Emerald Isle

The Slander of the Battlefield

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle

Words may certainly hurt me

The greatest heroes and warriors of ancient Ireland understood well that the greater part of battles were fought in the hearts and minds of men and women. A tired and bloodied warrior may fight like a cornered wolf if his courage is up, while a well fed and rested champion may sag in dismay at the touch of fearful sorrow.

This was a different matter from cursing now – although the druids of old might climb a hill or mountain to drop their heavy curses on unfortunates far below, the art of the insult was meant to infuriate an enemy and weaken his ability to control himself. An enraged man will make many mistakes and will be more likely to fall in combat.

This was known as flyting, a ritual exchange of insults. The Roman Diodorus describes Celtic warriors before battle, standing across from one another and breaking into

“a song of praise of the valiant deeds of their ancestors and in boast of their own high achievements, reviling all the while and belittling their opponent, and trying, in a word, to strip him of his bold spirit before the combat.”

Being able to cut your opponent with witty words was a highly valued art among the old Gaels, a custom which persisted until at least the sixteenth century...

“Gray-visaged gallows-bird, out of your wits gone wild,
Loathsome and lousy, as wet as a cress,
Since you with worship would so fain be styled,
Hail, Monsignor! Your balls droop below your dress.”

And even today it is said among the Irish that being able to drop someone from a height is part of the native culture!

Yet some heroes took a different road and allowed themselves to be goaded, harnessing their terrible fury and wielding it as a weapon to strengthen their thews.

In the story of the Feast of Bricriú, we are told how the three great Red Branch champions, Laegaire the Victorious, Conall Cernach and Cú Chulainn vied for the hero’s portion of the feast, that juiciest and most choice morsel awarded to the worthiest champion.

The old chieftain Samera judged that the three of them should attack a lair of the geniti-glinni, the demons of the darkest valleys and deep places, who along with the demna aeir, demons of the wind, bocanachs and bananachs, and the siabra, demons of weakness, were cackling terrors of the ancient world.

It is written that so great was the demonic power in Ireland before Christianity, and such was its extent, that the demons would physically fight with men and would show festivities and wonders to them, as though these were lasting and to be believed.

At any terrible battle-crisis, many or all of these, with the other war-furies, were heard shrieking and howling with delight, some in the midst of the carnage, some far off in their lonely haunts.

Laegaire went first, but they instantly fell on him with such demoniac ferocity that he was glad to escape, half-naked, leaving them his arms and battle-dress.

Conall Cernach went next, and he, too, had soon to run for it. but he fared somewhat better, for though dropping his spear, he carried away his sword.

Lastly Cú Chulainn – and they filled his ears with their hoarse shrieks, falling on him tooth and nail! They broke his shield and spear, and tore his clothes to tatters. At last he could bear it no longer and was ready to flee.

His faithful charioteer, Loeg, was looking on. But one of Loeg's duties was that whenever he saw his master about to run away from a fight, to shower abuse on him, so as to enrage him the more.

On this occasion he reviled him so vehemently and bitterly for his weakness, and poured out such contemptuous bile on him that the hero became infuriated, and turning on the goblins once more, sword in hand, he crushed and hacked them to pieces, so that the valley ran all red with their blood!

On another occasion there was strife between the Ulstermen and mac Durthacht. The men of the North went to battle while Cú Chulainn was left behind asleep. They were defeated, leaving many behind on the field, groaning loudly enough to awaken Cú Chulainn

He stirred himself then, travelling into the dark night, making for the battlefield. He made for the battlefield. Before him he saw a strange and piteous phantom, beyond horrible – a man with only half a head!

‘‘Help me, Cú Chulainn!’ said he. “I have been wounded and I have brought half of my brother on my back. Take a turn with me in carrying him.”

“I will not,” said he, and why would he.

The ghastly ghoul threw the burden he was carrying to him, but Cú Chulainn cast it off. They wrestled and Cú Chulainn was thrown to the ground, being strangled until he heard the war- goddess Morrigan crying from among the corpses.

“Sad indeed is a warrior who is overthrown by phantoms!”

Gnashing his teeth, Cú Chulainn rose to his feet in fury, and striking off his opponent's head with his hurley, he began to drive the head like a ball before him across the plain.

‘‘Is my master Conchobar on this battle-field?” he cried out, and Conchobar answered him. Cú Chulainn went towards him and saw him in the ditch with the earth around him on all sides hiding him.

“Why have you come to the battlefield” said Conchobar, knowing well the horrors flitting about, “where you may die of fright?” He lifted Conchobar out of the ditch then and six strong men of Ulster could not have lifted him out more courageously and bore his liege off the charnel plain under the gaze of strange wights.

The valley of the deep demons may have been close to the spot marked on the map below!


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Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

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