Gessi (the plural form of geis) can be defined as certain actions that a person is absolutely prohibited from doing or participating in.1 Buada (the plural form of búaid),2 on the other hand, can be defined as ‘lucky things’, gifts or virtues, positive qualities.3 During the course of this discussion we’ll be looking at how they are seen in the sources that we have to hand, how they work, and what purpose they serve.
In many respects, gessi and buada are the opposite sides of the same coin. While a person may be subject to gessi – prohibited acts – they can also (and should) enjoy certain gifts or virtues. In most discussions these buada are overlooked in favour of talking about gessi, and to be fair there is far more in the sources about gessi than there is about buada. Therefore, while there may be more to be said about gessi in the following discussion, that doesn’t mean we should underestimate the value or importance of buada.
It is thought that the word geis is derived from the verb guidid (‘to pray’), which can also be interpreted in the sense of a request.4 More specifically we see a geis as an injunction against certain actions. Sometimes gessi might be defined as ‘taboos’,5 but this word can be a little problematic in an Irish context, since the word itself is originally a Tongan concept6 that – like the word ‘shaman’ – has been taken out of its original cultural context and given a more general meaning that is devoid of it original roots. As such, while some academics will use it, others will avoid it, and it is perhaps more helpful to stick with definitions like ‘prohibitions’ or ‘proscribed acts’ throughout the course of this discussion; words that don’t carry such problematic associations.
The main source for us to look at gessi and how they are seen, how they are supposed to work, is in the early Irish literature, and according to Eleanor Hull, who published one of the earliest studies of the subject, they are most numerous in the Ulster Cycle.7 From what we see in the literature, gessi are bestowed in a variety of ways and serve a variety of purposes, and generally speaking these prohibitions are laid on an individual in order to make sure that they avoid disaster, dishonour or shame.8 As such, any discussion of gessi and buada is inevitably going to involve discussing the values and expectations of the society in which they are found.
In the sources we see kings, warriors, poets, or hospitallers (briugu) being shown to have gessi,9 even gods – such as the Dagda in Cath Maige Tuired – are seen to be subject to gessi.10 Mostly, however, we see them in relation to kings and warriors, and generally the examples of gessi we see in the sources apply to people of high, or relatively high, status. This is perhaps no wonder considering the fact that the literature doesn’t tend to have much to say about people of humbler origins, but it may also indicate that perhaps only certain people were seen to qualify for gessi; we can only speculate on this point, but notably Charles-Edwards has pointed to numerous examples of gessi being referred to in later versions of tales, but not in their earlier versions. In these cases, earlier versions of the text describe customs that were considered to be bad luck or ill omens, and were therefore to be avoided, while later versions of the same tale refer to these customary prohibitions specifically as gessi, and in most cases these changes apply to characters who are not kings.
Many of these examples are found in Version II of the Táin Bó Cuailnge. The first example relates to Cú Chulainn as a boy; in the early version of the tale it is customary for the boys to refrain from entering the playing-field until they have had their safety guaranteed. Cú Chulainn – typically – flouts this convention, and as a result he is told he has committed a grave insult; his actions are an ill omen. The later version describes the custom explicitly as a geis, and so the meaning changes the passage to suggest something else entirely. Normally we would expect that Cú Chulainn should then soon meet his demise for having broken a geis, but here it doesn’t happen. In a later episode, Cú Chulainn is seen to drive his chariot túathal round Emain, challenging his own men to a fight his; again, the later version of the tale describes such an act as geis, whereas the earlier version describes the act as against custom. Likewise, it is only in the later version of Aided Óenfir Aífe (‘The Killing of Aífe’s Only Son’) that Cú Chulainn explicitly lays gessi on his son; no geis are mentioned in the earlier version.
In all cases, we might see the earlier versions expressing the avoidance of certain customs that simply boded as ill omens if they were witnessed. Only later were they recast as gessi, which arguably carry with them rather heavier penalties if they happen to be broken.11 A geis expresses much more than just behaviour associated bad luck or omens that should be avoided; it also carries the notion of specific sanctions, or repercussions being involved if they do happen to get broken. Disaster will happen; it is not a question of ‘might happen.’12
We can see that there has been a clear evolution of the meaning of the word from Old Irish into Middle, and it has resulted in the meaning of the word broadening.13 In the Dictionary of the Irish Language, for example, while the primary meaning of geis is given as “a tabu, a prohibition”, other definitions include “a positive injunction or demand”, “something unlawful or forbidden; a wrong”, and “a spell, an incantation”.14
With a broadening of the meaning and use of the word, we might wonder if the application of it broadened over time as well; where once it may have only applied to kings or royalty, perhaps later it came to encompass warriors, poets, hospitallers, even gods. The fact that sometimes we clearly gessi being used simply as a literary device means that such things will never be easy to ascertain, although even as a literary device we can still find valuable information in the way they were used and presented, as we will see below.
