Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156
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 are laid low suggests a powerful force of nature. All these things, however, have been transformed from divine action or intervention to something more akin to magic.
Topography and Place Names
A major element in the Táin Bó Cúailnge is the attention given to the setting of the action. This is not in the usual form of verbal description, which allows the audience to 'see' the setting. Instead, the setting is established as a story behind a place name. Incidents often appear to be included simply to explain the name of a minor ford or wood. Some stories may have been invented simply to provide such an explanation. The great battle between the men of Ulster and the forces of Medb and Ailill at the end of the Táin Bó Cúailnge is treated in far less detail than the circuitous route of the dying bull, Donn Cúailnge, leaving behind him a scatter of place names.
This preoccupation with place names and their meanings and origins is not confined to Táin Bó Cúailnge. A whole genre of place name narratives exists in Irish literature, the dinnsenchas. This native genre was reinforced by the importance of biblical place names in explaining the Bible in early Christian writings and by the use of place name narratives in classical literature, particularly in Virgil's Aeneid. It is possible that identification of a story with a place was a device for remembering a particular character or event.
The place name narratives in the Táin Bó Cúailnge cannot be dropped out of the narrative without changing its meaning and character. First, they anchor the action, however fantastic, in the reality of the Irish countryside. Second, they all seem to share in establishing the action of the epic as of such importance that this raid and its heroes have made an indelible mark on Ireland. Third, they effectively confirm the author's status with his audience by his apparently exact and detailed knowledge of every cairn, every wood in the path of the raid, and the combat of the bulls. This use of place name stories as an indication of learning is reflected in the Táin Bó Cúailnge when Cúchulainn, on his first day as a warrior, is instructed in place name lore by Ibor, Conchobor' s charioteer.
War and Peace
Despite its concentration on the martial achievements of Cúchulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge does not glorify warfare nor treat cattle raiding as merely a commonplace nuisance. Cúchulainn's grief over the death of Ferdia is only the most striking of his laments, and his reaction to the sound of the final battle ("anger destroys the world") is telling. The Táin Bó Cúailnge was composed in a society that was attempting in some small measure to limit violence.
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