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Representations of the Death Myth in Celtic Literature

Representations of the Death Myth in Celtic Literature

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Published by cristinadr
a chapter of a larger work (license paper) - "The Death Myth in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Literature"
a chapter of a larger work (license paper) - "The Death Myth in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Literature"

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Published by: cristinadr on Dec 14, 2009
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02/06/2012

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5. The Death Myth in Celtic Literature
The Celts believed that the dead were transported to the Otherworld by theGod Belenus, a psychopompous god such as Charon from the Greek mythology. Lifecontinued in this location much as it had before death. The ancient Druids believedthat the soul was immortal and that after the person died in the Otherworld, their soulreincarnated into another living entity -- a plant, another human or an animal. Thereare many stories in Celtic literature that describe the Celts’ views on death and theafterlife. These stories are either tales of heroic deaths on the battlefield (mostly because of betrayals), either stories of mortals traveling to an otherworldly location,such as a cave or a remote island. These stories are not grim, nor sad, instead theyemphasize the glory of death on the battlefield or they point to the fact that theOtherworld is nothing but a place of wonders, which every mortal could reach if invited by a creature already living there. We can find these tales in every cycle of Celtic literature and some of them are not comprised in a cycle, they are separatestories called
echtrai
(adventures in the Otherworld) or 
imrama
(sea voyages to anotherworldly island).The
Ulster Cycle
is abundant with tales of revenge and treachery followed bythe death of an enemy. Perhaps the most spectacular of these stories is the oneconcerning
the Death of chulainn
, the hero of Ulster. We have followedCúchulainn’s adventures and seen that his strength and superhuman abilities had brought him many enemies. His most feared enemy was queen Medb, who hated thehero for humiliating her in the battle for the Brown Bull of Cúalnge. Long after her humiliation on The Táin, Queen Medb plotted her revenge, assembling a huge host of orphans and aggrieved relatives of Cúchulainn’s numerous victims, including the sonof Cú Roi, the son of Cairpre and six evil wizards (three male, three female: the lastsix offspring of 
Calatin (
a Fomorian druid), whom Cúchulainn had slain on The Táinalong with his previous 27 sons and one nephew). The six children of Calatine weresent to Scotland and Babylon to learn the magical arts and Medb was very pleasedwith what they had learned there. She waited again until the Curse of Machafell uponthe men of Ulster so that Cúchulainn would have to face the forces of magic and her army alone once again. As the forces of Queen Medb marched on Ulster,King Conchobar Mac Nessacalled a council of war. His warriors and druids were tooincapacitated to fight, however the King did not want Cúchulainn to fight alone for itwas known that if the Champion fell, then the land would be luckless forever. To keepCúchulainn unaware of what was transpiring around him, King Conchobar orderedthe women, the bards and the poets to divert his attention in every way possible, butthe three daughters of Calatin created an illusory army out of grass, thistles andwithered leaves, and caused the sound of trumpets and the roar of battle to be heardall about Emain Macha. Cúchulainn had to be convinced it was all an illusion by KingConchobar's druids to stop him from running into battle. King Conchobar had
47
 
