British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book VI > chapter 6.3a

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Chapter 6.3: The cycle of Conn, Art and Cormac

Part 1

Fabio P. Barbieri

There is of course no doubt of the pagan identity of the tales of Conn Cetchatach or Hundred-battles, his two sons Connla and Art, the usurper Lugaid mac Con and Conn's grandson Cormac mac Airt, "the Solomon of Irish legend", the ancestors of the great house of Ui Neill, from which came seven centuries of kings of Tara and innumerable minor kings and clans. In this Irish legend cycle, most plot elements of the story of Vortigern and the dragons recur, though in a curiously complicated way. In the following summary, evident similarities with the story of Vortigern as we have seen it so far (many other points will arise in the course of discussion) will be underlined, more subtle or dubious ones pointed out in footnotes.

Conn Hundred-battles, high king of Tara and therefore of all Ireland, has two sons, Connla and Art. Connla is stolen by an amorous fairy woman in spite of all that Conn and his court druid could do, and Conn is left with only one possible son and heir, Art. Meanwhile another fairy, the fair Becuma White-skin, is expelled from the land of the gods because of adultery. She appears to Conn as he sits on the magic mound of his royal fortress (as fairy women sometimes appear to kings in other Celtic legends) and tells him that she has come to his kingdom for love of his son Art - we had already been told that he is the only man in the world she loves. Conn, who is a widower, demanded her for himself, as is his right as king to do. She then demands that Art be exiled.

Conn's kingdom, so far blessed by three harvests a year, is struck by a violent famine. Ireland's druids[1] are summoned to deal with this crisis in royal magic and advise the king that it is ultimately caused by his second wife's treachery, and that he has to find a boy without sin and sacrifice him, shedding his blood over the royal fortress of Tara. Before a grand assembly of the Irish nation, Conn leaves the kingdom in Art's hands after recalling him to Tara, and, taking Becuma's own magical coracle, undertakes a magical journey[2], at the end of which he meets the perfect family: Daire Degamra son of Fergus Fialbrethach, and his wife Rigru Rosclethan daughter of Lodan of the Land of Promise. Like Conn himself, they have only one living son, Segda Saerlabraid. It is this boy who, according to the word of the druids, must be sacrificed; in spite of his parents' protests, he heroically submits to the will of the king of Ireland.

The boy is then taken to Tara to be sacrificed so that his blood may be mixed wixed with the parched soil of Ireland; but a difficulty arises, since his parents have demanded the protection of Art mac Conn, of Conn himself, of the great warrior Finn mac Cumail, and of the poets of Ireland, all of whom therefore oppose the druids' judgement. The boy then raises his voice in the assembly, but, instead of taking on the wisdom of the druids, he demands that the blood sacrifice be performed; but his mother appears in a magical disguise, and challenges the wisdom of the druids by demanding them what was in the two sacks carried by the cow that carried her[3]. When the druids are unable to answer, she opens the sacks. Each of them contained a monster - a one-legged and a twelve-legged bird - and as soon as they are released, the birds start fighting each other, until the one-legged one overwhelms the twelve-legged. The one-legged bird stands for the wonderful boy, Segda, who is right as against the crowd of his would-be killers, symbolized by the twelve-legged monster[4]. The cow is sacrificed in place of the boy.

It is only after this that Becuma sees Art mac Con face to face (this seems to follow on his readmission to Tara to rule in place of Conn). She eventually procures his banishment with a rigged board game; but the young hero triumphs, coming back with the fairy woman whom his step-mother had doomed him to search, and Becuma is finally driven out of the land permanently.

After Art succeeds his father Conn as king of Tara, there is a savage civil war in Munster. The loser, Lugaid mac Con, crosses over to Britain, where he receives the help of Beine Brit (the Briton): the result is that Ireland is invaded by an enormous and invincible foreign host. (Remember the Saxons!) In one of the most frightful battles in Irish legend - if legend it is - Art mac Conn and his allies are slain, and the swords of the British place Lugaid mac Con on the throne. The night before the battle, the smith Olc Alcha and the druid Dil, separately, order their unmarried daughters to lie with the allied kings[5], Eogan of Munster and Art mac Conn, neither of whom has a successor. So, thanks to the supernatural insight of two wise men (smiths were considered almost as magical as druids in ancient Ireland), two childless kings, going to their deaths, will have heirs from two maidens[6] (problems of succession seem to feature prominently in this legend). Art's unrecognized son Cormac is taken in by Lugaid himself[7]. One day Lugaid pronounces a wrong judgement; Cormac contradicts him, giving the right one; before the whole assembly, the walls of Tara come crashing down, and Lugaid is expelled from the throne in favour of the wonderful boy Cormac, who becomes the greatest king Ireland has ever known.

If a pro-Vortigernid line is discernible in Nennius, then the pro-Ui Neill sentiments simply howl at us from this. Most astounding is the attitude of the wonderful boy, who is so concerned that the king of Eriu be obeyed, that he is willing to be killed to preserve his authority. Quite apart from the human absurdity of this, and from the fact that the Irish mind in general seems to have been anything but willing to submit so far to Tara, this simply clashes with the sort of legend this is. The wise boy Ambrosius of the Welsh legend is first cousin, if not blood brother, to the very young Taliesin of the legend of Maelgwn and Elphin, to Breton boy heroes such as N'oun-Doaré[8], to the outrageously youthful CuChulainn, and above all to young Cormac mac Art in the same story. All these wonderful boys take control from their elders and dominate their stories. In other words, the nature of the story demands that Ambrosius take control from the adults around him, in the name of a wisdom or power of more than human origin; and that is what he does.

i)- Why the Munster episodes of the saga are suspect.

By the same token, it seems clear that all the burden of bad luck and bad judgement which, in Wales, falls upon Vortigern - the wondrous boy's enemy - fall, in Ireland, upon the enemy of the dynasty, the suspiciously-named Lugaid mac Con. He is the usurper, the jumped-up cad, a lesser king in Munster - a rank equivalent to a British teyrn. Lugaid's low rank is vigorously underlined: trouble flares up between him and Eogan, the heir of Munster, because the latter has called him a "vassal" to his face after a disputed judgement by Eogan's father Ailill; but once he first has to face him on the battlefield (this is the battle of Cenn Abrat, which is only the prelude to Mag Mucrama) Lugaid himself admits that if they were to fight face to face, "the heat" of Eogan, son and grandson of kings, would destroy him, and is only saved by the heroic self-sacrifice of his clown Dodera, who dies in his place (it is even possible that the fact that his life is redeemed by so low-caste a life as that of a clown may reflect on Lugaid mac Con's value).

The tremendous over-promotion of this under-king of Munster[9] is flagrantly illegitimate; one wonders whether this story was written as an Ui Neill, or in any case northern, reaction, to the great careers of such Munster kings as Feidlimid mac Crimthann (820-841) or Brian Boruma (king of Tara, 1002-114)[10]. The start of the war in a disputed judgement in Munster is glaringly designed to prelude to the end of the whole cycle in Lugaid's bad judgement in Tara, which brings the walls crashing down - the climax which restores the rightful line, Conn's line, to the throne.

(Historians should note that whatever the historical background to the survival of a Vortigern dynasty in remote corners of Wales, no faith can be placed in the notice that he gave way to Ambrosius gracefully. He must recognize the superior justice and wisdom of Emrys, just as Lugaid must inevitably recognize the superior justice and wisdom of Cormac; both are acting out a mythological script.)

