Otherworld themes in “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne”

The Middle-Irish prose tale Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (‘The Dream-vision of MacConglinne’) is supposed – by the style of its language and themes – to have been composed and written in the late 11th or early 12th century. Two versions of it have survived to the modern day – one (‘B’ recenscion) in the 15thC manuscript collection known as An Leabhar Breac (‘The Speckled Book’ – RIA MS 1230) and the other in the manuscript TCD MS 1337 (‘H’ recescion).

You can read a translation of it here.

Set during the 8th century, it is styled in the form of a somewhat satirical prose-tale interspersed with poetic verses, and revolves around the power of a ‘dream vision’ (Aislinge) to sway the fate of the hero of the plot – a scholastic Armagh monk by the name of Aniér Mac Conglinne, saving his life and saving the kingdoms of the South of Ireland by exorcising their High King, Cathal mac Finguine of a ‘Lon Cráis’ (sometimes translated perhaps erroneously as ‘demon of gluttony’) that had taken up residence in him.

The story contains a number of highly amusing and incisive aspects to its narrative. The first introduces the humourous, energetic, ever-fasting and hungry monastic hero-adventurer whose destiny is to save King Cathal and his subjects from their greedy and sinful ways. So eager and restless is he in his mission that he runs from Armagh to Cork in the space of a day or so. Upon arriving at the monastic hostel in Cork he finds their Benedictine christian values of hospitality severely wanting and sets about causing an annoyance to advertise this fact. This mortally upsets the monks who report his activities and (worse) his biting satires to Abbott Manchín who demands his arrest and has him tortured and prepared for execution. MacConglinne goes willingly to his fate, seeking to demonstrate his piety to the monks by way of example. This part of the tale is obviously an exemplar of the popular spirit of the late 11th and early 12th century ‘Gregorian Reforms’ of church probity and the monastic orders. which led to the explosion of new and disciplined monastic institutions. The character of MacConglinne – being a monk from Armagh who wears a white habit – is obviously designed to represent a forerunner of Malachy of Armagh who promoted the reformed Cistercian Order during the era of the tale’s apparent authorship. This allows him to hold no punches in castigating the lazy, fat, greedy and cruel monks of Cork and refer to them as ‘shit-hounds’ among other choice and amusing epithets!

The most amazing and amusing aspect of the tale comes when the starved MacConglinne is tied to a pillar-stone to await his execution and in delirious depths of his abject suffering and hunger, he is visited by an angel or spirit who grants him a vision of a land made of and peopled by food!

The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards thick,
Beyond the loch.
New butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was wheaten white,
Bacon the palisade.

Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was dry meat,
The threshold was bare bread,
cheese-curds the sides.

Smooth pillars of old cheese,
And sappy bacon props
Alternate ranged;
Fine beams of mellow cream,
White rafters – real curds,
Kept up the house. (Trans. Kuno Meyer, 1892)

When the abbott arrives to see him executed the next day, MacConglinne relates his vision and the abbott and monks have second thoughts and refer him to King Cathal, believing that he may be tasked by god into casting out the King’s Lon Cráis. This ‘demon’ has made the King into a man who only takes food from his vassals and never distributes it, giving him an insatiable hunger.

MacConglinne dons the garb of a poet-juggler and arrives at the court of a local petty-king whom Cathal is visiting. He impresses his way in with his antics and satires and gains an audience with the king and promises to cure him, after relating his vision of a land of food. The king is so impressed by his abilities and religious piety that he begins tossing him apples (having given food to no man for many years) which the hero gladly eats, and this obviously causes MacConglinne’s powers to sally forth even further! He convinces the whole court (including Cathal) to fast overnight, and in the morning has Cathal bound with ropes and orders the most sumptuous foods be prepared which he then taunts him with while reciting a tale he himself has composed which embellishes upon the themes of his vision.

His new tale involves him being approached by a Scál (usually interpreted as a ‘phantom’, but in Irish tales always referring to an otherworld being who tests and/or instructs a hero). The scál sees he is sick with hunger and disease (or ‘original sin’) and instructs him to find (in the land of food) a magical healer or ‘fairy doctor’, known in Middle Irish as a fáthliaig (an archaic term meaning ‘vision-healer’ which survived into 19thC Manx Gaelic in the word fallog’). In MacConglinne’s telling, the fáthliaig advises him that he is sick, evoking a description of him suffering from a spiritual (and physical) inversion of King Cathal’s own predicament (which also reflected the poor traditional values of hospitatlity the monk had found in the South). This is typical of shamanic practice – the figurative/spiritual assumption of the sufferer’s disease by the healer in a dream-vision in order to combat it:

‘‘Pray for me!’ said I to him.’

