Archive for the ‘Symposiums’ Category

I must apologize, again, for my tardiness in completing these notes.  I am preparing to return to the US, and will be spending a month or more with a friend who is having her first child.  Times are hectic!

The next presentation of the first day was by Joanne Findon, of Trent University.  I was excited to hear her based solely on the title!

Medieval Irish stories in which a mortal hero forms a liaison with a ‘fairy mistress’ have been much discussed, particularly in connection wit the theme of the ‘sovereignty goddess.’ However, not all such relationships work out well; in a few cases (tales in which the encounter or its aftermath are focalized through the perspective of the Otherworld female herself, even if only briefly) the meaning of the encounter is destabilized.  The presence of the Otherworld woman’s speech shifts the ground of interpretation and opens up the interaction to more complex social and cultural implications. Fand in Serglige Con Culainn, Macha in Noínden Ulad, and Becfhola in Tochmarc Becfhola are examples of such women whose mortal-therworld remances end badly.  Fand gets the man she desires, but ultimately loses him to the hero’s determined wife Emer.  Macha chooses her mortal mate and seems to live happily with him until he foolishly boasts about her racing skill.  Becfhola forms an unsatisfying union with a mortal man who does not appreciate her, and eventually leaves him for an Otherworld man who is a much better match for her.  In each case, the woman’s words open a window onto the female perspective regarding the perils of such mortal-Otherworld relationships.  This discussion will consider the significance of these women’s words and the effects of female subjectivity in light of the larger social and literary contexts of these tales.

She began the talk by offering the idea that the theme of  ‘Otherworld’ girl and ‘mortal’ boy may have a possible connection with an increase in men / women relationship [discussions, cultural /religious changes, problems, issues] during Early Medieval Ireland.  A few of her points include:

Fand and Emer believe a man can not love two women.

‘Ah, youth,’ she said, ‘we were together with honour once, and we would be again if you still desired me.’ ‘By my word,’ he said, ‘I do desire you, and I will desire you as long as you live.’  “Leave me then,” said Fand. (Dillon, ll. 722-26)

Are these tales seek to discuss the outcome of ‘erotic’ love vs the ‘traditional’ marriage structure?

There was a demand of secrecy, in order for the ‘Otherworld’ relationship to continue.

‘You shall not go,’ the woman said, ‘ lest danger dog you from mentioning us, for our union will be at an end if you mention me in the assembly.’ “I shall not speak there at all,” Crunnchu said. (Hull, ll. 21-23, trans p. 37)

The tales may indicate conflict between ‘women’ and the ‘warrior class’.   Woman speaking truth to power.

“The shame that you have inflicted upon me,’ [she said,] “shall be indeed a disgrace to you from now on.  When things shall be most difficult for you, all those of you who guard this province shall have only the strength of a woman in childbirth; and as long as a woman is in childbirth, so long shall you [likewise] be, namely to the end of five days and four nights, and moreover, it shall be on you unto the ninth [generation], that is to say, for the lifespan of nine persons.” (Hull ll. 59-63, tran p. 38)

Liminal boundaries, edges.

“They beheld a woman coming from the west across the ford in a chariot.  She wore rounded sandals of white bronze, inset with two jewels of precious stone; a tunic covered with red-gold embroidery about her; a crimson mantle on her; a brooch in fully-wrought gold with shimmering gems f many hues fastening the mantle over her breast; necklets of refined gold around her neck; a golden circlet upon her head.” (Bhreathnach, 72, trans. 77)

It seems, having the power to choose their own lovers does not mean happiness.  This, more than anything, may have been the theme of these various tales and offers a social commentary on the changing landscape of relationships in the Early Medieval period.  


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Britta Irslinger (University of Freiburg) presented, “Medb ‘the intoxicating one?’ (Re-) constructing the past through etymology.

For almost 120 years, the name of Queen Medb has been explained as being cognate with the Old IIrish words medb ‘strong, intoxicating (of alcoholic beverages)’ and mid ‘mead’. Medb from *med u/a/ ‘the intoxicating one’ has been assumed to be derived from Proto-Indo European *med u– ‘mead’. Ever since, this etymology is part of the standard inventory of any scholarly discussion of the literary figure of Medb, according perfectly with her character and behaviour as described in the Táin. But its explanatory capacity is not limited to medieval Irish literature. Medb has been interpreted as an original goddess, who bestowed sovereignty on kings during the ritual of hieros gamas comprising the draught of mead. However recently, these views have been seriously questioned by a new etymology by Pinault (2007) comparing the name of Medb to the several Gualish names and deriving all of them from the Indo-European root *med– ‘to govern’.
I will discuss both etymologies in relation to the extralinguistic facts which have been adduced to support them. Furthermore, I will show how, for modern scholarship, the traditional ‘mead’ etymology became an important feature for the interpretation of the literary figure, although ‘Medb’ probably was not a transparent name for medieval audiences. Finally. I will question the role and the methods of those scholars who reconstruct the concepts and beliefs of medieval and archaic societies.