I have no doubt whatever that this represents a rewriting of the story in the interests of the descendants of Conn. Conn clearly played the part of Vortigern in an earlier redaction; the ill-luck and scapegoat role were removed from him and placed on a usurper who (so far as we are told) had no connection with Conn or his dynasty, and who seems to have been deliberately placed in the hostile and ill-starred province of Munster. Conn is promoted to king of Tara by the power of a foreign army. In Britain, the procedure is reversed: according to both Nennius and Geoffrey, Vortigern found himself unsupported on the throne (Geoffrey, but not Nennius, makes him a usurper) and therefore called in the Saxons; but in both cases, what we have is a very unsteady crown backed by alien hordes.

This procedure was well known to the Celtic theorists. The Irish tract on royal justice, the Audacht Moraind, lists four kinds of sovereign: notice the first:

The prince who takes power with the help of troops from outside. A weak and fleeting lordship is usual for him. As soon as his troops leave him his dignity and the terror he inspires decline.

The prudent prince. He obtains possession of his territories without victories, without triumphs; he deprives no one and no one deprives him. He voyages through his reign in days and nights, for the whole world is spent in days and nights.

The prince of truth. He and truth increase each other, strengthen each other, strive for each other, and build each other up.

The bull prince. He is not a well-liked man. He strikes and is struck, he injures and is injured, he tosses and is tossed. Against him horns are constantly shaken. Rough and difficult the beginning of his lordship, hateful and unprincely its middle, unstable and fleeting its end. Against his sons his crimes will be retained, men’s faces will be turned, men’s hearts will be closed. “Not welcome”, all will say, “are the sons of that prince: evil was your father’s lordship before.”[11]

This classification is not parallel to the one we have already encountered - that of Emperor (high king), Gwledig (provincial or victorious king) and Teyrn (local or subdued king) - and one glance will show that it applies to all levels of the kingship. What it concerns is the methods by which kings achieve their level of power and retain it, and it may apply as easily to a high king as to a teyrn: both high king and teyrn can, for instance, be Prudent Princes, depriving and being deprived by no-one; or, alternatively, Princes of Truth, setting their sovereignty on such a high level of moral Truth that the inner workings of the universe - which, in this theory, are ultimately moral - cannot but bring them victory. Nowhere is it said that the Prince of Truth is a pacifist: on the contrary, it is said that he and truth “strengthen” and “strive” for each other. Clearly, the difference between him and the Bull Prince is that the struggles of the latter are aggressive, unprovoked, and not based on truth: like Aurelius Caninus or Cuneglasus, he pursues the phantoms of his own ambitions irrespective of Truth. And on the other hand, I think it is not too far-fetched to imagine that a teyrn who achieved the saint-like moral level of a Prince of Truth might not remain a teyrn for ever. What is important is to notice that the legends of Vortigern and Conn belong in a wholly recognizable and traditional Celtic ideology: Lugaid mac Con gains power with the help of a foreign horde which eventually disappears; and although Vortigern was not helped to power by the Saxons, he becomes a member of the category the moment he begins - as all legends imply he did - to make his power dependent on theirs.

ii)- Who was Lugaid mac Con? The fraud against Munster

The parallels between Conn and Vortigern indicate that the Irish legend bears the same sense of dynastic disaster as the British; and therefore its centre of misfortune can be neither Beine Brit nor Lugaid mac Con, but Conn and his son Art. Munster was purely dragged in to explain the misfortunes of Conn and his children - that is, in fact, of the rival province of the Connachta, the descendants of Conn. But the name Lugaid mac Con! Could it not be that the war had once been seen as internecine to the house of Conn? I think this may well be an Irish version of the deliberate duplication of ancestors that gave us Good Maximus and Bad Maximianus; removing a "bad" ancestor not by duplicating him, but rather by shifting him to a distant and unloved bloodline. He wasn't one of ours, he was a Munsterman! Yes, there was another son of Conn, but he was fairy-stolen, you see...

Whatever the identity of the usurper Lugaid, this I can say with some convinction: the story was altered by the insertion of a second set of antefacts of Mag Mucrama, deliberate and achieved with remarkable artistry, built from elements - music, social inferiority, the presence of the supernatural - which, as the brothers Rees have shown, are typical of the traditional Irish view of Munster within a symbolic geography in which the Connachta - descendants of Conn - are the source of sovereignty, and in which the kingship of Tara - for centuries a monopoly of the Conn-descended Ui Neill - is "the centre"; clearly, then a symbolic geography that serves Ui Neill interests[12]. This antefact has no parallel whatever in the British legend, and as it serves Ui Neill interests so well, there is no reason not to assign it to the same hand that made the wondrous child will his own murder in the service of the Ui Neill crown of Tara.

The antefacts I am speaking about are those which make Mag Mucrama begin, not in Tara, but in Munster. This is the story: because of a challenge to the royalty of Ailill, father of Eogan - the stripping bare of a hill where he used to pasture his horses[13] - the sage Erches kills the king of a local sid (that is, a fairy king); Ailill himself asserts his royalty over his daughter Aine in the most brutal way, by raping her (we remember that the Celtic king was a sexual lord), but is mutilated by having his ear ripped off[14]. Aine promises revenge; and punctually, after a few years, her brother Fer Fi, "Yew-man", a minuscule but wonderful fairy musician, causes the quarrel between Ailill's son Eogan and Lugaid, who is his foster-son: each of them want possession of him ("...Among the 'folk of vocal and instrumental music' in Ireland, only the harpist could aspire to the rank of freeman - and he only on condition that he 'accompanies nobility'[15]".) - a perfectly useless quarrel, as Ailill points out, since Fer Fi vanished after playing his wonderful music. Nevertheless, he rules in favour of his own son, which enrages Lugaid; and so it starts...

The whole sequence of events is redolent with uncomplimentary views of Munster. The presence in Munster of Deisi, vassals, the instability and violence of Munster politics, the ugly caricature of the normal legend of the king's divine marriage (Aine is none other than the mother-goddess of Knockainey near Limerick, matriarch of the royal tribe Corco Laigde), the baleful nature even of Munster's peculiar gift of music - and that in a land whose king had his ear ripped off[16] - all bespeak a very negative view of the country. It is in unruly, sedition-infested Munster, where vassals will not even accept the judgements given by their own provincial kings, that war broods and starts. Contrary to that, the royalty of Tara is something so high and noble that the highest object known to the story - the wondrous boy - is willing to be killed rather than the word of the king of Tara should be contradicted. Need I add that this hardly bespeaks a Munster origin for any of the legend? The Munster characters and Munster settings of the story must have been, not figures or places that any Munsterman would recognize, but the remote and defamatory impressions from hostile northerners.

Even in the legend as we have it, the heart of the story is the dethronement and dynastic disasters suffered by Conn's line, culminating in one of the most horrible battles of Irish legend, in the abomination of foreign conquest, and in the near-extinction of legitimate dynasties. What connects the miserable fortunes of Munster to the horrors of Mag Mucrama is not even quite clear, since, up to the moment of Mag Mucrama, the feud had been exclusively within Munster; all that we are told is that the legitimate Eoganachta house of Munster is overthrown at the same time as the Connachta king of Tara, by British hordes under Beine Brit who sweep the exiled Lugaid mac Con to victory: when the heroic Art mac Conn dies side by side with the rightful king of Munster, Eogan, neither of them leaving known heirs[17].

iii)- The threat to the dynasty of Conn

To remove the "I love Munster... not" element from the story as we have it, is not altogether possible; but it is quite clear that the other elements are a good deal closer to the British story, and are therefore likelier to be archaic. Reading between the lines, it is perfectly clear that the time of troubles begins with Conn's disastrous marriage, which puts an end to a never-to-be-repeated Golden Age (when could it ever again be said that Ireland had three harvests a year?) If Conn's story is not connected with Mag Mucrama narratively, it is connected emotionally, through the long-brooding threat to the dynasty. Conn had only two sons; a fairy woman fell in love with one of them, Connla, and used her magic to reach him (nobody else can see her). Conn's druid could only hold her back for a while, and the boy eventually vanished from human gaze, and no man knows where he is gone.

