Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles.

Verba Scathaige – Scathach’s Words

We opened the episode “Women Warriors: The Training of Cú Chulainn“, with a reading, in Irish and English, of Verba Scathaige. This is the poem that Scáthach creates using her imbás forosna, one of the most advanced poetic techniques, used in story to see events far off in time and space. This attribute of Scáthach’s is reminiscent of the Mór Rígain, especially of her role in Cath Maige Tuired, the Battle of Moytura.

To compare this poem with the three roscada of the Mór Rígain in Cath Maige Tuired, you can read all three in “The Mór Rígain Speaks: Her Three Poems“.

Read more »

Could you help with ‘tech’ support?


Isolde and I are not exactly ‘techies’. We are competent but not much more. We waste so much time when there are minor connectivity issues with the website or podcast. For instance, why do we have to connect every post to Facebook manually? It should connect automatically but it never does. Why not? I have no idea.

My son gives us some support but it would be SO much easier if there was someone, with an interest in the material who could keep an eye on things and offer support with the technical aspects of site administration. We are both, only too aware that there are many improvements that could be made if we had the time.  We would love to be able to dedicate all the limited time available to us to focus further on research and podcast preparation.

So, is there anyone out there who would be prepared to come on board and give us a hand? We would be delighted to talk with you.


Women Warriors ~ The Training of Cú Chulainn

A graphic showing a ringed planet, with a bull on the central planet, and images representing characters from the Táin on satelites around the planet

The magnificent warrior women Scathach and Aife both play a major role in Cú Chulainn’s future life and exploits but they are not the only women who actively engage with out young hero..

Join the Story Archaeologists as they attempt to come to terms with the number of  dalliances and romantic interludes encountered   by the young man on his ventures to Scathach’s mysterious northern island in his quest to win his canny bride, Emer.

Read the text for yourself!

This episode discusses only the second half of this text. The first half was addressed in the previous episode, 6.05 : ‘The Wooing of Emer.”

The Wooing of Emer ~ Cú Chulainn meets his match

A graphic showing a ringed planet, with a bull on the central planet, and images representing characters from the Táin on satelites around the planet

Cú Chulainn meets his match

In this episode we get to meet the marvelous Emer, the woman who bests  the young Cú Chulainn, at least, in terms of her sharp witted and far-sighted eloquence.

Join the Story Archaeologists as we try to decode how Emer manages her young and unpredictable suitor and deals with her uncompromising father.

Read the text for yourself!

This episode discusses only the first part of this long text. The second half, where our hero goes to be trained in Alba, will form the basis of the next episode.

Circling the Táin 04: Harder, Faster, Stronger, Better – The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn

A graphic showing a ringed planet, with a bull on the central planet, and images representing characters from the Táin on satelites around the planet

Harder, Faster, Stronger, Better!

In this episode, we get to examine some remarkable exploits of one of the central figures in the Tain tradition: Cú Chulainn.  We explore stories told by some of the characters who know the hero, remembering him as a child.

Join the Story Archaeologists as we try to decide if  the young Cú Chulainn can be considered a ‘child prodigy’  or merely a ‘precocious brat’.

Read the texts for yourself!

Here are links to the texts and translations that we used for the childhood deeds of Cú Chulainn:

The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn.” Ancient Irish Tales. ed. and trans. Tom Cross and Harris Slover. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1996. reprint

The Boyhood of Cú Chulainn, from Táin Bó Cuailgne Recension 1; pp 135-148 [translation]: ed. and trans. Cecile O’Rahilly

The sections we refer to are under the following titles:

  • The Eulogy of Cú Chulainn
  • The Boyhood Deeds
  • The Death of the Boys
  • The Fight between Eógan mac Durthacht and Conchobar [aka Cú Chulainn and the Battlefield Phantoms]
  • The fate of the twenty-seven men and the reason why none dared to wound the Ulstermen when they were in their debility.
  • The killing of the Smith’s Hound by Cú Chulainn and the reason why he is called Cú Chulainn
  • The Death of Nechta Scéne’s Three Sons


Circling the Táin 03: The Birth Pangs of Ulster

A graphic showing a ringed planet, with a bull on the central planet, and images representing characters from the Táin on satelites around the planet

In this episode, we continue our exploration of the troublesome conceptions and births that stand behind much of the material of the Táin tradition. This time, we examine the births of the doomed Deirdre, the fated Cú Chulainn and re-re-visit the importance of Macha’s story.