The handout for this presentation is extensive and because of that my notes are minimal. Britta is asking whether Medb was a goddess, and if so what were the rituals associated with her. There appears to be a conditional association with a king’s mental and physical well-being. It is agreed that Irish Kingship displays the concept of sacral kingship: hieros gamos — the king marries the local fertility goddess. I am typing up the bulk of her handout, but I encourage anyone interested in the details of these proceedings to purchase Ulidia 4 when it comes out.


1. Medb as allegorical personification of sovereignty (Ó Máille 1928)
1.1 Narrative: Medb, as Queen of Connachta says in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, “I was never without one man in the shadow of another.”
1.2 Genealogical: Medb of Crúachain, daughter of king Eochaid Feidlech, was married to 4 kings. Medb Lethderg, daughter of king Conán Cualann, was married to 4 kings (belonging to different generations). In LL 380a53 : “Great indeed was the strength and power of that Medb over the men of Ireland, for she would not allow a king in Tara without his having herself as a wife…
(the inauguration ceremony banais ríghi ‘wedding of kingship’)

2. Medb as a goddess (Thurneysen 2930, 1933, Bowen 1975, MacCana 1982, Egeler 2012 et al.)
Her sexuality and promiscuity are noted (Fergus Mac Róich as lover), as well as her family connections (Father: Eochaid Feidlech; Sisters: Clothra, Mugain, Eithne; Husband: Ailill ‘spectre’; Daughter: Findabair ‘white phantom’). She also shapes the landscape with the Fúal Medba: (LL-TBC 4831) “Medb passed her water and it made three great trenches in each of which a household can fit. Hence the place is called Fúal Medba”.  Birds are mentioned on her shoulder in (TBC I 3206-7), and she fights in battles (war goddess).

3. Etymology of Medb (Stokes 1894, Zimmer 1911, Ó Máille 1928, Thurneysen 1930, McCone 1990, et al.)
I can’t write out the flow of this etymology, but the key words are ‘mead’ from Old Irish, Welsh, Breton; ‘strong, intoxicating’ from Old Irish; ‘drunk’ from Welsh and Breton. Some derived nouns include the middle Irish medbán (the name of some edible plant), modern Irish meadhbhá(i)n (megrim, whirling in the head, intoxication; a stimulating sea-breeze; an succulent wild plant that causes intoxication; an edible sea-weed dried and seasoned). Old Irish Medb (the intoxicated one, the intoxicating one; mead woman).

4. Further evidence includes medieval sovereignty allegories. Echtra Mac Echdach Mugmedóin (Níall and his brothers are searching for water, they meet a hag guarding the well who demands a kiss in exchange for water, Níall kisses her, and she is transformed into a beautiful young woman who identifies herself as sovereignty. The five sons of king Dáire Doimthech is another example, as is the Baile in Scáil (Conn Cétchathach, the king, is brought to an otherworld dwelling where he meets a beautiful girl, the Sovereignty of Ireland, who distributes drink from a vat and says, “Upon whom shall this golden cup with red ale be bestowed and whom shall drink it?” Flaith ‘sovereignty’ ~ derg(f)laith ‘red beer/sovereignty’ – Red Sovereignty

5. The flaith – laith metaphor
Art will drink it after forty nights, a mighty hero He will die at Muccruime.
Corpre of combats will drink it with the truth of sovereignty.
To drink by the light of candles of pure wax in Dinn Ríg for the famous king — safe is the lord of the hills by means of that — the ale of Cuala, games at Carman.
Which is best of the drinks of sovereignty? where ale is drunk, frenzy of liquor. He will not be a king over Ireland, unless the ale of Cuala comes to him.
Medb Lethderg=daughter of Conán Cúalann (see above number 1).

6. Themes of the sovereignty myth and sovereignty goddesses (O’Rahilly 1946c, MacCana 1955-56, 1958-59, 1982, Carey 1983, Clark 1991, Maier 1991)
The Sovereignty goddess theme includes examination of candidates, bestowal of kingship by intercourse and/or by the presentation of a drink, the unrightful candidate fails/dies/does not get the drink. The appearance of the sovereignty goddess is of an ugly old hag / a madwoman / a poor woman if the rightful king is absent, but she transforms into a beautiful young woman by intercourse with the king. She is presented as the mother of the heir / the dynasty / a saint / queen of the otherworld. Her family and relations themes are that she has many suitors if a king’s daughter, she has several husbands or lovers if a queen, her husband dies / she abandons him / commits adultery / is abducted or raped by a rival. Scant mention is made of the presentation of a drink. Sovereignty goddesses (O’Rahilly 1946c, MacCana 1955-56, 1958-59) are:
Territorial Goddesses: Áine, daughter of Manannán; Anu; Caillech Bérre “hag of Bérre’;  Ébliu / Éblenn; Ériu / Banba / Fótla; Grian ‘sun’;  Macha;  Medb;  Mór Muman / Mugain;  Mórrígain ‘great queen’; Tailtiu
Mythical Women of the Otherworld: Eithne, Tháebfhota, Étaín, Sabd daughter of Bodb
Other: Órnat / Deoch ‘drink’, Suithchern, Mis, Créd, Mes Búachalla, Deirdre, Gráinne ‘ugliness’
Allegorical: Flaith, Flaithius ‘sovereignty’, Gormlaith ‘brilliant sovereignty’