For now, all we can say is that while there are a variety of individuals shown to be the subject of gessi in the literature as it stands now, certainly we find that kings are most frequently seen to be the subject of gessi and buada, and in general, the higher the status, the more complex and numerous the prohibitions are. This is perhaps because the higher the status, the more there is for an individual to lose, and so it is necessary to be more careful.15
In terms of receiving gessi, we see that they were either bestowed at the point of birth or even conception, or at the point of entering a new role in society.16 Conchobar’s son Cormac had his gessi laid on him at birth by a druid, for example, while Cú Chulainn himself laid gessi on his own son Connla. The legendary king Conaire’s gessi were given to him by his father, who has Otherworldly origins. Cú Chulainn received gessi when he was given his name by the druid Cathbad, after he killed the hound of Culann the smith.17 Cú Chulainn’s change of name (from Sétanta, the name given to him at birth) and the gessi that came with it, effectively recognised the fact that he was now no longer a boy but a warrior.
Likewise, upon becoming a king, many different kinds of gessi governed the kings’ behaviour in all aspects of his life. First and foremost, a king should be “rop sogeis” – “let him be of good (i.e. keep) taboos.”18 In other words, a man can only be king if he observes and upholds the gessi associated with his status. But also, to even qualify as king in the first place, a man must be without gessi that would exclude him from the kingship during his tenure. As such, anyone considered for the kingship had to be physically whole – without blemish – show good judgement and generosity; that kind of thing.19
Aside from the general gessi listed above, that applied to all kings, there are other gessi that are associated with the kinghsip of particular places and provinces. These are laid out in a tract that was attached to Lebor na Cert (‘The Book of Rights’) in around the fourteenth century,20 and it shows how the king of Tara had seven gessi laid on him, while the kings of the provinces each had five,21 reflecting the fact that the higher the status, the more was expected of the individual to uphold and maintain that status.22 The tract also describes the buada associated with each king (see below).
In the tale of Deirdre, who fell in love with Noisiu in spite of the fact that she was betrothed to the king of the Ulaid, Conchobar, Deirdre forces Noisiu into eloping with her by threatening to shame him. While the word ‘geis‘ isn’t explicitly used, it could be interpreted as a form of it in that she forces Noisiu into a position to maintain his honour. That is essentially one of the functions of gessi as a whole; to ensure the proper behaviour of the individual, and to prevent all kinds of circumstances of mishap, misfortune, and disaster.23 Gráinne, the betrothed of Fionn, does likewise to her lover Diarmuid to make sure he elopes with her as well.24 Of these two examples, we might consider them part of a later evolution of the word, either in literary and (perhaps or) social terms. In the older meaning of the word, a gessi is always negative, prohibiting an action. Later, gessi can also refer to injunctions that compel someone to act – in the case of Noisiu and Diarmuid, they are forced to elope in order to avoid public shame and dishonour.25
The fact that kings were often the subject of so many different kinds of gessi reflected not only their high status as an individual, but also the fact that their behaviour also had an impact on their people.26 Many of the gessi that governed the king’s behaviour don’t seem to make much practical sense, since they often prohibited the king from certain actions at certain times of the day, approaching a certain place in a particular direction (túathal instead of deiseal, or from the north instead of the south, etc), or staying in certain places during particular seasons or festivals.27 The king of Connacht, for example, had these prohibitions laid on him:
“There are prohibitions for the king
of Connacht, let him observe them in his country;
a circuit around Cruachain on the day of Samain
is not lucky, rather is it disastrous.
To contend with the rider of a grey horse
in Áth Gallda between two posts,
to tryst at Segais in addition,
to sit on the burial mounds of Maine’s wife.
Let him not go in a coloured cloak
upon the heath of Luchat in Dál Caiss.
Those are at all times in the west
the five prohibitions of the king of Cruachain.”28
Some of these gessi, at the least, may have come about due to particular disasters that befell one king, and were then determined to be courting bad luck, or else dangerous behaviours for all future kings to engage in.29 Others might have a significance that we no longer understand – religious or mythological meanings that are now lost – and perhaps over time the kings themselves no longer understood the meaning of them.30 Whatever the case, it seems that the ultimate function of these gessi is to maintain honour and status, and to avoid shame, offence, or disaster – for both the king himself, and his people as a whole.31
In some cases, however, we see that gessi are clearly personal, relevant only to the individual rather than being part and parcel of entering a certain position like the kingship. On the one hand, gessi given at birth define the individual and the kind of things expected of them – their expected social role – defining the very essence of the individual,32 and so helping to guide them along the right path in life; maximising chances of success and well-being. On the other hand, some gessi might be seen as ‘totemic’33 – another problematic word in relation to early Ireland, since this is another word that has been uprooted from its original cultural context and the exact meaning doesn’t necessarily apply anywhere else.34 As such, totemism is a controversial concept in relation to Gaelic beliefs, but while we might avoid the word, we certainly do see that some mythological or pseudo-historical figures are sometimes heavily associated with particular animals.
