Magic in the Táin Bó Culainge


I don’t mean an exhaustive list or anything. I just re-read The Táin and was surprised by a few instances of magic I’d totally forgotten. Both of them involve Cúchulainn in some way. One involves battle and the other healing.

If you aren’t familiar with The Táin, here’s a very short summary: because of previous shenanigans, the warriors of Ulster are all cursed to suffer pain as though they were in labor whenever they need to be doing something else. Only a few people escaped this curse, and Cúchulainn was one. A rival kingdom is ruled by Ailill and Medb. These two invade Ulster to steal their incredible magical cow, the Brown Bull of Culainge. Cúchulainn fights the army single-handedly until he can fight no more, at which point his father finally succeeds in getting the Ulstermen up and moving. They win, the end.

The thing to keep in mind is that Cúchulainn is Ulster’s greatest warrior, and he’s fighting an entire army single-handedly. He has magical weapons, and was trained by a witch, but exhibits no magical powers in stories previous to this one (at least, not in the collection I have).

I originally wrote that he had no “supernatural powers,” but that’s not true. He undergoes a “warp-spasm” that makes him superhuman, and that’s certainly not natural. Among other things, a fountain of blood shoots from the top of his head!

Anyway. Suddenly, Cúchulainn summons help from the landscape around him. Cúchulainn always meets his enemies at river fords. There’s a practical reason for that, since they couldn’t just rush en masse past him. He’s blocking the road. But it seems there may be another reason for that. Here’s the passage, just after he’s stopped at the Cronn river ford and spoken to his charioteer.

“I summon the waters to help me,” Cúchulainn said. “I summon air and earth; but I summon now above all the Cronn river:

“Let Cronn itself fall-to in the fight
to save Murtheimne from the enemy
until the warrior’s work is done
on the mountain-top of Ochaine.””

And the water reared up to the treetops.

This is very similar to the magical construction of 20th and 21st century Druid magic. That makes sense, as material like this story is where Druids get their stuff. There are a few reasons it might be of interest to us, though.

First, Cúchulainn does it. A Druid or king didn’t perform this magic (kings are often magical, such as in the Mabinogi, where they just have magic rods lying around. At one point a king in that book turns two guys into animals for three years running like it’s no thing). So there’s an indication that warriors as well as priests and magicians should have some magical skill.

The magical skill itself is interesting, too. He’s not summoning demons or directly affecting people — he’s invoking the spirits of the land around him. This, too, is very fresh in contemporary Druidry. Cúchulainn is a part of the region, and so he has a relationship with it. He’s defending the area, and so we can see, to some degree, the way in which a soldier is supposed to relate to the place he or she defends. It can’t just be lines on a map, it has to be a lived experience. An incredible amount of this narrative is actually dedicated to explaining why places have the names they have, and it’s always because some batshit stuff happened there, like when Medb gets her period and the blood cuts valleys in a field (yes, that happens). This has the effect of making the landscape more magical and more historical. Names connect to stories, and stories connect to feelings.

Finally, Cúchulainn doesn’t invoke the four quarters. He invokes the water, air, and earth. I’ve read recently in some non-fiction that this division was common for druidic cultures, but this was the first direct reference to it I’ve seen. It’s far more practical and, well, earthy than the four elements or quarters. It’s deeply invested in what’s here. What’s missing from the more widespread schema is fire, which is just stuff that’s burning, in one sense. It typically represents the spirit itself, and a pathway to the gods (because you burn offerings to get them up to the gods, right?). So that’s not involved here. Cúchulainn has no need of spiritual guidance. He needs the river to fuck over the opposing army. And it does so.

You may also notice it’s similar to the point in The Lord of the Rings where Gandalf and Elrond cause the Ford of Bruinen to flood, washing the ringwraiths away. I can’t help but assume Tolkien knew this story, but I don’t have any direct references for that. I may continue to look into it.

On the level of story, we see how a warrior should connect to their land and how everyone should know a little magic, particularly regional magic. On a magical level, we see how the invocation should fit the goal. Maybe not everything will respond to the same set of ritual calls.

Here’s my magical anecdote, and we’ll call this entry finished: when I lived in [city name redacted], I felt pretty bad about where I lived most of the time. I had friends, and stuff to do, and even some great state parks to hike and walk in. I just couldn’t relax, and I lived there for about seven years! At the beginning of the seventh year, things got a lot better (though my circumstances, in a way, got worse).

I did some magic. This was pure chaos magic, as the deity I invoked was Hellboy. I set up a ritual space, with incense and all that good stuff. I make packets of salt out of index cards, and drew Hellboy’s big red right hand on them. I invoked his power by his true name (which readers of the comic will know). I made five or six packets. I went around to spaces that were important in different ways — the zoo, the woods, the school — and I opened the packets. Invoking Hellboy’s true name again, I spun so the salt spilled in a circle, then I asked for the curse to be lifted.

Because my feelings about where I lived were basically a curse I’d laid on myself when I moved there. I couldn’t escape the first impression, the first feeling. It haunted me, so I got rid of the damned thing.

It worked pretty well, too.

Hellboy, of course, is the comic book character who knocks down barriers and ignores curses.

I’ll write another post on the healing magic I mentioned in the beginning.

Click here to read the follow-up post. 

Print Works Referenced:

The Táin. Thomas Kinsella, trans. New York, NY: Oxford UP. 2002.



2 thoughts on “Magic in the Táin Bó Culainge

  1. Pingback: Magic in the Táin Bó Culainge 2 – Better Living through Symbolism

  2. Pingback: Tarot Time: Blues Traveler’s Decisions of the Sky 2 – Better Living through Symbolism

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