Story Archaeology

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

Pleasing the “King-of-Bling!” ~ Notes on the tasks of the Sons of Tuireann

Lugh is, of course, well within his rights to ask for a high éric, an honour price for the murder of his father, Cian.

However, in this story, which clearly reflects Classical influences, Lugh intends the collection of the quest items to cost the lives of Brian and his brothers.

Lugh hopes that the brothers will be killed in carrying out his wishes, and no more intends them to return than Eurystheus to see Heracles or Pelias to see Jason again.

We discuss the outcome of the quest and the fate of the Children of Tuireann in full during the next episode, but I thought it might be interesting to list their tasks in order and examine possible sources and connections with other stories.

The tasks are disingenuously given as “three apples, the skin of a pig, a spear, two steeds, a chariot, seven pigs, a whelp, a cooking spit, and three shouts on a hill”.

The three brothers breathe a sigh of relief at this absurdly low fine. Of course, the quest is not as simple as it sounds.

 The first task ~the three applesAtlas gives the apples to Heracles

The three apples are to be fruit from the garden of the Hesperides. Collecting these apples was originally one of the famous labours of Heracles.  The choice of a similar quest for Brian and his brothers illustrates the classical influence on the tale. Their task is to be as significant as the labours of the ancient Greek hero.

The quest for the apples represents the eleventh quest for Heracles. He has been away for more than eight years and believes that he has finally completed his labours. However, Eurystheus insists that Heracles had help in killing the Hydra and in cleaning out the Augean stables, and that therefore these tasks do not count. He is sent away to undertake two more quests. His search for the apples is the first “replacement” quest.

Even this aspect of the story is replicated in the Sons of Tuireann. The brothers are tricked by Lugh’s spell into returning before they have obtained the final two items. Their anguish and danger is increased, just as happens in the Greek tale.

The golden apples belonged to Zeus. They were kept in a garden at the northern edge of the world, and they were guarded not only by a hundred-headed dragon, named Ladon, but also by the Hesperides; nymphs who were daughters of Atlas, the titan who held the sky and the earth upon his shoulders.

Heracles’ first problem was to search for the garden. On the way, he had a great many well-known adventures, including a fight with the son of the war god, Ares, and an encounter with the sea-god, Nereus. In spite of Nereus’ shape-shifting abilities, Heracles gained the secret location of the garden. This was followed by a wrestling match with Antaeus, the son of the sea god, Poseidon.

Another famous encounter Heracles faced on his way to the garden was his meeting with Prometheus, chained to a rock while an eagle devoured his liver daily. Heracles freed him. Thankful for the cessation of this torture, he told Heracles to seek out Atlas, brother of Prometheus, and ask him to take the apples for him.

The manner in which Heracles tricked Atlas into getting the apples is generally well known. Heracles offered to hold the world on his shoulders, but when Atlas refused to take back the burden, begged a few minutes just to re-arrange his cloak. He then returned with the apples to Eurystheus.

By contrast, the sons of Tuireann have no problem finding the garden. Manannán’s magical boat is able to find the way directly. Brian turns his brothers into hawks and they swoop down on the apples. Brian even carries away an extra apple.

The Irish storyteller clearly knows the story of Heracles, but goes one better. Heracles has been criticised for needing help to complete his task, and yet, in this subsequent quest, it is Atlas who retrieves the apples for him. Brian and his brothers do the job with nothing but their own prowess and Brian’s shape-shifting arts. So, who’s better than Heracles, then?

Magic apples turn up in several of the medieval stories. Manannán’s isle is often known as Emain Ablach, the “Place of Apples”, as well as the “Isle of Promise”. Manannán presents Cormac with a wonderful apple-branch that, when shaken, will bring peace and healing.

Heracles’ apples are returned to the garden of the Hesperides on the advice of Athena. We never find out how Lugh uses the apples of the Hesperides, but there is certainly no suggestion that he sends them back!.

 The second task ~ the pig-skin.wild boar

This magical skin will cure a sick or injured person covered with it.

