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Felicity Novak

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Wave 9 – Niall of the Nine Hostages

The Embracing of the Shadow (Kissing the Crone)

Niall is a King of Tara.  This is a story of a moment where mythology meets history.  The precise date of his death is felt to have been around 450 AD. His name Noígíallach means nine hostages which meant that he had hostages from nine septs in the kingdom.  He was the first of a long dynasty of kings, the Uí Néill as we move into the historical period.

Niall’s father was Eochaid by Caireann.  But the legal wife was Mongfind who had four more sons by the King.  Mongfind treated Caireann like a slave and in the pattern of ‘hero’ stories the baby Niall was born in the open and then abandoned.  The poet Torna, picked him up and reared him.  He could see Niall’s future role as a great King.

Torna brought Niall to Tara when the time was right.  Niall saw to it that Caireann, his mother, was treated honourably.  He clothed her in a purple robe.  From slave to queen was what he ensured happened!


The Niall story is highlighted by two tests.  One is the fire at the forge of the druid smith, Sithchenn.   He sets the place on fire.  The four brothers emerge with what they could grab.  But it is Niall who emerges with the anvil – an object on which many other objects can be made.  He then is proclaimed the greatest.  The second dramatic test is the encounter with the ugly hag/crone as the brothers seek water.  It is only Niall who is willing to kiss the hag, embace her and be with her.  She is sovereignty and transforms into a beautiful girl.  This again reaffirms the Kingship ideology of King sleeping with sovereignty – the land.

The Connections and insights from Participants

The Bard team collected some of the most significant connections and insights from participants at the immersion.  They are from the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – Eochaid’s Passivity

Niall’s father is extremely passive in the light of Mongfind’s treatment of Caireann.  She treats her like a slave!  The comments made were in the context that with her vicious behaviour of which he could not have been ignorant.  But he did nothing!  Did he feel guilty on his encounter with Caireann.

Connection 2 – The Test at the Forge

The symbolism of the fire at the forge was a source of rich debate.  Clearly the anvil represented the King as a creator of things with an enduring prosperity.  In contrast the kindling from the forge (representing fire) represented the impotence of the transient.  The other items selected were human made instruments whereas the kindling was not.  Was this a penalty for seizing that which is property gifted by the land.  This has echoes in the Cormac MacAirt story with the thatched cottage where the roof is blown away by the wind.

Connection 3 – The Beer and its Symbolism
One of the items/objects selected by one of the brothers was  beer.   Participants speculated on the symbolism and meaning of beer from the forge.  Did it symbolise science, beauty or fun and relaxation?    It was suggested that there was as broader, deeper and more complex relationship with beer than in the present day (health and hygiene, economy and artisanship, a mead/beer hall!).


Connection 4 – Symbolism of Water
Water plays a very important symbolic role in the story.   Niall’s mother Caireann, is tasked with carrying water, and then later water is what the brothers are searching for when they encounter the hag/crone and it becomes a symbol and medium of choice of Niall as the King.  The water symbolism is contrasted with the fire symbolism – the fire at the forge.

Connection 5 – Kissing the Hag
The encounter with the hag in the pursuit of water is a central moment in the story.  This reflected, for the group, the concept of sovereignty as “marrying the land”.  The hag as a Triple Goddess figure and Kingship as being a contract with the other world.  Niall’s engagement with the hag suggesting he fully grasps this role in its wholeness.

Also important in this story is the idea of “journeying through the shadow” with echoes of the psychology of Jung and Freud and of the writings of Dante.  The shadow for Jung was those aspects of ourselves that we deny and then project out on to others.  Individualism for Jung was in part about re-owning the shadow.

Connection 6 – Kingship – Treating People Well
One of the notable characteristics of Niall is how he treats the marginalised, the rejected, the outcast.  This is firstly in the case of his mother, Caireann, who Mongfind has treated as a slave.

But it is also in regard to the old hag/crone.  He is the only one of the five sons willing to kiss her.

