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The Odyssey of a Folktale: "Merugud Uilix Meic Leirtis"

Author(s): Barbara Hillers


Source: Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 12 (1992), pp. 63-79
Published by: Department of Celtic Languages & Literatures, Harvard University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20557238 .
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Barbara Hi?lers

THE ODYSSEY OF A FOLKTALE:


MERUGUD UILIXMEIC LEIRTIS
Irish saga Merugud Uilix Meic LeirtisJ The
The medieval
Wanderings of
Son
of
Laertes,' offers us the opportunity to take a new look at the
Ulysses
extraordinary combination of elements that go into the making of Early Irish
literature. On the one hand, this short saga can claim to be the only extant
version of the Odyssey inmedieval Ireland, ultimately derived from Homer and
thus evidence of Ireland's indebtedness to Classical learning. On the other hand,
Merugud Uilix is clearly not derived directly from any Classical text, or indeed
from any one text at all; its rendering reveals an acquaintance with the story at
a remove. Into theHomeric framework the narrator has inserted an international
is demonstrably
folktale which
taken from oral tradition. Merugud Uilix
a
thus
fusion
of
written and oral sources.
represents
complex
The stories of Classical Antiquity were as popular in Ireland as they were
elsewhere inmedieval Europe;2 "In what land in the world has not been heard
the hero of the Irish Aeneid exclaims.3 We find
the misery of the Trojans!"
allusions to the heroes of Greece and Rome in Irish poetry and prose already in
the Old Irish period. The bulk of full-scale translations and more or less free
adaptations from Classical sources date to the Middle and Early Modern Irish
periods. There seems to have been a burst of literary activity and interest in the
in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, rather earlier than elsewhere in
that resulted in the translation of Statius' Thebaid* Lucan's
Europe,4
Pharsalia,6 Dares Phrygius' Historia de excidio Troiae1 and Vergil's Aeneid!
Classics

However,

none

of

these

works

are

'translations'

in our

sense

of word-for-word

correspondence; they are more or less free adaptations which have been altered
structurally, as well as stylistically to fit in with native narrative tradition.9 The
result is "not so much a translation from one language to another, but from one
culture

to another."10

These adaptations from Classical sources are clearly of the highest importance
for the understanding of how the Irish processed the Graeco-Latin culture they
adopted. One would expect them to be eagerly studied by scholars in the field,
especially since the old tendency to view Ireland as *aplace apart' from the rest
of medieval Europe has been replaced by the tendency to emphasize Ireland's
indebtedness to Latin-Christian culture. However, despite this change of outlook,
inteipretive studies of the major works are still lacking, and there are numerous
minor texts that remain unedited,11 badly edited, or badly understood.
One case of such neglect is the text under discussion here, Merugud Uilix
Meic Leirtis (henceforth called MU). A study of the relation between the text

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BARBARA HILLERS

64

its ultimate origin shows not only the obvious presence of Classical
influence; a careful consideration of all the sources can offer us exciting insights
into its composition.
the Book of Ballymote,
MU is preserved in three latemedieval manuscripts,
It
has found two editors,
a
Dublin.
Stowe12, and MS in the King's Inn Library,
on
a
the
based
edition
Kuno Meyer, who attempted
critical
Ballymote and Stowe
text in 1886,13 and Robert T. Meyer, who edited the Ballymote MS in 1958.14
'
Robert Meyer dated the saga to 'the late twelfth or the early thirteenth century"
and does not hesitate to call it "Middle Irish."15 The only translation of the
text so far is Kuno Meyer's, which is badly in need of revision.16 Both editions
in a passage which is
are somewhat flawed; for example, Kuno Meyer,
has
Robert
travelling companions
Odysseus'
Meyer,17
uncritically adopted by
being swallowed by an earthquake. There is no earthquake; what the text really
says is that the companions are overtaken by a band of marauders.18
and

set "after the capture and destruction of the chief city of the
each of the Greek heroes "came to their own borders and to
called Uilix mac Leirtis ?
is lost
homeland." Only Ulysses ?
band of men. After escaping
time with his ever-diminishing
from the Cyclops, they come to a place ruled by the Judge of Right. He sells
them three pieces of advice, for thirty ounces of gold apiece. The counsels are:
1) Hold your breath three times and think before acting;
2) Follow the highway, not the by-way;
3) Don't set out before a certain time in the morning.
Before they leave, the Judge of Right gives Ulysses a box19 which he is to open
on his return home.
in reverse order.
Opportunity to observe these three precepts comes to Ulysses
On their journey home they stay at an inn. The next morning they are invited
by some other travellers to journey with them, but Ulysses insists on obeying the
story is
Trojans," when
their own sweet
at sea for some
The

third advice, and delays his departure. They watch while the entire company is
being destroyed by a raiding party, while they themselves journey on safely.
Two of Ulysses' men take a shortcut "and meet death instantly" ? we do not
know by what cause. Finally, they return home, and find a beautiful young man
sitting by Penelope's side. Ulysses determines to revenge himself on his wife
for her perceived infidelity.
Through an underground tunnel he enters the
at
chamber
night. Unseen by either Penelope or the young man?
queen's private
his
raises
sword
three
times to strike off the young man's head, but each
Ulysses
time holds off, remembering the advice to hold his breath three times. The third
time, he is about to strike when the queen, waking from a dream, addresses the
lad with a male, 'my son.' She tells him that she saw her husband in a dream
realizes his mistake and
standing above them and ready to kill them. Ulysses

