The Affectation of Trees, Shape-shifters and Climatic Conditions in Early Irish Tales

November 24, 2007

In reading early Irish myths or tales, one will notice the formulaic use of liminality whenever the storyteller wishes to warn of an important moment, event or as a method of bridging two points that would otherwise be unable to meet. Several types of liminal elements feature in each of the stories; including the focus of this document, venerated trees, elements of precipitation and portentous animals or humanized gods. The Oxford English Dictionary defines liminality as “1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage” as well as “2. at a boundary or threshold” (824). In some instances, both definitions are applicable simultaneously, such as in “The Conquest of Nemed”, which begins when Nemed and his kin set out from Scythia and through a set of trials at sea eventually arrived in Ireland (Cross and Slover 3-4). The sea represents both a new beginning as well as the threshold between their previous world and their new one. As the symbolic use of the sea ceases to be about the arrival of the Scythians and the Celts it takes on the role of harbinger warning of attack, generally by very few. Examples of this are found in “The Death of Aife’s Son” where Connla is seen in a small boat out on the ocean (Kinsella 39) and in “Briccriu’s Feast” when Lóegure is approached by a giant walking out of the ocean (Gantz 247). The use of water is; however, not limited to the ocean. Throughout the tales, all variations of bodies of water appear as liminal features from cups to cauldrons to streams and fords as well as mist, fog and snow. The latter three interchangeably denote a significant event, depending on the season, if an individual or group requires concealment, or the emphasis the storyteller is wont to place. Mist and fog are predominantly devices to camouflage the arrival of a group, such as the arrival of the Túatha Dé Dannan Dannan to Ireland, “Upon reaching the territory of Corcu


Begatan… they at once burned their boats…The smoke and the mist which came from the ships filled the land and the air that was near them.” (Gray 25: pt. 9), or in “The Companies Advance” where Mac Roth reveals, “I studied the plain before me and saw a dense fog filling the valley and hollows…”, Fergus then clarifies Mac Roth’s observation; the thick fog is from the collective breaths of the Ulster troops who are amassing in the battlefield; finally fit enough to defend their land. (Kinsella 224). Although these examples fit the description of liminality in terms of foreshadowing, they are two of the very few incidences that are not specifically associated with magic or the otherworld. Alternatively, snow is never to conceal. It appears only in The Táin, is associated with prophesy or promise and it is links itself intrinsically to Cúchulainn. In “How Cúchulainn Was Begotten”, his initial birth occurs after the Ulstermen stop chasing birds throughout the land because of heavy snowfall, which sets the scene for his next two births (Kinsella 22). The element of prophecy comes in the shape of two foals, as they are Cúchulainn’s cognates. The two other occasions Cúchulainn fulfills a promise. The first promise, found in “The Army Encounters Cúchulainn”, was to spend the night with Fedelm, forcing his father to go and warn the men of Ulster (Kinsella 72), and the second, in “Single Combat”, that he would protect Ulster at all cost, “If Cúchulainn were here he wouldn’t sell his mother’s brother for another king.” (Kinsella 116). The latter two snowfalls happen on the eve of Cúchulainn challenging the Connachtmen. In the first instance, the challenge includes a taboo that states if none can duplicate what he did with tree-fork in the stream that the army cannot pass, and that he does not permit his friend Fergus to attempt the challenge. The second challenge is for the enemy to deduce what he would be willing to do rather than kill one hundred men a night.


One could postulate that the snow falls by will of the otherworld at important moments, forcing the host to take a closer look at the hero of the Táin. In the first instance, Conchobor and his kin seem to complete forget that a menace ravaged their land, and in the following two tales, Aillil and Medb’s armies are given an opportunity to reconsider the wisdom of continuing on their quest against the young warrior. If one considers that snow is a symbol for choice, then one could conclude that either the Connachtmen were not aware this omen or were far too intent in their wants to heed its warning. Cúchulainn; however, takes advantage of the snowfall whether because of his understanding of the enemy or by chance is not clear. In the first instance, he deduces how many men are with the enemy host and in the second, he is able to conceal his identity from the herald (Kinsella 72, 116). No matter how they are used, climatic elements always alert the reader to an important event, and rarely used in conjunction with any other liminal device. The only exception is in the tale of Cúchulainn’s birth as the birds being chased by Ulsterman appear to possess otherworldly qualities. The gods often manifest themselves as animals or grotesque humanized characters alternatively to move a story along, deceive, warn, protect or pass judgement on an individual, or with the appearance of desire to participate in the events. It can be implied that all the gods in Irish tales posses liminal qualities as they are members of the Túatha Dé Dannan, who’s arrival to Ireland is described in “The Conquest of the Túatha Dé Dannan ”, (Cross and Slover 11). Greek expatriates, they were members of a druidic sect entrusted with gifts to re-conquer a land once lost and taught how to change their shape; though there is no evidence that they are able to become inanimate objects.