There can be little doubt that Deirdre – in common, it might be said, with virtually all the other heroines of medieval irish literature– is an adaptation in human terms of the archetypical goddess figure.” (MacCana 1982, 522)

“… the centres of the Lughnasa festival are associated with a god who was himself closely connected with a goddess representing the fruitfulness of the land and the sovereignty of the territory. And, as in India, it seems to me that in Ireland a great deal of this mythology of the land must represent a continuity from the pre-Indo-European–in other words pre-Celtic–culture of the country.” (MacCana 1988, 334)

7. Reconstructed beliefs include “The Celtic goddess” as female personification of the territory, the female partner in the hieros gamos (sacred marriage), bestows the sovereignty upon the king, during a ceremony involving the presentation of an intoxicating beverage, name *Medua ‘the intoxicating one’ / ‘mead woman’.

8. The etymology of Medb in scholarly works:

Medb, …, can mean either ‘the drunken one’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. Drunkenness, at least in this context, would not have been seen as degenerative behavior, but as a king of ecstatic state in which a human was lifted out of himself and might hope to achieve contact with the divine. .. Thus the king’s ritual drunkenness at the inaugural feast might be interpreted as an image of the sacred orgasm in which he was united with the goddess.” (Bowen 1975, 21)

Medb’s name means the ‘intoxicating one’, and she is a form of the goddess who is various cultures is seen providing the king or hero with a libation, a drink necessary for him to continue his reign.” (Condren 1989, 235, fn. 40)

“One of the ways the goddess signaled acceptance of a would-be king was to offer him a drink: this aspect is conveyed in Medbs very name, which has been explained as a derivative of the word med ‘mead’, meaning ‘the intoxicating (or intoxicated) one.” (Kelly 1992, 78)

“Her name means ‘intoxicating’ or ‘she who intoxicates’; she offered then drink of dominion from her own fertile body. But in Táin Bó Cuailnge, first written down around the eighth century, Medb’s drink, like too much alcohol, could also rob a man his virility.” (Bitel 1996, 70)

“Today, the most frequently quoted reason for attributing a mythological background to the literary figure Medb is probably the etymology of her name.” (Egeler 2012, 68)

9.  Medb and the presentation of drinks:  Medb intoxicates Fer Diad; Medb poisons Lugaid Laígse; Medb bestows the ríge laéch n-Erend ‘the sovereignty of thee warriors of Ireland’ (Three main Ulster heroes come to the court of Ailill and Medb to receive a judgement on the question who of them is the superior warrior. Medb tells each hero secretly that he is the best and gives him a precious cup filled with wine and decorated with the figure of a bird at the bottom. However, the cups are made of metals of different value. Back in Ulster, they discover, that Cú Chulainn has received the most valuable cup. The decision is not accepted by the two inferior ones, who accuse Cú Chulainn to have bought it.); the very name of Connacht–Cóiced Medba / Cóiced (n-)Ól n-écmacht (They were called Cóiced Ól nÉcmacht. It is not difficult [to explain]. A feast was offered to them and to Clanna Degad in the house of Domma the druid. The Connachta arrived first and they did not divide fairly the ale or the food with Clanna Degad, but consumed fully two thirds of it. So the druid said at that time: “the drinking that you do is impossible”, i.e. it is beyond capacity, i.e. it is ill-conceived. That is why [the name] Cóiced Ól nÉcmachta has stuck to the province of Connachta ever since.)