Join the Story Archaeologists as we attempt to disentangle webs of prophecy and poor decision-making, and try to understand what all these little worms are about!

Read the texts for yourself!

Here are links to the texts and translations that we used for the birth of Deirdre:

from the Book of Leinster (LL)

Longes mac n-Uislenn – edited by Vernam Hull

The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu – translated by Vernam Hull

late version translated by Douglas Hyde



Here are the texts on Macha:

Noinden Ulad; The Story of Macha

More Stories of Macha – Revisited

An original translation of Compert Con Chulainn, the Conception of Cú Chulainn, will be uploaded in the coming days

Need some revision?

You may find it helpful to revisit our episodes on Macha:

Series 1 – Mythical Women; Episode 2 – The Story of Macha

Series 5 – Revisiting Mythical Women; Episode 2 – Revisiting Macha


Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page, or e-mail us for other ways to support our work.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

Circling The Tain 02: Portents and Prophecies

A graphic showing figures from the Táin tradition imagined as a planet surrounded by rings and moons, with a couple of comets

The richly interwoven stories that make up the Táin tradition contain a wide diversity of characters. There is much to explore. Even their back stories have back stories!

In this episode, we explore the back stories of two such characters: the well-known Ulster king, Conchobar Mac Nessa, and the lesser-known Ulster hero, Conall Cernach.

Join the Story Archaeologists in the first of two episodes that uncover the significance of a few portentous conceptions and births.

Read the texts for yourself!

Scéla Conchobar, “The Tidings of Conchobar”, from the Book of Leinster.
Compert Conchobair, “The Conception of Conchobar”, from Rawlinson B512 (incorrectly referred to in the episode as from the Yellow Book of Lecan)
Compert Conchobair, “The Conception of Conchobar”, from Stowe 992
“The Conception of Conall Cernach”, from Cóir Anmann, “The Fitness of Names”
“The Conception of Conall Cernach”, translated by Patrick Brown

Links to other books referenced in the episode

“Even Cuneiform writing could not be managed left handed”: “The Ark before Noah” by Irving Finkel (highly recommended)
“The journey across the Alps in Táin Bó Fraoich”: “Worlds of Arthur.”  by Guy Halsall

Need some revision?

You may find it helpful to revisit our episodes on Fled Bricrenn, Bricriu’s Feast:

Fled Bricrenn 1: The Feasting Hall

Fled Bricrenn 2: The Road to Crúachán

Fled Bricrenn 3: Your Head or Mine?

Fled Bricrenn 4: A Head to Head Discussion



Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page, or e-mail us for other ways to support our work.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

‘The Crucifixion of the Outcast’ ~ a story by W.B. Yeats


As I  mentioned in our recent Festivus Special, Aisling MacConglinne – A Satirical Tale of Extreme Gastronomy, I had  no more than a superficial familiarity with the text when we selected it for our 2016 mid-winter podcast.

It is one of Isolde’s favourite stories, so I was aware, that the story involved a poet’s vision of a land of sumptuous food.and that ts central theme was  a poet’s satire on the church. However,  I had not read the full text in any detail.

When I began to re-examine the text, I realised that the first part of the story was very familiar to me. This section focused on the quarrel between an abbot and the master poet, MacConglinne. This travelling scholar experienced a distinct lack of hospitality from the monks, and underwent appalling ill treatment at their hands.

While exploring thetext,  I remembered a short story that I had read in the very early seventies. It came from a collection of Irish short stories entitled “The Wild Night Company”, edited by Peter Haining with a foreword by the wonderful Ray Bradbury.   I have no recollection of where I acquired the book but it may be that I was attracted to its somewhat lurid cover. Now, when reviewing the contents of the book , I become aware that this is where I may have first encountered many of the Irish stories that I now know so well. Thy included one of the, if not the earliest, werewolf story, attributed to Geraldus Cambrensis, Oscar Wilde’s ‘Canterville Ghost’,   ‘Teighe O’Kane and the Corpse’ (see Corpse Carrying For Beginners ~a Samhain Special from a few years ago), and the atmospheric, ‘Witch Wood’ by Lord Dunsanywilliam_butler_yeats_by_george_charles_beresford

The W.B. Yeats story, included in the collection, was not one I had previously encountered even though, in 1971, when the book was published, I would have been studying Yeats at degree level.  I found out that it had originally been published in the anthology, ‘The Secret Rose’ (1897).

