bid lïa turim a chath.
Manip do Chonchobor berthair, is derb bid mogda in gním,
nicon-faicêbat a slûaig bas mó do bûaib na do thír.
Mad do Ailill éra silis Falmag darsin túaith,
dodon-béra mac Magach, atan-ebla i luim lúaith.
(Thurneysen 1975, 4)
Many fair men will fall for his sake,
More than one can tell will be the fights for him.
If to Conchobor it is not given,
Certainly it will be a churlish deed;
His host will not leave
Any more of cattle or of land.
If to Ailill it be refused,
The son of Matach will carry it off.
(Cross and Slover 1969, 201).
Mac Dathó's wife offers this solution:
Táthut airle lim-sa fris ní olc fri îarmairt n-indi,
tabair dóib-sium dib línaib, cumma cía-thóetsat imbi.
(Thurneysen 1975, 4; l. 20-21)
I have advice for thee in this,
The result of which will not be bad:
Give it to them both,
No matter who will fall because of it.
(Cross and Slover 1969, 201)
Mac Dathó's fear and his wife's dangerous (and, perhaps, best and only) solution reflect the fundamental fear of any real hosteler: keeping faith with opposing parties and keeping the peace between them. The cynicism of the traditional tales was a direct warning that such a fine institution was delicately poised between tribal politics; note that MacDathó's hostel becomes ruined when the hostile parties clash.
Hostels just did not always work out, it seems, however good the ideal of a neutral zone was. In this we might be reminded of King Arthur's round table, the fellowship of which falls apart because of internal conflicts. I would not be surprised if a Celtic tale pattern of or related to hostels informed the origin of this traditional English history. Be that as it may, hostels and the literature of hostels were another Celtic border institution. The hostel tales functioned as cautionary tales, as did tales about perverted rules of fair play. Hostels are related to the combat rituals discussed above because hostels were complementary features of the ritual border-landscape to facilitate peaceful contact.
As in the attempt at maintaining fair single-combat rituals, this peaceful contact was an ideal and not always (or even usually) a reality: some of the 'hostel' tales are prefaced with the phrase "the destruction of" as in The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel. In The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig, an attempt seems to have been made to avert destruction by channeling conflicts into speech duels rather than weapon duels. The verbal contest ascends distinctive levels of formality as exotic speech is increasingly invoked and for a brief time results in an end to violence before a thoughtless individual ruins the delicate and relatively peaceful ritual. To preface this discussion I offer some theory on the function of ritualized speech exchanges that take place in this story.
Given the nature of feuding in chiefdoms in addition to the territorial problems of pastoralism, a ready means of predicting and mediating conflicts would have been quite useful. One way to begin controlling a critical situation is to sanctify it in ritual, that is, begin laying over the situation a set of broadly accepted rules. Ritual can arise from the use of language, and status rituals have been observed in the use of certain forms of language, such as honorific forms of address (Gregersen 1974). Foster (1964, 107-108) says of speech forms that they can "...reflect the perception of distance [of social status between people], but they also reiterate and reaffirm these perceptions for those who interact in a particular situation, thereby setting the stage so that the behavior that follows will be guided by a common understanding of what is appropriate." Foster's phrases, "setting the stage" and "common understanding," seem important to me in the potential conflicts arising in a chiefdom. Making interaction somewhat predictable (even properly polite) between potentially combative people may be a function of language ritual.
Ritual is partly a function of exotic display (Rappaport 1971, 63; see also F. Turner 1986, 69ff). Exotic display is usually regarded in terms of material adornment of places and people. But exoticness is also manifest as the language technology of formal speech. Poetry is exotic speech — both conspicuous display and conspicuous word-play. Performed speech begins the contract with the community in which the community judges the text and the composer. As Bauman and Sherzer (1989, xix) write: "Performance makes one communicatively accountable; it assigns to an audience the responsibility of evaluating the relative skill and effectiveness of the performer's accomplishment." More specifically, oral societies can use speech performance during community rituals to raise the level of social interaction into ritual sanctity; shifts in speech performance could in turn signal the boundary between the increments of ritual. Fox (1989, 67) observed this kind of behavior in a Rotinese community (the isle of Roti is near Timor in Indonesia), where litigations are conducted in one speech form, and, after successful negotiations, the details of agreements are discussed in another form; "A change in speaking can indicate a subtle change of phase in a continuous speech event." Note also that in some South American Indian communities, greeting rituals mediate tensions between strangers through ceremonial speech (Urban 1986). In these widely separated cases — and more could be cited — ritualized speech, like ritualized borders, forms buffers or controls for contact between strangers and potential rivals.
I suggest that linguistic signals in medieval Irish society might have been used to sway informal interaction into formality in, for example, the context of an early Irish hostel, where tribesfolk ought to be controlling their rivalry with each other. Indeed, the transition into ritual might have been a critical concern in early Irish society, because warriors were predisposed to seek status at the expense of their rivals. Additionally, the nomadic component of Irish communities afforded too many opportunities for unpredictable contacts between rivals. In recent times in Ireland, wandering livestock have caused many disputes, and we recognize the same problem in early Ireland, whose ancient law tracts discuss the herding of cattle (O'Corrain 1972, 67), as discussed earlier in this chapter (see also Note 2).
