Ireland is a country with a rich history of myth and legend. This sample short essay explores the idea of the “Fertility-King” in early Irish literature.
The Irish Fertility-King
The early myths and legends of Irish literature are believed to contain many stories that have their roots in the older oral histories of Ireland. As an example of this fact, two early tales, the “Cóir Anmann” (The Fitness of Names) and the “Echtra Mac nEchach” (The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón), share a theme of sovereignty that is bestowed by a female deity. Evidence suggests that this theme is derived from an earlier belief in a “fertility-king” ritual.
Another Irish text, “The Labor Pains of the Ulaid” serves as an example of literature that is protesting the loss of this belief in a changing Irish culture. The exact root of the belief in a fertility-king is uncertain. However, these three stories are undoubtedly influenced by a much older source and give the reader insight into a cultural belief that stemmed from a time for which there was no contemporary written record.
Lugaide, Son of Kings
The Irish text, “The Fitness of Names” contains a story about a King named Dáire Doimthech who had five sons, all of whom he named Lugaid. The right to sovereignty was the catalyst behind his son’s similar names because the King had been told a prophecy that “a son of his would obtain the sovereignty of Erin and that ‘Lugaid’ would be his name” (Stokes 319). The King wanted to know which of the five Lugaids would replace him as king.
A druid prophesized that a golden fawn would appear and the son who caught it would replace Dáire Doimthech on the throne. The fawn appears and is chased by the five sons, as well as other men until ultimately, a mist separates the fawn and the Lugaids from the other men. It is Lugaid Láigde who catches the fawn thus signifying his right to replace his father on the throne. However, though Lugaid Láigde has proved himself to be the fittest to rule by catching the fawn, the hero’s right to sovereignty is bolstered by another source.
A fierce snowstorm forces the brothers to seek shelter. They find a house in which a hideous hag resides, and if they wish to have a bed for the night, the hag requires them to sleep with her. All but Lugaid Láigde decline and when he climbs into bed with her she transforms into a beautiful goddess.
She tells him, “I am the soveranty, and the kingship of Erin will be obtained by thee” (Stokes 321).
Thusly, Lugaid Láigde is given the right to sovereignty through sexual union with a goddess. It is important to note that the goddess’ decision was not arbitrary and that Lugaid Láigde proved his worth in catching the fawn, as well as accepting the strife that comes with sovereignty by agreeing to sleep with her even though, at the time, she appeared hideous.
Sovereignty as earned in Irish literature
This theme of sovereignty that is earned and then bestowed by a sexual union with a female deity is continued in the Irish story “The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón”. Scholars have noted that this story is most likely derived from the tale of the five Lugaids, contained in “The Fitness of Names” (Battaglia 42). The epic story tells the tale of a great king named Eochaid Mugmedón who had five sons. One minor difference between this tale and the story of the five Lugaids is that one of Mugmedón’s sons is born out of his infidelity with a woman named Cairenn who is the daughter of a Saxon king.
It is this son, Niall, who will ultimately win the right to sovereignty. Niall, like Lugaid Láigde, is prophesized as the son who will claim the throne from his father. The five brothers go on a hunt and after it is fulfilled they seek water. Each comes upon a well that is guarded by a hag who requires a kiss in return for access to the well. Though one of the brothers, Fiachra, gives the hag a peck on the cheek, Niall is the only one who agrees to sexual union with her. The hag transforms into a beautiful goddess and claims:
I am the sovereignty; I will tell you of its great benefit. [It will belong] to your descendants forever, above every kindred; that is the true reason for which I speak. (Koch and Carey 207)
Again, sovereignty is bestowed by a female deity, and Niall earned the right to sovereignty through his sexual union with the goddess. Niall’s agreement to sleep with the goddess even though she appeared to be a hideous hag showed that he was willing to suffer the trials and tribulations that would accompany the kingship, and therefore, he was worthy of the goddess’ gift.