Connection 7 – The Substance of Kingship
The contrast was made between the present day dominance of appearances and stereotypes in politics.  The qualities of Niall are looking beyond to more complex and subtle truths.  The depths of King wisdom suggested here, were to provide the political justification for the power of the Uí Néill kings who were to last into the next six centuries.

 

Finally the comment was made that myth as something that never actually happened yet is always happening!

Wave 8 – Conaire Mór: The Exemplary King

And the Constraints of the use of Power

Conaire Mór was one of the great mythical high kings of Ireland. 
His reign ushered in a remarkable period of abundance, happiness and good fortune.  What we learn is that this is a result of an alignment in the early part of his reign with the forces of the otherworld.  These are articulated in the geasa (restrictions, taboos) and buada (gifts and responsibilities) of Conaire’s Kingship which are respected.

What happens is that his Enflaith (or reign) which Moriarty described as “the bird reign of the once and future king” was initially exemplary.  However, it all starts to go wrong and things start to unravel.  What happens is Conaire breaks one of his geasa when he is asked to make a judgement over the forbidden act of diberg or plundering.  He favours his foster brothers over the other plunderers and orders a farmer to kill his son according to the law/custom.  Conaire only exiles his foster brothers.

This story of which the principal text is Togail Bruidne Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) tells of the demise of Conaire as he breaks geasa after geasa before ultimately coming to a grisly end as the foster brothers return with helpers to cause the demise of him and the hostel.  It is, in essence, a cautionary tale.

The story is an excellent opportunity to explore and understand the ancient ideology of kingship: the role of the otherworld at key ritual moment such as birth, the constraints on power in the form of the geasa, the role of the natural world in the fate of the king, the concept of Fir Flathemon, a ruler’s truth, the way the natural world reflects the behaviour and actions of a king.  Wasteland or abundance is tied up to the practice of Fir Flathemon and the adherence to the constraining geasa.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.


Connection 1 – Extraordinary Pressures on a King
What was apparent was the extraordinary pressure Conaire Mór was under as King.  This was especially when asked to choose between his beloved foster brothers, now plunderers, and the cultural imperative that they be put to death.  Conaire fails this test, breaks the geasa and the downfall begins in a comprehensive and unforgiving way.  Essentially there is no place for nepotism in this ideology of kingship.  Participants put themselves in Conaire’s position.  They ask could they put the demands to honour law and custom over family?  This is an extraordinary pressure.  For many they would not want that kind of responsibility.

Connection 2 – The 45th President

The marked contrast between this Ancient Irish Kingship ideology and the Trump presidency was noted.  It was apparent how the 45th President has frequent recourse to nepotism both in terms of his family and his benefactors.  The concept of geasa highlights an almost sacred bond between King and his people bound by certain rules.  Break the rules, the geasa and you break the bond.  Things will unravel. But Ancient Ireland was a culture that had shared values around kingship.  They share a common mythology.

Connection 3 – The Good King Question
It was clear that the matter of what is a good king is inherent in this story and indeed the other king stories (Cormac MacAirt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Labhraidh Loingseach).  This remains a live and eternal question in all societies?  What the Conaire Mór story offered was an image of an ideal king. When things started to unravel it became a cautionary tale.  How does contemporary kingship stand up was a natural question.

Connection 4 – Travelling naked to Tara
The image of Conaire travelling naked to Tara suggested to participants the idea of a new start, a transformation of culture with new knowledge.  It also represented a willingness to show vulnerability in the “once and future king”.  This is the King that brings a childlike perspective to the task, sees things that others see but don’t say.

Connection 5 – Knowing Culture, Representing All
In a way the Conaire story highlights the centrality of the King knowing the culture and acting out of that knowledge and its rules.  Conaire in his judgement clearly moves away from his culture’s rules and is no longer representing everyone.  He is favouring his family, a small subset of culture.   It is culture that shapes the ideology of kingship and that culture is shaped by the shared compendium of stories.