I was intrigued by the story but, at the time, felt that I was missing information that would allow me to decode its intentions. In ‘The Crucifixion of the Outcast’ Yeats replicates the first part of the story of MacConglinne in some detail,  His un-named poet or ‘ glee-man’ meets with the same  abuse and inhospitality as  MacConglinne,  but fails to escape his intended fate, the punishment of  crucifixion. The second part of the MacConglinne story, where the poet uses a poetic vision to revenge himself on the niggardly abbot and rescue the king from the demon of gluttony that inhabits him, is completely absent. Yeats’ version is a dark and brooding telling but stripped of the dark humour and extravagant satire of the original story it loses the impact of the original, text

Yeat’s partial re-telling is intended to form a diatribe on early medieval church practice. However, the full story offers so much more. It, too, is a  criticism on church law. It  illustrates what happens when the ancient laws of hospitality are ignored but it also points out that the traditional tool of legal satire is still very much alive and kicking.

There are, as mentioned, two sections of the story. The first part describes the treatment MacConglinne receives at the hands of the monks, the beatings, abuse and his, intended, vicious execution. In the second, the poet uses a description of a poetic vision of food to draw the demon of gluttony from the king.

At a first reading, the sections appear different both in tone and style. Both demonstrate the Master Poet’s quick wits and ready word-craft. The second section, however, comedic in style, has a purpose that does connect it to the poet’s initial reception. The king, who has been tricked into swallowing en-spelled fruit, has no poet to guard and guide him. Only a traditionally trained poet, whose innate abilities give him the power to travel the landscapes of both the temporal and the ‘Otherworld’, can save him.  Without this power, the king continues to devour the fertility of the land and neither, he or his people, will derive any benefit from it. The text warns that the land is close to ruin with its king under the curse of gluttony. MacConglinne, when he speaks the satire on Cork in the first art of the story, is not threatening a future event. he is merely stating a current threat.

Cork, wherein are sweet bells,
Sour is its sand,
Its soil is sand,
Food there is none in it.

The king needs his poet and MacConglinne demonstrates that the traditional Master Poet can succeed when the church can only bluster and threaten. The vision of a journey to a land of over-indulgence, is intended to be highly comedic and entertaining and yet it includes the clear message that hospitality is not just about consumption or extravagant feasting. If its cultural and social purpose, protected by the lore of the Master Poet  is lost, then hospitality, however lavish,  devolves to mere gluttony.

By contrasting the creative paucity of the monastic life with the individual master poet’s   free-handed hospitable, ever-flowing feast of words MacConglinne may also be offering a warning to poets.  Through his   luscious and wildly extravagant descriptions, he is surely passing wry comments on the effects of purple prose, perhaps a trait he, a master Poet,is beginning to recognise in non traditionally trained court entertainers..

Even today, the most effective satire juxtaposes dark comedy with exaggerated consequences. The Aisling MacConglinne is an effective satire. It is also a literary story of some skill and well worth reading. However, the Yeats story is also interesting in its own right. I am pleased to have re-encountered it, along with the other stories from a book that I last enjoyed many years ago.

You can read both texts through the links below. See what you think.

The Crucifixion of the Outcast by W.B. Yeats

The full text of Aisling MacConglinne




Winter Special 2016: Aisling MacConglinne – A Satirical Tale of Extreme Gastronomy

Illustration of "The Ghost of Christmas Present" from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"The Midwinter festival has been a time of over indulgence and conspicuous consumption for millenia! This year, we dig in to the Middle Irish story, Aisling MacConglinne, “The Vision of MacConglinne”, a delicious debauch of extreme gastronomy.!

Join the Story Archaeologists in a feast of fantastical food, with a generous side order of sumptuous satire.

Read the full translated text here!

Don’t forget to subscribe to get the latest posts! Related Articles will be posted in the days to come…

Story Archaeology is run on a voluntary not-for-profit basis. If you can afford a donation towards our running costs, we would be very grateful. The “Donate” button is on the right-hand-side of each page, or e-mail us for other ways to support our work.

