Ulster Cycle

Ulster Cycle
   The tales of the Ulster Cycle belong to the genre of heroic legend and mythology and represent some of the finest examples of the medieval Irish epic that have survived. Rather than being presented as single tales, Irish mythology is organized into story groups, each of which concerns the adventures of a set of characters. There are four main story groups, or cycles, in Irish mythology: the Mythological Cycle, the Historical Cycle, the FENIAN CYCLE, and the Ulster Cycle.While it is tempting to view each cycle as a discrete entity, there are themes and main characters that appear frequently in several cycles. All offer details of early Irish society as a world dominated by warriors and cattle raids in which abductions and violence figure prominently.Most of the stories describe the significant life events of Irish heroes and heroines, mainly births, training, battles, feastings, marriages, and deaths. These men and women are presented not as gods, but as humans with superhuman abilities.
   The oldest of the four cycles is the Ulster Cycle, which describes the actions of the heroes of Ulster from about 200 B.C.E. through the fourth century C.E. The action itself is contained geographically within the two Irish kingdoms of Ulster and Connacht that encompass the northwestern quadrant of Ireland. The tales of this cycle revolve around the activities of the king of Ulster, Conchobor Mac Nessa, and the adventures of his nephew, CUCHULAIN, particularly as they fight against the queen of the neighboring kingdom of Connacht,Medb, her husband, Ailill, and her lover, Fergus (who also happens to be an exiled former king of Ulster). The central narrative is the TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE (The cattle raid of Cooley), in which the conflicts between the kingdoms of Ulster and Connacht climax when Queen Medb invades Ulster in order to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley, a magnificent beast with magical properties. In the great battle that ensues, the young Cuchulain engages in a series of bloody single combats that always end in the death of his opponents. Although seemingly invincible, Cuchulain is eventually mortally wounded in a later story, but in typical heroic style, he has himself tied to a post so that he might die still standing. The earliest extant version of the Táin Bó Cuailnge is contained in The Book of Leinster, which dates from the early 12th century. The Yellow Book of Lecan contains a later recension of the story from the late 14th or early 15th centuries. Both manuscripts are housed in Trinity College, Dublin. Despite the late dates of surviving manuscripts, linguistic evidence within the texts points to a much earlier composition date, certainly by the eighth century and perhaps as early as the fifth or sixth century. Like many literary works compiled over time from written and oral sources, the Táin bears the marks of several different scribes in the form of seemingly irrelevant glosses, major inconsistencies, plot repetition, and no single narrative voice. Although the escapades of various heroes and heroines define the action of the tales, place-names in the Ulster Cycle are as central to the narratives as are the characters themselves. Many of the stories exist solely to provide the history behind the naming of particular physical features. In the final scenes of the Táin, almost more important than the fatal wounding of the prized bull of Cooley is its wandering across Ireland naming places as it limps along to its eventual death. The same focus on topographical elements and the origin of placenames is found throughout the Ulster Cycle and is a major element in medieval Irish and Celtic literature generally.
   While the Táin is the single most important tale in the Ulster Cycle, there are about 100 other stories included in the Ulster grouping, most of which are preliminary to the action of the Táin and serve to introduce several of its main characters. One such story is The EXILE OF THE SONS OF UISLIU, the story of Derdriu (Deirdre), a beautiful young woman who is betrothed to the much older King Conchobor. Derdriu falls in love with one of Conchobor’s knights, who must then choose between his loyalty to his king and his love of Derdriu with tragic results. This same theme of love vs. loyalty is explored in medieval Welsh literature, particularly in the tales of the MABINOGION, and becomes an important element in the tales of Arthurian legend.
   ■ Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1994.
   ■ Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1981.
   ■ Haywood, John, and Cunliffe, Barry. Atlas of the Celtic World. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
   ■ Kinsella, Thomas, ed. and trans. The Tain. Translated from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge. Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1969.
   ■ Koch, John T., and Carey, John, eds. The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales. New York: David Brown, 2003.
   Diane Korngiebel

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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