Friday, 8 February 2013

Thou Shalt Not Ride Sunwise Around Tara!

So - in this second post about the mysterious and powerful Irish injunctions called geasa - what on earth were they all about?  There’s a note by PW Joyce at the back of his translation of 'Old Celtic Romances’ in which he comments,

Geasa means solemn vows, conjurations, injunctions, prohibitions.  It would appear that individuals were often under geasa or solemn vows to observe, or to refrain from, certain lines of conduct – the vows being either taken on themselves voluntarily, or imposed on them, with their consent, by others.  It would appear, also, that if one person went through the form of putting another under geasa to grant any reasonable request, the abjured person could not refuse without loss of honour and reputation.

Interesting as these comments are, they don’t seem quite to cover the range and quality of all geasa.  Was the geas Gráinne laid upon Diarmuid a ‘reasonable request’ when she asked him, one of Finn’s faithful warriors, to marry her under Finn’s nose at a wedding feast that had been arranged partly to settle an old enmity between Finn and her father?  It’s true that Diarmuid doesn’t have to agree – he asks several of his friends what he should do – but the unanimous decision of all is that though Diarmuid can decline Gráinne’s geasa, he will lose all honour if he does.

Thus there seem to me to be different kinds of geasa.  Gráinne’s geas on Diarmuid is an almost insuperable injunction on him to do something he would never otherwise have dreamed of doing, and it involves him in loss of honour no matter what action he takes. The fact that he chooses to obey the geasa rather than keep faith with his lord shows how incredibly powerful the injunction was considered to be.  (So: not at all something you’d use to get the children to tidy up their rooms! Not something you’d use lightly!)  Gráinne had given her father her consent to be Finn’s bride, but casually, ‘without giving much thought to the matter’:

“I know not whether he is worthy to be thy son-in-law; but if he be, why should he not be a fitting husband for me?”

When she sees Finn, however, she changes her mind.  Desperate not to be married to this man older than her father, her eye falls upon handsome young Diarmuid. She uses the power of the geas as an extreme, last-minute measure: her only chance of escape.  

Other geasa, however, are more in the style of prophetic warnings or tabus, like the many geasa laid upon King Conaire in 'The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel'.  He is not to shoot birds, for example, because his father was a bird-man, the male equivalent of the swan-maidens of many folktales, who can cast off their feathery skins and appear in human form.  This is a straightforward tabu: you don’t kill the animal which is your totem, to which you are ‘related’ by spiritual bonds and by blood. 

But the complicated geasa about not going righthanded (sunwise) about Tara or lefthanded (widdershins) about Bregia, or following three Reds to the House of Red, or sleeping in a house from which firelight can be seen at night, these are prophetic warnings.  They are not, perhaps, quite as inescapable as the prophecies of Greek myths.  When the oracle at Delphi tells Oedipus he will slay his father and marry his mother, you know it’s a done deal. No matter what Oedipus does, no matter how hard he tries, this is what will happen.  The event is foretold.  In the case of the Irish King Conaire, however, the geasa merely indicate unlucky actions which ought to be avoided; and although the assumption is that some kind of bad luck will follow, they don’t spell out exactly what the consequences will be.  Also, the prohibitions laid down by the geasa seem arbitrary: they are in themselves innocuous actions.  We would all want to avoid killing our fathers and marrying our mothers.  But most of us could ride clockwise around Tara, or sleep in a house with firelit windows, without coming to harm. 

The geasa piled upon Conaire spell out a sequence of actions and omens which will lead to his death; but he cannot know this in advance. For the reader, or for the audience hearing Conaire’s tale told or sung aloud,  the geasa are a highly effective literary, poetic device for building up tension and the sense of approaching doom.  And in the same way, the two geasa laid upon Cú Chulain – not to eat the flesh of a dog, and never to refuse an offer of food from a woman – having lain dormant for much of the tale, snap together like the  jaws of a trap as the old hags call him to turn aside from his journey towards the army of Maeve to taste the meat of the hound they are cooking. It’s a signal that the end is coming, a sign of doom.  And Cú Chulain cannot escape it, although the tale makes it clear that he has the opportunity – he may refuse, but not without dishonour, not without falling short of his own greatness. “A great name outlasts life,” he says – like Achilles.

