Irish medieval history has always been an interest of me because of the mysterious tales and heroic sagas. I liked it being younger and just reading them, now I like to study the stories and learn more about Irish medieval culture. In this post I will discuss the ambivalent role of women in the sagas by looking into their most powerful weapon: words.
First of all it is useful to know that the spoken word was of tremendous value in pre-christian Ireland: people preferred a spoken oath to a written one because the piece of paper could be thrown into the fire and that would make the oath lose its significance and value. The spoken word was important because someone could not take back what they said and render the said useless. This explains why the druids never wrote something down but instead were trained to memorize genealogies, annals, magic etc. but also why poets could use a satire to harm and dishonour people. Words could kill directly and indirectly: a king could die of shame when a satire was cast upon him and three pimples would appear on his face 1, kings who were not perfect i.e. a blemish on the body of a king meant that he could not be king because blemishes meant that someone lost his/her honour. 2 Another powerful formula was geis (plural gessi) which can be translated to taboo (the most common use of the word). Anyone could lay a geis upon another person and that person had to live by that taboo: if it was broken terrible thing happened which ended in death. Tom Sjöblom suggests that some gessi were used to regulate society and make sure that for instance warriors did protect their people and land. Other gessi are warnings not to go to places where a your predecessor found his death. 3
Women in Irish sagas are mostly not portrayed as leaders and main characters who decide which way the story goes. Where women in Irish sagas are primarily known for is the death of their lovers, childbearing, pronouncing gessi and seducing the male main characters. However the protagonist of The exile of the sons of Usnech is Deirdre who happens to cause the exile of the brothers by forcing the eldest, Naisi, in a geis like manner to take her with him and live happily ever after. She does that by closing her hands around his face and clasping his ears, which was a way of demanding protection, meanwhile telling him that if he won’t take her she’ll tell anybody that he refused her when she asked for his protection. Being a warrior it is probably geis for Naisi to refuse and with the threat of a lost honour he and his two brothers take her with them, along with 150 other warriors to protect them. This strong and persuasive will of Deirdre is prophesied when she was still in the womb and because of that she is held captive by King Conchobor who wants her as his wife when she is old enough. By taking Deirdre with him, Naisi is chased by Conchobor through all of Ireland and forced to go to Scotland. By a cunning plan, and using the gessi of the men he sent to cajole them to return to Ireland, Conchobor kills the brothers and their warriors and takes Deirdre back to his house. While she lives as Conchobor’s wife Deirdre is not happy and won’t speak nor laugh nor eat or sleep, only to tell her husband why she hates him and still mourns Naisi’s death, which she knows she’s caused. A hungerstrike on the doorstep of the offender in Irish literature and law is a way of getting justice done. Because hospitality was very important in Irish society it was a great dishonour to have someone dying at one’s doorstep.4 Instead of accepting her life as Conchobor’s wife Deirdre she takes once again matters in her own hand as she kills herself by smashing her head on a stone, instead of living without Naisi.
The saga feels like the hopeless love of Romeo and Juliet because Naisi and Deirdre were not allowed to be together but it also portrays an individual who is not afraid to take matters in her own hands although her actions have serious consequences something which is opposite to the concept of geis: a person cannot go against their taboos and has to live according them otherwise they’ll die. The fact that Deirdre had or had no gessi is unanswered in the saga but since the Irish society was a society based on honour and accepting one’s fate in order to keep one’s honour. It is typical that Deirdre goes against all norms but it explains why she is hunted by Conchobor, why Naisi dies and why she takes her own life: disaster happens when you break your gessi.
1. Draak, M. and F. de Jong, De lastige schare gevolgd door vijf anekdoten over dichtgeleerden (Amsterdam 1990) 96-100.
2. Bray, D., ‘Sacral elements of Irish Kingship’ in: C. M. Cusack and P. Oldmeadow (eds.) This immense panorama: studies in honour of Eric J. Sharpe (Sydney 1999) 110.
3. Sjöblom, T., ‘Before geis became magical. A study of the evolution of an early Irish religious concept’ in: Studia Celtica XXXII (1998) 85-94: 91.
4. Beresford, D., Ten Men Dead (New York 1987) 7.