AIDEDA (Medieval Ireland)

In medieval Irish literary terminology, the word aided refers to a tale in prose or prosimetrum that relates the violent demise of a hero, king, or poet. Like the Comperta, Echtrai, and Immrama, it belongs to a system of nineteen tale-types or general topics, which medieval Irish scholars used as a means of classifying much of their narrative literature. Judging from the number of tales that survive, the aided must have been a popular tale-type. In fact, some thirty-five death-tales that contain the word in their title are extant, most of which are written in Old or Middle Irish (c. 650-1200). Almost half of these are historical tales, while much of the remainder belong to the Ulster Cycle. Yet the aided is not the only tale-type in which the violent deaths of kings and heroes can be narrated. Such stories often form integral episodes in other tale-types, especially the catha (battles), togla (destructions), and oircne (slaughters). Indeed, some of the most famous death-tales in the Irish language—stories like Togail Bruidne Da Derga (The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) and Orgain Denna Rfg (The Destruction of Dinn Rig)—are not classified as aideda at all, but belong to these other tale-types. Regardless of the titles under which they survive, death-tales formed an important part of the Irish literary tradition.

Origins and Development

Comparative evidence from other Indo-European cultures, Greek and Indic in particular, suggests that the aided, as a tale-type, is ancient, and some Irish examples do preserve elements of demonstrable antiquity. However, since the 1950s, scholars have begun to change the way they view early Irish literature, the death-tales included. These stories are no longer regarded as the products of an age-old oral tradition, but as the products of the ecclesiastical scriptoria in which they were written. Studies, especially since the 1980s, have shown that the creators of these texts drew on a wide range of materials, both foreign and domestic. As a result, they were able to fashion narratives that at one time hearkened back to the pre-Christian past but at the same time addressed contemporary political and social concerns. The aideda themselves proved particularly adaptable in this respect, so much so that they continued to be composed and reworked from their textual beginnings in the eighth century right up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when death-tales like Oidheadh Chloinne Lir, Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann, and Oidheadh Chloinne Uisnigh enjoyed widespread popularity.

The Mythology of Death

The heroes of Irish myth and legend do not wither away from disease or old age, but like their counterparts in other traditions, they die dramatic deaths that mark the culmination of their heroic biographies. Their deaths, like their births, take place in a well-ordered universe in which every event has its time and place, and in the aideda, the time and place of death are usually liminal. Heroes tend to die at transitional points in the seasonal calendar (like Samain) and at transitional points in the physical landscape (like fords). One of the more common liminal spaces in the Irish death-tales is the quasi-otherworld banquet hall, or bruiden. In this setting, the doomed hero partakes of the so-called fatal feast, often in the company of a strange woman thought to be a figure of death. Many a king in Irish literature from Conaire Mor to Diarmait mac Cerbaill meets his end in a bruiden. The hero can suddenly find himself in one of these liminal spaces through what appears to be happenstance, through his own actions (often this involves the violation of his geissi, or taboos), or through the complex interaction of human and supernatural agents bent on the hero’s destruction. But however it comes about, once the hero enters this liminal space at the proper time, his demise is assured.

The Threefold Death

No aspect of the early Irish aideda has received more attention than the motif of the threefold death, in which the victim is killed by three different means in rapid succession, often wounding, drowning, and burning. Examples of this motif can be found in the literature and folklore of many countries, including Wales, France, and Estonia. Although its origins and development are obscure, some scholars believe that the motif may have its beginnings in a putative Indo-European tri-functional sacrifice, in which human victims were offered to a trio of divinities. Potential support for this theory comes from the archaeological record. Over the years, a number of prehistoric bodies have been unearthed from the bogs of northern and western Europe, some of which, like the Lindow Man from Cheshire, England, show signs of ritualistic threefold death.

But whatever its supposed origins, the motif of the threefold death in early Irish literature has little to do with paganism, much less human sacrifice. Two of the best examples of this motif are found in Aided Diar-mata meic Cerbaill (The Death of Diarmait mac Cer-baill) and Aided Muirchertaig meic Erca (The Death of Muirchertach mac Erca). Just as in these stories, all the other instances of this motif in Irish sources are set in the early Christian period, specifically the sixth and seventh centuries, and center on conflicts between what would now be called Church and State. Furthermore, almost all the examples follow the same narrative pattern, which at its core consists of three main stages: (1) A crime is committed against the Church; (2) a prophecy that the offender will die a threefold death is pronounced; and (3) the prophecy is fulfilled as the offender dies in the manner foretold. Death, then, is seen as divine retribution for sins against God and his Church. Like the aideda set in the pagan past, death in these stories comes at the instigation of human and cosmic forces as a result of the hero’s actions.

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