CLT 2140 • All information about the course, dates, books, schedule etc is posted on: • www.courseweb.uottawa.ca/CLT2140
Mythology and Saga In Early Irish Society (c700-1100AD)
Early Celtic Literature: the Church. • The development of the Irish church is essential to our understanding of early Irish and Welsh literature. The church introduced literacy first in Latin and soon afterwards this skill was adapted to the Irish language (in Welsh in Wales). • The Irish church was very independent, as was Christianity throughout the Celtic world.
Early Celtic Literature • The Irish Celtic church followed a unique pattern, revolving around (small) monasteries rather than bishoprics, and evolving its own customs (its own form of tonsure, and the method for calculation of Easter). • Aspects of the older pagan religion were also incorporated to aid conversion. • Brigid and Anna (Brigitia and Anu).
Early Celtic Literature • From our point of view, it is the scholarship and writing skills that developed in the Irish church which draw our attention. • Despite its peculiarly local flavour, the Irish church blossomed into the leading centre of scholarship in northwest Europe with internationally renowned centres in Clonmacnois and Glendalough. Scholars and students came to Ireland from the whole of Europe.
Early Celtic Literature: the church • Likewise Irish missionaries roamed the British Isles and Europe. (Playing an important part in the conversion of Germanic- speaking nations). • One of the cultural achievements of the Irish church was the production of a native literature in the Irish language.
Early Celtic Literature: • At the same time we must be aware that that we are talking of a written culture. Ireland, like most of Europe had its own oral culture which had existed since time immemorial. • The new written culture reflects this oral culture, and brings in its own genius.
The Oral Tradition- Béaloideas • In the pre-Christian period in Ireland, high culture (bardic poetry, the law system, tribal traditions) was oral, yet cultivated by a high-status cast, the intellectual class who had been called druids in antiquity. • This culture was handed down from one generation to another, embellished yet essentially unchanged (myth, saga).
The Oral Tradition- Béaloideas • At the same time a more popular culture must have existed outside of the more aristocratic elements in early Irish society. • Of this we have few indications, but certainly it would have also shared some of the storytelling features of the high-culture (Tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and the Ulster Cycle).
The Oral Tradition- Béaloideas • When literacy evolved in Ireland, elements of both traditions began to be written down (in an ecclesiastical setting most often).
Early Celtic Literature: the church • The early Irish church was a highly scholastic and artistic institution, including the production of exquisite religious manuscripts.(The Book of Kells) • But we owe them a special thanks for preserving (and adding to) many traditional Irish tales (narratives) which is a great treasure since these are our only record of the oral literature of a Celtic people unconquered by the Romans.
Early Celtic Literature • Although early Irish and Welsh literature are products of the high medieval period in European literature, it will become very obvious that the kind of writing that has survived is very different to popular concepts of what ‘medieval’ writing is like. • The medieval writing of France and England have their origin in the elitist courts of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy.
Early Celtic Literature • Early Celtic writing, as has been said, is not a new literature created for the élites of the court, but the survival or re-creation of materials which belong to an earlier time in Irish history- the heroic age of Ulster and Connacht, and the mythological materials of the pre-Christian Irish.
Early Celtic Literature • There are various reasons for the preservation of this saga material. • Writing was soon understood as a means of conserving traditional sagas about semi-mythological or legendary heroes or kings. Those who traced their lineage back to such figures were the same as those who protected and patronised the church.
Early Celtic Literature • Provincial history ( the ancient provinces of Ireland: Ulster, Connacht, Meath, Leinster and Munster) was remembered in the form of annals (lists of historical events) and saga: how ancestors had led the ‘men of Ulster’, or the ‘men of Connacht’. • The church was not independant of the political life of Ireland in the early Middle Ages.
Unlike the popular preconception of what Celtic writing is deemed to be, Irish writing is realistic, it is in fact sometimes a kind of magical realism, but the realism of the events and values presented in these narratives relates closely to the social order that existed in the early Irish middle ages. . Early Celtic Literature: realism
Early Celtic Literature: realism • The closest parallel in medieval European literature is the Icelandic sagas, but here the important pre-Christian element is less obvious. • The Celtic Otherworld plays an important role in early Irish literature.
