There is not, on the face of it, a plausible line in the fairy tale, The King of Erin and the Queen of the Lonesome Isle, suggesting that it comes from a particularly deep layer of the collective psyche of the Irish. The prime movers in this tale - as noted by Campbell in his Hero of a Thousand Faces - are the Neolithic/Bronze Age goddesses. i Marie Louise Von Franz wrote that fairy tales could generally be traced back to within a few centuries of when and where they originated. I'm not sure where Jeremiah Curtin obtained this tale but the question may not be so much its antiquity but indeed why it would mean anything to the Irish psyche of the late 1800's. What trauma could be so deep that it would draw up a tale that operates completely below both the political and religious concerns of the time. The trauma is of course the Irish Famine, a trauma it might be argued that Ireland only really started to assimilate collectively on its hundred and fiftieth anniversary.
The tale opens with a hapless king - literalism has no place here but still I cannot but think of Daniel O'Connell, at his wits end, dying in Genoa on his way to Rome in 1847- without an entourage who after a day in which he has found no quarry suddenly happens upon a black pig which then proceeds to lead him a merry dance, until finally it lures him out into the sea and onto an island. In mythology the sow typically represents increase and growth and in cultures such as Marija Gimbutas found in the balkans dating to 7,000-4,000BC figurines of pigs are found with wheat grains embedded with the sense that the ears of wheat or barley might take on a fullness like that of the pig which puts on weight with great rapidity.ii The dominant sense of the black sow in mythology is that it is equivalent to the cereal kernels (or potatoes in later times) that have been sown under the darkness of the soil for later awakening by the sun. To quote Gimbutas:
Sculptures of pigs are known for all parts of Old Europe and date from every period...The fast growing body of the pig will have impressed early agriculturists; its fattening must have been compared to corn growing and ripening, so that its soft fats apparently came to symbolise the earth itself, causing the pig to become a sacred animal probably no later than 6000BC.iii
Now the famine in Ireland was due to the failure of the potato not the cereal crops but during the period of the Penal Laws the native Irish were much reduced in circumstance and switched to the potato as their staple diet. This permitted the population to increase significantly while at the same time maintaining it at a subsistence level. Speaking of the ancient festival of Lughnasa Maire MacNeill says:
For Lughnasa (1stAugust) is in its essence the festival of the first fruits of tilled fields...it was the day when the sickle was first put to ripened corn, as in later times it became the day when the spade turned up the first meal of potatoes.iv
We have three different islands involved in this tale and as Von Franz says in her interpretation of another tale: the island is a symbol of a split-of area, an autonomous complex, so to speak. Yet the king does not find this realm but is lured there by a compulsion to kill the wild pig which is, in psychological terms, some facet of the male anima in motion (in later Celtic Mythology by contrast it is typically a White Hart (stag) that lures the unsuspecting hunter into realm of the supernatural).
To enter her castle the king has to proceed along a path of gold gravel and enter a low doorway with razors and needles above and below (as there were no castles in the Bronze age the equivalent would be a megalithic tomb)v, which may be symbolical of a vagina dentata. Within the king receives magical hospitality and senses the presence of the goddess when he sleeps in a bed with a golden bed-spread. Even so he spends two days trying to escape the island while the goddess playfully seduces him with her finest apparel which is to say she manifests as ever more beautiful gardens. On the third night the king asks her to show herself and taking human form she explains that she and her two sisters are under a druidic spell that only their child can lift. In this context of a triple goddess we will think of her perhaps as Banba and her two sisters Fodla and Eriu but considering the preponderance of solar imagery Áine maybe be the most apt goddess.
