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Models of ritual in Old English and early Irish heroic tales

Wade Tarzia, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Since humans engage in ritual activity in everyday life, we should expect that rituals are portrayed in literature. Thus I examine the question of whether rituals portrayed in heroic epics are realistic reflections of rituals from--in this case--Old English and Old Irish society, or idealized rituals, or anti-rituals (models of social behavior to be avoided). Taking this approach to heroic poetry requires an anthropological analysis of the societies that created the literary texts, which can help us generate hypotheses about the nature of the rituals and how they supported society. After such considerations, the narrative literature can be sifted for portrayals of rituals, and then analysis can tell us the complementary story: how the depicted rituals may have compared to actual use. In early chiefdom societies where warfare was endemic, rituals that regulated violent conflicts were important, as is attested by Germanic hoarding rituals and Irish boundary rituals. In Beowulf the dragon hoard may represent status symbols whose overabundance created social conflicts. The events leading to the redeposition of the hoard may reflect rituals of communion. In Tain Bo Cuailnge, the events and rules of raiding may portray the real concern for maintaining tribal boundaries nonviolently in the fragmented political climate of early Ireland. Both literary traditions portray rituals as ideal methods of behavior translatable to deeds in real life, although both traditions portray the ill-effects caused when characters break the rules of rituals. Thus, although the dragon hoard was properly buried once upon a time, a thief breaks the rules, recovers some treasure, and unleashes supernatural havoc upon the tribe in the form of a dragon. The proper redeposition of the hoard is, perhaps, for long-term 'damage control' whose immediate application caused the death of Beowulf. Similarly, Irish tradition portrays the rules of single combat being followed for a time, in which Cu Chulainn is able to hold his turf against many invaders; but as the rules of warfare are broken against him in unfair combat, his supernatural prowess wreaks mass deaths upon the enemy--mass deaths that ritual warfare attempted to avoid. Therefore the tales portray the ideals of conflict-reducing rituals by showing the state of society without ritual controls.

Subject Area

Folklore|Literature|Middle Ages|Ancient languages

Recommended Citation

Tarzia, Wade, "Models of ritual in Old English and early Irish heroic tales" (1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9329675.