Classifying the Irish material. • The Mythological Cycle.(the gods and goddesses of pagan Ireland, tales of the Otherworld) • The Ulster Cycle. (the stories of Cú Chulainn) • The Kings’ Cycle (focusses on historical and legendary kings of early Ireland) • The Finn Cycle. (Adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill)
Early Celtic Literature • In this course we will be studying the first three categories. • Despite this classification, there is a continual overlap from one category to the next especially where the semi-mythic Otherworld is concerned (the world of the pre-Christian deities and other supernatural beings).
Aspects of Early Irish Society reflected in E I Literature • Sacred Kingship The Sovereignty goddess • Festivals in Early Ireland (Samhain) • The ‘Otherworld’ ( the Sidh= ‘shee’) • The ‘Heroic’ Age (next class).
Mythology and Saga • Sacred kingship in Ireland: • Ireland was never a single kingdom but had many regional and ‘provincial’ monarchs. • One estimate states that Ireland had some 150 kings between the 5th and 12th centuries in a population of no more than c500,000. • Chieftain might be a more accurate term. • The Irish term is ríg.
Mythology and Saga • The ‘king’ or chieftain was not only a political figure. He was the ‘embodiment of the prosperity of his people’. • Although early Irish tradition speaks of the powerful queen-Queen Medb (Meeve), there is no reference to queens in early Irish tradition (annals). (But we know that the Celtic Britons had queens, eg Boudica).
Mythology and Saga • The king was sacred because he was called to perform religious rituals, that even the priests (usually called druids) could not perform. • There are several prominent kings in early Irish tradition: • Niall of the Nine Hostages; Conn of the Hundred Battles; and Brian Boru.
Mythology and Saga • Such kings living in an isolated island culturally and geographically in the early centuries oversaw societies which were often radically different from their counterparts in continental Europe. • Their concepts of family, property and law are often reflected in the saga material of the period which has survived.
Mythology and Saga • Where the Romans conquered their law and much of their societal structure was introduced. Ireland had only trade contacts with the Romans, and minimal military contact. • Despite the introduction of Christianity into Ireland by Celtic Britons (Patrick) brought writing and primitive monasticism into the island. • But Ireland retained its own Celtic law system for centuries (Brehon law until 12th century)
Mythology and Saga • Early Irish history is dominated by warring dynasties, especially that of the O’Neills whose original territory was in NE Ireland but spread all over the island. • A major influence on Ireland during 9-11th centuries were the Vikings, who founded such cities as Dublin, Limerick and Galway.
Mythology and Saga • Christianity became well established in Ireland in the centuries following its introduction in the 5th century. It retained a local form, uninfluenced by the ‘Roman tendences’ of continental Christianity. This came to an abrupt end in the 12th century when Henry II of England brought the Irish church closer to European practises.
Mythology and Saga • However, in the sagas we shall be reading from Ireland (as well as the intermixed mythology), we will be in a largely pre-Christian context (Ulster Cycle, Kings’ Cycle, Mythology). Yet the writers of these texts lived a life of Christian custom and ritual. Hence, one of the ironies of this valuable material.
Mythology and Saga • Irish law pervades much of this literature, often the result of judgments given by the druids who play a central role in these narratives. • Here are some major differences between Irish law and contemporary European law (c9-12th centuries):
Mythology and Saga: kings • The early Irish did not practise primogeniture. • The new Irish king was not necessarily the son of the previous king; in fact the king might not even come from the king’s immediate family (fine), but rather from a much wider family spectrum, the so-called derbfhine (descendants from a common great-grandfather).
Mythology and Saga: kings • The new king should be ‘unblemished’; • The son of a principal wife, or if this was not possible the son of a legitimate second wife. • There was nothing to stop a younger son becoming king over an older son. • ‘electing’ a new king could be quite complicated (see Da Derga’s Hostel) and highly ritualized.
Mythology and Saga: kings • The candidate should belong to the same derbfhine as the previous king. • A contest, test or election would follow. • Any male descendant could be considered. Obviously such a system led to internecine conflict if not outright war. • A new king was expected to have certain moral qualities:
Mythology and Saga: kings • A good ruler should have fir flathemon (Truth of the Ruler). Basically this meant that he would have a character above reproach, he would be a good judge. • He should be descended from high ancestry, and clearly should be ‘heroic’. • His actions would have a direct impact on the fertility of the land (again see Da Derga’s Hostel).
