Episode Two: The Death of Muircertach Mac Erca
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
The Maniculum Podcast is back this week with an Irish death tale of one of the early high kings of Ireland. Looking beyond the bizarre feud between an Otherworldly goddess and a cursing Bishop, this story asks some big questions about the nature of kingship in Ireland.
Before jumping into the tale itself, here's some background: while the text was most likely copied down around the twelfth century, the story itself is much older and contains many pre-Christian motifs. Notably, the death-tale follows the historical Irish dynasty - the kings who succeeded after Muircertach's death are part the accurate historical line of kings. This accuracy most likely reflects a revisionist policy adopted when the tale was copied; it's much easier to fill in the proper kings two hundred years after the facts of the tale!
The story begins when King Muircertach takes a repose from a hunting party on a local mound. In his rest, a beautiful Otherworldy woman appears to him, proclaiming that she is his lover. The king has never seen this woman before, but, as fairy-tales tend to go, he falls instantly in love with her. He will allow her control over the kingdom if she will live with him, which she agrees to upon three conditions. First, she must banish his wife from the hall. Second, the clerics must never be in the same room with her. Third, the king must never say her name. The king agrees, but asks the woman for her name so that he knows what to avoid. The woman declares her name; she is Sigh, Groan, Rough Wind, Winter Night, Storm, Wail, and Sín (pronounced like sheen, though the Maniculum's policy is never to utter her name if you value your life).
The king enacts her three policies, and over time, Sín uses her magic for the king, creating great battalions of strange-looking supernatural battalions he fights. The Bishop hears of these things, curses the king for his sacrilegious actions, and blesses the rival clan. Eventually, one of the priests sees the king attacking sods and trees, thinking they are Sín's battalions, and brings the king out of his reverie. The king struggles with whom to trust.
One night, there is a great snowstorm, and the king notes that it is a 'rough night' - one of Sín's names. Incensed, she curses the king to his death. On Halloween, she drugs the king with magic wine, plants stakes around the house, lights it on fire, and then shakes him awake, declaring that his enemies are at the house. Muircertach charges out of the house, impaling himself on the stakes. Afraid of burning alive, he leaps into a vat of wine, only to be trapped by a burning timber. This results in his threefold death: stabbing, drowning, and burning.
After this debacle, Sín repents, declaring that she is simply a girl who wanted revenge for her father's death at the hands of the king, and she dies. In some versions of the tale, the Bishop is able to pray the king's soul out of Hell, but in others, he is unsuccessful.
There's a lot to unpack in this story, so here are the big ideas:
Mounds: old hills or mounds have great significance in Western folklore tradition. There are three different types of mounds: burial mounds, kingship mounds, or fairy mounds.
Burial mounds were warriors or kings were buried. Tolkien uses the sacred nature of burial mounds several times in The Lord of the Rings. They are first represented when the barrow-wights steal the hobbits away to their underground graves, and secondly when Theodin buries his son. Notably, the flower growing there only grows atop the burial mounds of Theodin's kin, a clear callback to this tradition in real life.
Kingship mounds were generally hills upon which sacred kingship rites were enacted. Due to a hill's position overseeing the surrounding land, the hill that became the kingship mound became a sacred space. Many times, these locations will also have folklore surrounding why that hill is sacred, such as the Hill of Tara in Ireland, which also happens to be a burial site.
Fairy mounds were mounds in which the fey live, or which have some other connection to the Otherworld. Oftentimes associated with mushroom rings, disappearing children, or other superstition, fairy mounds should not generally be messed with. The king's decision to rest upon one was his first and fatal mistake.
In each instance, mounds represent sacred spaces, either for the dead, the kingship, or the Otherworld, and can be regarded as liminal spaces or thresholds where the boundary between this world and the supernatural world is thin.
Names and the Fey: during the ninetieth and early twentieth century, fairy lore boomed in England and Ireland giving rise to many rules and superstitions, such as the reticence to tell one's middle name, or the rule to never give a fairy your name lest the creature have control over you. This tale reveals the origins of some of these beliefs. In myths and legends, words have power, and to invoke something's true name was to conjure its power. Because Sín is an otherworldly being, her name invokes that which it defines - a rough wind, a winter night, a storm, or a groan - so she bans the king from having that power, lest he doom himself.
The Threefold Death: a death reserved for traitors, and later, for enemies of the Church, the threefold death was a pretty awful way to go - by stabbing, drowning, and burning at once. A series of three holds great significance in Irish folklore, so the threefold death's use in this saga emphasizes the Bishop's and Sín's rejection of the Muircertach as the king of Ireland. Symbolically, this death represents that neither the Christian Church nor the pagan sovereignty goddess of Ireland approve of Muircertach.
The Sovereignty Goddess: Sín represents a variety of Otherworldly figures, most notably the Irish sovereignty goddess. The Irish sovereignty goddess has connections to the land, nature, and death. In Irish lore, the sovereignty goddess tests potential kings - should they pass her challenges, they can become the rightful king of Ireland, but if not, they'll suffer terrible fates, as Muircertach does in this saga.
Like many Otherworldly things, the sovereignty goddess has a dual nature: she may present as a beautiful young maiden or an old crone; bless or curse the king as she sees fit; and magically provide Ireland either with plentiful resources or a devastating natural disaster. Given these associations, the Irish sovereignty goddess is oftentimes connected with the Morrigan, the Irish goddess of death who also has power over the natural world. In some sagas, she is a direct metaphor for Ireland itself. Core to the goddess' presentation is her agency. The sovereignty goddess chooses her king and bestows her gifts upon him, never the other way around.
Christian Church versus Pagan Tradition: one of the major themes in this saga revolves around the conflict between the bishop's magic and Sín's magic. Both sides use magical food (the Eucharist or bewitched wine), magic invocations (prayer and geas), and magic action (blessing the rival clan and creating battalions) in order to sway the king. The Bishop and Sín are presented as human analogs to their otherwise greater magical counterparts - the Catholic God and the Irish sovereignty goddess. Both figures are humanized toward the end of the story, particularly Sín, who must be shown to be human due to the Irish clerical tendency to record revisionist history, or at least particularly pro-Church narratives.
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Bhreathnach, Máire. ‘The Sovereignty Goddess as Goddess of Death.’
Cross and Slover. ‘The Death of Muirchertach Mac Erca.’ Ancient Irish Tales.
Herbert, Márie. ‘The Death of Muirchertach MacErca: a Twelfth-century Tale.’
Herbert, Márie. ‘Goddess and King: The Sacred Marriage in Early Ireland.’
Ó Cuív, Brian. ’The Motif of the Threefold Death.’
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