Episode 22: The Tain Bo Cualinge, Pt. 3
Updated: Jun 13
The Cattle Raid of Cooley can get weirder! The third part of this epic Irish saga highlights Cu Chulainn's fight with the Morrigan, his battle against Loch, and his first on-the-page Warp-spasm. Things are starting to get messy.
To summarize Part One and Part Two, King Ailil and Queen Maeb of Connacht have invaded Ulster to steal the Brown Bull of Cualinge in an attempt to keep their wealth equal. The only one able to defend Ulster is Cu Chulainn, a legendary hero and demi-god. He stands between The Connachta and the Bull while the rest of the Ulstermen are in their "Pains," a curse of PMS pains that befalls the Ulstermen so they cannot fight. Part one describes Cu Chulainn's many marvelous (and bloody) boyhood deeds, while part two focuses on his tryst with Fedelm, a druid prophetess. Now that we're up to speed, let's see what happens when the gods get involved.
No epic is complete without interference from the gods, and the Tain is no exception. This section begins when Cu Chulainn is approached by a beautiful woman who is clothed with a dress of every colour and surpassing in beauty. She asks for a tryst with Cu Chulainn, since she has loved the tales they tell of him. Cu Chulainn refuses, saying that it is not for the arse of a woman he has come to do battle.
Enraged, the woman curses him, telling our hero that when she meets him in battle, she will appear as an eel in the ford and trip him. Cu Chulainn answers that he will smash her between his toes, and refuse to heal her (since wounds he inflicts cannot be healed unless he heals them himself). The woman doubles down, saying she will appear as a she-wolf and drive the cattle toward him. Cu Chulainn answers that he will sling a stone at her head. Finally, the woman says she will attack him as a red heifer with the rest of the cattle. Cu Chulainn retorts again that he will break her leg with a stone thrown from his sling. The woman leaves him, and Cu Chulainn realizes this was no ordinary woman, but the Morrigan herself.
The campaign wages on, and Cu Chulainn kills a warrior by the name of Long. His brother, Loch, is enraged at his death and seeks revenge against the soldier who killed his brother, presuming that the warrior was a full man by his beard. Cu Chulainn is not one to shy from a fight, but does not have a beard, thereby keeping Loch from his oath to kill the man who slew his brother.
Despite his lack of a beard, Cu Chulainn draws crowds from his handsome appearance. The Connacht women demand their men lift them up to see Cu Chulainn. Even Maeb climbs atop the men's shoulders to see the young hero. Meanwhile, the men poke fun at his youth and inability to grow a beard.
Undaunted, Cu Chulainn made himself a bead of mud and grass, using magic to ensure it looked real. When the Connacht women saw him, they urged Loch to fight him, since he did have a beard and he must hold to his oath. Loch agrees to fight Cu Chulainn at the end of the week.
When the time had come, the two began their battle in the ford. Sure enough, the Morrigan appeared in the midst of his fight with Loch, first as a heifer with fifty other cows about her, and threw up the water in the stream so that Cu Chulainn could not see around him. Cu Chulainn managed to smash her eye with his javelin, but not before the women of the camp cursed him with geis. The Morrigan then returned as an eel and wound three times around his leg as he was in the ford, and Cu Chulainn smote her with his heel, but was wounded by Loch as he was distracted. Finally, the Morrigan returned as a wolf, but Cu Chulainn once more cast her back and wounded her with his spear.
Finally, Cu Chulainn called for his charioteer, Laeg, to throw him his gae bolga, his legendary spear. Laeg threw the spear up the ford through the water, and Cu Chulainn caught it as he was on his back and thrust it through Loch's heart. As Loch was dying, he asked Cu Chulainn to allow him to fall East and not on his back to the West before the men of Ireland. Cu Chulainn allows him this small honor before decapitating and despoiling his body.
As Cu Chulainn rests from his wounds after the battle, he is approached by an old, maimed woman walking a three-teated cow. He begs the woman for a drink from the beast, and she complies. He blessed her for the drink, and immediately her wounded eye was healed. Twice more does Cu Chulainn drink the milk of the cow and bless the woman, and twice more is she healed. After she is healed, the woman reveals herself as the Morrigan and brags that she did get a blessing from Cu Chulainn after all. The hero responds that, had he known it was her, he would never have healed her.
As he rests, Cu Chulainn spies a well-dressed man walking through the camp. No one takes notice of him, and he takes notice of no one else. Cu Chulainn recognises him as one of the fae-folk. The man introduces himself as Lug, Cu Chulainn's divine father, and offers to help heal Cu Chulainn's wounds. Lug cleans his son's wounds, sings him a song to help him sleep for three days, and magically heals the wounds as he sleeps.