10. Expression of ‘drunkenness, intoxication’ and ‘drunken, intoxicated’ in Ol Irish. I have a note that says medb was already obsolete in Old Irish. mescae ‘intoxication’; i mmescai ‘intoxicated’; medb ‘strong, intoxicating’; medb ‘bitter, acid’

11.  Alternative Etymology (Pinault 2007)
PIE root *med– ‘take the appropriate measures to face a difficulty, solve a problem’
*med- ‘to measure, to care for observance, to look after’
‘to rule’
‘to heal’
‘to judge’
‘to measure’
Gaul. Epomeduos ‘he who conducts / governs the horses’ (instead of ‘intoxicated by the horse’)
Old Irish. Medb < *med-ua ‘she who rules’, ‘(female) ruler, sovereign’

Two Gaulish goddesses (Lambert 2006): Meduna, Comedovis Augustis
‘rules, evaluates’
‘lord, ruler’

12.  Reconstructed Cults:
Medb as a sun goddess or goddess of dawn (‘solar mythology” – under influence of Max Mueller and gods as personification).
Medb herself, married first to Conchobar, then to Ailill, is to be classed with what I may, in default of a better term, goddesses of dawn and dusk, who are found at one time consorting with bight beings and at another with dark ones. They also associate themselves commonly with water…” (Rhys 1888, 138f.)

Mebd as epithet of PIE *h2-eusos, goddess of dawn and sovereignty goddess – The sovereignty myth is not restricted to Celtic religion but Proto-Indo-European. (McCone 2112)


Medb as Indo-European river goddess (Olmsted 1994) Comparison with Continental place names and tribal names containing the element *med– ‘mead’. Medb is linked to a ritual bull killing (like the Great Mother is Rome) (Olmsted 1994). Medb as a horse goddess (McCone 1990, Mallory / McNeill 1991) Connection of the sovereignty myth hypotheses with the inauguration ritual of the Cenenel Connaill, Ulster described by Giraldus Cambrensis; the ceremony that involved the ritual marriage of the king with a mare and/or some form of horse sacrifice. Parallel with Old Indic ‘horse sacrifice’, where in the Indic ritual the king’s wives have intercourse with a sacrificed stallion.


“The points raised above constitute a substantial dossier of varied evidence, including some remarkably circumstantial correspondences, for an Indo-European institution, ideology and mythology of sacral kingship. This was based on the widely attested notion that the well-being of society and nature flowed from a ritual marriage between a goddess and the new ruler to emerge after appropriate tests. The former might be called *Med h w-i or *Med h w-a after the draught of mead (*med h u) involved in the ceremony, which apparently centered upon an equine ritual and associated feast. “ (McCone 1990, 120)

“…the royal family which was supposed to be still practicing this sacred bestiality had been Christian for at least six centuries and supplied (among other churchmen) twelve abbots of Iona.” (Hutton 1991, 172)

Medb as mead goddess, Medb as a goddess of intoxication; one of several Celtic goddesses of intoxication (Meduna, Comedovis, Latis..); there was a Celtic cult of ‘ritual intoxication’ to get into contact with the divine world; ‘ritual intoxication’ is linked to healing, war, and sovereignty.

13.  Other mythologic backgrounds of the Táin (not involving Medb): Cú Chulainn as a vegetation god or ‘year spirit’ (vegetation deity) (Ó Broin, 1961-63); Cú chulainn lives one year with (goddess) Fedelm Noíchride / Foltchaín after having mutilated her companion; bull fight of the Táin as a Proto-Indo-European cosmogonic myth (Lincoln 1981) The ‘divine bull’ as a cult animal among the Celts (Ross 1992).

-There is no evidence that Medb was understood as ‘the intoxicating one’ within the native tradition.
-The etymology Medb ‘rule’ has semantic parallels with other theonyms.
-It is compatible with a sovereignty goddess, but not with a mead cult or mead ritual.
-The sovereignty allegory with the presentation of a drink in the Irish tradition may be due to the flaith~laith-metaphor (only in Irish, not in Brittonic).
-Reconstructions of archaic rituals which are mainly based on etymologies of theonyms are doubtful.


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The final presenter, before lunch on the first day, was perhaps my favorite.  Dr. Richard Warner (IAI) spoke on, ‘The Navan Temple, the Tech Midchúarta and Fiachna’s fatal round-house’.

 It will be argued that the very large ‘feasting-halls described in early, including ‘mythological’, Irish texts were describing real, contemporary Early Medieval buildings whose origin may be sought in the Iron Age, and typified by the 40-metre, wooden building excavated at Navan.  it will be shown that archaeological evidence for large Early Medieval halls has been found but has been ignored or dismissed.

As I said, I particularly enjoyed this speaker, as evidenced by the first note I made, “Look-up his scholarship!”  He was not only a delightful speaker, but the material was fascinating.  Listening to him, I wanted nothing more than to sit at a kitchen table, over a cup of tea, asking him a million questions.

“Late literature (Ulster Cycle) does not give a glimpse of prehistoric life.”  Or, does it?

The Iron Age in Ireland is dated from ~300 BCE – 300 CE.  It was during this time that ritual was held at Navan (95 BCE).  Contrast this to the Ulster Cycle texts, which date to 800 CE.  That leaves a 900 year gap between construction and use of the structure, and mention in literary sources.

