Iron Age Hero Traits

Along with the rise of the hill forts circa 1000 BCE, and the emphasis on items both as weapons and ornamentation, the stratification of society, into chieftains or kings surrounded by nobles and warriors supported by priests or druids interceding for farmers, craft-workers and slaves, was firmly established. This hierarchy inevitably involved the notion of the hero or champion and was marked by a leader able to distribute gifts and largesse while, at the same time, host feasts and celebrations where warriors would vie with each other for the favour of their liege. Such restrained power necessitated the rise of the heroic warrior, the hero, to stand alone and unbeaten. No doubt the flowering of literature of the twelfth century French Romance and Mallory’s later Arthurian romances must all have stemmed from the Iron Age concept.

Not everyone would – or could – be a hero. While all young boys played fierce physical games with wooden sticks – a proto Hurley? – before weapons could be handled, a hero was always set apart. Never having recognised parents and a mysterious background, Arthur is fostered at an early age just as Oedipus is brought up in ignorance of his parents and Lancelot of Arthurian legend is raised by the shadowy Lady of the Lake while Cú Chulainn’s birth is similarly shrouded in mystery.

Not obvious parentage means the hero has no name and must acquire one through his own actions – Sétanta kills the forge hound and becomes Cú Chulainn, while later Celtic heroes, Finn and the Welsh, Gwion, gain their later names of brilliance and light. The significance of having no family means a concomitant feeling of standing alone – the hero can expect no aid in his quest for glory but at the same time no limits are placed on his ambitions for his name to live on, forever, on the lips of men.

Never accepted in his own country, the Iron Age hero must leave his comfort zone, undergoing training at the hands of learned druids or experienced warriors. Tests of physical prowess, – ability to jump or vault over a stick their own height, run barefoot through a forest without breaking a twig underfoot, defend against 9 men throwing spears, remove a thorn from his foot while running – must be passed, but the hero must also be erudite and knowledgeable about poetry. Strangers approaching the territory of a chieftain had to undergo single combat or compose a poem on the spot.

Cú Chulainn trained under the tutelage of the warrior woman, Scáthach, who presented the fearsome gae bolga to the hero, along with a warning of its consequent use. Beowulf sought out sea monsters before going on to defeating Grendel and its mother, Arthur trained under the venerable Sir Ector de Maris, all to achieve the fame they sought. Beowulf leaves for the court of Denmark; Tristan of Arthurian legend travels to Ireland from his native Cornwall.

Nowhere in the manuscripts is it ever suggested that Cú Chulainn is not from the kingdom of the Ulaidh (modern day Ulster in Northern Ireland) nevertheless, when all the fighting age men of the area are stricken with an ancient curse, Cú Chulainn alone is exempt. Like all his fellow outsiders, having no ties to hamper his actions, the hero inevitably becomes a force for disruption, change and catastrophe.

Heroes must claim their weapons forcibly or obtain them from supernatural forces – Lancelot receives his sword from the Lady of the lake, Beowulf discovers a sword in the lair beneath the lake, and Cú Chulainn smashes King Conor’s armoury before the king himself presented the nascent hero with his very own weapons while the youthful Arthur plucks the sword from the stone.cropped-img_0328_edited1.jpg

A tipping point occurs in all the lives of the heroes when the focus on honour and glory supersedes the needs or bonds of their society. Achilles rejects his mother’s help and chooses to die before the walls of Troy. Cú Chulainn hears the druid’s prophecy of bloody and glory but still chooses to seek the latter. This tipping point influences the remaining portion of the heroes’ life. Every further irrevocable action with the umbrella-like spear, the gae bolga, that Cú Chulainn accepts from the hands of Scáthach maintains or furthers the glorification of his name. Chulainn, in his killing fury, is just as prepared to slaughter his enemies as his compatriots once his battle fury descends upon him.

Mortal enemies of the heroes often involve demonic or supernatural forces as human weapons have little effect upon them, Achilles is dipped in the pool of immortality, Arthur is protected by the power of Excalibur and Cú Chulainn is unassailable when he is in his battle fury. The inevitable downfall of the hero is, therefore, always linked with the breaking of a vow or the forsaking of an oath. Arthur is killed at the hands of his illegitimate son, Cú Chulainn dies alone after breaking the taboos that ruled his life, Beowulf meets his demise by neglecting his role of kingship and acting as if he were still the hero.





Who are the Irish & Where did their Language come from?