The style of early Irish literature provided the opportunity to sanctify performances by a shift into exotic speech. Although the dominant prose-style of the lore is simple, a second type of prose is alliterative, not quite poetry but not quite an informal narration. Yet a third prose exists in which a formulaic speech is used. And finally, there are the interludes of poetry which fall into two classes. The roscada lines are alliterative, short, of variable syllable count, (these lines tend to be cadenced rather than syllable-counted), and are often obscure, full of archaic forms and nominal in structure, leaving a doubtful syntax; these lines are spoken by characters. The second type of poetry is stanzaic, rhymed, and of regular syllable count; like the rosc passages, this poetry occurs only as character speeches but unlike rosc, tends to be more lucid (see Tymoczko 1985, 128-133 for summary and examples).
Although all these styles probably were not in vogue at the same period (ibid), it seems safe to say that at least one kind of verse interlude was a standard form of the tradition, besides the interesting variations possible in prose. And with the choice between prose and poetry, a poet can diversify language into easily noticeable categories. Exotic speech could be activated according to context, to build a bridge into the next level of speech and ritual. For example, during informal conversation it might be relatively easy to structure prose with occasional sound pattern and formulas. Proverbs are a good example: "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise"; this example has both rhythm, sound pattern, and philosophy, and so is particularly 'exotic' and useful, and easy to insert during a conversation. Structured prose might lead to further use of traditional forms such as formulaic turn-taking. The next stage might be full development of oral performance in the form of folktale, perhaps, at which point the social context is now significantly centered around the ritual of formal performance.
The ability to change the mode of performance is advantageous. If poetry formalizes speech, then the performer could activate a varying amount of formality in performance as required, especially in important social events. Formality in interaction is important when peers meet, for example, in hostels or at tribal assemblies, where contestants are concerned about their relative status and need to compete for it nonviolently. The term 'relative status' is useful in situations where individuals occupy a class or caste (in a state) or hold somewhat similar ranks (in a chiefdom). In such an assembly of relatively equal individuals, who are either termed as equals or carry similar kinds of status symbols, we might expect competition to proceed on verbal terms, since the physcial terms (visual symbols) would cancel out. This idea does have a basis in observed behavior. As an example, in Wolof (Senegal) society, speech styles in greeting rituals are used "...as indicators of relatively high or low status, within a single caste" (Irvine 1989, 184). And in general, ethnographers have observed speech being used in status competitions: in Malagasy (Madagascar) society (Keenan 1989, 128), and in Maori (New Zealand) society (Salmond 1989, 200, 210).
There is even a physical analogy to the escalating levels of ritual duelling in the ritual duels of the Yanomamo Indians, who dwell at the border of Brazil and Venezuela. In this extremely warlike society trying to survive amidst an ecologically devastated (overhunted) jungle (see M. Harris 1974, 92-97), members of different village groups often become belligerent when, for example, hosts accuse guests of stealing garden produce (as in early Irish society, quarrels arise over territoriality). Usually this ill-feeling is expressed in ritualistic duels in which one warrior impassively receives blows from his enemy in return for the opportunity to give a similar number and type of blows to the man. The target eventually signals that he has had enough and will now deal out his own blows. The loser is he who gives up the cycle first. Of course, others may join the duels, which continue, as in one case, until the "...hosts ran out of useable chests but were unwilling to initiate any peace overtures" (ibid, 93). At that point the next phase of duelling was proposed. Typically the duels begin with chest pounding (by fist); then side-slapping (open hand below the ribs); next, opponents might hold rocks in their fists and strike blows; and the highest level of duel is blows delivered to the head with a long pole. In the eye-witnessed duel I was describing, the cycles ended at the side-slapping phase and threatened to become an all-out war with poisoned arrows, but as the contestants caught their breath, the guests backed away and left the village (ibid, 94).
The Yanomamo frequently carry out conflicts that cause deaths, but apparently these ritual duels form a buffer between peace and all-out war. In the case mentioned, perhaps the duels actually prevented a battle. At least it is a point of honor for adversaries to hit each other alternately with nonlethal blows, and thus the warriors are not killing each other and have time to decide to end peacefully, whether they choose to do so or not. The opportunity for choice seems the important aspect of these rituals, and perhaps also in the verbal duels depicted in Irish sagas.
The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig contains a model of status competition among peers in which the contestants progress through stages of exotic speech according to the earned status of the contestants — in this I simply carry on a theme of work started by Charles-Edwards' important article on honor and status in Irish and Welsh tradition. I quote from his work about "relative status" in some Welsh stories:
A particular situation [in a story] may imply that two people, who may for most purposes have the same rank, are in a position of inferior and superior relationships to each other. The relative ranking may last no longer than the duration of the particular incident (1978, 124).
Charles-Edwards goes onward to show how characters can use particular forms of speech to imply inferiority or superiority in rank. In addition to this function of speech, I add that certain kinds of speech could be used during verbal status contests — used as the contest and to formally admit equality or superiority of a contestant.
