“Nature” could truly be construed in new ways due to this epic poem. With much of childbirth driving the story, would you consider birth to be a part of nature? Is it outside of a woman’s control or is it her “will” to enact something upon nature and the course of man’s story? If is it something thrust upon her by nature, how do you justify this opinion? Overall, what is the relationship between woman and nature in “The Tain”?
I think the act of childbirth is depicted as a part of nature in that it is representative of the flow of time and the cyclical pattern of nature. The birth of children, the debates over fostering, the choosing of a particular mate, all these are huge driving forces in the plot of the play, and all of these involve women. In this manner, it seems like women are very connected with the flow of nature and that passing of time, and perhaps due to this The Tain features many women who are more headstrong and independent than other women we have seen in previous stories. This can be seen in scenes such as the one in which Sencha speaks out against Conchobor’s choice of who should care for Setanta, despite the power and control he has been revealed to have. The women in this story are more than just side characters or off-page wives, they are part of the flow of nature and are crucial to the action of the plot.
Child birth is an interesting subject in the Tain, especially when talking about the “Pangs of Ulster.” Crunniuc has his wife, Macha, who is very pregnant, run a foot race to show her off, and she gives birth during it, cursing all men who acted unheroically with having child birth pains. I think it is interesting to note that Crunniuc was trying to have his wife “fight his battles” by running this race, even in her condition. It shows that this type of person had little respect for women or childbirth. However, those who take that stance are punished very supernaturally, making childbirth and women seem sacred.
The way women seem to be “passed around” in the Tain is a little bit jarring from a modern perspective. The first few passages of the Tain seem to be mostly centered around couplings and births, more interesting is how a lot of these births seem to be supernatural. For example, Conchobor’s mother carried him for 3 years and 3 months (I’ve also noted how practically every number mentioned in the Tain is divisible by 3), Macha’s twins being born was accompanied by a curse, and Derdriu managed to scream from the womb of her mother. Perhaps the tale is trying to make an association between birth and extraordinary events, or even the act of birth as extraordinary and supernatural. If this is true then you could say that the women of the tale are closer to nature, and the supernatural essence that it is often imbued with, and through the act of birth can drastically change the future.
Considering how old these documents are, it’s not surprising to find a genealogical fixation present in the text – part of how patriarchy maintained its foothold in antiquity was through the symbolism and the literal function of the womb. The usurping of thrones or inheritance of such is only possible with the presence of what society recognizes as “woman”. I think it would be remiss of us to say that these women, property though they may be under feudalism, exercise no agency in their roles. There’s a tinge of “Mother Earth” pagan worldview present throughout “The Tain” that implies a power unique to women that has been granted to them by Nature. Even if say, Conchobar is the son of Cathbad, his mother Nes is ultimately responsible for his rise to kingship in Ulster.
Childbirth in this epic is definitely an institution and product of nature. However, I do see it as something naturally thrust upon the women in the story but more so as if women have a greater tie to nature generally than do men. I agree with the previous claims of “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature” that are enacted in this story. Further, considering the culture back then, childbirth would definitely be associated with nature and the natural passage of time and continuation of the species. Interestingly, this is diluted in our interpretation due to the technologies that now allow women to make the choice against childbirth either through birth control or abortion.
This is an interesting question! I agree with most people on here that birth seems to be integrated with nature in the Tain, but this issue of women and nature seems really complicated and nuanced. On the one hand, women seem to be a lot more active and powerful in the Tain than in other texts we’ve read. But on the other, their treatment is sometimes pretty shocking–the passing around and using, and also there’s that one point where Cuchulainn commands Aife to have his child that really didn’t sit well with me, even before he kills the child later on. But I guess that’s just my modern perspective. Other than that I do think there are plenty of instances of women exercising agency and control with birth. Brooke already mentioned the Pangs of Ulster, which are probably the best example of this agency. To me, they’re a super interesting case of the whole of society revolving around childbirth and women’s experiences, albeit for certain brief intervals. I think this is proof enough of a special status granted to women through childbirth in the Tain.