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MERUGUD UILIXMEIC LE?RT1S

65

leaves again, using the same secret route by which he came. The next day he
to Penelope, who is initially as reluctant as her Homeric
reveals himself
to
believe him. Only when Ulysses' old dog recognizes him is she
counterpart
convinced. When Ulysses gives her the Judge of Right's present, they find
inside the ninety ounces of gold Ulysses had to pay for his three advices.
Already Kuno Meyer pointed out thatMerugud Uilix was not a translation as
such, as the text has "no close analogues either in the Latin or in themedieval
French versions of the Troy Tale." Kuno Meyer concluded therefore that "the
Irishman was himself the author of this work."20 Neither of the two editors
succeeds in offering concrete suggestions about the Classical sources forMIL
Robert Meyer seems to suggest21 that the author of MU used Aristotle's brief
summary in his Poetics; but apart from the question of how well known Aristotle
was in twelfth-century
Ireland, there is nothing in this summary that would
fit
the
MU;
particularly
The argument of the Odyssey is not a long one. A certain man
has been abroad many years; Poseidon is ever on the watch for
him, and he is all alone. Matters at home too have come to
this, that his substance is being wasted and his son's death
plotted by suitors to his wife. Then he arrives there himself
after his grievous sufferings; reveals himself, and falls on his
enemies; and the end is his salvation and their death.22
is made of Poseidon inMU, nor of the suitors and their plot to kill
son.
Aristotle's
focus on the events after Odysseus' return is not
Odysseus'
reflected in the Irish story, which ends with the recognition scene. On the other
hand MU has plenty of details which Aristotle does not have, such as personal
names, the Cyclops episode etc. Whatever the Irish author's source was, it could

No mention

hardly have been Aristotle.


It preserves only, in
As a version of the Odyssey, MU is a disappointment.
Robert Meyer's words, "some waifs and strays of theHomeric tradition." Only
two Homeric characters are named: the hero, Uilix mac Leirtis, and his wife
are the Cyclops
PeneloipU and the only episodes that are recognizably Homeric
scene.
Both editors additionally saw "dim
episode and the recognition
reminiscences of the Homeric episodes" of the Oxen of Helios and the Island
of the Lotus Eaters.23 However, a textual borrowing seems out of the question:
the Irish passage in question does not resemble either of the two Homeric
incidents in
episodes closely.24 There is no trace of many of the most popular
with
the Sirens
encounter
his
with
as
Circe,
the Odyssey, such
Odysseus' sojourn

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66

BARBARA HILLERS

or with Scylla and Charybdis. The Irish tale ends with Penelope's
recognizing
her husband; there is no mention of Odysseus'
struggle with the suitors to
reclaim his regal authority. The author of MU is unaware of even the most basic
facts of the Odyssey; he does not know, for example, that Odysseus'
home,
Ithaca, is an island; his hero reaches home dry-shod. The Homeric content of
MU is so slim thatwe have to conclude that it could not have been based on any
complete version of the Odyssey; as Robert Meyer puts it, "one thing at least is
certain: we cannot expect the twelfth-century Irishman to have read the Odyssey
in the original."25 What, then, can we expect him to have read?
The form of the hero's name gives us a first clue; the Irish Uilix is clearly
derived from the Latin Ulysses, rather than the Greek Odysseus, and indicates
that the Irish got the Odyssey through Latin intermediaries.26 But the author of
MU gives us another, more direct, clue to his source. After Ulysses has blinded
the Cyclops, and flees with his companions, one of his men is left behind, gurub
? infear sin d?rala dAenias mac Ainchis dia mbaifor
loingis, 'and this was the
man Aeneas son of Anchises met when he was in exile.' This is not an example
of medieval name-dropping; the author is simply stating his source.
In his
to
his
Roman
imitator
refers
back
Homer's
model, by letting his
Aeneid,
Vergil
Trojan exile Aeneas encounter many of the marvels traditionally associated with
the Greek Odysseus.27 Vergil tells us that when Aeneas
reaches Sicily, the
home of the cyclopes, he ismet by a ship-wrecked Greek who identifies himself
as Achaemenides,
son of Adamastus, a follower of Ulysses, and tells him about
the encounter with Polyphemus.
Kuno Meyer was the first to point out that "our author's acquaintance with
is attested by his mentioning
the meeting
of Aeneas
with
Vergil
to
seem
he
does
draw
not
from
it
the
Archaemenides,"28
though
logical
conclusion that the Aeneid was the source for the Cyclops episode.
Robert
Meyer refers to Vergil, but does not think the Aeneid is the source for MU: "it
does not seem to be the source of the present version of the Polyphemus
episode."29 The Polyphemus episode inMU, he argues elsewhere, is "greatly
distorted and could hardly be from Vergil's Aeneid."m
if we
However,
we
in
the
that
and
find
the
Irish
Homer,
MU,
compare
Cyclops episode
Vergil,
story contains almost all the details of the Aeneid, and has no Homeric details
In the Aeneid, the Greeks witness the death of
beyond those found in Vergil,
two of their comrades at the hands of Poliphemus, who dashes them against the
walls of his cave, and then devours them. However, the Greeks avenge the death
of their comrades when the Cyclops is "replete with eating and sunk in a drunk
sleep;" "with a pointed instrument" they blind the Cyclops'
single eye and
make good their escape.31

