Heroes of Their Time: The Development of Heroism in Early Irish Literature


  • David Taylor




Hero, Celtic, Irish, Medieval, Headhunting, Warrior


Though medieval Irish literature is awash with characters described as ‘heroes’ by scholars and the public alike, such as Cu Chulainn and Finn mac Cumailll, what precisely is meant when ´ we describe these characters as heroic remains uncertain. This project argues that, based on an intensive comparative study of two hundred and fifty-one medieval Irish works of heroic literature, drawn predominantly from the seventh through the fifteenth centuries, that there are six common qualities connecting medieval Irish heroes. These six qualities do not exist in a vacuum they emerged in response to cultural factors and were modified as society developed. At least two of the qualities are potentially based in ancient Celtic cultural practices described by Classical authors, while others appear to be rooted in medieval Irish aristocratic lifestyles. All six qualities change as they are influenced by historical events that shift how medieval Ireland conceptualizes aristocratic violence, such as the Norse and Norman invasions.


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