Not one personality in the story has a proper name, they all have titles, they are all impersonal forces. This triple goddess too did not arrive with the onset of agriculture but was present even in the paleolithic as evidence by the three Venus-figures carved on the rock face at Roc aux Sorciers (one of which is clearly associated with the replenishment of the herds). What typically differentiates triple goddesses is that one personifies the powers of the maiden, one of the mother and one of the hag, mirroring the cycles of the earth as she brings forth, and takes back, flora and fauna alike. Yet the representations are fluid and there are many many variations - such as temptress, wife and maiden in Odysseus' encounters with Circe, Calypso and Nausicaa. In Ireland the hag aspect of the goddess is called the cailleach, a personification of the earth in her winter guise taking life, the dead and the withered back into her bosom and MacNeill says that the Irish saying, Marbh-fháisg ar an gCailligh Rua! (destruction to the red hag) referred to her personification of hunger and famine.
The king is allowed to return to his realm by boat at night in which he hears the portentous roaring of the wind and whistling of the eels. - in the lore of the West of Ireland the whistling of eels foretold faminevi The queen, after giving birth, dedicates herself to the training of the child for his future role of hero which includes military prowess and learning in equal measure. When the prince of the Lonesome Isle is ready for his initial ordeal she dispatches him by means of suitable female histrionics to relieve the king who is about to be wiped out by an invading king from Spain - whose army the country is black with. The king of Spain curiously salutes the prince as my champion, and atypically for an invading force, grants him the day's truce that he requests. The subsequent day long battle in which the invading army is vanquished in described in ritual terms, which from the psychological perspective describes a series of enantiodromia. The King of Erin's army does not participate.
Interestingly Maire MacNeill notes the following quotation from Dún Chaoin in Kerry.
Deireach na sean-daoine nárbh fhiú ramhan ar chur fés na seaimpíní go dtí tréis Domhnach Chrom Dubh.vii
(The old people used to say that it was not worth while putting a spade under the champions (a type of potato) until Black Chrom's Sunday)
According to the famine museum webite, the Champion strain of potato was imported into Ireland after the famine, when such varieties as the Scotch Down failed. The following (from Famine Museum) shows the facility not only to versify but to personify such history:
You dirty clown, says the Scotsdown,
How dare you me oppose!
Twas I supported Ireland
When you dareâ€™nt show your nose.
Outspoke the noble Champion
With courage stout and brave:
Only I happened to sail over here
Thereâ€™d be thousands in their graves
The King of Spain and his army may be suggestive of a folk memory that it was the Spanish who introduced the potato into Europe in the late 1600's from Peru, or it is in fact a motif borrowed from another tale. In Seán Ó Conaill's Book, Stories and Traditions from Iveragh, Maire MacNeill (FoL p137) says there is a tale..
...which relates that the King of Spain invaded Ireland with a great armada and forced the King of Ireland to yield the whole country to him with the exception only of that part that lay west of Leacht Fhíonáin
Which may in fact be some memory of landings or sightings of the rump of the returning Spanish Armada of 1588 and our tale's origin may well be in Kerry.
Despite having conquered an army the guileless prince is easily duped by the evil queen and dispatched from a window into the sea. I use the word evil but note in the tale the impersonality with which such actions are treated. This queen is probably the diseased aspect of the goddess of the Lonesome Isle and note later that it is she who finally dispatches the prince to Tubber Tinytye to return with the flasks of sacred water that lift the spell on the Queen of the Lonesome Isle and her two sisters..
The prince ends up on an islet where his clothes wear away and he is reduced to feeding on seaweed for three months to the point where he is turned completely black by pigment in it. Still, in his hero guise, he didn't swim back to land, it is as if he has taken the curse onto himself, in psychological terms we might say he is approaching the nadir,the nigredo. This destitution while recounted without sympathy in the tale, is eloquent of famine.
His mother believing he has come through the ordeal, deploys fire to force a ship to his island to bring him home. But the curse is not lifted and a few years later the king's kingdom is once again black with an invading army and he is again not up to the task - as indeed the blight returned. The prince reenacts the ritual battle with the king of Spain in which he again appears the victor. And again rather than glory or reward the prince is treated to an another cameo with the evil-queen in which she, grotesquely, spits chicken's blood to feign that she is sick. But indeed she is sick and the curse abides and she knows it. She puts it to the prince that he must go and fetch three flasks from Tubber Tintye (the flaming well) to cure her. The translation may be from tobar tintean (well - hearth) or hearth-well which would be suggestive of the deepest source. The prince insists that the queen's two sons, who hitherto cravenly claimed credit for his hero deeds, should accompany him and she agrees.
