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LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 14: CANNY CUCHULAINN, The Warrior 'Watch-dog'
Cuchulainn* the warrior-god...
CUCHULAINN* epitomised the warrior-hero and many are the legends told of him and his prowess, confusing even. He is thought to be the son of Deichtire but not fathered by Sualtam, her husband. He may have been fathered on Deichtire by Lugh, the god of light (cf), although it is also said Conchobar mac Nessa was his father.
He was not named Cuchulainn at first, as his mother called him Setanta. Whilst going by that name and still a youth he undertook his first heroic feat by beating fifty of Conchobar's young warriors at Emhain Macha.
Again, while still a youth he was set on by the hound of Cullan the smith. The hound, known for its ferocity swallowed a ball thrown by Setanta. He then grabbed the hound and dashed its brains out on a rock. Cullan was not happy at losing his hound and griped bitterly. Setanta offered to take on the guard dog's duties for Cullan as long as he was needed. In this way he came by the name Cuchulainn, the 'hound' of Cullan. He was identified henceforward with dogs and hounds and was put under a 'geis', or bond, never to eat hound's flesh lest he come to a bad end.
He was given the option of long life or renown and went for renown. To begin with he battled with the three ogre sons of Nechta Scene, defeating and beheading them. As was the custom amongst Celtic warriors of the time he hung their gross heads from his chariot sides.
Cuchulainn had various notable friends to help him in his tasks, one being his charioteer Laeg. Another was Ghae Bholg, his magic spear, and a third his sword Caladin. A story goes that Cuchulainn wanted Emer for a wife but he had to prove his worth to her before seeking her hand. Thus he left Ireland and sought out Scatach the woman warrior and seer at her home to further his fighting skills.
He defeated Aoife (2) whilst there, a great rival of Scatach's. He made her his 'pillow companion' and she bore him a son named Connlai (or Conall). When Cuchulainn returned to Ireland Connlai stayed put, to be taught by Scatach in the ways of being a great warrior such as was his father. Connlai eventually decided to seek out his father, but Scatach made him swear an oath that he would never give out his name - no matter who asked.
Connlai was called out to fight by Conall Cernach, whom he slew. Connlai was then called out by Cuchulainn himself, although his wife Emer warned him as to who the young champion might well be. But Cuchulainn did not heed her warning and fought long and hard with Connlai, finally beating him. As Connlai lay breathing his last Cuchulainn was grief-stricken to learn the name of his opponent. He took his son's body to show the men of Ulster how saddened he was.
*The modern equivalent of the name Cuchlainn is Coghlan, now a surname in Northern Ireland; I would say Connlai has 'metamorphosed' to Connell or Connelly
The Emerald Isle, home to Gaelic gods and heroes
Another part of the legend of Cuchulainn. Read how he combats the Crow Queen, More Gaelic gods locked in unearthly combat
How Cuchulainn earned his name
A further legend of Cuchulainn
It may go back a bit further in time than the last one, the legend of the feast of Bricriu. The said Bricriu was well known for his sense of mischief and had a feast set for the men of Ulster and Connacht, long-time rivals in Ireland.
It was the way at such feasts that the bravest of the warriors should carve the roast meat. Bricriu, in his usual mischievous way, put forward to each of three warriors that they should claim the right. Cuchulainn, Conall Cernach and Laoghaire Buadhach each thought the honour should be theirs. They argued the point as to which was the worthiest and the casting vote was given to Medb, queen of Connacht. Her choice was Cuchulainn - it would have been anyway - and the other two would have to consider her vote as final. They disputed her choice, saying Cuchulainn had bribed her.
Not having solved the matter, all three sought the counsel of Cu Roi mac Dairi, king of Munster. He also chose Cuchulainn and the other two still would not accept the decision. A giant came into the competition next, ho challenged all three for the privilege. He called on all three to behead him and allow him back the following evening to behead the relevant rival. Laoghaire Buadach and Conall Cernach did his bidding, assuming he would be dead. When he showed up again the two went back on their part of the bargain but when it came to Cuchulainn he beheaded the giant and knelt, offering his neck. The giant let it be known he was Cu Roi mac Dairi and pointed out Cuchulainn's action showed he was the greatest of the three and therefore earned the right to carve the meat.
Cu Roi mac Dairi shows up in other tales with Cuchulainn, such as on a raid on the shores of the Otherworld (variously known as Scotland/Caledonia/Pictland). The king of Munster was known for his powers of shape-changing and showed as a helpful outsider who asked for a share of the booty as reward for his help. When the raiders seized a magic cauldron, three magic cows and a fair 'Otherworld' maiden known as Blathnad, Cuchulainn and his followers reneged on the deal. Cu Roi mac Dairi then showed himself in his true form and grabbed the booty for himself. When Cuchulainn tried to stop him, the Munster king buried him up to his armpits and shaved his head bald. Deeply shamed, Cuchulainn swore revenge and entered into a plot with Blathnad (probably of Pictish origin), whom Cu Roi mac Dairi had wedded. They slew him, but Blathnad died when the fili of Cu Roi mac Dairi dragged her with him over a cliff to meet their deaths together on the rocks below.
Have you followed this series on the Celts?
Have you enjoyed reading them as much as I've enjoyed writing them?
Cuchulainn fought in the wars between Ulster and Connacht -
Medb of Connacht dearly wanted the great brown bull Donn Cuailgne. Medb and her army attacked Ulster when most of the Ulstermen were laid low by a curse put on them by Macha. Cuchulainn did not suffer from the curse and was therefore strong enough to withstand the onslaught by the Connact host.
There are numerous myths around the death of Cuchulainn. Having chosen fame over long life, he was fated not to grow old. Medb used the magic of the dead offspring of Calatin to weaken him when he fought against Erc. This was the fight that led to his downfall and death. Some sources tell us that Cuchulainn, aware he was dying, bound himself to a post so he would die standing, and therefore honourably, with Badb in the shape of a raven on his shoulder so as to let everyone know death was approaching.
He had broken bonds and waived supernatural warnings before entering this last fight. He had been made to eat dog flesh under the magic power of his foes and was thus weakened. He also overlooked his horse weeping tears of blood as he readied himself - another harbinger of doom. In camp he saw someone wash his armour in the river, but again failed to acknowledge it as a sign of his fate.
Although wedded to Emer, Cuchulainn had relationships with other women, such as Fand. Yet he was known to have turned down Morrigan's sexual advances and brought her hostility down on himself
Arnie was never this great
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