Jan 182011

The Deadly Oath

The ancient Irish tale Aided Óenfhir Aífe, “The Death of Aífe’s Only Son,” tells how the great warrior Cú Chulainn killed his son, Connla. Cú Chulainn had been training for battle in a distant land with the warrior princess Aífe, and the two became lovers. But not long after Aífe became pregnant, Cú Chulainn had to return home. “Send him to me when he is grown,” he told Aífe. “But make sure he grows to be a mighty warrior. Let him never turn back from a journey, once begun. Let him never refuse a challenge to combat. And let him tell no one his name.”

When Connla grew old enough, Aífe swore him to the oaths as his father had asked, and sent him to Ireland. Connla met many troubles on his travels, but defeated many enemies, for he never turned back, never refused a challenge, and never revealed his name. At last he came to Ireland and the home of Cú Chulainn in Ulster, but did not realize it. He was challenged, of course, and asked his name, but he did not back down and refused to identify himself; so he found himself in battle against the men of the household.

Connla was a mighty warrior, and he defeated many of Ulster’s best; so to defend the honor of Ulster, Cú Chulainn himself met the boy in combat. Though Connla recognized his father during the fight, he still could not break his oaths; and he could not defeat Cú Chulainn, who was the greatest warrior of Irish legend. At last, when Connla was defeated and lay dying, he told Cú Chulainn his name. Cú Chulainn, grieving, took the boy in his arms, and said, “Here is my son for you, men of Ulster!”

Without knowing it, Cú Chulainn made his son’s death inevitable with the oath he asked Aífe to swear him to. An oath such as that — which forces you to never give up, never back down, and never establish friendship or trust — is a recipe for death. Either you will hide away in a cave and starve, or you will go out and fight until you find someone who can defeat you. Your fate will be poverty or violence. This, I think, is one of the main lessons of this ancient story: the paradoxical fact that, in many situations, strength and prosperity arise from a certain amount of vulnerability.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

The famous modern fable of the Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates the situation well. From wikipedia:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

It seems clear that the only sane course of action is defection. If you defect, the best outcome is freedom, and the worst is 5 years; if you cooperate, the best outcome is 6 months, and the worst is 10 years. Since you can’t communicate with the other prisoner, there is no reason to assume that he will remain silent. Like Connla, you can’t run away or back down, and you can’t establish relationship or trust with the other prisoner. You have to defect.

It should be clear, however, that the situation changes drastically if the prisoners can communicate with each other, and work out a deal to coordinate their responses. The situation changes even more if these prisoners have a previous working relationship, have established some trust between them, and have reason to think that they won’t betray each other.

What Tribes Are For

This basic dilemma is the underpinning of the human notion of the tribe. Among most tribes, exchange of wealth is not handled with money, but through acts of mutual charity, based on an expectation of trust. A brother gives a gift to a sister not because she’s paid him, but because they know each other, trust each other, and love each other. Between tribes, however, exchange of goods is usually handled with barter or money. After all, you can’t necessarily trust those foreigners to be as nice as you are; you can’t just give them gifts without any strings attached. That would make you too vulnerable.

Despite this, many ancient tribes had a strong tradition of hospitality. Being hospitable, in the simplest case, just meant taking a stranger — someone not of your tribe — into your home, and offering them food and shelter for at least one night. The wisdom of this is easy to see from the Prisoner’s Dilemma: start with trust. Offer vulnerability first. If the stranger betrays your trust, you could get seriously hurt. But the potential benefits of a new relationship — of finding a new member of your “tribe” — are so great that it’s worth the risk.

As people have become more populous and resources become more scarce, it has become more important and valuable to start breaking down the us-vs.-them distinction. The tribes of upper New York, for example, set aside their differences for mutual protection, and created a new, larger “us” called the Haudenosaunee. The member tribes were made more vulnerable to each other, since an attack on one was an attack on all; and it would have been easy for one tribe to betray the others and gain a quick victory by surprise. But in exchange for this mutual vulnerability, as long as they held their trust, they gained mutual protection. Another example: around the same time, the landowners and barons of England, dissatisfied with the rule of King John, forced him to sign a charter that explicitly limited his power (they would have preferred him to be replaced with a king under their own control, but no suitable heir was available). The Magna Carta established in writing that the king needed the barons, and the barons needed the king, and turned their mutual vulnerability to mutual advantage. These examples inspired many others, such as the US Constitution, the United Nations and the European Union.