Conaire, whose father was of the ‘bird-people’, was under geis to never cast at or kill a bird.35 Conaire’s prohibition was a practical one, in some ways, because there was a chance that he could unwittingly kill a member of his own family if he did so. In early Irish law, this would be fingal – ‘kin-slaying,’ and so the geis protects him from the possibility of committing what was one of the worst crimes in early Irish society.36
The same could be said for Diarmuid, who fell in love with and then eloped with Fionn’s betrothed, Gráinne. Diarmuid was under geis not to hunt boar, but this fact was unknown to him for most of his life; Fionn certainly knew about it, though, and kept it from Diarmuid and used it to trick him into hunting boar with him.37 The prohibition likely stems from the fact that the soul of Diarmuid’s foster-brother is in the wild boar of Ben Gultan – his foster-brother, who was murdered by Diarmuid’s own father. The geis was laid on Diarmuid as a baby, but having no knowledge of it, he is easily tricked by Fionn, and so after many years of peace between the two, since Diarmuid’s elopement with Gráinne, Fionn finally gets his revenge. It is the very same boar of Ben Gulban that Diarmuid kills, and so he effectively kills his own foster-brother, killing his own kin.38
Named after a hound, Cú Chulainn is under geis to never eat the flesh of a dog, but he is also under geis to never refuse food that is offered to him. Part of his undoing is in being forced into a position where he must break at least one of those gessi, and it is sometimes the interplay of different prohibitions that end up forcing the character to have to break one or other of them. In Cú Chulainn’s death tale, Aided Con Culainn, he meets three old women as he travels along a road. They are cooking food and, recognising the fact that he is likely to be walking into a trap, Cú Chulainn tries to avoid them. The three women are not so easily befuddled, and they see Cú Chulainn and insist on offering him some of their humble fare, bringing his geis into play; but the food they offer him is the meat of a lap-dog, which brings him up against another geis.39
Cú Chulainn can either refuse the food and break that geis, thus offending their offer of hospitality, or else he can eat the meat and break a personal geis. He chooses break the latter and accepts the food, perhaps because it was not just against his own geis to refuse hospitality, but also against social convention and the law to offend the hospitality of another. As a result, he effectively chooses the lesser of the two evils (causing shame only on himself for breaking a personal geis, rather than breaking a geis and offending others for refusing their hospitality at the same time), and he becomes lame on his left side, and Cú Chulainn then goes on to meet his fate.
In all cases – Conaire, Diarmuid, or Cú Chulainn – breaking their gessi associated with the animals that are a part of their very being, is essentially a violation of their own essence or kin.40 Cú Chulainn’s position as a warrior came from his killing of a guard dog and then agreeing to take the place the guard dog in reparation; thus he effectively owes his very position and status to the dog. For Diarmuid and Conaire, their gessi are a clear case of protecting themselves and their family; something they ultimately fail to do. Such a state is untenable, and the end result can only be fatal.
In some cases, we see that gessi force individuals into extreme circumstances, and they must go to great lengths in order to avoid breaking their prohibitions. Using Cú Chulainn as an example again, in Aided Óenfir Aífe (‘The Death of Aife’s Only Son’)41 he ends up killing his own son, Connla, because of the very gessi that he himself laid on Connla after he was born. Connla was the result of an affair with Aífe, the daughter of Scathach, who Cú Chulainn trained with to learn his skills as a great warrior.
Connla is raised by Aífe and Cú Chulainn goes back to Ulster to claim his place as champion, and settles down with Emer; he knows, however, that one day his son will come looking for his father and his father’s people, and so before Cú Chulainn leaves he gives Aífe a gold ring and tells her that when it fits the boy he should come to Ireland and find him. He further tells Aífe: “Let no man put him off his road, let him not make himself known to any man, nor let him refuse combat to any.”42
Inevitably, when Connla sails to Ireland to find his father, he is challenged by the Ulstermen to identify himself so that they might know he is there for peaceful purposes. Since Connla is unable to identify himself under geis, and he is told that he cannot land his ship until he does so, he is told that he cannot land. Connla carries on regardless – as he must do to avoid breaking another geis – and this is interpreted as a great offence against the Ulaid. Eventually, after proving himself against most of the warriors of Ulster, Connla comes up against his own father, Cú Chulainn. Emer, Cú Chulainn’s wife, realises who the boy is and pleads with Cú Chulainn not to fight Connla, for she knows that Connla will die and Ulster will then be deprived of a great warrior and potential champion, and Cú Chulainn will be deprived of an heir. Cú Chulainn is a hardened warrior in his prime, while Connla is still young and yet to come into his own. Formidable thought Connla is, he is yet to surpass Cú Chulainn’s strength, skill, or experience.
