Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 70

The Law of the Geis

The tale of Conary introduces us for the first time to the law or institution of the geis, which plays henceforward a very important part in Irish legend, the violation or observance of a geis being frequently the turning-point in a tragic narrative. We must therefore delay a moment to explain to the reader exactly what this peculiar institution was.

Dineen's “Irish Dictionary” explains the word geis [pg 165] (pronounced “gaysh”—plural, “gaysha”) as meaning “a bond, a spell, a prohibition, a taboo, a magical injunction, the violation of which led to misfortune and death.”128 Every Irish chieftain or personage of note had certain geise peculiar to himself which he must not transgress. These geise had sometimes reference to a code of chivalry—thus Dermot of the Love-spot, when appealed to by Grania to take her away from Finn, is under geise not to refuse protection to a woman. Or they may be merely superstitious or fantastic—thus Conary, as one of his geise, is forbidden to follow three red horsemen on a road, nor must he kill birds (this is because, as we shall see, his totem was a bird). It is a geis to the Ulster champion, Fergus mac Roy, that he must not refuse an invitation to a feast; on this turns the Tragedy of the Sons of Usnach. It is not at all clear who imposed these geise or how any one found out what his personal geise were—all that was doubtless an affair of the Druids. But they were regarded as sacred obligations, and the worst misfortunes were to be apprehended from breaking them. Originally, no doubt, they were regarded as a means of keeping oneself in proper relations with the other world—the world of Faëry—and were akin to the well-known Polynesian practice of the “tabu.” I prefer, however, to retain the Irish word as the only fitting one for the Irish practice.

The Cowherd's Fosterling

We now return to follow the fortunes of Etain's great-grandson, Conary. Her daughter, Etain Oig, as we have seen from the genealogical table, married Cormac, King of Ulster. She bore her husband no children save one daughter only. Embittered by her [pg 166] barrenness and his want of an heir, the king put away Etain, and ordered her infant to be abandoned and thrown into a pit. “Then his two thralls take her to a pit, and she smiles a laughing smile at them as they were putting her into it.”129 After that they cannot leave her to die, and they carry her to a cowherd of Eterskel, King of Tara, by whom she is fostered and taught “till she became a good embroidress and there was not in Ireland a king's daughter dearer than she.” Hence the name she bore, Messbuachalla (“Messboo´hala”), which means “the cowherd's foster-child.”

For fear of her being discovered, the cowherds keep the maiden in a house of wickerwork having only a roof-opening. But one of King Eterskel's folk has the curiosity to climb up and look in, and sees there the fairest maiden in Ireland. He bears word to the king, who orders an opening to be made in the wall and the maiden fetched forth, for the king was childless, and it had been prophesied to him by his Druid that a woman of unknown race would bear him a son. Then said the king: “This is the woman that has been prophesied to me.”

Parentage and Birth of Conary

Before her release, however, she is visited by a denizen from the Land of Youth. A great bird comes down through her roof-window. On the floor of the hut his bird-plumage falls from him and reveals a glorious youth. Like Danaë, like Leda, like Ethlinn daughter of Balor, she gives her love to the god. Ere they part he tells her that she will be taken to the king, but that she will bear to her Danaan lover a son [pg 167] whose name shall be Conary, and that it shall be forbidden to him to go a-hunting after birds.