Mythology and Saga: kings • Another form of succession also existed whereby a deputy-king was appointed called the tánaise (rig). • His appointment would have entailed testing in the same manner as that of the king.
Mythology and Saga • The ‘high-king and Tara (Temuin). • The Hill of Tara in Co Meath close to Navan, the ancient capital of the Ulaid (Ulster) people. • It is possible to see a great distance from the site (‘one third of Ireland’). • Traditionally this site was associated with the ard-rí (high-king of Ireland). It was also associated with the goddess Medb.
Mythology and Saga • Normally a king (or tribal chieftain) would rule over a tuath (thus the rí tuaithe). • Such a king had a small retinue of soldiers (or armed clansmen), a following of noble ‘clients’, and a stewart to collect revenues. • Clientship. • Elaborate tests to determine the suitability of a king at Tara (rí Temhrach).
Mythology and Saga • Driving the chariot through Tara. • The ‘bull-feast’ (tarbhfheis). • (King Conaire in Da Derga’s Hostel) • Tara also features as a magical place in the narratives of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. This is also implied in the tale of Da Derga’s Hostel.
Mythology and Saga:Sovereignty • Kingship in Ireland was closely associated with pagan concepts to do with ‘sovereignty’. • Here sovereignty is less a political term, but rather one connected with the mythology of early Ireland. • Sovereignty (in Irish flaith)=right to rule, lordship over territory.
Sovereignty • Early Irish records are full of sexual metaphors with regard to the initiation of a new king in the context of sovereignty. • The sacral king is the spouse of his tuath. • In the 6th century this initiation was called the ‘wedding feast of kingship’ (banais righe). • The new king would be given a libation to drink and then would ‘sleep’ with the goddess of the land.
Sovereignty • At Tara (the main site of kingship in Ireland), the ceremony was called feis Tem(h)rach. • It is claimed that this was reaffirmed each year (Geoffrey Keating 1625-31). • Possibly this was held at times when fertility was needed for the land, and animals.
Sovereignty goddesses • ‘kingship is male and sovereignty is female’. • Possibly this explains why the concept of the queen seems absent from early laws and annals (although there is a major exception in early Irish literature: queen Medb).
Sovereignty goddesses • Most of our knowledge of such concepts are found scattered in the early narratives themselves. • Irish myth is mostly found in the saga material. • In other words, Irish ‘myths’ do not occur as specific tales. • Compare a Greek ‘myth’.
Sovereignty goddesses • This concept of the female embodiment of power (and the right to reign) is reflected in the various female characters in early Irish narrative: • They must be won sexually by any male who aspires to be king. Ie the land goddess (the goddess of sovereignty gives the authority to rule).
Sovereignty goddesses • Such females change in the course of even one narrative from being seductive to being loathsome. • Such concepts are not uniquely Irish, but are found in antiquity in the eastern Mediteranean and areas in modern-day Iraq.
Sovereignty goddesses • In Irish mythological tales (usually inserted into saga material or pseudo-history) such sovereignty characters as the following appear: • Mór Mum(h)an from SW Ireland. She is described as being indescribably beautiful. • She is also described as having been involved sexually with known historical figures. • Her names occurs in many placenames (Tigh Mhoire).
Sovereignty goddesses • Other sovereignty goddess are the trio Banba, Fodla and Eriu, all of whom represent the island of Ireland. We will hear more about them when we come to study the Book of Invasions next week. The modern name Eire is a version of her name. • She was especially associated with another sacral site in Ireland called Uisnech (known as the centre of Ireland).
Sovereignty goddesses • Eriu also appears in the 11th century tale Baile in Scail in which she is portrayed as the woman of sovereignty of Ireland. • She is obliquely described as the wife of the Irish god Lug(h) who presides over a scene in which Conn of a Hundred Battles hears that his descendants will rule Ireland. (Lugh appears in the Ulster Cycle).
Sovereignty goddesses • The best known sovereignty goddess in Ireland is undoubtedly the Cailleach Bhéire or Hag of Beare. • She will appear to a hero or warrior as an old woman to be loved. When she receives love she becomes a beautiful young woman. • Medb.
Feasts in Early Ireland • Early Ireland had four major festivals which were celebrated by regional assemblies in which everyone participated. These are referred to quite frequently in the Sagas. • These festivals were: • Samhain (Samuin) • Imbolc • Beltaine • Lughnasa