Notes to G. Nagy's articles on Ajax and the (other) suitors of Helen, Classical Inquiries, June 16 – July 7, 2021
By J. F. Nagy (July 17, 2021)
1. Another Indo-European instance of "viewing from the wall" where a wife unjustly abducted (in this case, unjustly treated) identifies males (in this case, the woman's brother) approaching for the purpose of rescuing her. . . . From the 12th-c. CE Welsh text known as the Mabinogi, from the "Second Branch," here translated by Will Parker (https://mabinogi.net/branwen.htm):
Some swineherds of Matholwch [the king of Ireland who is punishing his wife unfairly] were on the shore of the ocean one day, doing the rounds with their pigs. Because of the sight they saw on the ocean, they came to Matholwch.
'Lord' said they 'may you prosper.'
'And may God give kindly to you,' he replied. 'Do you have tidings?'
'Lord,' said they 'we have some strange tidings: we have seen a forest on the ocean, where we had never [before] seen a single tree.'
'That is a peculiar thing,' said he 'could you see anything other than that?'
'Lord,' they replied 'a great mountain beside the forest, and that was moving; and a soaring ridge on the mountain, and a lake on each side of the ridge; and the forest, and the mountain and all of that was moving.'
'Well,' said [Matholwch] 'there is no-one here who's going to know anything about this, if Branwen [the calumniated British queen] doesn't know. Ask her.'
Messengers went to Branwen.
'Lady,' said they 'what do you suppose this is?'
'Although a lady I am not,' she answered ' I know what this is. The men of the Island of the Mighty [i.e., Britain] are coming over: having heard about my punishments and my dishonour.'
'What is the forest that was seen on the ocean?' they asked.
'The alder-masts of the ships and the sail trees' said she.
'Aye,' said they 'what is the mountain that was seen alongside the ships?'
'That was Bendigeidfran my brother,' said she 'coming by wading. There is no boat that can contain him inside.' [Bendigeidfran, her brother, is king of Britain; it has been pointed out that his name, consisting of the Welsh borrowing of Latin benedictus and the native Welsh word for "raven," is a doublet of Branwen's own name, bran 'raven' + (g)wen, feminine of gwyn(n) 'bright, supernatural, sacred'—see P. K. Ford, "Branwen: A Study of the Celtic Affinities," Studia Celtica 22–23 (1987): 29–41].
'What is the soaring ridge and the lake on either side of the ridge?'
'He' she said 'is looking at the Island, and is angry. His two eyes on either side of his nose are the two lakes on either side of the ridge.'
2. A curious instance of the "proxy" suitor or counter-suitor's offering wild animals instead of livestock in the pursuit of a wife. . . . In the late-first-millennium-CE Irish text known as "Finn and Gráinne,” Caílte, the sidekick (and, according to some strands of the tradition, nephew or foster son) of Finn mac Cumaill, the leader of a warring and hunting band, accomplishes on Finn’s behalf the feat, requested by Gráinne’s father (the king of Ireland) as the bride-price to be paid for the hand of his daughter, of bringing a pair of every animal living in Ireland to the king’s residence in Tara. Unfortunately, the marriage is not a happy one, and Finn and Gráinne go their separate ways (for translation of and information about the texts, see http://research.ucc.ie/celt/document/T303008).
3. It's ironic, given the importance of livestock in the Helen "sweepstakes," that Ajax, losing out in another "epic" instance of competition and choice (and losing out to Odysseus, no less), is driven mad and ends up slaughtering the livestock of the Achaeans, including what they have won from the Trojans (see Sophocles, Ajax, and "Apollodorus," Epitome 5).
4. In the bizarre one-off late medieval Irish text Merugud Uilix "Wandering of Ulysses" (which Ms Susannah Wright and I were reading this past semester), an idiosyncratic telling of the story for which no definite previous source has been ascertained, when Ulysses finally returns home, he falls prey to the mistaken impression that his wife has been unfaithful to him and has given herself as well as his kingship to a young man. Ulysses tells the members of his crew who have survived the "wandering" alongside him that he knows of a secret passage-way that leads to his wife's bed-chamber. Using this passage-way, he plans to surprise his wife and her lover and kill them in their bed. His men, however, recommend a different plan: just as Ulysses was willing to assist his fellow Greek chieftains in their struggle to reclaim what was rightfully theirs (from the Trojans), so now Ulysses should go to those same chieftains and demand that they help him to reclaim his rightful patrimony (kingship, property—and wife?). Not to worry: Ulysses in his rash anger goes with his own plan but overhears, in the nick of time, the conversation between his wife and the young man in her bed that reveals the latter's identity as Ulysses's son. The text was edited by Robert Meyer in the Mediaeval and Modern Irish Series, and earlier edited and translated by Kuno Meyer—for complete bibliography and the translation, see https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T305003A.html.