Cú Chulainn refuses to listen to Emer, and the inevitable happens; Connla ends up dead. To Cú Chulainn, honour is at stake here now, and the identity of the boy, and the potential ramifications of his death are secondary to Cú Chulainn defending his own honour as a warrior and champion of the Ulaid, as well as the honour of his people. But even so, Connla’s death – the fact that he loses his fight – reflects on Cú Chulainn’s own personal honour as the boy’s father. Thus, Cú Chulainn chooses the honour of his people over kin, and himself.43
We see, then, that gessi can work in a very complicated way, and can result in very complicated situations. In some cases even knowledge of the gessi a person might be subject to does not save them from having to breaking them. But ultimately – no matter how odd or irrational the prohibitions may seem at times – they are to do with preserving and promoting the well-being of the individual, as well as safeguarding the values and ensuring the smooth running of the society in which we find them.44
One thing to remember, though, is that we only really see them in the literature: They are not referred to in the law-texts at all45 (although the legal commentary does say that it is geis for a king of Tara to be physically blemished),46 and so it’s difficult to tell how they actually worked in pre-Christian Ireland, whether or not they were seen in the same way as they are portrayed in the literature, or even how prevalent they were.
In many cases in the literature, gessi are seen to be more a literary motif than anything else, often appearing as a foreshadowing of impending doom or disaster – the tale lays out certain gessi that a character (often a king) might have, and then the story proceeds to force the character into situations where the gessi are broken, one by one, ultimately leading to the character’s demise. Togail Bruidne Da Derga (‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’) is about as clear an example as any we might think of here, where Conaire is forced to break his gessi one by one during the course of one night. The circumstances surrounding this is that he gives a false judgement as king; in effect, the story shows that since he has failed to uphold his obligations and duties as a king, and he is no longer worthy to hold that position. The breaking of his gessi, and his ultimate demise, underlines this point, and is symptomatic of his false judgement and failure as king.47
We might see the use of gessi as a literary device or motif as a later evolution of them (much in the same way as how the meaning and use of the word broadened somewhat over time), in a time when they were no longer relevant or fully understood.48 In this sense, it is difficult to examine gessi as a whole without considering their specific context and meaning within the tale they appear in. We must wonder how far their portrayal and use in a tale is from their original roots, and therefore whether or not they are being presented in a way that isn’t entirely as they were originally intended to work. And of course, we must consider whether or not it matters, ultimately, that they did evolve in different directions. It’s only natural, right? The later expressions simply form a greater part of the whole.
Their use as a literary device does raise questions about whether or not they were ever a proper part of early Irish society. Looking at the different ways in which gessi are portrayed, and the sources in which we find them (in the tract attached to Lebor na Cert (‘The Book of Rights’), for example, or as elements that are secondary the whole plot, not meant as any kind of foreshadowing but referred to more in passing. Considering all of this, we can say with some confidence that they were an actual feature of pre-Christian society at some point.49
As a literary device they are generally used as a foreshadowing of death or disaster, and in that sense they reflect the idea that gessi and fate are heavily intertwined.50 In other tales, things are not so simple, and we might see tragedy in spite of gessi being upheld: In Aided Cheltchair maic Uthechair (‘The Tragic Death of Celtchar’), the briugu (hospitaller) Blái was under geis to sleep with any unaccompanied woman who stayed over night at his hostel. The wife of Celtchar arrived one day and, since she was unaccompanied, Blái made sure to uphold his geis. Celtchar, however, found out and he killed Blái, although he himself also ended up dead too – arguably for killing Blái unjustly in the sense that Blái only did what he was under obligation to do, and Celtchar took it upon himself to interfere.51 Likewise, both Diarmuid and Noisiu are placed under geis by their lovers, but even though they uphold their geis and do as they have to because of the injunctions placed on them, both of them die as a result of their actions because the geis and their resulting elopements are ultimately unjust and dishonourable.