Cú Chulain has already seen the Washer at the Ford:

A young girl, thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was all stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time.

“Little Hound,” said Cathbad, “do you see what it is that young girl is washing?  It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.  And take the warning now, and turn back again.”

“I will not turn back” [says Cú Chulain] …”And what is it to me, the woman of the Sidhe to be washing red clothing for me? It is not long till there will be clothing enough, and armour and arms, lying soaked in pools of blood, by my own sword and spear.  And if you are sorry and loth to let me go into the fight, I am glad and ready enough myself to go into it, though I know as well as you yourself I must fall in it.  Do not be hindering me any more then,” he said, “for, if I stay or if I go, death will meet me all the same.”

(Translation by Lady Gregory)

As Jane Yolen poignantly said in her comment to last week's post, "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."

I can’t confidently answer the question of whether geasa were ever truly used in real life, outside the tales and the epics, but I would hazard a guess that they were, just as we know that the oracles were regularly consulted in ancient Greece and in Rome.  I’m willing to bet that there were geasa - prohibitions, tabus - against the killing or eating of various animals associated with ancestry and with luck, like Conaire’s bird/spirit father, and Cú Chulain’s iconic struggle with the hound which gave him his name.  Once Cú Chulain had – effectively – become a hound, as he did when he offered himself to Chulain the smith in exchange for the dog he had killed, then in a sense all dogs became his kin.  Of course he could not eat them. 

I’m willing also to believe there were geasa or prohibitions concerning all kinds of other omens and lucky or unlucky actions or directions, because after all they still exist today:  feng shui, not walking under ladders, not having thirteen at a dinner table.

But the geas that one person could lay upon another, to compel them to do something even against their will and their honour – that’s something else again, and as far as I know doesn’t seem to appear in other mythologies.  Did it ever exist?  Was it a metaphor for what we now call emotional blackmail?  Or was it something more fearsome and holy, reserved perhaps for special occasions, for religio-political purposes? Was it a remnant of Druidical power?

Picture credits:

Cú Chulain and the Bull by Karl Beutel 2003 Oil on Canvas, Armagh County Museum Collection

Grainne - artist unknown, image from this link where you can find more Irish and Celtic stuff from - if anyone recognises the artist please let me know and I will gladly credit him or her.

Statue of Cuchulainn by Oliver Sheppard in the window of the GPO, Dublin - commemorating the 1916 rising.
Source: Wikipedia, under Creative Commons License.


  1. Hi, Katherine!
    It was very interesting to read about Geasa. I found a resemblance of this with in Russian folklore tradition, especially in fairy tales, when the main hero must or must not do certain things as to assure his/her success.
    Thanks for giving a valuable insight into Celtic culture!

  2. Thank you Katherine, for your insightful, and timely examination of the geasa. I been reflecting on them this last week, thinking about honor, integrity, and the power of belief. I've also thought about self-imposed geasa and how it can bend minds and journeys to the right, and to the left. Thanks for giving me more food for thought.

  3. Thanks, Anna, for your interesting comment - I don't know very much about Russian tales, and would love it if someone can recommend a good collection!

    Capt Black, you're very welcome - thankyou for dropping in!

  4. A very interesting post - particularly the similarities with modern superstitions. Maybe such taboos will always be with us in one shape or form.

  5. Here you go, Kath -

    Afanasyev was the Russian Grimm.

    Loved this post. I have occasionally imposed a gease on people who had annoyed me - 'I lay this gease on you, that you will ever and again remember this hour, and cringe at what you have done this day.' My theory is that, rather as when you tell someone not to think of a pink rhino, they will be compelled to follow your instructions. I haven't had much feedback, so can't tell you if it works.

  6. Thanks, Sue - why on earth didn't I think of asking you? And by the way, everyone else, you MUST read Susan Price's Ghost World series: starting with 'The Ghost Drum' which won the Carnegie Medal in 1987: it's wonderful, it's one of those books I just wish I could have written... and it uses Russian folk tales.