Who is Sgàthach, Part 2 – What does Mythology Say?
Who is Sgàthach? What do we know according to the surviving mythology? When I say She has a Pictish connection, can we find evidence within mythology, or does this connection arise from my personal gnosis? Come on in the hut! We’ll look into all these questions, and more.
Looking at the Evidence
I have made a previous post introducing Sgàthach (pronounced ska-hah) as my matron god, where I focus heavily on personal gnosis (both mine and of 2 guests. Check it out here) and briefly touch on a description of her according to the surviving mythology. Today I will do the opposite: I might mention gnosis here and there, but the main focus is the written evidence we have from early Medieval sources.
Sgàthach appears in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology on a manuscript entitled Tochmarc Emire (the “wooing of Emer”), which tells the story of how Ulster hero Cú Chulainn won his wife Emer. You can check out a literal translation of the original 8th century narrative here, which starts with a very interesting, short, straight-to-the-point analysis that proves this is indeed the original version of the tale. The other source I will be drawing attention to is this retelling here from the 18th century. Feel free to read them.
A wee addendum about academic research for mere mortals:
As they rightfully mention in Revue Celtique (the link above), there are no fewer than 8 Manuscript Sources (MSS) for Tochmarc Emire. This is without taking into account the widely known retellings and translations published from the 17th to the 19th century (I honestly have no idea how many). Since I do not currently work or study with any Academic institution that would grant me access to any of the more complete papers or studies that discuss Tochmarc Emire thoroughly, and I do not speak Old Irish, in order to go read the originals in the public domain, all I am left with is whatever retelling I can easily search.
I am often frustrated with how little information is made easily accessible to the general public by academic institutions. This is a shame, because there are so many papers I would like to read in their entirety, but the price tag is often prohibitive and not even a preview is provided for me to know whether or not a paper would be worth the investment. Books from regular publishers end up being at least 4x cheaper, but alas there is no guarantee they are peer-reviewed or actually contain accurate translations, unless the author is kind enough to comment on their thought process.
While I appreciate Celtic Reconstructionists who teach themselves Old Irish, invest in Academia, and whose work is nothing short of amazing in my opinion, I do not think everyone should *have* to go through the same struggle in order to simply confirm their personal gnosis with Celtic spirituality. Yes “everyone deserves to eat”, but I think Capitalism has gone a wee bit too far, no? Let us steer away from it as much as we can.
Who is Sgàthach?
Allright! So now that we’re past the disclaimers, let us address the first question. The oldest surviving source, from the 8th century, actually does not describe Her at all. The act of leaving the details for imagination is a very Pictish thing to do, so I do believe the narrative’s age (where do you think this manuscript was made? Iona in Scotland, during the Pictish period, probably. There were Picts among these monks. More info on Pictish monks here). Celts were notorious for only ever writing down the strictly necessary. With Picts, who were a specific Celtic nation, the use of writing took a form more like encoding. They system of symbols for written storytelling – these survive on stone carvings today.
These symbols still did not spell out everything they had to say, but rather provided guidelines on what the bone and marrow of the story should be, so that storytellers could elaborate on that without modifying the important bits – or so they tell me. It is no wonder, therefore, that once they adopted the linear Roman script, and immortalised it in vellum, they’d still cling to their economic way of registering a story.
If you read the first source, you know what I mean. Here is the very first mention of Her: “Then Domnall said that Cuchulind would not have profession of instruction until he came to Scathach, who was in the east of Alba. So the three of them went across Alba (…)” – what a terribly robotic, monotone storytelling, you might be thinking – and I agree. But it wasn’t written down to be read to kids at bedtime. It was written down much like we make Powerpoint presentations today – bullet points of a sequence, so the speaker can be the real star of the show and elaborate on the details in an engaging way. If I were making a Powerpoint about Sgàthach, I probably wouldn’t write a long description of Her either. I’d write down Her name, and orally tell my audience who She is, what She looks like and why She is so highly regarded.
Ok, so if we cling to the original source, we don’t know much about Her. Let’s move on to one of the retellings: “Few of the guides know the road that Cuchulainn took to Scythia; but he made neither stop nor stay till he came to (the place) wherein was Scáthach daughter of Buanuinne, king of Scythia.”
I do not have access to the source on which this retelling draws (refer to my addendum above), but my educated guess is the author translated “Sgiathanach” as “Scythian”. Although there is some logic behind this, (see “Pictish, Scythian or Irish” below), the word Sgiathanach also appears in the Gaelic name for the Isle of Skye, which is definitely not in Scythia. If we skip this dodgy translation for a bit, all else seems legit: She is mentioned in a lot of sources as being a princess. “Daughter of the king of Skye” makes sense because 1) it is in Alba (Scotland), 2) it is perfectly doable to get to Skye from Ireland, even if you land on the Scottish mainland first, and 3) in order for Sgáthach to be based “in Scythia” there would at least be mentions of Gauls and other Celtic nations during the journey.
