Cúchulainn

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Image:Cuchulainn Stephen Reid.jpg
Young Cúchulainn, 1912 illustration by Stephen Reid.

In Irish mythology Cúchulainn /kuːˈxʊlɪnʲ/ (Irish 'Hound of Culann'; also spelled Cú Chulainn, Cú Chulaind, Cúchulain, or Cuchullain; known in childhood as Sétanta ["shay-dan-ta"]) is an Irish folk legend and the pre-eminent hero of Ulster in the Ulster Cycle. His mother was Deichtine, sister of king Conchobar mac Nessa; his father was either the god Lugh the Long Armed, or Deichtire's mortal husband Sualtam, and his foster-father was Fergus mac Róich. His charioteer, Láeg, is ever-present by his side. He had two horses, the Grey of Macha and the Black Sainglain. He also appears in Scottish and Manx folklore.

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[edit] Combat prowess

Cúchulainn was almost undefeatable in battle due to his spear named the Gae Bulga (which sang for the blood of its enemies) and his warrior frenzy, comparable to that of the Norse berserkers. It is described in Thomas Kinsella's translation of The Táin this way:

The Warp-Spasm overtook him: it seemed each hair was hammered into his head, so sharply they shot upright. You would swear a fire-speck tipped each hair. He squeezed one eye narrower than the eye of a needle; he opened the other wider than the mouth of a goblet. He bared his jaws to the ear; he peeled back his lips to the eye-teeth till his gullet showed. The hero-halo rose up from the crown of his head.

This frenzy caused him to turn about in his skin; his sinews bulged with knots the size of a baby's head; a poisonous black mist rose above his head; and he snapped his jaw shut with enough force to kill a lion, showering sparks. In this fearsome state he could not tell friend from foe, killing in front and behind alike.

A Manx story tries to account for this frenzy. The story claims that Cúchulainn came to the Isle of Man to have his spear made by a famous smith in return for the promise of a part of the land he would conquer. While he waited for the spear to be made, he discovered and captured a mermaid named Teeval, "the princess of the sea" who gave him the ability to call on her for help in battle in return for her freedom. The story says that when he called out to her for help, a great strength flowed into him and he cut down his enemies like grass.

[edit] Cúchulainn's childhood

According to legend, Cúchulainn was born at Newgrange, the greatest of Ireland's Neolithic monuments. Raised at Muirthemne Plain in Ulster, his childhood name was Sétanta (pronounced as shay-dan-ta), but he gained the name Cú Chulainn ("Culann's Hound") when, as a child, he killed (in self-defence) the fierce watchdog of Culann the smith, in some versions using a hurley to drive a sliotar down the dog's throat. Out of obligation he offered to take its place while a replacement was reared. He took arms when, at the age of seven, he heard the druid Cathbad prophesy that anyone who took arms that day would have everlasting fame, although his life would be short — one of the reasons he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles.

[edit] Emer and Cúchulainn's training

In Cúchulainn's youth he was so beautiful the Ulstermen worried that, without a wife of his own, he would steal their wives and ruin their daughters. They searched all over Ireland for a suitable wife for him, but he would have none but Emer, daughter of Forgall the Wily.

However, Forgall was opposed to the match. He suggested that Cúchulainn should train in arms with the renowned warrior-woman Scáthach who lived in Dún Scáith, the "fort of shadows", on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, hoping the ordeal would be too much for him and he would be killed. Cúchulainn took up the challenge. In the meantime, Forgall offered Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster. However, when he heard that Emer loved Cúchulainn, Lugaid refused her hand.

Scáthach taught Cúchulainn all the arts of war, including the use of the Gae Bulg, a terrible, barbed spear, thrown with the foot, that had to be cut out of its victim. His fellow trainees included Ferdiad, who became Cúchulainn's best friend and foster-brother.

During his time there, Scáthach faced a battle against Aífe, her rival and in some versions her twin sister. Scáthach, knowing Aífe's prowess, feared for Cú Chulainn's life and gave him a powerful sleeping potion to keep him from the battle. However, because of Cú Chulainn's great strength, it only put him to sleep for an hour, and he soon joined the fray. He fought Aífe in single combat, and the two were evenly matched, but Cú Chulainn distracted her by calling out that Aífe's horses and chariot, the things she valued most in the world, had fallen off a cliff, and seized her. He spared her life on the condition that she call off her enmity with Scáthach and that she would bear him a son.

