Celtic Hero

Cu Chulainn

Cú Chulainn was Ireland’s greatest hero, a warrior whose supernatural rages made him equally dangerous to friend and foe. After breaking a magical taboo, or geas, he died in battle defending his home province of Ulster.

By Anne WilliamsLast updated on Dec. 23rd, 2021
Cu Chulainn, Celtic Warrior Hero (3:2)
  • What was Cú Chulainn famous for?

    Cú Chulainn was famous for his strength and prowess as the greatest warrior in Ireland.

  • Was Cú Chulainn a god?

    No. Cú Chulainn was most commonly portrayed as a demigod: half-god, half-mortal.

  • Why is Cú Chulainn’s name associated with a dog?

    Cú Chulainn is actually a nickname that means “Hound of Culann”; he earned this name when he killed a dog belonging to a man named Culann and offered to act as the man’s guard dog until a replacement could be found.

Cú Chulainn was the great warrior-hero of the Ulster Cycle. As a demigod born of a mortal mother and a divine father, he defended Ulster from many threats with his unstoppable rage, inhuman strength, and iron will. His passions were great, his sorrows deep, and his feats awe-inspiring. To this day, he remains Ireland’s best-known folk hero.

Etymology

Pronunciation

  • English
    Irish

    Cú Chulainn

    Cú Chulainn

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    Koo KUL-in

    /kuːˈkʌlɪn/

Alternate Names

Cú Chulainn, meaning “Hound of Culann,”1 was a nickname that the warrior earned as a young boy. Various spellings of Cú Chulainn can be found across Old and Middle Irish texts, including Cú Chulaind and Cúchulain, due to the unstandardized nature of Irish language at the time. Cú Chulainn’s birth name was Sétanta, meaning “one who has knowledge of roads and ways.”2

Attributes

From an early age, Cú Chulainn trained in Ireland and Scotland to become the deadliest warrior of his era. His skill was unmatched, and he was more than capable of taking on many foes at once. His strength and athletic ability were so great that he was able to metabolize a sleeping potion in just one hour—despite it being potent enough to make an ordinary man sleep for an entire day.3

In battle, Cú Chulainn’s most important asset was his supernatural rage, called ríastrad, sometimes translated as “warp spasm.”4 When Cú Chulainn used his ríastrad, he became an unstoppable force that would kill friend and foe alike. The ríastrad had such an effect on him that his body would contort with rage: 

You would have thought that a spark of fire was on every hair. He closed one eye until it was no wider than the eye of a needle; he opened the other until it was as big as a wooden bowl. He bared his teeth from jaw to ear, and he opened his mouth until the gullet was visible.5

Cú Chulainn rode into battle on a chariot driven by his charioteer, Laeg, and his horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend. Liath Macha has been described as the King of Steeds.6 Cú Chulainn made use of several different weapons in battle, the most notable being his slingshot and the Gae Bolga. Over the years, scholars have debated exactly what kind of weapon the Gae Bolga was, but the general consensus is that it was a sort of deadly spear that would release several small barbs into its victim.7

Cú Chulainn was bound by two separate geas, or magical taboos, that provided 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 in Aided Con Culainn (The Death of Cú Chulainn).8

While depictions of Cú Chulainn vary, it was generally agreed that he was beardless, youthful, and strikingly handsome. In the Táin Bó Cúailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Fedelm the Seer prophesies Cú Chulainn’s prowess and describes his beauty:

A noble countenance I see,

Working effect on womenfolk;

A young man of sweet colouring;

A form dragonish in the fray.9

In fact, Cú Chulainn had such an effect on women that the ladies of Connacht climbed over their own men in order to behold his beauty:

And certainly the youth Cú Chulainn mac Sualdaim was handsome as he came to show his form to the armies. You would think he had three distinct heads of hair—brown at the base, blood-red in the middle, and a crown of golden yellow...he had four dimples in each cheek—yellow, green, crimson and blue—and seven bright pupils, eye-jewels, in each kingly eye.10

Cú Chulainn was also explicitly described as beardless, which created tension in many tales. Having a beard was a sign of manhood in ancient Ireland,11 so some warriors refused to fight Cú Chulainn based on the fact that he was still considered a boy.12 In one amusing episode, Cú Chulainn even donned a fake beard to try to entice more warriors to fight him.13

Family

Family Tree

  • Parents
    fathers
    mother
    • Lugh
    • Sualtam mac Róich
    • Deichtine of Ulster
  • Siblings
    brother
    • Ferdia
  • Consorts
    wife
    lovers
    • Emer
    • Aífe
    • Fand
    • Uathach
  • Children
    son
    • Connla

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 mortal father was Sualtam mac Róich, while his divine father was said to be the god Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann.14 Lugh even appears to Cú Chulainn during the Táin and tells him “I am Lug mac Ethnenn, your father from the síde [fairy mound].”15 His maternal uncle, Conchobar mac Nessa, was King of Ulster, and his foster father was Fergus mac Róich.

