Getting Into the Mythological Cycle

This month, we will be looking at the Mythological Cycle of medieval Irish literature. Before we begin, however, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the term 'Mythological Cycle'. The categorization of the Irish texts into 'cycles' of stories is something that’s had a fair amount of controversy over the years (as the 'Getting into the Ulster Cycle' post discussed), even though it’s still one of the more convenient ways for us to group texts, and the Mythological Cycle in particular can be problematic. Unlike, for example, the Ulster and Fenian Cycle, which have a more or less fixed cast of characters, even as the details of the rosters might change, the Mythological Cycle is not so fixed. Likewise, some stories that are often considered to be part of the Mythological Cycle 'canon', such as Aislinge Óenguso ('Dream of Óengus'), overlap with other cycles such as the Ulster Cycle.
The term 'myth' in and of itself isn’t easy to define – I would note Eric Csapo’s book, Theories of Mythology, which outlines in its introductory chapter the difficulties that arise when we try to make terms like 'myth', 'legend', or 'folktale' distinct ontological categories. While 'myth' is often taken to indicate a story that is purely cosmological – often portraying origin stories for different customs or explanations for things like the lightning, the sun, the invention of fire, etc., this isn’t always necessary. There isn’t any requirement, when there is a cosmological element, that the gods featured have to be actively worshipped at the time that a myth is written down (if that’s the case, then we could argue that there’s no such thing as Norse Mythology, just as much as there is no such thing as Irish Mythology). For the purpose of categorization, though, in an Irish context, while I think that many tales, such as the Táin, might be argued to be myths in the sense that they’re narratives that were held dear (as shown by the sheer volume of material around it) and transmitted because they’re about the essential stuff that makes up a society, the Mythological Cycle is composed of texts that talk about the Tuatha Dé or the supernatural in general.
For the sake of my own sanity, and to prevent this from becoming overloaded, I’m only including examples of narrative texts – Material like Lebor Gabála Érenn ('Book of the Taking of Ireland'), Leabhar na nGenealach ('Book of Geneologies'), Sanas Cormaic ('Cormac’s Glossary'), the Annals, etc., while they can be incredibly useful, aren’t going to be featured here (even though I might be willing to go into them later). I am also not covering the Dindshenchas right now – not because I don’t think there is any Mythological Cycle content in them or that I don’t love it, but because there’s enough of it that I feel like it would do it more justice to cover it later.  

Mythological Rémscela 

Dé Gabáil in t-Shída ('Concerning the Taking of the Síd') is an approximately 8th- 9th-century, text, somewhat unusual in that, rather than providing a background to the Táin itself, it provides a background story to a background story to the Táin, telling the story (familiar to anyone familiar with the plotline of Tochmarc Étaíne ('Wooing of Étaín') and Altram Tighe Dá Mheadar ('Nurturing of the House of Two Milk-Vessels') of how the Dagda lost the Brú na Bóinne (modern Newgrange) to his son, Óengus. 
Brú na Bóinne entrance, Charles Squire's Celtic Myth and Legend Poetry and Romance (1905)
Aislinge Óenguso ('The Dream of Óengus') is an 8th-century text that tells the story of Óengus’ love-sickness and his subsequent attempt to win the girl of his dreams, eventually succeeding. One of the more popular love stories from the medieval Irish tradition into the modern day, despite only surviving on a single manuscript (potentially because it ends on a happy ending for everyone involved, with no one dying a horrific death at the end).

DeChophur in Dá Muccida ('Concerning the Quarrel of the Two Swineherds') is a text, preserved in two recensions, dating to ~the 9th century, with the Egerton 1782 recension potentially dating to the 12th century, dealing with the failed friendship between swineherds of the king of the síde of Munster and the king of the síde of Connacht, with the falling out transcending multiple lifetimes and eventually helping to cause the events of the Táin

Tochmarc Étaíne

Next to Aislinge Óenguso, probably the single best loved love (or, if you’re a cynic, 'lust') story in the Mythological Cycle is that of Tochmarc Étaíne, a 9th-century text, reworked in the 11th century that tells the story of Midir and his beloved, Étaíne, in three separate parts, going from the height of the Tuatha Dé’s power in Ireland to the period of time just before Conaire Mór (sometime around the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE) as he chases her throughout different lifetimes. Retellings for children are known to leave out the implied puppy and kitten sacrifice, rampant adultery, and incest. 
Lesser known is Cináed úa Hartacáin’s poem, which appears to be an adaptation of the early part of Tochmarc Étaíne, with a few discrepancies, including Óengus winning the Brú na Boinne from the Dagda, along with an account of Boann’s death that is also found in the Bodleian and Rennes Dindshenchas, with the differences between the three poems being discussed by Marie-Luise Theuerkauf in an article called ‘The Death of Boand and the Recensions of Dindṡenchas Érenn’ in Ériu 67. For anyone with JStor access, Lucius Gwynn’s edition and translation can be found here. (An interesting feature is that, like with Rudolf Thurneysen’s commentary on Tochmarc Étaíne, this edition was made before the complete text was found in the Yellow Book of Lecan, so there is quite a bit of speculation involved as far as what the “lost” first section of Tochmarc Étaíne looked like.)

