Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Cattle Raid of Cooley and Star Wars. . .

(Picture of Maeve's tomb, Co. Sligo)

Part of being a Celtic Christian or Celtic Pagan (or both) is reviving the many traditions of the bronze, iron and medieval ages from Celtic lands. Bridget's fire in Kildare, now alight once more at Solas Bride, or chant workshops on Iona, are both examples of using Celtic traditions in modern worship. For many, including yours truly, Celtic traditions have brought a deep and connected meaning to my spiritual life.

So. . . that leads to finding traditions, reclaiming traditions, creating new traditions (such as candle lighting for Ord Brighideach. . . or doing puja to the Morrigan. . .) And where do modern Celtic pagans and Christians go?

Often to early modern texts, written by Roman Christian monks centuries after the original tales were told. The Tain bo Cualigne, or Cattle Raid of Cooley, factors as one of the most famous of these 12th century texts. Famed for including the Irish queen Medb (Maeve), the introduction of Irish hero Cuchulainn, and telling the long story of a war between Connacht and Ulster, the Tain is one of the most cited of Irish pagan stories. Pagans quote the Tain; historians use the Tain to explain Celtic history; Christians Celts use the Tain for both a polytheistic and a monotheistic underpinning to church worship.

Yet rarely does anyone analyze the Tain, or any other early history myth or text floating out of monastic writings.

What are these stories? Laws? (I recently participated in a lengthy discussion about the Brehon laws and the position of women in pre-historical Celtic worlds. Modern pagans started throwing about the Brehon laws, as re-written monastically in later centuries, as proof that women in Celtic Ireland were literal slaves to husbands and fathers. Such a conversation grew heated, as men and women quoted their favorite historian on the Brehon laws, essentially arguing that texts reclaimed centuries later actually represented a complete historical reality. Aughhhh!!!!!

Yours truly was pulling her hair out in dismay!)

So how about we look at the written works handed down through monastic authors in the modern era, all re-writes of possible stories and laws from centuries before. And we of course immediately enter that world I want to push onto all modern Celtic worshipers - Pagan or Christian or Celtic or some combination thereof. Hermeneutics, people; hermeneutics.

Did monastic artists in the 12th century write down the exact myths of first century Ulster? Well, duh, seems highly unlikely. And did those monastic artists care about accurately portraying early Ulster, if they even could?

Duh again.

What we have in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, is a mishmash of story and myth that resonated with medieval monastics, and that still stir imaginations to this day. Yet it is high time that Celtic religious people call modern "scholars" on their use of these texts to illustrate damn near anything about the pre-literate Celtic world. Mary Condren uses the stories as an example of the downfall of women in Indo European culture. . . Fergus Kelly uses Brehon laws to define women's status as slave in pre-Christian Ireland. . . Peter Berresford Ellis uses those same laws to show the relative freedom of women in pre-Christian Ireland. . . Jean Markale uses the same myths to show that women had more freedom in pre-Christian Ireland. . . which all begs the question "whom do you believe???"

Of course, I love to look to archaeology. Modern archaeologists, remember, eschew the word Celtic at all, noting that Britain/Ireland before the Romans had at least 5 distinct cultures, from the social stratified world of central Ireland (the Ulster where the Cattle Raid of Cooley descends), to class free cultures like the Broch world in Scotland, to the already Romanized southern nations in what would soon become part of Rome. The differences in these cultures is profound: Romanized southern Britains either welcomed the Romans or fought them, depending on national position (less wealthy British culture welcomed the Roman stability that brought taxes but ended neighboring raids). The classless broch culture, still being excavated in Scotland, reflects an agrarian society with shared work and a central community. And over in class stratified Ulster, that "women as slave" society actually showed tremendous respect for earlier, stone age monuments to earth and agrarian culture.

(and all of these cultures bunged their swords into bogs. . . that were usually named after women. . .)

The Cattle Raid of Cooley only tells us something about that Ulster culture with its huge communal halls built over centuries and centered on shared feasting and celebration. Yet the Cattle Raid hardly seems like a literal history. Historians, so addicted to text, need to quit treating it as such.