Today the world is far more interconnected than ever before, and with profound interconnection comes profound vulnerability. We are vulnerable not only to physical attack, but to economic hardship. Great Britain could decide to turn their nuclear weapons on the US tomorrow. Canada could decide to stop trading with the US, which would cost us $600 billion (the cost of the Iraq War) in one year. But they won’t, because they are just as vulnerable to us. We could end our partnerships, and shore up our defenses and economic self-sufficiency, but then we would be even weaker and poorer. Again, we are strong because of our mutual vulnerability.

But usually people don’t think in these terms. We tend to imagine that defeating enemies means making them weaker and us stronger, instead of focusing on changing enemies into friends. And when we think of helping the poor, we often imagine giving up something of our own for someone we don’t know, instead of imagining the mutual benefits that come from creating a new relationship. Thus these habits of thought — these instincts that make us distrust strangers, divide the world into us-vs.-them, and reject mutual vulnerability — give rise to two of the world’s biggest problems: war and poverty.

But it’s hard to give up security, real or imagined, for a chance of mutual gain. Just how much vulnerability is required to turn poverty and violence around? Surprisingly, it turns out, not much. Just a tiny bit will be enough to start things going. In the next post I’ll show why that is.

  12 Responses to “The Hospitable Warrior I: Tribes, Poverty, and War”

  1. Man, it’s been a long time since I saw anyone illustrate a point with games theory…

  2. Your article is interesting and well thought out, however there are a few points I disagree with.

    In your Celtic legend, the problem wasn’t the refusal to back down or not accept a challenge, it was all due to not giving his name. There are times where one must not back down and must accept the challenge, not because it is smart, but because it is right. Had the son not kept going and kept fighting, he would never have met his father. Had he but given his name, then they could have lived.

    You’re views on hospitality are interesting. I’m not sure I agree with the philosophy you claim to be behind it, as my own studies have indicated a slightly different reasoning. Hospitality is vital, but you left out a key part, which may be in your next article, that which must happen when Hospitality is betrayed. Hospitality, in the old way, was Gift for Gift. I give to my sister and she gives in return. I open my home to a visitor, he give me respect, honor, and in the olden days, news, stories, and possibly something of value in return. If I am given treachery, then I give the same back, as guided by the words of the High One, Odin.

    Do not be so quick to dismiss the value of us vs them thinking. While it does lead to violence, this isn’t completely a bad thing. One can argue the morality later, but such thinking has gotten us through history. Banding together is good, especially if its with people you already have commonalities with, but eventually you will come across groups that are so different one cannot relate, and who will see you as inferior and to be exterminated, and no amount of pretty words or gifts given will change their minds. That is when you must accept the challenge and not back down.

    Just be sure to give them your name.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, NA. I agree with Alison below, that the message of the myth appears to be not that one should always back down, or refuse every challenge, or even to always give your name. The message, I think, is that holding the ideals of brute bravery and strength to their utmost, and not ever allowing or showing the slightest weakness, will inevitably lead to tragedy. No matter how great we are as warriors, we cannot simply charge through the world unstoppably, regardless of custom or common sense, and expect it to end well.

      As for hospitality: I agree that if hospitality is betrayed, then it is reasonable to stop offering it. This is why I spoke of mutual vulnerability. A tribe exists because the mutual vulnerability of its members offers them all mutual advantage, and greater collective strength. What I am arguing in this post and the next is not that the notion of tribe is useless or outdated; instead, I’m arguing that we may be headed toward being, in a sense, a single “human tribe,” and this has important advantages for us all.

      • Except that would never work. Humanity has been around for way too long we have far too many differences, most of which are on issues that the various peoples on earth feel there can be no compromise. The only way you could possibly get a “Single Unified Human Tribe” is if you pulled something out of Watchmen or Independence Day, and even then it would fall apart shortly after the threat was over.

