So according to current scholarly thinking on ancient Kingship rights in Ireland, a new King had to shag a white horse, kill it and bathe in a stew made from it whilst eating its flesh. Then, if he was a bad King, or the crop failed, or he suffered an affliction which rendered him less than whole, his family and tribe sacrificed him to the Gods.
Intelligent, learned people actually believe this stuff?
Well. I read as much as I can about this kind of thing. I also spend a lot of time reading all the old stories from Ireland’s mythological cycles. And whilst many people dismiss them as pure fantasy (ahem… just look at that first para again!), if one plays close attention to what they tell us, we can actually learn from them.
Apart from Gerald’s gruesome ‘eye-witness’ account, I have not yet come across any more stories involving intimate relations with animals. Of course, that does not mean there aren’t any, just that I haven’t found them yet… cue the flood of helpful suggestions in my comments! Guys, where do you get your reading material from???
Ok, joking aside, here is a handy list of Kingship rituals I HAVE come across in the old myth stories, none of them gruesome. Maybe one of them is a little unsavoury, but nothing like what old Gerald would have us believe.
1. the tarb fheis
The Tarbfheis, or bull feast, was a ceremony used to select the next High King. It involved the sacrifice of a white bull, after which the Druid, or poet, would ‘chew the flesh and drink the broth’. I’m assuming the meat was cooked, since broth was a component of the ceremony. Following this meal, the poet was wrapped in the bull’s raw hide to dream. If his dream was unsuccessful in identifying the new King, he faced death.
According to the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, on this occasion, the poet dreamed the future King would arrive in Tara naked and surrounded by birds. Young Conaire Mór was out hunting birds, when the leader of the flock suddenly threw off his feathers and revealed himself as the King of Birds, and Conaire’s true father. He advised Conaire of the details of the new prophecy, whereupon the young man immediately removed his clothes and set off for Tara accompanied by the Bird King and his flock. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.
This ceremony is also explicitly described in a story preserved in the Lebor na hUidre, or ‘Book of the Dun Cow’, c 1106 AD, in a story called Serglige con Culainn, or ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’.
2. The wedding feast of kingship
Also known in Irish as banfeis rigi, the ‘wife-feast of kingship’, and when it pertains to the High King, who ruled from Tara, feis Temhra, the ‘feast of Tara’. Basically, sovereignty over the land was believed to be embodied in the Goddess. Thus in the ceremony, the king was ritually united, not just with his wife, and through her the Goddess, but also with the land, his kingdom. A King without a wife was seen as a king without sovereignty, or the right to rule.
Details are sketchy, but according to the myths, the bride/ Goddess offered the king a drink. Its quite likely that he then consummated his marriage with his Queen, the Goddess, and the land, thus indicating that the ceremony was, in part, a fertility rite.
Although the modern meaning of the word feis is ‘festival’, in the old days it meant ‘feast’ and also ‘to sleep/ spend the night’.
In the Baile in Scail, also called ‘the Phantom’s Ecstatic Vision’, Conn of the Hundred Battles and his companions wander into a blanket of fog and find themselves in the Otherworld, where they are greeted by Lugh. They are taken to his hall, where a beautiful woman named Flaith, meaning (‘Sovereignty’) serves Conn with a drink in a golden cup. He is thus made high king of Ireland.
3. The Coronation Stone
According to legend, the Lia Fail was made by Morfessa of the lost city of Falias, and was one of the Four Treasures belonging to the Danann, which they brought with them to the Hill of Tara when they came to Ireland. Also known as the Coronation Stone, and the Stone of Destiny, it was said its cry confirmed the coronation of the rightful High King of Ireland when his feet were placed upon it, and that its roar was heard throughout the land. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that it must have reclined upon its side in order to facilitate a man standing upon it, rather than standing tall as it does today. Additionally, the magical powers of the Stone were said to have rejuvenated him, and gifted him with a long reign. In fact, the Tuatha de Denann revered the Lia Fail so much, they named Ireland Inis Fail after it.
4. The guardian tree
It is thought that all clans possessed within their territories, their own sacred Guardian tree. It is believed that chieftains would have been inaugurated beneath their sacred tree, thus connecting them to both to the powers of below (the Otherworld) and above (the physical world). Thus the trees were seen as powerful, and representative of the success of the King and his tribe; they were the Guardians of their province, and this is what was meant when each tree was said to have ‘sheltered thousands of men’… it was meant symbolically, rather than literally.
Candidates for the High Kingship of Tara had to perform certain tasks to prove their eligibility, according to some legends. For example, they had to drive their chariots at full speed towards a pair of standing stones which had only a hand’s breadth between them. The stones would only part for the rightful king to pass through. Sounds a bit risky to me.
So what happened to bad kings? The ones who failed to fulfill their promises, or live up to expectations? The ones who got sick, or maimed in battle? Were they really sacrificed?
Not according to the myths. King Nuada lost his sword arm in battle, yet thanks to the skill of his great physician, Dian-Cecht, he survived. He wasn’t given a savage death in honour of the Gods though. A new king was elected, whilst Dian-Cecht set about making a fully functioning ‘arm of silver’ for Nuada. No dishonourable death for him. In fact, I’d go so far as to say he must have been held in great esteem and high regard if they bothered to go to all the trouble and expense of creating the world’s first ever bionic/ prosthetic arm for him.
Meanwhile, the newly elected king, Bres, proved to be a tyrannical, power-crazed maniac. After enduring seven years of his rule, during which Bres reduced the Danann to little more than slaves and forced them to pay hefty tribute to his father’s people, the Fomori, the Danann finally rebelled and deposed him.
Notice how even a bad king was not sacrificed, or even harmed. The worst that happened was that a poet satirised him. He was allowed to leave, and return to his father’s people. Nuada, now whole, was reinstated.
The Danann and the Fomori went to war. The Fomori were defeated, and Bres taken captive. You’d think they might finally get around to sacrificing the tyrant at this point, but no; he was pardoned, and given the role of agricultural advisor.
So much for sacrificing bad or maimed kings. Here’s another story for you.
Fergus mac Léiti received a facial disfigurement after fighting the sea-serpent known as the Muirdris in Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay). Instead of sacrificing him for not being whole, his people decided to hide the truth from him, and removed all mirrors from his home. For seven years, he was unaware of his deformity, until one day he beat a servant girl and she maliciously revealed the truth. Fergus went back into the sea to kill the Muirdris once and for all and succeeded, but died from exhaustion soon after.
Hmmm… a deformed king who wasn’t sacrificed.
Archaeology provides us with the most amazing discoveries and fascinating insights into what life was like for our ancestors. But it is not an exact science; it is open to interpretation, which can vary wildly from one person to another. Just like the old stories. They’re not merely entertainment, they can teach us a lot about the lives and mindsets of our ancestors. Instead of dismissing them, they should be layered with the archaeology, two powerful tools working together to unlock the secrets of the past.