When he awakes, Cu Chulainn is now ready to fight again! He prepares for battle: he wears 27 skin-tunics, has a hero's girdle, a helmet which lets loose the cries of demons and sprites, and a cloak of concealment wrapped about himself. The Warp-spasm comes upon him, and it is a fearsome sight to behold:
It is then came the first contortion on Cuchulainn, so that it made him horrible, many-shaped, wonderful, strange. His shanks shook like a tree before the stream, or like a rush against the stream, every limb and every joint and every end and every member of him from head to foot. His feet and his shins and his knees came so that they were behind him; his heels and his calves and his hams came so that they were in front. The front-sinews of his calves came so that they were on the front of his shins, so that every huge knot of them was as great as a warrior’s clenched fist. The temple-sinews of his head were stretched, so that they were on the hollow of his neck, so that every round lump of them, very great, innumerable, not to be equalled (?), measureless, was as great as the head of a month-old child.
Then he made a red bowl of his face and of his visage on him; he swallowed one of his two eyes into his head, so that from his cheek a wild crane could hardly have reached it [to drag it] from the back of his skull. The other sprang out till it was on his cheek outside. His lips were marvellously contorted. He drew the cheek from the jawbone, so that his gullet was visible. His lungs and his lights came so that they were flying in his mouth and in his throat. He struck a blow of the —— of a lion with his upper palate on the roof of his skull, so that every flake of fire that came into his mouth from his throat was as large as a wether’s skin. His heart was heard light-striking (?) against his ribs like the roaring of a bloodhound at its food, or like a lion going through bears. There were seen the palls of the Badb, and the rain-clouds of poison, and the sparks of fire very red in clouds and in vapours over his head, with the boiling of fierce rage, that rose over him.
His hair curled round his head like the red branches of a thorn in the gap of Atalta (?). Though a royal apple-tree under royal fruit had been shaken about it, hardly would an apple have reached the ground through it, but an apple would have fixed on every single hair there, for the twisting of the rage that rose from his hair above him.
After this contortion occurred, Cu Chulainn became indiscriminate in battle, and massacred men, women, and children on both sides of the field. Maeb demanded Fergus confront him, since Fergus was his foster-father and one of the few able to control him.
Fergus refuses at first, but is coerced by Maeb. When he confronts Cu Chulainn, neither wants to kill the other, so they strike a deal: Cu Chulainn will flee before him this once, and in return, Fergus will extend the same courtesy to Cu Chulainn later. Cu Chulainn leaves the field, giving the Connachta (and the reader) a respite in the midst of the tale.
Now that we've unpacked the story, let's take a look at a few of the tropes the epic uses.
The Morrigan: One of the most well known Irish goddesses, the Morrigan is the goddess of death and war, and has connotations in Irish lore to fertility, kingship, and the land of Ireland itself.
She often shape shifts into animals and is most often associated with the raven and other Beasts of Battle. In addition to animals, the Morrigan occasionally shapeshifts into an old crone, usually to test the hero as she does here with Cu Chulainn. As Rosalind Clarke notes (see article cited below), if the Morrigan offers to spend the night with you, it is unwise to refuse. A tryst with the Morrigan is a sign of a sure victory. In this case, when Cu Chulainn denies her, it is a sign of foreshadowing to the audience how the epic will play out.
Beasts of Battle: the three beasts of battle are the raven, the wolf, and the (sea) eagle. These scavengers arrived at the end of battles to feast on the bodies of those who had died, and later became a common trope in Norse and Old English poetry. They are also associated with the gods and goddesses of war, like the Morrigan.
The Honor Code of Killing: Killing and murder often had very different legal definitions. Generally, killing in stealth, such as at night, was considered murder. To kill someone without legal recompense, one must cover the body to protect it from being despoiled or scavenged, and go to the nearest house and declare the death. These traditions and legalities differed depending on the location, culture, and time period. Here are a few more examples:
Murdrum: In early English law, after a foreigner has been found dead, the community must identify the culprit or else pay a fine. This practice protects both outlanders and the community from murder and crime.
The Hue and Cry: if someone sees a murder or finds a body, they must to go to the nearest population and shout and make a fuss so that the community can enact justice.
Despite the drama of this week's episode, the Tain will continue to astound. Don't miss our final Tain episode when we'll see the final battle between Cu Chulainn and the Connachta!
Final Rating: 7
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Bitterli, Dieter. "Beasts of Battle." Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book & the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. University of Toronto Press, 2009. pp.151-169. Link.
Clark, Rosalind. “Aspects of the Morrígan in Early Irish Literature.” Irish University Review, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 223–236. Link.
Duggan, Kenneth F. “The Hue and Cry in Thirteenth-Century England.” Thirteenth Century England XVI: Proceedings of the Cambridge Conference, 2015, edited by Andrew M. Spencer and Carl Watkins, NED - New edition ed., Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY, 2017, pp. 153–172. Link.
Magoun, Francis P. “The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 56, no. 2, 1955, pp. 81–90. Link.
O'Brien, Bruce R. “From Morðor to Murdrum: The Preconquest Origin and Norman Revival of the Murder Fine.” Speculum, vol. 71, no. 2, 1996, pp. 321–357. Link.
Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History. Loeb Classical Library, 12 volumes, Greek texts and facing English translation: Harvard University Press, 1933 thru 1967. Translation by C. H. Oldfather thru Volume 6; Vol. 7 by C. L. Sherman, Vol. 8 by C. Bradford Welles, Vols. 9 and 10 by Russel M. Geer, Vol. 11 by F. R. Walton. Link.
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