The three set off next morning and meet the prince's aunt. If you head east in the early morning the sunrise lights up the sky like a golden bowl and the dew covers the face of the earth, and so the prince's aunt in human form meets him washing her face from a golden bowl ( a bit like aurora). She tries to persuade the prince to stay with her, informing him of the hopelessness of his task. The prince decides to push on regardless but the cowardly elder son of the evil queen accepts her offer to stay.
At sunset on the following day, having headed westwards(?),when the sky is again a golden bowl and the dew begins to fall again, the prince meets the elder aunt , who also takes human form washing her face from a golden bowl (a bit like hesperides). She puts him and the younger son of the evil-queen up for the night and the next morning outlines in detail the nature of the terrible challenges they have taken on. The younger son frightened, says he will not go on but the prince indicates he will. And so his aunt calls in all the birds of the air for a consultation. A goddess of truly remarkable powers she thereby discovers the whereabouts of Tubber Tintye from an eagle who has just come from there. Yet when the prince shakes the bridle she has given him, rather than a magnificent stallion, it is a dirty, shaggy, lean horse that emerges from her stable. The miserable looking creature however is up to the task and it brings the prince safely to Tubber Tintye over a river of fire and through the ranks of poisonous trees.
The King of Erin made his way to the Lonesome Island first by horse and then swimming. His son the prince of the lonesome island swam out to the islet where he spent three months. His aunt later provides him with a horse rather than a ship (or eagle flight) to travel to the island of Tobar Tintye. Giving the psychological perspective of horse as a symbol in fairy tales Von Franz says :
With the aid of his shaggy friend the prince passes the formidable defences of this realm and enters the basement of the Queen of Tubber Tintye's castle full of whales, giant eels and bears all fallen into a seven year sleep, in synchrony with their queen whose powers appear to include those of Mistress of Wild Animals. The formidable energy and power of the animals is suggestive of the level the prince is now operating at. He passes through twelve chambers each with a sleeping maiden, before alighting on the ultimate thirteenth chamber - I'm inclined to think of the twelve full moons (or months) and then the golden chamber of the sun. The fact that her bed continually turns is suggestive of the endless cycling of the sun (the better known triple-goddess Brigit is associated with fire and a cross that represents the solar cycle). The prince of the Lonesome Isle remains six days and nights in the golden chamber with the sleeping queen and gains rest and sustenance from the cornucopia of food provided. He then completes his mission by taking three flasks from the eponymous flaming well on the seventh day. (some similarity with the sense of three cup bearers at the Well of Segais)
On this plain there were twelve stone idols all embossed in silver except Crom who was embossed in gold.ix
Crom though is problematic and is not explained in any mythology we have although Michael Dames refers to him a harvest god and infers his relationship with the sun goddess Aine from a festival in Co. Louth called Domhnach Aine agus Chroim Duibh (the Sunday of Áine and Chrom Dubh).x He then goes onto say that:
Both Crom and Finn can be regarded as degraded versions of the high gods, Donn the dark one, and his dazzling opposite number, Lugh.
And Maire MacNeill says:
he can be regarded as identical with the pre-celtic food providing gods - Cormac, the Dagda, Elcmar, Midir and Balor.xi
That Áine had a dark side may be divined from the following superstition from Dunany, Co.Louth recounted by a Nicholas O'Kearney :
But the three days dedicated to Aine were considered to be unlucky ... because it was remarked that one or more person should forfeit their lives by drowning, as a sacrifice to the relentless Áine.xiiSee the Mag Slecht
On his return the shaggy horse tells the prince that it is enchanted and is actually four princes (the four wasted provinces of Ireland, or to be even more elemental, the four quarters) and that he must kill and quarter the horse to release them, which he does perhaps imitating a horse sacrifice? The horse also tells the prince that his aunts, the three goddesses of Ireland, may return to Lonesome Island.
