Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 105Cuchulain, the Irish Achilles
The resemblance of the Cuchulain legend to the story of Achilles is so strong that Cuchulain is often called “the Irish Achilles,” but there are elements of humour and pathos in his story which the tale of Achilles cannot [Pg 185] show, and in reckless courage, power of inspiring dread, sense of personal merit, and frankness of speech the Irish hero is not inferior to the mighty Greek. The way in which Cuchulain established his claim to be regarded as Chief Champion of Erin is related in the following story, which shows some primitive Celtic features found again in Welsh legends and other national folk-tales.
The Youth of Cuchulain
Cuchulain was the nephew of King Conor of Ulster, son of his sister Dechtire, and men say his father was no mortal man, but the great god Lugh of the Long Hand. When Cuchulain was born he was brought up by King Conor himself and the wisest men of Ireland; when five years old, he beat all the other boys in games and warlike exercises, and on the day on which he was seven he assumed the arms of a warrior, so much greater was he than the sons of mortal men. Cuchulain had overheard his tutor, Cathbad the Druid, say to the older youths, “If any young man take arms to-day, his name will be greater than any other name in Ireland, but his span of life will be short,” and as he loved fame above long life, he persuaded his uncle, King Conor, to invest him with the weapons of manhood. His fame soon spread all over Ireland, for his warlike deeds were those of a proved warrior, not of a child of nursery age, and by the time Cuchulain was seventeen he was in reality without peer among the champions of Ulster, or of all Ireland.
When the men of Ulster remembered Cuchulain’s divine origin, they would fain have him married, so that he might not die childless; and for a year they searched [Pg 186] all Erin for a fit bride for so great a champion. Cuchulain, however, went wooing for himself, to the dun of Forgall the Wily, a Druid of great power. Forgall had two daughters, of whom the younger, Emer, was the most lovely and virtuous maiden to be found in the country, and she became Cuchulain’s chosen bride. Gallant was his wooing, and merry and jesting were her answers to his suit, for though Emer loved Cuchulain at first sight she would not accept him at once, and long they talked together. Finally Emer consented to wed Cuchulain when he had undergone certain trials and adventures for a year, and had accomplished certain feats, a test which she imposed on her lover, partly as a trial of his worthiness and constancy and partly to satisfy her father Forgall, who would not agree to the marriage. When Cuchulain returned triumphant at the end of the year, he rescued Emer from the confinement in which her father had placed her, and won her at the sword’s point; they were wedded, and dwelt at Armagh, the capital of Ulster, under the protection of King Conor.