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An Irish Saga

A good deal of very ancient Irish mythology survives still. It is the narrative of gods and goddesses, of the áes síde or fairy people, of ancient heroic kings, and of the exploits of druids, fighting men, shape-shifters and much more.

Though much of this mythology survives, none of it survives in its original form - whatever that might have been. It only survived at all because it was written down in the middle ages by literate people (mostly monks and clergy) after it had been part of a centuries long mix-and-match of native Gaelic story-telling and of Christian biblical culture. It was also transformed by the pressure of historical events - such as Viking invasions - which lent their own spin to the stock of legend; and even some classical influences from the Aenid and the Iliad.

One of the most impressive products of this mythical inheritance is the Táin Bó Cúailnge, 'the Cattle Raid of Cúailnge'. It is a prime example of this kind of transformation. A splendid epic tale, its events are regarded as having taken place around the first century BC/AD. However, though it purports to be a written version of an ancient oral epic, it includes many things which are much later - references to ogham script, for example, which only appeared in Ireland centuries after the events of the Táin are meant to have taken place.

Nevertheless, if used carefully the Táin can at least offer suggestions as to the life and culture of pre-literate Irish society. It is too optimistic to call it (as Kenneth Jackson did) 'a window on the Iron Age': it just isn't that transparent. But we may be able to discern certain traces of a more ancient past, nevertheless.

The story begins with Medb, the mythical queen of Connacht, in bed at Crúachan with her husband Ailill. They are arguing over who has the greatest assets. Medb claims that it was she who gave Ailill the sort of wealth and stature that he could only dream of. She calls him a kept man, saying she paid a handsome price for him, and seeks to humiliate him, diminishing his masculine prowess.

Ailill is disgusted with this interpretation and counters that he came and took Medb after he had heard about this woman ruling a province, the only province in Ireland to be ruled by a woman. Medb argues that regardless of the circumstances of their betrothal her wealth is greater than his.

Ailill insists that it is he who has the greatest wealth of anyone in the whole of Ireland. What follows is an inventory of both their belongings. In the end their vast wandering herds of cattle were brought in from the four corners of the province and found to be equal in size and number, but for one thing: there was a great bull in one of Ailill's herds which had been born of one of Medb's cows. It didn't like being owned by a woman, however, and so it had gone over to Ailill's herd. It's name was Finnbennach - 'Whitehorn'.

All of Medb's wealth and property meant nothing to her now that she didn't have a bull to match the Finnbennach. She summoned Mac Roth and told him to find her the match of Ailill's bull. Mac Roth told her that he knew of an even greater bull in the province of Ulster, in the territory of Cúailnge, in the herd of Dáire mac Fiachniu.

Medb sought the loan of the Brown Bull of Cúailnge for a year, and promised Dáire payment of fifty heifers, a fine chariot and a fine portion of the Plain of Aí to rule over. She also offered the Dáire the pleasures of 'her own friendly thighs'.

Dáire mac Fiachniu at first accepted the offer, but after Medb's men offended his honour he changed his mind. Medb's reply was that if the bull were not given freely then it would be taken by force. So began the Cattle Raid of Cúailnge, the violence and slaughter of heroes, and the final ruin and defeat of Medb - a woman who has behaved dishonourably during the tale. The moral is pronounced by one of the characters at the end: "We followed a woman's arse; a herd led by a mare is usually strayed and destroyed." Ultimately, Medb is a negative figure in the Táin, acting dishonourably, dishonestly and inadequately. She aspires to a male role of leadership, and fails.

These mythical texts give us some insights into the society of the past, particularly when we read them in conjunction with archaeological evidence. But we must be careful: the use of arrows in the Táin, for example, is an anachronism. There is no evidence of archery in Ireland at any point from around 1500 BC until the coming of the Vikings in the ninth century AD. When archery does appear in the Gaelic language, the word for the weapon is saiget, a word borrowed from the Latin word sagitta, 'arrow'.

Other aspects of the tale do reflect ancient Irish mythology, however. Medb is a personification of the goddess of sovereignty and fertility. Her name is also related to the English word 'mead' - the intoxicating honey drink - and suggests her role as the goddess who makes drunk, also associated with king-making. Just as the myth of kingship described a man becoming king by having sex with the goddess, so in our story Ailill has become king of Connaght by virtue of his marriage with Medb. Similarly, when she offers Dáire the rule over a tract of land and invites him to enjoy 'her own friendly thighs', she is offering the same kind of gift.

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