ISSN : 2288-5412(Online)
DOI : http://dx.doi.org/10.14354/yjk.2010.33.69
Animal motifs in Ulster Cycle and Celtic Culture*
The Ulster sagas are documents surviving from a Celtic culture unaffected bythe Latin civilization of the rest of Europe. Set a century before the time of Christ,the Ulster stories posit an older world than any known in other Europeanvernaculars. The narrative materials were transcribed as early as 8th centurycontinued to be part of living literature until 18th. Esteem for the Ulster Cyclepassed into English during the 19th century, when nationalists searched ancientliterature for heroes to replace those imposed on Irish children by English-runschools. During the generation of Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats and JohnMillington Synge the Red Branch Cycle fostered widespread adaptation in English.
Lady Gregory expected to let Irish students know that the Cuchulain storieswere put into permanent literary form at about the same date as Beowulf, some 100to 250 years before the Scandinavian mythology, at least 200 years before theoldest Charlemagne romance, and probably 300 years before the earliest draft ofNibelungenlied.
In Cuchulain of Muirthemne there are twenty stories in English. Lady Grogeryhave exchanged for the grotesque accounts of Cuchulain’s distortion into theappearance of a god. In the Cuchulain’s stories still remains the ancient heart ofIreland and Celtic culture. In the Celtic supernatural world animals can talk, moveabout like humans, jest, warn and shapeshift. The Celts not only relied on animals for their survival but they respect them, learned them, and honoured them.
The legendary Irish warrior and solar hero, Cuchulain, son of the god Lugh,exhibited the ‘hero light,’ a flaming aura, around his head when he entered the stateof battle frenzy. As a lineage of Angus the hero fell in love with a swan goddessFand. And was unsuccessfully wooed by the Morrigan in her raven aspect.Cuchulain, whose name means “Culan’s Hound,” was a Gaelic hero likened in hisexploits to both the Greek Hercules and Achilles. He is said to have been able toperform a ‘salmon’s leap.’ In the War for the Bull of Cuailgne the hero singlehandedlydefends Ulster against the depredations of Connacht, as led by Medb andAilill. The young Cuchulain, a superhuman, semi-divine hero has two chariothorses,the Black of Saingliu and the Grey of Macha. The clairvoyante Grey criestears of blood at the foreknowledge of his death. when the Ulster hero Cuchulain isfinally killed, he has such a fearsome reputation that it is not until one of theraven-goddesses alights on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead and dareto approach and behead him. To the Celts, animals were special and central to allaspects of their world.