Updated: Jul 22
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.
The "dog" proceeds to stalk and kill all the sheep. The methodology suspiciously like a cat, crawling forward on its belly, leaping up faster than you can see to pounce, biting through the back of the sheep's neck, etc.
"You can come down now," says Manannán.
"Maybe he can't climb trees?" says the man below the King.
"God be praised!" says the man above Fíachnae.
"Amen!" says the even higher man.
"Shut up!" says Fíachnae, as he swings down from the tree.
"Go ahead and fight Eolgarg," says Manannán, "And I will be King of Ulster for one day, of my choosing."
"Say what?" asks Fíachnae.
"You never asked," says Manannán, "That was my price for the use of my dog."
"I really need to start haggling on stuff," says Fíachnae.
Once he manages to coax his army out of the trees, Fíachnae goes on to fight the Lochlanns and win, becoming King of Lochlann as well as King of Ulster, and somehow King of the Saxons and Britons though that's not particularly clear why. He gave the Black Hag seven castles and one hundred of each type of cattle he captured in Lochlann, and she was satisfied.
Fíachnae went back to Ulster, as he was satisfied.
Manannán took over the entire household as King of Ulster for one day, and he was satisfied.
Seven months later, Fíachnae's wife Cáintigern, gave birth to Mongán, who is the storyteller himself. Whether or not either of these two were satisfied is up to interpretation.
1: Lineage was an important thing in Irish myth. Unless you can trace your family *at least* six generations, you ain't nobody. In this case, it points out that Fíachnae is a member of the royal family of the Kingdom of Ulster. Northern Ireland is also known as Ulster, but traditionally the Kingdom of Ulster was a bit bigger, including several counties that are currently part of the Republic of Ireland.
2: Which might be as far away as Norway, or as close as the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, which at the time was part of the Nordic regions of Europe. The people of Lochlann may also be the Formorians, a race of "giants" that constantly raided Ireland. Again, Celtic myths are messy.
3: Historically the most common wasting disease is Tuberculosis, also known as Consumption, but there are others. A common treatment for wasting diseases in general is an all-protein diet, like what's about to happen here, which didn't cure anything but did mask the problem.
4: Likely Constantinople, in this period the gateway to the Eastern world and its more advanced medical practices.
5: This is shorthand for a native Faerie animal. Dogs, cows, and others that are marked as "otherworldly" for whatever reason get described exactly this same way.
6: There are lots of Black Hags in Celtic myths, and, while effectively interchangeable as malicious and malformed Faerie-born proto-goddess sorceresses, there appear to be at least one in every country, rather than all being the same individual.
7: Yes, Irish kings were elected, sort of. Irish rules of succession were a lot more fluid than other cultures. The king didn't get to appoint a successor, and it didn't automatically go to the eldest son. Any male member of the royal family, providing he had no physical or mental deformities, could be chosen to be king, with every Aire (basically, chieftain) of the country getting a vote. Often the voting would take place at the local brewery or pub. The more things change…
8: The story seems to count Hags as being in the same broader group as Banshees, as she screams everything at everybody.
9: In the greater story this is a part of, the term "venomous" was used a lot. There were venomous sheep, venomous dogs, venomous trees, venomous winds... To the point, it's obvious the storyteller had no idea what the word meant.
10: I've watched normal sheep do this. It's not actually vicious in any way.
11: There are some goats, however, who can. Fearsome. And annoying, when they're doing it to jump the fence.
12: While this is supposedly a pre-Christian story, it was written down by Christian monks.
13: Manannán is, at various times; son of the sea god Lyr, the god of the sea himself, the high king of the Tuatha Dé Danann (Celtic gods or Faerie-folk, depending on the story), wandering wizard, manufacturer of most of the magical toys of Celtic myth, and the first king of the eponymous Ilse of Mann.
14: Like most politicians, Fiachna seems to spend a lot of time making speeches without really understanding what's going on. Many times, the same speech with minor subject changes.
15: This is not a canine. From the descriptions, I figure it's a small leopard, like a female Arabian Leopard, which is about the size of a medium-sized dog (20 kg or so).
16: Yeah, about that…