Leaving Aífe pregnant, Cúchulainn returned from Scotland fully trained, but Forgall still refused to let him marry Emer. Cúchulainn stormed Forgall's fortress, killing twenty-four of Forgall's men, abducted Emer and stole Forgall's treasure. Forgall himself fell from the ramparts to his death.

Conchobar mac Nessa, the king of Ulster, had the "right of the first night" over all marriages of his subjects. He was afraid of Cúchulainn's reaction if he exercised it in this case, but would lose his authority if he didn't. A solution was found — Conchobar would sleep with Emer on the night of the wedding, but Cathbad the druid would sleep between them.

Seven years later, Connla, Cúchulainn's son by Aífe, came to Ireland in search of his father, but Cúchulainn took him as an intruder and killed him when he refused to identify himself.

The story of Cúchulainn and Connla shows a striking similarity to the legend of Persian hero Rostam who also slays his son Sohrab. In fact Rostam and Cúchulainn share many characteristics, including slaying of a ferocious beast at a very young age, their near invincibility at battle, slaying their sons, and the manner of their death.

[edit] The Cattle Raid of Cooley

At the age of seventeen, Cú Chulainn single-handedly defended Ulster from the army of Connacht in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley). The men of Ulster were disabled by a curse, so Cú Chulainn prevented Medb's army from advancing by invoking the right of single combat at fords. He defeated champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months. When Fergus was sent to face him he agreed to yield, so long as Fergus agreed to return the compliment the next time they met. Finally, he fought a gruelling three day duel with his best friend and foster-brother, Ferdiad, at a ford that was named Áth Fhir Diadh (Ardee, County Louth) after him. The Ulstermen eventually roused, and the final battle began. Fergus kept his side of the bargain and yielded to Cú Chulainn, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht's other allies panicked and Medb was forced to retreat.

[edit] Cúchulainn and Cú Roí

Cúchulainn had encounters with Cú Roí mac Dáire of Munster, both as an ally and an enemy.

The troublemaker Briccriu once incited three heroes, Cúchulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, to compete for the champion's portion at his feast. In every test that was set Cúchulainn came out top, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire would accept the result. Cú Roí settled it by visiting each in the guise of a hideous churl and challenging them to behead him, then allow him to return and behead them in return. Conall and Lóegaire both beheaded Cú Roí, who picked up his head and left, but when the time came for him to return they fled. Only Cúchulainn was brave and honourable enough to submit himself to Cú Roí's axe; Cú Roí spared him and he was declared champion. This is an early analogue of the beheading challenge in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Cú Roí, again in disguise, joined the Ulstermen on a raid on Inis Fer Falga (probably the Isle of Man), in return for his choice of the spoils. They stole treasure, and abducted Blathnat, daughter of the island's king, who loved Cúchulainn. But when Cú Roí was asked to choose his share, he chose Blathnat. Cúchulainn tried to stop him taking her, but Cú Roí cut his hair and drove him into the ground up to his armpits, before escaping, taking Blathnat with him.

Like the Biblical hero Samson, Achilles, the Witch-king of Angmar of The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein and the Welsh Llew Llaw Gyffes, Cú Roí could only be killed in certain contrived circumstances, which vary in different versions of the story. Blathnat discovered how to kill him and betrayed him to Cúchulainn, who did the deed. However Ferchertne, Cú Roí's poet, enraged at the betrayal of his lord, grabbed Blathnat and leaped off a cliff, killing her and himself.

[edit] Emer's only jealousy

Cúchulainn had many lovers, but Emer's only jealousy came when he fell in love with Fand, wife of Manannan mac Lir. Manannan had left her and she had been attacked by three Fomorians who wanted to control the Irish Sea. Cúchulainn agreed to help defend her as long as she married him. She agreed reluctantly, but they fell in love when they met.

