Posts Tagged ‘ulster cycle’

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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My partner is from Ulster, but that’s not why I’m traveling there.
Many wonderful archeological sites, and areas of beauty are in Ulster, but they don’t precipitate my visit, either.

No, I’m journeying North to sit through TWO DAYS of academic discourse on the Ulster Cycle of Tales!!!! Be still my wild, Cú Chulainn heart! As before, I will share my notes (and strive to be well rested, so as not to do any presentation a disservice).


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