Friday, 1 February 2013

Thou Shalt Not Eat the Flesh of a Dog!

Geasa’ – the magical prohibitions or tabus laid upon Irish heroes such as Cú Chulainn – must have been very difficult and frustrating to endure, especially since it seems to have been the fate of most heroes eventually to violate them.

You remember how the young Setanta, son of Sualtim, gained the name Cú Chulain (‘Chulain’s Hound’), after killing the fierce guard-dog belonging to the smith Chulain? When Chulain complains of his hound’s death, the boy offers to make it up to him:

“If there is a whelp of the same breed to be had in Ireland, I will rear him and train him until he is as good a hound as the one killed, and until that time, Chulain,” he said, “I myself will be your watch-dog, to guard your goods and your cattle and your house.”

(Translation by Lady Augusta Gregory, ‘Cuchulain of Muirthemne’,1907)

After that, Cú Chulain was laid under two geasa: never to refuse a meal offered to him by a woman, and never to eat the flesh of a dog.  At the end of his life, when he is riding out to fight against Maeve’s great army, the geasa are used against him by three witches at least as deadly as those in 'Macbeth':

After a while he saw three hags, and they blind of the left eye, before him in the road, and they having a venomous hound they were cooking with charms on rods of the rowan tree.  And he was going by them, for he knew it was not for his good they were there.

But one of the hags called to him, “Stop a while with us, Cuchulain.”  “I will not stop with you,” said Cuchulain.  “That is because we have nothing better than a dog to give you,” said the hag.  “If we had a grand, big cooking hearth, you would stop and visit us, but because it is only a little that we have, you will not stop.”

…Then he went over to her, and she gave him the shoulder-blade of the hound out of her left hand, and he ate it out of his left hand. And he put it down on his left thigh, and the hand that took it was struck down, and the thigh he put it on was struck through and through, so that the strength that was in them before left them.

It couldn’t be more ominous, and presently, in forlorn battle against the odds, Cú Chulain is mortally wounded and straps himself to a pillar-stone, or standing stone, west of the lake of Muirthemne, so that he will not meet his death lying down: and his horse, the Grey of Macha, defends him with its teeth and hooves, until at last the hero dies and the crows descend upon him.  Fans of ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ will notice that Alan Garner has used this scene for the death of the dwarf Durathror, who straps himself to the pillar of Clulow on Shuttlingslow, defending Colin and Susan from the morthbrood.

In ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, which is another part of the Ulster cycle, King Conaire, whose father was a magical bird-man, is placed under a truly startling variety of geasa:

“Do not go righthandwise round Tara and lefthandwise around Bregia. Do not hunt the evil beasts of Cerna.  Do not go out beyond Tara every ninth night; do not settle the quarrel of two of your own people; do not sleep in a house you can see the firelight shining from after sunset; do not let one woman or one man come into the house where you are after sunset; do not let three Reds go before you to the House of Red.”

But of course, one by one Conaire breaks all the geasa. He goes out to make peace between two of his subject lords, and travels the wrong way around Tara and Bregia to avoid raiders; he hunts the beasts of Cerna without realising what they are. 

And it was the Sidhe that had made that Druid mist of smoke about him, because he had begun to break his bonds.

At last, on his way to find shelter in the hostelry of his friend Da Derga of Leinster, with its seven doors, Conaire sees himself preceded by three horsemen clad in red:

Three red bucklers they bore, and three red spears were in their hands: three red steeds they bestrode, and three red heads of hair were on them. Red were they all, both body and hair and raiment, both steeds and men.

(Translation by Dr Whitley Stokes, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, 1902)

Knowing another geas has been broken, Conaire sends his young son Lefriflaith after the men to ask who they are.  Lefriflaith calls out to them three times, and the third time one of them calls back that they are three of the Sidhe, banished from the elfmounds:

Lo, my son, great the news.  Weary are the steeds we ride.  We ride the steeds of Donn Tetscorach from the elf-mounds. Though we are alive we are dead. Great are the signs: destruction of life: sating of ravens: feeding of crows: strife of slaughter: wetting of sword-edge, shields with broken bosses after nightfall.  Lo, my son!

The incantatory prose of Whitley Stokes’ translation has again been wonderfully taken up and adapted by Alan Garner in the chapter called ‘The Horsemen of Donn’ of ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, when Colin and Susan kindle fire on the mound:

They were dressed all in red: red were their tunics and red their cloaks; red their eyes and red their long manes of hair bound back with circlets of red gold; three red shields on their backs and three red spears in their hands… Red were they all, weapons and clothing and hair; both horses and men.

“Who – who are you?” whispered Colin.  “What do you want?”

The middle horseman stood in his saddle and raised a glowing spear over his head:

“Lo, my son, great the news!  Wakeful are the steeds we ride, the steeds from the ancient mound.  Wakeful are we, the Horsemen of Donn, Einheriar of the Herlathing. Lo, my son!”

King Conaire’s last two geasa are broken when a lone woman comes to the door of Da Derga’s hostel (or inn):  she has the Druid sight, and ill-wishes the king:

“It is what I see for you,” she said, “that nothing of your skin or of your flesh shall escape from the place you are in, except what the birds will bring away in their claws. And let me come into the house now.”

