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 SymbolismOne 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 HagThe 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!