Cúchulainn /kuːˈxʊlɪnʲ/ ( ) (Irish "Hound of Culann"; also spelled Cú Chulainn, Cú Chulaind, Cúchulain, or Cuchullain) is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore. The son of the god Lugh and Deichtine, sister of the king of Ulster, he was originally named Sétanta /'ʃeːd̪ˠɔn̪ˠd̪ˠə/ , but gained his better-known name as a child after he killed Culann's fierce guard-dog in self-defence, and offered to take its place until a replacement could be reared. At the age of seventeen he defended Ulster single-handedly against the armies of queen Medb of Connacht in the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley"). It was prophesied that his great deeds would give him everlasting fame, but that his life would be short – one reason he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles. He is known for his terrifying battle frenzy or ríastrad, in which he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. He fights from his chariot, driven by his loyal charioteer Láeg, and drawn by his horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend.
There are a number of versions of the story of Cúchulainn's birth. In an early version, his mother Deichtine is the daughter and charioteer of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, and accompanies him as he and the nobles of Ulster hunt a flock of magical birds. Snow falls, and the Ulstermen seek shelter, finding a house where they are made welcome. Their host's wife goes into labour, and Deichtine assists at the birth of a baby boy. A mare gives birth to two colts at the same time. The next morning, the Ulstermen find themselves at the Brug na Bóinde (the neolithic mound at Newgrange) – the house and its occupants have disappeared, but the child and the colts remain. Deichtine takes the boy home and raises him to early childhood, but he falls sick and dies. The god Lugh appears to her and tells her he was their host that night, and that he has put his child in her womb, who is to be called Sétanta. Her pregnancy is a scandal as she is betrothed to Sualtam mac Róich, and the Ulstermen suspect Conchobar of being the father, so she aborts the child and goes to her husband's bed "virgin-whole". She then conceives a son whom she names Sétanta. This has been interpreted as a triple conception, marking the child out as someone special.
In a later, and better-known, version, Deichtine is Conchobar's sister, and disappears from Emain Macha, the Ulster capital. As in the previous version, the Ulstermen go hunting a flock of magical birds, are overtaken by a snowstorm and seek shelter in a nearby house. Their host is Lugh, but this time his wife, who gives birth to a son that night, is Deichtine herself. The child is named Sétanta. The nobles of Ulster argue over which of them is to be his foster-father, until the wise Morann decides he should be fostered by several of them: Conchobar himself; Sencha mac Ailella, who will teach him judgement and eloquent speech; the wealthy Blaí Briugu, who will protect and provide for him; the noble warrior Fergus mac Róich, who will care for him and teach him to protect the weak; the poet Amergin, who will educate him, and his wife Findchóem, who will nurse him. He is brought up in the house of Amergin and Findchóem on Muirthemne Plain in modern County Louth, alongside their son Conall Cernach.
The stories of Cúchulainn's childhood are told in a flashback sequence in Táin Bó Cúailnge. As a small child, living in his parent's house on Muirthemne Plain, he begs to be allowed to join the boy-troop at Emain Macha, but his mother thinks he is too young and should wait for a company of warriors to take him there. However, he sets off on his own, and when he arrives at Emain he runs onto the playing field without first asking for the boys' protection, being unaware of the custom. The boys take this as a challenge and attack him, but he has a ríastrad and beats them single-handed. Conchobar puts a stop to the fight and clears up the misunderstanding, but no sooner has Sétanta put himself under the boys' protection than he chases after them, demanding they put themselves under his protection.
Culann the smith invites Conchobar to a feast at his house. Before going, Conchobar goes to the playing field to watch the boys play hurling. He is so impressed by Sétanta's performance that he asks him to join him at the feast. Sétanta has a game to finish, but promises to follow the king later. But Conchobar forgets, and Culann lets loose his ferocious guard dog to protect his house. When Sétanta arrives, the enormous dog attacks him, but he kills it in self-defence, in one version by smashing it against a standing stone, in another by driving a sliotar (hurling ball) down its throat with his hurley. Culann is devastated by the loss of his dog, so Sétanta promises he will rear him a replacement, and until it is old enough to do the job, he himself will guard Culann's house. The druid Cathbad announces that his name henceforth will be Cú Chulainn – "Culann's Hound".
