Chair: Joanne Findon
One of the issues in studying the practice of caíned (‘keening’) as it may have existed in medieval Ireland is the scarcity of accounts and lack of detailed descriptions of the process of ritualized lament for the dead. The relationship of caíned to its representation in literary texts is also problematic, when elegiac poems are presented as examples of extempore lament, or embedded in longer prose narratives. It is likely, moreover, that medieval literary depictions of lament, and of the oral poetic art of caíned in practice – where sources do exist – were sometimes symbiotic, given the compelling evidence for the continuity of certain formulae or motifs of grieving between the Medieval and Early Modern period (e.g., Bromwich 1947-8). Significant influence on Irish ‘literary’ laments from Classical literature, as well as insular Welsh, Old Norse, and Anglo-Saxon examples, is also likely. This paper will consider the available evidence for the development of the literary lament in medieval Ireland, in light of methodologies employed fruitfully in studies of lament and elegy in Old English and Old Norse literature.
The twelfth-century Middle Irish Thebaid is a prose translation of Statius’ Latin epic (c. AD 92) relating the ancient Greek myth of the civil war between Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polynices, for the sovereignty of Thebes. William Dominik (1994) observed that the speeches in Statius’ Thebaid 'play a critical role in the narrative technique of the poet and [in] the structural arrangement and thematic design of the epic'. Speeches in the Middle Irish translation (Togail na Tebe), however, were typically abbreviated or omitted from the narrative entirely. In light of Dominik’s argument for the speeches’ central importance to Statius’ text, this paper will summarise its translator’s approach to his material, and explore the variety of ways in which the speeches’ rendition in Togail na Tebe may affect its readers’ interpretation of the narrative. Two key examples of speeches focused on mourning, commemoration, and consolation will be discussed, namely Polynices’ lament for Tydeus, and the lament of Argia, Polynices’ wife, for her husband’s death.
Togail na Tebe, the twelfth-century Middle Irish rendition of Statius’ Thebaid, refers frequently to the activities of grieving women as makers of post-mortem lament for husbands, parents, or siblings killed in battle, and to male warriors’ verbal and performative commemoration of their fallen comrades. While certain forms of Classical mourning behaviour described by Statius’ text would have been familiar to a Medieval Irish audience (chiefly, the celebration of significant characters’ funeral games), other gestures or verbal expressions of grief have been replaced throughout Togail na Tebe by motifs of lamentation more typical of Medieval Irish mourners’ common practice (beating of hands, dishevelling of hair, imbibing a corpse’s blood). This paper will contrast the examples of Statius’ Antigone, Jocasta, and the wives of Polynices and Tydeus with their Middle Irish equivalents, and will assess the extent to which this ‘translation’ of mourning behaviour is shared by contemporary examples of translated Classical literature (e.g. Imtheachta Aeniasa, the Middle Irish Aeneid). The expression, via lament, of self-blame for bringing about another’s death – by design or accident – will also be considered, comparing Polynices’ prolonged lamentation of Tydeus, and Oedipus’ paternal regret for the mutual, mortal wounding of Polynices and Eteocles, with Cú Chulainn’s famous, self-critical elegy for the death of his foster-brother, Ferdia, at his own hand.