Magic in the Táin Bó Culainge 2

In this second post, I’ll be writing some more about the magic in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Last time I wrote about Cúchulainn’s evocation of the waters, as well as the other elements, to help defend a ford from invaders. This time I want to write about when Cúchulainn nearly dies and a fairy comes to help him.

Laeg, who is Cúchulainn’s charioteer, sees someone coming. He describes the person as “tall, broad, [and] fair-seeming…” He’s dressed well, and

…carries a five-pointed spear in his hand and a forked javelin. His feats and graceful displays are astonishing, yet no one is taking any notice of him and he heeds no one : it is as though they couldn’t see him.

Cúchulainn replies that it’s true, no one can see him. He is a friendly síde. Cúchulainn takes it to mean everyone in the country knows of his plight.

It gets a little weird. The fairy man says he is Cúchulainn’s father, at least his “father from the síde. His name is Lug mac Ethnenn. It turns out that my first thought was true: he’s Lugh, the god of the sun and of combat. So he’s another representative of the ideal warrior, even more so than Cúchulainn. If you didn’t click that wikipedia link, some people think one is just a mortal incarnation of the other.

This isn’t weird on its own. Of course a semi-magical person has a magical parent, right? But Cúchulainn has a mortal father as well. There are some spots in the Táin where the text just gets its own information wrong. For instance, near the end, Medb’s daughter is killed. At the very end, Cúchulainn marries her. Near the beginning, Cúchulainn marries someone else. That’s probably not an important plot detail or anything. What I mean here is that it’s possible the text just sort of forgets Cúchulainn had a mortal father. It’s equally possible he has two fathers, a mortal and a magical one.

Anyway. It turns out Lug does magic! He examines Cúchulainn’s wounds, cleans them, and sings “in the man-murmur.” Here’s what he sings:

Rise son of mighty Ulster
with your wounds made whole
a fair man faces your foes
in the long night over the ford
rest in his human care
everywhere hosts hewn down
succour has come from the síde 
to save you in this place
your vigil on the hound fords
a boy left on lonely guard
defending cattle and doom
kill phantoms while I kill
they have none to match your span
of force or fiery wrath
your force with the deadly foe
when chariots travel the valleys
then arise arise my son.

Finally, Cúchulainn sleeps. He’s been away since the Monday after Samhain, and it’s just past Imbolc. That’s about from Halloween to Valentine’s Day. Imbolc is a festival greeting the incoming spring. So apart from this indicating that Cúchulainn has been fighting for a very long time, it also indicates some of the mystical connections. He begins to fight as people hide for winter and the spirits come out. He gets to rest as spring comes on again. Cúchulainn seems, here, to be a kind of guardian spirit against trespass in the winter months. Lugh, meanwhile, has his own holiday: Lughnasadh. I talked about that holiday recently. It’s the harvest festival, basically. So Cúchulainn’s father ushers in the harvest, and Cúchulainn guards the holdings afterwards.

Cúchulainn means “hound of Culann.” Cúchulainn, as a child, killed a man’s powerful, trained guard dog, because the king invited him to the party but forgot to tell the host. The host released his guard dog, thinking all the guests were present. Cúchulainn promised to act as his guard dog as well as train the replacement. That’s where he got his name.

I haven’t actually talked about the magic, but what I want to say about it required that background bit first. Cúchulainn isn’t healed by any particular charm or plant. He’s healed by a magical person invoking his own person. Lug describes what Cúchulainn has done and the effects, and commands him to be well. That’s not all that uncommon, from my understanding. Basically, Lug is using magic to make Cúchulainn whole again, rather than to specifically target illnesses or wounds.

It’s worth pointing out that a healer comes out to help one of Cúchulainn’s friends later in the story, and the healer says he can heal the man to full health in a year, or he can heal him enough to last a few more days in an evening. The man takes the second option so he can get back out in the fighting. So healers know herbs and charms and also some way of connecting the healing art to the patient’s own personality and needs.

That may be the practical touch for this post. I in no way endorse avoiding or interrupting the treatment provided by trained doctors and other medical professionals. However, there are supplemental things magicians can do to help things along. For instance, I have evoked small healing spirits to carry strength to my parents in their respective illnesses. The command is to use the provided strength to help the patient’s body get back to a healthy state. It’s actually pretty tricky to get the wording right for such a command, since some illnesses can be caused by simple injury or infection, but others are caused by an overabundance of something, like white blood cells or blood sugar or something.

When I learned my father had cancer, I dedicated an enormous candle to various spirits and then burned it until it died, which took nearly twenty-four hours. Here’s a practical tip: put it on a saucer and then put the saucer in your sink. It’s pretty unlikely it’ll set the house on fire. I think I may have even run water in the sink, about a quarter-inch deep, first. Lots of magical operations involve candles or incense — fire in some way. Cast spells safely!

The magician can call on the wholeness of the body and the integrity of the spirit, while the doctor treats the “wounds.” Some studies seem to indicate that visualization — or, more correctly, “guided imagery” — can help some patients get better. It’s not a replacement for treatment, of course, but it’s what’s medically called “adjunctive.” That just means it’s a useful supplement. Meditation appears to have similar effects. Here, have an article about it.

A lot of people dislike the modern medical world. It has its problems like everything else, but it accomplishes amazing things. I think the reason so many people dislike it is that they long for a partly imagined past in which doctors knew patients personally, traveled around, and were generally more personable. I find that still happens today. I just think the population grew at a faster rate than the MD graduation rate. The reason I bring this up is just that people can be tricked by phony faith healers because they want that feeling, they want to be involved in their own care. Lug’s magic involves Cúchulainn in a way that guided imagery or meditation does as well.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk. He’s written a lot of great books on mindfulness and meditation. One of his disciples wrote a narrative that’s included in the book One Buddha is Not Enough. The book is about a meditation retreat that continued despite Thich Nhat Hanh’s admission to a hospital. The particular narrative is near the end and is, finally, about that hospital trip. Three different doctors kept telling them that Thay (‘teacher,” what everyone calls Thich Nhat Hanh) had one disease when it turns out he had another. Thay kept insisting they run more tests, because Buddhism had taught him that we become embroiled in wrong thoughts. There was one test that indicated the correct diagnosis, but the doctors ignored it. Thay didn’t. And because he so stubbornly injected himself into his own care, he got better.

Mind you, he also injected himself in carefully, with an educated background and a willingness to listen closely to what the doctors said. He didn’t refuse treatments, he talked the doctors out of giving them.

We’ve come pretty far from Lug chanting over Cúchulainn’s prone body. But throughout this post we’ve talked about two kinds of healing: that which targets injuries and that which targets the person. We need both kinds. Happily, patients can go out and meditate or visualize on their own, though many hospitals include these things in their care now.



One thought on “Magic in the Táin Bó Culainge 2

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

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