All Hail the King!

Carved footprint at Dun Att (Dunadd). Photo by Terry A. McDonald, www.luxborealis.com

“Fedhlimidh son of Aedh son of Eoghan was proclaimed in a style as royal, as lordly and as public as any of his race from the time of Bríon son of Eochu Mugmedón till that day. And when Fedhlimidh son of Aedh son of Eoghan had married the province of Connacht, his foster-father waited upon him in the manner remembered by old men and recorded in old books; and this was the most splendid kingship-marriage ever celebrated in Connacht down to that day.” (Byrne, 1973, p. 16-17).

So goes the description of the inauguration of King Fedhlimidh Ó Conchobhair (pronounced FAY-lee-mee O’Connor) in 1310. Although it doesn’t provide much detail, we can learn a few things about the inauguration ceremonies of ancient Irish kings. First, it mentions the ancient tradition of viewing the kingship as a marriage between the king and the land. The banais righe, or “wedding-feast of kingship” was staged as a ritual union between the newly-elected king and the goddess of sovereignty, who had many names and varied from place to place. At Tara, home of the high kings of Ireland, the goddess was Medb. “In stories from the Ulster Cycle she was portrayed as nothing more than a warrior-queen, albeit a very powerful one. A few passages from earlier tales, however, hint at her divine origins. In one of these she boasted that she had mated with no fewer than nine sacred kings, and that she would allow no mortal man to rule at Tara unless he had first coupled with her….Medb means ‘she who intoxicates’ – an obvious reference to the libations of wine that formed part of the ceremony.” (Zaczek, 2000, p. 95-6).

Most tribes had sacred places where inaugurations took place – under the spreading branches of an ancient tree, for example, or atop a hill. For the Dál Riata it was at their capital – the hillfort of Dún Att (modernly known as Dunadd) in Argyll. The Dál Riata were a tribe that spread to southwestern Scotland sometime around the fifth century AD. The photo above features a carved footprint thought to be the place where the new king placed his foot during the inauguration ceremony.

Another important aspect of the inauguration mentioned in the 14th-century description is the proclaiming of the king, or the do gairm rí. This calling aloud of his name and title, perhaps along with a recitation of his forefathers back several generations, was done by the chief bard. For his part in the ceremony, the bard received the new king’s arms and inaugural clothes following the festivities. (Byrne, 1973, p. 23).

The bard was also perhaps the one who proclaimed the new king’s gessa or taboos. In the tale Togail Bruidne dá Derga, the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, the newly confirmed high king Conaire Mór must observe the following restrictions: “You are forbidden to cast at birds, for every bird is natural to you…You may not pass Tara on your right-hand side, or Brega on your left. You may not hunt the wild beasts of Cernae. You may not stay abroad from Tara for the space of nine nights. You may not spend the night in a house where firelight is visible after sunset, from within or without…A company of one man or one woman may not enter your household after sunset. You may not intervene in a dispute between two of your servants.” (Zaczek, 2000, p. 96).

These taboos or formulated superstitions were undoubtedly designed to protect the king. One can easily see how a king might come to harm if he came between two bickering servants, or how a single person admitted to the king’s house after sunset might be an assassin. Those gessa which were more cryptic in nature might have been designed to give the king an air of mystery or may have been inspired by future events revealed to a seer. No matter their origin, the breaking of any of these taboos meant the downfall of the king.

Another superstition surrounding the king was that the prosperity of the kingdom and the fertility of the land were tied to the conduct of the king – hence his symbolic marriage to the land. If he were a good king, the land would prosper. If he were an unjust king, crops would fail, plague would spread, and the people would suffer.

No pressure there!

SOURCES

Byrne, F.J. (1973). Irish kings and high-kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Zaczek, I. (2000). Ireland: land of the Celts. London: Collins & Brown, Ltd.

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