It is a lovely tale, but with a dire import for Ui Neil dynastic legend: the race that was to produce so many kings of Tara and other places, is close to extinction. Conn has only one surviving son, Art. The legend itself underlines the point: "Then Conn looked at his other son and said, 'Today Art is left alone'. For this reason he is called Art Oenar - the lonely - or Oenfer - Art Only-Son". And we need not doubt that the legend always remembered Art mac Conn as the victim of Mag Mucrama. These words, for this reason he is called..., strongly suggests that the whole story was written to explain the hero's nicknames, which in turn suggests that the nicknames themselves already existed, probably as part of a mnemonic king-list. That Art should be Oenfer is the worst possible prelude to the Battle of Mag Mucrama; once we realize that, it is impossible to miss the terrible surmise in Conn's long look at his remaining son, or the impact of our own tragic knowledge.

After, it seems, Connla's disappearance, Conn suffers another tragedy: his beautiful, noble and very beloved queen dies. The legend underlines their mutual love and happiness; but it can also have escaped nobody that this deprived Conn of the opportunity of providing the solitary Art with a brother. He chooses a second bride, Becuma, who had come to Ireland in quest of his son Art. But apart from depriving Art of a woman who had specifically asked for him, his choice is itself about as bad as he could make it. There is something very ominous about the way that, having been banished from the Land of Promise for adultery, Becuma promptly went for the king’s only heir. Not only is she the second fairy woman to woo a son of Conn, but the love of someone who has the hatred of Manannan mac Lir and all the gods, and who should have died, is something distinctly ill-omened. We know that she is alive and in Ireland only because Manannan and his fellow gods decided not to pollute the pure land with her blood. She is a pollution.

It is not clear, however, that she is guilty of any of what follows: it is the king's own initiative to marry her, when she had in fact asked for his son. Her fault is larger: in spite of all her superlative and supernatural qualities, a woman with a sin in her past is not worthy of a high king - any high king, father or son. The land immediately reacts by losing its fertility.

Conn's guilt is an intricate matter. That he has prevented Becuma from marrying Art is actually good news in the long run, since, had the woman married his son, their whole descent would have been tainted (even if - and it's a big if - they had had any children at all); while he already had one heir, if no more, and therefore the dynasty could not be altogether defiled. His marriage, in the end, makes him something like a dynastic scapegoat, taking on himself a guilty association that would otherwise have reached his son. And indeed Becuma, while bearing no sons herself, shows a marked hostility towards Art, demanding that he be banished from Ireland.[18] This is peculiar, since the standard wicked stepmother of European fable is generally jealous of the legitimate heir on behalf of her own children: but Becuma is not so much concerned with advancing her own blood-line, as with damaging the legitimate heir - the very heir whom she had originally wanted to marry.

iv)- the threat of fairy love in Celtic dynastic thought

This only makes sense within a deeply slanted view in which the central issue is the continuity and purity of the blood-line, and the threat posed to it by the alien woman. Becuma does not carry any alternative power or value, she cannot - like the usual wicked stepmother - intrude her own brood in the inheritance: what she can do is either to attach herself to the heir, taking to his bed the pollution for which she has been expelled from the Land of Promise, or else attach herself to his father and use him to ruin the heir.

There can be no doubt, then, that the central issue is the blood-line. Becuma only counts for what she can do against it: her plans are not centred on herself, but on the blood-line. The heart of the legend is the threat to the blood-line. It is at Mag Mucrama, with the death of Art, the last legitimate king, that the doom of the line awaits; but Becuma herself, though she has apparently no part in the catastrophe, is nothing less than an incarnation of the threat to the dynasty. She battens on the king, gives him no heir, and her lack of fertility is reflected in the collapse of the land's own fertility; not satisfied with that, she twice drives out the legitimate heir, once by influence with his besotted father, and once by her own power.

Art is recalled to Tara because Conn must leave the country to search for the remedy to Becuma's evil (namely the wondrous boy); but when that crisis has blown over, and as soon as Becuma and Art meet, they display their hostility in what is formally a game of fidchell - a board game not unlike chess - but with terrible stakes (it is perhaps not without symbolic value that the king-piece in fidchell has to escape an encirclement by his opponents). Playing fairly, Art wins the first game, compelling Becuma to procure the wand of Cu Roi[19], which seems to be a token of sovereignty over the world; as it takes Becuma one year to find it, this is something like a one-year sentence of exile. She comes back and places it in his lap (is there a whiff of sexual challenge in this surprisingly intimate gesture?); they play again, and this time Becuma uses magic and Art loses. She orders him out of the island to pursue a horribly dangerous quest for a fairy bride, Delbchaem daughter of Morgan. Art actually wins Delbchaem, but even his success is ill-omened. Delbchaem will give him no children, and the son who is to rescue the dynasty will be a bastard, begotten on the night before Mag Mucrama on the daughter of the smith Olc Acha. Art’s heroic faerie marriage, like those of his father and brother, have got the dynasty precisely nothing.

The genealogical picture is therefore constructed around a growing crisis of descent and legitimacy, articulated over two generations, each with two sexual unions, and conditioned by ominous fairy love. Conn's story starts with a reasonable but worryingly slim quota of two possible successors; and the first ominous development is the loss of Connla to irresistible fairy love. So the first of the father's two brides provides the legitimate heir but does not give him enough brothers to insure reasonably against contingencies; the second not only fails to provide any, but positively threatens the whole line of succession. The son then wins a legitimate bride, but only at his stepmother's command - the effect of ominous fairy love reaches across the generation, not only to threaten him, but to saddle him with an expensively conquered wife who gives him no children at all. It is through a casually met virgin, offered by her sage father, that the bloodline carries on.

Both father and son are faced with the problem of dynastic continuity; both have two consorts, of whom the second has something to do with making up for the dynastic safety the first has failed to deliver; but while the father's second bride, legitimate on the surface, is a creature of deceit and dynastic enmity, the son's second consort, illegitimate on the surface, but given by a wise father - the only authority, one suspects, who could legitimately command a daughter to give her virginity away outside marriage - rescues, in effect, the royal line from destruction.

The episode of the wise smith also shows the centrality of the patrilinear royal dynasty in the legend. The daughter's virginity is the father's concern, an instrument to perpetuate a patrilinear family, and therefore to be given according to the father's interests and judgement. Marriage is a serious matter, but if an even more serious one - such as loyalty to the threatened royal blood-line - intervenes, then the father has the right to dispose of his daughter's sexual activity. There is no hint whatever of consent: the girl does as she is told (and we remember the brutal means used in the Patrician legend of St.Monesan to force the girl into an unwanted marriage). Indeed, Moncha, the girl given to his ally Eogan in the parallel episode, dies in childbirth; instead of regarding this as a tragedy, the story commends her highly, because she has all but committed suicide to continue the patrilinear dynasty (on being told that if the boy is born one day later, he will be a high king - that is, he will succeed to his father's throne - she holds him back by force till the appointed day, and dies). This is in keeping with what we saw of the story's attitude to Becuma: just as her actions are centred exclusively on the patrilinear blood-line of Conn, with no hint of any alternative power or meaning, so here girls are given around with no regard either to their will or even to the Christian values of chastity and marriage: the preservation of the patrilinear dynasty obscures all else, and the feminine element in this story is exclusively to be a provider of heirs. (I notice with incredulous amusement the interest in Celtic matters of some popular feminist writing!)