The mound contains, the now infamous, 40-metre structure, which includes 4 concentric rings, spaced 3-metres apart, that were encased in a stone and turf mound and burned in 95 BCE.  The Wooing of Emer contains a description of the Navan ‘round-house’ temple:

There was great state and rank and plenty in the king’s house at Emain.

On this wise was that house—viz., the Red Branch of Conchobor, after the likeness of the House of the Midcourt.3 Nine beds were in it from the fire to the wall. Thirty feet was the height of each bronze front that was in the house. Carvings of red yew were therein. It was a board [] below, and a roof of tiles above. The bed of Conchobor was in the front of the house, with boards of silver, with pillars of bronze, with the glitter of gold on their head-pieces, and carbuncles in them, so that day and night were equally light in it, with its silver board above the king to the highest part of the royal house. Whenever Conchobor struck the board with a royal rod, all the men of Ulster were silent thereat. The twelve beds of the twelve chariot-chiefs were round about that bed.

In fact, the description of feasting houses in the tales do not reflect the reality — in other words, there is no archeological evidence that ‘feasting’ houses matched the descriptions given in the literary tradition.  An early medieval royal house was about 40 feet across.  Detailed descriptions of daily life did not survive from the Iron Age to the Early Medieval period, but usages of form and function, particularly of royal ritual, did survive.

We see lots of stories of houses burnt, and we also find descriptions of a king’s house.

Gríth Gablach (MacNeill’s translation) http://ia600500.us.archive.org/3/items/papersirishacad00macnuoft/papersirishacad00macnuoft.pdf

What is the due of a king who is always in residence at the head of his tuath?  Seven score feet of perfect feet are the measure of his stockade on every side.  Seven feet are the thickness of its earthwork, and twelve feet its depth.  It is then that he is a king, when ramparts of vassalage surround him.  What is the rampart of vassalage?  Twelve feet are the breadth of its opening and its depth and its measure towards the stockade. Thirty feed are its measure outwardly.

[…] How is a king’s house arranged?

The king’s guards on the south.  Question–What guards are proper for a king to have?  A man whom he has freed from the dungeon, the from gallows, from captivity, a man whom he has freed from service, from servile cottiership, from servile tenancy.  He does not keep a man whom he has saved from single combat, lest he betray him, lest he slay him, in malice or for favour.

What number of guards is proper for a king to have?  Four, namely, a frontman and a henchman and two sidesmen, these are their names.  It is these that are proper to be in the south side of a king’s house, to accompany him from house into field, from field into house.

A man of pledge for vassals next these inwards.  What is this man’s dignity?  A man who has land of seven cumals, who presides over his (the king’s) chattels, including (those of) lord and base man and of the law of Féni.

Next to him inward, envoys.  Next to these, guest-companies.  Poets next to these, harpers next.  Flute-players, horn-players, jugglers, in the south-east.

On the other side, in the north, a man at arms, a man of action, to guard the door, each of them having his spear in front of him always against confusion of the banquet-house [by attack from without].  Next to these inward, the free clients of the lord (i.e. of the king).  These are the folk who are company to a king.  Hostages next to these.  The judge (the king’s assessor) next to these.  His (the king’s) wife next to him.  The king next.  Forfeited hostages in fetters in the north-east.

The king of a tuath (has a retinue) of twelve men (when he goes to the court of a superior king) to (protect) the interests of the tuath; whom the tuath itself sustains as regards their expense (?).  Twelve men, too, are the retinue of a bishop for the interests of church and tuath in which he himself goes (on visitation).  For a tuath cannot bear the retinue of king and bishop if they be always battening on it.  The retinue of a master is twelve men.


Lissue ringfort (Co. Antrim) is another 40-metre across “round-house” and had post rings in a circular configuration:

 In this case, the inner ring of posts would have supported the roof. But the area between the outside of the `house’ and the inner face of the bank, instead of containing traces of sheds or pens, was found to contain concentric circles of large square wooden posts, centred on the centre of the ‘house’ (the hearth). Without going into detailed arguments, I will simply give it as the excavator’s conclusion, with which I fully agree, that these posts held a roof which completely covered the interior of the ringfort, its eaves being on the bank itself.14 Such a structure is otherwise unknown in a ringfort, The second, and main, ringfort at Lissue was, then, completely filled by a single huge building some 130 feet (40 metres) in diameter. The ‘house’ wall at the centre was simply a partition of some sort inside this structure, and around the hearth.

The entrance to the central partitioned `hearth’ area led along a paved path through a six foot wide passage through the bank, to a gate in its outer face. Thence, unusually for a ringfort, it led across the ditch over a wooden bridge rather than the usual causeway, and out through another gate in a fence on the outer edge of the ditch. In the mid 1940s, the farmer remembered a gravelly `roadway’ leading away from this entrance, towards the east.

