Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) Themes

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Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) Themes

(Epics for Students)

The Breakdown of Social Order
Cúchulainn is the focus of a valiant attempt to preserve his society. Around him, the basic relationships of the early Irish social order are snapping: the ties between kin, between foster brothers, between men and women, between kings and subjects are broken. It is characteristic of medieval Irish thought that this anarchy flows from rulers. Conchobor has driven out his own kin through deceit, treachery, and murder. Medb counsels the murder of faithful allies and manipulates men into breaking the sacred bonds of fosterage and kinship. Between them, they have compromised Fergus, a hero as great as Cúchulainn, and left widows, orphans, and grieving parents across Ireland.

Bravery is at the heart of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Facing physical dangers in combat is of the utmost importance. The highest expression of such heroism is the hero alone; Cúchulainn standing against the enemies of Ulster with only the most intermittent and qualified aid is perhaps the most rarefied example in western literature. Whatever flaws Cúchulainn may have, his physical courage and the motives that fuel it cannot be despised. Cúchulainn has made a decision based on his understanding of his ability and training, his sense of obligation to his Ulster kin and to Ulster society as a whole, and on the desire to purchase immortal fame.

"'We followed the rump of a misguided woman,' Fergus said. 'It is the usual thing for a herd lead by a mare to be strayed and destroyed.'" The negative attitude toward women has been a recurring subject in the Táin Bó Cúailnge criticism, but it is not as crude as it is sometimes portrayed because women exercising power are not uniformly presented in a negative light. Medb, daughter of the High King of Tara, who brings a whole province with her on her marriage, is the sovereignty goddess made mortal.

When the land is poorly ruled or without a king, the goddess had the form of an old woman; when joined to a just and capable king, she had the shape of one young and beautiful. Imperious, coldly amoral, and incapable of love, she may be an argument against women being allowed political power, but her character clearly reflects the kings with which she has contact. Ailill, Conchobor, and the disposed Fergus are all deeply flawed. Her lack of battle-prowess and ethical sense and her murderous treachery and sexual appetite mirror the flaws of the three royal men.

Kingship and the Sovereignty Goddess
At the end of the final battle, there is an exchange between Medb and her erstwhile lover and champion, Fergus. "Medb said to Fergus, 'We have had shame and shambles here today, Fergus.'"

No pagan god or ritual is mentioned as such in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. At most, characters swear "by the gods" or by "the oath of my people." The ancient gods and customs have been so thoroughly neutralized that it is often only through comparative mythology or information from classical writers that mythological material can be identified as such. Nevertheless, the epic has been carefully searched for pre-Christian gods and cult since the mid-nineteenth century. Various characters have been identified as gods, various episodes and actions have been identified as being reflections of pre-Christian worship and belief. Lug mac Ethnenn, who identifies himself to Cúchulainn as 'your father from the síde,' is the Táin Bó Cúailnge's version of the Celtic god of light. The battle of the bulls has been identified by some scholars as a distant reflection of a myth of a sacrificed bull from which the world was made. The pains of the Ulstermen, lasting from the Samhaim (November 1) to Imbolc (February 1), which are the months of winter in Ireland, are similarly identified as a symbol of winter sleep. Perhaps the most easily recognizable cluster of mythological material centers around Cúchulainn himself. His conception and birth are miraculous and providential. His ability to function during the winter when the Ulstermen...

(The entire section is 1,156 words.)