Check our Reading List for further reading and resources.

by The Story Archaeologists

Music: “Tam Lin” by Gian Castello

A Battle between Equals

Wild boar with pigletsIn a recent episode, 6.01 – The Quarrel of The Two Swineherds, we discussed a magical battle between two equal antagonists. These were Friuch and Rucht, the swineherds attached to the chieftains of Munster and Connacht respectively. As we made clear in the podcast, this pair were in no manner low status menials. As with the cup bearers or door keepers, these were men of high importance. It is clear from their stated abilities that these swineherds are indeed chief poets, upholding the wealth and fertility of the land.

The story tells how they are persuaded, perhaps goaded, into a contest by their own Túaths, who each wish to show off the powers of their own man. The contest begins in a friendly manner with both Friuch and Rucht initiating the other’s pigs’ failure to thrive. But, inevitably, this contest of equals gets out of hand and causes chaos. Both swineherds shape-shift into a series of different creatures – including two great birds, water creatures, stags and Fian Warriors – each for a period of two years,  a sure indication of their marvelous poetic abilities. Finally, in the form of worms, they are swallowed by two cows who will become the dams of two wondrous bulls,  the Finnbend Aí and the Dond Cualngi. If you would like to enjoy the full story of this shape-shifting contest, do listen to the podcast.

This tale serves the purpose of an ‘origin story’ for the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great battle for dominance between Connaught and Ulster that carries in its path so many other  exploits and hero tales.  However, we also commented on the significance of the parity demonstrated by these two antagonists and its relevance to the stories within the Tain tradition.

Magical battles, especially those involving changes of shape, are not uncommon. We have referenced several of them in other episodes. However, there are differences. This tale does not involve shape-shifting to expiate an escape, as in Cian’s transformation of himself into a pig to avoid the attention of bandits. (See Series 2 episode 9: The Children of Tuirenn). The same is true of Gwion’s multi-formed flight in the Mabinogion story.  Gwion has unintentionally gained the magical benefit from a cauldron of wisdom lengthily prepared by Ceridwen. He shape-shifts desperately in an attempt to evade capture but is eventually swallowed by her in the form of a grain of wheat while she takes the form of a hen. In all his forms, he is trying to out-wit Ceridwen rather than to challenge her.

Neither is it the shape-shifting challenge to a master by an apprentice or junior poet / warrior.  This is definitely a battle between equals, and such parity is more unusual.

In series 2 episode 4 “On the Track of the Dagda” we  discussed the meeting between The  Dagda and Indech’s daughter. This is a battle of words of power. No shape-shifting takes place, but the threat is implicit.

Then the girl said ‘You shall not go to the battle by any means.’
‘Certainly I will go’ replied Dagda.
‘You will not, for I will be a stone at the mouth of every ford you cross.’
‘That may be true,’ he replied ‘but you will not keep me from battle, I will tread heavily on every stone and the imprint of my heel will be on every stone forever.’
‘But you still will not go past me until I summon the Fomorians who are the sons  from the fairy hills, because I will be a giant oak in every ford and in every pass that you must cross’ she countered.
‘Indeed I will go past and I will hack at every oak with my axe and the mark will remain in every oak tree forever.

During the podcast we referred to the folk song ‘The Two Magicians’. The song, perhaps best known in the modern version popularised by Steeleye Span, takes the form of a chase between a Smith and a virginal woman who seeks to evade his advances. The woman shape shifts to aid her escape, just as Gwion does  in the story of his escape from Ceridwen in the Mabinogion,The smith adopts an appropriately predatory form, as does Ceridwen. In some versions of the song the woman escapes the smith. In other versions the Smith catches up with her and takes her maidenhood.

(There’s a more modernised version by the wonderful Magnetic Fields, “Wi Nae Wee Bairn Ye’ll Me Beget“. – IC)

However, although this British song shares some superficial similarities with the stories already mentioned, especially the tale of Gwion and his multi form pursuit, it has less in common with the tale of our two swineherds.

While I was struggling to identify folkloric examples of magical battles between equals,  a few modern versions did come to mind.  That  long-running modern epic, Star Wars, contains plenty of magical battles, involving mind operated force weapons, especially that great favourite, the light sabre. 3341631713_a22f20920dWhereas many of the central encounters are between a master and an up-coming apprentice or junior,  several magical encounters between holders of equal powers can be identified. The force battle between Yoda and Count Dooku comes to mind, or perhaps the meeting between Mace Windu and Darth Sidious is a better example. the-raven-roger-corman_filmAnother of my favourite films also fits the pattern. This is the 1963 Roger Corman film, ‘The Raven’, very loosely based on Poe’s poem. It involves a magical battle between magicians to rescue a third sorcerer who has been transformed into a raven. Starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff, this tongue-in-cheek film is a classic.