Cath Maige Tuired

Of all the stories that make up the Mythological Cycle, few have so much material around them as Cath Maige Tuired, which forms its own 'mini cycle' of sorts, nor have attracted so much academic fascination (even though it remains relatively little-known outside of Celticist circles, compared to other Mythological Cycle texts such as Aislinge Óenguso, Oidheadh Chloinne Lir ('Death of the Children of Ler'), or Tochmarc Étaíne… possibly due to the sheer amounts of sex and violence.) It’s been alternatively analyzed as a reflection of an Indo-European 'War of the Gods', a story about society and how it is meant to function, as a reflection of Viking Age Irish politics, any possible combination of those things, and from a literary standpoint, it’s been noted (e.g. by Mark Williams in Ireland’s Immortals and Elizabeth Gray in her wonderful series of articles 'Cath Maige Tuired: Myth and Structure') for its cast of characters who continually reflect and refract off of one another.
Cath Maige Tuired ('Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh'), my personal favorite text in the entire corpus of medieval Irish literature, this 9th-century text (with 11th-century revisions) tells the story of the epic battle of the Tuatha Dé and the Fomoire, mainly centering the perspectives of two men who are descended from both of them: the dethroned tyrant Bres going up against the young upstart Lug(h). It’s a fascinating combination of potentially pre-Christian figures set against the contemporary politics of Ireland in the Viking Age.
Lesser known is the 1945 edition of an Early Modern recension of the text, done by Brían Ó Cuív, known as 'Cath Muighe Tuireadh'. Sadly, the text has never been translated into English (though it’s probably my single highest priority in the field to do one), nor is there a digitized version available. This recension is very different from the Old Irish text – instead of the lengthy build up that we see in the earlier text, it begins in media res, just before the battle itself. There are numerous lengthy speeches by both sides, there is an increased level of antagonism between Lug(h) and Nuada (Nuada convinces the Tuatha Dé to give Lugh a sleeping potion out of fear that he’ll take credit for the victory), Bres goes from a major antagonist/villain protagonist to being a secondary character who is beheaded somewhat off-handedly by Lugh, and there is a lengthy scene where a wounded Balor, the champion of the Fomoire, tries to convince Lugh to take his head, knowing that, by doing so, he’ll be poisoned. (Scholars familiar with the Fenian Cycle might recognize this, the so-called “Episode of the Head”, because it shows up in Tale XVI of Duanaire Fionn, in vol. 1, 'The Shield of Fionn'. As Joan Radner discusses in an article of hers, The Combat of Lug and Balor', it had a long life in oral tradition long after these texts were written.) 
Brían Ó Cuív edited another Early Modern Irish account of Lug(h) killing Balor in Celtica 2 that comes closer to the Early Modern recension, though it is heavily abbreviated. This edition has never been translated into English to my knowledge and isn’t available online. 

Cath Muige Tuired Cunga ('First Battle of Magh Tuireadh') Cath Maige Tuired’s lesser appreciated prequel, this Early Modern (~15th century) text details the story of how the Tuatha Dé came to Ireland, conquering the Fir Bolg. While it’s generally not considered to be as good as the earlier text, I’d say that it deserves a little bit more attention – the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg are both portrayed with a level of nuance and detail (though I would argue – and have argued, that the Fir Bolg are intended to be read as the protagonists of the text), with Sreng mac Sengainn’s development throughout the text, as a champion who neither wants nor enjoys war and is eventually plunged into despair only to pull himself out and secure a bittersweet victory, being particularly stand-out. 

Brían Ó Cuív also edited two fragments of Cath Muige Tuired Cunga that he found in the Franciscan Library, Dublin, labelled as A 33. It differs from our CMTC in a few ways, such as in the order that the Fir Bolg settled Ireland in and the names of the wives of some of the kings of the Fir Bolg, which indicate that it might have been drawing on another tradition, but it’s hard to know the full extent of it with only two fragments. Once again, we’re stymied by the sheer amount of material that’s been lost over the years. 

Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann ('Death of the Children of Tuireann') is considerably bleaker – if the other texts centered around Cath Maige Tuired depict a world that is broken, but ultimately redeemable, OCT depicts a world that is broken and rotten to the core, having something of the feel of an HBO crime drama at times. Nuada, the troubled, occasionally jealous, but more or less capable ruler is portrayed as incompetent, somewhat parasitic (when his arm is severed from him, as in CMT, it isn’t miraculously restored to him; he has to take an arm from a swineherd) and unwilling to help his own people if it isn’t of benefit to him; Lug(h), the mighty hero and deliverer, is depicted as a excellent warrior who is also vengeful and ruthless; the titular children of Tuireann, Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba, who begin their own arc in the text by stoning Lug(h)’s father, attempt to work their way through the fine (eraic) Lug(h) imposes upon them by manipulating, lying, and killing everyone who stands in their way. In other words, if you read the other CMT stories and decided that there wasn’t enough death and violence, that the Morrígan’s cheerful prophecy at the end of CMT foretelling the downfall of society was too optimistic, this is the story for you! Traditionally considered, along with Oidheadh Chloinne Lir, to be one of 'The Three Sorrows of Ireland', though it’s uncertain whether a reader might be depressed at the end over the death of the brothers themselves or of the loss of faith in humanity that can result from reading it. 

There is also a fragment of a Latin translation preserved in Harleian MS 5280 (which also contains CMT) that was edited and translated by Risteard Breasalach Breatnach in Éigse, vol. 1 (4). Not available online, but worth the read if you have academic access, if only to read the text that has been called 'eccentric' (Carey), 'curious' (Flower), and 'bizarre' (Williams), as well as to see Lug(h) being named 'Mundulius' and to see 'Urore' (Brian) swear 'by the Stygian stream' to kill Lug(h)’s father.


Altram Tighe Dá Mheadar ('Nurturing of the House of the Two Milk Vessels') is the story of Óengus’ foster daughter, Eithne, who can only drink the milk of two specific cows after being insulted, the reason being that the insult caused her guardian demon to fly out and be replaced by her guardian angel, making her effectively a Christian before the coming of Christianity to Ireland. It also features another variant of the story of how Óengus won the Brú na Boinne, this time with Manannán and Óengus teaming up to take it from the Dagda.
Cía Tréide Cétna-labratar íarna fenemain fo chétoir (‘What Three First Spoke Immediately after Their Birth?’) is a short Middle Irish text in three parts, the first of which concerns Aí son of Ollam, who is a brother to Fíachu mac Delbaith, one of the later kings of the Tuatha Dé in Ireland. Fíachnu, hearing that the boy will be of greater rank than him (the rank of the church), orders him to be killed, but the boy’s father prevents him from doing it, and the baby demands, in the form of a poem, an extensive list of gifts on Fíachnu’s honor. This text has never, to my knowledge, been fully translated into English, though any German speakers can read Thurneysen’s translation here

How the Dagda Got His Magic Staff is a fun Middle Irish tale starring everyone’s favorite promiscuous, porridge eating king of the Tuatha Dé, as he, mourning his son Cermait, who was killed by Lug(h) for sleeping with Lug(h)’s wife (carrying on in the family tradition), decides to carry his son’s corpse on his back until he can find a solution for it, eventually finding one that involves trickery, murder, necromancy, and extortion, ending with the Dagda conquering Ireland via more murder and necromancy. (An early example of a zombie apocalypse?) 

Oidheadh Chloinne Lir ('Death of the Children of Lir') is an Early Modern Irish text, potentially going back to about the 16th century, making it somewhat ironic that, of all the texts on this list, it’s probably the best well known and best loved, being printed and reprinted in countless children’s stories and, for many children, being their first taste of medieval Irish literature. While it’s often sold as a sort of fairy tale, the text is very much grounded in religious thought in the Early Modern Irish period, as Caomhín Breatnach has written on extensively in his article, 'The Religious Significance of Oidheadh Chloinne Lir' in Ériu 50 (available on JStor here for those with access), and the tone is, accordingly, very different from many of the other texts on this list, telling the tale of four children who are transformed by their jealous stepmother into swans, living through the centuries until the curse is broken, they are converted to Christianity, and they die. 

My thanks to all the scholars who have, over the years, devoted their time and energy to editing and translating these texts, as well as those who’ve kept the conversation around them alive with their analysis and their criticism. In particular, I owe a debt to John Carey and to Mark Williams, with Carey’s The Mythological Cycle of Medieval Irish Literature and Williams’ Ireland’s Immortals helping a great deal when it came to this; they are both excellent sources to dive into the Mythological Cycle with. 

Rachel Martin
Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures


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