The existence of a set of rules governing the use of titles in dialogue and also determining the question of who should speak first is revealed by the conversation between Pwyll and Arawn at their meeting [in the first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi]. Pwyll has gone hunting, and his hounds have run across another pack in pursuit of a stag. The other pack kills the stag, but Pwyll drives them off and gives the stag to his own hounds. [If Pwyll is of higher status than the owner of the first pack, then his hunting rights override theirs, but the owner is yet unknown. The other hunter, Arawn, finally appears] ...But Pwyll, of course is hunting within his own kingdom of Dyfed and is thus initially entitled to assume his superiority to all other claimants. Once he has accused Arawn of boorishness, however, the question of relative status becomes crucial, and this is the issue taken up in the dialogue. Arawn opens by addressing Pywll as unben. It soon becomes apparent that unben is a title used by a man who wishes to be courteous but who does not wish to acknowledge [the other's] superiority of status. Both Pwyll and Arawn use it to each other in the first part of the conversation before Pywll discovers Arawn's rank...It is clear that a rule existed requiring the inferior in rank to greet the superior first. Neither Pwyll nor Arawn greet the other until Pywll discovers Arawn's rank... [When Pywll does at last gain this information, he greets Arawn with arglwyd, and,] ...If unben is noncommittal arglwyd is an acknowledgement of superior rank. (Charles-Edwards 1978, 124-125)
The speech duel in Mac Dathó's Pig also concerns status and also has a specificity of form, but one that reflects stages of ritual speech rather than words of degree of rank: a status duel of point/counter-point and onward to a confrontation in a verse interlude. We pick up the tale after Mac Dathó has decided to give the coveted dog to both parties. The two rival tribes are now gathered in the hostel. The heroes are about to choose the bravest warrior to carve the ceremonial pig (no mean prize, this pig — it is big enough to be garnished with cows). This is a status ritual of the Celts in which an individual claims the right to carve the pig as recognition of his status and answers any challengers. Posidonius, a Greek 'ethnographic' writer in classical times, claimed that the Gaulish-Celtic tribesmen defended their dinner with weapons (his lost original work was quoted and paraphrased by Athenaeus and Diodorus Siculus [Mac Cana 1972, 90]), but in the literature of the Irish Celts, the warriors want the pig and honor to be defended first by a verbal duel.
In the following example, Cet mac Magach claims the honor of carving while his rivals attempt to degrade his status in a boasting contest. A brief quotation serves to illustrate the nature of the series of challenges and successful defenses:
'In comram beus!' ol Cet. 'Rot-bia sôn' ol láech líath mór forgránda di Ultaib. 'Cîa so?' ol Cet. 'Celtchair mac Uithechair' ol cách. 'An bic, a Cheltchair,' ol Cet, 'manip dom thûarcain fo chêtóir. Rotânac-sa, a Cheltchair, co dorus do thige. Ro-hêged immum. Tánic cách. Tânacais-
iu dano. Dot-luid i mbernai armo chenn-sa. Do-reilgis gaî form-sa. Ro-lêcus- a gaî n-aill cucut-su co-ndechaid tret slîasait ocus tre hûachtar do macraille. Ataî co ngalur fúail ônd ûair-sin, nicon-rucad mac na ingen duit. Cid dot-bérad cucum-sa?' Dessid side dano.
(Thurneysen 1975, 12-13; l. stanza13, l. 1-11)
"Continue the contest," said Cet, "or I shall carve the pig."
"Indeed, thou shalt have it," said a tall, gray, very terrible warrior of the men of Ulster.
"Who is this?" said Cet.
That is Celtchar mac Uthecair," said all.
"Wait a little, Celtchar," said Cet, "unless thou wishest to come to blows at once. I came, O Celtchar, to the front of thy house. The alarm was raised around me. Every one went after me. They camest like every one else, and going into a gap before me didst thou throw a spear at me. I threw another spear at thee which went through thy loins and through the upper part of thy testicles, so that thou hast had a sickness of urine ever since, nor have either son or daughter been born to thee since." After that, Celtchar sat down in his seat. (Cross and Slover 1969, 204).
Then Conall Cernach, a late arrival, enters the hall ready to be served his portion of the pig, but he is surprised to see his enemy Cet about to carve. Cet then addresses Conall in this poetic interlude (where the translation seems too far from the original text, I have inserted my own more literal translation in brackets; phrases preceded by the plus sign are added from the original text):
'Fochen Conall, cride licce, londbruth loga, luchair ega, guss flann ferge fo chích curad crêchtaig cathbûadaig. At comsa mac Findchoîme frim.' (Thurneysen 1975, 14; stanza15, l. 9-11)
"Welcome Conall, heart of stone,
Fierce glow of fire [angry heat of a lynx], glitter of ice,
Red strength of anger under a hero's breast,
Wound-inflicter [victorious wounds in battle], I see the son of Finnchoem!" [You are a comparison to me, son of Finnchoem].
(Note: Thurneysen's text reads comsa 'an equal, comparison' whereas Cross and Slover seemed to have read this as comba 'see'.)