This is where I turn to Star Wars. Some future historian may dig up the movie or script and use it as a literal history of our own times. Princess Leia will become the example of how our culture treats women; The Force will be seen as the religion of our time, and religious leadership will be defined by Jedi knights. I can see future historians writing long and probably erroneous dissertations based on Star Wars.

Of course this is less likely to happen in the future, due to the plethora of written resources from our times. Yet imagine that somehow Star Wars is all that survives of our culture, and what it would reflect. Perhaps some future historian will accurately guess that Star Wars is a story, told around our now proverbial fires of mall cinemas. She will probably find her research laughed at!

What is missing from so much of historical analysis of the Cattle Raid, the Mabinogi (14th century Welsh texts), and even analysis of Brehon laws, is the possibility that early tales from Ireland, Wales and Scotland, might actually reflect just that: early stories. Just as we today discuss Star Wars and Avatar and Harry Potter, early Ulster citizens might have enjoyed their own version of drama in stories and song. We do know that even medieval Ireland and Wales had a strong bardic tradition, so why is that medieval tradition not offered as explanation for earlier tales than the idea that the tales represent real live history?

The evidence counters the Tain as history viewpoint. Archaeologists do find evidence of raids between early British nations in pre-Roman southern England: with bodies buried and fortifications indicating hostilities. No such evidence exists for a similar war between Connacht and Ulster. Indeed, the buildings being recovered in Ireland today, from the same pre-Roman period, speak of highly concentrated efforts toward ritual and public communal space, both in Connacht and in Ulster. Though the cultures were different, there is no archaeological sign that they were in conflict.

To analyze Brehon laws, written down centuries later by same said monastics, I turn to modern laws. The Defense Against Marriage Act today could be used by future historians to show that gays and lesbians in our modern world faced slavery and discrimination.(well. . .) Yet such a picture is obviously incomplete! Gays and lesbians are marrying, having children, holding jobs and living with discriminatory laws. That the Brehon laws - as written down centuries later - have discriminatory actions against women is not definitive proof for how women in that pre-Christian world lived.

Some historians are doing this level of work - often turning to archaeology to do so. Historian Jenifer Ni Gradaigh has done extensive work on Brehon laws and embroidery, showing that women used the Brehon laws to their economic benefit in finding contracts for their needlework. Hardly a picture of women as slaves! And Ni Gradaigh notes that if you ignore women as embroiderers, you can easily miss positive examples of women using the Brehon laws. . . Other historians are doing similar work on women stonemasons in the early Christian church.

(The next time you pick up your embroidery needle, gentle readers, realize that you have strong economic ties to early Irish women! and perhaps it is time for me to learn some stonework. . .)

Likewise, what can modern Celtic worshipers do with the Tain, the Mabinogi, the Irish Invasion stories and the like?

Well, I suggest building a fire, sitting about with marshmallows on sticks, and telling the stories for fun and inspiration. As stories they are no different than many others: you find in them what you like or don't like. I dislike the fighting, yet my warrior kids love a good fighting tale. Well, we can tell the tales differently then.

And like bards of old, I suggest taking the stories and changing them: make them better, add new elements, delete boring parts. Stories live best not when preserved under museum glass, but when told and re-told for new delight and new meaning. Women and men all over the planet have globbed on to the more egalitarian roles open to women in these early tales: so why nail them down as hostages to historical accuracy when they can be re-worked, re-told, and once again celebrated?

Stories aren't history, and were never meant to be. Archaeologists are finding wonders in current digs, freeing history from this endless worship of text as history. The complexity and diversity in pre-Roman Britain is inspiring enough all on its own.

Maeve and Cuchulain we can leave be as good characters in good stories. They can join Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker and Yoda and other literary icons. Our kids can dress up as Rhiannon and Scathach and Finn and Pryderi, as well as Robin Hood, Marion and Indiana Jones. Fan fiction can include new adventures for Blodeuwedd and Maeve. And Cwllwch and Olwyn has long needed some new additions. . .

Let's grow these old tales, instead of freezing them. After all, that 6th century mega blockbuster, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, has many new paths to explore.

(For those interested in RPG, try the free mabinogi game, based on Pwyll, and let me know whatcha think. . .)

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