There’s some pretty freaky weird stuff that goes on in Irish mythology. Like the Tuatha de Danann arriving in Ireland from the sky on black storm clouds; like Nuada’s silver arm, possibly the world’s first ever bionic arm; like the Sword of Light, and Lugh’s spear which is so desperate to kill of its own accord it must be kept cool in a cauldron of mysterious liquid; like the stone which roars in recognition of the rightful High King… I could go on.
Sounds like science fiction, right?
Wrong. It’s Irish mythology. Those ancient storytellers were way ahead of us. It’s the kind of stuff that would capture young imaginations, really engage young people in their heritage. Instead, they get Deirdre making tea for a giant called Finn, and people being turned into swans for 900 years, only to die immediately they become human again.
Where’s the fun in that?
Today, though, I’m all about weird, and weird deaths in particular. Irish heroes often lived dramatic and tragic lives. They lived by honour, and valour, and courage. They weren’t afraid of death; why would they be, when they understood about reincarnation?
Many of them lived and died by the sword. Their deaths were marked by erecting cairns over their bodies, and songs and stories would be made about them.
But some came to a decidedly more ‘sticky’ end than the rest. Here are my top 5 weird and fascinating hero deaths, in reverse order…
See that woman in the picture floating in the water? She’s Medb, Queen of Connacht. You’ve read about her before on this blog. Medb is most well known for taking on the armies of Ulster in order to get possession of the mighty brown bull of Cooley. She didn’t die in battle, though; she was murdered, but in quite an unusual way.
Before she became Queen, she murdered her pregnant sister, Clothru. The baby was born by caesarian section and survived, a boy named Furbaide. He resented Medb for killing his mother, and plotted his revenge.
Medb often bathed in a pool on Inis Cloithreann, an island on Lough Ree. Furbaide measured the distance between the pool and the shore with a rope. He set up a target at this distance, by placing an apple on top of a stake which was Medb’s height, and practiced firing stones at it with his sling. When he was proficient, he waited for his moment.
Unfortunately, when it came, he was caught unaware, and the only missile he had to hand was a cheese he was eating. He hurled it with his sling across the lake. His practice paid off, and his aim was true. The cheese struck Medb on the head and she was killed outright. It was probably not the glorious death she had imagined for herself.
4. Cormac mac Art.
Cormac was a wise and just High King of Ireland, credited with creating the Brehon Laws, and was revered for his wisdom. For a king so beloved, he died under very strange circumstances. Although Christianity did not come to Ireland until the C5th, according to the Christian monks who wrote down his story, somehow Cormac found Jesus. His own Druids then turned against him, and even though he had relinquished the Kingship to his son Cairpre by this stage, they cursed him.
“So they cursed Cormac in his flesh and bones, in his waking and sleeping, in his down sitting and his uprising, and each day they turned over the Wishing Stone upon the altar of their god, and wove mighty spells against his life.”
from T.W.Rolleston’s The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland.
It was said the poor man died from choking on a salmon bone. Before he passed, though, he left strict instructions that he was not to be buried with all the pagan kings at Brú na Boínne (Newgrange), but was to be given a Christian burial on the other side of the River Boyne at Ross-na-Ree.
His wishes, however, were disregarded, but as his body was being carried across the river, a great surge of water rose up and swept the king away. He was found by shepherds, washed up on the river bank at Ross-na-Ree next morning. Not knowing who he was, they laid his body to rest right there beneath the earth in an unmarked grave, and so Cormac got the burial he requested after all.
I suspect this story has been the victim of a bit of butchery at the hands of its Christian scribes, from the looks of it!
3. Fionn mac Cumhall.
Fionn was a contemporary of Cormac mac Art, and served him faithfully as leader of a war-band called the Fianna. The Fianna were looked up to by the people of Ireland as protectors, and the warriors followed a strict code of honour and chivalry. However, when Cormac died, Cairpre the new King did not trust the Fianna, and they met in battle at Gabhra, just to the west of the Hill of Tara.
Fionn was last seen charging into combat single-handedly against the five sons of Urgriu. No one saw him killed, and his body was never found. This led to the rise of a legend; that Fionn sleeps with his Fianna somewhere under the green hills of Ireland, awaiting the call of the Dord Fian to awaken them in the hour of Ireland’s greatest need.
Remind you of anyone? King Arthur, perhaps? It’s possible that the story of King Arthur could be based on that of Fionn mac Cumhall… he certainly lived a few centuries before King Arthur.
He was born Sétanta, but after killing one of Cullan’s guard-dogs with his hurling ball when he was just a child, he became known as the Hound of Cullan. Cuchulain was a champion of Ulster, and managed to hold back Queen Medb’s army almost single-handedly when he was only 17 years old.
Medb was so furious at her defeat by a mere boy, that she conspired with her allies to lead him to his death. On his way to meet her, he came across the Morrigan in the guise of an old woman, washing bloody clothes in a stream. He recognised the garments as his, and knew this foretold his doom.
He then met an old woman who offered him a meal of dog flesh. Cuchulain was under a geis not to eat dog meat, but in ancient times it was a far worse taboo to refuse hospitality, and so he accepted the food.
Thus mentally and spiritually weakened by these encounters, he was attacked by Lugaid, one of Medb’s co-conspirators, who had three magical spears made. The first killed Laeg, Cuchulain’s charioteer. The second killed his great grey horse, Liath Macha. The third mortally wounded Cuchulain.
Determined to die like a warrior on his feet, Cuchulain tied himself to a standing stone, which can still be seen in Knockbridge near Dundalk. And here’s the really weird part; one version of the story claims he tied himself to the stone with his own entrails. How gutsy is that? (On no, pardon the pun, couldn’t resist!)
Cuchulain’s reputation as a warrior was so fierce, that his enemies dared not approach him to take his head, until the Morrigan alighted on his shoulder in the form of a crow.
And finally in the number one spot we have Cairbre, poet of the Tuatha de Danann, with a story which has long fascinated me. Cairbre cursed Bres, tyrant-king of the Danann, for his poor hospitality, by uttering a satire so vicious, the king’s face was covered in a rash of red boils. This was said to be the first satire ever made in Ireland, and set an example for the power of ‘the double-edged sword’, known as the ‘Tongue of Knowledge’.
That’s pretty weird, but get this; according to the Celtic Encyclopedia (Vol 2)…
“Cairbre eventually died a druidic death of pure light at the hands of Nechtan during the battle of Segais Well.”
How weird is that? I mean, I don’t know about you but I’m imagining Gods with light sabres. An ancient text called ‘The Death Tales of the Tuatha de Danann’ tells it slightly differently…
“Of a stroke of the pure sun died Cairpre the great, son of Etan: Etan died over the pool of sorrow for white-headed Cairpre.”
It’s still weird, though; what exactly does ‘a stroke of the pure sun’ mean? All this may not be intended quite so literally as we think. It’s a fact that ancient storytellers loved to weave riddles and symbolism throughout their tales.
I had a chat (via blog comments) with Stuart France of Something Feral about this very subject. He explained that being as the ‘battle’ took place at the Well of Knowledge, perhaps it was a contest between two great poets/ bards/ filidh/ druids. Light is another way of saying energy, and knowledge. A druidic death could represent an initiation into this druidic knowledge, perhaps a kind of rebirth. It’s certainly plausible. You can read our discussion here.
So there you have it, a little taste of Irish weirdness to go with your coffee on another manic Monday morning.