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MERUGUD UILIXMFJC LEIRTIS


MU basically follows Vergil's
some of the comrades:

outline; the murderous Cyclops

67
dismembers

In bail a mbid in cur no in cath-milid ro iadad a lama


umpu
guro br?dh 7 guro minaiged a mama 1 a fe?il, 1 lar marbad
sochaidi d?b do t?argaib nonbur leis dib etir a dh? l?im.*..
(1.33-36)
Where there was a hero or a battle-soldier he closed his arms
around them and broke and minced their bones and their flesh.
Then, after having killed a great number of them, he lifted up
nine

of

them

between

his

two

arms....32

Ulysses frees his captive friends from the giant's cave, and avenges their dead
comrades by blinding the Cyclops:
T?inic da indsaigid, 7 in cen-s?il mor ro bai a tulphortaib a
?dain, ro chuir fograinni na slegi etir in d? abra 7 tucustar
s?thad arin sieg isin sail gurbo monur do a imdttin ar in loch
lethan-m?r lind-usci ro mebaid esti. (1,67-70)
He went up to him, and into the one big eye that was in the
front part of his forehead he put the point of his spear,
between the two brows, and gave a thrust to the spear in his
ey. And he had a difficult task to save himself from the broad
and large loch of water that burst from it.33
Vergil does not tell the whole story; he could, and did, assume a knowledge of
Homer in his audience. For example, he leaves out Ulysses* ruse of offering
wine to the ogre; we are merely told of Polyphemus' "drunken sleep," and his
Vergil also makes no mention of Polyphemus
vomiting up "thick wine."
cave
the
and
his
exit
of
blocking
keeping the Greeks captive; nor does he refer
to the sheep under whose bellies the comrades manage to escape from the cave.
MU shares the same omissions; but unlike Vergil's Latin readers, who would
have needed no reminder to fill in the details of the story> the Irish narrator of
MU is rather at a loss. Having only Vergil's brief summary to go on, he does
not know, for example, how the Greeks get into the dangerous cave in the first
this situation; the Greeks are
place. His narrative is constructed to motivate
attacked by the Cyclops who carries them off to his cave. The author even
invents a motive for the Cyclops' aggression: the Greeks are helping themselves

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BARBARA HILLERS

68

to gold from a mountain of gold which is in the giant's possession.


At this point we have to consider whether the author of MU used the Latin
Aeneid, or its Irish translation. The Irish Imtheachta Aeniasa follows the Latin
original closely, and itwould be hard to judge which of them was the source for
MU. However, the form of the name may give us a clue: The form cicloipecda
?
an adjectival formation derived
is used in the Irish Aeneid, and the same form
in
from Latin Cyclops?
Stowe.34
appears
Robert Meyer was not entirely unjustified in calling the MU version of the
The MU account differs from the
Polyphemus episode "greatly distorted."
a
the
Whereas
in
details.
of
number
Aeneid
Cyclops kills and devours only two
of the Greeks in the Aeneid, he kills "a great number" (sochaidi) inMU, which
In the Aeneid the blinding is carried out
also does not mention his cannibalism.
a
in
comrades
the
cooperative effort, and their tool is "a sharp instrument,"
by
to
back
Homer's
great wooden pole, which was too heavy for one man
harking
to lift. However, MU interprets the "sharp instrument" as a spear, and it is
Ulysses alone who is credited with the blinding. These differences make it
unlikely that theMU author had a text of the Aeneid in front of him. If he had,
why should he have changed minor details? Why should he have left out the
Cyclops' cannibalism, or his intoxication? Why should he have relocated the
the Greeks
first part of the episode from the cave to the beach, necessitating
out
he
have
name
the
And
the
would
left
of
carried
off?
why
being
Cyclops,
which appears in Imtheachta Aeniasa as Polipebus (from Polyphemus),
and of
the Greek survivor, Achenmedes
if not because he had
(from Achaemenides),
indicate that the author
forgotten them? The omissions and misunderstandings
did not have the text in front of him to verify his account; he either read the text
some time previous to the composition of MU, or heard it read.
Whereas in the Latin version the Cyclops episode occurs well into the epic (iii,
588), in Imtheachta Aeniasa it takes place at the beginning of the story, on the
fifth page of Calder's edition (1.145-170).
Itmay be that the author of MU did
not get much further than the first few pages; as Stanford has pointed out, apart
from the Cyclops episode, MU "ignores Virgil's Aeneid."' The Irish Aeneid
contains two more of Ulysses'
adventures: the story of the Wooden Horse,35
and a brief account of Ulysses'
sojourn with Circe.36 Both are among the most
popular of Ulysses' adventures, yet neither of them is in any way reflected in
MU. If the author read Imtheachta Aeniasa in its entirety, and certainly if he had
the text in front of him, it seems odd that he did not use the opportunity to add
to the list of the hero's adventures.
Before we turn to the non-Classical source for MU, let us sum up the rather
inconclusive

