Episodes 25 & 26: The Tain Bo Cualinge, Part 4
Congratulations, you’ve made it! Welcome to our final episode of the Tain Bo Cualinge and the grand conclusion of a war started with some undue pillow-talk. Will the Connachtmen be routed by Ulster? Will Maeb get her prized bull? Can we make it through to the end? Let’s dive in and find out.
If you’re not caught up with Part One, Two, and Three of the Tain, here’s a brief recap: after Queen Maeb realizes that her husband as a better bull than her, she demands they go to war with the Ulstermen to the north to take the Brown Bull of Cooley so that she can match her husband’s wealth. As they go to war with the rest of Connachta, they’re stopped and challenged by Cu Chulainn, the fiercest warrior in all Ireland. He stands between The Connachta and the Bull while the rest of the Ulstermen are in their "Pains," a curse of PMS pains that keeps the Ulstermen from fighting. Part one describes Cu Chulainn's many marvelous (and bloody) boyhood deeds, while part two focuses on his tryst with Fedelm, a druid prophetess. Part three follows Cu Chulainn’s murderous rage and Warp-spasm as he slaughters his way through the Connachta ranks. Now that we’re up to speed, let’s dive in with the final chapters of this Irish epic.
As Maeb comes to realize that none of her men can defeat Cu Chulainn, she resolves to find a champion more well-matched to the demi-god. She calls upon Ferdiad, Cu Chulainn’s foster brother, to fight him in one-on-one combat. The two are equally matched in all aspects, save for their choice of weapon; while Cu Chulainn wields his gae bolga, Ferdiad has magic armor that is extraordinarily difficult to pierce.
Ferdiad rejects the messengers Maeb sends. He understandably does not want to fight and kill the foster brother with whom he was raised. However, Maeb is resolute; she sends satirists and poets to shame Ferdiad. When this, too, fails, Maeb sends her daughter, Finnabair, to seduce Ferdiad over supper. Maeb promises him three chariots, the goods of twelve men, land, tax-free status to himself and his descendants, Finnabair as a wife, and her own gold brooch.
Ferdiad rejects all these gifts, knowing that if he fights Cu Chulainn, he’ll die. Changing tacks, Maeb then lies and tells Ferdiad that Cu Chulainn said fighting him would not even be a challenge, and implores him that he is the better fighter and that it is his duty to Connacht to fight. Enraged at this lie, Ferdiad finally agrees to fight Cu Chulainn, since his honor was slighted (and, since early medieval Ireland was an honor culture, such an insult cannot go unavenged).
When Fergus hears of these events, he laments Cu Chulainn’s potential death and asks someone to go warn him. Understandably, no one will go for fear of their lives, so Fergus goes himself. Cu Chulainn is upset at this turn of events, and says that though he doesn’t want to kill Ferdaid, he will if he needs to.
On the morning of the battle, Ferdaid turns toward the Connachtmen and greets them for battle. Maeb snidely remarks that it doesn’t really matter if he dies, since she won’t have to pay out her promised rewards.
The two meet in battle, and Laeg taunts Cu Chulainn into his Warp-spasm. The warriors trade blows, each wounding the other for three days, until Cu Chulainn falls in the ford. Laeg sends the gae bolga downstream to his champion, and Cu Chulainn seizes it between his toes and thrusts it through Ferdiad’s heart.
This moment might just be the very heart of the epic. When Ferdiad falls at his hand, Cu Chulainn mourns with a long poetic verse. The death of his foster brother breaks him, and he leaves the battlefield and, upon meeting his step-father Sualtam, demands that the rest fo the Ulstermen show up to do their part. He’s held the line alone so far, but having to kill his foster brother crossed the line. He refuses to fight for three days.
Sualtam rushes back to the Ulster camp to King Concobar to tell him of the situation, but neither the king nor his druid advisors pay much heed to his warning. Despairing, Sualtam thrusts his shield into the ground and throws himself upon it so that it severs his head from his neck on the edge. His head continues to repeat his warning even after his death. Now heeding his caution and emerging from their pains, the Ulstermen and Concobar march to war. MacRoth reports to Maeb and Ailil that the Ulstermen approach with eyes like fire and steel clattering like thunder. They are a sight to behold, and both armies advance into battle.