Connection 6 – The Unforgiving Nature of Kingship
One comment made was how unforgiving is the story of Conaire.  He makes one mistake, but there is no way back.  It is as if once things start to go wrong a chain of events is set up in which there is no return.  Observations were made as to recent ‘collective scapegoating’ incident in politics.  When things go wrong, they really go wrong.  But as a listener it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Conaire.  The question was asked, is there any place for forgiveness in Irish Myth

Connection 7 – Checks and Balances, Constraints on the Powerful
Participants reflected on the balances and constraints there are in the myths as restrictions on the use of power by the powerful.  In this case it is less an ‘institutional’ constraint such as the separations of power in a democracy between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government than a body of myths that provided a cultural set of constraints.  The checks and balances are more cultural and embodied in the ‘lore’ more than the ‘law’!

It is almost as if the role of the poet/bard acts as the custodian of the stories which acts as the ‘cultural glue’ and as a balancing force around power as practiced by the king.  The notion of Tara/Uisneach as described by the symbol of the kidney captures the same idea

Wave 7 – Amhairghin and the Arrival of the Sons of Mil

And, the end of Goddess Culture

The arrival of Amhairghin Glungheal and the Sons of Mil is the arrival of the Gaels in Ireland.  This was the start of Celtic Ireland.  What is self evident in this, but a surprise to many, is that there was a whole history and mythology of pre-Celtic Ireland.  The “Irish” weren’t always Celts!

Mil was descended from Noah according to Lebor Gabála and lived in Scythia.  He had to leave Scythia because of a jealous king and set off on a great journey.   He was travelling towards Ireland but never made it.  His uncle, Íth, decided to travel to Ireland with thrice 50 warriors.  The Tuatha Dé engaged in discussion but in the end killed Íth. He was brought back to Spain.  This was not exactly exemplary hospitality.

Nine of Íth’s brothers and eight of the Sons of Mil set off to take Ireland from the Tuatha Dé.  They arrive at Inber Scéne (Kenmare Bay) where Amhairghin delivered a piece of mystical rhetoric.  They defeated a force of the Tuatha Dé at Sliabh Mis.  The great Banba, Fódla and Ériu who all asked that their name be on the Country.


They, the Sons of Mil then met three kings of the Tuatha Dé who persuaded the Sons of Mil to retreat over nine waves.  But in a druid battle they won and arrived again on the shores of Ireland.  They then defeated the Tuatha Dé at the Battle of Tailtiu.  The Tuatha were then banished to live in the sidh and other lonely places.  For philosopher, mystic, John Moriarty “this was a sad day for Ireland, a cultural disaster, a worse disaster culturally than the coming of the Vikings, than the coming of Cromwell and his religious roundheads”.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

 

Connection 1 – The Transition from A pre Celtic World
Clearly what we are dealing with here is Irish pre-history but nevertheless we do know the Celts arrived from the 5th century BC onwards.  This means there was a pre-Celtic Ireland.  For some people this is news and something they have given no thought.  In a sense, for many, the Irish are Celts, always have been.  So the Sons of Mil arriving is a transition.  It seemed that this idea was fully and enthusiastically welcomed by some, enthusiastic about the pre Celtic Ireland.  For others, it seemed, this was not so welcome!  It was a surprising, perhaps ’shocking’ new idea! 

Connection 2 – The Gender Dimension
What this arrival/invasion marked was a transition that was a movement to a more patriarchal/male dominated world.  And despite the lack of historical information, there is an enormous significance in a collective cultural chance to remember a story that symbolises the idea that patriarchy came from somewhere else (as opposed to being inherent to human nature).  The Tuatha Dé Danann were the people of the goddess, Danu.  They were a goddess culture.  The arrival of the Celts was the end of that matriarchal culture.

Connection 3 – The Tuatha Dé Driven Underground
Significance of Tuatha being driven underground: with the symbolism of the unconscious, the “other world”, faerie, rivers/forests as ecological foundations of life.  It also offers a receded but nonetheless ever present layer of more valuable things in life than those valued on the surface.  Also comparisons with king under the mountain trope: not really dead but there biding its time, to surface again in times of danger, and potentially to one day take power again.  For some ,the idea of the Tuatha Dé coming back over ground again is compelling, especially from a feminist perspective.

