September 12, 2014

Taboo, Or Not Taboo?

        Definitely taboo, but of a special kind.  Actually, I just wanted to use that title, but today’s post is really about geasa, a particular sort of taboo in Irish mythology.  A geis is a personal restriction, idiosyncratic, and often laid on a person as a curse or a gift.  And for my purposes, one of the interesting aspects of a geis is its magical properties.  Although he’s obviously not Irish, think of Samson, forbidden to cut his hair.  If his hair is cut, he loses all his strength: a curse.  Yet as long as he doesn’t cut his hair, he has magically enhanced strength: a blessing.
        Another aspect of geasa (that’s the plural) that make them good fantasy fodder is that they often take the form of a riddle that must be solved.  Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who is told that “no man of woman born shall harm” him.  Of course, this being mythology, we know someone will find a way to break the spell, and the trick turns out to be that Macduff, delivered by Caesarean section, qualifies for the job.  Consider, too, the Witch-king of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings.  It is prophesied that “not by the hand of man will he fall,” which makes him feel all self-confident and secure… until he finds himself faced in battle by a woman and a hobbit.  Now, these prophesy-type geasa are a little different because they don’t lay any requirements on their subject; there’s nothing in particular that Macbeth must do or not do to preserve his geis (other than avoid shieldmaidens, hobbits, and anyone delivered by c-section - which is not so easy these days!).  Nevertheless, Celtic folklore seems to count them.
        An example of a geis that is both prophecy and riddle is the Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes’s destiny to die neither “during the day nor night, not indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked…” etc.  As with Samson, his wife induces him to show a way to fulfill those conditions so that she can betray him.  However, what I find interesting about this example is how closely it parallels the traditional eastern European folk tales such as “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter.”  (See “Clever Katya” for another nice example.)  “Neither riding nor walking” is astride or dragged, or with one foot on some non-riding animal; “not clothed and not naked” is wrapped in a fishing net; and so on.  In those “clever peasant girl” tales the riddle is solved not to weaken and kill a hero, but in order to impress and demand justice from a more powerful figure (often the tsar himself.)  I much prefer to see cleverness applied to positive ends!
        In the “clever peasant girl” stories, the riddle is given by the powerful man, and the woman gains power by solving it, whereas in Irish mythology geasa are often laid upon men by women, which is presumably the way for women to wield power.  It’s also often the device that leads to a hero’s downfall.  Because we know the rules of the hero’s geis, we can see his downfall coming, as in Greek tragedy.  The hero is led inexorably into breaking his geis, whereupon we can watch the relentless doom stoop ever closer until the inevitable end.  Not my kind of story, to be honest.  But here’s a representative example: Cúchulainn has one geis never to eat dog meat, and another geis that he must eat any food offered him by a woman.  Needless to say, the day comes when a woman offers him dog meat and the hero is ineluctably doomed.
        What I don’t know is what it takes to lay a geis on someone.  Surely not just anyone can say just anything.  It must require something special to make it real and binding.  At any rate, while I tend not to be much interested in stories with inexorable fate, this seems like an idea with lots of interesting possible applications.

[Pictures: Macbeth encountering the witches, woodcut from Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Cú Chulainn’s Death, by Walter C. Mills, 1921 (Image from paddybrown).]


Pax said...

Samson's mother dedicated Samson as a Nazirite from birth, meaning he was specially dedicated to the Lord, and would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. As part of the requirements of being a Nazirite he was not only to never shave or cut his hair, he was also to abstain from all alcoholic beverages. In other respects, however, such as his killing of the lion, his simple weapon of mass destruction (the jawbone of an ass), his betrayal by a woman, and his death by his own hand, he resembled Herakles and also perhaps Enkidu (with whom I am less familiar). Samson's story is exceedingly violent. Seeing it in the multi-cultural tradition of geasa adds an interesting twist.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Folkloricly speaking, these same tropes show up over and over, around the world and through history. All these men are considered heroes by their culture, all have fates to which their bound, all have moments of less than noble behavior... What I'm finding interesting here is this common idea of a particular behavior that, when observed, imparts power but when broken, often through some tragic inevitable event, leads to the hero's downfall.