Otherwise, we see positive outcomes when gessi are mentioned and successfully upheld. For example, the Dagda is under geis that he cannot carry anyone without their calling him by his name. In Cath Maige Tuired (‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuired’), the Dagda meets Indech’s daughter as he returns from a meeting with the Fomoire (the enemy of the tale, who the Tuatha Dé Danann are about to do battle with). Indech’s daughter demands he carry her, but he refuses because of his geis. The Dagda is a little worse for wear anyway, stuffed and bloated with a heroic amount of porridge that he has just been forced to eat by the Fomoire (who had made far too much porridge for him to try and force him into a position of offending their hospitality).52
Indech’s daughter initially beats the Dagda when he refuses to carry her, but in the end she successfully manages to determine the Dagda’s full name. As a result of her beating, and with the time it takes for her to guess his full name, the Dagda is able to relieve himself of the massive amount of porridge he’s just had to eat. Having had a massive dump on the roadside and feeling better for himself, and Indech’s daughter having guessed his name, he is now able to oblige her demands. On top of all that, the Dagda also manages to seduce her – the daughter of the enemy’s king, no less – after she smacks him on the arse and reveals her pubic hair as she jumps up on him.53 After their tryst, Indech’s daughter ends up offering to help the Dagda and his people in the fight, by hindering the Fomoire (her own people); and so the Dagda’s upholding of his geis is seen to be greatly to his, and his people’s, advantage.54
Likewise, Fergus mac Roich also successfully upholds his geis against refusing an ale-feast in Longes maic n-Uislenn (‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu’), in spite of his pressing business elsewhere – although in this case Charles-Edward notes that the earlier recension of the tale makes no mention of a geis, and instead says that Fergus was unable to avoid being detained because of the insistence his host made that he should stay and drink.55 Regardless of that particular detail, in being gracious about accepting the offer of hospitality – whether or not he was under geis to do so (arguably a geis in the sense of the definition “something unlawful or forbidden; a wrong, rather than the primary meaning of the word) – only went in Fergus’ favour, for he ended up playing an important part in killing the sons of Uisliu.56 It is possible that the redactor of the later version decided to call Fergus’ inability to refuse the ale-feast a geis in order to emphasise the character’s virtue, or else simply to give a reason that needed little explanation.
Overwhelmingly, we see gessi as being restrictive or prohibitive in some way or other, but it is in observing restraint and good judgement that we see positive outcomes. Hand in hand with gessi, we see that there is another side of the coin; búada, which we have defined above as ‘lucky things’, gifts, virtues, or positive qualities that a person might posses or be due.57 In one sense, we might say that together they are, “almost without exception, instructions to avoid acts of ill omen and to perform acts of good omen.”58 Myles Dillon’s definition of buada them as prescribed things – things that should be done,59 agrees with this idea.
Over all, we are told in the tract, the successful observance of both gessi and buada will lead to victory in battle, prosperity, and the continued success of the king’s reign. At the end of the tract the poet finishes with:
“It is certain of the kings of Ireland, if they avoided their gessa and obtained their prescriptions, that they would suffer neither misfortune nor disturbance, and neither plague nor pestilence would come in their reign, and they would not fail with age before ninety years.”60
And so here we have, in effect, the recipe for a perfect ruler.
Along with the gessi that are outlined for each king of the provinces, and at Tara, the tract attached to Lebor na Cert (‘The Book of Rights’) lists several of thesebuada that are the king’s by right. For the king of Leinster, for example, we are told:
“His lucky things [i.e. buada] are: the mast of Almain, the deer of Glenn Serraich, to drink by the light of wax candles in Dinn Rig, the ale of Cualu, the games of Carman.”61
For Conaire, in Togail Bruidne Da Derga (‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’), his buada are “…the gift of hearing, the gift of seeing and the gift of judgement.”62 In a similar vein, it is said that Cú Chulainn was gifted with the sight, with understanding, and reckoning.63 Notably, the buada listed in Togail Bruidne Da Derga relate directly to the positive ideals of kingship in general, while Cú Chulainn’s buada make for an excellent warrior. As Cú Chulainn is bound to uphold himself as a warrior par excellence, and maintain both his buada and gessi, so Conaire is bound to rule rightfully; in giving false judgement, he fails to demonstrate the good judgement of a king, but he also fails his buada. He thus fails his position and himself at the same time.
For the king of Leinster, it was incumbent on him to ensure that he received the things due to him – drinking the ale of Cualu, by the light of wax candles in Dinn Rig, and so on. Just as he had to carefully observe and uphold his gessi, so the performance of his buada contributed to the king’s over all well-being (and so his people’s as well), and also the maintenance of his status.64
The connection between gessi and fate is certainly to be seen in the literature; on the one hand, as a literary device where the mention of them often serves as an indicator of what is in store for the character. Or, on the other hand, as a concept that is simply understood; if you break them, disaster will be in store. In this sense, gessi can be seen as “categorical imperatives of magical character,”65 referring both to the way in which they work, as well as how the repercussions are exacted if they are broken. In other words, gessi and buada are both regarded as being governed unseen forces, and in general, these forces might be interpreted as being something as intangible and simple as ‘tradition’ or a ‘heroic ethos’ that governs certain behaviour and attitudes, or else they are in the hands of cosmological powers like gods or spirits, who can both bestow these prohibitions or prescriptions, or else involve themselves in what happens to the individual once they are broken.66
All in all, then, there is an underlying sense of inevitability about gessi and buada. If they are broken, then disaster will happen – though as we’ve seen, this may not always be strictly the case: For Cú Chulainn, there is very little in the way of sanctions made against him for breaking the geis of the training ground during his boyhood deeds, for example, and this is perhaps because of the fact that the word only became attached to the action in later recensions, when the meaning of it was perhaps less understood.
