Pre-Christian Characters in Medieval Irish Literature: An Examination of Fástini Airt meic Cuind, De Suidigud Tellaig Temra, Aided Chonchobair and Aided Echach maic Maireda

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Imhoff, Helen Martha Burns 

This dissertation consists of an analysis of the representation of the pre-Christian protagonists of the four medieval Irish tales Fástini Airt meic Cuind, De Suidigud Tellaig Temra, Aided Chonchobair and Aided Echach maic Maireda. In examining the portrayal of pre-Christian characters, I have addressed a particularly characteristic feature of medieval Irish literature.

The four tales discussed here have, for the most part, not previously been studied in detail. For this reason, the dissertation is divided into two parts. Part I (chs. 1–3) focuses on questions of date, literary context and manuscript transmission of three of the tales (Fástini Airt, De Suidigud and Aided Chonchobair) and it serves as background to the thematic analysis of all four tales in Part II (chs. 4–8).

In the thematic discussion, the bible is shown to have been an important influence on the depiction of the pre-Christian period and its relationship with the Christian present (ch. 4). In addition, biblical characters, God and Christ served as models for the representation of the tales’ protagonists (ch. 5). In Fástini Airt and Aided Echach, saintly characteristics are applied to the protagonists, highlighting the extent to which Christian and pre-Christian ages were presented as part of a continuum (ch. 6). This view was not, however, universally shared, as the poem A chloch thall in Aided Chonchobair shows (ch. 6). In Fástini Airt and De Suidigud, kingship is seen to derive its authority both from the pre-Christian past and from Christian ideas (ch. 7), both tales perhaps illustrating the relevance medieval tales could have to contemporary developments. Finally, the pre-Christians’ salvation in these four tales is in accordance with the teaching of the bible and theological authorities, as all four protagonists have faith in God (ch. 8).

A number of aspects emerge as common to the representation of the pre-Christian past in these four tales. The most important of these are the use of thebible as a model, the idea of continuity from the pre-Christian past to the Christian present and the possibility of acquiring Christian faith in pre-Christian times.

medieval, pre-Christian
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge