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Cu Chulainn, Celtic Warrior Hero

Cú Chulainn was the great hero of the Ulster Cycle. Champion of the Irish kingdom of Ulster, he was the son of gods, lover of fairy-queens, and enemy of many worthy foes.

Cú Chulainn was the great warrior hero of the Ulster Cycle. A descendant of the gods, he defended Ulster from its many threats with an unstoppable rage and iron will. His passions were great, his sorrows deep, and his actions undeniably heroic. To this day, he remains Ireland’s best known folk hero.

Etymology

Though Cú Chulainn (meaning “hound of Culann,”) was a title rather than a name, the warrior often used it in place of his birth name. Cú Chulainn has been spelled with startling inconsistency across Anglican and Gaelic sources alike. In Gaelic, the name has had spellings as diverse as Cúailnge, Cú Chulaind, and Cúchulain.

Cú Chulainn’s true name was Sétanta, meaning “Son of Sualtam.” He occasionally went by the nickname “the Hound of Ulster,” a reference to both to his incredible loyalty and his famous title.

Attributes

Cú Chulainn was first and foremost a warrior. From an early age, he trained in Ireland and Scotland to become a powerful killing machine. His skill was unmatched, and he was more than capable of taking on many foes at once. Such was his strength and athletic ability that he was able to metabolize a sleeping potion in a mere hour—this despite it being potent enough to make an ordinary man sleep through an entire day.

In battle, Cú Chulainn’s most important asset was his ríastrad, or warrior rage. Cú Chulainn would often go berserk in the heat of battle, becoming an unstoppable force that would kill friend and foe alike. Those around him had to resort to great lengths to calm him down.

Cú Chulainn rode into battle on a chariot driven by his servant Láeg and horses Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend. Both horses were loyal and strong, and Liath was even described as the King of Horses. In battle, Cú Chulainn wielded Gáe Bulg, a spear of mortal pain fashioned from the bones of a sea monster. Once inside a wound, the spear’s tip would release thirty smaller barbs into its victim.

Cú Chulainn was bound by two separate geas, magical taboos that bestowed him with great strength, provided he did not break their rules. The first of these rules was that Cú Chulainn must take and eat any food offered to him by a woman; the second was that he could not eat dog meat in any form. These geas would ultimately lead to his demise, when he was forced to make an impossible choice between the two.

While sources agree that Cú Chulainn was impossibly beautiful, their descriptions of him often varied. His hair, for instance, was said to be red, blonde, a mix of the two, or even black. Still other sources held that his hair changed color depending on whether or not he was enraged.

As the son (and an incarnation) of Lugh, Cú Chulainn shared many characteristics with his father. While he had his father’s strength and skill with a spear, Cú Chulainn died before he could follow in his father’s footsteps as ruler.

Though Cú Chulainn was said to be born in Dundalk, Ulster was his true home. He defended his home faithfully throughout his life, and remains a symbol of Ulster to this day.

Family

While nearly all sources agree that Cú Chulainn’s mother was Deichtine of Ulster, the identity of his father is a matter of some dispute. The most famous stories held that his father was the immortal Lugh of the Long-Arm, of the Tuatha dé Danann, while his mortal father was said to be Sualtam mac Róich. His maternal grandfather, Conchobar mac Nessa, was also his king.

Cú Chulainn was married to Emer, though he had no children by her. He fathered his son, Connla, with the Scottish warrior Aífe. Cú Chulainn was said to have left a series of broken hearts behind him, including Fand, the wife of Manannán mac Lir. He may have also had a relationship with his brother-in-arms Ferdiad.

Mythology

Cú Chulainn’s tale is one of the most famous Ireland has to offer, and makes up the core of the Ulster Cycle.

Birth, Childhood, and Youth

Deichtine, daughter of Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, joined her father on a hunting expedition chasing magical birds. After being waylaid by a sudden snowstorm, they took shelter inside a grand mansion where Deichtine helped to deliver a baby. In the morning, she and her father’s men awoke at Brú na Bóinne—far from where they had taken refuge the night before. Lacking a nearby caretaker, the baby soon died. Its father, revealed to be the god Lugh, soon appeared to Deichtine and told her she was pregnant with this same child.

Following a scandal regarding her pending nuptials, Deichtine aborted the child to marry her betrothed, Sualtam mac Róich. She soon gave birth to a child, whom she called Sétanta at Lugh’s request. Thus, the child was thrice-conceived and twice-born—the second time with Deichtine as the mother. Sétanta was fostered by his grandfather and several others, and had many important foster-brothers including Conall Cernach and Lugaid Riab nDerg, a future High King of Ireland.

