Articles Tagged with: nine waves

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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