Ireland’s exemplary High King and the Importance of Truth
Cormac MacAirt is seen as Ireland’s greatest high king and said to be the codifier of the remarkable Brehon Laws, a system of restorative justice. This story tells of his journey to wisdom.
He is the son of Art who is killed during his battle with Lugaid MacConn but not before he has slept with Cormac’s mother Achtan, a woman with all kinds of wisdom. Before he is born Achtan’s baby has four circles of protection given to him by Achtan’s father: from wolves, swords, fire and drowning.
The first of these protections is important because Achtan, fleeing the threat of Lugaid, gives birth to Cormac in a bed of ferns but drops off to sleep. When she wakes the child is gone. Years later he is found by a huntsman in the company of wolves.
He is fostered and learns in time of his circumstances and that he has the blood of a high king. He has to go to Tara. On the way he learns of an injustice done to a poor old woman. He rights the judgement which makes him out as the rightful King.
All is well in Tara for many years until a stranger with a Silver Branch comes to visit. It sets up an exchange which means Cormac losing his precious wife and two children. But it is in his remarkable other world journey set up by Manannan MacLir that he learns the importance of truth. This sets up a time of great prosperity and abundance until, as prophesised, he dies choking on a fish bone.
The Connections and insights from Participants
Here is some of the feedback from participants from breakout groups following the telling of the Cormac MacAirt story.
Connection 1 – The Otherworld Journey
Some saw this as an inner journey or even a cosmic journey. In so many ways the King is a very public, high profile figure and would be given power by the people. That power would be to be utilised in the context of those in the tribe/community of the King. In a sense the otherworld journey takes the King away from these external matters to issues of a very personal nature.
They also illustrate that even the so called powerful can experience a real sense of powerlessness.
Connection 2 – The Death of “Ego”
From a psychological point of view the first part of the Kings journey can be seen as being about ego and achievement. The otherworld journey is where it all falls apart in the outer world. The King has no control over events. The death of the ego is what happens on the journey. The King on return is in a sense twice born. Though as we know from the Conaire Mor story not all Kings make it back and Conaire suffers the triple death after breaking his geasa.
Connection 3 – The Agreement
Why would a great King agree to something without ever knowing what it was? Naïve. Perhaps. But surely this is the point. There are still very important lessons to be learned even for the most successful.
Connection 4 – The Pivotal Position of Truth
What is so clear from the otherworld journey is the pivotal position of truth. It is central in the ‘cooking the pig’ detail and of course the cup of truth. No cooking when a lie is told and the cup falls apart. The obvious comparison was made by a number of participants to the US president whose whole style is built on untruths!
At least that is for those who are not supporters.
Connection 5 – The Stranger on the Horse
Cormac’s life was all going well, prosperity, stability and abundance …. and then along comes a stranger with a silver branch. And then he does a deal without any thought for the consequences, or a possible downside. And what exactly was the gift of the branch – sending folk off to sleep when sad! But there is a light in the darkness. The great loss as a reminder of what really matters, looking inward becomes inevitable and then there are the great insights from the otherworld. And then order is restored. We are back to where we once were but things are now different.
Connection 6 – The Peaceful Transfer of Power
Lugaid, when he and everyone else see the rightness of Cormac’s judgement, over the lady and the field of woad and the shearing for a shearing, willingly hands over power. What this suggests is a mythic valuing of mechanisms for the transfer of power and removing power from leaders. Powerful in the context of Trump contesting the US election with his unproven allegations of voter frauds.
As a point of reflection if there is a myth or mythology known by everyone in a culture, it would surely act as a social/cultural sanction to support a particular tradition, for example, around a vital matter such as the transfer of power. No shared body of stories no sanction!
Connection 7 – Significance of the Protective Circles
A comment was made about the significance of the protective circles: wounding, drowning, fire, sorcery and wolves. The latter was obviously very significant when it is wolves that do the sucking of the baby Cormac. Sorcery would imply perhaps dark druid threats and real world dangers. The implication being that druidic wisdom was able to offer important protections against dangers the powerful might face. There are their kingly powers and druidic powers. In this case working together.
Connection 8 – The Fish Bone
For the exemplary king to die or something as insignificant as a fish bone is somehow ironic.
Even the most powerful and successful are ultimately rendered powerless, even something as tiny as a fish bone – yes a fish bone can kill an exemplary King!