Cú Chulainn was married to Emer, though he had no children by her. Later, he fell in love with Fand, the wife of Manannán mac Lir, a sea god of the Tuatha Dé Dannan. The lovers were ultimately kept apart, and Cú Chulainn and Emer drank a druid’s potion to forget the whole affair.16 

Cú Chulainn fathered his son, Connla, with the Scottish warrior Aífe; however, Connla was so skilled at fighting that he put the Ulster warriors to shame while he was only a boy. Thus, Cú Chulainn killed Connla to uphold the honor of the Ulstermen in Aided Óenfhir Aífe (The Death of Aífe’s Only Son).17 

Cú Chulainn and his foster brother, Ferdia, were very close. In the Táin, Cú Chulainn and Ferdia were forced to fight each other. The battle raged over a number of days, but eventually Cú Chulainn triumphed. Upon his victory, Cú Chulainn lamented his lost foster brother in a long, beautiful poem,18 leading some scholars to speculate that Cú Chulainn and Ferdia were perhaps lovers. However, the bond between foster brothers was often portrayed as being even closer than that between biological brothers at the time. Thus, Cú Chulainn’s heartfelt lament makes sense in the context of losing his favorite brother and friend.19

Mythology

The tales of Cú Chulainn are some of the most famous Ireland has to offer and make up the core of the Ulster Cycle.

Birth, Childhood, and Youth

Deichtine, sister of the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, joined her brother on a hunting expedition chasing magical birds. After being waylaid by a sudden snowstorm, they took shelter inside a house where a woman was in labor. As thanks for the shelter, Deichtine helped to deliver the baby boy. He was born at the same time as some foals in the barnyard; thus, the boy was given a foal as a gift. 

In the morning, Deichtine and her brother’s men awoke at Brú na Bóinne—far from where they had taken refuge the night before. The boy who had been delivered was taken in as Deichtine’s foster child but died at a young age. 

Soon after, the mighty god Lugh appeared to Deichtine in a dream and told her she had been in his house and was now pregnant with his child, who was to be called Sétanta. As Deichtine was engaged to Sualtam mac Róich, she was ashamed to be pregnant with the child of another man and decided to abort the pregnancy. She later gave birth to a child by Sualtam, whom she called Sétanta at Lugh’s request. Thus, Sétanta was thrice-conceived.20

Sétanta was fostered by several men, including his uncle Conchobar, and had many foster brothers. Sétanta’s youth was full of impressive feats; as a child, he fended off 150 spears with his toy shield, won the fealty of the boy-warriors of Emain Macha, beheaded full-grown men, tamed wild animals, and killed the ferocious hound of Culann.21 As recompense for slaying Culann’s dog, Sétanta swore to serve as his hound until a suitable replacement could be found, thus earning him the nickname “Hound of Culann,” or Cú Chulainn.22

Shortly afterward, Cú Chulainn heard a prophecy that the man who took up arms on a certain day would become the greatest warrior of his age—but also die young. After taking up arms on that day, he proved his strength by going into his first ríastrad at the age of seven.23

Cú Chulainn was later sent from Ireland to Scotland to train under the famed female warrior Scáthach. There, he faced her sister and rival, Aífe, whom he impregnated after defeating her in combat. When he returned to Ireland, Cú Chulainn married Emer, whose hand had been promised to him eight years earlier.24

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Medb, the powerful Queen of Connacht, invaded the kingdom of Ulster in search of the stud bull Donn Cúailnge, also known as the Brown Bull of Cooley. Donn Cúailnge was worth a fortune, and Medb sought ownership of the bull to consolidate her own wealth and power over Ireland.

As the battle for the bull began, the men of Ulster—all except Cú Chulainn—were overcome by an ancient curse that made them experience a woman’s labor pains during their hour of greatest need.25 Cú Chulainn alone held off the Connacht 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 attempted to seduce 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 wolf, and a heifer.

Later, as Cú Chulainn rested from slaying the latest champion of Medb, an old woman appeared to him, bleeding from the same wounds he had inflicted on the animals. 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 Fergus agreed to do the same at a time of Cú Chulainn’s choosing.

