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Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 88

“For,” said Naisi, “it is not seemly that we should seek to defend ourselves while we are under the protection of the sons of Fergus.” But Conor went to Buino, and with a great gift of lands he bought him over to desert his charge. Then Illan took up the defence of the Red Branch Hostel, but the two sons of Conor slew him. And then at last Naisi and his brothers seized their weapons and rushed amid the foe, and many were they who fell before the onset. Then Conor entreated Cathbad the Druid to cast spells upon them lest they should get away and become the enemies of the province, and he vowed to do them no hurt if they were taken alive. So Cathbad conjured up, as it were, a lake of slime that seemed to be about [pg 201] the feet of the sons of Usna, and they could not tear their feet from it, and Naisi caught up Deirdre and put her on his shoulder, for they seemed to be sinking in the slime. Then the guards and servants of Conor seized and bound them and brought them before the king. And the king called upon man after man to come forward and slay the sons of Usna, but none would obey him, till at last Owen son of Duracht and Prince of Ferney came and took the sword of Naisi, and with one sweep he shore off the heads of all three, and so they died.

Then Conor took Deirdre perforce, and for a year she abode with him in the palace in Emain Macha, but during all that time she never smiled. At length Conor said: “What is it that you hate most of all on earth, Deirdre?” And she said: “Thou thyself and Owen son of Duracht,” and Owen was standing by. “Then thou shalt go to Owen for a year,” said Conor. But when Deirdre mounted the chariot behind Owen she kept her eyes on the ground, for she would not look on those who thus tormented her; and Conor said, taunting her: “Deirdre, the glance of thee between me and Owen is the glance of a ewe between two rams.” Then Deirdre started up, and, flinging herself head foremost from the chariot, she dashed her head against a rock and fell dead.

And when they buried her it is said there grew from her grave and from Naisi's two yew-trees, whose tops, when they were full-grown, met each other over the roof of the great church of Armagh, and intertwined together, and none could part them.

The Rebellion of Fergus

When Fergus mac Roy came home to Emain Macha after the feast to which Baruch bade him and found [pg 202] the sons of Usna slain and one of his own sons dead and the other a traitor, he broke out against Conor in a storm of wrath and cursing, and vowed to be avenged on him with fire and sword. And he went off straightway to Connacht to take service of arms with Ailell and Maev, who were king and queen of that country.

Queen Maev

But though Ailell was king, Maev was the ruler in truth, and ordered all things as she wished, and took what husbands she wished, and dismissed them at pleasure; for she was as fierce and strong as a goddess of war, and knew no law but her own wild will. She was tall, it is said, with a long, pale face and masses of hair yellow as ripe corn. When Fergus came to her in her palace at Rathcroghan in Roscommon she gave him her love, as she had given it to many before, and they plotted together how to attack and devastate the Province of Ulster.

The Brown Bull of Quelgny

Now it happened that Maev possessed a famous red bull with white front and horns named Finnbenach, and one day when she and Ailell were counting up their respective possessions and matching them against each other he taunted her because the Finnbenach would not stay in the hands of a woman, but had attached himself to Ailell's herd. So Maev in vexation went to her steward, mac Roth, and asked of him if there were anywhere in Erin a bull as fine as the Finnbenach. “Truly,” said the steward, “there is—for the Brown Bull of Quelgny, that belongs to Dara son of Fachtna, is the mightiest beast that is in Ireland.” And after that Maev felt as if she had no flocks and [pg 203] herds that were worth anything at all unless she possessed the Brown Bull of Quelgny. But this was in Ulster, and the Ulstermen knew the treasure they possessed, and Maev knew that they would not give up the bull without fighting for it. So she and Fergus and Ailell agreed to make a foray against Ulster for the Brown Bull, and thus to enter into war with the province, for Fergus longed for vengeance, and Maev for fighting, for glory, and for the bull, and Ailell to satisfy Maev.

Here let us note that this contest for the bull, which is the ostensible theme of the greatest of Celtic legendary tales, the “Tain Bo Cuailgné,” has a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. An ancient piece of Aryan mythology is embedded in it. The Brown Bull is the Celtic counterpart of the Hindu sky-deity, Indra, represented in Hindu myth as a mighty bull, whose roaring is the thunder and who lets loose the rains “like cows streaming forth to pasture.” The advance of the Western (Connacht) host for the capture of this bull is emblematic of the onset of Night. The bull is defended by the solar hero Cuchulain, who, however, is ultimately overthrown and the bull is captured for a season. The two animals in the Celtic legend probably typify the sky in different aspects. They are described with a pomp and circumstance which shows that they are no common beasts. Once, we are told, they were swineherds of the people of Dana. “They had been successively transformed into two ravens, two sea-monsters, two warriors, two demons, two worms or animalculae, and finally into two kine.”141 The Brown Bull is described as having a back broad enough for fifty children to play on; when he is angry with his keeper he stamps the [pg 204] man thirty feet into the ground; he is likened to a sea wave, to a bear, to a dragon, a lion, the writer heaping up images of strength and savagery. We are therefore concerned with no ordinary cattle-raid, but with a myth, the features of which are discernible under the dressing given it by the fervid imagination of the unknown Celtic bard who composed the “Tain,” although the exact meaning of every detail may be difficult to ascertain.


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