[…] But the most spectacular find, from the last phase, was a slab of slate covered with carefully drawn incised sketches: an animal, bits of interlace, geometric patterns etc., (fig 3). It had on it the sort of patterns that could be found on contemporary metal ornaments, or in decorated gospel books, or perhaps even on peoples’ clothes. Decorated slates like this are called by archaeologists ‘trial’ pieces (or ‘motif’ pieces), but their real purpose is quite unknown. 16 This one was found in the layer of charcoal and burning that represented the demise of the site, a dramatic end in which a large proportion of the great structure was destroyed by fire. Usefully it can be approximately dated to about A.D. 1000 by the ornaments carved on it. This approximate date is supported by the other artefacts, to which a date around the 10th century would apply. It was Bersu’s belief that each wooden building would hardly have lasted more than 50 years in the Irish climate, then as now rather wet. This would give some 150 years for the maximum length of use of the three phases, and an earliest date in the middle of the 9th century for the first ringfort and the beginning of the second. These dates are, of worse, only approximate, but as we would hardly expect such a huge structure to be replaced sooner than was necessary, they seem reasonable.

Lisaeda (a royal dwelling) is Lissue ringfort (his evidence is given in this paper, The Early Christian Ringfort of Lissue.     This dates a description of a royal ‘round-house’ to ~1000 CE

There was mention made to Clogher, Co. Tyrone, as another example of a royal feasting house.  He used these examples to substantiate his claim that these descriptions of contemporary royal feasting houses do indeed reflect the reality of Emain Macha and is supported by archeological evidence.  He speculated that the big ‘house’ (Navan Temple) was the tribes palace, not the actual house of the king, and an anti-chamber to the otherworld, which was ritually destroyed as a sacrifice so the Ulster warriors could use it in the otherworld. 

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Patrick MCcafferty (QUB) presented an enticing, if speculative (?) paper, The Royal Palace at Emain Macha: a new interpretation.  His abstract:

For centuries, Navan Fort was thought to be a royal site.  Medieval tales described it as the palace of King Conchobar mac Nessa, a seat of military power.  However, Dudley Waterman’s excavations revealed an enigmatic site whose primary function was ritual, to occupation–further undermining the credibility of medieval Irish tales and reducing the likelihood that they might somehow provide a ‘window on the Iron Age’.

This paper shows that medieval descriptions of the site can be reconciled with the archeological evidence.  To begin with, the paper shows how some of the descriptions of royal palaces in medieval tales seem to fit what was happening at the site in the Iron Age.  The paper goes further by suggesting that the site is based on a coherent philosophy; that the structure built in 95 BCE was designed to be a model of the cosmos incorporating the latest knowledge of the era; and that elements based on this particular cosmic model are to be found in medieval Irish tales.  Whether those elements were based primarily on information transmitted from the Iron Age or on medieval philosophy remains an open question.

This presentation roused much murmuring and head gesturing from the audience, as well as lively questions at the end.  Patrick provided a robust hand-out, with many citations.


He bagan the discussion by giving an over-view of the occupation of Emain Macha: from the Neolithic occupation, to the Bronze Age farming, and Iron Age figure 8 structure.  Then it all changed.  In 95 BCE a unique 40 meter circular building was constructed around a central massive oak trunk / post.  Four concentric rings of posts expanded outward, with a western opening avenue (note that prehistoric dwellings invariably had eastern — sunrise — facing entrances) , and a floor covered with stones arranged in radial segments….then the whole thing was deliberately burnt down before being covered  in a mound of turf and earth.

Patrick noted that though the western opening was possibly unique in Ireland, contemporaneously it was similar to the public basilica in Rome.  And while the tales indicate a military royal fortress, the archeology describes a religious site.

Mac Datho‘s pig is noted in connection with the central oak post: ‘For there were slain one thousand and four hundred armed men both of Ulster and Connacht, so that seven streams of blood and gore burst through the seven doors…then Fergus took the great oak that was in the middle of the enclosure to the men of Connacht, after having torn it from its roots.’

The 7 spaces between the rings, in the wooden concentric structure, are discussed by Chris Lynn (Navan Fort: Archeology and Myth): ‘The size, material, layout and location of the Navan timber structure accord sufficiently well with the stock description of the magical hostel of the literary tradition as to raise the possibility that the two may be related[…] It is possible that the design of the Iron Age ceremonial building in navan was based on a mythical prototype.  The same myth may have survived to become the stock description of the hostel or king’s hall in the Ulster cycle of Tales.’

A ritual conducted within a temple (or space) designed to represent all the worlds, influences all the worlds.  

Non-nativisits suggest the division of Navan Fort represents the 12 apostles, and could be the influence of Christianity on the writing of the tale.  Nativists look to the model of the zodiac, with the central post as the axis mundi.