Connection 4 – Circular Thought
The sense of spirals, waves and continuous motion and a cyclical conception of history.  This is contrasted with the linear progress narratives of history and of Greco Roman thought.  This spiral/cyclical conception applies in our personal lives as well.  But the idea of spiral suggests ever spiralling layers of one’s understanding.  These stories, this wisdom tradition evokes a circular world view.

Connection 5 – Irish Suspicion of Outsiders
In spite of all the compliments of Íth who led the forward party, the Tuatha Dé were very suspicious.  And as we know, they killed him.  The participants suggested that there might be a lesson here. 

Is there an enduring suspicion of the stronger (Britain, the EU, new arrivees) and what about current Irish political negotiations?  Certainly the Tuatha Dé did not cover themselves in glory with this episode.


Connection 6 – Faults on both Sides
The story highlights a strong sense of the Tuatha’s action being wrong in the killing of Íth.  This then brought on the aggression of the Sons of Mil but participants reflected on feelings of shame and perhaps a reflection on Ireland’s historical wrong doings.  In turn was Amhairghin’s song all about ego (as represented by Moriarty) and could they be trusted?  In the end they did get rid of the Tuatha Dé and the goddess culture.  It seems the Tuatha Dé had demonstrated a failure of hospitality and a loss of touch with their own values.

Connection 7 – A story with Global Resonances
What the story of the Sons of Mil represents is the possible Scythian origins of the Irish.  There are also important connections in this story to Noah and the Fenius the Ancient and those who went on to build the Tower of Babel and to Moses.  This Old Testament figure, Moses, saved the life of the infant Gaedheal, who was bitten by a snake, by touching him with his rod before pronouncing that Gaedheal’s descendent would be safe from serpents and live in a land where no such creatures existed – Ireland!

 

There are clearly connections here to Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures and a number of mythic resonances.

Wave 6 – Cú Chulainn as a Tragic Hero

Where Now with Warrior 

What we have experienced experienced in the Bard is that as we tell the many stories of the Tain that the take on the story becomes ever more tragic and sad. Cú Chulainn is, as you tell the story, absolutely not a romantic hero but rather a figure of tragedy.

We told the story of “The Curse of Macha” and how this farmer Crunchu has all his dreams come true when Macha comes into his life.  But she tells him one thing he is not to do, don’t boast about me.  He can’t resist!  And the race with Kings horses is set up.  The twins are born but Macha dies but not before cursing the Men of Ulster, who, at their time of greatest need will be struck down, and unable to fight.

The Curse of Macha story sets up the Battle with Ferdia at the Ford.  Cú Chulainn’s fights with his foster brother, Ferdia who is representing the Men of Connacht and Medb’s army.  We told this story but because of time had to omit much else.  We also told the story of the death of Connla, Cú Chulainn’s son with Aoife during his time with Scatchach in Scotland.

And finally, we covered the Death of Cú Chulainn at the hands of the Sons of Calatan and how some of his past victories (he had killed Calatan) came back to haunt him.  The combined effect of the battle with Ferdia, the death of Connla and the death of Cú Chulainn created a powerful aggregated effect.  It is simply tragic but most of all you are left with a feeling of how little agency this extraordinary warrior had! How ironic that someone so apparently powerful had so little power to shape his destiny!

 

The Connections and insights from Participants 

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – Medb’s Ease of Manipulation
In the telling of the Battle at the Ford the way in which Queen Medb is so easily able to manipulate Ferdia into a fight he does in no way desire.  She did this through appealing to his pride, or perhaps more accurately the threat of shame if he did not take up the challenge.  The role of emotion and manipulation was noted as an important feature in setting up the ‘brother battle’ between Cú Chulainn and Ferdia.