        It wasn’t Mutual Vulnerability that brought tribes together, it was blood, it was nationality, and it was the us vs them mentality. The largest source of Vulnerability is other humans, not predators that we could keep out with wall, or natural forces we found ways to work for us or hide from, its other people.

        Plus, you must look to the origins of the desire for a Unified Humanity. I know of no pagan societies where this was the case. Perhaps a Unified Empire, with the rulers on top, but a single unified people? That idea didn’t come about or be put into practice until the rise of Christianity and Islam. And I don’t know about you, but me in my heathenism really doesn’t wanna live under one of those two systems, with their views on equality, other religions, and women. You want a unified humanity, then just whose morals and mores are we going to go with, because I don’t see that many Muslims all that keen on human rights, women’s rights, or looser codes of morality, sex, dress, etc. I don’t see that many real Christians all that willing to negotiate with us either. Not as groups, anyways. Individuals, maybe, but not as groups.

        I’m sorry, I suppose I can see the appeal for some to a unified humanity, but I don’t. Unification means compromise. Compromises that mean my culture has to lose some of itself, that my people would lose some of their rights and freedoms, and I’m not willing to stand for that. Who is to say what another man may keep and what he must lose of his culture and beliefs so there can be peace between the unified humanity? It seems to me that the ones who would dare to say what must go would be those with the most power to enforce that unification, or at least those that brought the most numbers to the table, and none of those with that kind of numbers are friendly to the pagan and heathen communities.

        • NA, some of your points are addressed in the second part of my post (which will be appearing today), but briefly:

          I completely agree that doing away with tribes in the usual sense — a collection of people with whom you share language, culture, beliefs, law, custom, and kinship — is undesirable and impossible, and that trying to do so would be totalitarian. What I’m trying to suggest instead is that a universal human “tribe” in the more general sense I’m using here — a collection of people with whom you are mutually vulnerable, whom you can trust and exchange property or give gifts freely — is something that is desirable and possibly inevitable, and an attempt to prevent such a universal tribe from forming may be totalitarian. I hope my ideas will be made clearer in the next post.

  3. N.A.,

    I’d like to see if you have any references or further support for your interpretation of the Cú Chulainn myth – other examples in Celtic mythology, for instance? I’m more inclined to agree with Jeff on this one. Although I agree that the role of naming and the power of communication play an important role in this story, I think it’d be a mistake to assume that of the three geasa placed on Connla, only one of them is actually relevant to his tragic end.

    In Celtic myth, the geasa very often function as mutually contradictory tensions placed on the hero, often symbolizing his conflicting loyalties to tribe(s) and land. These contradictions inevitably lead the hero to his final end by placing him in a situation where the keeping of one geis necessitates the breaking of another. (The death of Cú Chulainn himself is brought about when he is offered dog meat by an old crone – bringing his tribal loyalty (the geis never to eat dog meat) into conflict with that of greater Irish society (the geis against refusing hospitality) – either way, he breaks a geis, which leaves him spiritually weakened and vulnerable to attack.) I think I remember reading an interpretation of the function of geasa in Irish myth (though you’ll have to forgive me, I don’t remember where and I’m away from my books at the moment) that suggests that the geasa represent the hero’s connection with the gods, in light of the tensions and limitations of his own mortality. The more powerful a hero is, the more likely he is to have conflicting geasa which eventually bring about his own tragic death. Certainly in the case of Connla, if he had broken any one of his three vows, the tragedy could have been avoided. Yet this would be to reduce the metaphor to a more simplistic story, instead of illustrating in a stark and painful reality about how competing loyalties can lead us into grief and loss.

    In this sense, I agree with Jeff’s interpretation. The tragedy of the story is, I think, that Cú Chulainn, in seeking to help his son become a great and strong warrior (and possibly to protect him from Cú Chulainn’s own enemies), places upon him the very geasa that will lead to his death. Instead of accepting the vulnerability that comes with sometimes having to reconsider a course of action, back down from an unnecessary fight or make a personal connection with a stranger, Cú Chulainn gives his son an even greater weakness in trying to make him strong. Note that the geasa do not involve standing up for what is right or important, but the imperative never to back down or turn away, regardless of the circumstances. It is an outright rejection of the vulnerability and uncertainty natural to the human condition. And in Celtic mythology, it is often precisely when the hero is going along at his most powerful, when he feels the least vulnerable and uncertain, that his geasa come back to remind him of his limitations, and his mortality.


