Chariots in early Ireland the vernacular literature

Some of the earliest Insular literary records, which may well pertain to pagan Celtic traditions, contain fascinating allusions both to chariots themselves and to chariot warfare. The 'Tochmarc Emer', the story of the Ulster hero Cu Chulainn's wife Emer, describes a fine chariot built of wicker and wood, on white

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bronze wheels, with a gold yoke, a silver pole and yellow plaited reins. In the most famous of Ulster tales, the 'Tain Bo Cuailnge', both Queen Medb of Connacht and her bitter adversary Cu Chulainn possess chariots. Medb instructs her charioteer to yoke up her chariots ready to make a circuit of her

camp and survey her armies. The young Cu Chulainn, a superhuman, semi-divine hero, breaks twelve

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chariots before finally finding one - that of his king Conchobar of Ulster - to carry him.126 Just before his death, Cu Chulainn yokes up his chariot for his final confrontation with Medb: he has two chariot-horses, the Black of Saingliu and the Grey of Macha. The clairvoyante Grey cries tears of blood at the

foreknowledge of his death.

The 'Tain' is full of allusions to chariots and, interestingly, makes specific reference to the shrunk-on

iron tyres which were an invention of Celtic Iron Age smiths. The following is a description of Laeg, Cu Chulainn's charioteer, his chariot and his horses:

The charioteer rose up then and donned his charioteer's warharness. The war-harness that he wore was: a skin-soft tunic of stitched deer's leather, light as a breath, kneaded supple and smooth not to hinder his free arm movements. He put on over this his feathery outer mantle, made (some say) by Simon Magus for Darius king of the Romans. . . . Then the charioteer set down on his shoulders his plated, four-pointed, crested battle-cap, rich in colour and shape; it suited him well and was no burden. To set him apart from his master, he placed the charioteer's sign on his brow with his hand: a circle of deep yellow like a single red-gold strip of burning gold shaped on an anvil's edge. He took the long horse-spancel and the ornamental goad in his right hand. In his left hand he grasped the steed-ruling reins that give the charioteer control. Then he threw the decorated iron armour-plate over the horses, covering them from head to foot with spears and spit-points, blades and barbs. Every inch of the chariot bristled. Every angle and corner, front and rear, was a tearing place.

The body of the chariot was spare and slight and erect, fitted for the feats of a champion, with space for a lordly warrior's eight weapons, speedy as the wind or as a swallow or deer darting over the level plain. The chariot was settled down on two fast steeds, wild and wicked, neat-headed and narrow-bodied, with slender quarters and roan breast, firm in hoof and harness - a notable sight in the trim chariot-shafts. One horse was lithe and swift-leaping, high-arched and powerful, long-bodied and with great hooves. The other flowing-maned and shining, slight and slender in hoof and heel.

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