The love of fairy women marks the progress of dynastic downfall, and it does so in triadic stages. The house of Conn suffers - that is the only word - from three fairy marriages, each with differential characteristics. Conn himself simply takes Becuma by royal command, exercising his sovereign prerogative; Connla is ravished by his bride, falling in love and vanishing with her; Art fights his way to his with sword and shield. In Dumezilian terms, this is clearly a trifunctional catalogue of marriages: by royal command from the supreme king of Eriu (first function); by violent and helpless love, led by the will of the woman rather than the man (third function - lust and the feminine); by heroic capture by the bridegroom (definitely second function!). They have in common that none of them does the long-term future of the dynasty any good; and we remember that the Irish of all times have always dreaded the lure of the fairies. The triadic sequence of functional marriages means that some sort of progression has been gone through; and its completion is that Art goes to Mag Mucrama without an heir. Without the timely intervention of Olc Acha, the dynasty would die - of the love of fairy women.

The peril of these marriages must lie in their alien nature. The king ought to marry the goddess of his own country; but these fairy women, one and all, are creatures of the Absolute Outside, whose divinity (if that is what it is) is positively alternative to that of any goddess of the land. What they do is either to lure the hero - as in the case of Connla - away from his house and roots, or to bring in, with themselves, the ruinous power of the outside world; and it is no coincidence that none of the three fairy marriages seems to be fertile, and that, in particular, none of them produces the desperately needed heirs. In psychological terms, it is possible to see this as the counterpart to the strong localism and rootedness of the Celtic mind, to which every kingdom however small is a land-goddess to provide the local king with prestigious ancestors and native legends: the Outside then becomes a place of extreme danger, full of allure and fascination, invested with all the psychological contents excluded from the powerful knot of ideas clustered about land, king and fertility in this world.

The presence of these spiritual powers is part of the terrible danger of the dynasty; that very danger we had seen in Conn's anxious surmise, when he said "today Art is left alone"; in other words, it preludes to Mag Mucrama.

The connection is not obvious: nothing the fairy lovers do has to do with Mag Mucrama. But it is quite clear that the whole legend deals with a time of grim dynastic peril, with the blood-line is threatened at every level. Conn loses one son, and nearly another, by the action of supernatural women, in a context of sexual desire and competition. There is an obvious symmetry: Conn strives to keep Connla from the invisible fairy woman; he himself keeps Becuma from Art, whom she originally claimed to love just as Connla's invisible lover had claimed him.

Between them, these two episodes include a fairly complete list of the problems that can happen between two generations of men within the same family, dealing with attractive women; and in both cases, Conn's action is disastrous. He uselessly opposes the strong charm of fairy love, desperate - as his words make touchingly clear - to keep Connla in his house, an understandable but counterproductive father's reaction; but he then claims the woman who could have married his other son, driven both by his widower's loneliness and by his middle-aged lust - that is, he uses his royal power and rank to unfairly deprive his other son of a bride. The common element in both events is an ageing and lonely father's hidden jealousy of his children, whom he does not really want to grow up and become heads of their own families. There is no need to suggest that I am reading too much psychological depth in this story; the emotions involved are not only elementary and universal, but particularly clear and relevant to a society in which patrilinear succession, carrying great burdens of authority and even magical power, was an absolutely central issue. Conn's attitude problems - which have a vividity and realism completely absent from any of the pasteboard females in the legend - must have been clear to any Irish father and son; and we can only conclude that Conn's jealousy and overreaching lie at the heart of the dynasty's problems.

Against Conn's disastrous home life is set the superhumanly splendid picture of the wonderful boy's family. To understand Daire, his wife Rigru Rosclethan daughter of Lodan of the Land of Promise, and their son Segda Saerlabraid, we must divest ourselves of our idea of "sexuality", as we like to call it. The defining feature of this extraordinary family is that father and mother have had sex only once, and from that one congress has come the wonderful boy. In terms of our miserable world, this is simply miraculous, since no earthly couple, even if they approached sexuality in the most ascetic self-denying spirit purely in order to have a child, could trust that a single effort would do the trick; but these people did it, with perfect confidence - and begat a perfect son. Yet in spite of what seems to us a most self-denying sex life, there is nothing ascetic or self-denying about them: to the contrary, they live in a splendour that Conn, king of Tara though he is, has never even imagined. What is more, they live at ease: they do not have to struggle - everything a man needs, fire, clothes, food, drink, is supplied by invisible but willing hands, and there is no sight or feel of effort or strain anywhere in their house. In short, this is life as it should be, not as it is in the troubled and painful sphere of our world.

It is in this context that the golden couple's one single coupling must be understood, as part of a world where there is no strain and no reason to indulge in any strain. Sex, the repeated, sweaty, smelly sex of our world, with its accompaniment of uncontrolled desire before, occasional violence during[20], and exhaustion and stinking organic liquids after, has no place in such a life. And by contrast with the house of Conn, that of Fergus Fialbrethach is content with that one son; there is nothing about his lack of brothers to suggest the same anxious surmise with which Conn looks at his own child, now left alone in the still unseen shadow of Mag Mucrama. It is clear that - before they heard in horror the explanation of the king of Eriu's visit - they never had felt the possibility of any threat to their heir.

Like the threat of fairy love, but from a different perspective, this picture is best understood from a psychological viewpoint, as embodying desires that the ideology at once incarnates and denies. To be a king is to be connected with luxury and to be served, as well as to be a part of a continuous patrilinear descent in which sons and heirs are expected. The Celtic ideology creates these expectations, and then - because the reality of human life is not easily escaped - denies that they are possible: but this picture of unreal satisfaction, service without servants, wealth without exploitation or theft, descent without the risk of sterility, illness or war - incarnates what kingship should be and, in our world cannot. It is not escapism, but something more complex: the mind reaching out towards a kind of fulfilment which is created by the culture to which it belongs, but which cannot be achieved in the real world - though the culture cannot, on a profound level, admit its falsity without dismantling some of its most cherished images and values.

Now Vortigern - in two separate and largely alternative legends - is also shown as being destructively attracted to women who carry extremely negative values: even his summoning of the Saxons is, in effect, only a symptom of this basic sexually disorderly nature. Nennius edits together two legends, originally separate and to some extent contradictory: that of the fortress and the dragons, and that of St. Germanus. But both are characterized by Vortigern marrying women he should not touch; in the former, the heathen woman Ronwein; in the latter, his own daughter. His basic disposition, that is, is a disordered lust that seizes either on what is too distant, or on what is too close, ignoring proper distinctions. The "love" of Vortigern for the regiones of Britain, in the Nennian version of the story of the dragons, is contrasted with this lust of his, which brings the Saxons on the island; and in the terribly negative legend of St. Germanus, Vortigern's lust leads to his fortress Caer Gwrtheyrn being destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah.

v)- Vortigern, Herod and Judas

It is much to the point that his disorderly lusts end not in concubinage but in catastrophic marriages, that rip to pieces the king's duty to marry and have a clean home life. In both cases, as in the legend of Conn, the disastrous bride, daughter or stranger, is Vortigern’s second wife; and while in the legend of St.Germanus it is his own unexplained lust that lead him to "marry" his own daughter, it is the special interposition of the Earl of Hell that makes him fall in love with Ronwein. Nennius: "Satan entered the heart of Vortigern, that he should fall in love with the maiden; and he asked her from her father, and said: 'all that you ask from me you shall have, even to the half of my kingdom'."