‘‘In the name of cheese!’ said he to me. ‘Evil is the limp look of thy face,’ said the Wizard Doctor. ‘Alas! it is the look of disease. Thy hands are yellow, thy lips are spotted, thine eyes are grey. Thy sinews have relaxed, they have risen over thy eyes and over thy flesh, and over thy joints and nails. The three women have attacked thee, scarcity and death and famine, with sharp beaks of hunger. An eye that sains not has regarded thee.

The fáthliaig‘s prescription is, again, humorous – MacConGlinne must eat the finest foods, and be tended to by a beautiful woman while reclining upon soft animal skins in front of a roaring fire!  There follows a recitation of the delightful foods he must be fed which so inflames the ‘Lon Cráis’ in Cathal’s throat that it jumps out and hides under a cauldron in the fireplace, at which point after MacConglinne offers thanks to God and Brigit!

So… what is a Lon Cráis? There are repeated references in Gaelic folklore to a creature – often a type of lizard or newt – which can enter the mouths and throats of the unwary and cause a great unsatiated hunger or thirst. In Gaelic Scotland, Robert Kirk (17thC) spoke of possession by the spirit of a ‘great eater’. This was explicitly called the Lon Craois during the 19th century (see JG Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.2 p.366), and in Ulster and the Isle of Man the English term for it was ‘Man-Creeper’. In both cases the cure was to tempt it out with delicious food (as with Cathal) or to eat salt and lie near a well with your mouth open (Isle of Man). In both cases it appears that the condition refers to Diabetes Mellitus, where the blood is rick with sugar but the body’s cells cannot take it in. This results in dehydration, great hunger and thirst. Kuno Meyer (1892) preferred to translate the Lon as a ‘demon’, which in the context of the characters of the narrative and their beliefs seems a correct choice, even though he knew of the Scots Gaelic term. The term does not translate literally as ‘demon’ –Lon may be the otherwise attested word Lionn, which is the Irish word for ‘humor’, meaning one of the four classical/medieval humors of the body, and an imbalance of these was believed to be the mode through which disease (and moral failings) was supposed to operate. The OI/MI word Cráes means gluttony or hunger – the latter being invoked as ‘three women’ (an implicit Cailleach reference) by the vision’s seer-leech.

SO…

The ideas of food and gluttony are explicit themes around which this whole tale revolves. The implication is that the Monk of Armagh (MacConglinne, representing both Patrick and the hegemony of Continental christianity under Malachy and the Gregorian reforms) is spiritually proper in his fasting and starvation and that having plenty of physical food and not sharing it with the poor is a form of spiritual starvation. This is another ‘Otherworld Inversion’ similar to many pervading the spirituality of the Gaels or Atlantic peoples and which were deeply influential upon early European Christians. The Lon Cráis was an ‘otherworld’ force which transformed gluttony into hunger, and MacConglinne evokes an ‘otherworld’ vision of the world of this ‘creature’ (a world of food) in which he meets a ‘fairy doctor’ or ‘seer-leech’ who details his cure by having the hero invoke an inversion of Cathals’s disease upon himself so as to defeat the spirit by evocation and provocation. By causing the spirit to escape under the pressure of his bardic or poetic genius, he fulfils his original ambition to exceed his monastic limitations, and the cure is ultimately based in Atlantic otherworld doctrines, and not purely Christian:

It is clear from this text that the hero’s poetic creation of a world and narrative made of food is the force which expels the hungry spirit, not the Christian god who (along with Brigit) gets the credit at the conclusion.

As with all Middle Irish texts and stories, this tale is beset with contradictions between a pagan and a Christian narrative. The explicit connection between fasting and spiritual purity is made in the ancient Hebrew stories collected in the 5th and 4th centuries BC into the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam eventually grew, and is common to many other ancient faiths. What is interesting is how the Atlantic/Gaelic view of the Otherworld and its interaction ‘through a mirror’ with ours influenced the Christian aspects of this narrative by providing a more rational idea of spiritual balance, largely lost from continental christianity in the cultural confusion of the post-Roman period….

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