A more traditional example can be found in the Finnish Kalevala. The Kalevala is a synthetic compilation of folklore and tales collected and formatted into an epic narrative by the nineteenth century linguist Elias Lönnrot. Lönnrot made a great many field trips to gather as much material as he could from the ancient oral tradition of surviving songs and poems, and formed them into a continuous narrative. There are also more modern translations and retellings of this traditional material.

One of the central characters of this Finnish tradition is Väinämöinen, a wise poet and creator magician. At the start of the first cycle which bears his name, he meets and battles with another, lesser magician, the jealous Joukahainen. The battle takes the form of a contest of songs of power, which, as we have demonstrated in the podcast, is frequently the poetic equivalent of shape-shifting. Joukahainen boasts of his abilities, but Väinämöinen easily defeats him with his own more powerful magical words. Below is an extract from this section of the story retold by Aaron Shepherd from ‘The Songs of Power, A Finnish Tale of Magic’ from the Kalevala’. You can read the whole story through the following link:

Said Joukahainen,
“Yes, I know a thing or two.
I know the fire is on the hearth, and the smoke hole near the ceiling.
A plough in the south is pulled by horse, and in the north by reindeer.
The pike feeds on salmon and lays its eggs when frost arrives.”

“An infant knows as much!” said Vainamoinen.
“What else can you offer?”
Said Joukahainen,

“Iron comes from ore, copper from the rock.
Water is born from the mountains, fire from the heavens.
The titmouse was the first of birds, the willow the first of trees.”

“A toddler has such wisdom!
Can you furnish nothing better?”

Said Joukahainen,
“Back in the beginning, the seas were dug out, and the mountains piled high.
The pillars of the sky were erected, and the rainbow raised.
The sun and moon were set on their paths, and the stars scattered in the sky.”

“Know yourself a fool,” said Vainamoinen.
“For I dug out the seas, and I piled high the mountains.
I stood among the seven heroes who erected the pillars of the sky and raised the rainbow.
And when that was done, we set the sun and moon on their paths and scattered the stars in the heavens.”

This part of the tale, ‘The Songs of Power’, shares resonance with our Irish tale of the Poet-Swineherds and their magical contest. However, Vainamoinen and Joukahainen are by no means equals. Joukahainen is a typical jealous upstart, a young, would-be magician-poet attempting to challenge the older and more experienced master poet.

The latter part of this and later song cycles may have a greater connection with  the story of the ‘Quarrel of the Two Swineherds’, and provide an unexpected connection to ‘The Two Magicians’, the folk song referenced earlier in this article. After the battle of the songs of power, the defeated Joukahainen offers his sister’s hand as a pledge for his life. Although the sister, Aino, dies, Vainamoinin continues his quest for a bride. In a later part of the first cycle, (songs 6-10), Vainamoinen seeks to woo ‘The Maiden of the North’. He persuades the magical smith, Ilmarinen, to aid him. Even with this aid, Vainamoinin undertakes many dangerous adventures in his attempts to win the maiden.

In subsequent song poems, the smith becomes a rival for the maiden himself. He is also set a series of impossible takes to carry out but succeeds with the help of the putative bride. Eventually, it is the smith, rather than Vainamoinin, that she chooses to marry.

So, it seems, this is another epic story-cycle that commences with a tale of two magical equals,  who begin as friends and become rivals. Our Poet-Swineherds do not become rivals for the hand of a maiden, but in their incarnations as the two great bulls they certainly initiate, like Vainamoinin and Ilmarinen, a plethora of epic stories. In this short article I can offer no more than a brief outline of the themes that make up these Finnish song cycles. The stories are entertaining and well worth reading in full.

I am drawing no conclusions from my observations of the story of Vainamoinin and Ilmarenin. I am suggesting no direct connection between the tales. However, I set out to identify another traditional tale of a magical battle between equals. Resonances with the Finnish Kalevala have proved unexpected and worth exploring further.

I can leave Star Wars for another time!

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