One day at Emain Macha, Cúchulainn overhears Cathbad teaching his pupils. One asks him what that day is auspicious for, and Cathbad replies that any warrior who takes arms that day will have everlasting fame. Cúchulainn, though only seven years old, goes to Conchobar and asks for arms. None of the weapons given to him withstand his strength, until Conchobar gives him his own weapons. But when Cathbad sees this he grieves, because he had not finished his prophesy – the warrior who took arms that day would be famous, but his life would be short. Soon afterwards, in response to a similar prophesy by Cathbad, Cúchulainn demands a chariot from Conchobar, and only the king's own chariot withstands him. He sets off on a foray and kills the three sons of Nechtan Scéne, who had boasted they had killed more Ulstermen than there were Ulstermen still living. He returns to Emain Macha in his battle frenzy, and the Ulstermen are afraid he will slaughter them all. Conchobar's wife Mugain leads out the women of Emain, and they bare their breasts to him. He averts his eyes, and the Ulstermen wrestle him into a barrel of cold water, which explodes from the heat of his body. They put him in a second barrel, which boils, and a third, which warms to a pleasant temperature.
Emer and Cúchulainn's training
In Cúchulainn's youth he is so beautiful the Ulstermen worry that, without a wife of his own, he will steal their wives and ruin their daughters. They search all over Ireland for a suitable wife for him, but he will have none but Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach. However, Forgall is opposed to the match. He suggests that Cúchulainn should train in arms with the renowned warrior-woman Scáthach in the land of Alba (Scotland), hoping the ordeal will be too much for him and he will be killed. Cúchulainn takes up the challenge. In the meantime, Forgall offers Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster, but when he hears that Emer loves Cúchulainn, Lugaid refuses her hand.
Scáthach teaches Cúchulainn all the arts of war, including the use of the Gáe Bulg, a terrible barbed spear, thrown with the foot, that has to be cut out of its victim. His fellow trainees include Ferdiad, who becomes Cúchulainn's best friend and foster-brother. During his time there, Scáthach faces a battle against Aífe, her rival and in some versions her twin sister. Scáthach, knowing Aífe's prowess, fears for Cúchulainn's life and gives him a powerful sleeping potion to keep him from the battle. However, because of Cúchulainn's great strength, it only puts him to sleep for an hour, and he soon joins the fray. He fights Aífe in single combat, and the two are evenly matched, but Cúchulainn distracts her by calling out that Aífe's horses and chariot, the things she values most in the world, have fallen off a cliff, and seizes her. He spares her life on the condition that she call off her enmity with Scáthach, and bear him a son.
Leaving Aífe pregnant, Cúchulainn returns from Scotland fully trained, but Forgall still refuses to let him marry Emer. Cúchulainn storms Forgall's fortress, killing twenty-four of Forgall's men, abducts Emer and steals Forgall's treasure. Forgall himself falls from the ramparts to his death. Conchobar has the "right of the first night" over all marriages of his subjects. He is afraid of Cúchulainn's reaction if he exercises it in this case, but is equally afraid of losing his authority if he does not. Cathbad suggests a solution: Conchobar sleeps with Emer on the night of the wedding, but Cathbad sleeps between them.
Cúchulainn kills his son
Seven years later, Connla, Cúchulainn's son by Aífe, comes to Ireland in search of his father, but Cúchulainn takes him as an intruder and kills him when he refuses to identify himself. The story of Cúchulainn and Connla shows a striking similarity to the legend of Persian hero Rostam who also kills his son Sohrab. Rostam and Cúchulainn share several other characteristics, including killing a ferocious beast at a very young age, their near invincibility in battle, and the manner of their deaths.