The allusion was meant to be obvious, and it is, even to us: the king's sudden fury of lust, like that of Herod[21], leads him to the most disastrous of political choices.  Both Nennius and Geoffrey clearly quote King Herod's promise to give Salome all that she wanted, "even to the half of my kingdom" (Mark 6.23). Modern readers, however, may miss the point that the quotation is in fact double: the image of Satan entering the king's heart also comes from the Gospels, and the king does duty for Judas (Luke22.3; John 13.27) as well as Herod. Geoffrey repeats the very same words (which is remarkable, since most of his account is just as alternative to Nennius' here as elsewhere[22]), but then adds an unnecessary explanation: "I say that Satan entered his heart because, though he was a Christian, he was determined to make love with this pagan woman". Explanations are always a sign of nervousness, and it is rather striking that Geoffrey, of all people, should be nervous at the idea that intense love leading to marriage should be seen as "Satan entering the heart"; but it shows that he took the idea quite seriously - and that it did not begin with him.

The literary and religious brilliance of the idea is striking. It is not an imitation of any one Gospel scene, but a highly intelligent, pointed connection, which evidently depends on a sophisticated and profound culture of Biblical reading and commentary; for the two Gospel scenes have several things in common. They are the antefacts to the Gospel's two great crimes, the murders of John the Baptist and that of Our Lord himself. They both take place, like the meeting of Vortigern and Ronwein, at great ceremonial meals, king Herod's birthday (Mk.6.21) or Easter (for this reason I think that the author had John 13.27 rather than Luke 22.3 in mind, since in the latter the Devil enters Judas' heart at a comparatively ordinary meal of Our Lord's). And they both represent the dramatic moment in which the resistance of two people who had stood in the way of crime breaks down. The Gospel version seems consciously selected to make a point: Mark and Matthew tell almost the same story about the murder of John, but the Herod of Matthew is a scoundrel who would gladly have John killed if only he did not dread his popularity (14.5), while the Herod of Mark is a man of conscience, sensitive to John's moral superiority, but betrayed by his lust for his illegitimate wife and her daughter; and it is from Mark, not Matthew, that our unknown source is quoting. Likewise, while the Judas of the Synoptic Gospels is a traitor of his own free will, happily going to the high priests to sell his master for silver (Mt.26.14-16; Mk.14.10-12; Lk.22.3-6[23]) and bent on betraying him at the first opportunity, the Judas of John is an unhappy soul who has not made up his mind until the last minute, and practically rushes out of Jesus' Easter meal into the night, to his Master's and his own destruction. This sort of selection could not have been possible except in a culture of inventively critical Bible reading, where separate passages can be brought together to make a deeper point; it shows the sort of high literary intelligence and intimate acquaintance with the Bible that we found in Gildas.

There is also an indication that this high interpretative culture existed in a recognizably Celtic world such as his. The extreme importance of public ceremonial royal meals - and, more importantly, the fact that they are moments of great spiritual danger - seems to be a topos. St.Gildas' thunder at the admission of the lowest scoundrels to the royal table is one aspect of this (anticipated by St.Patrick's call on good Christians to desert Coroticus' cannibalistic feasts), but the fact that Satan tempts Vortigern at the banquet hints at something worse than mere public waste and effrontery: that is, that it is at these banquets that supernatural danger, whether physical or moral, can overwhelm the king. He is more exposed to demonic influence there than anywhere else. Like Conn's love for Becuma, Vortigern's love for Ronwein is a thing of evil fate, the result of evil supernatural powers; but while Conn meets her on his mound - a magical place where magical and unearthly events are apt to happen - Vortigern does so at an official banquet in his own court. In later Welsh traditions, banquets are moments of adventure and danger: Bran's banquet in Ireland turns into a massacre, Maelgwn's great feast becomes the stage for Taliesin's public humiliation of the king's bards and of the king himself (which indicates that positive as well as negative spiritual powers can enter without warning). In Arthurian legend, there is an absolute expectation that the king's great Pentecost banquet (corresponding almost certainly to the pagan feast of Beltaine) will be attended by some great wonder or adventure, and Arthur is under an obligation - very like an Irish geis - not to sit to meat until one has taken place. Some of these wonders and adventures are not very nice: The knight of the cart opens with Meleagant of Gorre entering Arthur’s court and informing him that he has been taking Arthur’s people prisoner and that Arthur himself can do nothing about it. The theme of the spiritual danger of royal banquets seems more British than Irish; its prevalence in Britain might have something to do with the polemics of great churchmen like Patrick and Gildas against the evils done at these banquets.

Whether either Nennius' source, or Geoffrey's, was close to this original, is hard to tell. I gave my reasons to believe that the earliest version of this legend must have been rather pro-Vortigern; and the correspondence with the legend of Conn, which must also have started as an apologia for a disastrous fall in the house's prestige and power, is telling. On the other hand, Geoffrey, though hostile to Vortigern, preserves material Nennius has ignored or suppressed, and which has clear parallels in Ireland. In Geoffrey's account, written with medieval court etiquette in mind, Vortigern, instead of laying a lawful claim to Ronwein like any Celtic king, negotiates for her hand with her "father" Hengist. But in fact the negotiations go through the very same stages as those for Elen's hand in The dream of Maxen Gwledig: there is never a question of refusing the king's demand, but the girl's family obtains, in exchange, dominion over a lesser kingdom within Vortigern's sphere - Kent - which is taken from its ruler Gurangonus against his will, just as the house of Eudav obtain Britain from Maxen, who had taken it from Beli, in exchange for Elen. A highly Celtic element is that Ronwein was specially delegated to pour drink to the king, like Etain and other female wine-givers or mead-givers of Irish legend. Indeed, we never see her doing anything except pouring drink: it is in this capacity that she poisons the king's son Vortimer, who - like Art fighting the British at Mag Mucrama - is particularly concerned with opposing the alien host.

This is not really out of keeping with the patriotic Vortigern of Nennius. Given that the hero of the legend of the dragons is fundamentally a well-meaning patriot whose every succeeding action is concerned with repairing his disastrous error in letting in the Saxons, there has to be some reason why such an honourable and patriotic figure has been misled into committing such a catastrophic mistake. The irresistible lure of an alien woman on a middle-aged widower with an adolescent or adult son (Vortimer) is the most humanely understandable and sympathetic explanation of a ruinous political choice, whose evil was not at any rate immediately visible, since the Saxons of the legend of the dragons were concealing their evil intentions until they had murdered the king (we remember that the druids of Vortigern revealed their intention to him, thus foiling that plot).

vi)- a triad of quests

Ronwein, taken to Britain and the king’s court on purpose to please the Devil, has many parallels with Becuma. I do not only mean the general fact of both being, literally, femmes fatales, women of doom; there is a more specific structural similarity in the narrative. The entrance both of Ronwein and of Becuma into the royal house is quickly followed by a curious triadic development: a sequence of three dangerous quests/ banishments. In Ireland, this triad involves each of the three protagonists in turn. Conn searches for the wondrous boy for a month and a half; Becuma searches for the wand for a year; and Art takes an indeterminate amount of time to search for a bride. The central element of this triad is obviously the quest for the wondrous boy, which is both the only one which has a direct bearing on the plot, and also the only one with a direct Welsh parallel.

