Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lessons from The Tain: Just a Flesh Wound

A guest post from @Trinza AKA Zachary Tringali! Because Celtic Mythology rocks, and is severely underrepresented on this blog.

Battle in The Tain, one of Ireland’s books of mythology, is a gruesome affair.

For starters, Cú Chulainn, the hero of the tale, turns into a monster when he gets riled up. A creature that would make the Hulk look like a stuffed animal. Here’s a description from Ciaran Carson’s translation of The Tain:
An inaccurate portrayal of Cu, apparently.
“The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognizably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in the storm or a reed in the stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front…”

“Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see lungs and liver flapping in his throat; lower and upper palate clashed like a pair of mighty tongs, and a stream of white-hot flecks broad as a ram’s fleece poured from his mouth.”
Not exactly the kind of guy you want to meet in a dark alley at night. Or in a field during the day. Or anywhere. Ever.

Of course, when he’s not driven to anger, he’s described as being one of the most handsome men in Ireland, with bright hair and bright eyes and a youthful face. But the horrors of battle in The Tain don’t end with its hero’s transformation.

The central premise of the book is that a king and queen are leading an army into foreign territory to steal a bull. I know that sounds weird, but it’s a really cool bull. Supposedly it sires 50 cattle a day just by walking near another cow. And the cows that don’t give birth the next day literally explode because of how great his sperm is.

But I’m getting off topic. Due to an old curse put upon the people of Ulster, the only person available to defend the land (and bull) against this invading army is one man: Cú Chulainn, who often challenges the army to single combat. The king and queen send over their best men to fight Cú Chulainn, and he kills them all. But not before they get a last word in.

More often than not, Cú Chulainn will do something like split a man’s skull in two only for that man to stand still for a moment and exclaim something to the effect of, “I sure was stupid for fighting you. I guess I’ve lost this one!” and then collapsing dead.

Invariably, the hill or valley where that battle was fought is then renamed something like “Skull Split Valley.” If we’re to take a cartography lesson from The Tain, it’s that every single hill, valley, and river in Ireland is named after a place where Cú Chulainn killed someone in a new, inventive way.

Seriously, it happens about every other page.

The best tale of battle, I think, is the man who Cú Chulainn stabbed through the eye with a spear. The man then looks at Cú Chulainn and says “Boy, this sucks. Would you allow me to go back across the river and tell my family where my treasure is? I promise I’ll come back to have my head chopped off.” (Paraphrasing, of course.)

Cú Chulainn lets him do as he asks and eventually the man comes back, but tries to kill Cú by throwing his sword at him. Our fierce hero goes into a battle rage and kills all of them, of course.

This all leads up to Cú Chulainn’s fight with his foster brother Fer Diad. Their fight lasts three days, over the course of which they switch from martial arts to spears, swords, and more, which gave them both wounds of the sort described here:
“So that day they took up their specially strengthened broad-shields and their beloved broad stabbing-spears, and began to stab and cut each other, pushing and thrusting from the half-light of early morning until the evening sunset. If it were customary for birds in flight to pass through men’s bodies, they would have flown through their bodies that day and brought with them gobbets of blood and flesh through their open cuts into the air and the clouds beyond.”
So, essentially, these two fighters were carving holes in one another big enough for birds to fly through. And they’re still so tough that they have a rest for the night and get right back to it the next day, where the only comment from the whole affair is:
“ ‘You do not look well today, Fer Diad,’ he said. ‘Your hair has grown dull overnight, and your eye is clouded. You are not in good shape.’ “
Well, and neither would I be after all that!


  1. Ah yes, the ol' Cú Chulainn battle rages. I've occasionally seen them bowdlerized as just being a red halo about his head, usually in books for children. As for Ireland, I am perfectly willing to believe that every location and landmark on the island has some alternative name based on how somebody died there.

    1. What. A red halo?! ALL OF THAT turned into a red halo?!

      How very disappointing!


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