The Cattle of Tethra

Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?
Who calls the cattle from the House of Tethra?
On whom do the cattle of Tethra smile?

This comes from the  Irish poem The Song of Amairgen. It was sung by the ollamh (poet) named Amairgen Glúingel as he first set foot on Irish soil. (He was one of the Milesians, who conquered Ireland after the Tuatha de Danann.) It is certainly an enigmatic verse, but I will just tackle one riddle in this post: what are the cattle of Tethra?

In The White Goddess, Graves interprets this passage as meaning that the “cattle of Tethra” are the planets, since they rise from the sea and wander through the sky. However, the same phrase can also mean “fish”, as when Cú Chulainn woos Emer in the Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), and as part of their riddling discourse, he tells her he has slept in the house of him who hunts the “cattle of Tethra” – a fisherman’s hut.

That the next verse of Amairgen’s poem says

Sea full of fish,
an awesome land,
bursting forth of fish,
full of fish there under wave,
with flights of birds,
broad [sea] of beasts,
bursting forth of fish,
sea full of fish.

would suggest he was more focused on dinner than the heavens. (It reminds me of the story about John Cabot dipping baskets in the sea to catch fish in Newfoundland.)

Both the fish in the sea and the stars in the sky have done duty as a sign for infinity, or countless many. Genesis 26:4 has God telling Isaac:

And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; (King James Version)

 See Gen. 22:17 for the original promise to Abraham, after the sacrifice of Isaac was averted. (Isaac no doubt remembered the event vividly.)

The OBOD site states that the cattle are indeed the stars of the sky, and the “bearing away” is a reflection of the cattle-raiding so common among the Irish. It may be natural for otherworldly cattle to come out to pasture at night, and go home to rest at dawn, since Irish otherworlds frequently invert earthly expectations.

There may also be an echo of Greek myth here: both the sun-god Helios and the sea-god Poseidon had sacred herds of cattle., as well as Apollo. (Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle, and ate them, but bought off his step-brother with his new invention, the lyre.) Maybe Tethra’s cattle can be either celestial or marine in nature. (Note Jehovah mentions grains of sand as well as stars, while Tethra has either fish or stars. Different environments.)

In fact, if the “cattle of Tethra” is a phrase with two different meanings, it might reflect the nature of Tethra himself. He was one of the Fomorians, who occupy the same place in Irish myth as the Jötnar in Norse and the Titans in Greek myth. They are the ancestors of the gods, or in the Fomorians’ case, the ones who were there first. He seems to have been a sea-god, who ruled over a paradisiacal otherworld. (Rather like the later Manannan mac Lir.)

We know about his role as ruler of the afterworld (like the Greek Hades) from the story of Conla Ruadh. He was the brother of the king of Ireland, and one day a faery woman appeared to him and invited him to join her at Mag Mell (Land of Honey), one of the many names for the otherworld. He refused, but she left him an apple, which he ate for a month, desiring no other food or drink. Then she returned, and asked him again to come and rule over the land of Tethra’s people. This time he gives in, and joins her.

Tethra is the ruler of the otherworld in another poem, spoken by Nede in the Immacallam in Dá Thúarad:

Not hard (to say): (to go) into the plain of age,
into the mountain of youth,
into the hunting of age,
into following a king (death?),
into an abode of clay,
between candle and fire,
between battle and horror,
among the mighty men of Tethra…

Although he seems from this verse to have been a warlike death-god.

A final mention of Tethra is equally indirect, and comes from the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, which was fought between the native Fomorian deities and the invading Tuatha de Danann. The poet-god and champion Ogma found Tethra’s sword, called Orna, and when he unsheathed it the sword began to relate all that had been done with it. Before the Tuatha came Tethra was one of three kings of the Fomorians, along with Balor of the Evil Eye and Elatha, son of Néit.

The name Tethra can mean “scald-crow” in Old Irish, the same crow as the goddess Badb. Cormac’s Glossary gives badb as a synonym for his name, while O’Cleary glosses it as muir, sea. Another name for the sea was the “plain of Tethra”. (MacCulloch: n. 1266) According to Whitley Stokes Badb was Tethra’s wife, although she is usually married to Néit. (Stokes: 130) A verse quoted by Spence explains why Badb and Tethra would be a good couple:

The wife of Tethra’s longing is for the fire of combat:
The warriors’ sides slashed open.
Blood, bodies heaped upon bodies,
Eyes without life, sundered heads,
those are pleasing words to her. (Spence: 82)

We can assume that whoever Tethra’s wife was, she shared Badb’s nature, along with those other scary goddesses, the Morrigan and Nemain.

So we have an Irish god whose name is glossed as “sea”, and who ruled the Fomorians. He presumably retreated after the battle, which may explain his later position as god of Magh Mell. We don’t know if he “died” on the field of battle at Magh Tuireadh, which would certainly qualify him for the job. It would not, however, seem to go with his surname, Boadach, “Victorious”.

Given the topsy-turvy nature of Irish otherworlds, the paradoxical references to his “cattle” as the stars or the fish in the sea may not be so incompatible as we would think. Both are symbols of plenty, and if we see the stars as coming up out of the sea and spreading across the sky, then returning home under the waves, then it makes a kind of sense.

A very good article on the nature of Tethra:
A version of the Battle of Magh Tuiread:

Ellis, Peter Beresford 1991: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, OUP.
Ettlinger, E. 1945: “Magic Weapons in Celtic Legends,” Folklore 56, No. 3 (Sep., 1945): 295-307.
Hull, Eleanor 1901: “The Silver Bough in Irish Legend,” Folklore 12, No. 4 (Dec., 1901): 431-445.
Koch, John T. ed, and John Carey 2003: The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland and Wales, Celtic Studies Publications.
Maculloch, John 2012: The Religion of the Ancient Celts, Emereo Publishing. (Google eBook)
MacKillop, James 2004: Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
Rhys, John 1891: “Manx Folk-Lore and Superstitions,” Folklore 2, No. 3 (Sep., 1891): 284-313.
Spence, Lewis 2012: The Magic Arts of Celtic Britain, Courier Corp. (Google eBook)
Stokes,Whitely 1891: “The Second Battle of Moytura,” Revue Celtique 12: 52-130. (Google eBook)



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