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White Horses, Sex and Sovereignty December 12, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

Inspired by Southern Man’s comment on yesterday’s post Beach thought he would today quote from some of the passages relating to Irish sovereignty. There was in pre-Norman Ireland the idea that the land is a woman, Sovereignty, who must be courted and seduced by the successful king. Take, for example, this rather tame passage relating to Conn, a legendary king of Ireland.

Then [Conn and his companions] went on until they came into a plain, and a golden tree was there. There was a house there with a ridge-pole of white metal, thirty feet in length. They went into the house, and saw a young woman there, and a crown of gold was on her head. There was a silver vat with hoops of gold around it, full of red ale. There was a dipper of gold on its lip, and a cup of gold before her. They saw the scál [phantom] himself in the house, before them on his throne. There was never in Tara a man of his size or his beauty, on account of the fairness of his form and the wondrousness of his appearance. He answered them and said, ‘I am not a phantom nor a specter. I have come on account of my fame among you, since my death. And I am of the race of Adam: my name is Lugh son of Eithliu son of Tigernmas. This is why I have come: to relate to you the length of your reign, and of every reign which there will be in Tara.’ And the girl who sat before then in the house was the Sovereignty of Ireland, and it was she who gave Conn his meal: the rib of an ox and the rib of a boar. The ox rib was twenty-four feet long and eight feet between its arch and the ground. When the girl began to distribute drinks she said, ‘To whom shall this cup be given?’; and the phantom answered her. When she had named every ruler until the Day of Judgment, they went into the phantom’s shadow, so that they saw neither the enclosure nor the house. The vat and the golden dipper and the cup were left with Conn.

In other legends Conn or kings of Ireland actually sleep with Sovereignty who often appears as a loathly woman, only turning into a bikini model when kissed. However, a far more and mysterious and terrifying passage is found in one work of Gerald of Wales (obit 1223), a twelfth-century British Celtic writer. The passage is controversial but it seems to suggest bestiality in a contemporary ritual of Irish kingmaking: the female horse was arguably sovereignty here.

There is in the northern and farther part of Ulster, namely Kenelcunill, a certain people which is accustomed  to appoint its king with a rite altogether outlandish and abominable. When the whole people of that land has been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the middle of the assembly. He who is to be inaugurated, not as a chief, but as a beast; not as a king, but as an outlaw, has bestial intercourse with her before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces, and boiled in water. A bath is prepared for the man afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all his people, and all , he and they, eat of the meat of the mare which is brought to them he quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup, nor using his hand, but just dipping his mouth into it round about him. When this unrighteous rite has been carried out, his kingship and dominion have been conferred. [unfortunately the Latin is not to hand]

It would be fair to say that most modern scholars do not take this material too seriously. In other words, they see this as Anglo-Norman or perhaps Cambro-Norman propaganda, smearing the Gaels. And they may be right… However, though Beach finds it difficult to imagine an Ulster tribe, even an obscure one,  taking part in these kinds of rituals in the twelfth century, some of the details are paralleled in other legends from elsewhere in the Indo-European continuum. There is particularly the idea that sovereignty is a woman but also a horse. Was Gerald lying then or has he picked up on part of the regalia of the six counties? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com