The Sacred Rites of Kings

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.

5. challenges

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.


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34 Comments on “The Sacred Rites of Kings

    • Lol! Thanks Finola. Its just my random ranting. One day someone extremely learned is going to put me in my place… I just hope they do it gently!😁

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  1. There are nothing quite like myths ~ it makes the past, which is already quite mysterious into something even more special. This is the beauty of Ireland and of its artists who keep such spirit alive (thank you Ali!). I love your thought “Intelligent, learned people actually believe this stuff?” – it seems more and more I ask such questions 🙂 Ah, to have been a king if only for a day…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are a King, Randall, of beautiful photography, moving insightful stories, and thought provoking writing. No one does that quite like you. 😊

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      • 🙂 So this is how myths are created 🙂 An talented Irish writer, whispering such sweet words from her pen (or computer). I like it ~ your the best Ali.

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  2. There’s such wild variation in the legends – some so barbaric and primitive and others quite rational and thoughtful. It makes me wonder at the ancient authors and their agendas – to record, entertain, or demonize. The connection to the earth goddess and the symbolism of the tree is an example of wisdom in my mind. We need a little more of that these days.

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  3. Ah, the ever forgiving Irish populace – they’re still giving failed political rulers a second chance (and a third), lol. Great account, Ali, very interesting.

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  4. Can those stones really part for the real King? I can’t imagine how terrifying that would have been, especially if you’re behind and the stones don’t part for the one in front. And what about that screaming stone? Great stuff, Ali.

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    • I’ll get a picture of those stones next time I am in Tara, especially for you, Hugh. The coronation stone never roared for me when I touched it, but then I’m not defended from Irish royalty. Well, not the last time I looked, anyway lol! You couldn’t make this stuff up, Could you, Hugh? Actually, YOU probably could!!! 😂😂😂

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  5. I definitely think that studying ancient mythology along with archaeology as giving us clues about how people lived is really important. Piecing together the past is far more normative, value-laden, than I think some historians want to believe. Myths can tell us quite a lot about the people who created and told them, what they valued, and how society might have used such myths as guides to evolving, raising children, all sorts of things. In my own experience I’ve seen how myths serve a purpose of their own apart from what they have to do with the specific people they are woven around. I love these articles of yours, I learn so much! Thanks, Ali!

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  6. Another great article, Ali! Well researched, thoughtful and well written. I just love it that you question the motives and wild imagination of the awful Romans. As for #3, I had always imagined that the king-to-be lifted his foot and placed it on the stone. Keep these articles coming, please!

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  7. I still don’t buy the part about the horse. I remember the post where it said the candidate acted like a beast. That could mean a great many things besides horse sex. Maybe he acted like a great gerbil and shared some oats with the horse.

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  8. Plain daft some of it. I mean the topography of the horse sex? How does that work. And talking to the vet the evil beasts don’t enjoy a needle so this sort of thing… Just propaganda. Still fighting sea serpents isn’t exactly credible so it is difficult to be choosy. Though I like the idea of the deposed king who becomes head of the ministry of agriculture. Classic political demotion! Some things don’t change

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    • Absolutely, Geoff! It all boils down to humans being just human. Behaviours needs and wants were just the same as they are now, even if the context was somewhat different.

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  9. So richly fanciful many of these Irish myths are, Ali, a glittering testimony to fecund imaginations of the ancients who could marry fact and fiction with amazing virtuosity. In the Indian epic Ramayana, the antagonist Ravan abducts Sita, Rama’s wife, and makes off to Lanka (the present day Sri Lanka) in his airplane called Pushpakviman. The Ramayana is set in Treta Yuga, an epoch predating our times by millions of years. Did aviation exist then? No one knows, yet the epic talks about airplanes and advanced warfare, consisting of aerial and terrestrial attacks.

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    • Wow! Thank you for that, Raj… fascinating stuff. I really am finding myself drawn to these Indian stories. When I first saw images of the Gundestrup Cauldron, the style of the designs on the plates reminded me very much of Indian paintings. And the horned God was seated in the lotus position. I think the connections drawn between Indian myth and that of the Celts and ancient Irish is certainly valid.

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  10. Reading from an archeological rather than a literary standpoint however, there do appear to have been nobles sacrificed/killed as a punishment at times…. Forensic anthropologists are able to determine that injuries were not battle induced in some example bog bodies…. I find it really fascinating, as this is usually in the overlap of migration periods/changing weather patterns of peoples from late Neolithic to early Iron Age culture….

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    • Perhaps in some cases it has been proven, and I wouldn’t argue with that. My point is that it is extremely popular to label everything which can’t be understood as ritual, and human sacrifice makes a good story. As such, you would expect it to crop up often in the old stories, if it was the natural order of things, yet it doesn’t. I find that interesting. Whilst archaeologists can dig up artefacts and work out how they were made and what they were for, they can’t determine how society functioned, what people thought or felt, or how they lived their lives as individuals within a community. The myths do that. They give us a fairly good interpretation of those aspects of our ancient ancestors. But no one seems interested. Overlapping them with the physical evidence found in the earth could teach us a lot more, I think. Besides being thoroughly entertaining! 😊

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  11. You’ve given me some things to think about, Ali…a one-eyed giant named Balor with an eyelid that takes four men to lift, kills Nuada who has an arm made of silver brandishing a magic sword that will cut you in half and Balor in turn gets killed by a sling shot from his grandson Lugh before falling to the ground filling with blood the Lake of the Eye. As you say Ali, working with archaeologists may add substance to legends with their finds. Who knows, they may find Nuada’s sword, or the Tuatha’s stone (if it’s not the one standing upright on Tara), or their cauldron or spear supporting many legends and also be great tourist attractions. For me, I’d be happy to just travel to Sligo to see the lake with a hole in the centre that can make all the water drain away overnight which could have been formed from the steely gaze of a dying one-eyed giant!

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    • Agree with you there, Colin! I have been to that lake. You can search for it on my blog if you’re interested. I stood there contemplating, half expecting it to suddenly drain away before my eyes in a violent rushing whirlpool, like a giant bath when the plug is pulled! Lol! It didn’t. But it did look vaguely the shape of an eye. 😊

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  12. Always fascinating info from you. I don’t know what I would have been in that age, likely a mere peasant, but it’s interesting to see the royal figures have issues too.

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    • Yes, it is! I suspect I would have been a peasant too, tending pigs and chickens and dreaming of magic and battles! Actually, I am so extremely short sighted I wouldn’t have been capable of much, actually. I would have been a burden on the family and clan. So I would probably have resorted to shamanic practices to survive! Lol!

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