Cúchulainn moved to the magical valley of 
Glean-na-Bodhar 
 
(Valley of the Deaf)
;once inside the valley nothing from the outside world could be heard. The daughtersof Calatin created the illusion that a vast army surrounded the valley with fires burning and women shrieking and crying. This illusion was so powerful that thenoise of it even reached into the valley and Cúchulainn heard it and again wanted torush out into battle and once more
Cathbad
1
the druid managed to calm him down.However the last trick to be played on Cúchulainn succeeded. One daughter of Calatin took on the form of a previous lover of Cúchulainn's and cried and beggedwith him saying Ulster was being ravaged while he was sitting and playing.Cúchulainn was stung into action and neither the women nor the druids could restrainhim this time.There were many
bad omens
preceding this last battle. The Gray of Machahis horse refused to be bridled and wept tears of blood;Dechtirehis mother broughthim wine three times and each time it turned to blood when he tried to drink it. Whenhe crossed the first ford in the river he saw a woman of theSidhewho was washingclothes and amour, she turned to him and said she was washing the amour of Cúchulainn, who rides to his death. The champion then came across three old cronesroasting a hound on rowan spits. They asked him to partake in their humble meal, butthere was a
 geas
on Cúchulainn forbidding him to eat the flesh of the hound. Still,there was another 
 geas
forbidding him to refuse any meal that was offered to him, sothe hero ate some of the meat and the left side of his body paralyzed.It had been predicted that the three spears that Cúchulainn carried into battlewould each kill a king, so three druids from the opposing army were sent to ask for the three spears as it was considered highly unlucky and dishonorable to refuse arequest from a druid. Cúchulainn flung the first spear at the druid who had asked for itand killed him, but the son of Cú Roi took the spear from the druid's body and slewLaeg the charioteer of Cúchulainn. In the same manner, Cúchulainn killed the seconddruid and the third druid when they asked for the remaining spears. With the spears,the King of Leinster killed Cúchulainn's horse and Lugaid son of Cú Roi woundingchulainn fatally. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled, as Laeg was king of thecharioteers, the Gray of Macha was king of the horses, and Cúchulainn was king of the champions.In his moments Cúchulainn asked that he be allowed to go to the lake to get adrink and then return to the battle. His request was granted and he went to the lakewhere he bound himself to astanding stoneby the lakeside so that he might diestanding up like a warrior for he was losing all power in his legs. The hero light wasfading from Cúchulainn and his face became as white as snow, finally a crow (thetotem of Morrigan) came and perched on his shoulder. His enemies still slightlyafraid to approach the great champion knew for certain he was now dead and cut off his head as a trophy. With the death of Cúchulainn the power and prosperity of Emain
1
 
Cathbad
was the druid in the court of Emain Macha in Ulster. He was father of King Conchobar Mac Nessa.
 
48
 
Macha failed as did the fortunes of the army of the Red Branch of Ulster, as predictedcenturies before.
 
 )
The story of Cúchulainn builds a picture of the Celtic warrior society, as wellas the connection with nature (the main story of the Uster Cycle is the story of a cattleraid). The way Cúchulainn dies and the fact that, as a boy, he chooses to become awarrior, knowing that would cause his premature death, shows that the Celts praisedtheir warriors and death on the battlefield was considered honorable. PerhapsCúchulainn is not afraid of death because he knows he has achieved enough fame sothat his name would be immortal. Besides, if we consider the fact that heroes andgods were in most cases related and that heroes often received the help of gods, wecan also believe that a warrior’s death in the Celtic society was seen as a journey tothe homes of the gods. We already know that the Celts had an optimistic view onafterlife, considering that the land of the dead was similar to the land of the living andthat it was a place of eternal youth and happiness that any mortal could reach beforeor after physical death. Thus, we can not conclude that Cúchulainn’s death wascompletely tragic, except maybe for the fact that it brought about the decay of Conchobar’s kingdom.Within the
Fianna Cycle
, we can discuss the story of 
Oisín’s journey to
 
Tír na nÓg 
. Oisín was the son of Fionn and his mother was
Sadb
, who came to Finn'sterritory in the form of an enchanted fawn (she was under the spell of the Black Druid). Fionn’s hounds recognized her as being human and Fionn spared her. Inreturn she turned into a beautiful woman and became his lover. Later, Sadb wasturned back into a deer and Fionn never saw her again. He found Oisín abandoned inthe wilderness and took him into care. Oisín was brought up among the Fianna and became a great champion.It happened that on a misty summer morning as Finn and Oisín with manycompanions were hunting on the shores of Loch Lena they saw coming towards thema maiden, exceedingly beautiful, riding on a snow-white steed. She told Oisín she was
Niamh of the Golden Hair
, daughter of the king of the Land of Youth, and that shewas brought there by her love for him. Then, the maiden invited him to her father’sland. Then the maiden spoke of the Land Oversea to which she had summoned her lover, and as she spoke a dreamy stillness fell on all things, and what she said seemedsweeter and more wonderful as she spoke it, turning into a magic song. She sang of a place where the trees would always bear fruit and blossom, the honey and winesupplies would never end, there would be no sickness, nor sorrow, only feasts andhunts, and Oisín would become king and have her as wife. After he left with her, theFianna never saw him again for he forgot everything about his home when he reached
Tír na nÓg 
.
Oisín met with various adventures in the Land of Youth, including therescue of an imprisoned princess from a Fomorian giant. But at last, after whatseemed to him a period of three weeks in the Land of Youth, he was satiated withdelights of every kind, and longed to visit his native land again and to see his oldcomrades, promising to return. As Oisín went away on the white fairy steed that had
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