But the legend of Vortigern also has a triad of quests; and there, too, the quest for the wondrous boy is the centrepiece. However, it is Vortigern who is the protagonist of all three. He has the fortress sought for; he has the boy sought for; and, at the end of the story, he leaves the fortress to search for a kingdom of his own. In the Nennian version, the sequence is explicit, and, while Geoffrey is unwilling to place Vortigern in anything like the heroic light implied by a triad of quests, nevertheless he does not contradict it: Vortigern seeks for the fortress when he is already in Wales, driven out by the Saxons; and the fact that we find him in another castle when Ambrosius comes to destroy him, means that he has sought for it.

Unlike the Irish story, it is not hard to see why this triad of quests should follow upon Vortigern's disastrous marriage: at least two of its three terms spring directly from it. It is certainly because of the presence of the Saxons, Ronwein's kinsmen admitted to Britain because of the king's love for her, that Vortigern must search for the arcem munitissimam; it is because of the overriding need that the fortress should stand, whatever the cost, that the wondrous boy is searched for; and while Vortigern's final expulsion from the fortress has only an indirect relationship with his disastrous second marriage, nevertheless it completes a sequel of misfortunes begun when he first saw Ronwein. It may be argued (though there is no warrant for it in the actual words of the two texts as they have come down to us) that his marriage to Ronwein, the alien woman, broke the greater "marriage" between the king and the land of Britain, and therefore, whatever his valiant efforts to amend for his mistake, deprived him of his rank; after which, it was Ambrosius, the new king/bridegroom of Britain, who, by telling him to find another (lesser) fortress, assigned to him a new and lesser, but still royal, rank - as another Nennian passage says that the descendants of Vortigern held their hereditary lands "by the gift of Ambrosius", largiente Ambrosio. For in this case, until the new master of the land grants Vortigern (and therefore his descendants) a new title, he/they literally has/have nothing. The decree of Ambrosius may be seen as the creation of a new kingdom, and something like a new birth for the house of Vortigern[24].

The triad of quests forms the very bones of the British legend; while, except for the central episode of the boy, its Irish counterpart is largely irrelevant to the course of the Irish one, and, so far as it is relevant, it moves in the opposite direction. There is no particular reason for Art to demand that Becuma should get him Cu Roi's wand of sovereignty (no reason, that is, in the story; there is of course the natural ambition of any king); and the fairy marriage imposed on him by Becuma is not only vindictive, but, as we have seen, in the way of the dynasty, since it is to beget no heir. The British triad is restorative, amending for Vortigern's sins by bringing the great fortress into existence, locating (for whatever reason) its genuine defender and king, and placing Vortigern himself in a lesser but stable monarchy; on the other hand, the only thing that the Irish triad of quests does for the house of Conn is to provide Art with an infertile wife, the last, and, from the point of view of view of dynastic continuity, the most damaging of the house of Conn's three fairy brides.

It follows that the idea that the quest for the wondrous boy was one of a triad must have survived any idea of what these quests were really about. The difference between the Irish and the British triads is not random: it is to do with the dialectic of Inside and Outside, so intensely felt in Celtic and especially Irish culture. While all the three quests of Vortigern take place inside the bounds of Britain, two of the three Irish quests take place in the outer ocean, while only the alien Becuma finds herself searching inside Ireland - and even so, her quest is through the side, the haunted fairy hills of the country: that is, decidedly outside the bounds of human Ireland.

This, it seems to me, depends on the fact that the quest for the wondrous boy takes Conn outside Ireland, but Vortigern very much within Britain; Segda is an alien, but Emrys is a Briton. And this, in turn, depends on the fact that, in Nennius' version at least, Emrys is decidedly Vortigern's successful rival. Segda does nothing for or against Conn's royalty, but Emrys is to take over Vortigern's. And since the quest for the wondrous boy is the central episode of the triad, therefore the boy’s role in it defines its functioning. Once the Irish had decided that he was not in fact a native-born threat to Conn's royalty, with a better claim to his throne, then the triad of quests was inevitably removed to the outer world. And its direct connection with the other triad of infertile fairy marriages shows that sovereignty, fertility and native status went together: as they did in the case of Emrys, not only a hero, but the founder of a dynasty (and therefore fertile!).

vii)- Vortimer and Art mac Conn

The search for the wondrous boy also has an effect on political reality back home: it causes the king to vanish. This is evident in Ireland, where Conn summons the banished Art back to Tara to reign in his stead till he has brought the wondrous boy back. But Art’s temporary installation as king reminds us of one otherwise bizarre feature of the Welsh story, where, at one point, Vortigern seems to vanish from the throne, while his heroic son Vortimer takes over as leader of the British - with their hearty consent - and routs the Saxons horse and foot. Vortimer then dies (according to Geoffrey, poisoned by Ronwein) and Vortigern simply steps back on to his throne, using his recovered power to enforce a disastrous truce with the Saxons, whom his son had all but defeated; a truce which leads to the slaughter of all the British elders (though Vortigern's own life is preserved).

Geoffrey’s account is a good deal clearer throughout. Nennius does not mention either Ronwein poisoning Vortimer or Vortimer actually seizing his father's crown with the consent of "the Britons". It might be that Geoffrey added these episodes to darken the image of Vortigern, who, in his account, is overthrown by his people and then steps back to the throne over the body of his murdered son to enforce a truce with the rebellious and already defeated nation of his treacherous second wife; but I don't think so. Nennius' narrative is weaker than Geoffrey's, and feels disconnected. If Vortimer had not taken over from Vortigern, by what authority did he launch, against his father's wishes, a nationwide war of extermination against the English, with the support of the armies of Britain? Even if he was a field-marshal, army commanders do not start wars without the consent of higher authorities: if Vortimer had done it on his own authority, it would have been equivalent to seizing the throne. And how did he die? Nennius just says he did; but epic heroes do not "just die" - their death is significant, connected in some way with the course of their lives and the meaning of their legends. And if we do not accept that Ronwein poisoned him, we have no cause for his death at all. This sequence of episodes is fatal to the view of Vortigern as a misguided but committed patriot, and we must conclude, from the fact that Geoffrey's later version is closer to the Irish parallel, that Nennius, or his source, suppressed them. We begin to suspect that he may have been committed to whitewashing Vortigern.

The issue is not entirely one of Nennius’ own attitudes. We have seen that his account of the legend of the dragons (of which the tale of Vortimer and Ronwein is a follow-up, since it is equally connected with the Irish legend of Conn, Art and Cormac) does not come from the same source as Geoffrey’s, though an ultimate common source must be postulated for both, since both use the same Gospel scene (Salome and Herod) and sentence (“the Devil entered Vortigern’s heart”), in conjunction. But if Nennius selected an account of the legend which deliberately left out the most dubious acts of Vortigern’s, this shows his views.