7 doors?  7 windows??
12 7’s : 7 days of the week, 7 heavenly bodies (earth, sun, five planets)

Navan Fort was built in 95 BCE, so the question is, ‘what was the model of the known solar system at that time?’

The Pantheon, in Rome, has similar dimensions and layers.  We need not only look to christianity for symbolism, though.  Mithraism, based on an Iranian god, had temples using a very similar structure.  In Britton, during the 1st century CE, there were 10 temples to Mithras.  These temples used 7 “stages” (or steps) – a shared concept with Navan Fort.
The Mithraic path to the stars, the seven plus one gates, is explained by Celsus, via Origen (hardly a fan of Celsus), and recorded by A S Geden:

Celsus following Plato affirms that souls proceed to and from the earth by way of the planets…and further being desirous of exhibiting his learning in controversy with us he expounds certain Persian mysteries also, and among them the following: “These doctrines are contained in the traditions of the Persians and in the cult of Mithra which they practise. For the latter gives a kind of representation of the two heavenly spheres, the one fixed and the other assigned to ‘the planets, and of the journey of the soul through these. There is an ascending road with seven gates, and an eighth at the summit. The first gate is of lead, the second of tin, the third of bronze, the fourth of iron, the fifth of mixed metal, the sixth of silver, and the seventh of gold. The first is dedicated to Kronus, the lead symbolizing the planet’s slow motion. The second to Aphrodite, the resemblance consisting in the bright and malleable nature of the tin. The third, firm and resistant, to Zeus. The fourth to Hermes, in that like the iron Hermes is the tireless and efficient worker and producer of wealth. The fifth to Ares, because of the variable and irregular nature of the alloy. The sixth, of silver, to the Moon; and the seventh, of gold, to the Sun, from a comparison of their colours.” Later Celsus investigates the reason for this definite assignment of the stars in whose names the remainder of the physical universe finds symbolical expression, and he expounds further the doctrines of harmony in which the Persian theology is set forth. In addition to these he is so ambitious as to publish a second treatise dealing with the principles of music. In my judgement however, for Celsus to propound his theory in these is absurd; it is like his procedure in the matter of his denunciation of Christians and Jews where he makes irrelevant quotations from Plato, and is so far from being satisfied with these that he drags in the Persian mysteries as he calls them of Mithra also with all their details. For whether these things are true or false in the belief of those who preside over the Mithraic rites of the Persians, why did he choose them for exposition and interpretation rather than any other mysteries? for Greeks have no preference for mysteries of Mithra rather than those of Eleusis or the traditional rites of Hecate which they celebrate in Aegina. And why if he felt it incumbent upon him to set forth foreign mysteries did he not rather prefer the Egyptian, in which many take an interest, or the Cappadocian worship of Artemis in Comana, or the Thracian, or even those of the Romans themselves in which the most high-born senators take part? but if he regarded it as unsuitable to his purpose to adopt anyone of these on the ground that they furnished no support to his denunciation of Jews or Christians, how is it that he did not draw the same conclusion with regard to his exposition of the Mithraic rites? (Geden)

Also, Lismullin Henge has been proposed as a model of the cosmos, dating from 520-370 BCE, at Tara.  Other cosmological 7’s include the 7 stars at Dowth, the 7 cows.

Patrick suggests that Irish royal houses have celestial attributes, and that the 40m Navan Fort is a model of the sky.

The Gundostrop cauldron, it was suggested, is a map of the cosmos, with the 7 deities and the northern castle / lake on the bottom.  (??)
Stonehendge has 30 y and z holes respectively, and 30 years is the orbit of Saturn. 7 noble stars.
30, 12, 7
These numbers are repeated over and over.

He quotes the Saltair na Rann: ‘the firmament, great renown, and the seven noble stars have a single course, a brilliant feat, since the hour they were shapes.’

Patrick quotes O’Sullivan’s ‘Folktales of Ireland’ and Brian O’Cuív’s ‘The Motif of the threefold death’ :

Queen of the Planets–‘putting her head down into the boiling pot… put her head into the noose, and hanged herself… fetched a razor and cut her throat.
Threefold death–‘the phrase ro loisced 7 ro báided 7 ro gonad is used in a prose section with reference to twenty-five kings in the Christain period… Among the kings listed are Muirchertach mac Erca and Diarmait mac Cerbaill who are supposed, according to other sources, to have sufferered the threefold death.’

Did Navan Fort’s 40m structure undergo the threefold treatment?

Is the structure quite literally the Queen of the Planets?