Conall, the late arrival to the feast, replies with this:
'Fochen Cet, Cet mac Mâgach, magen curad, cride n-ega, ethre n-ela, err trén tressa, trethan ágach, caín tarb tnúthach, Cet mac Mâgach.' (Thurneysen 1975, 15; stanza 15, l. 13-15)
"Welcome Cet, Cet mac Matach, [+the place of a warrior,]
Heart of ice, [+the tail of a swan,] strong chariot-chief of battle,
Battling sea, fair shapely bull,
Cet mac Matach." (Cross and Slover 1969, 205)
In the last line of the first poem, Cet admits (if reading-in comsa is correct) that Conall is a peer, but Conall does not close his own verse reply with such an admission. And afterwards, Cet acknowledges Conall's superiority, but as a final boast, says that if his brother were there, Conall would be in trouble. Of course, Conall suddenly produces the head of Cet's brother, strikes him with it, and sits down to carve the pig (ibid, 206).
First of all, the associations between poetry and status should be noted. Cet does not versify in his verbal duels with warriors whom he believes are inferior to himself (he uses prose of repetitive structure). But he does versify to his equal, Conall, and afterwards admits Conall's superiority. Additionally, the poetic interlude is not a competition as was the verbal dueling — it is an admission of warlike traits in a litany about each of the warriors, a proclamation of status through association with verbal performance.
But status signalling is only one part of what is important here. The poetry is also being used as a marker between succeeding rituals that are attempting to control status competition. I showed a brief example of the boasting contest and one might have seen the humor of it (I am assuming it was also funny a millennium ago) — that is, before Conall arrives. But when the defender of the pig chants his poem, the amusement ceases as the poetry marks a transition into a different ritual discourse before a brief fight between Conall and Cet. Observe: the verbal rituals result in Cet's admission of his rival's superiority — he didn't have to be brow-beaten into submission. And when Cet tries to salvage something of his honor by invoking the prowess of his brother, Conall answers him with a blow that humiliates Cet without killing him.*
The ritualized speech in this story provides progressive buffers between status and violence; the language is also the juncture between increasingly serious rituals. I suggest that similar verbal duels concerning status might have occurred in reality. The different levels of verbal duel and poetic litany could be different levels of signalling activated according to the criticalness of the situation. Alternatively, the modulation of violence might have been more subtle. Think of an instance in which someone has diverted the course of a discussion into a safer avenue by telling a joke, and then this traditional mode of mitigating conflicts begins to be understood.
The early Irish equivalent to such a joke may have been the performance of a traditional story with its own indirect message. The host strikes his wand on a hanging shield, the tumult reluctantly slows to a low rumble, and the host says: "But now let us hear our poet's fine voice; and what tale shall we hear, oh poet?" The tensions of argument will be channeled into The Story of Mac Dathó's Pig.
* Ritualized boasting has also been reported by classical authors. Posidonius, the first century B.C. Greek 'ethnographer' mentioned above, reported an incident in which Gauls fought over the 'champion's portion'. However, "...Posidonius, as paraphrased by Athenaeus, did not describe the Gaulish custom from his own personal experience — it happened 'in former times' says the text — and therefore the source of his information must have been either senchas [historical lore] or story" (Mac Cana 1972, 90). Mac Cana writes further that M.A. O'Brien felt that "...what Posidonius really heard was 'something like a primitive Celtic version of The Feast of Bricriu'. This may seem to place a rather heavy burden of conjecture upon a slender basis of evidence, but nonetheless I would suggest that O'Brien's idea is not nearly as far-fetched as it might appear at first glance and that there are in fact good grounds for believing that there once existed an oral narrative which featured the curadmir ['champion's portion'] and which constituted a lineal connection between Posidonius's source and the extant narratives of Fled Bricrenn and Scéla Mucce Maic Dathó" (ibid, 91).
Now, story telling allows time for the audience to make up its own mind about the social event of challenge and cohesion, since oral
tradition is foremost an integrator, a leveller of individual event into community tradition.
And tradition allows a culture more options than combats. Despite all those fine choreographies in martial arts and swashbuckler movies, I rather think combats were short affairs allowing little time for reflection. A verbal tradition, however, allows the host to begin performing if he is skilled at it, or he might be a wealthy patron of a poet and command him to perform. It only matters that a poet ritualizes and communalizes a situation by associating it with exotic language.
Not all versified greetings between opponents have to have this function. The tradition records the more familiar pattern of boast-before-fatal-combat. When Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad begin their combat, they revile each other first rather than admit each other's prowess (TBC-I, 206; TBC-II, 219ff.), even though Fer Diad is Cú Chulainn's most closely matched opponent, both having had the same teacher. And Cú Chulainn kills Fer Diad despite the potentials for avoiding killing by channeling violence into the speech duel. I do not propose, and the sagas will not validate, speech duels as a rose garden of all-around good intention (the observation that roses are thorned is more apt than clíchéd). Here, as elsewhere, the Irish sagas are early examples of realism in Western literature.