Technically speaking, there is no one word in Irish that embodies such a concept as fate, although there are some words that seem to relate to it. Dán is probably the best known of them, but its use in articulating a sense of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ is not common (though not unheard of either); there is also cinnemain, or an earlier form of the word, cinnuid, which is sometimes used in the sense of some kind of ‘cosmic law.’67
What we see in the literature, however, is often not some sort of impersonal cosmic law that works in mysterious and invisible ways; instead, it is something that we see being enacted via Otherworldly or ‘supernatural’ means. In some cases it is a druid who announces gessi, and this makes sense since it is the druids who act as an intermediary between this world and the Otherworld.68 Who else is better qualified? Well…
It is by no means always a druid who bestows gessi or buada. At times, it is a supernatural being who does so – Conaire’s Otherworldly father in Togail Bruidne Da Derga (‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’), for example. Of course here such Otherworldly figures are more than qualified act as intermediaries, but elsewhere we see Cú Chulainn pronounce his own son’s gessi, rather than turning to a druid as we might expect at this point.
On the one hand, it may be significant that the injunctions Cú Chulainn lays on his son are only specifically referred to as gessi in later versions of the tale. This may have been to add drama and tragedy, and a more reasonable explanation for Cú Chulainn to kill his own son (without some sort of underlying cosmic conflict at play, spurring Cú Chulainn on, it is perhaps less easy to identify with his actions in the tale). Or else the gessi he lays on Connla are still in keeping because while Cú Chulainn isn’t a druid, he is at least semi-divine himself69 and possessed of great powers as a warrior. Cú Chulainn arguably represents the ideal of a warrior, and so as druids like Cathbad are the master of their field, so, we might say, is Cú Chulainn; in this sense, no one understands the role of a warrior as Cú Chulainn does, and he fully expects that his son should succeed him when the time comes. And so, as we see, the gessi that he gives Connla are all relevant to his expected future as a warrior, and Cú Chulainn can therefore speak from a position of authority.
In another sense, even though Conaire’s father is Otherworldly, it can still be seen that his gessi are given to him from his father because of his paternal authority. As Charles-Edward argues, while Conaire receives his gessi from his father at his conception, he only finds out about them through an intermediary in the form of Nemglan – another Otherworldly being. It could just as easily have been shown that Nemglan gave them to Conaire then and there, so his father’s original involvement appears significant.70 Perhaps the significance lies in the fact that Conaire’s father also names him, just as Cú Chulainn names Connla; as the child is given a name, it is given an identity of sorts. Although not even born yet, not even formed, the name, gessi, buada and all kinds of other things – its parentage, status, sex, and so on, will all go towards forming the identity of that child, and shape what they are to become.
As Conaire receives his gessi from an Otherworldly source (his father – and perhaps here these origins are also meant to underline and emphasise the Otherworldly roots of sovereignty and kingship itself, thus reinforcing the inevitable ending of the story), so it is an Otherworldly force that involves itself in the breaking of them. One of Conaire’s gessi is that marauders cannot cause wrack and ruin in his lands as long as he rules justly. The first sign of that Conaire has made a dire mistake in his rule is that marauders take up arms and lay waste to the countryside; implicit in all this is that the marauders are actually Otherworldly beings in disguise, and we are left to assume that at least some of their number might even be Conaire’s own kin.71
Also noteworthy in all of this is the fact that as a geis, it is not something that Conaire himself must avoid, it is something that simply should not happen within his own realm;72 in this light, Conaire has very little control of whether or not the geis gets broken other than the fact that it is not something that should happen if Conaire is a good ruler; peace is a symptom and sign of rightful rule. In the end, it is perhaps symbolic that the first sign of his injustice comes from the Otherworld.
It is the result of this geis being broken that Conaire is forced onto the path the results all of his other gessi breaking. Another Otherworldly figure involves themselves in Conaire’s undoing – a mysterious woman, who identifies herself by many names, including Badb (or Bodb) and Nemain (thus suggesting that she is a goddess),73 approaches the hostel that Conaire is staying at, and gives dire predictions of Conaire’s fate before demanding to be let in. It is geis for Conaire to let a lone woman into his lodgings after sunset, but he is forced to admit her when she challenges his lack of hospitality and generosity – a terrible thing to be accused of as king, and another thing that would prove his undoing if it was known that Conaire was an inhospitable or ungenerous ruler. Either way, Conaire cannot win, but arguably his fate has already been sealed anyway.
