The Táin: Reading Anthropologically

In a new class I am teaching on Ireland, I assigned a strange and incredible book called The Táin. First recorded in the 8th Century CE, but originating in oral tradition as early as the First, Táin Bó Cuailnge, or Cattle Raid of Cooley, is Irish epic, a comic adventure, and warrior saga. Opening with a lover’s quarrel that launches a war, The Táin details the heroics of the warrior CúChulainn as he single handedly defends Ulster, a kingdom in the northeast of Ireland, against an invading army from the south. 

Reading The Táin is an adventure in its own right, an unfamiliar and disorienting experience. Having tackled other ancient epics in their first-year courses, my students were prepared for the differences of syntax, long list-like passages, and the strange doings of gods and warriors, but this they found a puzzle. For one, because the hero’s inner world is impregnable, his choices unprecedented in more familiar corners of the “Western” canon. Cúchulainn embarks on his warrior fate from the age of six, when he runs off with a toy shied and toy javelin to join the famed Boy Troop of Ulster. He receives his fierce epithet “The Hound of Culann" soon after, for killing the eponymous guard dog of an Ulster chieftain and swearing thereafter to guard him himself. When we meet him in The Táin, he still very much looks a boy at the age of seventeen.  

For another, the marauding army against which Cúchulainn defends Ulster is led by the powerful and cunning Queen Medb, who instigates the war in order to seize a bull to equal her husband’s wealth. Medb describes herself as “so full of grace and giving” and in the same breath claims to “thrive…on all kinds of trouble” (Kinsella 53). She is also a brutal warlord who commands the assassination of her own ally’s troops because their warriors appear more proficient than her own. Like Cúchulainn, she is an intriguing, inscrutable character. 

The shock we experience when encountering a radically unfamiliar character, being unable to understand his choices or enter his internal world is a degree of the “culture shock” we experience when landing in a place and among people where we are foreign. For anthropologists culture shock is informative—our disorientation, our cultural incapacity in the first moments of exploring another world, are our first data points in beginning to understand it. We can’t understand CúChulainn or Medb because they exist within a cultural framework that we as readers do not share. Achilles is an everyman, one might argue, because he engages in a familiar moral dilemma—to fight or to live; glory or invisibility. At the age of six CúChulainn faces this same choice, and bounds with his hurley stick into the field of battle. It is so absurd as to be comical. 

The greater drama for the narrative occurs when CúChulainn faces his foster brother Ferdia in single combat. Here the honor of the warrior and the kinship and loyalty of fosterage conflict. Neither Ferdia nor CúChulainn desire the fight, which Ferdia must be bribed to undertake. Upon hearing of the challenge CúChulainn laments, “I swear I don’t want this meeting, not because I fear him but because I love him so much,” and yet he also swears to stand his ground (Kinsella 173). In the prelude to the battle both men reminisce about friendlier times training together under the same warrior queen Scáthach, but when they face each other they break off their friendship in a series of taunts, boasts and earnest advice. They fight for three days, breaking off the battle each evening with a kiss and embrace, and sending medicinal herbs and food to each other’s camp (Kinsella 188-189). In the final stage of battle the two writhing bodies are indistinguishable from one another: 

They fought together so closely that their heads touched at the top and their feet at the bottom and their hands in the middle around the edges and knobs of their shields. …So closely they fought that their shield-rims and sword-hilts and spear-shafts screamed like demons and devils and goblins of the glen and fiends of the air: so closely they fought that they drove the river off its course and out of its bed. (Kinsella 195-196) 

The significance of this moment is hard to read without some understanding of the importance of fosterage in ancient Ireland. The fostering of children, particularly among the high-ranking clans, was a central method of securing inter-familial allegiances and patron-clientships common to Celtic society and a great deal of attention is devoted in ancient texts to detailing the legal rights rights and obligations associated with fosterage (Parkes 2006). These relationships, established from the earliest moments of childhood, were thought to be as strong if not stronger than blood-kinship. The scene above highlights not only the essential equality of two brothers raised together, but also the unnatural aberrance of their battle—their weapons screaming like “demons and devils and goblins." For Ferdia and CúChulainn to meet on the battlefield means not only fighting one another, but also engaging with the weight of their shared cultural beliefs and challenging their own sense moral virtue.

When Ferdia ultimately dies by his hand, CúChulainn rushes to catch him and carry him away from the battlefield, “CúChulainn set Ferdia down on the ground and there, by ferdia’s head, fainted away in a cloudy trance” mourning his foster brother (Kinsella 197). CúChulainn is moved by anger, sorrow and shame, casting blame on those who convinced Ferdia to undertake the challenge, as well as himself for accepting it. 

Ferdia, dead by their deceit, 
our last meeting I lament
You are dead and I must live
To mourn my everlasting loss. (Kinsella 199)
Shameful our struggle, 
the grief and uproar!
O fair, fine hero 
who shattered armies
and crushed them under foot, 
Golden brooch, I mourn. (Kinsella 201) 
Misery has befallen us
Two foster-sons of Scáthach
—you dead and I alive. 
Bravery is battle-madness! (Kinsella 204)

There is tremendous tension in CúChulainn’s lament, which plays out as Medb’s army encroaches. Like Achilles’ loss of Patroklos, it is prelude to the final act. But unlike The Iliad, in which Achilles’ anger and re-entry into battle leads to the resolution of the conflict, in The Táin, CúChulainn recedes, allowing the “battle-madness” to play out between what is left of Ireland’s armies. The final battle is not between heroes but between two bulls—the bulls for whom Medb began her raid.  In comparison to Homer’s dramatic battle between Achilles and Hector, the touching scene between Achilles and King Priam, The Táin’s battle of the bulls seems inadequate, even absurd. And it piques my curiosity.   

To read anthropologically is to recognize our moments of disorientation and unfamiliarity as readers, not as reasons to turn away from the text, but as a reason to dig deeper. These moments force us to realize that the cultural knowledge, narrative expectations and moral frameworks from which we approach a text are not always adequate to understand it. We are led to ask, what cultural practices that make the scenes between Ferdia and CúChulainn high drama? What is the moral framework that lend tension to the characters' choices? What are the gender dynamics that explain Medb's marriage and her fearsome role as arch-general? What social structures explain the arrangement of these armies? We are forced to answer these questions not with our own assumptions about what should be happening, but by digging more deeply into the text, reading between the lines, and unpacking the implicit values that the characters seem to be operating with. Given contemporary debates about the problems of the Western Cannon, there is an implicit value in our disorientation as readers. When we are forced to de-center our own worldviews and enter into texts as strangers and visitors, we expose ourselves to yet another example of the vast diversity of human culture. 

Kinsella, Robert. 1969. The Táin: from the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. Translated by Thomas Kinsella. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Parkes, Peter. 2006. Celtic Fosterage: Adoptive Kinship and Clientage in Northwest Europe. Comparative Studies in Society and History 48(2):359-395.