Lugaid and Derbforgaill
During his time abroad, Cúchulainn had rescued Derbforgaill, a Scandinavian princess, from being sacrificed to the Fomorians. She falls in love with him, and she and her handmaid come to Ireland in search of him in the form of a pair of swans. Cúchulainn, not realising who she is, shoots her down with his sling, and then saves her life by sucking the stone from her side. Having tasted her blood, he cannot marry her, and gives her to his foster-son Lugaid Riab nDerg. Lugaid goes on to become High King of Ireland, but the Lia Fáil (stone of destiny), fails to cry out when he stands on it, so Cúchulainn splits it in two with his sword. When Derbforgaill is mutilated by the women of Ulster out of jealousy for her sexual desirability and dies of her wounds, Lugaid dies of grief, and Cúchulainn avenges them by demolishing the house the women are inside, killing 150 of them.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
At the age of seventeen, Cúchulainn single-handedly defends Ulster from the army of Connacht in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Medb, queen of Connacht, has mounted the invasion to steal the stud bull Donn Cúailnge, and Cúchulainn allows her to take Ulster by surprise because he is with a woman when he should be watching the border. The men of Ulster are disabled by a curse, so Cúchulainn prevents Medb's army from advancing further by invoking the right of single combat at fords. He defeats champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months.
Before one combat a beautiful young woman comes to him, claiming to be the daughter of a king, and offers him her love, but he refuses her. The woman reveals herself as the Morrígan, and in revenge for this slight she attacks him in various animal forms while he is engaged in combat against Lóch mac Mofemis. As an eel, she trips him in the ford, but he breaks her ribs. As a wolf, she stampedes cattle across the ford, but he puts out her eye with a sling-stone. Finally she appears as a heifer at the head of the stampede, but he breaks her leg with another slingstone. After Cúchulainn finally defeats Lóch, the Morrígan appears to him as an old woman milking a cow, with the same injuries he had given her in her animal forms. She gives him three drinks of milk, and with each drink he blesses her, healing her wounds.
After one particularly arduous combat Cúchulainn lies severely wounded, but is visited by Lugh, who tells him he is his father and heals his wounds. When Cúchulainn wakes up and sees that the boy-troop of Emain Macha have attacked the Connacht army and been slaughtered, he has his most spectacular ríastrad yet:
|“||The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front... On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child... he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn't probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat... The hair of his head twisted like the tange of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.||”|
—Thomas Kinsella (translator), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 150-153
He attacks the army and kills hundreds, building walls of corpses.
When his foster-father Fergus mac Róich, now in exile in Medb's court, is sent to face him Cúchulainn agrees to yield, so long as Fergus agrees to return the favour the next time they meet. Finally, he fights 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 rouse, one by one at first, and finally en masse. The final battle begins. Cúchulainn stays on the sidelines, recuperating from his wounds, until he sees Fergus advancing. He enters the fray and confronts Fergus, who keeps his side of the bargain and yields to him, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht's other allies panic and Medb is forced to retreat. At this inopportune moment she gets her period, and although Fergus forms a guard around her, Cúchulainn breaks through as she is dealing with it and has her at his mercy. However he spares her because he does not think it right to kill women, and guards her retreat back to Connacht as far as Athlone.
The troublemaker Bricriu once incites three heroes, Cúchulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, to compete for the champion's portion at his feast. In every test that is set Cúchulainn comes out top, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire will accept the result. Cú Roí mac Dáire of Munster settles 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 behead Cú Roí, who picks up his head and leaves, but when the time comes for him to return they flee. Only Cúchulainn is brave and honourable enough to submit himself to Cú Roí's axe; Cú Roí spares him and he is declared champion. This beheading challenge appears in later literature, most notably in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Other examples include the 13th century French Life of Caradoc and the English romances The Turke and Gowin, and The Carle off Carlile.