The same could be said of Cú Chulainn’s ultimate fate in his death story – the old women he meets on the road, who offer him their hospitality and so end up sowing the seeds of his undoing are clearly Otherworldly. Their number is symbolic, and their description as hags both emphasise their sinister and Otherworldly nature. He has already received warning from an Otherworldly source that he is on a doomed path if he carries on – from none other than the Morrígan – but he ignores her because as a warrior he cannot deny a challenge. In the end, as he dies, She and her sisters come to claim him, in the form of scald-crows landing on his dead shoulder.74
In other cases, gessi are laid on an individual in specific circumstances, and these almost always to do with appealing to a person’s honour and forcing them to uphold it. These gessi are not determined by supernatural signs, interpreted by an intermediary, but instead call on convention, tradition and the notion of honour itself. In Longes mac n-Uislenn (‘The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu’), Noisiu is reluctant to elope with Deirdre, lovely and tempting though she may be to him, because she is betrothed to the king, Conchobar. He is old, though, and Deirdre is young and beautiful and she desires a man who can match in both of those things and more. Her demands to Noisiu, that they might elope and live together in spite of their obligations to their king, are illegal, unjust and dishonourable; her betrothal is a binding contract, and breaking that contract is against the law. For Noisiu to elope with her is a betrayal of his own king. But Deirdre ignores this fact for her own desires and lays a geis on her lover anyway, and the dire ending that Cathbad the druid had predicted at her birth becomes an inevitability. Arguably, their fates were sealed from the very beginning of the tale; the improper use of her laying a geis to force Noisiu into action only serves to underline what is to come.
In functional terms, the purpose of gessi and buada are social; in all their many permutations, their underlying aim is to preserve the honour, the status, the very being of the person upon which they are laid. Even when they are at their most obscure and seemingly illogical, the ultimate aim of gessi in particular are to safeguard the individual and – given the way in which early Irish society worked – the túath as a whole. They help (in theory) to ensure the smooth working of life, and society.
In practical terms, both gessi and buada not only help to define the essence of the individual, but also help to guide them through life. As a safeguard, they can be seen in social terms as being rooted in “the inherent fears, obsessions, and aspirations shared by all human beings…”75 and as such, they reflect the kind of pressures and expectations that anyone might face in trying to be an upstanding member of society.
As for their roots, we can see that they are firmly in the Otherworld, tailor-made for the individual or group that they relate to, or tailored to fit society and enforce tradition and honour. In a sense, we might see gessi (and buada) as a contract between the land and the community, and it is the land-spirits or even gods who act as the agent that collects their due if gessi are broken.76
There is very little evidence of any specific ceremony involved in the laying of gessi or buada. There is no mention of any kind of elaborate ritual being associated with how they are determined before they are pronounced, rather they are seen being pronounced, and it seems that it is the authority of the speaker who lays the gessi that make them binding. The speaker acts as a mediator, pronouncing the prohibitions or prescriptions not for themselves but in the interests of another.77 In some cases we see selfish motivations for the laying of gessi – Deirdre and Gráinne in particular – and these in particular never work out well, though both of these examples are perhaps equally indicative of the inherently negative way in which women are usually portrayed in the literature (with the exception of Emer, perhaps)… Ignoring the misogynistic overtones here, the lesson is clear.
By and large both gessi and buada are a thing of the past and are things that we necessarily have to view through the lens of history. It is impossible to get a clear, pure picture of how they originally worked within society – we can only see them and how they function in narrative or poetry. We can see that their use and meaning has evolved to a certain extent, from a pre-Christian convention to a largely literary device, but nonetheless understanding gessi certainly helps us to understand many of the myths better, and the otherwise seemingly irrational lengths that characters go to in order to try to uphold the gessi that have been laid on them.
In this sense they help us to understand the motives and underlying values and social expectations of the society that the tales portray, but it doesn’t really help us answer the question that hasn’t been asked yet: How, if at all, can they fit in a modern context?
1 The modern spelling is geas (s) and geasa (pl); in either spelling, geis/geas is pronounced something like “GEH-sh.” See Wiktionary for the proper IPA guide. I will be using Old Irish forms as are most commonly found in the academic sources that discuss the subject, although different authors may use different spellings. For consistency’s sake I’ve picked one form of spelling and stuck with it, unless directly quoting a source.
Dillon, ‘The Taboos of the kings of Ireland,’ in The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 54, 1952, p2; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p315 – defines the word as: “supernatural injunction, tabu, prohibited action.”
2 See eDIL.
3 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p92; and see note a) in the eDIL entry.
4 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p86.
5 As Whitley Stokes and Eleanor Hull first defined them, for example.
6 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p86.
7 Hull, ‘Old Irish Tabus, or Geasa,’ in Folklore XII, 1901, p43.
8 O’Leary, ‘Honour-Bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis,’ in Celtica Volume 20, 1988, p86.
9 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p91.
10 Cath Maige Tuired. The episode in question will be discussed below, but see also The Dagda: Part 2 – Trickery and Negotiation.
11 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p52-57.
12 Hull, ‘Old Irish Tabus, or Geasa,’ in Folklore XII, 1901, p41.
13 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p55.
14 See eDIL.
15 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p130.
16 Hull, ‘Old Irish Tabus, or Geasa,’ in Folklore XII, 1901, p41; Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p797.
17 Kinsella, The Táin, 1969, p82-84.
18 According to Tecosca Cormaic (‘The Instructions of Cormac’) – see McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p136; Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p20.
