Episode 13: The Tain Bo Cualinge, Pt. 1
Updated: Nov 25, 2021
This episode, we dive into the Tain Bo Cualinge, also known as the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The best known work of ancient Irish lore, this text details the rather odd pillow talk of King Ailil and Queen Medb, and the detrimental effects of wealth comparison in a marriage.
The Tain Bo Cualinge is an Old Irish epic - the Irish cultural equivalent to the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the Latin Aeneid, or the Old English Beowulf. The tale is folkloric in origin, and was eventually copied down into a single story. It features the heroic exploits of Cu Chulainn, the most well known hero of Irish myth. The Tain is also connected with and usually prefaced by remscéla, or "fore-tales" which describe the childhood of Cu Chulainn or other connected exploits, such as other cattle raids.
There are two complete versions of the text. The first has been complied in two manuscripts: the twelfth century Book of Dun Cow and the fourteenth century Yellow Book of Lecan. These two manuscripts each provide a half of the whole tale. The other complete form of this text is fund in the twelfth century Book of Leinster. At the end of the narrative there is a small colophon from the scribe, detailing his opinion that the Tain is not so much history but a fantastical tale full of devilry which should be taken with a heavy sprinkle of salt:
“I, however, who have copied this history, or more truly legend, give no credence to various incidents narrated in it. For, some things herein are the feats of jugglery of demons, sundry others poetic figments, a few are probable, others improbable, and even more invented for the delectation of fools.” [O'Rahilly, 2014]
The story begins with the pillow-talk of King Ailil and Queen Medb, joined monarchs of the Connachta (the people in the west of Ireland). Ailil mentions to his wife just how lucky he is to have him, to which the queen retorts that she had just as much wealth and power before she married him, since she was already daughter of the High King of Eirin and therefore was royalty in her own right. The two decide to compare their independent wealth in order to determine who was the most independently wealthy.
Each orders their servants to gather all their worldly possessions and to count them before the monarchs, which provides a strange image of the king and queen in bed as their possessions and livestock are paraded before them through the bedroom. Yes, Ailil and Medb order all their livestock - pigs, horses, sheep, and cattle - to be counted and paraded. In each category, the two are equally matched, except, as it turns out, for a single bull.
This white bull in question had previously belonged to Medb, but when she married Ailil, the bull decided it no longer wanted to be in a herd owned by a woman, and defected to Ailil's herd. Distraught at this realization, Medb demands that she find an equally suitable bull for her herd. One of her servants informs her that there is such a beast, the Brown Bull of Cualinge, owned by an Ulsterman, Daire. Medb immediately sends messengers with the request to borrow the bull for a year. In exchange, she will provide 50 more heifers for Daire and return the bull in a year's time.
While these messengers are in Ulster, they have a row with the Uliad (i.e the Ulstermen), and Daire then refuses to loan the bull. Enraged, Medb declares that she will take the bull by force and assembles an army from her allies in Ireland. The poets and druids, however, will not let them depart for several days. They argue that good omen is required before one goes to war. As Medb becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of omen, her charioteer suggests he "turn the chariot to the sun" in order to induce a good omen. When they do this, the host departs.
As they travel northward, a young woman appears to them in the woods. She is dressed lavishly, with gold buckles, shining golden hair, black eyebrows, a narrow chin and wide forehead. She wears three tresses, bright lipstick (or, the Old Irish equivalent lipstain method of choice), and has three pupils in each eye. She names herself as Fedelm the Prophetess, daughter of King Concobar of the Ulstermen, and has recently returned from her propheting studies in Scotland.
When Fedelm warns Medb that her armies will die in this attempt to gain the bull, Medb shrugs her off and demands a real prophecy. Three times Fedelm prophesies for Medb, declaring that she sees "red, very red, much red" in their future, and three times Medb dismisses her. Finally, Fedelm gives the queen a detailed and grisly poem of how Cu Chulainn, the "distorted one" will wreak havoc and destruction on the Connachta with his gae bolga (a special spear only Cu Chulainn can wield).
Meanwhile, the Ulstermen hear tell of Medb's encroaching army. However, none of them are equipped to fight the Connachta because they have been cursed by "the weakness." This magical illness cripples full-grown Uliad men with "women's pains" so that they cannot fight. This affliction may be childbearing pains or a form of premenstrual syndrome. In either case, the men cannot bear it. Cu Chulainn is the only hero young enough and special enough (due to divine heritage, presumably) to be excepted from this curse.