evidence

for the Classical

sources:

the Cyclops

episode

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is taken

MERUGUDU?UXMEIC LE1RTIS

69

from the Aeneid, probably via the Irish Imtheachta Aeniasa?1


However, the
author of MU did not use the Aeneid otherwise, and he must have had other
sources. While he cannot have dealt with a complete version of theOdyssey, he
must have learned more than a few isolated scraps of the story, He has a grasp
of the general atmosphere of the Homeric tale, of the character of Ulysses, his
astuteness, the grumblings of his comrades, and the feeling of despair that they
share in face of their ever diminishing number. It seems likely that the author
of MU had read, or heard, a selective retelling or summary of the story. Itmay
well not be possible to trace these Homeric elements to an extant source. The
author of MU knew the Odyssey perhaps in the same way that people believe
they know the Odyssey, because in their childhood they have read some version
of the story adapted for children.38 This parallel may not be as anachronistic
as it seems; Curtius has shown that throughout theMiddle Ages, generations of
students studied Moments without ever reading a line of Homer, either in the
original, or even in translation.39 Interestingly, Hum?rus was contemptuously
relegated to the lower grades of the curriculum; he was considered easy reading
and was used as a teaching tool for the junior students to learn Latin. One can
speculate on instructors composing plot summaries in easy Latin of the most
popular adventures of the Odyssey. Some didactic aids of this kind must have
existed, but would have had a slim chance of surviving because of their purely
ancillary nature. Despite their low status, such retellings of Homeric plots would
no doubt have been more widely known than the more sophisticated Latin
authors.

While the introduction of Classical literature lay by definition in the hands of


the learned Christian literati, once it became popular itmust have strayed outside
the limits of Latin and of letters. There is no evidence inMU that the author's
source was in a language other than Irish, and there is no conclusive evidence
that he read rather than heard any part of his story. Rather than proving the
extent of Greek and Latin learning in Ireland, MU seems to indicate the extent
to which at least some elements of that learning had been assimilated into a
lively native tradition.
source of MU which most clearly
Let us now turn to the non-Classical
to
oral tradition. Robert Meyer was
the
native
the
debt
of
the
author
expresses
the first to point out thatMU was a version of the popular international folktale
of The Servant's Good Counsels,' or, as it is popularly known, *The Three
This folktale was known throughout Europe at an early date
Good Advices.'40
and spread to Ireland orally, In theTypes of the Folktale, Stith Thompson lists
circa 120 international versions with a distribution ranging from Finland toNorth
Africa, and from Japan to Ireland. Jean-Pierre Pichette's

full-length monograph,

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BARBARAHILLERS

70

Vobservance
des conseils du ma?tre?1 which analyses as many as 369 versions,
no
means
has by
exhausted the subject. The tale continues to be told to this day
in areas where there is an active storytelling tradition, and it is particularly well
represented inGaelic tradition. A Scottish version was recorded in 1955, and the
story was still being told in Donegal in the seventies.
Here is a version of the story told by Joe Heaney from C?rna, County Gal way,
who is best known as a traditional musician, though this tale shows that he also
knew how to tell a story:42
The poor man ?
he was, he was only six months married and
his wife told him she was expecting a child, and that he'd have
to go and earn some money.
And he went to work for a
farmer. To make a long story short, he stayed with the farmer
for seven years. And of course after the first seven years he
had forgotten a bit about home, so he stayed on another seven
years, and finally he made it twenty-one years. He stayed
And after
working for the farmer for twenty-one years.
twenty-one years he said he'd have to go home to see his wife,
forgetting when he left she was expecting a child. But, ah, the
farmer asked him would he rather his wages than to give him
three good advices.
So the poor man said he'd take the
he said he'd give him an
advices. And the first advice ?
advice for each of the, of, of the seven years ?
and the first
advice