Even in Mac Dathó's hostel, the otherwise useful ritual of speech duels is a lovely idea and a fine theory ruined by enigmatic Irish heroes, because when Conall finally carves and distributes the pig, having avoided thus far both individual and mass violence, he gives his rivals a portion that insults their status. War breaks out, and the sanctity of Mac Dathó's hostel is violated in a blood bath. One can rightly ask, "Where's the ritual?" *
Conall's behavior is so ill-planned and unsportsmanlike that I find it utterly realistic. The behavior depicted in Mac Dathó's Pig is in the end a negative model, a model of a reality that may have occurred with distressing regularity. The tradition shows violence ideally channeled into verbosity, and the verbosity itself, as a last resort, selects out two representatives of opposing factions for single combat as opposed to a brawl. As I discussed above, single combat is another ritual that reduces conflict by being a substitute for massed armies. As long as this ritual is maintained, widespread destruction is avoided. But the rules are not always followed, either in single combat or verbal ritual, and bodies are piled up.
In the sagas and perhaps in life, poetry was the fulcrum in the social balance. The poetry of litany in Mac Dathó's Pig, as it sometimes is in other stories of the tradition, is prophetic of war. Prophecies are the point at which protagonists are warned about consequences and are the last chance to avert disaster. In Mac Dathó Pig the crescendo of ritualized discourse predicts the course of the interaction; the discourse buys time between episodes of chaos, and
* In TBC, we see similar bad planning in the episode where Connacht has contracted with the owner of the Cúailnge's great bull, for which Medb had planned the entire raid of Ulster in order to have as many possessions as her husband. After terms for the loan of the bull are settled, the drunken messenger from Connacht says they could have taken the bull by force, if necessary. As you might imagine, the owner breaks the contract after hearing these words (TBC-II, 140-141; not included in TBC-I) — another good arrangement spoiled by arrogant words.
it is indeed successful, funnelling the tension that drives hands to sword-hilts into a far less violent display of status. Poetry duels may have functioned like the binary (yes/no) aspect of rituals (refer back to Chapter 3; see also Rappaport 1971, 64); I mean to say, the very beginning of a speech duel is the 'yes' signal that formally stated that conflicts have begun. This signal is sent, ideally, before bloodshed and is an extension of a very simple human behavior: a dangerous tone of voice. Societies with acuity in oral performance are fortunate in having such a mediating device. This signal allows the public to think ahead to avoid violence, if they choose to do so. The fact that a conflict is brewing over status is also a signal to the chief that it is time to distribute favors to allow followers to display status unequivocally so as to leave prowess out of the question for potential challengers.
Whatever function the speech duel has, it is wasted when someone like Conall shatters the delicate arch of ritual and rubs salt into the wounds of prestige. In the ritual game of war in Ireland, this kind of literature was the warning note, another part of this stabilizing game between ambitious rivals.
The Intoxication of the Ulstermen: Status and Ego
We can see the complement of this ritual of conflict reduction in other tales. Mesca Ulad ('The Intoxication of the Ulstermen' )sets out the importance for a chief to gain powerful clients and for the clients to be able to host their chief publicly in high style. This tale reminds us that the attainment and acknowledgement of status is a central feature of ranked society. But rank has both its dark and its comic sides, in the end harmful to the tribe when attainment of status becomes excessive and obsessive; Bricriu's Feast sounds the cautionary note for these cases. Functioning as a complementary set, these two stories share the theme of conflict reduction within the tribe, where the 'enemy' is one's comrade.
The summary of Mesca Ulad is as follows: This tale begins with Conchobor's wish to host the nobles of Ulster at his great feast, to which his powerful fosterlings, Cú Chulainn and Fintan, are especially invited. Both heroes are asked to cede their third of the province to Conchobar for a year. Both heroes accept the proposition. As discussed in Chapter 3, this pattern may reflect the gaining of clients by a chief through the symbolic receiving of their loyalty as they receive his feast. Their loaning of land, which would seem to put Conchobar in their debt, is a curious motif, which may echo with the need for a chief to own agricultural wealth as his power base. Cú Chulainn states this need in terms that can be considered supernatural (the province prospers under a good king) or economic (the province prospers under a good manager): "If the province were the better for his having it for a year, it is not hard [ceding the land]; for he is the fountain in its proper site that cannot be stained or defiled, the descendant of the kings of Erin and Alba...but if it is not the better, we will insist that he must be placed upon his own third at the end of a year" (Cross and Slover 1969, 217). Evidently, these cedings of land are critical to the chief, for the text states: "Conchobar is now king of Ulster...if Fintan will give him his third" Cross and Slover 1969, 218).
Thereafter Cú Chulainn and Fintan demand that they give counter-feasts to the new king, and Cú Chulainn and Fintan nearly come to blows over who should give the feast. They agree to split the night giving feasts in each other's abodes. On the way to Cú Chulainn's feast, the drunken Ulstermen become lost and wander throughout Ireland, enduring adventures, until the last, when their enemies from Connacht have trapped them in an iron house with a fire lit around it. Cú Chulainn manages to free them, and they return home to Cú Chulainn's fortress. His feast is at last given to the king.