On their return the elder son of the evil-queen snatches the three flasks and takes credit for the exploit. The prince of the Lonesome Isle responds to this affront impassively as before, and returns to the Lonesome Isle his hero task complete. The evil queen, no doubt with a touch of irony, thanks her eldest son for saving her life. What happens the three flasks we're not told but the fact that there were three suggests they were used to lift the curse on the Queen of the Lonesome Isle and her two sisters.
On Holy Saturday in the Christian Church, the day between the death and resurrection of Jesus, the priest performs the ceremony of the lighting of the Paschal Candle, the new fire, after which it is brought to the baptismal font and the dipped three times in it while the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend into it. The priest completes the ritual with the words:
And make the whole substance of this water fruitful for regeneration.
And then the people are sprinkled with this water imbued with the sacred fire of the Holy Spirit to symbolise their own renewal.xiii
T.S.Eliot completed his first draft of Little Gidding in 1941 while London was still in the middle of the blitz. He captures the period between despair and renewal vividly, and evokes the original source of the imagery of the renewal brought about by fire in water:
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing.
On a more prosaic note there are wells in Tyrone and Waterford (and probably elsewhere) called toberanna (Tobar Ã�ine) or Áine's Well and so suggestive of an association between fresh water and solar fire.
Yet things are happening in the kingdom of Tubber-Tintye, a son is born to the queen and growing. When the queen of Tubber-Tintye awakens after her seven year sleep (seven is a standard mythological number for such periods but by black coincidence the effects of the famine were worst from 1845 to 1952 - see appendix) and is only partly appeased when she finds that her visitor left a note. She mobilises her forces and if the curse has been partially lifted there is yet a reckoning to be had.
For a third time the hapless king of Erin and his kingdom is threatened with utter destruction and he is pathetically reduced to commenting that really he has had enough trouble already in his life. Nonetheless the Queen of Tubber Tintye demands that he produce the hero who entered her chamber. Continuing his charade as a hero, the older son of the evil queen acknowledges that it was he who entered the chamber. The queen, not impressed by mere words, tells him to mount her gray horse, which he does. It immediately takes to the air, tests the imposter's character and then, finding it wanting, dashes him on the rocks below. A similar fate awaits his younger brother.
Under extreme duress the king sends for the prince of the Lonesome Island and his mother who duly arrive with his aunts. The prince is surprisingly non-committal when asked did he enter the golden chamber, but agrees nonetheless to mount the queen's gray horse. He displays his hero quality by standing on the horse and striking it three times and going up under the sun. The prince appears to be reenacting symbolically his union with the queen of Tubber Tintye (and another horse sacrifice?), thus demonstrating that it was he who entered her chamber - interestingly the Irish sun goddess, Ã�ine, gave the Irish hero, Cuchulainn the Liath Macha (the Gray of Macha) and to be worthy to keep it he had to stay on it (why gray?). Interestingly, rather than offering a kiss to the prince on his heroic achievement the queen instead rewards him maternally by placing his head on her breast.
See James Frazer's Demeter as Pig and Horse in the Golden Bough for how the goddess of corn can take the form of a mare as well as a pig.