he

gave

him

was,

whatever

way

the

road

is, never

take

the short-cut. Whether the road be long or short, never go a


short-cut. Never sleep in a house where there is an old man
married to a young woman. And the third one was, never do
anything at night you'll be sorry for in the morning.
So she gave him the cake43 and she told him not to cut that
cake until he arrived home. And he set out to walk the twenty
miles. And when he was passing by a lake he saw a short-cut
down to the road.44 And he went through the cut. But he
thought of that advice he got when he was halfway, and he
turned back and went the road. And the following morning he
heard an old man, an old man told him, that two robbers killed
a man the previous night to the place where he was
going to
take

the

short-cut.

the second night of his, of his journey he came to a


house, and when he walked
in, there was a lovely young
woman serving supper. And an old man with a big long beard
And

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MERUGUD UILIXMEIC LEIRTIS

71

sitting down by the fire rocking the cradle.


So they said they'd put him up for the night and, ah, he
thought better when he thought of the second advice not to
stay one night in a house where there'd be an old man married
to a young woman.
So he slept outside in the stable.45 And
about twelve o'clock at night he saw a man coming to the
door, and herself, the woman of the house, and the man took
off the old man, and killed him outside the door. So he said
to himself, if that was him that would be the same picture.
Finally, the third day, he came home. And when he walked
in he opened the door ?
he lived in a small house ?
and he
head
his
inside
the
saw
and
he
his
wife
in
room,
the
put
bed,
and a young man with a big beard on him in the bed with her.
And he put his hand behind the door where they always kept
the hatchet, and he picked up the hatchet to strike the man.
And that's when he thought of the third advice he got never to
do anything at night he'd feel sorry for in the morning. And
then he spoke to the woman, and he, he said to her, who is the
man? And of course she said thatwas the son that was born
three months

after

he

left..,.

The happiness of the reunited family is further increased when they cut the
"cake" or loaf of bread brought home by the hero, and find in it the wages
owed him by his master.
The fusion of the Ulysses story with the folktale of The Three Good Advices'
was presumably triggered by the common denominator shared by the two stories:
the hero has been away from home so long that he does not know his own son,
and he has doubts about his wife's fidelity. After twenty years of absence, such
doubts are perhaps not entirely unwarranted. At the very beginning of MU, a
despondent Uilix

remarks:

Is doiligh lind tr? inn?fog?bam and si?t, 1 in r?gan ?laind


7 rig
?ilgen rof?csamar and abeith agfir eili i n-ar fiadnaisi
eli arar crkh} 7 arferand do beith aigi, ocus ar s?naf?n im
ar ndeilb gid ar firindi beam. (11.5-8)
The thing we shall find there seems hard to us: the beautiful
noble queen whom we left there being with another man in our
presence, and another king in our country, and our land being
in his possession, and us being denied because of our looks,

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72

BARBARAHILLERS
even though it be us in truth.46

It is his suspiciousness which makes Uilix prone to believe that his wife is
indeed being unfaithful when he sees a young man by her side.
The loose, episodic structure of Ulysses' wanderings easily accommodates the
folktale, and the structure of the folktale is left largely intact. After the
encounter with the Cyclops and a couple of other adventures, Uilix comes to the
palace of the Judge of Right. The Judge of Right corresponds to the 'master' of
the folktale who gives the hero good advice and a loaf of bread. The upper-class
hero Ulysses cannot, of course, work for wages, so he buys the advice with the
treasures brought back from Troy; similarly, a loaf of bread might seem an odd
farewell present from one nobleman to another, and our hero is given a
mysterious box (citfing) instead. He is told by the Judge of Right not to open
it until he reaches home. When at the end of MU
Penelope, he reiterates the Judges's injunction:

Ulysses

presents

it to

Ata cilfing beug agam tuce m'oidi dam 7 adubairt rium a


tabairt id laim-siu gan foslugud furri no co tuccaind duit-siu
hi (11.282-284)
I have a small box which my teacher gave tome and he told
me to give it in your hand and not to open it until I would
give it to you.47
The form of the injunction resembles closely the injunction given by the master,
or mistress, in many of the modern version.48
In the world of the folktale,
which is ruled by poetic justice, this present is the wife's recompense for her
long years of faithful waiting.
InMU, as in the folktale, the hero receives three pieces of advice, the first two
of which enable him to reach home safely. Two of the three counsels of the
traditional tale we find inMU: hold your breath three times and think before
? never
acting, md follow the highway, not the by-way. The third counsel
sleep
in a house where there is an old man married ta a young woman ?
has dropped
out, and with it the murder plot, although the setting is still there: the inn at
which Ulysses and his friends stay, A look at the oral versions confirms that this
motif is by far the most complex and unstable part of the story, and indeed the
only part where storytellers tend to slip up. The MU author is thus no exception
in dropping it, nor in substituting a non-traditional counsel, presumably in order
to preserve the threefold sequence of the counsels.
In the folktale, the advice