Sétanta’s childhood was exciting; he forced the boy-warriors of Emain Macha to swear loyalty to him before the age of six, and killed a massively strong hound belonging to the smith Culann. He then swore loyalty to the smith, thus earning the nickname “hound of Culann”, or Cú Chulainn.

Shortly afterward, Sétanta fulfilled a prophecy stating that a man who took up arms on a certain day would become the greatest warrior of his age, but die young. After taking up arms, he proved his strength by going into his first blood-rage at the age of seven.

Due to his beauty, Cú Chulainn was sent from Ireland to Scotland where he was trained by the warrior-queen Scáthach. There, he faced her twin sister and rival Aífe, whom he impregnated after besting her in combat. Returning to Ireland, Cú Chulainn married Emer, whose hand had been promised to him eight years earlier.

Some time later, Cú Chulainn slew an intruder sneaking into his grandfather’s fort. The ring on the intruder’s finger identified him as Connla, Cú Chulainn’s son by Aífe.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Medb, the powerful Queen of Connacht and a constant threat to Ulster, invaded the kingdom seeking the powerful stud bull Donn Cúailnge, also known as the Bull of Cooley. This bull, whose twin belonged to Medb’s husband, made Ulster extremely rich; owning both of these bulls would help Medb to consolidate her power over Ireland.

As the battle began, the men of Ulster (save Cú Chulainn) were overcome by an ancient curse that made them experience labor pains in their greatest hour of need. Cú Chulainn alone held off her army, challenging Medb’s warriors to single combat at Ulster’s many fords, and defeating each of her champions in turn.

During a lull in the battle, Cú Chulainn met a beautiful woman who offered her love to him. Driven by his sense of duty, he rejected her offer and she disappeared. In the ensuing battles, Cú Chulainn slew three animals that crossed his path: an eel, a she-wolf, and a heifer.

Later, as Cú Chulainn rested from slaying the latest champion of Medb, an old woman appeared to him bleeding from three wounds. She offered him three drinks from her cow, and he thanked and blessed her each time. With each blessing, one of her wounds healed. When she was completely healed, she revealed herself as the Morrígan, goddess of war, death, and fate. She then prophesied that Cú Chulainn would die young, and that she would be there to witness it.

The battle raged on, and Cú Chulainn continued to fight through his wounds and exhaustion. He met his exiled foster-father, Fergus mac Róich, and agreed not to fight him if his foster-father agreed to do the same at a time of Cú Chulainn’s choosing.

Cú Chulainn was then joined by his friend Ferdiad and the warrior-boys of Emain Macha from his childhood. An exhausted Cú Chulainn rested while they fought, and met his father, Lugh, in a dream. The god healed him, and Cú Chulainn awoke refreshed—only to find his friend and the boys slaughtered by Medb’s forces.

Cú Chulainn flew into a rage, and built walls of bodies as he defended those of his slain friends. At long last, the ancient curse was broken and the men of Ulster were roused, just as Cú Chulainn needed to rest once more. The men fought the forces of Medb, and in the latter part of the battle Cú Chulainn rejoined them. He met Fergus in battle, and his foster-father yielded to him just as Cú Chulainn had yielded before. As the battle drew to a close, Medb was forced to retreat.

Cú Chulainn rushed to face her, but relented upon seeing Medb in the throes of menstruation. Honoring her strength and prowess, he defended her retreat. In the end, Medb’s forces were pushed back and the Bull of Cooley remained within Ulster’s borders for the time being. At just eighteen years of age, Cú Chulainn had gained a reputation as the fiercest warrior in Ireland.

Death

Over the next few years, the young man gained a number of powerful enemies beyond Medb. The most powerful of these was Lugaid mac Cú Roí, the son of a magical figure Cú Chulainn had worked with and later slain after they quarreled over a woman.

In time, Lugaid had three magic spears made, each of which could kill a king. He allied with many of Cú Chulainn’s greatest enemies, including Queen Medb of Connacht, who all agreed his spears were their best chance at killing Cú Chulainn.

Elsewhere, Cú Chulainn was forced to break his geas after having to choose between being inhospitable to a strange woman who offered him food and eating dog meat. Upon eating the meat, Cú Chulainn’s magical strength and near-immortal soul faltered. Not long afterward, Queen Medb’s forces invaded Ulster once more. Cú Chulainn, now in his early twenties, answered the call to battle.