The first tale where there are animals representing the gods is in the “How Cúchulainn Was Begotten”. The birds chased by the Ulstermen are attached in pairs by silver chains and the two lead birds in each of the nine flights, by a yoke of silver (Kinsella 22). As most birds do not mate for life (Wild Bird Watching), the bonding of these birds can serve as a depiction love or a symbol of fertility. In “The Wooing of Étain”, both Mider and Étain become swans when he is finally permitted to put his arms around her as previously promised by Echu (Gantz 57). The story continues when Echu sends his men to dig up Mider’s síde mound from which fly out two white ravens, presumably his objective and her abductor. Birds do not always represent love. Crows, which are associated with the Morrigan, are depicted as the harbingers of death. There are two instances where she appears on a standing stone in the form of a scald-crow; the first in “Death of Maenén” and the other in “Death of the Ulster Heroes” (Kinsella 98; Cross Slover 338). In the first, the Morrigan uses poetic verse to send the Brown Bull off to hide, as she is infuriated with the Connachtmen invading lands she holds dear, prophesising many deaths; including Ulster’s own sons. Heeding her words, the bull runs off madly, killing many of the boys who play on his back. In the second, she and her sisters stand sentry for the dying Cúchulainn. The Morrigan does not only appear as a crow. In “Cúchulainn and the Morrigan”, the Morrigan meets with Cúchulainn, and offers to assist him but he refuses. She then threatens to return in three incarnations to harm him; as an eel, a grey she-wolf and a heifer (Kinsella 133). In the “Death of Lóch”, she does as promised and then Cúchulainn heels her as she had prophesised. “And her head was healed and made whole. She gave him milk from the second tit


and her eye was made whole. She gave him milk from the third tit and her legs were made whole” (Kinsella 135-137). The most unusual cases of shape-shifting come in the form of tiny creatures or worm-like insects that are consumed by an unsuspecting individual or animal. During the second conception of Cúchulainn or as Sétanta, in the tale, “How Cúchulainn Was Begotten”; Lugh, another of the Túatha Dé Dannan, informs Deichtine that he transformed himself into a small creature in order that she might swallow him and impregnate her (Kinsella 23). Throughout “The Quarrel of the Two Pig-Keepers, and How the Bulls Were Begotten”, the pig-keepers continuously transform as they battle for supremacy (Kinsella 47-49). At each stage, they both transform into similar beings, raptors, water creatures, stags, warriors, ghosts and dragons then penultimately in the shape of maggots. Two heifers then swallow the maggots, each giving birth to a bull. The connection between the small creature swallowed by Deichtine and the maggots swallowed by the heifers is irrevocable. Cúchulainn and the bulls are central to the epic The Táin, which furthers the notion, that the conception of an important personage will occur any time someone swallows an insect-like creature; however, this is not always the case. In the “Wooing of Etain”, there is an instance where a worm features as one of an individual’s incarnations, however, this manifestation is not of Étain’s doing nor is it swallowed by anyone (Gantz 45). Out of jealousy Mider’s wife, Fúamnach turns Etain into a puddle of water, once heated it turns into a worm that eventually transforms itself into a scarlet fly who is able to follow Mider wherever he goes. Conchobor’s wife eventually swallows the scarlet fly (Gantz 47). The primary use of shape-shifting in this tale is to keep a character in play and to demonstrate that jealousy cannot conquer fate. Unlike in the any of the other tales where transformations


occur, its use is not as a tool to display otherworldly intervention, but rather as a means of moving the story in order to reveal additional characters or the skills of those already introduced, such as the previously noted Conchobor and his wife. In “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel”, a similar implication occurs when the barren Etain becomes pregnant after eating the porridge her mother made (Gantz 63). Finally, another use for shape-shifters is as judge. When warriors set out to compete for the champion’s portion in “Briccriu’s Feast”, two of the people selected to judge challenges where known shape-shifters (Gantz, 245-246). In the final instalment of the tale, Cú Rui comes to the men as they each guard his stronghold on one of three consecutive nights. However, the three warriors, Lóegure Búadach, Conall Cernach and Cúchulainn, are not aware that the giant churl attacking them is the judge in another form. He does not reveal his true identity until after Cúchulainn is the only one able to prove himself worthy to receive the champion’s portion, as Cú Rui says, “You are the supreme warrior of Eriu, and the champion’s portion is yours, without contest” (Gantz, 255). Previously in the tale, the other two warriors had accused all previous judges of favouritism, as they were Cúchulainn’s friends. In the first tale where the shape-shifter Uath son of Imoman, selected as judge, there is no accusation of prejudice because neither Lóegure nor Conall accepted the challenge, but they still do not accept his judgement. There is lot of value placed on the word of a shape-shifter; this is particularly true as, Uath, also given the title of “spectre”, does not change his form in this tale. Another example of the importance placed on a transformer’s decision is when the first three challengers failed to keep their pledge, the churl, Cú Rui’s challenges Cúchulainn to the same decapitation game. Reluctantly, Cúchulainn accepts and honours his pledge the following day, which everyone at


