Monday, May 14, 2012

The Tale of the Nether Horn

Many followers of Celtic lore know that for centuries, The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge) has been hailed as the Iliad of ancient Ireland. 
Like Homer, the singer of the Cattle Raid was not one man but scores of men--poets, ollahmhs, filí--whatever we call the people who sang the great meadhall ballads of warriors and maidens, gods and goddesses, those creative people with no name who spanned centuries.
While writing all the Dawn of  Ireland books, I was drawn to the rich folklore of Éire, and throughout the novels I attempt to capture some of the music, the heroism, and above all the bawdy spirit of the original tales.
In the following excerpt from The Wakening Fire, Caylith’s erudite friend Brigid has a plan to arouse her husband. She tells the company sitting around the campfire the tongue-in-cheek female version of the famous Cattle Raid.

 “It is time for a tale,” I said to the company at large. 
Abair scéal,” said Brigid. “The ages-old cry for a story. What shall we hear tonight?” She settled back on the raised knees of Michael, her head thrown back and all her golden hair spilling over his legs.
“A tale of cattle,” I said.
“Then the teller must be me wife,” said Michael, stroking her soft curls. “Her namesake, the goddess Brigid, is the protector of cows.”
“Yes,” said Brother Jericho. “And tonight is her night, of all nights of the year. Um, to the local people, that is. Father Patrick is hoping to alter those old folk beliefs.”
She looked up dreamily to the top of the pines, where a few stars stood out against the black of the sky. “Tá go maith. I shall tell, for the many thousands of times over, the story of the great cattle raid. But from the point of view of a woman—the powerful queen Maeve.”
I knew the story, of course. It was one of the oldest in Éire, told by men as they quaffed their beer, recited by poets in the great mead halls of kings. For it was a tale of manly conquest, of warrior against warrior. The cattle raid itself was a mere excuse for a tale of bloody might versus might. I would enjoy a female version, and I settled back in the hollow of Liam’s shoulder to hear her story.

We all know that Maeve was a beauty, and she was the queen of all  Connaught. Her fortunate husband, Ailill, enjoyed a life of sensual gratification because of her ready thighs; and a life of ease because of her bounty. And he knew it. She was loath to remind him, as long as he remained loving and true—and as long as he did not challenge her wealth.
One night, Maeve and Ailill were lying back on their golden bed strewn with mink furs and nosegays of lavender, basking in the glow of their lovemaking.
“Darling,” said Maeve, “the size of your loins is as great as that of my strong, red- eared bull.”
“Really?” he murmured. “I would see this bull. For I say my great shaft is more like that of my own white-horned bull.”
“Challenge me not on this point, dear husband. How are you qualified to judge the nether horn of a bull?”
Ailill was rankled at her teasing. “Because I am a man,” he said. “Because White Horn belongs to me, and his size is a matter of pride.”
“Say you that your possessions—even a single bull—are greater than my own? Say you that my Red Ears cannot measure his horn against that of your White Horn?”
“Yes,” he said, convinced of his own manly prowess, blind to his wife’s growing vexation. For he was beginning to feel again the stirrings of desire, and his words amounted to an invitation to prove his proportions were worthy.
Now Maeve was no fool. She knew exactly what Ailill was doing and she, too, craved his nether horn for the second time that night. But she was also very competitive. She thought she would have his bull, and her own, too, thereby increasing her wealth and enjoying his dimensions at the same time.
“I propose a raid,” she said with a fire in her eye. “If you capture my red bull, I will give you the debate, and you may use that bull in any way you see fit. But if I capture yours, you must yield it to me any time, night or day, in any way I see fit.”
To unquenchable Maeve, this challenge was not just a competition—it was a way to ensure unheard-of gratification from her prodigious husband. But to Ailill, suddenly stubborn and proud, it was a way to best his overweening wife.
“By tomorrow night,” he said rashly, “your red-eared bull shall be mine.” 
He turned his back then and slept, much to Maeve’s disgust. When he was snoring loudly, she crept from their fine bed and donned her leather slippers. Drawing her silken tunic around her ivory shoulders, she walked to the byres of Ailill where she knew a large white bull lay sleeping.
“O White Horn,” she murmured. “I have come to take you to my prize heifer, she of the lovely red shoulders, she who has never known the nether horn of a fine young bull.”
He opened one eye, loath to rise from the shelter of the byre and the plenty of the hay haggard.
“And,” said Maeve, “to sweeten the feast, my second virgin heifer waits for you, she of the deep black coat and milk-white chest.”
At these words, White Horn heaved himself to his hooves and began to beat his shaft against the sides of the byre in anticipation.
“Follow me,” she said sweetly, and he did. For Maeve knew the weakness of every male—and that is the promise of yielding thighs with no payment on the morrow.
As soon as White Horn entered her own byres, she shut the paddock firmly and called her strongest guards to stand sentry. “So that none may disturb you,” she told him with a broad wink.
And then she returned to her mink-soft bed to exact her payment.
Brigid stopped speaking, and she and I started to laugh—first softly, then louder, until I felt tears at the corners of my eyes. “Brigid, you are a poet. If you were not a woman you would stand by the shoulder of the high king himself as his ollamh.”
“Ah, I think the woman’s perspective may rankle even the most benign of kings,” she said, raising her eyes to look at her husband.
Michael looked as if his dinner were not quite settled in his stomach. “The next tale at this fire, young Brigid, will be told by Ailill.” He seized her shimmering hair and pulled her head toward his, and I could see that her story had aroused him deeply. 