“And thus was Scáthach herself at that time, with her daughter named Uathach in her presence. And that girl was white-fingered, modest, black-eyebrowed. And thus was her head from one ear to the other, with the hue of burnished gold upon every hair of her, and a curch curled, round-plaited covering her head and her crown, and a beautiful fringe of golden thread in her hand, and a fair bright bordered (weaver’s) beam pressing a woof upon it.”
We do not know who is Uathach’s father, but we can probably assume that she looked a lot like her mother instead – or else he’d at least be mentioned. A number of interesting assumptions can be made with basis on Uathach’s description. Let me switch to my “girl talk” voice now and enumerate them for you (but you’re totally allowed to read the following in a drag queen’s voice if you want, they’re all fabulous).
- We all know natural blondes are unlikely to have dark eyebrows, let alone “black”. Genetics hasn’t changed since the Bronze Age, trust me. Therefore, assuming she is human (and so is her mother), one of the 2 things are fake. Yes, cosmetics absolutely existed in the Ancient world, and a royal would easily have access to these products. So which is fake? I am inclined to think her eyebrows, since Sgàthach is often depicted as a redhead (no sources for you! Just the consensus on depictions…), and ya know, blonde isn’t too far away from ginger.
- However (with reference to “1” above), something does not add up: if Uathach is basically the image of perfection, why emphasise in her description that she died her hair (or eyebrows)? I mean let’s be frank, not even my mother-in-law admits she dyes her hair, (and boy is it obvious!) Should we assume that in fact Uathach is not human, but a deity instead – which means she is allowed to naturally have looks that don’t exist in humans?
- Since we don’t know her father although she is a royal and decidedly not an illegitimate daughter, can we argue that she is Pictish? There is irrefutable evidence, straight from Roman sources, that the Picts were polygamic and often didn’t even know who their fathers were – including the royal families, because they believed this ensured a “fair” succession system through the mother’s side. This is one of the fundamental differences between the Picts and the Irish (and all other Celts in fairness).
- Assuming “3” is correct (yes I have more receipts, keep reading!), Uathach’s unusual complexion could be a metaphorical nod to the “racial” diversity in Pictland. Wow, look how many bold claims! It’s getting hot in here, let me get my fan. (Seriously though, I can prove them all, but all in due time). Stay bold, lovelies!
Scythian, Pictish or Irish
Nowhere in Tochmarc Emire is the word “Pict” or even “Cruithneach” (the Gaelic for Pict) to be found. Not even in any of the retellings. This is basically the only argument the naysayers can lean on, I suppose. However, you cannot claim that “unless the P-word is mentioned, no Picts to see here” AND “the P-word” is incorrect because the Picts didn’t call themselves “Picts” at the same time. Choose one or the other! These two arguments are mutually exclusive, but for some god forsaken reason I tend to see both of them in the same text. More often than should be acceptable. Please stop this bullshit, okay? Okay then.
In reality, Pictish history spans a millennium or possibly longer. A lot can happen in a millennium. A confederation of tribes can become an alliance of kingdoms, a single kingdom, and so on. Not all accounts of “Picts” are from the same period – obvious, but apparently I need to spell this out. The time period to which Tochmarc Emire refers is probably one when the kingdoms (or tribes) existed but weren’t yet united under a common Pictish high-king. I say that with basis on *the oldest* surviving narrative, because the retellings tend to be a mixture of Bronze Age with Iron Age and even the 8th to 10th centuries all in the same story. Remember this is mythology, not History. The gods live on and timing is different.
So with the observation above in mind, let us look into a name in the retelling from the 18th century, which nods at a 7th century king. The 8th century story also mentions Domnall, but is a bit too condensed.
“(..) till they reached the blue-edged districts of Alba. And in that country was a woman-warrior for them, namely, Dordmair daughter of Domnall Maeltemel” (the author points out that Maeltmel is an epithet meaning “soldierly”). The text goes on to tell a tale of how this princess Dordmair was such a good warrior and instructor, who taught Cú Chulainn before he even met Sgáthach. I think this passage is a Renascentist invention romanticising Amazons (or another nod to the well-known Pictish female warriors?), as it does not exist at all in the 8th century manuscript.
This Domnall (Donald in modern English) was probably Domnall mac Eochaid, from the 7th century, who had a strong connection with Dál Riata (which is to say, in plain terms for dummies, that he was a lot more Irish than Pictish culturally). This suggests a very particular agenda behind both the retelling and the oldest manuscript: the authors insert this passage into the story in order to make it more relatable to Medieval, and later on Renaissance audiences, who probably heard tales of Dál Riatan kings. These kings being from the Christian (instead of Pagan) period of Dál Riata and Pictland are an obvious addition to the originally pagan tale. Also it seems quite obvious there is a bias for the McDonald clan, who took over ownership of Dùn Sgàthaich in Skye during the Christian period but that’s none of my business.
