No posts until next week: I am traveling in Sweden!
No ancient Celt describes for us the custom of head-hunting, but the Greek and Roman observers of the Celts have plenty to say about it, and in the Irish epic, Cúchulainn is described as taking the heads of his enemies to hang in clusters from his chariot. Such heads were embalmed or reduced to bare skulls and kept as trophies. They also appear to have had religious significance. The best archaeological evidence comes from ca. the third century BCE at Roquepertuse in southern France, where a sanctuary included a stone “doorway” with niches containing human skulls.
14: A Kingly Suitor
Emer waited in the great hall of her father’s house for her suitor, Lugaid mac Nóis, to appear. A king in Munster, he was bound in friendship to Conchobar of Ulster. She had never met him before.
Lugaid was a big man with a ginger beard. He approached her cautiously, like an archer who stalks a doe. “A blessing on you, Emer daughter of Forgall.”
“And on you, Lugaid mac Nóis of Munster.”
Lugaid sat beside her. “My lady,” he said gently. “Forgall did not lie when he spoke of your beauty.”
She examined his clothing, which was richly ornamented and woven with great skill. He wore a heavy gold chain as a sign of his wealth, and a sword with an amber hilt rested at his thigh. “My father spoke true when he praised your wealth,” she told him.
“Only my wealth?” said Lugaid, looking chagrined. “Had he nothing to say of my other virtues? I am generous and just. Some even say I have wisdom… and looks to please a lady,” he added, taking her hand.
“Lugaid, Forgall sang your virtues at great length, and you are a fine figure of a man. But I do not wish to marry you. I have given my heart to Sétanta mac Súaltam, and he has promised to be my husband.”
“With your father’s knowledge?” asked Lugaid, outraged at the thought that he had been brought here under false pretenses. “What trick does Forgall serve me?”
“My father knows of Sétanta’s desire for me, though not of my pledge to marry him. It is Forgall’s doing that he went away to Alba. But Forgall promised to give him anything he asked, should he return.”
“That wily trickster,” cried Lugaid. “He thinks to drain my coffers of a bride price fit for a queen, and then sit back and enjoy the entertainment as Cúchulainn avenges himself on me. Not that you aren’t worth a queen’s price,” he assured Emer, squeezing her hand, “but even for you I would not willingly yield my head.”
“I understand entirely, good Lugaid,” said Emer soothingly. “You are wise, for Sétanta did say before he left that he would take the head of any man he found me married to, once he returned from Scáthach’s land.” Hearing this, Lugaid hastily let go of her hand and stood up.
“May you be safe from all harm, Lady Emer.”
“May Lugh make smooth the path before you.”
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Lugaid mac Nois is a recurrent character in the Cúchulainn sagas. During the great Cattle-Raid, Lugaid serves as a messenger between Cúchulainn and the invader Ailill, so it seems that Cúchulainn did not hold his brief courtship of Emer against him.