In a few recent posts – Epochs & the Book of Invasions and Anthropocene – Waves and Epochs – way back in September or October I have been wittering on about past times and after months of dithering, I have decided to put it all together and explain who the irish are and where they came from! No smallorder, I admit. Here goes:

Part One

According to the 11th Century Book of Invasions, the Lebor Gabála Érenn or The Book of the Taking of Ireland, (see earlier blog entry), the Milesians, the last of the six groups of “invaders,” brought the Irish language and constituted what are now known as the Irish people (the Gaels) and arrived sometime between 1700 – 1000 BCE after extensive travelling from Scythia, Greece, Egypt and Spain. These Gaels / Gauls were Celts and preserved their culture in Ireland, untouched by the heavy hand of Rome, where Celtic traditions live on, unhampered until the advent of Christianity 1500 years later.

That’s what I learned in school, anyway and it remains good copy for tourist brochures, I suppose. So the question remains, where, then, did the people and the language come from and when?

Pre-Aryan people initially occupied Ireland, probably from circa 8000 BCE arriving via the then existing land bridges, connecting Ireland with the Isle of Man, Scotland and mainland Britain. Judging by the number of polished stone axes found throughout the island dating from this Mesolithic period c. 8800 – 4900 BCE, there was more than likely a common language among these early inhabitants. Whatever that language was, it most certainly was not Irish or anything remotely connected with it. These hunters and gatherers, the first “Irelanders” left little behind them that archaeologists could use other than a handful of small stone tools – microliths – and the recently discovered remains of two people dated from 7200 – 6500 BCE. However, both Britain and Ireland were abandoned when the glaciers expanded and northwest Europe became too cold so that populations retreated to southern France and northern Spain before moving north again as the climate warmed.

The start of the Neolithic Period, roughly 4900 – 2000 BCE, ushered in the rise of farming communities with the arrival, at different times, of different groups of people, some from the north and some from the southern Atlantic seaboard.

These indigenous, pre-Celtic people built massive stone structures sometime between 4900 – 2000 BCE. Most notable among them are New Grange or Brú na Bóinne, just north of modern day Dublin, indicative of a noticeable change in the material and spiritual culture which had gone before.

The Bronze Age, c 2000 – 500 BCE, brought, along with metallurgy, a new style of ceramics – Beaker ware – which quickly superimposed itself on the earlier Grooved ware pottery but there is no direct evidence that “Beaker people” moved from north-west Europe into Britain and then on to Ireland despite the abundant evidence for a Beaker presence in Ireland. Ideas travel, not just people. What is clear is that the Beaker people established, or maintained, a network of trade both within Ireland and between Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, which, of necessity, would have involved communication and immigration in all directions.

The early Bronze Age (2000 – 1500) was also the Age of the Megaliths and examples can be found along the Atlantic seaboard where trade flourished. Ireland was a vital part of a chain of contacts extending into Europe by reason of it being a source of gold and copper, the latter abundant in Ross Island in southwest Ireland.

Between 1500 – 1200 BCE – the Middle Bronze Age – Ireland underwent extensive land clearance, along with improvements in transport with the establishment of track ways across bogs and the rise of the hill forts. Prior to this time, Irish circular dwellings had their entrance on the north side, but after 1500 BCE entrances moved to the south and the east, another possible indication of a change in customs brought about by new immigrants, but again not sufficient to warrant the introduction of an Irish language.

However by 1000 BCE, there are signs of a society splitting into tribal societies with regional centres such as Eamhain Macha and Crúachan. These hill forts usually consisted of a ditch surrounding the summit of a raised area, the up thrown soil forming an inner wall, enclosing easily defended internal areas. Some of the larger hill forts would have up to three defensive rings around the protected centre. These massive structures, the products of community labour and effort over an extended period, must have been for defence or as trade and exchange centres or ceremonial sites used for communal feasting, but whatever their purpose, they served to focus communities in the vicinity. Nearly 5000 Fulachta Fiadh, stone troughs used for a variety of purposes, including cooking, brewing and so on, are in close proximity to these centres, again indicative of a communal purpose outside of the individual home. By 800 BCE, the largest architectural structures of the entire Bronze Age had been completed.

Because hill forts required massive co-operation, society became characterised by the rise of the elites, including that of the warrior in search of fame and glory, marked by advanced weaponry and ornamentation. By the Late Bronze Age, c. 600 BCE, Ireland was changing again with substantial reforestation and a decline in agriculture with settlements reduced down to small family groups.

(To be continued)

Further reading: J.P. Mallory – The Origins of the Irish

Simon James – The Celts

Helen Litton – The Celts

Kenneth H Jackson – The Irish Language and the languages of the world