7 tales of incest in irish mythology
Two weeks ago, a new study on prehistoric Ireland caused a sensation when it claimed the remains of a male body interred within the central chamber of the burial mound of Newgrange showed genetic evidence of first degree incest, ie brother-sister or parent-child relations. I wondered if the early Irish literature could shed any light on this, and came across three stories of incest in Irish myth which corroborated this new discovery.
Since then, I have unearthed another three incredible stories of incest in Irish mythology. The first of them was mentioned to me by blogger and author, Jane Dougherty.
Englec is associated with Knowth. She was the daughter of Elcmar, chieftain of Newgrange, and his wife Boann. Boann also had a son, Oengus Óg, with the Dagda, offspring of an illicit affair whilst Elmar was away from home. The Dagda halted the sun in the sky for the period of Boann's pregnancy, so that Elcmar believed only a day had passed. By the time he came home, Oengus Óg had been delivered and whisked away to be fostered by another of the Dagda's sons, Midir, and Elcmar was none the wiser.
However, Oengus Óg and Englec fell in love and became lovers. One Samhain Eve, she went to watch Oengus Óg play at hurling with his friends. There, she was seen by Midir, who abducted her and forced her to become his lover. Elcmar was furious at the dishonour done to his daughter, and killed Midir out of revenge. In return, even though Midir had betrayed him, Oengus Óg killed Elcmar, to avenge the death of his foster-father and half-brother. But what became of poor Englec is not known.
Dechtire's mother was Maga, a daughter of Oengus, and Cathbad, the chief druid of Ulster, was her father. This means that through her father, she was half-sister to Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, whose court was at Emain Macha, also known as Navan Fort, in Armagh. Dechtire was the mother of Ireland's most famous hero, Cuchulain, known as the'hound of Ulster'.
Conchobar, it seems, was a bit of a sexual predator; he had many wives, and was quite brutal towards them, and also locked Deirdre away in seclusion from birth until she was of marriageable age and he could wed/bed her. In the Táin bo Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley), it is made clear that Conchobar practises 'the right of the first night'; in other words, all brides are to be brought to his bed on their wedding night to be 'deflowered' by him, before they sleep with their husbands.
In light of this, it comes as no surprise that one version of the story of Cuchulain's conception and birth claims that the hero was born as the result of incest between Conchobar and his sister, Dechtire. The men of Ulster, knowing that their King regularly slept with his sister, see this pregnancy as a bad omen. In order to pacify them and deflect attention from his own wrongdoing, Conchobar marries Dechtire off to a vassal, Sualtaim, thus providing the child with a legitimate father.
Corc is the son of an incestuous affair between brother and sister, Coirpre Múse and Duihind, children of Conaire, King of Munster. His birth causes the crops to fail, and the people of Munster demand the child's death. He is saved by a druid, who takes the boy to his home on an island which lies off the coast, thus removing the curse from Ireland's crops. For a year, the boy undertakes a daily purification ritual, in which the druid's wife, Buach, or Buí, sits him on the back of a magical white cow with red ears and washes away the sin of his incestuous origins.
In this way, the sin of incest is transferred into the body of the cow, and when the ritual finally concludes, and the boy is cleansed and purified of sin, the cow is transformed into stone.This rock became known as Bó Buí, 'the Cow of Buí', and the island where the ritual took place is called Inis Buí. These are real places which lie just off the coast of Dursey island.
So what are we to make of all these stories? They are all so different, with no obvious common theme. Marion Deane believes that the tale of Cuchulainn represents a shift away from the natural to cultural, with the introduction of laws to organise and control society for the benefit of the kin-group in a way that contemporary audiences would understand; for example, the fertility of women, like the land, must be regulated and husbanded in order for its produce to be bountiful and of benefit to all. Children of dubious parentage cause problems in terms of such things as determining honour price, lineage, allocating land and resources, and so on. She claims 'The passage from the natural to the cultural involves the making of a taboo-the taboo of incest'. If so, it kind of implies that incest may have been rife.
The Cuchulainn story begins with a flock of magical birds eating all the crops, leaving the people without food. The birth of Corc is also associated with food, particularly the failure of crops. However, the curse is lifted, not by the providing of a legitimate father-figure, as Sualtaim was to Cuchulainn, but by the removal of the offending child from the land, followed by the removal of the sin from the child. Here, the emphasis is on ritual, and the presence of water as cleansing, and as a barrier to sin, much like baptism. It is interesting that, although the child was saved by the druid, it is a woman who carries out the ritual.
According to Lisa Lawrence, this story serves as a means to convert pagan symbolism into Christian symbolism. The red-eared white cow is a magical creature which features in many Irish stories, and up until 1935, still roamed the Irish countryside. She claims it may have been the preferred animal sacrifice to appease the Gods in pre-Christian times when bad events occurred, such as when crops failed. The Goddess Brigid is associated with cattle, and so is the Saint Brigid; as an infant, she was fed solely on the milk of a white, red-eared cow, as she was too pure to consume regular food sources. Here, as in Corc's story, the cow is tended by a woman, but not just any woman, a pure and virtuous virgin. As Lawrence describes it, 'the white red-eared cow has ceased to nourish sacrificially devotion to the goddess Brigid, and begun to nourish symbolically devotion to Saint Brigid'.
'Incest... creates serious confusion in social structures,' suggests Andrew Welsh, who goes on to say, 'Established social categories maintain the social order of the world'; this can be seen as fundamental in all three stories, probably in all six, but particularly relates to our first story concerning Englec. The incestuous love of Englec and Oengus leads to a series of disastrous events culminating in abduction and death.
And that's it! Even if I do come across any more stories of incest, I will not be writing any more posts about it. I'd just like to point out that, whilst this new discovery is all very intriguing, it is just the discovery of one single individual born of incest. Until more evidence can be provided which proves a wide-spread 'Paroah-like elite' existed in Ireland's distant past, let's just keep it in perspective.
UPDATE: Jane Dougherty alerted me to the fact that Delbeath also committed incest with his daughter(see comments below). According to Mary Jones' translation of Lebor Gebala Erenn (The Book of the Takings of Ireland), Delbeath had six sons: Fiachra, Ollam and Indui with Ernmas, and Brian, Iucharba, and Iuchar with Dononn, his own daughter. So that would indeed make a 7th story of incest, although the Book of Leinster instead names Brigid as their mother.
#incest #irishmythology #oengusog #englec #boan #elcmar #brigid #pagansymbolism #christiansymbolism #ritualsacrifice #cattle #loveaffair #tainbocuilnge #cuchulainn #corcduibne #theexpuslionofthedeisi #druid #newgrange #knowth #bullrock #durseyisland
Marion Deane, 'Dangerous Liaisons', Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 2003, Vol. 23 (2003), pp. 52-79.
Lisa Lawrence, 'Pagan Imagery in the Early Lives of Brigit: A Transformation from Goddess to Saint?', Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 16/17 (1996/1997), pp. 39-54.
Andrew Welsh, 'Doubling and Incest in the Mabinogi', Speculum, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Apr., 1990), pp. 344-362.