Brian and his brothers arrive at the court of the King of Greece.  Brian, against the wishes of his brothers, introduces themselves as poets. Iuchar and Iucharbar will not speak, but Brian performs a poem on the topic of the pig-skin. The king is confused, but Brian explains the poem’s meaning and import, and its connection with the object of their visit to the king. The king declines to give up the pig-skin, but offers as a substitute thrice its fill in gold. Brian accepts the offer, but then seizes the skin by force, kills its bearer, and he and his brothers deal havoc amongst the household of the king, whom Brian slays in single combat. They get the pig-skin as well as three fills of gold.

 Pigs are important in Irish stories and perhaps, even more, in some of the old Welsh stories.  The final quest in the long tale of Culhwch and Olwen from ‘The Mabinogion’, (and there are more than thirty-five quests to undertake, not just a slender eight), involves a major hunt for a magical boar. Like Cian, the “pig” that causes the trouble in our story, Twrch Trwyth is also a transformed prince. However, this boar is eventually, and at a high cost, finished off in his animal shape; and the comb, scissors and razor recovered in order to shave the giant, Ysbaddaden Pencawr.

There may also be a classical connection with the quest for the pig-skin. There are strong resonances with the tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. King Pelias usurped the throne, leaving Jason to be brought up on Mount Pelion in Thessaly by a centaur named Cheiron. Meantime, his uncle lived in dread of an oracle’s prophecy, which said he should fear the ‘man with one shoe’. Pelias, feigning friendship, sent Jason to get the fleece, expecting that he would not survive the quest.

Just like Heracles, Jason and his team of champions, the Argonauts, have many adventures along the way. Even Heracles himself is involved for a while. However, once in Colchis, Jason asks King Aietes to return the Golden Fleece. Aietes agrees to do so if Jason can perform a series of superhuman tasks. He has to yoke fire-breathing bulls, plough and sow a field with dragons’ teeth, and overcome phantom warriors. With the help of Aietes daughter, Medea, Jason achieves the healing fleece.

The ram-fleece and the pig-skin have similar powers of healing, and are both symbols of power and strength. However, once again, Brian and the boys don’t waste time wooing king’s daughters or fighting phantoms. They slaughter the king. What is more, they may not get a golden fleece, but they get three times the fill of the pig-skin in gold as well.

The third task ~ the spear

Irish bronze spear

The brothers must acquire the poisoned spear of Pisear, the King of Persia. Their approach is exactly the same as for task two. Well it worked. The children of Tuireann assume the garb of poets, and seek and get admittance to the king. Brian’s poem requires explanation, as before. Not surprisingly, the king is not impressed and refuses to hand over the spear, whereupon Brian slays him with a magic apple. There is a general slaughter of the household. The brothers find the spear and carry it away.

There is still a hint of classical influence here. After all, with their efficient slaughter of the King of Persia and his entourage, the brothers easily exceed the prowess of Alexander and, perhaps, the spear’s poison recalls the manner in which Heracles dipped his arrows in the blood of the Hydra to thoroughly envenom them. However, spears were an important and commonly employed weapon in Ireland, and there are several marvelous and magical spears. One example is Fionn’s spear that had to be kept hooded lest it drank of its own will. The sons of Calatin in the Táin were renowned for using poisoned spears which never missed their mark.  Any man wounded by such spears was certain to die.

Probably the most relevant to our text  is the famous spear of Lugh, one of the four Dé Danann treasures,  brought from Gorias, one of the cities in the north. So was Lugh after a second spear?

The fourth task ~ the chariot and horses

Iron age  chariot

This magical team belonging to Dobar, the King of the Island of Siogair (Scicily), can run as easily on water as on land. They also have the power to revive if killed, as long as their bones are kept.

This time, the brothers present themselves as Irish mercenaries. They make friends with the king and contract with him as such, but after a month, they have heard nothing of the chariot. After six weeks, they threaten to leave unless they are shown the chariot, stating that warriors of their kind, in their own country, are treated as high status and close confidants of kings.

