April 13: The Tain

There are many places named after events or people. Think of “squirrel-neck” and “Síd Froich”. Why do you think nature is forced the take on a memory of a human event? How long do you suspect the name lasts?

4 thoughts on “April 13: The Tain

  1. I was really fascinated by the place names in this story, and the amount of attention they receive. (I’ve been interested in toponomy, actually, ever since reading a book called Names on the Land by George Stewart. I definitely recommend it if the history of place names sounds even slightly interesting.) But in terms of nature’s place in these toponyms, I think I might have to question the premise here. If we’re thinking of nature in the way that medieval people seem to have — as either an anthropomorphic divinity or an uncontrollable force at work within or upon humans — then neither the squirrel nor the places or natural features that take its name can be called nature. I know I personally tend to think of animals and landscapes when I think of “nature”, so I have to keep reminding myself what I’ve learned in this class about medieval concepts.

    If I had to say something about nature’s role in place names, and I admit this may be a bit of a stretch since I don’t think the text explicitly treats it this way, but one could make an argument that nature is seen in these events in the person of Cúchulainn, whose exaggerated strength and “warp spasm” are gifts and attributes that have been bestowed upon him, ostensibly, by nature. In fact, the phrasing sometimes suggests that this force acts upon him, rather than him using it. We are told in once place that the warp-spasm “seized him”, almost as if Cúchulainn is playing the passive role of a vessel or vehicle. In this sense, nature isn’t forced to take on place names, but rather nature plays an active role in defining place names.

  2. Well one must remember that nature is inherently a cultural conception, it is defined only by the fact that humans define it, and as Michael has pointed out, that definition in the medieval context is often anthropomorphized and seen as an agent with an impenetrably opaque will.

    However, briefly barring that definition (because I do think the Tain is something notably different from most of what we’ve read, and also the idea of anthropocentrism fascinates me), I can think of multiple examples of humans naming geographical features after themselves or events that took place there (think of all the barrier islands around Charleston: James’, John’s, Sullivan’s). Why nature is “forced” to take on the name that humans give it is because humans have forced the concept of nature. It sounds contradictory, but nature is not natural, it is man-made.

    But talk about a digression! Going off of what Michael has said about Cuchulainn, I would agree that his “natural” ability seems to characterize him as a vehicle of the awesome power of nature. However, I would not go so far as to call him a “passive” vehicle, but rather an embodiment of nature’s wildness.

  3. The way this culture seems to base their value system on is strength and battle. So, geographical spaces at which battles take place or someone proves their strength become very important spots. A spot where blood was spilt or a famous event occurred almost takes on that memory, becoming a symbol of what had happened. In a way, it becomes almost like sacred ground. It is also common for important places for trade or travel to be named based on the way those spaces looked or who discovered them. They commemorated these places by naming places either after a person, after a battle, or after what the location reminded them of, i.e. squirrel-neck.

  4. I think that the place names are all after events just because this is what’s important to them. Their culture seems to be centered around battle and physical strength, as Brooke pointed out, so in terms of cultural memory this system of naming only makes sense. I’m not entirely sure what this says about nature itself; I guess it would just say that nature is secondary to man–they don’t remember nature per say, but the human events. This doesn’t strike me as uncommon; I feel like we do that all the time, too. And like our own names, I think the place names from the Tain only last as long as the culture. As soon as people aren’t around to remember, they’re lost. Nature kind of wins out in this way; it endures long after the culture.

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