Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cu Chulainn and Achilles: Famous but Dead

Cu Chulainn (pronounced "Coo Chullen," ch as in loch) is the greatest hero in Irish lore. He is from the Ulster cycle of Irish lore/mythology and has some surprising similarities with Achilles, the Greek hero. In fact, David Greene's An Anthology of Irish Literature calls him "the Achilles of the Ulster cycle."

Both Achilles and Cu Chulainn were sons of a god and a royal human. Thetis (goddess) and Prince Peleus (mortal) were Achilles' parents. Cu Chulainn's mother was Deichtire, sister to King Conchubar. Some say his father was Lug, the Celtic god of light, while others say his father was an Irish chieftain.

Cu Chulainn
At any rate, he was not a normal human. The Boyhood Deeds of  Cuchulain says, "Now the stripling who by the time seven years were completed since his birth, had done such deeds: had destroyed the champions by whom two-thirds of the Ulstermen had fallen unavenged." 

Both had special horses.  As a wedding gift, Peleus and Thetis received two immortal horses named Balius and Xanthus. They came to be Achilles' horses.  Xanthus spoke to Achilles before his death. 

Cu Chulainn was found as a baby by the men of Ulster, and as they were taking him home, they heard a horse whinnying nearby. They stopped to check it out and found a mare who had just dropped her foal.  They took the newborn  horse, saying he was meant for the special baby.  The Gray of Macha, as the horse came to be called, served the warrior well in battle and was cognizant on an almost human level. Born the same day, they died the same day.

And now, moving on to the most important part. The greatest similarity between the warriors is their mindset and their fates.

In History 261, I learned that Achilles had a choice. He could become the greatest and most renowned warrior ever and live a short life, or live a peaceful, normal, and long life.  He chose renown and died in the Trojan War.  The funny things is, Cu Chulainn had the same choice.

When Cu Chulainn was just seven years old, he heard Cathbad the Druid tell his pupils that whoever took up arms that day would become the greatest warrior ever but lead a short life. Immediately he took up arms.

Cu Chulainn explained,  "For when they asked him what special virtue lay in this day, he told them that the name of whatsoever youth should therein for the first time take arms, would top the fame of all Erin's men; nor thereby should he suffer resulting disadvantage, save that his life must be fleeting short."

Cathbad confirmed his words, "noble and famous indeed thou shalt be, but transitory, soon gone."

"Little care I," said Cu chulainn, "nor though I were but one day or one night in being, so long as after me the history of myself and doings may endure."  The quotes are from The Boyhood Deeds of Cu Chulainn.

And so, the great Greek warrior Achilles and the great Celtic warrior Cu Chulainn faced the same decision, made the same choice, and died young but are still remembered today.


The Cu Chulainn stories (except the story of Cu Chulainn's birth) are from David Greene's An Anthology of Irish Literature, vol. 1 
James Hunter's Achilles article
Thetis and Peleus
The picture of Cu Chulainn was cropped by Edana A. Click on the caption to see the original.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Secret of Kells: The Artwork

The artwork in the 2009 film, The Secret of Kells, (director Tom Moore, co-director, Nora Twomy, art director, Ross Stewart,) reflects the beauty of The Book of Kells. The images in both are rich in color, iconic, and play with perspective.

The Book of Kells features "zoomorphic" designs. Basically, animals that are twisted, stretched, and bent into 2-D designs.  A bird might be chewing on his foot, his toes and beak woven like a piece of cloth. A dog's neck is stretched longer than a giraffe's and interlaces with those of four other dogs just like it to form a Celtic knot.   "Zoo" for "animal." "Morphic" for "formed/morphed/changed."

And of course, intricate Celtic knots and swirling designs of many colors fill the pages.

 The only real zoomorphic design in the film, (although certain creatures morph into other forms) appears when Crom Crรบiagh is chasing Brendan. 

 The film has iconic images, like the book. Some people are lumps or rectangles with heads. Aiden has squared-off fingers.  The edge of the forest is very organized: the tallest trees form arches for the ones beneath.
This images are also highly detailed and contain Celtic designs, like The Book of Kells.

The film also plays with perspective: A person in the distance will pass behind a tree and suddenly they are much, much closer. This depiction represents the actions going on. It's not meant to be taken literally, it's art. It's similar to changing angles on a film camera, except it all happens in the same frame. 

In order to respect copyright laws, I have not put pictures in this post. However, here are some links so you can see the features I discussed:  

The Chi Rho page, (mentioned in the film!): The Book of Kells
Besides Celtic designs, the page of the manuscript contains a zoomorph man, iconic figures, and animals.

See the gallery, it contains the images I was talking about: The Secret of Kells 

This is an informative video on The Book of Kells

On a side note:
Symbolism is found in the depiction of certain characters. The presence of monks from all over the world (Africa, Asia, Italy, and Ireland) at Kells symbolizes the fact that Ireland was an important center for Christianity during the period. It was a beacon of light in the Dark Ages. (See previous post for more on dark and light).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Turning Darkness into Light

Credit: Edana A.
"Turning Darkness into light."
This is a line from a 8th or 9th century poem by an Irish monk, called Pangur Ban.  In the poem, the monk talks about how he sits up at night writing while his white cat, Pangur Ban, hunts mice. ("Ban" means "white" in Irish Gaelic.)
Another word for the process of "turning darkness into light" is "illumination."  Additionally, this word can also refer to the practice of decorating and embellishing text with designs.  Perhaps the most well known example of an illuminated manuscript is The Book of Kells
The line and the cat also appear in the film, The Secret of Kells. (See The Secret of Kells)
In the film, Brendan learns the art of illumination and uses his skill to work on the legendary Book of Kells. Pangur Ban, a white cat who accompanied Brother Aiden from the Isle of Iona, joins Brendan on his adventures and becomes his friend.
Obviously, the poem was an inspiration for the film, for during the credits, the poem is read aloud in Irish.
To most, darkness means ignorance and light symbolizes truth and knowledge. Think of the word "enlighten." 
Although not mentioned specifically in film or poem, the phrase, "turning darkness into light," has a very profound significance, evoking Biblical truths. While the monks illuminate (enlighten) by preserving and sharing the Bible, it is Jesus who ultimately turns darkness into light.  Jesus said,“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” John 8:12

Link to Pangur Ban and additional background on the poem: Irish Culture and Customs