The king tells Brian that they never asked. He parades the chariot which can go on land and water. Brian watches carefully and then grabs the charioteer by the foot, leaping into the chariot. He then uses the spear to kill the king. Brian’s brothers kill everyone as usual.

Again, Lugh seems to be asking for something he may already have. In our ttext most of Lugh’s spectacular and magical equipment is provided by Manannán, including, Aonbharr, the magical horse, who could gallop over the sea as if it had been a green pastureland. No chariot of Manannán is mentioned, but the horse is certainly familiar.

The fifth task ~ the seven pigs

wild piglets

The pigs belong to Easal, King of the Golden Pillars. These seven animals when eaten will prevent illness and disease. However, like the horses, they will revive the following day, to be killed and eaten again.

The brothers discover their reputation has preceded them. Everyone has heard that the champions have been banished from Ireland for their oppression, and are now raiding the world for treasures. Easal comes to the harbour to treat with them. He asks what they want, and then offers to give them the pigs, rather than lose them and his life in battle. Brian is delighted to get the pigs so easily. And they feast with the king. Brian explains the whole situation.

These health-giving and economically efficient pigs would have been regarded with approval by an Irish audience as an appropriate “food of the gods”. In the Classical world, Ambrosia, the “Nectar of the Goddess”, is generally regarded as the food of the gods, granting them immortality. Food of longevity is also found in other cultures. Iðunn is a Norse goddess associated with apples and youth. The Chinese immortals held “Peach Feasts”. Another source of immortality in some Irish stories is the fruit of the magical Quicken tree (Rowen).

Pigs are always important in the Irish folktales. It is hardly surprising that Cian takes the form of a pig, and it is a huge boar that causes the death of Diarmuid, Fionn’s friend. Pigs have always been an important food source, especially in the winter season. However, in the Welsh tales, they have an even greater significance. A pig-raid is central to one branch of the Mabinogion.

However, the most direct reference to equivalent pigs is, once again, connected with Manannán. In the Medieval tale of “Cormac’s Cup”, Cormac is lead to Manannán’s Isle of Promise. Here, in a fine thatched dún, he encounters a cauldron that will only boil food when true stories are told. One of the stories that achieves this aim is a tale of pigs that may be butchered and eaten, but which will revive if the bones are retained.

There may be a slight Classical influence in the choice of the name, “The king of the Golden Pillars”. It is most likely that the pillars are intended to be the Pillars of Heracles, near Gibraltar. Certainly this gives us a connection with the labours of Heracles, but it is also true that these pillars were once regarded as being at the edge of the known world. The brothers, the narrator is telling us, have become a world-class act.

The sixth task ~ the hound-whelp


The hound-whelp is owned by the King of Ioruaidh. The hound, Failinis, is said to be the best in the world.

When the brothers arrive, with Easal who hopes to persuade his son-in-law, Ioruaidh, to give up the puppy without a fight, the harbour is guarded. Easal goes ashore peacefully. Easal cannot persuade the king to surrender the hound. Ioruaidh cannot see why three warriors should be allowed to get away with all these outrageous raids. The brothers battle the king’s warriors, hacking and slaying as usual. Brian and his brothers become separated in the battle. Brian fights his way to the king’s battle pen and there is a “boss” fight. Brian overcomes Ioruaidh, binds him and takes him to Easal. They get the hound and Ioruaidh is freed.

There is little else to say about this quest other than that Failinis is Inis Fáil, a name for Ireland.

The seventh task ~ the cooking spit


The cooking spit is owned by the women of the Island of Fianchaire. This quest takes place after the brothers have been enchanted by Lugh and return to Ireland before all the tasks have been completed. They set out, again, for  the last two quests, leaving the items they have already gained behind.

