Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
Page: 83This tale, as I have given it here, dates from the ninth century, and is found in the “Yellow Book of Lecan.” There are many other Gaelic versions of it in poetry and prose. It is one of the earliest extant appearances in literature of the since well-known theme of the slaying of a heroic son by his father. The Persian rendering of it in the tale of Sohrab and Rustum has been made familiar by Matthew Arnold's fine poem. In the Irish version it will be noted that the father is not without a suspicion of the identity of his antagonist, but he does battle with him under the stimulus of that passionate sense of loyalty to his prince and province which was Cuchulain's most signal characteristic.
To complete the story of Aifa and her son we have anticipated events, and now turn back to take up the thread again.[pg 193]
Cuchulain's First Foray
After a year and a day of training in warfare under Skatha, Cuchulain returned to Erin, eager to test his prowess and to win Emer for his wife. So he bade harness his chariot and drove out to make a foray upon the fords and marches of Connacht, for between Connacht and Ulster there was always an angry surf of fighting along the borders.
And first he drove to the White Cairn, which is on the highest of the Mountains of Mourne, and surveyed the land of Ulster spread out smiling in the sunshine far below and bade his charioteer tell him the name of every hill and plain and dūn that he saw. Then turning southwards he looked over the plains of Bregia, and the charioteer pointed out to him Tara and Teltin, and Brugh na Boyna and the great dūn of the sons of Nechtan. “Are they,” asked Cuchulain, “those sons of Nechtan of whom it is said that more of the men of Ulster have fallen by their hands than are yet living on the earth?” “The same,” said the charioteer. “Then let us drive thither,” said Cuchulain. So, much unwilling, the charioteer drove to the fortress of the sons of Nechtan, and there on the green before it they found a pillar-stone, and round it a collar of bronze having on it writing in Ogham. This Cuchulain read, and it declared that any man of age to bear arms who should come to that green should hold it geis for him to depart without having challenged one of the dwellers in the dūn to single combat. Then Cuchulain flung his arms round the stone, and, swaying it backwards and forwards, heaved it at last out of the earth and flung it, collar and all, into the river that ran hard by. “Surely,” said the charioteer, “thou art seeking for a violent death, and now thou wilt find it without delay.”[pg 194]
Then Foill son of Nechtan came forth from the dūn, and seeing Cuchulain, whom he deemed but a lad, he was annoyed. But Cuchulain bade him fetch his arms, “for I slay not drivers nor messengers nor unarmed men,” and Foill went back into the dūn. “Thou canst not slay him,” then said the charioteer, “for he is invulnerable by magic power to the point or edge of any blade.” But Cuchulain put in his sling a ball of tempered iron, and when Foill appeared he slung at him so that it struck his forehead, and went clean through brain and skull; and Cuchulain took his head and bound it to his chariot-rim. And other sons of Nechtan, issuing forth, he fought with and slew by sword or spear; and then he fired the dūn and left it in a blaze and drove on exultant. And on the way he saw a flock of wild swans, and sixteen of them he brought down alive with his sling, and tied them to the chariot; and seeing a herd of wild deer which his horses could not overtake he lighted down and chased them on foot till he caught two great stags, and with thongs and ropes he made them fast to the chariot.