Also further developing the symbol of the horse in Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (p307-308), Von Franz says of the horse sacrifice that:
The horse is one of the purest symbolic forms of the carrying instinctual nature, that energy by which the conscious ego is supported without noticing it. It is what makes the flow of life, directs our attention on to things, and influences our actions through unconscious motivation. It is the whole feeling of being alive, the flow of life which we do not make but upon which we ride along so to speak, into and through life. Most people accept this carrying force without question They let themselves be carried through life by their impulses, desires and motivations and only try to be not thrown off conscious plans. But the force constitutes a kind of unconscious health of following unconsciously one's own animal pattern without questioning it in any way. The horse sacrifice therefore means a complete renunciation of all libidinal flow which attaches one to any life impulse; in other words, an artificial, complete state of introversion.xiv
It should be noted though that the Hindu horse sacrifice was a ritual in which the queen symbolically mates with the sacrificed stallion while the raja was supposed to have abstained from intercourse during the year of the horse's wanderings. There is an account of a similar ritual in Glencolmcille, Donegal where as part as part of his inauguration, a new chieftain, literally or symbolically, couples with a white mare with all his subjects in attendance. The mare is then killed and cooked for a communal meal (Gerard Cambrensis - Topography of Ireland p110). We might hazard an educated guess that the future chieftain had a period of abstinence before the ceremony. The culture here of course is Indo-European horse-riding cattle-herders rather than Bronze Age cereal growers. In this latter context the king is coupling with a goddess of sovereignty, like Macha, In both these examples the renunciation of libido precedes the actual sacrifice.
She now interrogates the evil-queen, using torture, who reveals that her oldest son was conceived with the gardener and her youngest son with the big brewer. The younger son we might identify as of the male lineage of Ireland that used to waste itself in excessive drink (the big brewer). The gardener's son may be of the lineage of those who mismanaged the land (the garden of Ireland) and let it become a wasteland of death. Although it should be noted that in both cases it is not so much the lineage as the traits of dissimulation and cowardice that are ultimately at fault.
The evil-queen is burned and this may seem harsh but she is the blight on the land and the restoration of the land demands her removal. The queen of Tubber-Tintye then announces, without consultation, her marriage to the prince, and that of the queen of the Lonesome Isle to the king. The energies of the land have been re-balanced from a very deep level. There is a sense that the triple-goddess was not able to lift the curse by herself and so a call to a deeper more elemental aspect of herself.
In fairy tales you often have a pattern with a kingdom in difficulty which is put to rights by a hero who then marries the princess, replaces the king, and they rule the kingdom in benevolence for a few seasons. Here the king remains and the prince retires to the magical realm of Tubber Tintye and it is the queen of the Lonesome Isle that replaces the evil queen on the mainland. From a psychological perspective it's almost as if a cure has been effected but the prince and his son, the promise of the future, slip back into a gestative or latent state.
But even so what is the sense of such a story? What is its purpose? Marie Louise Von Franz says of such tales:
Such stories are healing because they express life dreams and the compensatory processes in the collective unconscious that balance the one-sidedness, the sickness, the constant deviations of human consciousness. And these stories have this healing effect although there is no attempt to understand them. They are simply told.xv
If the tale was told four thousand years ago on the banks of Lough Gur after a Lughnasa or Samhain festival the resonance's would have been different but the listeners would have identified the personifications with much greater ease. The Irish Neolithic-Bronze Age period lasted from about 4,000 to 500 BCE during which time the land was changed from mainly continuous forest to a farmed landscape (not without damage it must be said, i.e. the Burren denuded of soil, upland bogs where woodlands were cleared) and this experience still has to form the bedrock of what may be termed the Irish experience and psyche - as indeed it was of most of Europe starting from 7,500BC. As a final comment the designation, Lonesome Isle, maybe suggestive of the island of Ireland itself which was left with so many deserted villages and town lands in the wake of the famine. A hollow silence must have hung over much of the land for decades after.
