On the antiquity of the kingship of Tara
IN studying the early pseudohistorical documents relating to prehistoric Ireland, one is constantly confronted with problems of the greatest difficulty. The most interesting document, for instance, the Lebor Gabála or Book of Conquests, is a compilation which treats the early history of Ireland from a particular point of view, with a definite policy of bringing into prominence certain families and races. MacNeill has shown that certain families not originally belonging to the Milesian stock succeeded in claiming a Milesian pedigree. Moreover, it was not merely political tendencies of the kind that introduced confusion into the Lebor Gabála, but also the manifest endeavour to make the old tradition synchronise with the world history of those times, making different races of Ireland contemporary with different ages of the world and various illustrious personages of sacred history. It is further very difficult to say precisely to what extent medieval and later Roman conceptions are contained in this interesting document. Take for instance the story of Amairgen's poem. The late d'Arbois de Jubainville regarded it as peculiarly Celtic, and sought to find in it ideas corresponding with those of the medieval Irish philosopher Joannes Scotus Erigena.1/ Yet it is equally possible that Amairgen's poem was written under clerical influences. However that may be, it is similar in style to the songs of Taliesin, and is at at events a product of the learned school. But of course this does not imply that the whole tale and the subject of the poem is a learned invention. The principal theme, the new arrival endeavouring to propitiate the local deities, is unmistakably old, and can be directly paralleled in the folklore of certain primitive tribes.
1/ Cycle mythologique irlandais, p. 247; transl. p. 139.
Take the following, cited by Sir Laurence Gomme from Thomson's Story of New Zealand (I. 61): "The Hawaiki fleet reached New Zealand in the summer. To appease the spirit of the land for their intrusion, humiliating prayers were said; one uttered by a chief ... is still preserved as a modern charm:Compare now Amairgen's poem (LL. 13 b 6):
'I arrive when an unknown earth Is under my feet.
I arrive when a new sky is above me.
I arrive at this land,
A resting place for me.
O spirit of the earth! the stranger humbly offers his heart as food for thee.'"
'Ailiu iath nHerend
Hermach muir [leg. hermach hermach muir]
Mothach mothach sliab
Srathach srathach caill
cithach cithach aub
Essach essach loch.'
Here we have the learned style and a primitive formula side by side.
The above parallel would go to show that the matter and the circumstance of Amairgen's songs were not the invention of a monkish compilator, though indeed the first of his poems appears to be in the pseudo-mystic style. It would seem as if the theme, and same of the verses at least (cf. the above), belongs to the native tradition, modified however to suit the taste of learned bardism, and synchronised. Hence one cannot be too cautious in pronouncing a given composition to be purely native or purely learned.
So too with the controversy concerning the antiquity of Tara. Certain writers are prone to accept without question all the traditions relating to Tara, even the mythical Tea embodying for them same element of historical fact, -- matriarchal organization, for instance, -- and yet Tea is manifestly a late creation. On the other hand, there are writers who pronounce all tradition to be Milesian forgeries, and regard the supposed supremacy of Tara as of comparatively recent date, intended to invest the seat of the parvenu conquerors with same of the splendour of antiquity. So far as the political supremacy of
Tara is concerned and Tara being the seat of a new dynasty --that of the Milesians -- this is quite true; but it leaves out of account that Tara may have formerly been a place of importance, and for this very reason was chosen by the new comers as their seat, the ancient fame of which may well have been an important factor in their successful colonization. The fact of the Milesians having selected Tara as their seat of government is therefore, in my opinion, the best proof that it had already been a place of same importance.
It has been pointed out that the Tara folk play but a very subordinate part in the Táin Bó Cuailnge. But this would only go to show that at the time of the Táin they were not of much political importance; it does not necessarily prove that they were not previously of importance, politically or otherwise. Again, we must not forget that Táin Bó Cuailnge is an Ulster epic, in which everything is regarded from a distinctly Ulster point of view; consequently it may have deliberately ignored the position of prehistoric Tara, because of the unacceptable claims of contemporary Tara. But if the Ulster epic1/ ignares the importance of Tara, not so the southern epic, that of Conaire Mór, which is vitally connected with it. It is possible that Milesian interpolation may account for much, their Tara being substituted for that of Conaire in the transmission.
Now the whoie subject-matter of the Conaire story is undoubtedly ancient. The violation of gesa (prohibitions) and the ordeals connected with the kingship of Tara clearly belong, as -- Mr. Lucius Gwynn has remarked, to an older stratum than the Táin.2/ This view is also in agreement with that of the synchronists, who place Conaire's death before the events of the Táin.
It may now be asked if any clue can be found to the nature of the importance of Tara. To answer this question we must first consider what tradition has preserved of the pre-Milesian kingship of Tara, and what the Conaire saga itself contains.
1/ I.e. the Conchobar-Cúchulinn cycle. Cúroi mac Dáire also perhaps belonged to this cycle. In which case Slemish might have been originally the Ulster Slemish (Co. Antrim), and the Munster Slieve Mish (Co. Kerry), the place where he was later (?) localized.
2/ But not older than Compert ConCulaind, etc.
The Conaire saga represents Conaire as the child of the síde. He is, accarding to the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (§ 7, ed. Stokes), the son of a supernatural bird. He is placed under certain gesa, or taboos, and having violated them is slain by bis enemies. Although these gesa are not identicai with the regular gesa of the kings of Tara, they have certain points in common. For instance, Conaire may not go righthandwise (desiul) round Tara ar withershins (tuaithbiul) round Bregia.
Thaugh Conaire's gesa are personal to himself (they were put on him by bis father), the whole story of his destruction reads like a moral tale of a king who violated his gesa. As the provincial kings of Ireland were also under certain gesa, it may be argued that the gesa of the Tara kings were imitated from the former. But if that were so, the question would arise, what then were these gesa, and what their significance? In many instances they point to the fact that the king was regarded as the representative or incarnation of higher powers, and had to observe certain rules lest these powers should suffer injury. Thus, the health of the king is of vital importance to the community, and physicai infirmity may lead to abdication or even the death of the king. For the king as the embodiment of a higher power, is held responsible for the weather, the drops, the health of the community, and the fertility of the herds. Where all these characteristics are present (or may be supposed), the king was probably a living fetish.1/ Now, do we find in Ireland any traces of such a conception? Even those with only a superficial acquaintance with the Irish sagas can furnish a positive answer to this question. It is well known that a personal blemish was sufficient to cause the abdication of an Irish king -- for instance, Cormac mac Airt, when he lost an eye. It is likewise well known that a good or bad harvest or the fertility of the herds was directly attributed to the good or bad qualities of the king. But, it may be objected, this also applied to the other kings of Ireland, in Ulster also a personal blemish being held a sufficient reason
1/ Cp. Frazer, The Golden Bough. Taboo, p. 1: "The king or priest is often thought to be endowed with supernatural powers or to be an incarnation of a deity, and consistently with this belief the course of nature is supposed to be more or less under his control, and he is held responsible for bad weather, failure of the crops, and similar calamities." Frazer (ib. 34) quotes the geasa of the Irish kings frim the Book of Rights. Cp. also his Lectures on the Early Hislory of the Kingship, p. 34.
for abdication. Nevertheless it would be somewhat strange if, among the oldest epics, the one relating to violated gesa should be vitally connected with Tara.
To take the gesa of the kings of Tara -- they certainly appear to contain same primitive characteristics. First of all we see that the sun and the sunset play an important part, or are connected with the old terminal division of the year, namely, midsummer (our Mayday) and the new year (our All Hallows).1/ The movements of the king himself seem to be brought into a nexus causalis with the movements of the sun, a trait which appears to be of great antiquity and harmonizes well with the king's responsibility for the success of the crops, etc.
There is yet another point of importance. The ancient kings of Tara werne obliged to undergo certain ordeals before their election. Conaire Mór had to submit to these also, as is related in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga. Although in his case the main stress is laid on the dream, we read that he actually entered the chariot (§ 14). The recensian De Shíl Chonairi Móir (ÉRIU VI. 134) mentions these ordeals more explicitly, which is of particular importance, seeing that this version does not belong to the Milesian tradition: --
Bai carpat rig hi Temair nagabtais de ech oendatha nad ragabaitis riam fon carpat. Inti nad airoemath flaith Temrach, conocbath in carpat fris conachmoceth 7 concligtis ind hich fris. 7 bai casal rig isin carbad; intí nad aurimeth flaith Temrach ba romor do in chasal. 7 batar da liaic hi Temuir .i. Blocc 7 Bluigne; inti arfoemtis, arosilctis fris co teged in carpat etarru. 7 bai Fal and, Ferp Cluche, for cind oenig in charbait; inti arfemath flaith Temrach gloedad in Fal fri fonnad in charpait conidcluneth cach ...
"There was a king's chariot at Tara. To the chariot were yoked two steeds of the same colour, which had never before been harnessed. It would tilt up before any man who was not destined to receive the kingship of Tara, so that he cauld not control (?)2/ it, and the horses would spring at him. And there was a king's mantle in the chariot; whoso might
1/ Especially the following: The sun is not to rise upon him in his bed, in the Plain of Tara. He is not to traverse the Plain of Cuillen after sunset. He is not to launch his ship on the Monday next after Mayday. He is not to leave the track of his army on the Plain of Maigin on the Tuesday after All-Hallows.
2/ So L. Gwynn; but the rendering is very doubtful. Could the verb be im-ad-cí?
not receive Tara's sovereignty the mantle was even too big for him. And there were two flag-stones in Tara: 'Blocc' and 'Bluigne'; when they accepted a man, they would open before him until the chariot went through. And Fal was there, the 'stone penis' at the head of the chariot-course (?); when a man should have the kingship of Tara, it screeched against his chariot axle, so that all heard it ..." (ib. I 38 f.).
These ordeals show clearly that the king of Tara was not only an incarnation of higher powers, but at the same time that he had to be acknowledged as such by them. The Ferp Cluche is especially important, as the name points to a phallic fetish; but the whole series of ordeals may point to a preanimistic conception -- for instance, the rearing stone, or Lia Fáil. Current tradition derived the origin of Lia Fáil from the Túatha Dé Danann. In Lebor Gabála (Book oj Leinster, p. 9 a 13) it is recorded:
Is iat Tuatha De Danann tucsat leo in Fál Mór .i. in lia fis bái i Temraig diata Mag Fháil for Herind. Inti fo nhgessed saide ba rí Herenn. Condasellacht Cu Chulaind 7 ni rogéis foe nach fo daltu .i. fo Lugaid mac tri Find Emna; ocus ni rogéis in cloch o shein ille, acht fo Chund nammá. Rosceind dano a chride esti otá Temraig co Taltin conid e Cride Fáil sein. Ecmoing ni hed fodera, acht Críst do genemain issed robris cumachta na n-idal.
'It was the Tuatha Dé Danann brought with them the Great Fál, i.e. the Stone of Knowledge which was in Tara, from which Ireland is called the Plain of Fál. He under whom it would cry out was the king of Ireland. Cúchulinn cleft it and it did not call out under him or under his fosterling, i.e. Lugaid, son of the three Finds of Emain; nor did the stone call out from that day to this, save under Conn alone. Its heart then burst out of it from Tara unto Tailtiu, so that is the heart of Fál. Really it was not that which caused it, but Christ being born, that broke the power of the idols.'
It may well be the older tradition was, that the stone was put there by síde, i.e. the Irish dii terreni, and quasi-ancestral deities. These síde would then be the higher powers of whom the king of Tara was an incarnation, and by whom in consequence he had to be so acknowledged. To the influence of the Milesian interpolations is certainly due the account of Conn. Yet it is plain that this is deliberately tacked on to an older tradition,
namely, that in ancient times the Stone of Destiny called out to the rightful king of Tara. The concluding remark of the compiler, referring to the stone (which before is said to possess a heart) as if it were an idol, is also important. The compiler was therefore well aware of the fact that these rites were pagan.
From all this we are led to the conclusion that the king of Tara undoubtedly appears as the incarnation of higher powers, and that the characteristics proving it are an integral part of the southern sagas and of great antiquity, so far at least as the motive is concerned. Hence it is difficult to regard these elements as borrowed from the northern cycles, particularly as these also contain references to Tara rites, e.g. the Tarbfheis or Bull Feast.
Taking all these facts into consideration, it follows that the kingship of Tara is in its origin a priestly kingship. The king was a living fetish, subjected to special taboos or gesa, lest the powers which were incarnated in him should suffer injury. Similar fetishes are to be found in Rome, for instance in the Flamen Dialis (cp. Plutarch's 'Romanae Quaestiones') and the Rex Nemorensis. But this does not imply that the other Irish kings were not of a like nature. Thus, it was not considered proper for an Irish king to busy himself with the handle of a shovel, a spade or clod-mallet (Anc. Laws, IV. 335), which is paralleled by the Flamen Dialis not being permitted to see work done on holy days.
That Irish kings were inaugurated on cairns or stones is plainly due to such conceptions as the Lia Fáil.1/ Yet the tradition of the kingship of Tara preserves in a remarkable degree the characteristics of a priest-kingship. Hence we may conclude that there was at one time a priest-king for some part of Ireland.2/ That the kingship must have been of same importance is shown by the extremely ancient character of the tradition.
To sum up then, what we may regard as tolerably certain is (1) that before the coming of the Milesian race, Tara was anciently a place of importance, and (2) that the importance of the king of Tara was due to his priestly nature.
1/ See also J. Loth, Revue des Études anciennes, XVII. p. 193 ff., esp. p. 202.
2/ I will not say the whole or the greater part of Ireland.
Published in: Ériu, 8, 1916, pp. 101107.→ back