With great unwillingness the king allows the woman to enter, though not unnaturally “none of them felt easy in their minds after what she had said.”  Finally, firelight from the hostel is spotted by Conaire’s enemy, Ingcel the One-Eyed and his army of reivers.  They attack the hostel, great destruction is wrought, and Conaire dies.

A last example, just as ill-fated, is the geasa placed on Diarmuid by Gráinne, daughter of King Cormac and the promised bride of Finn MacCool. At the wedding feast Gráinne is put off by Finn’s age (older than her father!) and falls in love with one of his warriors, young Diarmuid.  After sending Finn a cup that makes all who drink of it fall asleep, she asks Diarmuid to marry her, and when he refuses, she says,

I place thee under geasa, and under the bonds of heavy druidical spells, that thou take me for thy wife before Finn and the others awaken.

(Translation by P W Joyce, ‘Old Celtic Romances’, 1879)

Diarmuid replies:

Evil are those geasa thou hast put on me, and evil, I fear, will come of them.

He asks those of his friends whom Gráinne has not put to sleep what he should do, and they all agree he must follow the geas even if it results in his death, which of course it eventually does, though not before many others have died first. Wounded by a boar, Diarmuid explains to Finn that Gráinne ‘put me under heavy geasa, which for all the wealth of the world I would not break,’ and begs Finn to save his life with a drink of water cupped in his healing hands.  But, thinking of Gráinne, Finn spills the water three times and Diarmuid dies.

Maybe geasa were just a poetical, literary device, the equivalent of the prophecies about Greek heroes like Achilles and Oedipus, where the narrative imperative says that Achilles’ heel will be his undoing; that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother, etc. If not, though – if they ever had any real currency – you have to wonder. Could anyone use them? If so, how often? How carelessly?  Could you do the equivalent of putting your children under geasa to pick up their socks and tidy their rooms?   Or would that kind of thing backfire just as badly as most of them seem to have done in the tales?  Geasa seem to have been impossible to refuse, however arbitrary or awkward they might be. In my next post, I’m going to take a closer look at how they actually operate, both in fiction and – maybe – in real life.  

Picture credits:

Cuchulain in Battle by Joseph Christian Leyendecker, Wikimedia Commons
The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner, cover by George Adamson


  1. Fascinating post, and you've got some really good illustrations for it. Even now, with such a glancing reference, I always weep for the death of Laeg, Liath Macha, and Cuchulain.

  2. We are all under a geasa--of life, of death. And trying to make sense of when it will be our time, we put the knowledge into story of battling what we know is inevitable. Magical thinking we moderns call it. I did it when my husband was ill. If I do this. . .he will not die; if I do that. . .

    He died. I never knew the geasa laid upon him, upon me. But I knew it was there.

    Thanks for the post, Kath.


  3. Thanks Freyalyn - and Jane, thankyou for your wise and moving insight into geasa/fate. You're right; it's part of being human; we all do it.

  4. I have always been fascinated by geasa - and Diarmud and Grainne is my favourite Celtic story. So thank you.

    The issue of whether they can be used as an excuse for bad behaviour is fascinating.Should Grainne's edict carry more weight than D's fealty to his lord?

    And would it have, had she been at all unattractive?


    I'm glad I don't have to remember which towns to circuit widdershins and which deasil!

  5. As ever, fascinating stuff.

    Undoubtedly the business of geasa is part of the globally occurring system of tribal taboo.

    In that case many of the geasa - or at least the principle of the geasa itself - will have origins deep in the dangers and practicalities of prehistoric life.

    That said, there is more to the geasa as we have it manifesting in the Irish sagas than simple taboo - as you point out with your comparisons to Greek myth. There is something in it that seems to relate to the traditions of 'divine vengeance' or cursing and retribution.

    Disentangling the taboo tradition from the concepts of retribution and fate (which can also be seen in many tales as three reasonably distinct folkloric ideas, here tied up together in some way)seems to me to be an enterprise well worth undertaking.

    I look forward to reading your subsequent unpicking of this particular Celtic knot!

  6. I suspect that in the context of the folk tales, anyway, the geasa are something that an't be avoided, because invariably they're broken and disaster follows, just as in those folk tales where the young man is told he will lose his Otherworldly bride if he does this or that and, of course, always does, whether it's The Physicians of ... Myddfai, was it? - or the story of Melusine. And, yes, the Greek myths, as you say, Katherine! :-)

  7. Yes, the double bind that Cú Chulain is placed under by the hags is reminiscent of Oedipus, and all the other stories where you can't avoid your fate. Great blog, Kath! I didn't know about geasa. I like the idea of putting your kids under a geasa to tidy their rooms, but I think retribution comes to them when they are chasing their own kids to tidy their rooms...

  8. This is fascinating, this notion of binding someone to a set of apparently arbitrary restrictions which are in fact specific moments in the unwinding of their own fate. But is the geasa itself potent or is it only a kind of foretelling about something was already slated to happen?

    I don't recall the Oedipus material being delivered as an injunction. An injunction would seem to tempt one into believing they could avoid the unwelcomed outcome. But that might be part of the point - mortals, and more so when they are heroic and proud, are tempted to believe themselves capable of keeping divine law.

    Haven't read the next post yet but looking forward to it.