The goddess tells Niall, “And as you have seen me at first fearsome, wolfish, terrifying, and at last beautiful, thus is the sovereignty; for it is not obtained without battle and conflicts” (Koch and Carey 207).
Analyzing both Irish myths of the Fertility-King
These two stories share themes with monomythical Norse mythology. Sovereignty must be earned, and once that is done, it must be bestowed upon the worthy candidate through sexual union with a female deity. There is evidence to suggest that this theme of a fertility-king has its roots in the prehistoric period of Ireland.
Historian Frank Battaglia shows that the roots of these stories, as well as the similar theme of the Irish myth “The Labour Pains of the Ulaid”, descend from prehistoric Irish beliefs and practices. “The Labor Pains of the Ulaid”, unlike the stories of the five Lugaids and the sons of Eochaid Mugmedón, centers around a single protagonist and his union with a female deity. However, this relationship does not end with him gaining the right to sovereignty.
The goddess of sovereignty
The goddess in this story comes to live with a widower named Crunniuc. She brings prosperity to his house but warns him not to mention her. The two attend a fair held by an unnamed king, and Crunniuc boasts that his wife could outpace the king’s horses. Crunniuc is to be put to death, but the goddess races the king’s horses, even though she is pregnant, and wins. Her ability to outrun horses on foot, coupled with her mysterious appearance, show that this woman is indeed an incarnation of the goddess of sovereignty that is present in the tale of the Lugaids and the story of Niall.
The goddess figure implores the men at the fair to let her give birth before she races, “for a mother bore every one of you” but they ignore her pleas (Gantz 129).
This work can be seen as an indictment of the changing nature of Irish sovereignty which had evolved from the ancient beliefs into something different.
According to Battaglia, this story is “protest literature which fleetingly attests goddess power in a hostile contemporary environment… [and] can be understood as celebrating fertility-king culture after it had to be superseded” (41).
The exact date of this fertility-king tradition is uncertain, but there is archeological evidence to show that this tradition came from well before the early Bronze Age.
Ancient beliefs in sovereignty
Society’s view of gender roles was different in this literature. The ancient nature of the idea that sovereignty is earned and then bestowed by a female deity is shown by archeological evidence from the passage tombs of Ireland.
Battaglia points to ornate gold necklaces called lunulae that “may provide ornamental evidence of a fertility-king tradition persisting into the early Bronze Age” (44).
The fact that few of these lunulae have been found in burial tombs shows that they were not considered to be personal property. More likely, these were part of a ritual that paid tribute to the older belief of fertility-king sovereignty. Women would wear these lunulae and act as a symbol of the goddess in ceremonies that represented a blending of Neolithic culture with earlier beliefs (Battaglia 44).
Whether or not archaeologists and historians are able to determine the exact time period that gave rise to this belief of fertility-kings, the fact remains clear that the theme of sovereignty being bestowed by a goddess predates the setting of all three aforementioned Irish texts by many centuries.
The theme of sovereignty obtained through union with a goddess is present in both “The Fitness of Names” and “The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón”. Furthermore, the story “The Labor Pains of the Ulaid” can be seen as a form of protest literature against the loss of this tradition. The evidence shows that this belief may have extended back as far as the Mesolithic period, and the fact that this theme makes its way into these three stories shows that it was probably part of earlier oral history. These three stories allow for a glimpse into a culture for which there was no contemporary written history and are invaluable sources of historical insight.
Battaglia, Frank. “A Common Background to Lai de Graelent and Noínden Ulad?.” Emania (1993) 11: 41-48. PDF.
Gantz, Jeffrey. “The Labor Pains of the Ulaid.” Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1981. 127-129. PDF.
Koch, John T., and John Carey. “Echtra Mac nEchach (The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón).” The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe & Early Ireland & Wales. 4th ed. Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications; 2003. 203-208. PDF.
Stokes, Whitley. “Cóir Anmann (Fitness of Names).” Irische Text mit Wörterbuch. Dritte Serie, 2 Heft. Leipzig: Verlag Von S. Hirzel, 1897. p. 288-411. PDF.