The clincher is that it is specifically the Vortimer of Geoffrey, rather than that of Nennius, who is in several ways the functional equivalent of the Irish Art mac Conn. Having officially - and not merely, as it seems in Nennius, with a nod and a wink - dethroned his father, Vortimer is the recognized head of state; and though Geoffrey presents this as a revolutionary act, it has some features in common with the Irish version of the quest for the wondrous boy, where Conn commits the kingdom to Art. The importance of this act is underlined by the fact that Art actually has to be recalled to Ireland: it is a reversal in the fortunes of the kingdom, and marks, we must assume, a tremendous defeat for Becuma, just as Vortimer's arrival means a devastating series of defeats for Ronwein's Saxon kinsmen. What is more, Art is made regent in the presence of a vast assembly of all the men of Ireland, which reminds us that Geoffrey said that "the Britons" took the throne from Vortigern and gave it to Vortimer. Of course, the Irish scene does not imply, like the Welsh, a revolt against the ruling sovereign; but nobody can deny that Conn is forced away from Ireland (in quest of the wondrous boy) ultimately because of his own sin in marrying Becuma, just as Vortigern is forced from the throne ultimately because of his own sin in marrying Ronwein. Vortimer is exclusively responsible for the war against the alien invaders; but so is Art, who is King of Tara (Conn having long since died) when Beine Brit's hordes invade. It is he who, when the invaders have reached Mag Mucrama, declares "it is time to give battle to the aliens", to which Eogan of Munster, Lugaid’s actual target, only assents. The death of Geoffrey's Vortimer is directly related to his being the national war-leader against the aliens, and marks the end of the war; but so does that of Art, beheaded at the hands of the heroic Lugaid Laga[25], after which Lugaid mac Con, having left both allies and enemies dead on the battlefield, simply walks into a deserted Tara and takes over. And that Ronwein is specifically the enemy of Vortimer is exactly mirrored in the meeting of Art and Becuma: "Art was certainly not pleased to see his enemy". In the Irish story as we have it, no link between Becuma and Mag Mucrama exists, and therefore we cannot attribute the death of Art to her either directly or indirectly; which certainly does make a difference. But she threatens the succession in him in another way, by wishing on him a dangerous quest for another infertile fairy bride, pushing the dynasty further and further towards the spell of fairy women.

Part 2


[1]Note that the druids are present as a group, here as in the story of Vortigern. The decision to find and sacrifice the wonderful boy comes not from any named individual, but from a nameless assembly of druids. Only in Geoffrey does a named individual - Maugantius - turn up, and there he is not treated as a member of the group of druids at all.

[2]That the king undertakes the search himself is parallel to the Galfridian, if not to the Nennian, version. In Nennius,, Vortigern does not go himself, but sends emissaries, who find the boy, who, like Segda, obediently comes to the King's summons. This difference probably reflects a less primitive view of royalty among the British Celts, who had at least some distant experience of the organized monarchies of Rome and the European middle ages, with their swarms of imperial functionaries and royal messengers. Irish kings, by contrast, had only one paid functionary, the rechtaire or steward; and that was clearly imitated from the British rector of Gildas - that is, it was not a native Irish institution, and therefore would be unlikely to feature in the earliest layer of Irish legend. Besides, the existence of a parallel between one Welsh version and the Irish ipso facto argues that the parallel (Galfridian) version is closer to the common archetype, and that the deviant (Nennian) one represents an innovation.

[3]The likeliest interpretation of Rigru's cow is an image of Ireland itself. Druimin Donn Dilis - "the faithful brown-backed cow" - was an affectionate poetic name for the island (JAMES MACKILLOP, Dictionary of Celtic mythology, Oxford 1998, s.v. "cow").

[4]In the same way, I have interpreted the victorious dragon in the Welsh legend as standing for the party of the wonderful boy, Ambrosius, who will eventually overcome.

[5]Celtic Britain certainly knew the story of a father handing over a virgin daughter to a great hero to beget a son, since it happens to Lancelot and may also have been told about Gawain and Agloval, the latter doing duty for Perceval in the Dutch romance Morien. This Morien is singularly like a successful version of Connla son of Cuchulainn in the Irish saga The death of Aife's only son; and this Connla has in turn some singular echoes of the fates of Art and Connla Mac Conn: he is a single son, oenfer, whose death deprives his great father Cuchulainn of male descent; and there is a magical journey across the ocean by boat, not unlike the three that mark the adventures of Conn, Becuma and Art.

[6]There is a mystery about the wondrous boy's birth that neither Nennius nor Geoffrey really clear up: his mother is an unmarried maiden - in Geoffrey, a young nun - who claims to have known no man. Nennius ends up affirming, without explanation, that Ambrosius' father was in fact a Roman Consul - we shall have a good deal more to say about that later - while Geoffrey tells us that he was a supernatural spirit of the air. A mysterious birth, a maiden who had known no man, the presence of the supernatural, are the common elements.

[7]We recognize in this the picture of the wondrous boy of unknown origin at the court of the usurper, and who turns out to be the rightful successor; just as the wondrous boy at the court of the usurper Vortigern turns out to be the rightful successor, Ambrosius.

[8]F.M.LUZEL, Celtic folk-tales from Armorica, (trans. Derek Bryce), Llanerch 1985, 28-34.

[9]Alwyn and Brinley Rees have shown that Munster was regarded as in some sense the lowest-ranked of all the provinces, and connected in a special way with slaves, women, death, and the underworld. A.&B.REES, Celtic Heritage, chapter 5, "A hierarchy of provinces". That the usurping, upstart high king of Tara came from such a province was obviously - at least in Ui Neill eyes - just another aspect of his illegitimacy.

[10]Brian is the better candidate for being the historical archetype of Lugaid the vassal. He came from a distinctly underwhelming background: his tribe, the Dal Cais, were one of the Deisi Muman, the "vassal tribes of Munster". But at any rate the title of any king of Munster was apt to be regarded as soft, since "in Munster... there was no... development of dynastic principle... rank outsiders were never totally ineligible for the over-kingship... It is symptomatic that the Frithfolaid tracts regard the prospect of an interregnum in the kingship of Cashel [Munster] with some complacency..." F.J.BYRNE, Irish kings and high kings, London 1973,181 ,203-204.

[11]Translated by BYRNE, op.cit., 25, with a couple of modifications.

[12]All the Ui Neill are descendants of Conn, but not all descendants of Conn are Ui Neill; they are Connachta - English Connaught - a word which originally indicated, not a region, but the complex of dynasties descended from Conn. And as I point out in note 29 below, the legend of another tragic king, Muirchertach mac Ercae, has indications that other Connachta had suffered in the course of the rise of the Ui Neill (direct descendants of the great Niall of the Nine Hostages). Nevertheless, the Connachta descent of the Ui Neill seems never to have been forgotten, and to have contributed to the high esteem in which remote and impoverished Connaught was held in the traditional geography described by the brothers Rees.

[13]In Latium, the Indo-European culture closest to the Celts, the king was the giver of horses, and therefore their ultimate owner; in the Aeneid, it is King Latinus who makes Aeneas and his followers a gift of 300 horses - Aen. 7.274-275. In my Gods of the West I: Indiges (Bruxelles 1999), I have analyzed Aeneas (I mean the Latin hero identified with the Trojan prince) as the priestly complement to the temporal, this-worldly royalty of King Latinus; therefore horses are the competence of the "Latinus", political and terrestrial, element of royalty. For the horses, cf. op.cit. 15 n.11; for the relationship of Aeneas and Latinus, ibid. passim, esp.109-117. Several Celtic stories also focus the power of royalty on horses. Taliesin finally proves his supremacy over Maelgwn by having Elphin's horse outrun the king's twenty-four. His Breton counterpart N'oun-Doare' enrages the king by breaking a taboo on bringing a light in the king's stables, and can only make up for this by winning a sun-maiden bride for the king (an excellent marriage that, according to Celtic ideas, will raise the king's status). Gwyddno, father of Elphin, is struck by two disasters: the breaking of Cerridwen's cauldron poisons his horses, and the land he rules is flooded by the ocean (in Indiges, 37f., I suggested that the poison of Cerridwen's cauldron was what made the sea salt); that is, it seems that the loss of his royal power and wealth, which is a feature of the legend of Elphin, may have been manifest in the destruction of his realm and of his horses. Possession of a herd of horses may therefore have signified royal power.