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MERUGUD UILIXMEIC LEIRTIS

73

follow the highway, not the by-way saves the hero from joining his comrades,
who are murdered by highwaymen.
InMU, two of Ulysses' comrades, who take
the by-way, "meet death instantly" ? we are not told how. The
highwaymen
seem to have been transferred to the non-traditional advice don't set out
before
a certain time in the morning: Ulysses'
travelling companions who leave early
in the morning are overtaken and killed by a band of marauders.
It is not surprising that Kuno Meyer, who was not aware of the folktale, was
mystified by the latter part of the story; no wonder he attempted to equate the
It is more surprising that Robert Meyer, too,
Judge of Right with Aeolus.
the tale, since he knew a number of modern versions, and was
misunderstood
indeed the first to point out the oral story as a source of MU.m
In all of his
three brief discussions
of MU%) Meyer maintains that, as he puts it in one
article, "the tunnel episode represents the Visit to Hades in the eleventh book of
He continues:
the Odyssey."
Here Penelope is confused with Persephone; nothing surprising
that the thirteenth century Irishman should be hazy about the
details of classical Greek mythology.51
It is not likely that either Hades or its queen were on the narrator's mind;52 the
tunnel episode is best interpreted as the result of adapting the folk story to an
In the folktale, the hero is usually a landless labourer, and
upper-class milieu.
his house is usually described as a both?n, a one-room cabin. He returns home
at night and lets himself in, not wanting to wake anybody up. Ulysses, on the
other hand, can hardly barge into the queen's chamber at night; as a stranger, h
would not have been allowed near her. The tunnel is simply an expedient plOv
device to bring the hero into Penelope's bedroom.53
Robert Meyer calls MU "simply one of the international tales of the Three
Wise Pieces of Advice,"54 without commenting on the considerable differences
between the medieval
text and the modern folk stories. "Over 300 versions of
the Three Wise Counsels have been recorded and await further classification and
study in the archives of the Commission,"55 Meyer writes; but despite his
eloquent eulogy of the oral storytelling tradition,56 he does not undertake this
if we want to understand the medieval narrative, we
work himself. However,
must first strive to understand its component parts, and it is therefore essential
to study not only the Classical sources, but also the folktale of the 'Three Good
'
Advices,
MU is an example of how crucial folklore can be for the appreciation o\
medieval

texts: without an understanding of the folktale, MU

is. simply a versior

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74

BARBARAHILLERS

of the Odyssey that went terribly wrong.57 MU is a creative and original fusion
of two very different stories, coming from two very different worlds, the world
of letters and the world of the non-literate storytellers. What Iwould suggest is
that these two worlds may in fact have been less hermetically divided than we
have hitherto assumed. One and the same narrator could draw both on written
texts, such as the Irish Aeneid, and on the oral storytelling tradition, and weave
them together into a unique and yet traditional fabric.

Barbara Hillers
Harvard

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MERUGimmux Mme iimt?s

75

NOTES
1 in Kuno

Meyer's edition the saga title appears as Merugud Uilix make Uirtis; Roben
Meyer's edition is entitled Merugud Uilix M aie Leirtis. However, m Gcaroid Um
Nioeaiil has pointed out (?igse 9, 1958, I!, 134} theMaie of the title should he Mtit\
"the MS
2

Vide

can be
expanded

form

W.

B.

Stanford,

either way,

"Towards

and

a History

the former

of

was

at this period

Classical

in

Influences

obsolete/1

Ireland,"

Proceedings of theRoyal Irish Academy 70? 1970, 13-91.


J
G. Calder, Imtheachta Aeniascu The Irish AenekL Irish Texts Soeieto VI iLondon,
1903), 1. 320f.
4

Stanford,

37.

5G.
Calder, ed? Togail na Tehe. The Thehaid of Statins (Cambodge, 1922).
6
Whitley

Stokes,

In Cath

An Irish Version

Catharda.

Irticiie

Pharsatkt*

ofLucan's

Texte

4,2 (Leipzig, 1909).


7
W. Stokes, T?gail Trot (Calcutta, 1881); Togail TroL Irische Texte 2,1. E, Curtios
calls

De

excidio

Troiae

"a Latin

historia

Troy

romance

of

the

later Empire

period"

which "enjoyed great prestige in theMiddle Ages'* {EuropeanLiterature and theLah


Middle Ages, 50n).
8
G. Calder,
1903),
9

For

example

Imtheachta Aenkisa, The Irish Aeneid^ Irish Texts Society VI ?London,

rather

than starting medias

in res

into Aeneas"

adventures

as Vergil

does,

the Irish adaptor of the Imtheachta Aeniasa tells the story in its proper chronological
order.
between

In Cath
Caesar

Catharda

stops

and Pompey?

after book
clearly

a more

seven

of Lucan's

satisfactory

Pharsalia,

ending

the great battle


from the

than Lucan's

point of view of the Irish scribe.