Conchobor’s Cráebrúad witnessed, therefore, his winning of the champion’s portion is without protest (Gantz 254-255). There are several other examples of unearthly transformations in all of the ancient texts, some symbolizing an individual or an event. Other instances include the appearance of wolves and hounds, oversized birds and deer (Gantz 57, 64-65, 97). Regardless of the reason, the reader should take note of its presence as shape-shifting often occurs concurrently with other liminal elements such as the time of day - midnight, location - near a mound, stone wall or pillar, or bodies of water. If events occur in conjunction with trees, especially branches, used as a tool that possess a particular quality or employed by liminal characters, such as a wand. Hazel trees have a reputation for possessing wisdom and are used in the tales as a means of distinguishing demons. In the “Book of Invasions”, The Philistines are told by their Druid to; “Take pegs of hazel and of quicken-tree to the battle on the morrow; and if yours be the victory, thrust the pins in the backs of the necks of the men who shall be slain; and if they be demons, heaps of worms will be made of them.” (Cross and Slover 12). In “Single Combat”, Cúchulainn advises that the person the charioteer is seeing is a herald as one of the items he carries is a wand of hazel (Kinsella, 116). Both of these examples imply wisdom; in the former, the hazel itself can detect demons, suggesting an imbued knowledge. In the later, the herald Mac Roth demonstrates his talents when he recites an endless series of finite details in “The Companies Advance” (Kinsella 224-235). The hazel revered for its healing qualities as well. “The Last Combat” where Cúchulainn has been wrapped in twigs of hazel provides the best example of this (Kinsella 248-249). His wounds do not re-open until another character provides a reason for him to lose all sense of himself;


suggesting that left to his own devices, a few moments entwined in hazel would suffice to heal most. Known for its regenerative and survival properties (Kendall Yew), the yew features prominently as panelling in Conchobor’s bedroom in “How He Took the Kingship of Ulster”, as a place of rest for Sgathaich in “His Training in Arms” (Kinsella 6, 30) and in the royal house at Crúachu (Gantz 237). There is a third type of tree often mentioned in the tales; the rowan, renowned for its defensive properties (Kensall Rowan). In the two tales, “The Wooing of Etain” (Gantz 45) and “Death Tales of the Ulster Heroes” (Cross and Slover 334) the main characters’ lives are propelled into a series of torturous events. Etain is set to more than a thousand years of flight by her lover’s spouse, and Cúchulainn is forced by the laws of hospitality to breach a series of taboos, ultimately leading to his death. Neither of these cases reflects the typical use of the rowan tree. The one element that links each of the uses of the trees is an individual presumed to have proficiency with magic, been conceived by, a connection with, or are members of the Túatha Dé Dannan. The Druid, Conchobor, Sgaithach, Fúamnach, and the hags that Cúchulainn encounter are all skilled in magic. There is no great difficulty in finding elements of liminality in any of the ancient Irish tales. Each story will contain at least one of the elements, but in most cases there will be several more, such as a mist at Beltaine, a main character being stopped by a personage with only one eye, one leg and possibly only one arm. Perhaps the story will include a tragic death by a stone pillar, an exchange of wit between couples near a síde mound at Samhain or the appearance of a


humanized god eating porridge from an enormous cauldron whilst a trio of hags is chanting about a hero’s virility.


Works Cited Cross, Tom Peete, and Slover, Clark Harris, eds. Ancient Tales. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1981 Gray, Elizabeth A., ed. Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Naas Co. Kildare: Irish Texts Society, 1982 Kendall, Paul. Mythology and Folklore of the Rowan. 5 Dec. 2006. Trees for Life. 26 Nov. 2007. <> ---. Mythology and Folklore of the Yew. 5 Dec. 2006. Trees for Life. 26 Nov. 2007 <http://> Kinsella, Thomas. The Táin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 Pearsall, Judy, ed. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 10th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002 Wild Bird Watching. 26 Nov. 2007 < http://>


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