116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Performing the Warrior's Role:  Cú Chulainn as Drama Queen and Drag King in Táin Bó Cúailnge

Phillip A. Bernhardt-House, Skagit Valley College

In the medieval Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, the character of Cú Chulainn is the main character at "center stage" in the role of ferocious warrior defending his province.  Not only is the warrior's role in Irish society one built upon the idea of performance just as much as it is based in the ability to deal death to one's opponents, but it requires Cú Chulainn to confront and address his gender nonconformity by donning a fake beard in order to be taken seriously as an opponent by his adversaries at several points during the tale.


The medieval Irish prosimetric epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (existing in two main recensions from the 11th-12th centuries) presents its primary heroic protagonist, Cú Chulainn, as the principal warrior and defender of his province and people, the Ulaid ("Ulster/Ulstermen"), against the marauding forces of the army of Ireland organized by Medb and Ailill, the queen and king of Connacht in Medb's attempt to steal the Donn Cúailnge (a legendary bull).  However, despite the common modern image of Cú Chulainn in Ireland and in a great deal of scholarship as a "warrior hero" in all of the stereotypical manners we might infer in such a classification, the texts of Táin Bó Cúailnge and wider medieval Irish narrative tradition presents us with a far more complex and unexpected picture.  The entire edifice of warriorship--in Ireland as well as in many other premodern cultures--was as much a performance of spectacle and even entertainment as it was a performance of duty to one's people and the protection of their welfare, not only as reflected in several incidents within these texts, but in the very vocabulary associated with warriorship and with Cú Chulainn in particular, and one of his nicknames, cú na clessa ("hound of the feats").  A further dimension of the performativity of his role problematizes the notion that he was the archetypal "manly" warrior of post-colonial modern Irish popular culture and storytelling (as well as some scholarship!), in that characters within the tale refuse to fight him because he is beardless, and in order to get them to engage with him in combat he constructs a fake beard out of plant matter coalesced by magic in a manner that perfectly exemplifies Judith Butler's notions of "gender performativity."  Cú Chulainn's successful warriorship, therefore, is based in both his playing the role of the "drama queen" as the sole warrior who can come to his people's aid in an excessively superlative fashion in wreaking havoc on his enemies, but also on his willingness to play the gender games expected in his society by becoming an ostensibly male "drag king" in order to do so.

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