Manannan knew their relationship was doomed because Cúchulainn was mortal and Fand was a fairy; Cúchulainn's presence would destroy the fairies. Emer, meanwhile, tried to kill her rival, but when she saw the strength of Fand's love for Cúchulainn she decided to give him up to her. Fand, touched by Emer's magnanimity, decided to return to her own husband. Manannan shook his cloak between Cúchulainn and Fand, ensuring the two would never meet again, and Cúchulainn and Emer drank a potion to wipe the whole affair from their memories.

[edit] Cúchulainn's death

Image:Irish ten shilling coin.png
The figure of Cúchulainn was used to commommorate the Easter Rising on the ten shilling coin

In Dublin, a statue of Cúchulainn in the General Post Office shows his demise. This image was also used on the ten shilling coin produced for 1966. Medb conspired with Lugaid, son of Cú Roí, Erc, son of Cairbre Nia Fer, and the sons of others Cúchulainn had killed, to draw him out to his death.

Cúchulainn's fate was sealed by his breaking of the geasa upon him. In Cúchulainn's case, his geasa included both an obligation to accept any meal offered to him, and a ban against eating dog meat. His enemies contrived to force him to break one of these geasa by the simple approach of offering him a meal of dog meat. In this way he was spiritually weakened for the fight ahead of him.

Lugaid had three spears and it was prophesized that three kings would fall by them. With the first he slew Cuchulainn's charioteer Laeg, king of chariot drivers. With the second, he slew Cuchulainn's horse, the Grey of Macha, king of horses. Finally with the third, he hit Cuchulainn, king of the heroes of Ireland. <ref>DEATH OF CUCHULAIN</ref>

Mortally wounded by Lugaid's spear, Cúchulainn tied himself to a pillar-stone in order to remain standing. Only when a raven landed on his shoulder did his enemies believe he was dead. Lugaid cut off his head, but as he did so Cúchulainn's sword fell from his hand and cut Lugaid's hand off.

Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cúchulainn died before him he would avenge him before sunset, and he kept his promise. He pursued Lugaid, and fought him with one hand tucked into his belt, as his opponent had lost a hand, but he only won after his horse took a bite out of Lugaid's side.

He also killed Erc, and took his head back to Tara, where his sister Achall died of grief for her brother.

When Conall Cernach reported back to Emer the fate of her beloved husband, she said that she could have no love for any other man and that it was her own fate to stay forever by the side of the Hound of Culann. Conall buried then together in one grave, raised a stone over them, and wrote their names in Ogham.

[edit] Cúchulainn today

The image of Cúchulainn is invoked by both Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists, in murals, poetry, literature and other art forms. Irish nationalists see him as the most important Celtic Irish hero, and thus he is important to their whole culture. A sculpture of the dying Cúchulainn by Oliver Sheppard stands in the Dublin GPO in commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916. By contrast, unionists see him as an Ulsterman defending the province from enemies to the south: for example, a mural on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast, ironically based on the Sheppard sculpture, depicts him as a "defender of Ulster from Irish attacks".

In Scouting Ireland, the highest adult award is the Order of CúChulainn. It consists of an award ribbon and a hound pendant. The Irish Naval Service formerly had a ship named after Cúchulainn, the LÉ Setanta, which was sold off in 1980.

Cúchulainn's story was told in English translation in Lady Gregory's 1902 book Cuchulain of Muirthemne. It is also the subject of Morgan Llywelyn 1989 historical fiction novel Red Branch and a Randy Lee Eickhoff's series of adaptations. The tale of Cúchulainn's wasting sickness provides the title of the Pogues's song "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn" from their album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, while Jeffa Danna's opening theme for the 1999 film Boondock Saints is named "The Blood of Cuchulainn".

Cúchulainn is an Esper on the PlayStation 2 video game Final Fantasy XII.

[edit] References

  • The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella from the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Oxford University Press, 1969; ISBN 0192810901
  • Simon James, The World of the Celts, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1993; ISBN 0500050678

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[edit] Texts

el:Κουχούλιν es:Cúchulainn fr:Cuchulainn ga:Cú Chulainn gd:Cù Chullain nl:Cú Chulainn ja:クー・フーリン pl:Cúchulainn pt:Cú Chulainn fi:Cuchulainn sv:Cuchulainn

Cúchulainn

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