Though Fergus is in service to the Connachta, he favors and is friends with Concobar, the king of the Uliad. He is also counselor to Medb and knows when to listen to prophesy, despite Medb's unwillingness. Keen to stem the bloodshed, Fergus sends two messengers to Cu Chulainn to let him know of the Connachtmen's approach. Cu Chulainn is willing to respond, but sends his father to stall the Connachta while he meets with Fedelm for a tryst, since he had already promised her he would meet her for some nighttime romance. Consequently, the text notes that he did not rise or wash until late the next day.
Before his evening appointment, however, Cu Chulainn did stop the Connacht armies from approaching. Demonstrating his role as poet, magician, and warrior (the three traits a hero needs to be successful), Cu Chulainn creates a reed trap from branches, ordinarily used to catch cattle, and hurls it to the top of a standing stone. Onto the wood he scrawls a verse in Ogam, an ancient Irish script associated with the druids. The verse is a challenge: should the army pass the stone without someone successfully throw a like wrapped branch, Cu Chulainn will lay waste to them all. The challenge, written and performed in such a particular way, is akin to a magical geas - the sheer force of will behind the challenge will enable the consequences to come to pass. Evidently, no one is willing to accept the challenge, so Medb and her army deforest a section of Irish wilderness in order to avoid the area that the challenge would affect. This section of forest is therefore named after the challenge and serves as an example of dindsenchas, or "place-wisdom," which explains the stories behind place names around Ireland.
While this is only the first section of the Tain, it demonstrates a wide variety of medieval Irish tropes and realities.
The Agency of Medb: Queen Medb is a simultaneously loved and hated figure in the Irish mythos. Headstrong and powerful in her own right, few dare question her ability (though we definitely question her judgement several times throughout this text). Her headstrong nature is especially shown in the premise of the text: the pillow talk. While she is sometimes villainized through the "bad queen" or "evil queen" motif (ex: Maleficent, the evil stepmother), Medb's negative traits are demonstrated more through poor judgement and leadership ability than any gender stereotype. She has no sexual interest in Cu Chulainn, nor does she want to kill a rival, as would be expected in the former trope. Rather, her hot-headedness seems a genuine personality trait, while her husband, Ailil, takes the backseat when it comes to running the kingdom.
Ogam: This Irish script was an early writing system which was easily scraped into stone or bark. Consisting of horizontal or slanted lines to indicate different letters, this script was overtaken by the Roman alphabet quickly. This change resulted in ogam's glorified status as an archaic and magical script, used for druidic practice and magic. This development almost parallels the use of runic script in Scandinavia. While it was mostly used on boundary-stones or place-markers, ogam has enjoyed a resurgence of use in neo-paganism.
A Note on Names: Irish names are incredibly difficult for those unfamiliar with Irish. Irish names may have a multitude of spellings, so it is not uncommon to see Medb's name spelled as Maev, Maedb, Maedbh, or even Maeve. Below is a guide that may help in pronouncing some of these odd spellings.
We're just getting started with this text, and have yet to really get to know the star of the poem, so practice your pronunciation because we've got a lot of ground to cover!
Final Rating: 8.75
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Bailey, Michael D. ‘The Meanings of Magic.’ Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 1, no. 1, 2006. pp 1-23. Link.
Blank, Deanie Rowan. “Cuchulain and the Tain Bo Cuailnge: A Celtic Iliad.” Prairie Schooner, vol. 86, no. 1, 2012, pp. 150–160. Link.
Green, Richard Firth. Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Link.
Gribben, Arthur. “Táin Bó Cuailnge: A Place on the Map, A Place in the Mind.” Western Folklore, vol. 49, no. 3, 1990, pp. 277–291. Link.
Griffiths, Bill. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Cambridgeshire: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996.
Morris, Henry. “Some Place-Names in the Tain.” Journal of the County Louth Archaeological Society, vol. 1, no. 3, 1906, pp. 88–90. Link.
Toner, Gregory. “Wise Women and Wanton Warriors in Early Irish Literature.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, vol. 30, 2010, pp. 259–272. Link.
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