Perhaps Cú Chulainn is symbolic of any powerful warrior, who must continually prove himself to maintain his social position. Cú Chulainn helps the Ulstermen out of their scrapes, and in the end he is finally able to give Conchobor his feast. Appropriately enough for a warrior of Cú Chulainn's stature, his feast lasts for 40 days!
Most importantly, the tale ends with the statement that Conchobor's successful reign is afterward assured. Thus The Intoxication of the Ulstermen is a tale that, for all its humor, frames all the major events that lead to a warrior's status — the ability (here, Conchobor's) to gain powerful clients and be properly treated by them, the ability to afford a sumptuous feast for one's chief — indeed, to throw that feast despite all intervening disasters! — and of course the warrior trials we expect in heroic literature.
Bricriu's Feast: The Challenge of Discord
I now turn to the tale Fled Bricrend ('Bricriu's Feast'), which Murphy summarizes as follows:
(1) the feast prepared by Bricriu, a well-known troublemaker; (2) the rivalry between Loiguire Buadach, Conall Cernach, and Cú Chulainn as to who will be awarded the portion [of the pig] reserved for the best champion; (3) the corresponding word-combat between their wives for precedence; (4) the journey to Crúachain Aí in Connacht to have the warriors' claims judged by Ailill and Medb, their testing there in combat with magic cats and the indication given by Medb that she has judged Cú Chulainn the best warrior of the three, followed by their subsequent testing in Cú Roí's palace in west Munster by other magic beings and the definite awarding of the champion's portion to Cú Chulainn; (5) Cú Roí's subsequent visit to Emain Macha [in the form of a giant ogre] to make the justice of his award evident to all by means of ... The Warrior's Bargain...[The bargain stipulates that] ... if a warrior were permitted to behead Cú Roí on the night in question, Cú Roí would be permitted to behead that warrior on the night immediately following. On successive nights a Ulidian warrior accepts the challenge. Cú Roí on each occasion picks up his severed head and walks away. Muinremor, Loíguire Búadach, and Conall Cernach fail to keep the compact, by not appearing on the second night. Cú Chulainn, when his turn comes, gloomily lays his head on the block; the giant strikes him gently with the blunt side of the axe and says, 'Rise up, Cú Chulainn. None of the warriors of Ulster or Ireland can now claim to be equal to thee in valor, or bravery, or truth. The sovranty of the heroes of Ireland is thine from this hour forth, and the Champion's Portion undisputed; and thy wife shall always enter the banqueting hall before the women of Ulster.' (1961, 40-44)
The events in Bricriu's Feast show the other side of status competition, at once a lighter and darker side. The lighter side is the fact that status competition is made the butt of one great joke throughout the tale, starting with Bricriu's 'apple of discord.' For all his disagreeableness, Bricriu is a potent critic of his own society and has identified the extent beyond which greed for status becomes silly. His joke first takes place at the expense of the women, whom he dupes into an amusing contest of their own — both physical, in their race to be first to his feast hall, and verbal, in "The Women's War of Words." Both events parody the more serious verbal contests that warriors undergo, as exemplified in The Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig.
The composer of Bricriu's Feast may even have thrown in a subtle parody of status rituals. In The Tale of MacDathó's Pig, for instance, verbal duels lead to verse interludes, which at last lead to a brief fight between Cet mac Magach and Conall Cernach. This is a plausible model of human interaction in which warriors existing under uneasy truce may be likely to engage in verbal duelling before breaking truce altogether in physical combat. However, the women in Bricriu's Feast start with physical competition before Sencha diverts the violence into a verbal duel. The evidence is meager and I can only suggest that the usual status competition of society, literature, or both has been reversed for its comic affect.
The darker side of status competition is in the flaws it reveals in the competitors and the judges. Cú Chulainn, Loegaire, and Conall Cernach proceed to Ailill and Medb to be judged. This does not please Ailill, who, like MacDathó, foresees bad things in deciding between rivals. Medb eventually must use a ruse to send all the heroes home, each with a cup that proclaims him to be winner in the contest, although Cú Chulainn gets the best cup and is shown to be the winner. But the heroes are not satisfied and must go on to further contests in the fortress of Cú Roí. Here another dark side comes out — pride and arrogance. Cú Chulainn's rivals feel that they are applauded by the people watching their feats:
Gebthi Conall dano in roth ocus ba do lár. Focheird iarom in roth co hochtaig ind rígthigi. Focherdat in macrad gair foa. Indar la Conall, bá gáir chommaidmi ocus búada; gair chuitbiuda immorro lasin macraid ani sin.
(Henderson 1899, 82)
"Conall then took the wheel; it was on the ground. He tossed it as high as the ridge-pole of the hall. The youths raised a shout at that. It seemed to Conall that it was a shout of applause and victory. To the youths its was a shout of scorn" (ibid, 83).
