incest in irish mythology
even more controversy at newgrange!
This week a new study announced that the remains of a middle-aged man buried thousands of years ago inside the burial mound of Newgrange was found to be the adult son of a first degree incestuous union. You can hardly have missed it... it's been all over the news, because this is BIG!
Genetic testing has linked this male with other remains found at prehistoric sites all over Ireland, suggesting a hierarchy of ruling elite consistent with the Pharoahs of Egypt, who interbred to consolidate power within families.
If you want to read the journal report, you can find it here.
Some archaeologists, however, think we are getting a bit over excited about the results of one individual's unusual parentage, and advise caution. Evidence of the Neolithic period in Ireland indicates that dwellings were small, all of one size and pattern, and that, likewise, burials show little sign of hierarchy, with bones jumbled together indicating communal egalitarian resting places for the dead.
However, it got me thinking; is there any evidence of incest in the early Irish literature, and if so, in what context?
Clothru was the sister of Queen Medb of Connacht. Both were married to Conchobar, King of Ulster for a while, although not at the same time. When their triplet brothers, Nár, Bres, and Lothar, were fighting with their father for the High Kingship over Ireland, Clothru took it upon herself to seduce her three brothers, one by one, on the eve of battle, because she was worried that the male line of her family, and thus their power, would be wiped out.
Her fears were realised when her brothers were all killed the next day, but she bore a child from their illicit liaison: a son whom she named Lugaid Riab nDerg, which means 'Lugaid of the Red Stripes'. He was born with two red stripes dividing his body into three, each third said to resemble one of his three fathers; above the shoulders, Lugaid looked like Nár; the trunk of his body resembled Bres, and his legs looked like those of Lothar.
Lugaid became the protege of Ulster warrior-hero, Cuchulainn, and it is said that when he tried to proclaim Lugaid as the rightful High King of Ireland by standing him upon the Lia Fail at Tara, the stone refused to roar. In a fit of anger, Cuchulainn struck the stone with his sword and broke it in two, after which it never roared again.
However, Lugaid did indeed go on to become High King of Ireland in due course, but the story does not end there. Clothru and Lugaid committed incest together, mother and son, producing a child between them named Crimthann Nia Náir, who also duly became High King, and ruled for sixteen years.
In most societies, including ours, incest is highly taboo. Despite her story being recorded by Christian scribes, however, Clothru is not condemned for her actions, and indeed we can see here that through her alone, her family's power and status as a ruling elite is consolidated and maintained. She is, in a way, fulfilling the role of a sovereignty goddess. This story, then, can be seen as corroborating the theories suggested in the recent study.
In an early Irish text known as the Tochmarc Étaíne, or 'The Wooing of Étaín', Étain is stolen away from her husband, High King Eochaidh Airem, by Midir of the Tuatha de Danann. In order to win her back, he must choose the true Étaín from among fifty young women who have all been magically transformed to look like her.
Eochaidh makes his choice and carries her off in triumph, sleeping with her that night. He later realises that the woman he has chosen is actually his daughter by Etaín, and he has impregnated her. Out of shame, he casts her out, but she is looked after by a herdsman and his wife. Étaín's daughter gives birth to a son, Conaire Mor, who goes on to become High King.
This story is very different to the previous one; the incest is unwitting, a product of trickery, instigated by men not women, and there is a sense of shame over the union and its offspring. In true Christian style, the innocent pregnant girl is used and abandoned, and in fact, all the women in this story are passive victims, unlike Clothru who was active, decisive, and acted with agency and initiative. However, the result is the same: the coveted High Kingship is retained in the family through the act of incest.
Dowth (from the Irish dubad, meaning 'darkness') is the sister-mound to Newgrange, and it, too, is associated with incest. Bresail was a druid who decided to build a tower to reach into the sky. His sister cast a spell which stopped the sun in the sky so that the men building the tower would carry on in their labours until it was built. However, the magic was broken when Bresail and his sister committed incest, bringing darkness upon the land, and the abandonment of the project.
Again, this story is very different to the previous two. The long day could refer to the summer solstice, and the tower into the sky could represent an observatory of the stars. The darkness may represent death, or the death-like state of winter, which begins to encroach immediately following the solstice. One of the passages within the mound seems to be aligned with the setting sun at the mid-winter solstice. This story seems to be less about dynastic power and more about druidic power, divine knowledge and imbas.
Incest also features in other ancient cultures, too. For example, just across the water, King Arthur was said to have had a son, Mordred, whom he fathered on his sister, a druidess named Morgan. Sickened by what he'd done, he abandoned Mordred, who grew up to become his nemesis. Mordred killed his father at the Battle of Camlann.
In Welsh mythology, Arianrhod gave birth to two sons, which some versions of the story say were fathered by her brother, Gwydion.
These stories show that incest may well have taken place in ancient Ireland, and perhaps go some way towards confirming recent archaeological findings. However, they are not definitive. Not all stories are rooted in truth, but the one thing early Irish literature definitely proves beyond doubt is that early writers and storytellers were gifted with imaginations as wild and unlimited as our own.