Before taking the field, he spied the strange woman who had offered him food washing his armor in a stream. This was the Morrígan, who had come to fulfill her prophecy—a prophecy guaranteed to pass due to her forcing Cú Chulainn to break his geas. Steeled by her appearance, Cú Chulainn charged the battlefield atop his powerful chariot with his driver Láeg. Taking to the field, Lugaid threw his spears and hit three targets: Láeg, king of charioteers, Liath Macha, king of horses, and Cú Chulainn, king of warriors. As recounted by Lady Gregory:

Then Lugaid threw the spear, and it went through and through Cuchulain’s body, and he knew he had got his deadly wound; and his bowels came out on the cushions of the chariot, and his only horse went away from him, the Black Sainglain, with half the harness hanging from his neck, and left his master, the king of the heroes of Ireland, to die upon the plain of Muirthemne.
-Lady Augusta Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirthemne

In his final moments, Cú Chulainn tied himself to a standing stone using his own innards. He died raising his sword to the heavens. His rage and reputation was such that no one attacked him until a raven—perhaps the Phantom Queen fulfilling her prophecy—appeared and landed on his shoulder, revealing that he was dead. When Lugaid came to claim Cú Chulainn’s head, a light flashed from his now headless body and Cú Chulainn’s blade fell, cutting off Lugaid’s hand.

Conall Crenach, Cú Chulainn’s brother-in-arms, hunted down Lugaid and his ally Erc, and slew both before sunset. Though Cú Chulainn perished, Ulster was ultimately victorious over his enemies.

Other Mythology

Cú Chulainn had some obvious connections to mythology’s greatest heroes. His strength and rage were comparable to those of Hercules, who killed his own children in a blind rage. Like the German Hildebrand, Cú Chulainn failed to recognize his own son and killed him. Like the Biblical Samson, the rules regarding Cú Chulainn’s strength and invincibility came from an unbreakable taboo and had deadly repercussions.

The tale of Cú Chulainn and Cú Roí had clear similarities to the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with Cú Roí assuming the role of the magical, semi-immortal Green Knight. Elements of Cú Chulainn’s character were also reflected in Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad. The Greek warrior’s great rages and sorrows were similar to Cú Chulainn’s own, and both men died young in the name of glory.

Cú Chulainn has not only served as a symbol of modern Irish nationalism, but also of Ulster separatism. He became a well-known figure to Victorian readers through the writings of Lady Gregory, which combined several of Cú Chulainn’s most notable adventures. During the struggle for Irish independence and the subsequent Troubles, Cú Chulainn was used by both sides to argue for Irish solidarity against the British and against the Irish invaders of Ulster/Northern Ireland.

Pop Culture

Cú Chulainn is perhaps the most famous figure in all of Celtic folklore, and has made innumerable appearances in pop culture:

  • The title theme of Boondock Saints was entitled “The Blood of Cu Chulainn”;

  • Thin Lizzy’s song “Róisín Dubh” begins by invoking Cúchulain;

  • The Pogues told the story of Cú Chulainn’s sickness after the beginning of his affair with Fand in “The Sickbed of Cú Chulainn”;

  • In Marvel Comics, Cú Chulainn appeared as part of the Celtic pantheon. His story remained largely intact and continued on following his death;

  • The 2000AD comic character Sláine was based in part on Cú Chulainn;

  • Descriptions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian were based in part on Cú Chulainn;

  • Cú Chulainn appeared in the cartoon Gargoyles, in both story form and reincarnated as the character Rory Dugan;

  • Cú Chulainn appeared in the Fate anime series as Lancer, alongside his famous spear;

  • Cú Chulainn appeared as an esper, or summonable spirit, in Final Fantasy XII, and as a demon in Final Fantasy Tactics. His spear was included in several games;

  • Cú Chulainn appeared in the video game SMITE;

  • Cú Chulainn was a summonable demon in the Megami Tensei series;

  • Irish Scouting’s highest rank is the Order of Cú Chulainn;

  • Europe’s largest wooden roller coaster, located in Ireland’s Tayto Park, is called the Cú Chulainn Coaster.

References

Bibliography

  1. Gregory, Lady Augusta. Cuchulain of Muirthemne. 1902. Accessed 4 April, 2019, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cuch/index.htm.

  2. Faraday, L. Winifred, trans. The Cattle Raid of Cualgne. 1904. Accessed 4 April, 2019, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/crc/index.htm.

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