The Wakening Fire follows Storm Maker  and is available beginning May 15 at the link below

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  1. How beautiful your site is! I can't wait to read your latest book. A big fan!

  2. That is so beautifully told, Erin - looking forward to reading more!

  3. A great story, Erin, and I love those bulls!

  4. Dear Camile,

    I'd love to take credit for Miriam's gorgeous site. Alas, I cannot. But this is my chance to thank both of you--Miriam for hosting me, and you, Camile, for taking the time to stop by and leaving such nice comment.

    My best to both, slán, Erin

  5. Dear Rosemary,

    I really love the way both Caylith and Brigid like to re-tell a tale, putting a sly emphasis on the woman's point of view in a world of overdeveloped heroes with bad hair days.

    I appreciate you very much,
    x Erin

  6. Interesting spin on the Pillow Talk part of the Cattle Raid epic, Erin. Very enjoyable!

  7. Hi, Pat,

    I knew you'd recognize it! It was--and is--huge fun to retell the old tales, to put a different perspective on the myths, the legends, even the characters of Old World Ireland.

    In the next book, CAPTIVE HEART, I tell a thrice-told tale of the beginning of Ireland, making the genesis be Tory Island of all places. Anyway, there are lots of tales that thread through my novels and I get a big kick when someone else (you) can see the real thing through the disguise.

    I'm glad you stopped by. All the very best, xErin

  8. Wonderful story! Enjoyed it immensely! :)

  9. Dear Cynthia,

    I'm thrilled that you stopped by to read it. I had a ball, er, bull, writing that story. LOL

    Slán, Erin

  10. In case I get carried away by other matters, I want to pause here and thank Miriam Newman for the oppoortunity to present my work on The Celtic Rose. It's a site that authors especially love. The sheer beauty of the site puts us in the mood of faraway dreams and romantic fancy. Miriam does a masterful job of blending elements--interviews, excerpts, funny insights, appropriate art--and I know speak for scores of authors when I express my gratitude for having me here.


  11. Wonderful excerpt, Erin - loved the woman's view of the Cattle Raid story!

  12. Dear Paula,

    Thanks so much! This was one of those chapters that wrote itself. I love the way Caylith, Brigid and the rest of her "Terrible Trousers" ladies club flout the male warrior tradition. Thankfully, each of those women has an understanding husband, and those guys find ways to be warriors without the bad-hair days that usually go along with exhibitions of male prowess. (I'm talking the old days here, guys!)

    Best of success in your own writing, Paula, and congrats on the debut of your CHANGING THE FUTURE.

    Slán, Erin

  13. Terrific. A great tale well told. Gilli x

  14. Dear Gilli,

    Coming from you, that is high praise indeed! I'm pleased that I could entertain you.

    Go raibh maith agat, xxErin

  15. It has been a pleasure to have Erin and her on the site and to read everyone's comments. I am on book one of her tale and wishing fervently for enough time to read it and get on to book two. Which, alas, I fear will not happen quickly enough!

  16. Nay, fair lady, 'tis my pleasure entirely. Thank your for the opplortunity to strut my stuff, and for yet another chance this weekend to talk about the evolution of a villain.

    The blog that follows on the Celtic Rose, an expose of a bad guy turned dark hero, is a companion piece to one on my own blogsite,

    Thanks, everyone, for stopping by. Slán, Erin O'Quinn