[14]This is almost certainly the sign of a druidic curse. The Irish class of poets - who certainly inherited druidic claims - could inflict a frightful curse by squeezing the ear-lobe of their victims between their fingers. DÁITHI Ó hÓGAIN, The sacred isle, Woodbridge and Cork, 1999, 73, quoting KUNO MEYER (ed.), Sanas Cormaic, Halle 1912, 12-15, and Revue Celtique XXVI, 55. The person so cursed was regarded as expelled from the community and deprived of honour, strength and valour; in other words, it was the functional equivalent of the terrible Druidic edict of interdiction from the sacrifice mentioned by Caesar (6.13). And if only squeezing the ear-lobe could produce such results, what about having the whole ear bitten off by a fairy? It is clear that the story begins under the worst possible omens.

[15]A.&B.REES, op.cit. 127, quoting Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy XXXVI, 280. There is therefore a dreadful ambiguity about Fer Fi. As a musician, he would be assumed to be of servile rank, especially since his father had been slain and his sister possessed against her will by the king of the province; which is probably why the two foster-brothers assume that he is theirs to control. But the instrument he plays is a stringed instrument, the timpan - next best thing to a harp - and he has, in fact, "accompanied nobility" by playing for two sons of kings. What is more, he is one of the Good People! - and can any Irishman imagine anything more ill-omened than trying to subject a fairy to one's will?

[16]The connection of music with ruin in this legend probably explains why the object of a druidic curse had his ear squeezed - see note 13 above. Squeezing is evidently an attenuated version of tearing off the ear; and the ear is the seat of hearing. Now the Celtic sacred classes, druids, poets and seers, were all connected with the Sacred (True) Word; a man deprived of his ears was deprived of the possibility of hearing it correctly. This is probably why it was equivalent to being excluded from sacrifice. Indeed, there seems to be no reason to regard the two things as separate. Caesar does not tell us with what ceremony the interdiction from sacrifice was inflicted - typically, he is only concerned with its social and political effects - and it may well be that it was administered by a public and ritual ear-squeezing.

[17]Eogan Mor - the Great - is, undeniably, the founding hero of the royal tribes of Munster, the Eoganachta, a part of native Munster legends rather than intrusive northern legends. The genealogical theories that underlie this northern legend identify him with one Mug Nuadat, of whom more later; but the fact that his grandson, dead at Mag Mucrama along with Art mac Conn, is also supposed to be called Eogan, strongly suggests reduplication. I think that Northern storytellers simply inserted the hallowed name of Eogan into the legend of Conn and his descendants (in which, as I show in Appendix VI, Mug Nuadat and his master Nuada counted as precursors from previous generations) by way of demeaning the descent of Munster: when chronological problems arose, Eogan Mor was re-identified with Mug Nuadat - whom I regard as a purely northern figure representing a northern idea of Munster - and made the grandfather of the Eogan who was said to have died at Mag Mucrama.

[18]This reminds me of the conditions set on another legendary king, Muirchertach mac Ercae, by his vindictive supernatural lover Sin: "that he never utters her name, that the mother of his children shall not be in her sight, and that clerics shall not be in the same house as herself... To please her, the queen and her children are turned out of the house at Cletech..." A.&B.REES, op.cit. 338-340; cf. F.J.BYRNE op.cit. 100-103.

[19]Cu Roi is a mysterious legendary king of Munster, whose best-known appearances are as the tester of the valour of Cu Chulainn and the other Ulster heroes in the tale Bricriu's feast (Early Irish myths and sagas, ed. J.Gantz, Harmondsworth 1981) and later as Cu Chulainn's enemy and victim. His own legends are otherwise lost. He obviously belonged to Munster, and his stories would no doubt have given a far different account of Irish provinces and their value than the Ui Neill-centred picture discovered by the brothers Rees. E.C.QUIGGIN is said to have put forwards the same theory, but I cannot trace his work beyond a mention in MACKILLOP, Dictionary op.cit., s.v. Cu Roi , 107f. I think that the Ui Neill ascendancy in Irish culture effectively suppressed them; but his tremendous potency even in front of Cu Chulainn, whom he humiliates more than once, shows that he must have been very highly regarded as the Ulster cycle was taking form. The fact that Art values his wand highly enough to send Becuma on a desperate quest for it tells the same story. Indeed, the fame of "Corroy map Dairi" reached Welsh and Breton ears, turning up in some Arthurian sources; which indicates that his legend was still in prestigious existence as the Arthurian cycle was developing. One feature - the fact that his treacherous wife Blathnat betrayed him to her lover, identified with Cuchulainn - strongly suggests that he was originally an avatar of Lug, as Blathnat is etymologically close to Blodeuwedd, the treacherous wife of Lleu, the Welsh version of Lug. Cf. my Indiges, op.cit., 24-29, 32n.5: the latter suggests that Lug/Lleu and Blodeuwedd may have been identical in substance.

[20]It is probably part of the artistry of whoever rewrote the story to suit Ui Neill ears, that the ugly side of sex is transferred - with remarkable power - on to the king of Munster, who rapes his own matriarchal land-goddess. One can practically see the bitter young elf-woman with fury and humiliation in her eyes and her mouth still bloody from biting her rapist's ear, screaming her curses into the Irish wind. I suspect that at an earlier stage some such episode of violence was connected with the line of Conn, and may have involved usurpation.

[21]I wonder whether the fact that Herod's lust was notoriously incestuous, Salome being his own brother's daughter, had anything to do with the later legend of St.Germanus, in which Vortigern marries his own daughter. This would argue a certain amount of influence on the Germanus legend from earlier Vortigern stories, which is at any rate quite likely.

[22]See the analysis of the Nennian passage in ch.9, below.

[23]Lk.22.3-6 is however rather closer to John.

[24]This reflects the same reality as the Vortigernid genealogy preserved in Nennius ch.49, which does not stretch beyond Vortigern's grandfather Vitalinus and his three brothers, after which we only find the name of the city of Gloucester (Gloiu), misapplied as their ancestor. That is to say, the house of Vortigern did not really remember anything before the greatness and downfall of their ancestor - since the names of father and grandfather are information so generic that it might easily be part of the name, and even the list of three great-uncles with credible Roman names does not add much to the picture - except that he was connected with Gloucester; it is with the fall of king Vortigern that their history may be held to begin. The historical Vortigern, the superbus tyrannus should have been of high enough birth for the British Senate to count him as suitable for the imperial throne; on the other hand, Isaiah 19, used by Gildas to characterize the reign of the usurper, describes Pharaoh's counsellors as descended from many kings - but not Pharaoh himself; which might hint at the tyrannus being of recent nobility, possibly a military man.

[25]There is an extraordinary episode where Beine Brit is about to behead Eogan: Lugaid Laga, who is an ally of Beine and Lugaid mac Con's but also Eogan's uncle, beheads Beine instead. Lugaid mac Con protests, and Lugaid Laga replies that he will give him Art's head in exchange; and he does so. In other words, Art's death is the exchange for the already accomplished death of his greatest enemy, the king of the alien hordes; and in his defeat there is therefore something of a victory, specifically over the aliens. Laga is later to abandon mac Con when he passes his unjust verdict over the sheep (note 26, below), and enter the service of the new king, Cormac - whose father he has slain! And some scholars reckon he may be a doublet of mac Con himself: MACKILLOP, Dictionary op.cit., s.v.Lugaid Laga (272). I have already suggested that "Lugaid mac Con" may have originally been a member of the house of Conn and not a Munsterman at all; this suggests that his position between Art's Ireland and the invaders from Britain, whoever they were, may have been more ambiguous than the story implies. But the matter is far too complex for certainties.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

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