19 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p20.
20 Leabhar na g-Ceart by John O’ Donovan is the earliest translation of the tract, published in 1847, but Dillon’s translation of the tract (published 1952) is more up-to-date in translation, though less freely available. Dillon also made an updated translation of Lebor na Cert (without the tract included in the translation), which he published in 1962.
21 See Dillon, ‘The Taboos of the kings of Ireland,’ in The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 54, 1952.
22 Rees and Rees, Celtic Heritage, 1961, p130.
23 O’Leary, ‘Honour-Bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis,’ in Celtica Volume 20, 1988, p86.
24 The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.
25 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p58.
26 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p91.
27 Hull, ‘Old Irish Tabus, or Geasa,’ in Folklore XII, 1901, p47.
28 Dillon, ‘The Taboos of the kings of Ireland,’ in The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 54, 1952, p19.
29 Rather like the word itself, as it appears in Middle Irish versions of tales, often replaces a word that originally gave a sense a custom or practice that was avoided in order to prevent bad luck or ill omens. In a sense, the later tales that use gessi instead have taken for granted that such actions were therefore prohibited for everyone thereafter, becoming geis. – See Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p58.
Dillon, ‘The Taboos of the kings of Ireland,’ in The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 54, 1952, p4; O’Leary, ‘Honour-Bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis,’ in Celtica Volume 20, 1988, p88-89.
30 O’Leary, ‘Honour-Bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis,’ in Celtica Volume 20, 1988, p89.
31 McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p136.
32 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p797.
33 Hull, ‘Old Irish Tabus, or Geasa,’ in Folklore XII, 1901, p49-50.
34 O’Leary, ‘Honour-Bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis,’ in Celtica Volume 20, 1988, p91.
35 Togail Bruidne Da Derga.
36 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p48.
37 The Death of Diarmait, from The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.
38 Hull, ‘Old Irish Tabus, or Geasa,’ in Folklore XII, 1901, p44.
39 Aided Con Culainn – The Death of Cú Chulainn.
40 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p797.
41 The Tragic Death of Connla, or, The Death of Aoife’s only Son.
42 The Tragic Death of Connla, or, The Death of Aoife’s only Son.
43 Findon, ‘A Woman’s Words: Emer versus Cú Chulainn in Aided Óenfir Aífe,’ Ulidia, 1994, p146.
44 Sjöblom, ‘Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach,’ in Celtic Cultural Studies.
45 This is arguably because the gessi and buada are inherently linked to the sacral nature of kingship – something else that isn’t really explored in the laws. Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p87.
46 Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, 1988, p20.
47 Togail Bruidne Da Derga.
48 Fangzhe, Geis, a literary motif in early Irish literature, 2010, p13.
49 Sjöblom, ‘Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach,’ in Celtic Cultural Studies.
50 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p90.
51 The Death of Celtchar.
52 This episode is discussed here in more detail.
53 No, really! “The girl jumped on him and struck him across the rump, and her curly pubic hair was revealed. Then the Dagda gained a mistress…” Cath Maige Tuired.
54 Cath Maige Tuired.
55 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p57.
56 Sjöblom, ‘Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach,’ in Celtic Cultural Studies.
57 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p92; and see note a) in the eDIL entry.
58 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p52.
59 Dillon, ‘The Taboos of the kings of Ireland,’ in The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 54, 1952, p4.
60 Dillon, ‘The Taboos of the kings of Ireland,’ in The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 54, 1952, p25; see also Hull, ‘Old Irish Tabus, or Geasa,’ in Folklore XII, 1901, p47.
61 Dillon, ‘The Taboos of the kings of Ireland,’ in The Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 54, 1952, p13.
62 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p92.
63 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p92.
64 Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, 2001, p22.
65 Sjoestedt, quoted by Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p86.
66 Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, 2006, p797.
67 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p89.
68 Bondarenko, Conn Céthathach and the Image of Ideal Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland, in Studia Celtica Fennica IV, 2007, p17.
69 In the tale of his birth, he is conceived three times before he is successfully born. At his first and possibly second conceptions, Lugh is his named as his father, or his mother is at least Otherworldly. It is only on his third conception that both parents are clearly mortal, but the story clearly implies some sort of hangover from his original conception in explaining just how much of a paragon of warrior-ness he is.
70 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p45-46.
71 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p50.
72 Charles-Edward, ‘Geis, Prophecy, Omen, and Oath,’ in Celtica 23, 1999, p47.
73 Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, 1981, p76; Koch and Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age, 1995, p167.
74 Aided Con Culainn.
75 O’Leary, ‘Honour-Bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis,’ in Celtica Volume 20, 1988, p92-93.
76 Sjöblom, ‘Before geis became magical – A Study of the Evolution of an Early Irish Concept,’ in Studia Celtica XXXII, 1998, p92.
77 Sjöblom, ‘Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach,’ in Celtic Cultural Studies.