Connection 2 – How People of Strength are Manipulated

One reflection on Cú Chulainn and Ferdia is how the strong are manipulated by the powerful.  The power figure could be a Queen as in Medb but the ‘powerful’ could also create a culture that value certain sacrificial behaviour that is the duty of the physically strong.  The young, often men, are then a sacrificial victim within a particular cultural context.  They have little or no agency.  Those that do exercise a sense of agency e.g. conscientious objectors, deserters or those who commit suicide in these horrific circumstances in contrast earn only spite and contempt.

Connection 3 – The Tain: A Cautionary Tale
One way we can read the Cú Chulainn story is as a celebration of the warrior spirit, energy and the idea of the ‘blood and sacrifice’.  In this regard the archetype seems to have played a powerful role in the cultural imagination.  The events of 1916 and the actions of figures like Padraig Pearse seeming to act out the ultimate blood sacrifice.  In modernity, the exploits of our sporting heroes across sports and in every village, county, province and the nation, are embodiments, surely of those figures who ‘put their necks on the line’ to defend the honour of the  community.

But ultimately, and hearing these stories, Ferdia’s battle, Connla’s death and Cú Chulainn’s demise, the collective feeling was that the Tain can be understood as a critique, a total critique of the warrior archetype and of war and where it can lead.  Every battle, every death in battle is essentially the death of a brother.

Connection 4 – Silence and Speechless-ness
Such was the impact, the cumulative impact of the stories of the Ferdia battle, the Connla death and  the Cú Chulainn demise that the participants were left with a sense of speechlessness ……. what was there to say, what could be said after that …. the stories were so powerful.  The collective experience seemed to be …. this is so sad, so tragic.  Only a wish to be silent.

Connection 5 – Cú Chulainn’s Red Mist
There was another angle on the powerlessness of the apparently most powerful.   It was the reflection that when Cú Chulainn was in his rístrádh, when the ‘red mist’ descended, he was actually not in control.  Internal emotions and instincts had completely taken him over, he was unable to distinguish friend from foe, he had lost any sense of agency.  So both from forces outside him and from forces inside him, Cú Chulainn is not in control.


Connection 6 – Warrior and the Return Journey
One participant had a son who worked as a psychiatrist in the US Military dealing with post war trauma and post traumatic stress disorder.  He spoke of the difficulty of the return journey after the conflict.  It is as if the mental places a warrior goes in battle, what they do, what they see makes it very difficult to return to normal life.  And then if they do not return as ‘heroes’, as happened after the Vietnam War in the US, it makes it doubly difficult.  The classic deal for the warrior/soldier is ‘you put your neck on the line’ (ref. the Champion’s Portion) and on return you get the best of everything, return a hero and if you die we will sing about you for eternity.  But modern psychiatry and experience highlights the lie that there may be in this warrior code.

Connection 7 – War Ritualised …. To Contain the Rage
One point that was made was that some scholars (for example Proinsias MacCana – Early Irish Ideology and the Concept of Unity in “The Irish Mind” P 64/65) have pointed out that  fighting in early Irish society was rigidly patterned and that it had strong elements of ritual.  It was pointed out that the use of ritual in the Good Friday Agreement was helpful in containing the rage.  In this regard language using forms of address, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Adams, was helpful in creating a contained anger.

And one current question for participants was as to whether this was essentially a tale of a violent society in Irish pre-history or one where the fighting was contained within ritual structures and not that harmful.  Indeed, did the fighting act to strengthen cultural ties and bonds?

Wave 5 – Cú Chulainn: Romantic Cultural Hero

The Classic Archetype of the Warrior

 

What the Bard Mythologies Global Research Study on Irish Myth revealed is that one of the best known figures in Irish Myth is the great warrior, Cú Chulainn – the Irish Achilles.  He is the great defender and was adopted by both communities in the Troubles in the North.

In Wave 5 we told the stories of a hero, who prior to his first great exploit was called Sétanta.  Beginning with his birth stories we heard of his divine and human parentage in that both the god Lugh and the warrior Sualtam have claims to fatherhood.  This otherworld/human origins is common with mythic heroes and was central to Cú Chulainn’s story.

