General Bardic Studies for Liturgists, #4

Compare and contrast two mythological or folkloric tales from two Indo-European cultures. Include a discussion of the use of narrative point-of-view, the element of time, and any relevant issues of religious (or other) bias influencing the narrative. (minimum 600 words)

The two tales I plan to discuss are the deaths of Beowulf and Cú Chulainn of both Northern and Irish lore.  Beowulf was written sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, and the version of a story regarding the death of Cú Chulainn is written by Mary Jones.

In the final end of Beowulf, a slave wakens a dragon while attempting to steal goods.  The dragon burns much of Beowulfs kingdom, so in retaliation he moves to slay the dragon.  Upon entering the dragon’s lair, most of the men that accompanied Beowulf fled except for Wiglaf.  During the battle, Beowulf is fatally wounded, but not before being able to strike the final blow.  Shortly afterwards, he names Wiglaf as his successor to his kingdom.  This is a very summarized version of the epic tale, but it gives you the bare bones concepts

Charged on the strong one, when chance was afforded,
Heated and war-grim, seized on his neck
With teeth that were bitter; he bloody did wax with
Soul-gore seething; sword-blood in waves boiled.
Later to lessen. The liegelord himself then
Retained his consciousness, brandished his war-knife,
Battle-sharp, bitter, that he bare on his armor:

and cuts the dragon.

The Weder-lord cut the worm in the middle.
They had felled the enemy (life drove out then
Puissant prowess), the pair had destroyed him,
In these two portions, Beowulf is wounded by the dragon, but later lays the final blow.  Since Beowulf has no sons, he gives his succession to the one that stood by him in battle.  Those that fled and later came back to claim treasures, Wiglaf scorned them for their cowardice.
This particular story is a heroic tale that helped inspire much of our known influences in modern heroic tales.  It’s a story told in third person, not from an individual perspective.  This is a typical format for these types of epic tales, especially in Northern lore.  They build up a great deed and often times come to a climatic ending that helps to inspire people through story.  What boggles me the most about the story of Beowulf, is that despite being one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature we have, it was not really even paid attention to or influential until the early 1800’s when it was published in its entirety.
Because the Angl0-Saxon author is anonymous, we really don’t have any information on whether it is influenced in any way religiously.  We can assume that because of its Scandinavian background that it has heavy Scandinavian influences, but it does not appear to be Christianized.
The death of Cú Chulainn from Celtic lore, mainly the Ulster Cycle, has more of a mythological approach.  Since he is the son of a God and is told to have a massive “war frenzy” that throws him into a unrecognizable monster that can destroy both allies and enemies, he has less of a mortal take on heroic deeds than our fare Beowulf.
In the death of Cú Chulainn, he is essentially tricked into breaking one of two geasa’s or “taboos”.  One banned him from eating the flesh of dogs, and the other was the inability to refuse hospitality.  An old crone offered him dog meat, so it was his loss to have to choose which of these geasa’s to break, which caused him to be weak in his arm and thigh.  He is later given a fatal blow by one of Lugaid’s magical spears.  Cú Chulainn ties himself to a stone so that he would die on his feet.  This intimidated many of the men that came for him because they thought he was still alive.  Due the “war frenzy” that everyone feared, it wasn’t until a raven landed on Cú Chulainn’s shoulder did anyone dare to approach him, thinking he was now dead.
Then said a Crone to him: “Visit us, O Cu Chulainn.”

“I will not visit you in sooth,” said Cu Chulainn.

“The food is only a hound,” said she. “Were this a great cooking-hearth thou wouldst have visited us. But because what is here is little, thou comest not. Unseemly are the great who endure not the little and poor.”

Then he drew nigh to her, and the Crone gave him the shoulder­blade of the hound out of her left hand. And then Cu Chulainn ate it out of his left hand, and put it under his left thigh. The hand that took it and the thigh under which he put it were seized from trunk to end, so that the normal strength abode not in them.

Lugaid then cut off Cú Chulainn’s head, but when the sword fell from Cú Chulainn hand, it chopped off Lugaid’s right hand.  In revenge, Lugaid cut off Cú Chulainn’s right hand as well and took his head and hand to Tara.
So here we have what can be perceived as a more powerful character than Beowulf, but his death, while ultimately more feared by man, was not as greatly fought as I would consider Beowulf’s death.  This could be because of different reasons such as Cú Chulainn being the son of a God and giving more of a mystical and magical feel as opposed to Beowulf who is mortal.  This could also be because Cú Chulainn is killed by not a massively feared creature like Beowulf, and the fact that Beowulf had genuine struggle and courage in his final battle. Cú Chulainn, while awesome, is seen as a bit more arrogant for the Irish tales, where the Northern lore depicts Beowulf as more honorable.
Like Beowulf, the Death of Cú Chulainn, at least as posted by Mary Jones, is written in third person. I have to admit, the language used in a lot of the Irish lores is even more difficult for me to read once over than the northern lore.  I usually have to glance over them more than once to understand what is going on.  A lot of the events in the Ulster Cycle are supposed to take place around the time of Christ, so there could certainly be a Christianized influence (or vice versa) on how a lot of these stories played out.  For example, the stories of Conchobar’s birth coincide with the birth and death of Christ.  The story of Cú Chulainn and his birth and death are symbiotic to the reign of the High King Conaire Mor, who is mentioned in Lebor Gabála Érenn as a contemporary Emperor Augustus.  So there are some coincidences here to keep note of in regards to religious influence.

(Word Count: 882)

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