    • I think that far more important to the Cú Chulainn story is the fact that Connla didn’t have to tell the men his name, but he could have offered them some idea of who he was, if he had thought for a second rather than simply diving into a battle. Prudence before bravery, discretion is the better part of valour, etc.

    • I have no sources, Ali, because that is my own personal interpretation of the myth and where I think it went wrong. I wasn’t aware that I had to have sources to back up my personal thoughts and feelings. Apparently, though, it seems that a person’s own experiences count for nothing if he cannot back them up with someone else’s who has a degree or a book published.

      Now, maybe it’s because of the way the myth is put forth in the above, It seemed to me the entire fight and challenge came about because the son would not give his name. Had he given his name, it could have been avoided, or at the least, they would have known he was the son of their chief and there could have at least been a chance for father/son bonding before the fight.

      Also, you speak of the geasa upon the boy as part of his doom, but you seem to forget it my have been his wyrd/fate to die then and there, even more so than any compelling spells laid by the boys parents. And if these oaths were geasa, then it is more a lesson about the dangers of putting spells of compulsion upon loved ones than it is about not giving one’s name, never backing down, and accepting every challenge.

  4. It is an interesting take on the story, but I do not agree with your interpretation, but then again that’s the power of story isn’t it. The lesson which one could take away, is that doing ones duty is not always easy, pleasant or even desirable, but it must be done none the less. The mention of competing loyalties is an apt one, but the story illustrates that honor was paramount among the Ulstermen (and by proxy the redactors), and so we see Cúchulain “buying” the honor of Ulster back with the blood of his own son. In most versions, Emer tries to dissuade Cú from pursuing the fight further when she realizes that Connla is in fact her husbands son, and that only one begotten from Cú could offer such resistance against him, especially at such a young age. Cúchulain responds that “Then said Cu Chulainn: “Forbear, woman! Even though it were he who is there,” said he, “I would kill him for the honor of Ulster.””

    The implication seems to be that Jeff believes that the geasa are unfair, but what would one such as Cúchulain give his own son, that he may grow to be a warrior as his father is? Certainly the story is a tragedy, but I never came away from it thinking it was a tragedy which could have been averted. There could not, after all, be two Cúchulain’s running around, and I think this also has a lot to do with why the story is a tragedy. The battle between the two was inevitable. Cúchulain was (probably) quite cognizant of just what his instructions would entail for the boys future, even to the point that he knew he would be at the end of it. There is a common theme among Gaelic lit, and in a more general IE motif, of generational divisions causing strife, and one group always seeking to supplant the former, or subdue the later. It just so happened that Cú was the better warrior. One could even go so far as to see in this a foreshadowing of the battle between Ferdiad and Cúchulain, with an almost identical result. Cú triumphs, but barely and because of the gae bolg, and he sorely regrets that it has come to killing his own foster brother. But because of Cúchulain”s function as Tribal hero, the honour of his people came before any other commitments he would have had.

    • Gorm, a lot of what you say about the story seems correct to me; and I do not think it necessarily contradicts my own analysis. The question is, are Cú and Connla being held up as models to emulate here? Certainly they embodied the virtues of duty and honor and supreme warriorship, but it seems likely to me that Cú in this story (and some others) offers almost a cautionary tale, a warning against taking these virtues too far (e.g. with his battle frenzy).

      • Certainly, that may be what some could take away from it, though as his function was as tribal hero, I tend more towards thinking this is a tale which, aside from explaining why Cú never has any other children, shows that for those who are sworn to protect their tribe, the tribe comes first. Though, it could be argues that it does indeed stress that in order for different tribes to coexist, that hospitality (in this case naming oneself and accepting the protection of safety from the host) was also important.

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