Supernatural Threats to Kings: Exploration of a Motif in the Ulster Cycle and in Other Medieval Irish Tales

Supernatural Threats to Kings: Exploration of a Motif in the Ulster Cycle and in Other Medieval Irish Tales

By Jacqueline Borsje

Ulidia II: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Tales of the Ulster Cycle, editors R. Ó hUiginn, B. Ó Catháin (Maynooth, 2009)

Introduction: The subject of this contribution is the belief in a sacral bond between the land and the ruler. This belief is connected with the concept known as ‘sacral kingship’, which is found in many cultures. In the Tenach or Old Testament, for instance, the king is supposed to be chosen by God and anointed by a prophet before he is installed as a king. Kingship is linked with the divine in this way. If the relationship between God and king is purportedly disrupted, then another king may replace the king who falls out of favour. Disruption in the Old Testament is often caused by the transgression of the divine laws. When king and people sin against these laws, God is said to send signs in the form of punishments in order to make king and people stop sinning and return to the law of God. Foreign invasions are the most notable among these signs.

In medieval Irish texts, sacral kingship implies that the king should be just, truthful, wise, courageous and generous; he should keep his gessi, ‘taboos’, have no blemish on his body or honour, and excel in physical appearance and martial prowess. If these rules of sacral kingship are violated, the land suffers and the literature connects the unfortunate fate of the land in a causal link with the ill-performing king. Sometimes this purported cause (violated sacral kingship) and effect (damage to the land) seem to be connected in an automatic way; sometimes they are believed to be linked through explicitly mentioned supernatural sanctions. Important studies by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh and Tom Sjöblom show that often a contract with the Otherworld is portrayed as the basis of kingship. This contribution builds on the work of these scholars by offering a preliminary survey of the relationship between the supernatural, the king, the land and ‘foreign’ invasions.

The ‘supernatural’ is a complex category in medieval Irish texts. Predominant in the medieval Irish worldview is the overall scheme of things with God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as the entities that are believed to rule over life and death. They are symbolised by light and stand for what is good. The Devil and demons, supernatural beings associated with darkness and evil, are contrasted with the above-mentioned Trinity and their messengers, the angels. There are, however, more supernatural beings that belong to the medieval Irish symbolic universe. The texts display references to gods, ghosts and various kinds of supernatural being that are difficult to define and classify. Saint Patrick refers to the supernatural beings venerated by the Irish as ‘idols and unclean things’. Some Irish texts, however, paint a more subtle and complex image of the supernatural beings other than the ones associated with Christianity. These are sometimes linked with darkness, sometimes with light; they may be associated with the demonic realm and with the pre-Christian past, but some of them also reveal hidden things pertaining to Christianity. In short: they serve as benign, neutral and malicious symbols in Christian mythology.

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