The Power of Sound: Music and Magic in Pre-Christian Irish Folklore
Beltz, Heather Michelle
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My thesis concentrates on the trope of music as a mystical power within pre-Christian Irish folklore. I have emphasized folk tales and songs from four Cycles of Irish folk literature. The Mythological Cycle: these stories are of the former gods and origins of the Irish and are considered to illustrate the Golden Age. The Ulster Cycle (Ultonian Cycle): traditionally set around the first century CE, these stories involve action taking place in the provinces of Ulster and Connacht and are considered to represent the Heroic Age. The King Cycle (Historical Cycle): written by Irish poets and bards, these stories are about the genealogy of kings in Ireland through the combination of mythology and history. And the Fianna Cycle: stories from around the third century CE about Fionn Mac Cumhail and his band of warriors, the Fianna. Generally speaking, there are three categories of music in Irish folklore: geantraí, the music of happiness; goltraí, the music of sadness; and suantraí, the music of sleep and meditation. In the Cycles, these three kinds of music are used in various ways, usually as a way to control people, items, or the outcomes of events through weaponry, sorcery, or beauty. An example of this is a story from the Mythological Cycle called Battle of Magh Tuireadin. In this story, the Dagda (the father deity of the Tuatha Dé Danann) searched for his sacred harp Uaithne, who had been taken by the Fomorians. When the Dagda saw the harp hanging on the wall, he called it and began to use all three types of music. Opening with goltraí, he made the women in attendance weep; continuing with geantraí, he caused the young people to erupt with laughter; and ending with suantraí, to lull the whole assembly to sleep in order to escape with his harp unharmed. Along with excerpted texts from the four Cycles, I employ secondary sources drawing upon literary analysis, folklore scholarship, as well as certain aspects of pre-Christian Irish history and ethnography. My methodology includes close reading and textual analysis. An important source that influenced my methodology is Ann Buckley’s “Music as Symbolic Sound in Medieval Irish Society.” I more completely and concretely demonstrate the use of music as a source of power or magic in Irish folklore, and in turn to demonstrate the importance and status of music and musicians during Ireland’s pre-Christian era.