Cú Chulainn was then joined by the warrior-boys of Emain Macha from his childhood. An exhausted Cú Chulainn rested while they fought, and he met his father, Lugh, in a dream. The god healed him, and Cú Chulainn awoke refreshed—only to find the boys slaughtered by Medb’s forces. Cú Chulainn flew into his ríastrad and left behind mountains of bodies as he ravaged Medb’s camps of soldiers. 

At the same time, the ancient curse on the men of Ulster lifted and they roused, just as Cú Chulainn needed to rest once more. The men fought the forces of Medb, and Cú Chulainn eventually 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 Medb, but he relented upon seeing her 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 Donn Cúailnge 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, Cu Chulainn gained a number of powerful enemies beyond Medb. The most notable was Lugaid mac Cú Roí, the son of a man Cú Chulainn had slain after they quarreled over a woman.

In time, Lugaid had three magic spears made, each of which could kill a king. He formed alliances with many of Cú Chulainn’s greatest enemies, including Queen Medb, who all agreed that 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 or eating dog meat. Upon eating the meat, Cú Chulainn’s magical strength 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 of his death. Steeled by her appearance, Cú Chulainn charged the battlefield atop his powerful chariot, led by 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. 

In his final moments, Cú Chulainn tied himself to a standing stone using his own entrails and died raising his sword to the heavens. His rage and reputation were such that no one attacked him until a raven—the Morrígan herself—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 Cernach, 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 its enemies.26

Other Mythology

Cú Chulainn’s life fits many of the classic hero tropes established by comparative mythologists, such as Joseph Campbell.27 Some of these tropes include a miraculous conception/birth, meeting a mentor, facing many trials, interacting with the divine, and conquering both the everyday and supernatural worlds. Therefore, Cú Chulainn’s life shares parallels with mythological hero figures around the world. 

For example, the Greek hero Achilles, like Cú Chulainn, was born to a divine parent and a mortal parent. Both studied warrior craft under legendary mentors. Both were doomed to fulfill prophecies of eternal fame in exchange for short lives. And both warriors had fury and strength to rival the gods.28

Celtic scholar Jeffrey Gantz notes that the Welsh hero Pryderi and Cú Chulainn share a striking similarity in their birth legends: both of their births were contemporaneous with the births of foals, and both were subsequently given those foals as presents.29

Cú Chulainn also shares similarities to the berserkers of Norse legend, in that they both invoked supernatural rages during battle. The berserkers are also pointedly described as engaging in “wolfish” behavior during their rages.30 The Old Irish word (the first part of Cú Chulainn’s nickname) is most often translated as “hound,” but it can also mean “wolf.”31 

Pop Culture

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

His name is mentioned in several popular songs, including the title theme of the film The Boondock Saints, Thin Lizzy’s “Róisín Dubh,” and The Pogues’ “The Sickbed of Cú Chulainn.”

Cú Chulainn has been featured as a character in numerous comic book series, such as Marvel Comics—where he appears as part of the Celtic pantheon—and 2000AD. He can also be found in the television show Gargoyles and the Fate anime series. A frequent figure in video games, Cú Chulainn appears as an esper, or summonable spirit, in Final Fantasy XII, as a demon in Final Fantasy Tactics and the Megami Tensei series, and as a character in SMITE.

Cú Chulainn also plays an important role in Irish culture and politics. He 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.

Further Reading

Dumézil, Georges. The Destiny of a Warrior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Gray, Elizabeth A. “Lug and Cú Chulainn: King and Warrior.” Studia Celtica 24/25 (1989/1990): 38–52.

Larsen, Erik. “Cú Chulainn: God, Man, or Animal?” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 23 (2003): 172–83. Accessed December 20, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25660733.

Ó Cathasaigh, Tomás. “Between God and Man: The Hero of Irish Tradition.” The Crane Bag 2, no. 1/2 (1978): 72–79. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30059464. 

Olmsted, Garrett. The Gods of the Celts and the Indo-Europeans. Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 1994.

McManus, Damian. “Good-Looking and Irresistible: The Hero from Early Irish Saga to Classical Poetry.” Ériu 59 (2009): 57–109. Accessed March 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20787546. 

Williams, Mark. Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

References

Notes

  1. Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL), s.v. “cú,” dil.ie/13291. Culann becomes Chulainn in the genitive case.

  2. Jeffrey Gantz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas (London: Penguin Books, 1981), 131.

  3. Thomas Kinsella, trans., The Táin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 32.

  4. eDIL, s.v. “ríastrad,” dil.ie/35242.

  5. Gantz, Early Irish Myths, 136.

  6. Whitley Stokes, ed. and trans., “Cuchulainn's Death, Abridged from the Book of Leinster,” Revue Celtique 3 (1877): 181.