Epilogue: A natural misgiving about the above is that there should not really be only a single version of the tale. The same trauma should have produced tales with a like pattern in different places. As it turns out a fairy tale called The Brown Bear of the Green Glen from Scotland tells a similar tale, the major difference being the presence of a bear who largely controls events. The King of Erin in this version is wasted by sickness so that he is blind and lame. The bear comes to us from our Paleolithic ancestors and although frequently depicted as having prodigious powers (see the Animal Master, The Undying Head or Bear Worship and Sacrifice), it is more often than not depicted as benign. That the bear appears with 'a fiery cinder in his mouth' and asks the protagonist whether he wants his food cooked or raw reaffirms the antiquity of this motif - for comparison see, The Great Serpent myth. To our winter hungry ancestors caves hibernating in caves must have appeared as a 'god-send'; a selfless sacrifice. In my view this tale collected by the Scottish folklorist, John Francis Campbell, from a traveling tinker called John McDonald strengthens the notion that the psyche draws on our total heritage to create narratives that help communities cope with trauma. I will explore this tale further anon because the food references are wider taking in the realm of the hunter as well as the agriculturist. For reference the 'little jewel of a woman' on the Green Isle has a cornucopia of whiskey (cereal crop), bread (cereal crop) and cheese (dairy).( April 2014)
Tony Dolan 20th Nov 2012 (Feb 2013 and Jan 2014 )
i Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (London: Fontana, 1993), p. 107.
ii Marija Gimbutas, The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images, New and updated ed (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), pp. 211–213.
iii Gimbutas, p. 211.
iv Máire MacNeill and Irish Folklore Commission, The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest (Dublin: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Èireann, University College, 1982), p. 66.
v Michael Dames, Mythic Ireland (New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1996), p. 82.
vi James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 173.
vii MacNeill and Irish Folklore Commission, p. 48.
viii Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (Boston: Shambhala, 1995), pp. 51–52.
ix Daragh Smyth, A Guide to Irish Mythology (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1988), p. 34.
x Dames, p. 100.
xi MacNeill and Irish Folklore Commission, p. 416.
xii MacNeill and Irish Folklore Commission, p. 65.
xiii Campbell, pp. 249–250.
xiv Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales, pp. 307–308.
xv Marie-Louise von Franz, Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales, Studies in Jungian Psychology by Jungian Analysts (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1997), p. 20.
The first literate mythologies come from the agriculturally based urban civilisation of Sumer. For comparison purposes, and no more, we note that in the epic of Gilgamesh, Inanna's desire to avenge herself on Gilgamesh for his rejection of her sexual advances - he cites the unhappy fates of her former consorts - leads her to ask her father, Anu, to unleash Gugalanna, the bull of heaven. The bull personfies fertility, is associated with the constellation Taurus, and also the cyclical nature of the moon. In 3000BC at the time of the spring harvesting festival (Akitu). The sun situated in Taurus effectively obliterated the constellation with its light as it rises at the vernal equinox heralding the onset of the arid summer period when almost all plant life perishs in the dessicating heat.
Anu [made answer, (thus) speaking, and said unto] Ishtar, the Lady: '[If I the Heavenly Bull shall create, for which] thou dost ask me, (Then) seven years of (leer) husks [must needs follow after his onslaught (?)].
Wilt thou [for man] gather [corn (?)], and increase [for the cattle(?)] the fodder (?).'
[Ishtar made answer, (thus) speaking [and said unto] Anu, her father: '[Corn for mankind] have I hoarded, have grown [for the cattle the fodder], 110.[If seven] years of (leer) husks [must needs follow after his onslaught (?)] [I will for man] gather [corn and increase for the cattle] the fodder.'
The Epic of Gilgamish, translated by R. Campbell Thompson  p34-35 lines 101-111
Joseph's interpretion of Phaorah's dream - about the seven fat cows and the the seven emaciated cows - as seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine, is in the same mythological vein. Thomas Mann in his mythological epic Joseph and his Brothers entreats us not to read too much into a literal understanding of the number - Seven or Five p979
The symbolic process is an experience in images and of images. Its development usually shows an enantiodromian structure like the text of the I-Ching, and so presents a rhythm of negative and positive, loss and gain, dark and light. Its beginning is almost invariably characterized by one's getting stuck in a blind alley or in some imposssible situation; and its goal is, broadly speaking, illumination or higher consciousness, by means of which the initial situation is overcome on a higher level. As regards the time factor, the process may be compressed into a single dream or into a short moment of experience, or it may extend over months and years, depending on the nature of the initial situation, the person invovled in the process, and the goal to be reached.
p38-39 C.Jung: Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious