Here is Part Seven of Balladeer’s Blog’s look at the various mythological works in Ireland’s Lebor na hUidre, The Book of the Dun Cow. This part features three more sections. For Part One click HERE.
THE FEAST OF BRICRIU (Fled Bricrenn) – The Book of the Dun Cow version of this tale is dated to around the 700s A.D. and is considered the forerunner of the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in British legends.
The frequent troublemaker of Irish myths – Bricriu – holds a feast in his new banquet hall at Dun Rudraige. He invites all the nobles of Ulster and, always a jerk, starts a conflict at the party by having three heroes argue over which of them deserves the Curadmir – the champion’s portion of the feast.
The three are the demigod Cuchulainn, Conall Cernach, and Loegaire Buadach. The competitors perform various feats and Cuchulainn is judged the winner. Conall and Loegaire refuse to accept that judgment, and the trio go to Connacht under immunity. They perform feats before Queen Maeve and King Ailill, and again Cuchulainn is decreed the victor.
Once again, Conall and Loegaire heatedly refuse to accept the outcome and so the trio travel to Munster to be judged by King Cu Roi mac Daire. He, too, names Cuchulainn the winner. The other two still refuse to acknowledge Cuchulainn as the victor and they wind up back at the Ulster stronghold of Emain Macha.
Their continued dispute is interrupted by the entrance of a giant(ish) man who taunts the trio by asking if they are such great champions, are they brave enough and honorable enough to accept his challenge. He offers to let them behead him, then meet him back at Emain Macha the following day to let him return the blow.
Obviously assuming that the large man will be dead after getting beheaded and therefore won’t be able to respond in kind, Loegaire steps forward to acccept the challenge. The giant places his head on the chopping block, and Loegaire beheads him.
To everyone’s surprise, the giant simply picks up his head, places it back on his shoulders, and asks if anyone else there is brave enough to accept the challenge. Conall goes next and beheads the giant, who again simply replaces his head on his shoulders. Cuchulainn takes his turn and again the giant returns his head to its rightful place.
The large man reminds the trio of their vow to meet back at the same place the next day so that he can take his turn at cutting off their heads. The following day, the giant returns, but only Cuchulainn is brave enough and honorable enough to keep the appointment. The large man states indisputably that Cuchulainn is the greatest champion of Ulster.
THE PHANTOM CHARIOT OF CUCHULAINN (Siaburchapat Con Culaind) – This tale is dated to around the mid-400s A.D. because of the presence of St. Patrick.
The story goes that St. Patrick paid a visit to the stubborn Loegaire mac Neill, a High King of Ireland, again entreating him to convert to Christianity. Loegaire told Patrick that he would not believe in the God of Christianity unless that God could raise Cuchulainn from the dead and have him pay a visit and converse with him (the king).
God immediately sends an angel to tell King Loegaire and St. Patrick that God will raise Cuchulainn and send him to converse with Loegaire near the ramparts of the fortress at Tam.
The next day, St. Patrick and King Loegaire are both on hand at the appointed place when Cuchulainn appears, riding in his chariot driven by his usual charioteer Laege. The demigod’s two horses – the Dub Sainglend (black horse of Saingliu) and the Liath Macha (gray horse of Macha) – are pulling the chariot.
Cuchulainn stops to interact with the two living men. To help kill King Loegaire’s skepticism, the demigod performs assorted feats that only a being who was more than human could perform.
Cuchulainn tells St. Patrick that he knows why God called him back to life from where he has been suffering with other pagans in Hell. He expresses his faith in the Christian deity based on his own awful experiences after death and begs the saint to plead with his God to let him enter Heaven.
Turning to address King Loegaire, Cuchulainn regales him with tales of his great deeds with women, and in battle wielding his legendary spear the Gae Bulg. This lengthy section presents dozens of the demigods’ legendary accomplishments in flowery, poetic style. At one point he states “I was gentle to the gentle/ But against dishonor I wrought vengeance.”
After Cuchulainn at last relates the tale of his death by one of the three magical spears of Lugaid mac Con Roi, he adds an account of what happened to his soul. The account is in the worldly terms so common to many myths, and with his soul looking just like his human form and even bearing a ghostly counterpart of the Gae Bulg.
This section goes like this:
“Demons carried off my soul/ Into the red charcoal
“I played the swordlet on them/ I plied on them the gae bulga;
I was in my complete victory/ With the demons in pain
“Great as was my heroism/ Hard as was my sword
The devil crushed me with one finger/ Into the red charcoal!”
After thus acknowledging that Satan himself defeated him easily even though his subordinate demons fell to him, Cuchulainn goes on to speak of the agonies of Hell, where all of the other pagan Ulster heroes have been suffering with him since they died.
He closes by advising King Loegaire in the strongest terms that he should convert to Christianity if he hopes to avoid the tortures of Hell. Cuchulainn also praises the Christian God and acknowledges Jesus as the son of that living God.
As the story comes to a close, Cuchulainn is allowed into Heaven (no mention is made if his charioteer Laege is allowed in with him) and readers are told it has been 450 years (“9 times 50 years”) since Cuchulainn was killed.
THE PROPHECY OF ART MAC CUINN AND HIS FAITH (Fastini Airt meic Cuind ocus a chretem) – This brief item is a tale of Art mac Cuinn aka Art mac Conn, a High King of Ireland. He supposedly ruled around 143-173 A.D. or 180-192 A.D. or 165-195 A.D.
Obviously, this tale of his alleged “prophecy” was written long afterward. The High King was depicted as foreseeing the eventual arrival in Ireland of missionaries for the Christian faith.
SOON I’LL EXAMINE THE NEXT SEVERAL INSTALLMENTS OF THE BOOK OF THE DUN COW.