The Death of Cú Roí
Cú Roí, again in disguise, joins the Ulstermen on a raid on Inis Fer Falga (probably the Isle of Man), in return for his choice of the spoils. They steal treasure, and abduct Blathnát, daughter of the island's king, who loves Cúchulainn. But when Cú Roí is asked to choose his share, he chooses Blathnát. Cúchulainn tries to stop him taking her, but Cú Roí cuts his hair and drives him into the ground up to his armpits before escaping, taking Blathnát with him. Like other heroes such as the Biblical Samson, Duryodhana in the Mahabharata and the Welsh Llew Llaw Gyffes, Cú Roí can only be killed in certain contrived circumstances, which vary in different versions of the story. Blathnat discovers how to kill him and betrayes him to Cúchulainn, who does the deed. However Ferchertne, Cú Roí's poet, enraged at the betrayal of his lord, grabs Blathnát and leaps off a cliff, killing her and himself.
Emer's only jealousy
Cúchulainn has many lovers, but Emer's only jealousy comes when he falls in love with Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir. Manannán has left her and she has been attacked by three Fomorians who want to control the Irish Sea. Cúchulainn agrees to help defend her as long as she marries him. She agrees reluctantly, but they fall in love when they met. Manannán knows their relationship is doomed because Cúchulainn is mortal and Fand is a fairy; Cúchulainn's presence would destroy the fairies. Emer, meanwhile, tries to kill her rival, but when she sees the strength of Fand's love for Cúchulainn she decides to give him up to her. Fand, touched by Emer's magnanimity, decides to return to her own husband. Manannan shakes his cloak between Cúchulainn and Fand, ensuring the two will never meet again, and Cúchulainn and Emer drink a potion to wipe the whole affair from their memories.
Medb conspires 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. His fate is sealed by his breaking of the geasa (taboos) upon him. Cúchulainn's geasa included a ban against eating dog meat, but in early Ireland there was a powerful general taboo against refusing hospitality, so when an old crone offers him a meal of dog meat, he has no choice to break his geis. In this way he is spiritually weakened for the fight ahead of him.
Lugaid has three magical spears made, and it is prophesied that a king will fall by each of them. With the first he kills Cúchulainn's charioteer Láeg, king of chariot drivers. With the second he kills Cúchulainn's horse, Liath Macha, king of horses. With the third he hits Cúchulainn, mortally wounding him. Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone in order to remain standing. This stone is traditionally identified as one still standing at Knockbridge, County Louth. Only when a raven lands on his shoulder do his enemies believe he is dead. Lugaid cuts off his head, but as he does so Cúchulainn's sword falls from his hand and cuts Lugaid's hand off.
Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cúchulainn died before him he would avenge him before sunset, and when he hears Cúchulainn is dead he pursues Lugaid. As Lugaid has lost a hand, Conall fights him with one hand tucked into his belt, but he only beats him after his horse takes a bite out of Lugaid's side. He also kills Erc, and takes his head back to Tara, where his sister Achall dies of grief for her brother.
Cúchulainn's appearance is occasionally remarked on in the texts. He is usually described as small, youthful and beardless. He is often described as dark: in The Wooing of Emer and Bricriu's Feast he is "a dark, sad man, comeliest of the men of Erin", in The Intoxication of the Ulstermen he is a "little, black-browed man", and in The Phantom Chariot of Cú Chulainn "[h]is hair was thick and black, and smooth as though a cow had licked it... in his head his eyes gleamed swift and grey"; yet the prophetess Fedelm in the Táin Bó Cúailnge describes him as blond. The most elaborate description of his appearance comes later in the Táin:
|“||And certainly the youth Cúchulainn 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. This hair was settled strikingly into three coils on the cleft at the back of his head. Each long loose-flowing strand hung down in shining splendour over his shoulders, deep-gold and beautiful and fine as a thread of gold. A hundred neat red-gold curls shone darkly on his neck, and his head was covered with a hundred crimson threads matted with gems. He had four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, crimson and blue – and seven bright pupils, eye-jewels, in each kingly eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails with the grip of a hawk's claw or a gryphon's clench.||”|
—Thomas Kinsella (translator), The Táin, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 156-158