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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 62

478 There is nothing in the story to corroborate this theory, apart from the fact that it is not clear, even to the hypothetical primitive mind, why dawn and sun should be a divine pair. Emer's words probably mean that she is "daughter of a king" and "a flame of hospitality" (richis garta.)479 Cúchulainn, in visiting her, went from west to east, contrary to the apparent course of the sun. The extravagance of the solar theory is further seen in the hypothesis that because Cúchulainn has other wives, the sun-god made love to as many dawn-maidens as there are days in the year,480 like {136} the king in Louys' romance with his 366 wives, one for each day of the year, leap-year included.

Further examples of the solar theory need not be cited. It is enough to see in Cúchulainn the ideal warrior, whose traits are bombastic and obscure exaggerations of actual custom and warfare, or are borrowed from folk-tale motifs not exclusively Celtic. Possibly he may have been a war-god, since he is associated with Badb and also with Morrigan. But he has also some traits of a culture hero. He claims superiority in wisdom, in law, in politics, in the art of the Filid, and in Druidism, while he brings various things from the world of the gods. In any case the Celts paid divine honours to heroes, living or dead,483 and Cúchulainn, god or ideal hero, may have been the subject of a cult. This lends point to the theory of M. D'Arbois that Cúchulainn and Conall Cernach are the equivalents of Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, said by Diodorus to be worshipped among the Celts near the Ocean.484 Cúchulainn, like Pollux, was son of a god, and was nursed, according to some accounts, by Findchoém, mother of Conall, just as Leda was mother of Castor as well as of Pollux. But, on the other hand, Cúchulainn, unlike Pollux, was mortal. M. D'Arbois then identifies the two pairs of heroes with certain figures on an altar at Cluny. These are Castor and Pollux; Cernunnos and Smertullos. He equates Castor with Cernunnos, and Pollux with Smertullos. Smertullos is Cúchulainn, and the name is explained from an incident in the Táin, in which the hero, reproached for his youth, puts on a false beard before attacking Morrigan in her form as an eel. This is expressed by smérthain, "to attach", and is thus connected with and gave rise to the name Smertullos. On the altar Smertullos is attacking an eel or serpent. Hence Pollux is {137} Smertullos-Cúchulainn. Again, the name Cernunnos signifies "the horned one," from cernu, "horn," a word found in Conall's epithet Cernach. But this was not given him because he was horned, but because of the angular shape of his head, the angle (cern) being the result of a blow.487 The epithet may mean "victorious." On the whole, the theory is more ingenious than convincing, and we have no proof that the figures of Castor and Pollux on the altar were duplicates of the Celtic pair. Cernunnos was an underworld god, and Conall has no trace of such a character.

M. D'Arbois also traces the saga in Gaul in the fact that on the menhir of Kervadel Mercury is figured with a child, Mercury, in his opinion, being Lug, and the child Cúchulainn.489 On another altar are depicted (1) a woodman, Esus, cutting down a tree, and (2) a bull on which are perched three birds—Tarvos Trigaranos. The two subjects, as M. Reinach points out, are combined on another altar at Trèves, on which a woodman is cutting down a tree in which are perched three birds, while a bull's head appears in the branches.490 These represent, according to M. D'Arbois, incidents of the Táin—the cutting down of trees by Cúchulainn and placing them in the way of his enemies, and the warning of the bull by Morrigan in the bird form which she shared with her sisters Badb and Macha.491 Why, then, is Cúchulainn called Esus? "Esus" comes from a root which gives words meaning "rapid motion," "anger," "strength"—all shown by the hero.492 The altars were found in the land of the Belgic Treveri, and some Belgic tribes may have passed into Britain and Ireland carrying the Esus-Cúchulainn legend there in the second century {138} B.C., e.g. the Setantii, dwelling by the Mersey, and bearing a name similar to that of the hero in his childhood—Setanta (Setantios) as well as the Menapii and Brigantes, located in Ireland by Ptolemy.493 In other words, the divine Esus, with his surname Smertullos, was called in Ireland Setanta, after the Setantii, and at a later date, Cúchulainn. The princely name Donnotaurus resembles Dond tarb, the "Brown Bull" of the saga, and also suggests its presence in Gaul, while the name [Greek: dêiotaros], perhaps the equivalent of De[^u]io-taruos, "Divine Bull," is found in Galatia.494 Thus the main elements of the saga may have been known to the continental Celts before it was localised in Ireland, and, it may be added, if it was brought there by Gallo-British tribes, this might account for the greater popularity of the native, possibly pre-Celtic, Fionn saga among the folk, as well as for the finer literary quality of the Cúchulainn saga. But the identification of Esus with Cúchulainn rests on slight grounds; the names Esus and Smertullos are not found in Ireland, and the Gaulish Esus, worshipped with human sacrifice, has little affinity with the hero, unless his deeds of slaughter are reminiscent of such rites. It is possible, however, that the episode of the Táin came from a myth explaining ritual acts. This myth may have been the subject of the bas-reliefs, carried to Ireland, and there worked into the saga.