The cairn at Navan is arranged in 8 radial segments.  What if each segment represented the deaths in the 1 year period previous? He quotes The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel here:

The reavers […] bring a stone for each man to make a cairn; […]

For two causes they built their cairn, namely, first since this was a custom in marauding, and, secondly, that they might find out their losses at the Hostel. Every one that would come safe from it would take his stone from the cairn: thus the stones of those that were slain would be left, and thence they would know their losses. And this is what men skilled in story recount, that for every stone in Carn leca there was one of the reavers killed at the Hostel. From that Cairn Leca in Húi Cellaig is so called.

One may have had to see the burning of Navan Fort and its segments (ritual burning), with the burning of human remains at Samhain.

The suggestion being, that Emain Macha was designed as a ritual structure, built over a period of time incorporating the deceased of the tribe in a ritualistic way, and when ritualy destroyed by fire and burial, it became a banqueting hall in the otherworld which the tribe could use.  

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The third presentation on Thursday was Kay Muhr’s (QUB) ‘The Influence of Uí Néill on the Ulster Cycle.’ Professor Muhr works with the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project.

I made note of two websites for further information on this subject, those being:

Sad to say I wrote absolutely nothing down for this presentation, other than these scant scribbles, “Rudraige: Dundrum Bay (Down). Personal name invented? But based on the name of a loch?”

I am thoroughly ashamed of myself.

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The second speaker on Thursday was Paul Gosling (GMIT)  who presented a paper titled, ‘Wading in Drumly Waters: placing rivers and river-names in the Táin Bó Cúailnge.’  As always, if you were present and have anything to add to these, please do so in the comments section.

Discoveries are made on the edge of disciplines. (QOTD)

He began by giving a breakdown of rivers and river names mentioned in each edition of the Táin:

River Names                   Rivers

Windisch  ’05             36                             36

Dunn  ’14                     44                            42

O’Rahilly  ’67               32                            32

O’Rahilly   ’76              29                            28

From this data, he decided to work with the idea of 44 rivers being mentioned in the TBC (Táin Bó Cúailnge), and those being 1 or 2 syllable names.

Paul’s interest is in the geography of the rivers.  He mentioned that hitherto, place name studies have had a philological approach, focusing on structural patterns and role in the narrative, but infrequently as geographical and location information.  This is of personal interest, since I feel strongly that sacred myths are seated within their landscape, with Place itself acting as an animating element.

Mary Hutton, Gene Haley, and Thomas Kinsella were mentioned as having done work on place names in the Tain, but have not received enough recognition.

A very intriguing mention was made of the ‘curative’ rivers, that seem to be part of the process of healing.  A list of names is given, and it is stated that these were visited to ‘heal’ someone, yet no work has been done to determine what these names mean.  Might they reveal details of a process that was undertaken for curative benefit?

Random note: a noun without an article gives the oldest stratum of name.

Meaningful to some; he outlined how the River Nith is NOT the River Dee,  that the Colptha is the Ryland River, and that  Bernas Bó Cuailnge is NOT the windy gap.

He also mentioned the fact that non-navigable rivers are more likely to have different names along the path of the river, while navigable rivers are likely to have the same name throughout the rivers course, from source to mouth.

A differentiation was made between ‘fording’ points and ‘bridging’ points, and the significance of fords, in general, was discussed.  He mentioned that there have been no academic papers covering fords or wells in relation to geography, and this is an area of research that should be addressed.


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I am finally getting around to writing up my notes. I would have preferred to do this sooner, but beloved family were visiting and they always get priority.

The conference opened with an intriguing presentation by Kicki Ingridsdotter (NUIG) on ‘A narrative typology of death and killing in Táin Bó Cualnge: a micro-motif index of sorts.’ There was sadly no hand-out for this presentation (though Ulidia, the publication of proceedings, will be published for this conference at a later date).

Kicki began by outlining all the instances of killing in this “episodic military campaign” and then attempted to categorize them.

1. Initial Intimidation by Cú Chulainn : severed heads as a warning / boundary marker
2. boyhood
3. Death of Fróech
4. killings at the Ford
5. single combats
6. battle of Muirthemne
7. small clusters of single combat / last of them is Fer Diad
8. remaining deaths occur after Fer Diad, with aggression enganged in by others (except 2 in the final battle)
9. final battle

The boundary crossing motif is prevelant with warnings not to cross various rivers, with Cu placing the boundary. Rivers almost act, themselves, as boundaries, guardians, or places of destruction. There are weaker motifs of the river being controlled by Cú Chulainn: the man who crosses with the stone, and the 3 rivers that rise-up for Cú Chulainn.

There is a category of family or proxy for family as a motif in the deaths. These all revolve around Ailill and Mebd.

Ford killings are prevelent, and involve place, places not specified but placename given, someone guarding a place, single combats, and attacks on Cú Chulainn.

It is interesting to note that Cú Chulainn’s foster brother is the only death in the Táin to have been mentioned as inflincted by a sword through the heaart.

Kicki sees the amount and detail of killings as a motif that is meaant to “gross out” the listener.


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