The geis (pronounced gesh or gaysh) is Irish for ‘curse’, or ‘taboo’, yet in some circumstances, they might also be seen in a positive light, as a ‘gift’.
Irish mythology is awash with geisa, almost every hero being afflicted by at least one, if not more. At first glance, they seem little more than a sprinkling of magical spice to add a little extra drama to a story: if the hero violates his geis, he suffers dishonour and maybe even death.
However, a closer look yields a slightly different concept behind the use of the geis in Irish myth and legend.
Ancient Irish society revolved around the hero-warrior, and the code of honour; to match this ideal brought respect, admiration, glory. To fall short earned only disgrace and shame.
But to maintain one’s place in this chivalric hierarchy required constant competition, and the geis, rising as it did from society’s shared communal fears and desires, served to prod the hero-warrior in the right direction, to guide him, and ensure he never strayed.
Or, as John R. Reinhard put it in his The Survival of Geis in Medieval Romance,
‘the function of the geis is to avoid dishonour, disaster or death’.
Sometimes, there are multiple geisa put in place, and one must choose to violate one in order to maintain another. This seems to equate with high rank, the greatest warriors and Kings constantly tripping over their various taboos. In such cases, the ‘personal’ geis would often be sacrificed in favour of the ‘public’ one.
For example, Cúchullain famously acquired his name (meaning ‘Hound of Cullain’) for slaying one of the smith Cullan’s ferocious guard dogs with his bare hands. As well as then serving in place of the hound, he was under geis never to eat the flesh of a dog.
One day, after many adventures, an old woman camping on the roadside offers him refreshment of a meal containing dog meat. The Ulster hero was also under geis never to refuse hospitality, and so was put in a quandary: which geis to break?
His decision would inevitably violate one of them. To refuse this woman’s kindness and generosity, to refuse her hospitality would damage his public persona, so he chose to break the private taboo, and accepted the dish. This decision was ultimately to lead to his death.
This geis never to refuse hospitality crops up in various other tales of Irish mythology, for example, in the stories of Fergus mac Róich, Fionn mac Cumhall, and Bres mac Elatha. It seems the ancient Irish prized the giving of hospitality, and it was seen as bad form to refuse it.
Fergus mac Róich (Fergus meaning ‘man-strength’, or ‘virility’, son of Ró-ech, the ‘Great Horse’) was an Ulster king who was tricked out of his crown by the woman he loved, Ness, and her son Conchobar.
The young Conchobar’s bride, Deirdre, eloped with her lover, Naoise, and his two brothers, and the jilted king sent Fergus and his son, Fiachu, and two companions to track them down. The escapees were duly rounded up and escorted homeward, but along the way Conchobar sent a message ordering Fergus and his two friends to a feast, knowing they were bound by geis never to refuse hospitality.
Fiachu continued alone with the prisoners, but on arrival at the royal castle, they were all killed by the jealous king’s command. In revenge, Fergus burned the castle and fled to Connacht, taking service with Queen Medb against Conchobar and the Ulstermen.
Bres, a deposed Danann High King goes to war against Nuada and is defeated in battle by Lugh, who grants him mercy. Some stories say that later, Lugh offers Bres a poisoned drink, which he obtains through rather bizarre circumstances: first he builds three hundred wooden cattle, which he then fills with a deadly red fluid.
This he then ‘milks’ into pails and offers to Bres. Under geis not to refuse hospitality, Bres has little choice but to accept the beverage, drinks it, and falls down dead. I have racked my brain thinking about this one, and can’t come up with any explanation. Perhaps it speaks of ancient ritual we no longer have knowledge of, perhaps it is simple mistranslation. I suspect we’ll never know.
Often, the breaking of a geis resulted in tragedy. The story of Diarmuid and Graine is a particularly poignant one. Young and beautiful princess Graine is married to the now ageing Fionn mac Cumhall. Her eyes fall on the dashing hero, Diarmuid, and she is smitten. She puts a geis on him to help her escape (there are many stories of young women putting geisa on their would-be lovers in this way), and they fall in love.
After chasing the couple across Ireland for year, Fionn finally lets them be. Over the years, Diarmuid and Graine raise four sons. Finally seeking reconciliation, it is agreed that Fionn, the Fianna and Diarmuid will go hunting together, just like the old days. Unfortunately, it is the wily old Boar of Benbulben they give chase to, which Diarmuid is under geis not to hunt.
He kills the beast, but not before being gored by its horns. Fionn has the power to save his old friend by offering him healing water from his cupped hands, but old hatred dies hard, and he hesitates a moment too long.
Here, Graine’s request for help shows that it is the hero-warrior’s duty to protect and help women; it would be churlish and dishonourable to deny her. The boar was considered the mightiest and fiercest of all animals (and also the tastiest of all meats!) and was greatly respected for his bravery, but as to why Diarmuid would be dishonoured by hunting this one, I can’t say.
I suspect in this case, the geis was a gift rather than a curse; that being informed of the unusual circumstances of his potential future death, he might avoid hunting the beast, thus avoiding his death.
Another sad and tragic story involves Cuchullain and his son Connla. Whilst Scottish warrior-woman, Aífe, is still pregnant with their unborn son, Cúchullain demands that when the boy comes of age, she sends him to his father, and puts three geisa on the child:
1. That once he begins his journey, there is no turning back.
2. He must never refuse a challenge to a duel.
3. That he never reveals his name.
When Connla duly presents himself as a young man at his father’s dun, he is met with a request for his identity. When he refuses to give his name, Cuchullain challenges the youth to single combat. They fight fiercely, and when Connla realises who his opponent is, he throws down his weapons in horror.
Overcome by the red rage of riastradh (battle frenzy), Cúchullain thrusts with his spear. As Connla lies dying, he finally reveals his name, leaving Cúchullain overcome with grief at killing his own son.
It is clear that the first geis is making Connla duty-bound to find and serve his father. The second geis is all about winning honour and respect as a warrior, and the final one concerns the ancient belief that to give one’s true name to another is to give them power over you.
This could explain why so many kings and warriors of old are known by titles and epithets. Cúchullain himself was given the name Setanta at birth, although he is only ever referred to as ‘the Hound of Cullan’.