The folk-versions of the saga, though resembling the literary versions, are less elaborate and generally wilder, and perhaps represent its primitive form. The greatest differences are found in versions of the Táin and of Cúchulainn's death, {139} which, separate in the saga, are parts of one folk-tale, the death occurring during the fighting over the bull. The bull is his property, and Medb sends Garbh mac Stairn to take it from him. He pretends to be a child, goes to bed, and tricks Garbh, who goes off to get the bull. Cúchulainn arrives before him and personates the herdsman. Each seizes a horn, and the bull is torn in two.497 Does this represent the primitive form of the Táin, and, further, were the bull and Cúchulainn once one and the same—a bull, the incarnation of a god or vegetation spirit, being later made anthropomorphic—a hero-god whose property or symbol was a bull? Instances of this process are not unknown among the Celts.498 In India, Indra was a bull and a divine youth, in Greece there was the bull-Dionysos, and among the Celts the name of the divine bull was borne by kings.499 In the saga Morrigan is friendly to the bull, but fights for Medb; but she is now friendly, now hostile to Cúchulainn, finally, however, trying to avert his doom. If he had once been the bull, her friendliness would not be quite forgotten, once he became human and separate from the bull. When she first met Cúchulainn she had a cow on whom the Brown Bull was to beget a calf, and she told the hero that "So long as the calf which is in this cow's body is a yearling, it is up to that time that thou art in life; and it is this that will lead to the Táin." This suggests that the hero was to die in the battle, but it shows that the Brown Bull's calf is bound up his life. The Bull was a reincarnation of a divine swineherd, {140} and if, as in the case of Cúchulainn, "his rebirth could only be of himself,"501 the calf was simply a duplicate of the bull, and, as it was bound up with the hero's life, bull and hero may well have been one. The life or soul was in the calf, and, as in all such cases, the owner of the soul and that in which it is hidden are practically identical. Cúchulainn's "distortion" might then be explained as representing the bull's fury in fight, and the folk-tales would be popular forms of an old myth explaining ritual in which a bull, the incarnation of a tree or vegetation spirit, was slain, and the sacred tree cut down and consumed, as in Celtic agricultural ritual. This would be the myth represented on the bas-reliefs, and in the ritual the bull would be slain, rent, and eaten by his worshippers. Why, then, should Cúchulainn rend the bull? In the later stages of such rites the animal was slain, not so much as a divine incarnation as a sacrifice to the god once incarnated in him. And when a god was thus separated from his animal form, myths often arose telling how he himself had slain the animal. In the case of Cúchulainn and the bull, the god represented by the bull became separate from it, became anthropomorphic, and in that form was associated with or actually was the hero Cúchulainn. Bull sacrifices were common among the Celts with whom the bull had been a divine animal. Possibly a further echo of this myth and ritual is to be found in the folk-belief that S. Martin was cut up and eaten in the form of an ox—the god incarnate in the animal being associated with a saint.504 Thus the literary versions of the Táin, departing from the hypothetical primitive versions, kept the bull as the central figure, but introduced a rival bull, and described its death differently, while both bulls are said to be reincarnations of divine swine-herds.505 The idea of a fight {141} for a bull is borrowed from actual custom, and thus the old form of the story was further distorted.


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