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Cu Chulainn Celtic Legend - His Birth
Cu Chulainn in Battle
He was one of the mightiest that ever walked the ancient lands and fought on the battlefields of the Celts. He was a great and fearless warrior. He was loved by many and feared by all. He loved many and feared none. When in his 'battle fury' he was a terror that the mightiest beast would flee from. He was Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, ancient Irish warrior of heroic legends.
The legends of Cu Chulainn are part of the Ulster Cycle stories, which are set within the reign of King Conchobar mac Ness. Conchobar ruled from Emain Macha, an ancient monument in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. According to Irish legend, it was one of the major power centers of pre-Christian Ireland and is now a State Care Historic Monument in the town-land of Navan.
Cu Chulainn was the hero of "the Red Branch" which is the Ulster Cycle, one of the four great cycles of Irish mythology. The Red Branch was a band of powerful and elite warriors. In The Saga of Cu Chulainn he was depicted as an unusual yet very handsome lad. Eleanor Hull edited the translation in 1898 which gives us a fairly detailed description:
A handsome lad was he that stood there, Cu Chulainn son of Sualtam. Three colours of hair had he; next to his skin the hair was brown, in the middle it was red; on the outside it was like a diadem of gold; comparable to yellow gold was each glittering long curling splendid beautiful thread of hair, falling freely down between his shoulders.
There are a number of versions that tell the story of the birth of Cu Chulainn. The original Compert Con Culainn (Conception of Cu Chulainn), compiled in the 12th century, is the earliest version which is not as well known as the story in a later version of Compert Con Culainn from 1782. The list of scholars that have written about the legends of Cu Chulainn is long indeed, and can be found in the notes of Cuchulain of Muirthemne by Lady Augusta Gregory, 1902. Lady Gregory, in her notes, admits that during her work of translation, she "sometimes transferred a mere phrase, sometimes a whole passage from one story to another, where it seemed to fit better."
Through her dedication and hard work, she provided us with a treasure chest full of tales of the life, loves, battles, and death of Cu Chulainn, a great hero of Celtic mythology and legends.
From CUCHULAIN OF MUIRTHEMNE by Lady Gregory, 1902.
"I swear by the oath of my people," said Cuchulain, "I will make my doings be spoken of among the great doings of heroes in their strength."
- from CUCHULAIN OF MUIRTHEMNE by Lady Gregory, 1902
Conchobar mac Ness
In the days when Conchobar mac Ness was King of Ulster, he ruled from Emain Macha. Conchobar came to be King due to the manipulations of his mother, Ness, who at one time had been one of the kindest and quietest women of Ireland. Conchobar was a young lad when his father died. After Ness had been unkindly treated, she became rather treacherous.
Fergus was King at the time and Ness went to him, in hopes he would ask her to be his wife. She wanted the kingdom for her own son. Fergus did ask her to be his wife and her condition was that Conchobar hold the kingdom for just one year, so that any children he had would be those of a King. Fergus agreed and sought the advice of the Nobles. The men of Ulster told Fergus he may make the arrangements, so he took Ness as his wife, and Conchobar was made king.
Now, Ness was not about to remain idle during that first year. Throughout the year, Ness treated the men of Ulster with great respect, gifted them many presents and befriended them. Conchobar was still a young lad, but it was seen that he was wise in making judgements, brave in battle, and good in shape and form. The Chief men of Ulster liked him very much.
When Fergus, at the end of the year went to the Ulster men to ask for his kingship back, he was sorely disappointed. For the men of Ulster had consulted among themselves and decided that if Fergus had so readily given up the kingship to a lad, then he did not think much about the kingdom, or the men of Ulster. They told him that Conchobar would keep the kingship and Fergus could keep Ness.
Site of the Ancient Emain Macha, Court of Conchobar Mac Ness
Dechtire, Sister of Conchobar
One day, Conchobar provided a feast and celebration for his sister, Dechtire, for her marriage to Sualtim, son of Roig. As Dechtire was about to drink a cup of wine, a mayfly flew into the cup. She drank down the fly along with the wine. When she retired into a parlour with her fifty maidens, she fell into a deep sleep. In her sleep, the god Lugh of the Long Hand (of the Tuatha de Danann) appeared to her and said, "It is I myself was the mayfly that came to you in the cup, and it is with me you must come away now, and your fifty maidens along with you."