Fergus kills one hundred men before crossing blades with Concobar, who exiled him from Ulster years before. Despite their age, the two men fight tirelessly until Cu Chulainn steps in and stops Fergus from killing Concobar. Fergus instead cuts the tops of three hills off and goes his way, completing his pact with Cu Chulainn to spare each other. Cu Chulainn routes the last of the Connachta, but the battle isn’t over yet!
As Cu Chulainn is exiting the battlefield, he comes across Maeb, who is crouched over a dike while relieving herself or tending to her period. Cu Chulainn refuses to kill her because it would be dishonorable, but does tell her he wishes he could. She asks him to protect her and her host as they exit the battlefield since they have been defeated. Her does, and the battle comes to its end.
Though the Ulstermen routed the Connachta, Maeb did find the Brown Bull and led it back to the pens with the White Bull. As the two met, they fought bitterly until the Brown Bull killed the White and rampaged across the Irish countryside, finally dying of its own exhaustion and wounds itself, a poetic reflection of the struggle between the Ulstermen and Connachta.
Now that we’ve covered the epic itself, let’s break into some of the more significant themes of this tale.
The Gae Bolga: Cu Chulainn’s gae bolga is a unique weapon, unlike anything else in the saga. In his article, Cu Chulainn's gae bolga— from harpoon to stingray-spear?, Edward Pettit argues that the gae bolga could be a spear with a stingray’s barb as it’s tip.
While gae is reliably translated as “dart” or “spear,” translations of the bolga are less illuminating, but more colorful, including “belly dart” “barbed spear” bag spear, spear of swelling, belly spear, penis and scrotum, and the gay bulge.
However, Petit draws his assertions from the gae bolga’s other attested attributes, rather than its name alone. Several of the attributes he lists are as follows: it is a projectile spear, used exclusively by Cu Chulainn; it is also a martial feat, taught by Aiofe or Scathach; it is used once per battle, sent down stream, and can be cast in shadow water; it is accurate, sharp, strong, highly penetrative, single-pointed when cast, and multi-pointed after; it is reverse barbed, made from a sea monster, and venomous.
These more concrete descriptions correlate with descriptions of Greek stingray spears in antiquity as well as similar floating harpoons used by Inuits in Alaska. Since stingrays are found in Irish waters, the possibility that the gae bolga might be such a weapon is plausible.
Foster Relationships: Cu Chulainn’s family relationships are anything but straightforward. With many foster-relationships and lineages, his honor-bound obligations can often conflict. As Peter Parkes notes in Fosterage, Kinship, and Legend: When Milk Was Thicker than Blood?, Cu Chulainn is fostered by all elements of society, from gods and kings to outcasts, thereby binding him to serve all parts of society.
In Combat between Fosterbrothers in “Táin Bó Cúailnge,” Donna Wong aptly observes, such conflicting obligation is not relegated to Cu Chulainn alone. Ferdiad must navigate his own relational struggle as Maeb baits him into fighting his foster brother. Maeb fails to consider his position and considered his championship as merely a convenience. Instead, Maeb calls upon his blood lineage as the son of the king of Connacht as a higher tie than his fosterage relationship with Cu Chulainn. These familial relations create consistent conflict throughout many Irish legends, and are especially poignant in the Tain.
Ultimately, while the Tain is full of legendary fights, challenges, and magic, the tale is a rather sad and unnecessary one. Swaths of Ireland destroyed and hundreds killed, all over some pillow talk about a bull.
Final Rating: 7
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Parkes, Peter. “Fosterage, Kinship, and Legend: When Milk Was Thicker than Blood?” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 46, no. 3, 2004, pp. 587–615. Link.
Pettit, Edward. “Cú Chulainn's ‘Gae Bolga’—from Harpoon to Stingray-Spear?” Studia Hibernica, no. 41, 2015, pp. 9–48. Link.
Wong, Donna. “Combat between Fosterbrothers in ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge.’” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol. 13, 1993, pp. 119–144. Link.
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