Evidence from Mediaeval Celtic Literature - Irish Material: Cycle of the Kings

 

4. The Cycle of the Kings.
A number of mediaeval Irish stories deal with incidents in the lives of pre-Christian High Kings who probably had real historical existence. On one level this material is a continuation of the first-function lore about origins and lineage and is treated as such (for instance, there is a "roll of kings" near the end of the LG
É), but some of it clearly has a distinct function related to that of kingship itself. As the linchpin around whom all of society turns, the High King (even though he comes from the second-function class of the warrior-aristocracy and exercises the sovereignty aspect of the first function) in some ways both transcends the three functions and represents the virtues of all of them. He holds sovereignty by virtue of a ritual marriage with the Land, and retains it only as long as he displays the physical and moral integrity that make him fit for it. Stories about the kingship, then, explicate this lore (which is remarkably rich in pre-Christian elements) and serve as exemplary (or cautionary) models for actual rulers.

 


The kings who appear most often in these stories are Niall Naigiallach, the eponymous ancestor of the
Uí Néill; Conn Céadchathach; and Cormac Mac Airt, his grandson. _Echtra Mac nEchach Muigmedóin_ (The Adventure of the Sons of Eochu Muigmedón) tells of how the Sovereignty of Ireland [personified as a goddess] chose Niall to be High King because he could recognize her in the form of a repulsive hag. _Baile in Scáil_ (The Trance of the Phantom) recounts the Otherworldly version of Conn's coronation: he is led by the god Lugh to a sacred enclosure where he marries the Sovereignty of Ireland. The same Sovereignty-goddess appears in another story as Medb Lethderg, whom Cormac Mac Airt must sleep with before he can accede to the kingship.

 


Often the relationship of the king with Sovereignty is symbolized by his relationship with his queen, and an Otherworldly rival appears with whom he must compete for the queen's affections. Striking examples of this theme are _Tochmarc
Étaíne_ (The Wooing of Étaín), where Étaín, the lover of the divine Mider, becomes incarnate as a mortal woman and marries the king Eochaid Airem, who then has to resist Mider's renewed claim to her; and _Echtrae Cormaic_, where it is Manannán Mac Lir who tries to steal away Cormac Mac Airt's queen, and who rewards the king when he refuses to yield. In _Echtrae Airt Meic Cuinn_ we see Conn contract an inappropriate liaison with a negative Otherworldly figure, B
é Chuma, which leads to the destruction of the kingdom until he is rescued by his son Art. [Another famous story, _Cath Maige Mucrama_, tells both of Art's death and of the birth of his illustrious son Cormac.] _Togail Bruidne Da Derga_ (The Taking of Da Derga's Hostel) recounts the life of Conaire Mór, who is chosen to be High King through both divine protection and druidical divination, but eventually loses that divine protection when he breaks his _gessa_ (ritually ordained taboos) and is brought to a truly spectacular end.

 


Writings related to the theme of these stories include _Tecosca Cormaic_ (The Teachings of Cormac) and _Audacht Morainn_ (The Testament of Morann_ [an Ulster Cycle druid]) -- teaching texts expounding on the virtues a righteous ruler should exhibit.

5. _Immrama_.
Not directly related to the cycles discussed above and representing a genre in itself is the _immram_ or 'voyage' tale (modern: _iomramh_). This is a descendant of a very ancient story-type featuring voyages by ship among fantastic islands (Homer's _Odyssey_ and the Sinbad stories in the _Thousand and One Nights_ are famous earlier examples), but in its Irish guise it seems to have a more specific teaching function, giving information about the Otherworld and what is beyond death. The best-known and most influential one is the Latin _Navigatio Sancti Brandanni_; but the more richly imaginative Irish-language examples include _Immram Brain_, _Immram Curaig
Maíle Dúin_, and the Voyages of Snédgus and of the Uí Chorra.[ _Echtrae Conla’_, although it is not truly a voyage story, contains many of the introductory elements that appear in _immrama_ and is obviously related to that genre.]

 


_Immrama_ are highly eclectic in their contents, and are often overtly Christian in their concerns: the wild images in them are a very original allegorization of Christian theological themes as they relate to Heaven and the life of the blessed. Two of these texts, however, seem to contain older material as well: _Immram Brain_ has Bran Mac Febail sail to an Otherworldly Land of Women; and _Immram Curaig
Maíle Dúin_ is full of surrealistic and obscure incidents that have no clear relation to Christianity at all. Alwyn and Brinly Rees have suggested that it may reflect a "Celtic Book of the Dead" -- an earlier use of the _immram_ as a teaching tool about pre-Christian conceptions of the Otherworld.

 


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One should mention that there are many fictional stories in Early Modern Irish literature that are loosely related to earlier traditions but are clearly rooted in a much later world-view. Among the most famous and influential of these stories are the _
Trí Truagha na Sgéalaidheachta_ (The Three Sorrows of Storytelling), comprised of _Oidheadh Cloinne Lir_ (the story of the children of Ler, changed into swans), _Oidhe Cloinne Tuireann_ (about the vengeance exacted by Lugh on the children of Tuirenn, inspired by the "Mythological" Cycle), and _Oidheadh Cloinne Uisnigh_ (a re-working of the Deirdre story from the Ulster Cycle).