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Myths and Legends of the Celts (Penguin Reference) by MacKillop James

Myths and Legends of the Celts (Penguin Reference) by MacKillop James

Author:MacKillop, James [MacKillop, James]
Language: eng
Format: mobi, epub
ISBN: 9780141017945
Publisher: Penguin UK
Published: 2006-06-01T03:00:00+00:00


10

The Ulster Cycle

Part II: Cúchulainn and the Táin

ROOTS OF HEROIC IDENTITY

Cúchulainn usually can be counted on to get the best of things, as his appearance in two stories from the last chapter shows. Of the three most dominant heroes of early Irish tradition, Lug Lámfhota, Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill, he is usually ranked first. Like the other two, he appears to have roots in the earliest Celtic traditions, with links and analogues among the early continental Celts. Cúchulainn was favoured by learned storytellers for at least seven centuries, from the seventh through to the fourteenth. While his exploits greatly exaggerate human potential, several of the most important stories show him at his most human: growing to maturity, wooing a wife, and engaged in heartbreaking combat with a warrior who is his unacknowledged son. He is the most dynamic force in the Táin Βó Cuailnge, the national epic. Curiously, his adventures were barely extended in oral tradition, in contrast with those of Fionn mac Cumhaill, whose many portrayals are found in an immense body of later popular literature. For ordinary Irish people over the last 130 years, Cúchulainn’s name has more often been relearned through books than inherited from everyday discourse. When, however, the Irish state looked for a heroic figure to commemorate the scene of the first bloodshed on behalf of national independence, the Easter Rising of 1916, in the lobby of the General Post Office on what is now O’Connell Street, they chose Oliver Sheppard’s much-photographed statue of Cúchulainn.

At the time of the first translations of early Irish literature in the nineteenth century, commentators routinely compared Cúchulainn with classical heroes such as Heracles and Aeneas. More recent opinion holds that if Cúchulainn resembles early Mediterranean figures it is because early Christian redactors of his stories, themselves informed by Latin tradition, shaped him to look that way. Recent scholarship has also tended to downplay the ‘Pagan survival’ theories of early Irish narrative, but the deep appeal of his persona means that he could not have just been invented one day by an inspired scribe. Speculative links between Cúchulainn and the Gaulish god Esus appear to be insubstantial. More significant, perhaps, are his characteristic quickness and short, dark stature, features that Julius Caesar attributed to Gaulish Mercury. Inescapable are the implications of his birth name Sétanta. Although it has been glossed as ‘god of routes and roads’ and ‘one who knows the way’, the name bears at least a superficial resemblance to Setantii, the name of a people of northwest Britain described by Ptolemy (first century AD). His usual spear or javelin, the Gáe Bulga, evokes the name of the Belgae, the prominent early Celtic people described as the most ferocious of all by Caesar. There is probably also an echo of the Gaulish people the Manapii in the cognomen of Cúchulainn’s fatherin-law Forgall Manach.

The usual domain of Cúchulainn is Mag Muirtheimne, the plain adjacent to the Irish Sea in eastern County Louth, from Drogheda at the mouth of the River Boyne north to his fortress at Dún Delgan, next to the modern city of Dundalk.



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