Cú Chulainn is the ideal model of humility, however:
Gebthi dano Cuchulainn in roth, ocus ba hetarbuas tarraid hé. Focheird dano in roth i n-ardi, co rolái a ochtaig on tig, co n-dechaid in roth ferchubat hi talmain fri les anechtair. Tibit in macrad gáir commaidmi ocus búada im Choinculainn. Indar la Coinculainn immorro bá gair chuitbiuda ocus fonamait forcerdat in macrad im sodain. (ibid, 82)
Then Cuchulainn took the wheel--it was in mid-air as he caught it. He hurled it aloft till it cast the ridge-pole from off the hall; the wheel went a man's cubit into the ground in the outside enclosure. The youths raised a shout of applause and triumph in Cuchulainn's case. It seemed to Cuchulainn, however, it was a laugh of scorn and ridicule they then gave vent to. (ibid, 83).
At last the real hero is judged in the beheading contest, in which an ogre similar to the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stalks into the feast hall one night and, after excepting the regal Conchobor and Fergus, says:
"...táet co tallur-sa a chend de innocht ocus co talla [sa mo cenn dím-sa imbarach dadaig]."
(ibid, 120; square brackets denote the editor's use of another text of the tale to fill missing portions)
"...come whosoever of you that may venture, that I may cut off his head to-night, he mine to-morrow night." (ibid, 121)
This is a challenge that the warriors understandably turn around so that the ogre will be the first to suffer the decapitation. The first contestant cuts the ogre's head off, who then stands and walks away with it. But the first and the second contestant renege on their contract to suffer the blow themselves, bringing dishonor to the tribe. The ogre upbraids them.
"Rosgaith pur n-gal 7 uur n-gaisgedh, a Ullti," or se. "Mor menma bar ccurad impa curathmir," ar se, "7 nittad tuolaing a cosnema. Caiti in siartha claontruad ucad," olce, "frisanapur Cuculaind, im pa ferr a priathar olttas an fianlaig naell." "Ni hadlaig dam cennagh frit itir," ol Cuchulaind. (ibid, 124)
"Ye men of Ultonia, your valor and your prowess are gone. Your warriors greatly covet the Champion's Portion, yet are unable to contest it. Where is yon poor mad wight that is hight Cuchulainn? Fain would I know if his word be better than the others." "No covenant do I desire with you," quoth Cuchulainn.
What? Cú Chulainn not eager for a contest of bravery? Surely a potent moment in Irish literature. But Cú Chulainn does keep his word and offers his head, which is in the end spared because the ogre is only Cú Roí, a 'wizard' out to test at last the warriors' bravery and honesty. But even Cú Chulainn was not quick to accept this last challenge, and no one wins a pristine victory by the end of Bricriu's Feast. Whether in playing chicken with a headsman's axe or a hot-rod, status competition is dangerous and penalizing.*
* I briefly note that a remark in The Sick-Bed of Cú Chulainn includes a theme of similar attitude. When praise poetry is spoken to the fairy king, Labraid, he chastises the poetry as a vehicle of pride and arrogance (Cross and
Slover 1969, 183-184).
Violence controlled by verbal rituals may be characteristic also of the Old English tradition. Clover (1979, 464) discusses the Unferth episode in Beowulf. Unferth's cynical challenge of the hero's qualities is similar to the Norse genre of the flyting, in which enemies revile each other in verbal duels. Clover writes:
The persistent notion that flytings end in violence has contributed to the opinion that the Unferth episode is inconclusive. Klaeber considered the lack of a battle challenge [the episode ends as Beowulf verbally humiliates Unferth with scathing rejoinders, and all sit down peacefully to Hrothgar's banquet] to be an "obvious, inherent defect" in the poem, and Brodeur on similar grounds concluded that "one can hardly regard this interchange as a mere flyting: flytings are either exchanges of crude wit, rough games, or invective preceding a fight..."
Clover's analysis suggests that verbal duels need not end in violence: violence "...is just one of several optional consequences which the poet did not choose" (ibid). Verbal duels may be linked to the spirit of ritualized border fighting — a method to channel violence into less destructive behaviors.
Finally, we can make comparisons between the speech duels and status-grabbing seen in these tales with similar kinds of behavior from other times and places. Bowen (1989, 32) observed that poetic duels in Sumatra can tend toward either extreme: duels between individuals tend toward agreement and self-effacement, whereas group duels promote attack and self-promotion. We can
look at the group duel in Mac Dathó's hostel as one of attack and self-promotion.*
Conclusion: The Audience and Self-Assessment
I will not argue that the society acted precisely in the way we see it in these tales; tales that are based on tradition are not trusty historical documents (O'Coileain 1981; see also the section about history and tradition in Chapter 2). But I propose that the tales were the poet's model of ideal behavior in many instances. His role was to present warfare in its idealized extremes of lawful order and treacherous chaos, and I think he hoped that the hot-blooded constituents of the audience did not miss the advice. Stories such as these distilled the essences of conflict. The spancel ring is the visible symbol of a tribe's honor — its willingness to meet all comers — as well as a symbol of a formal border at which the warlike traveller has the option of pausing or transgressing. Each of these options signals tribal intentions — forming a kind of unequivocal, binary, yes-no ritual. An invader pausing at the spancel ring signals his intentions to abide by ritual. The invader is delayed until he produces a champion, and the defender wins time to assess the invader, warn the territory, and assess his own political situation: "Who will come to support me? Do I have enough supporters to
* Yet, in other places in the traditions, duels or, at the outset, conflicting view-points, tend toward agreement: Mac Dathó and his wife arrive at a solution to their dilemma about the owner of the wonderful hound, and Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad, in their great duel, shift between attack and respect. Broader analysis of the outcomes of these speech acts promises interesting comparisons.
ritually win a confrontation? If not, do I attempt to make terms with the invader (become his client)?"