10
Edgar Slotkin, "Medieval Scribes and theFixed Text," ?igse

17, 437.

11

.
and Remus Story"
Philip Freeman's "Middle Irish Version of. the Romulus
an
of suchminor
is
Celtic
1991,1)
the
Harvard
XI
example
Colloquium
(Proceedings of
texts.

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76 BARBARAHILLERS
12
Ms

at the Royal

D.IV.2

13
Kuno Meyer,

ed, and

Irish Academy.
The

Leirtis.

Uilix Make

trans., Merugud

Irish Odyssey

(London,

1886).
?4
Robert

T. Meyer,

Uilix Maic

ed., Merugud

Leirtis,

and Modem

Medieval

Irish

Series

XVII (Dublin, 1958),


15
Robert T. Meyer, "The Middle
Niocaill,
lA

cit.,

op.

to Dr M?irin

? am grateful
of Kuno

Meyer's

vagaries

17
Robert
plot

edition

Meyer's

text

in guiri amuig
chuitechta
ag sceinmfon
Iy

is indeed

If this

does

little room

leaves

a timceall

Robert

Ni

not

what

translates

Meyer

who

for doubt:
in sirid

tat co n?rf?csat

pointed

out
with

acquaintance

a translation

to the

is confirmed

dating

first

in my

include

refer

? ni dib

This

Dhonnchadha,

translation

both of which

summaries,

18
The

of Sciences...,
135.

Academy

Michigan

lush'Odyssey and Celtic folktale", Papers of the


553.

by

Gear?id

to me

Mac

some

of

the

the story.

of the text; however,

he gives

two

'earthquake'.

"Dar lium-sa

'
tr?,

sa dun

leith eli.

duine

a mhethaid

'

ar Uilix,

Ocus

in buidin

4n?dib

ro condeadarfo

(R, Meyer,

sa

ch?t?ir
11. 187-190),

MU,

as
this rare word
Kuno Meyer
glosses
cilfing means.
in his glossary,
but nevertheless
it as 'sack, bag'
speaks

'box;'
of a

lbox' inboth of his paraphrases of the story, no doubt following Kuno Meyer. On cilfing
v. DIL,

and Mac

bolg,

"cilfing,

20
Op.

cit.,

21

than

Saga,"
22

op.cit.,

who

draws

attention

to the gloss

in Stowe

.L

cilfing

ix.

Irish material

"The

more

Niocaill,

i.e. bag',

the brief

the genuine
itself...
concerning
Odyssey
account
in the Poetics"
given
by Aristotle

is curiously
("Folktale,

enough

little

Fiction,

or

74).

Poetics,

23
R.Meyer

ch. xvii.

("Celtic

folktale,"

556),

paraphrasing

Kuno Meyer's

"faintechoes"

(op.cit,

ix).

24
In the Irish episode the sea-bound comrades come to an island where they kill and eat
sheep and which they are reluctant to leave. Aside from the fact that inHomer the two
incidents occur in quite different places (books ix and xii respectively), the following

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MERUGUD UJLIXMEICLEIRTIS 77
differences make it unlikely that the episode could be derived from the Odyssey: the food
consumed

the Irish

by

travellers

is not cattle,

but sheep;

nor

is it under

the protection

of

any particular deity, and if their killing represents the breaking of a tabu this is not made
The reluctance
the story.
to leave the island seems perfectly
of the comrades
and can hardly
be equated with
the magic
of consciousness
that
change
who join the lotus eaters in Homer.
the comrades

in
explicit
understandable
affects

25"The Middle Irish


?
Odyssey
77.
at

time.

this

op.

(Stanford,

Folktale, Fiction or Saga" Modern Philology 50, 1952,

to see how

it is hard

Indeed,

Not

only

cit.,

22-7;

a complete

version

could

does

reading
knowledge
L. Bieler,
Ireland, Harbinger

have been
seem

of Greek

of the Middle

in Ireland

available

been

scarce

London

1963,

to have
Ages,

14), but Homer himself, unlike his Latin imitatorsVergil and Statius, was not generally
part of the classical liberal arts curriculum inEurope during the early or high middle ages
(v. Curtius,
26

to

refers

Curtius

hexameters

48ff

cit.,

op.

composed

the

on

the "curriculum

so-called

?lias

in the first century

authors").

Latine,
AD,

which

condensation
he calls

of

"a wretched

the ?Had
piece

in

1070

of work"

(op. cit., 49).