  7. For more information on the nature, use, and etymology of the Gae Bolga, see Edward Pettit, "Cú Chulainn's ‘Gae Bolga’—from Harpoon to Stingray-Spear?" Studia Hibernica, no. 41 (2015): 9–48.

  8. Stokes, “Cuchulainn's Death,” 176.

  9. Kinsella, The Táin, 61.

  10. Kinsella, The Táin, 156–58.

  11. See Jennifer Dukes-Knight, "The Wooden Sword: Age and Masculinity in ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge,’" Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 33 (2013): 107–22. See also Clare A. Lees, ed., Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 34.

  12. For example, the warrior Nad Crantail refused to fight Cú Chulainn in the Táin, citing his beardlessness as the reason; see Kinsella, The Táin, 123.

  13. Kinsella, The Táin, 123.

  14. The Tuatha Dé Danann were a tribe of magical, divine people who frequently appear as characters in Irish mythology.

  15. Kinsella, The Táin, 142.

  16. Gantz, Early Irish Myths, 155–78.

  17. Gantz, Early Irish Myths,147–52.

  18. Kinsella, The Táin, 199–205.

  19. See M.J. Ailes, “The Medieval Male Couple and the Language of Homosociality,” in Masculinity in Medieval Europe, ed. D.M. Hadley (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999), 214. Ailes argues that the flowery laments of male characters in literary epics are not a sign of homosexuality. Rather, they are simply a way of externalizing characters’ emotions through words, as internal dialogue was not a tool traditionally used in this genre.

  20. Gantz, Early Irish Myths, 130–33.

  21. Gantz, Early Irish Myths, 134–46.

  22. Gantz, Early Irish Myths, 138–40.

  23.  Gantz, Early Irish Myths, 145–46. The druid Cathbad foretells that anyone who takes up arms on that day will have everlasting fame. Young Cú Chulainn hears the prophecy and takes up arms before hearing the ending: that, in exchange for eternal fame, the warrior’s life would be cut short.

  24. Kinsella, The Táin, 25–38.

  25. See Kinsella, The Táin, 6–8 for the story of why the curse was placed on the Ulstermen.

  26. See Stokes, “Cuchulainn's Death,” 175–85.

  27. See Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008). See also Dean A. Miller, The Epic Hero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

  28. Michael Clarke further discusses comparisons between the two figures in "An Irish Achilles and a Greek Cú Chulainn," in Ulidia 2: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, Maynooth, 24-27 June 2005, ed. Ruairi Ô hUiginn and Brian Ó Catháin (Maynooth: An Sagart, 2009): 238–51. See also Caroline Alexander, ed. and trans., The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander (New York: Harper Collins, 2015).

  29. Gantz, Early Irish Myths, 131.

  30. See Jaan Puhvel, Comparative Mythology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), 196. He quotes from medieval Icelandic author Snorri Sturlusson, who described the berserkers as being “mad as wolves.”

  31. eDIL, s.v. “cú,” http://dil.ie/13291.

Bibliography

  1. Ailes, M.J. “The Medieval Male Couple and the Language of Homosociality.” In Masculinity in Medieval Europe, edited by D.M. Hadley, 214–37. Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.

  2. Alexander, Caroline, ed. and trans. The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander. New York: Harper Collins, 2015.

  3. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008.

  4. Clarke, Michael. “An Irish Achilles and a Greek Cú Chulainn.” In Ulidia 2: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, Maynooth, 24-27 June 2005, edited by Ruairi Ô hUiginn and Brian Ó Catháin, 238–51. Maynooth: An Sagart, 2009.

  5. Dukes-Knight, Jennifer. “The Wooden Sword: Age and Masculinity in ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge.’” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 33 (2013): 107–22. Accessed February 5, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24371938.

  6. Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1981.

  7. Kinsella, Thomas, trans. The Táin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

  8. Lees, Clare A., ed. Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

  9. Miller, Dean A. The Epic Hero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

    Pettit, Edward. “Cú Chulainn's ‘Gae Bolga’—from Harpoon to Stingray-Spear?” Studia Hibernica, no. 41 (2015): 9–48. Accessed January 10, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24778337

  10. Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    Stokes, Whitley, ed. and trans. “Cuchulainn's Death, Abridged from the Book of Leinster.” Revue Celtique 3 (1877): 175–85. Accessed February 13, 2021. https://archive.org/details/revueceltiqu03pari 

Citation

“Cu Chulainn.” Mythopedia. Accessed on December 23, 2021. https://mythopedia.com/topics/cu-chulainn

About the Author

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Anne Williams

Archivist and Historian

Anne Williams is an archivist with an MA in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic Studies from the University of Cambridge

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