When tribes are not in conflict, the tradition asks the audience for self-assessment of conflicts that disintegrate the community from within. The Intoxication of the Ulstermen affirms, albeit comically, the need for status and subordination. This is, in a way, the standard that permits the two cautionary tales to exist. The Story of Mac Dathó's Pig is a model for a tension-reduction ritual that lives in narrative art — and it contains its own antithesis, the consequences of perversion, because it is the story of a ritual that failed. Bricriu's Feast continues along the same lines, although this tale is concerned with reducing internal conflicts within a group rather than the conflicts between rival tribes — the pattern seen in this tale should be viewed as the further end of the same spectrum of conflict-reduction rituals. None of these tales contradicts the themes in TBC, which is one great cautionary tale about ruined rituals.
In all cases the composers show positive and negative models of behavior — honored rules, broken rules. This fact helps to explain why Irish heroes are so enigmatic. We must see in these heroes an honest assessment of human nature — they are repositories for all extreme behavior, like flesh and blood people. They are heroic, contradictory, and humorous; in general they are fit characters to point towards and teach with.
Notes to Chapter 5
1 — This chapter started in the following papers:
"Swords and Circumscription: The Táin as an Adaptive Mechanism." 1984 Celtic Studies Conference. The Celtic Studies Association of North America. Queens College, NY. March 23, 1984.
"Status and Socialization: Traditional Poetry in Rituals." The Annual NEAA Meeting. Northeastern Anthropological Association. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. March 20, 1987.
"No Trespassing: Border Defense in the Táin Bó Cúailnge." Emania 3, Autumn 1987, 28-33.
"A Head-Hunter's Guide to Irish Borders." The Tenth Medieval Forum. Plymouth State College, Plymouth, NH. April 15, 1989.
"The Story of Mac Dathó's Pig — Tension Reduction through Poetry." The 1989 CSANA Conference and Harvard University Celtic Colloquium. Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. May 14, 1989.
"The Manipulation and Critique of Social Status in early Irish Literature." Annual MLA Meeting. Session 398. Sheraton Washington, Washington D.C. December 29, 1989.
2 — This chapter suggests that tension arose between different tribes partly because of pastoral nomadism. However, if we can take a lesson from Ireland's recent pastoralism, additional possibilities exist, which might form interesting research in the future. In recent days wandering cattle have been the cause of many disputes within communities. The Old Irish law tracts also treat 'animal trespass' (see Kelly 1988, 142-143, cited above). In medieval times, each autonomous tribe was composed of several fine (the joint family) who would be using general tribal grazing ground to which, perhaps, each clan might have had equal right. As with the more modern incidents, we can assume that the people living within a single tribe might have had cause for argument, but the solution of violence would have been even less desirable than it was against another tribe, thus the laws governing trespass and fines. However, then as now, laws do not always work, and violence might then have been perceived to be a solution. Within the tribe, violence must be averted because of the complexities involved in kinship alliances within and between tribes. There is even a brief episode in the Táin that reinforces this idea. In the tale of Imroll Belaig Eoin, kin from opposing sides of the fight meet to speak. Men of each side see an enemy accompanying their kin, and an exchange of spears goes awry and kills a comrade and a kinsman. Thereafter the place is named after the miscast (TBC-I, 192-193; TBC-II, 207); this tale comments on the nature of tribal feuding. Given the interwoven nature of tribal alliances, wars almost necessarily pit kin against kin (kin-slaying was considered the worst of crimes, one for which no legal recompense was possible [Kelly 1988, 127]), and so the ritual controls take on a deeper meaning.
Thus some of the functions of the traditional folklore that I discuss in this chapter — the use of place-lore, for instance — may have been applied to the tensions and land rights of kin-related and politically/economically related folk within a tribe itself.
As for disputes between tribes, limiting the damage of hostile contacts was born of the fact that tribal laws were valid only within each separate tribe (Binchy 1970, 5). Thus hostile contacts might soon devolve into raids or killings, at which time the only recourse was to the ritual honor of constrained warfare — the spancel ritual and the rules of fair play.
3 — Note an interesting parallel in a recent television episode in the series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the episode, the human captain of an exploratory spacecraft is chosen by an alien race to mediate their dispute about political succession. He delays combat between the two contestants by insisting on the use of the ancient form of their succession ritual, which requires each contestant to engage in a lengthy verbal prelude to their combat. The time won (a few days) allows the mediator to discover a way to avoid violence. The parallel suggests that further research in life and literature may elucidate a general human ideal of conflict reduction.