Lugh turned Dechtire and all her maidens into a flock of birds and southward they flew to Brugh na Boinne, the dwelling place of the Sidhe (faerie). Neither Conchobar nor any one at Emain Macha knew where the women had gone off to.
About a year later, at another feast, Conchobar and his men saw from a window a great flock of birds. The birds lit on the ground and began to eat up everything before them, so that not so much as a blade of grass was left. This truly vexed them mightily. Conchobar and his men had nine chariots yoked and followed after the birds. Conchobar was in his own chariot, and there were following with him Fergus son of Rogh, and Laegaire Buadach, the Battle-Winner, and Celthair son of Uithecar, and many others, and Bricriu of the bitter tongue was along with them.
They followed the birds southward to the far end of the country, the birds always just before them. When night fell, they could no longer see the flock of birds. Conchobar ordered the chariots to be unyoked and sent out Fergus to look for shelter for the night. Fergus found a very small poorhouse with a man and woman there. When he went back to the men and told them what he found, Bricriu said that was of no use to them for there would not be enough room or provisions. So, he went out himself to look.
When Bricriu came to the same place, the house was quite different than what Fergus described. There stood in the same place a grand house, new and well lit. At the door there appeared a young man in armor who was quite tall, handsome and shining. He greeted Bricriu and invited him in. Also at the door stood a fine and noble young woman who welcomed him. Bricriu asked the man, "Why does she welcome me?" The man answered, "It is on account of her that I myself welcome you." He then asked Bricriu, "And is there no one missing from you at Emain?"
Bricriu said they had been looking for the length of a year for the maidens. The young man asked if Bricriu would recognize the women. Bricriu said he was not sure. "Try to know them again," said the man, "for the fifty young girls are in this house, and this woman beside me is their mistress, Dechtire. It was they themselves, changed into birds, that went to Emain Macha to bring you here." Dechtire gave Bricriu a purple cloak to take back to Conchobar. Yet Bricriu thought not to tell Conchobar about Dechtire.
When Conchobar and his men settled in the house they were welcomed and fed well. Conchobar asked the young man, "Where is the mistress of the house that she does not come to bid us welcome?" "You cannot see her tonight," said he, "for she is in the pains of childbirth."
Birth of Cu Chulainn
Conchobar was the first to rise in the morning. The young man and the grand house were gone. He heard the cry of a babe and followed the sound to a room, and there he saw Dechtire, and her maidens about her, and a young child beside her. She bade Conchobar welcome, and told him all that had happened to her -- and that she had called him there to bring herself and the child back to Emain Macha.
Conchobar thanked Dechtire for welcoming him and his men, for giving shelter from the cold for his horses, and for the gift of the child. He told Dechtire that the child would be given to their sister Finchoem to raise till of training age.
The Nobles were not pleased with that decision and argued over who should bring up the child. There was quite a battle of words over this, each man claiming his honors and skills that the child would need.
It was Sencha who settled the matter. "Let Finchoem keep the child until we come to Emain, and Morann, the judge, will settle the question when we are there," he stated. All agreed on this. So Conchobar and his people returned home with the child of great promise.
Morann's judgment was thus: Conchobar, being next of kin, will give the child a name. Sencha will teach him proper speaking and words. Fergus will be a companion and play with the child. Amergin will be his tutor.
Then Morann said, "This child will be praised by all, by chariot drivers and fighters, by kings and by wise men; he shall be loved by many men; he will avenge all your wrongs; he will defend your fords; he will fight all your battles."
From CUCHULAIN OF MUIRTHEMNE by Lady Gregory, 1902.
And so it was settled. And the child was left until he should come to sensible years, with his mother Dechtire and with her husband Sualtim. And they brought him up upon the plain of Muirthemne, and the name he was known by was Setanta, son of Sualtim.
The boy Cu Chulainn
© 2012 Phyllis Doyle Burns