The brothers search for three months without discovering news of the island. This is unusual, as up until now, Manannán’s boat has taken them directly to wherever they want to go. Eventually,  Brian puts on his “glass, light-admitting headdress” (diving helmet? …joke…) and walks  for a fortnight in the sea, until he finds the  Island of Fianchaire. In the court, he finds a group of women sewing, but they do have the cooking spit with them. Brian picks up the spit thinking “This is easy!” The women laugh and tell him that, even with his brothers, he wouldn’t have a chance against the least of them, but they give him the spit for his undaunted bravery. He returns joyfully to his brothers in the boat.

The importance of the cooking spit may lie in it being a rare and valuable metal item, but there may also be resonances of the Fulacht Fiadh in this task. These archaeological sites are also known as “burnt mound” sites. They have always been considered to be early cooking sites where meat was boiled in water heated with stones from a fire. There is a burnt mound site in County Tipperary known as Fulacht na Mór Ríoghna, “Cooking Pit of the Mórrígan”. The fulachtaí sites are found in wild areas, and traditionally associated with the Fianna, as well as with the hunting of deer.

Recent experimental archaeology has demonstrated that there purpose could have been more industrial; cloth making and dyeing, or even brewing. A drinkable brew has been produced. For more detailed information I have added links to a couple of entertaining and informative websites at the end of this article.

A connection with the Fulacht Fiadh does not throw light on why it seems that the island of the women is beneath the sea. The name of the island, Fianchaire, implies wild water or a cauldron. There is a dindshenchas whirlpool called Coire Breccán, “Cauldron of Breccán”, said to lie  between Scotland and Ireland.

The stories of the “land under wave” become increasingly popular as time goes on, and many are found in the stories collected in Scotland an Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Typical is the Scottish story that tells how Fionn and the Fenians rescued the daughter of the King-Under-Wave from a vicious warrior, the Dark Prince. Later Diarmuid goes on an underwater hunt for a golden cup and a healing well in the land of the dead to cure her sickness. He finally returns to the rest of the Fenians with the cup, given to him as a gift. There are echoes from so many stories gathered into this tale; Oisín and Niamh, Cormac’s Cup, the quest for the grail and many more. However, the most memorable part of the folktale is the evocative description of the Land-Under-Wave itself.

When no wind blows and the surface of the sea is clear as crystal, the beauties of Land-under-Waves are revealed to human eyes. It is a fair country with green vales through which flow silvern streams, and the pebbles in the beds of the streams are flashing gems of varied hues. There are deep forests that glitter in eternal sunshine, and bright flowers that never fade. Rocks are of gold, and the sand is dust of silver.

There is such a lyrical and appealling atmosphere to this passage that it is not hard to imagine how  romantic stories of lost towns and underwater worlds would grow in the telling. There is the settlement of the O’Neills languishing beneath Lough Neagh (apparently the spire of the church may still be seen at low water), or the lost monastery, off the cliffs of Moher, punished for its lax and profligate ways. Then there are the creatures, not always as amicable as the daughter of the King-Under-Wave. Mermaids may look attractive, but may be tricky and, it seems, even leprachauns might have originally been water creatures. Around our local lough, Lough Allen, there is a legend of a witch who called up storms from her stone boat. When the boat was sunk, she and her vessel sank to the bottom. She can still call up storms, however. The problem is that now, there is no warning as she ccan no longer be seen.

I wonder if she had a cooking spit?

We have now covered each of the tasks that supply treasure to Lugh. The last task will bring nothing to Lugh unless it be the death of the brothers.

As these notes are getting to be as long as the Children of Tuireann – “King of Bling” podcast episode itself, I have decided to keep discussion of the final task, “Three Shouts on a Hill”, until the next episode, which has the same title. The final task has always interested me and it is worth discussing separately.

So until next time, may the bling be mighty!

Here are the promised links

For the Scottish story of “The Princess of Land-under-Waves: 

For information on the Fulacht Fiadh, particularly the connection with brewing:

For an informative website on Fulacht Fiadh created as an on-line thesis byAnne-Maire Denvir, an archaeologist from Belfast :

Chris Thompson

March ’13

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