27
There
Greek

than a hint of

is more

thus Aeneas

model;

has

the two, Vergil's


between
competition
the good sense to sail straight by Circe's

hero out-doing
island, rather

his
than

tempt fate; and instead of attempting to go through Scylla and Charybdis, Aeneas simply
the malicious

circumnavigates
28
Op.
29

cit.,

"Folktale,

30
Ml/,

rocks.

xi.

Fiction

or Saga,"

76,

xv.

31
Aeneid, iii, 588.
32
K. Meyer,
33
Ibid.,

op.

cit.,

18.

20.

34
no
Cicroipecda (1.32); the odd reading from the Book of Ballymote, olcpetta, is, doubt,
a misreading

of

the same

form

(v, Kuno

Meyer,

op,

cit.,

vi).

35
Ibid., 11.414-517.
Ibid..

11, 1458-64.

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78 BARBARAHILLERS
37
This

would

provide
a rather earlier

suggests

a relative
date

for

as predating
Aeniasa
dating for Imtheachta
the former
than its editor posited,

MU,

which

3SIwould like to thankAlex Hollmann from theHarvard Department of the Classics for

3V
Op.

to me.

this analogy

suggesting

cit., 48ff.

40

In the international tale type index, Aarne and Thompson's The Types of the Folktale,
it has been assigned the type number 910 B. Aarne's original title for this type was 'Die
des

guten Ratschl?ge
translated
rather
the servant
among
4i

4:

and collectors

storytellers

Folklore

'the master's

Dienstherren,'

as
ambiguously
or giving
is receiving

Good

the counsels.

Inofficially,
'The Three

as

worldwide

Communications

Fellows

good

'The Servant's

counsels'

which

Thompson

Counsels,'

leaving open whether


the tale is known
however,

(Good)

Advices,'

1991.

250,

In fact Joe Heaney tells his version, which was first pointed out tome by Dr William
of

Manon
Peadair,'

the Harvard

Goodman'),

as an introduction
to a song, T?ig?n
is
Department,
is an adaptation
ballad
of a traditional
274
'Our
(Child
on a record,
to suit the folktale.
Both
story and song are collected
Celtic

song

Heaney's
changed

Joe Heaney: Irish Traditional Songs in Gaelic and English, recorded by Bill Leader for
Topic
43
Sic.

The

transcription

is my

be a slip on
might
conceivably
modem
the advice
while
versions,

This

In most
bread

Ltd.

Records

is given

by

the mistress,

14
Heaney

says

he shaw

15
Heaney

says

in the, the,

161 have modified


t7
Translation

by

a, saw

K. Meyer's

the baking

own.

the part of the narrator, but I do not think so.


is given by the master,
the 'cake' or loaf of
of bread being her domain,

a....

in the,

the stable,

translation

which

is rather

too free

at this point.

the author.

IS
Usually an injunction not to break the loaf of bread.
w
Meyer was a student of the eminent folklorist Kenneth Jackson; in fact it was Jackson
who suggested the dissertation topic toMeyer, and pointed out to him the modern oral
versions

of

the

tale.

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MERUGUDUtUX MEIC LEIRTIS 79


50 "The Middle Irish
50, 1952, 73-8;
Odyssey: Folktale, Fiction, or Saga?" MPh
Maic
Uilix
Leirtis,
(Dublin, 1958); "The Middle Irish Odyssey and Celtic
Merugud
Folktale,"
51

of the Michigan

Papers

"Celtic

Academy

of Sciences...

46,

1960

(1961),

258-60.

556.

Folktale,"

reason why
should be confused
with the queen of Hades;
aside
Penelope
between
their names,
the two have little if anything
in common.
similarity
a confusion
with
the Persephone
an awareness
of that
Positing
story also presupposes
raises
the
of its availability
and
to the author of MU.
question
myth
521 can

see no

a certain

from

53
The

narrator

no time on
describing

wastes

the tunnel: Ulysses

about

tells his comrades

the tunnel,which he had designed himself many years ago. After this brief explanation,
the
54

55

is not mentioned

tunnel

"Celtic

56 *

or Saga,"

Fiction

"Folktale,

75.

561.

Folktale,"

ijQ reconj

again.

these

hero

and wonder

tales

today

is to participate

in the heroic

age

of

which we read in books. The finest tale of the twelfth century vellums is but a pale
a mere

ghost,
Folktale,"
57
The

outline,

with

compared

the

living

story

on

the

lips of man"

("Celtic

560).

reverse,

of course,

holds

also

true; as a version

of

the folktale

of

'The Three

Good

interest
is a very poor specimen,
it is of course of the greatest
However,
its
of the story's development
in Ireland, and it can even elucidate
for our understanding
medieval
and
An
of all Irish versions,
distribution.
discussion
international
in-depth

Advices,'

MU

modern,

is beyond

the

scope

of

the present

paper,

but will

be

the focus

study.

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of a separate