Even as a young child the young Sétanta was exceptional. Once he heard of the Red Branch Knights he was enthralled.  He persuaded his mother Dechtaire to allow him to join the young Knights at Emain Macha.  Once there he laid low 50 of the youths playing hurling and the rest fled.  His early life was a series of extraordinary feats in fighting but also in chess.


He acquired his name when slaying the hound of the smith, Culann on his way to Tara – Sétanta was to arrive late and the fierce hound was in his way.  The hound is Cú, so hence this remarkable deed gave him his name Cú Chulainn – the slayer of Culann’s hound.  He took up arms on a fortuitous day, killing the ferocious Sons of Nechtan, while in a rístrádh, or battle spasm.  He only came out of this state of fury when the women lifted their skirts and then threw him into a vat of cold water. Cú Chulainn’s relationship with women was often fraught, but always interesting!

The Connections and insights from Participants

Here are some of the most significant connections and insights from participants that were collected by the Bard team in the breakout groups and the large group discussions.

Connection 1 – The Positive Aspects of the Warrior Archetype – in today’s sport
This Wave was looking at the Story told with Sétanta and the Warrior as a ‘romantic hero’ and the idea of war and battle being seen in a positive light.  A video of the famous 2007 Ireland vs. England rugby match was shown with the reminder that the last time the English had officially been in the stadium, the British Army had shot unarmed Irish Citizens.  This famous day was indeed a catharsis in Croke Park, with the silence during the English National Anthem being seen as a moment of nurturing and healing.  The cosmic necessity of this critique, Ireland’s crushing win, the preceding tension and fears of violence, not realised, was an example of the positive role of ‘battle’ as in sporting battle.  The battle in this context had a healing, redemptive effect.

Connection 2 – The Recurring Sets of Three
The participants noted what is a frequent and recurring motif in folklore and myth.  This is the frequent recurring of sets of three: three enemies (The sons of Nechtan), three vats of water (to cool Cú Chulainn) after his rístrádh, three companions, three barriers, etc.  Numbers often have a symbolic significance that it helps to understand.

Connection 3 – Warrior: to Unite and/or Divide
While it might be easy to either refute or embrace the warrior archetype in modernity the participants reflected how this archetype and its associated energy could be used to unite (e.g. Croke Park 2007) or to divide.  The Warrior energy could be a part of destructive hate such as sectarian violence in the North, or it could also play a key role as a ritual unifier such as in sport.  A conflict can unify a community but that unity could be focused against a ‘hated’ enemy which, certainly within a county, is divisive.

Connection 4 – Ordinary Warriors 2020
One of the characteristics of these early Sétanta stories is how ‘outstanding’ and ‘exceptional’ is the young Sétanta.  The Covid-19 virus has given us the concept of the “ordinary warrior”, doctors, nurses, carers, delivery drivers.  But this does not mean their contribution is not outstanding.  It was felt that it is, but that it had gone largely unrecognised.  This was the harnessing of the warrior archetype by ordinary people to fight for ordinary people.

Connection 5 – Warrior Energy – A British Perspective

Following World War 2 there was a clear collective  focus within Britain to harness the Nation’s energy to build a better society.  After the war, the warriors were working to build a better society: the British Welfare State, NHS and free education as well as the rebuilding of cities etc. after the war.  Such were the horrors of war, such was the collective sacrifice, that there was a collective resolve to build a better society.

Connection 6 – Rístrádh, Battle Race and the Role of the Woman
One of what was now Cú Chulainn (after the Culann’s hound story) characteristics was the rístrádh, the battle rage that he got into, for example in the fight with the Sons of Nechtan.  In this state he knew not enemy or friend!  The role of the women, lifting their skirts to shame him and then putting him in three vats of icy water to get him out of this state was noted with interest.


Connection 7 – Warrior Focus today
and the Dangerous Invisible Enemy
The participants felt that there was still an important role for this archetype figure and the associated energy.  One of the challenges is that the nature of the enemy has changed.  It is often an invisible or intangible threat that is being faced such a racism, climate change, or importantly an invisible virus.

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