The Case for a Pictish Sgàthach
So if Cú Chulainn meets a 7th century half-Pictish, Christian, king of Dál Riata – anachronistic as it sounds, but go figure – we can only assume he is in Pictland. Why would a Pict know Sgàthach if She hadn’t anything to do with their kingdoms? Yes you can argue “but you just said Domnall was half-Irish”. Well, even if you ignore Domnall entirely, there still are references to Pictland further ahead in the story, when Cú Chulainn is already training with Sgàthach.
It is said, in all sources I’ve ever read, that Uathach wasn’t Her only daughter. Indeed, she had 2 brothers: Cuar and Cat. The latter is obviously the name of a Pictish kingdom encompassing Caithness.
Did Cuar die (according to the retelling, by the hands of Cú Chulainn) before he could start any one of the Pictish kingdoms, whereas his brother went on to claim Caithness for himself? The theory makes sense because the name “Cuar” is nowhere to be found on the above map. Even if these two sons are another Christian addition to the original pagan story which is now lost (special attention to the fact these kingdoms existed in the 7th century… which predates the early manuscript), we can still believe Sgàthach is Pictish. After all, the author went out of his way to insert a Pictish link in Her own family. Was this done to clarify that although Skye now belongs to Dál Riata (in the 8th century), it belonged to the Picts when Sgáthach was “born”?
As for why her name is Sgáthach, clearly a Gaelic word that means both “shadowy” and “she who strikes fear”… All I will say is: aren’t all other character’s names in Gaelic as well? The manuscript is in Gaelic. Most names aren’t only proper names but descriptors of the characters’ qualities. They do not automatically indicate the characters’ cultural background unless – like Domnall – they are based off actual Historical figures. Sgàthach is legendary, not Historical. And dare I say, very Pictish.
The case for a Scythian Sgàthach
For some extremely weird reason that I will never understand, the theory that Sgáthach “lived in Scythia” is far more accepted than the (very plausible, as we saw above) theory that she was Pictish. (Anti-Pictish scholars are at it again trying to keep erasing Pictish history and glory, I tell ye). I’d rather say the Scythian theory is the most unlikely of the 2 (because no, there is no 3rd one, I don’t think She is Irish at all). However, this theory still deserves a mention, as it makes a bit of sense here and there.
How old is Sgáthach? Why do I keep referencing the Bronze Age? Very simple! As the analysis on the 8th century manuscript points out, likely in a surviving reference to a much older version of the tale:
“A large number of incidents and episodes are not found, of which the following are the more important:
- The incident of the drochet ind alta or Cliff Bridge, which leads to Scáthach’s abode. Scáthach does not dwell on an island (Archaeological Review, p. 299).”
Well, it is true that in the oldest known story, She does not dwell on an island – Cú Chulainn walked to Her. Wait, what? Does that mean Cú Chulainn indeed went to Scythia? – that is what most scholars take out of this “hole in the plot”, aye. They ignore the most obvious detail. Let me repeat again: mythological time is not chronological time. Sea levels in the Bronze Age were a lot lower. Maybe Skye wasn’t always an island.
Skye is now connected to the mainland by a bridge – it took me 20 minutes to cross it. Sure, this bridge is modern, but the thing about bridges is we build them where it’s doable. There is one strip of land, now submersed, where the waters are reasonably shallow, and that is where the bridge now stands. There’s even one smaller island on the way. Probably when the sea levels were a lot lower, and especially at low tide, Cú Chulainn could have indeed crossed it on foot.
Does that make Sgáthach older than the Picts? Possibly. It isn’t unheard of in History that new conquerors to a given place adopted older, local gods into their own faith – why wouldn’t the Picts do the same? But… Was She really local to Skye? The title given to Sgáthach’s father is Ard-Greimne of Letha. The placename, Letha, is Old Irish for Brittany, in Northwest France. Still not Scythia! – though some influence coming from continental Europe is possible during the Bronze Age.
Sgàthach is, in my view, a deity of the afterlife and warfare from the Bronze Age, later adopted by the Picts in Skye, and eventually included in Irish mythology. Her descriptive name in Gaelic probably hints at Her age and how much of Her original myth had already been lost by the time the Irish arrived: “shadowy” can imply mysterious and intangible.
I do believe there might be a Scythian ancestry to Her, (although no, she wasn’t LITERALLY BASED in Scythia) since these people are often considered ancestors of the Picts. The strongest evidence of a Scythian connection is how “eccentric” was Her style of martial arts, with a lot of emphasis on acrobatics, which happens a lot more frequently in Eastern styles of combat (think “kung fu movies”). It does not sound very Celtic, since the bulk of Celtic combat happened firmly on the ground – just read Roman accounts of Gallic wars and you’ll see what I mean. This may or may not tie into the fact the Picts were famous for fighting without an armour in order to become “lighter” – another thing that makes them look different in comparison to other Celts.
I said it in a previous blog post, and maintain my opinion: Sgàthach is a lot older and more diverse than we give Her credit for. And if you really analyse the mythology with an open mind, you’ll probably agree with me.