Terror might be overstating it a little. But for our first Halloween, I thought you might like to hear one of our favorite stories from Irish folklore, the tale of the venomous sheep! If you are in the Pacific Northwest, you may have also seen the performance done by the Seattle Knights that is based on this story. Allan has kindly guest-written this post, so I hope you enjoy this storytime today.
This tale is a section of a larger story called "Mongán's Frenzy," an old Irish Fairy Tale supposedly told to the Abbot of Moville, who was known to be a collector of old, pre-Christian stories. To those used to Greek and Norse mythology, the Celtic myths may seem a bit … bizarre, but that's mainly due to the Greek and Norse stories being retold, retranslated, and revised over and over again in modern times to make more sense of them. If you go back to the pre-Victorian telling of these myths, they are all equally strange and nonsensical. This one is particularly odd, as it follows the 101 Arabian Nights model where a storyteller is telling multiple tales to an audience inside the myth itself. I'm doing a bit of clean-up, paraphrasing, and whatnot here, but it's not that far off of the "original" version.
The particular story we're interested in starts with Fíachnae Finn, son of Báetán, son of Murchertach, son of Muredach, son of Eogan, son of Neill(1) visiting Eolgarg Mor, the king of Lochlann(2) as their fathers had gone on adventures together.
During the visit, Eolgarg came down with a wasting disease(3) that none of the local doctors could cure. Eventually a doctor from a far-off land(4) told them the cure would come from boiling down the meat from a pure white cow with red ears.(5) The only one of which in Lochlann is owned by the Caillech Dhu, the Black Hag(6). She drives a bargain where she will be paid four cows for her one, with Fíachnae responsible if she is not paid.
On the way back to Eolgarg with the cow/cure, Fíachnae receives a messenger telling him that the King of Ulster had passed away and Fíachnae had won the election.(7) He takes off home to be King, leaving the whole Eolgarg cure and payment for the cow to others.
A year later, the Black Hag comes to the court of Ulster to complain that she never got her payment. At this point, simply giving her the four cows wasn't good enough. Fíachnae offers her twenty cows, and she screams(8) that she wouldn't accept any number of Irish cows and would only accept a boon from Fíachnae. Fíachnae accepts this before getting the details of the boon, which will not be the last time he does this daft thing. This particular boon would be for Fíachnae to come back to Lochlann with an army and wage war on Eolgarg as revenge for "stealing" her cow.
Ulster honor being what it was, Fíachnae sent Eolgarg a message notifying that he was invading Lochlann, saying exactly where he was landing, and with how many troops. Lochlann honor being what it was, Eolgarg met Fíachnae with the exact same number of troops.
The first battle went mostly to the Ulsters, with Lochlann losing three hundred men. The second battle, Eolgarg cheated and let loose some venomous sheep from his tent(9), which killed nine hundred men.
Yes, you read that right. Venomous sheep. Moving right along…
Fíachnae and the brave army of Ulster ran to the nearest wood and climbed the trees to get away from the sheep. The venomous sheep bleating away, viciously tearing the bark of the trees as high as they could reach.(10)
"This is ridiculous. This is disgraceful. We're hiding from sheep!" said Fíachnae.
"Well, at least they can't climb trees," said the warrior a branch below.(11)
"Really? That's what you're focused on?" said the King of Ulster.
"If those sheep learn to climb, we've had it!" said the lower warrior.
"I'm going to go fight the sheep," said Fíachnae.
"No, it is not right for our king to fight sheep!" said the various warriors perched on the trees.
"Somebody has too, and I'm not going to ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself," Said Fíachnae. "Blah, blah, destiny, etc."
"Praise God!"(12) says a warrior on a higher branch.
"Amen!" says a warrior even higher up.
Just as Fíachnae was about the climb down, he noticed a tall man striding forward. The story goes on about how tall the man was, and how richly he was dressed, and how he was laughing at Fíachnae and the Ulstermen.
"That's not nice," said Fíachnae.
"Who can blame me?" said the stranger, "You look like chickens in all senses of the word, roosted up there in the trees."
"I see some venomous sheep on their way," said Fíachnae, "I'm about to come down and fight them, but you could join my men in the trees if you want?"
"Nope. I'm fine right here," said the man, "I'm Manannán mac Lir(13), and no beast can touch me."
"Okay. Sure," said Fíachnae, "Must be nice to be a god and all that."
"What will you give me for getting rid of these sheep?" asks Manannán.
"Anything!" said Fíachnae, yet again agreeing to a bargain without asking the price, "I won't let another Ulsterman die if I can help it. Blah, blah, destiny, etc."(14)
"Okie-dokie then!" Manannán pulls a dog out from under his cloak and sets it on the sheep.
Now, this is a heck of a dog. A most venomous dog, according to the storyteller. A medium body with short legs, and a big short-snouted head, with a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth and making the most horrendous purring, screechy howl.(15)
"God be praised!" says the man above the King.
"What? Why?" says Fíachnae.
"Because dogs can't climb trees, either!"(16) says the warrior below the King.
"Amen!" says the even higher man.