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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 58

Like other heroes of saga, he possesses great strength and skill at a tender age, and, setting out for Conchobar's court, overpowers the king's "boy corps," and then becomes their chief. His next adventure is the slaying of the watch-dog of Culann the smith, and his appeasing the anger of its owner by offering to act as his watch-dog. Cathbad now announced that his name would henceforth be Cú Chulainn, "Culann's hound." At the mature age of seven he obtained Conchobar's spears, sword, shield, and chariot, and with these he overcame three mighty champions, returning in the distortion of his "battle-fury" to Emania. To prevent mischief from his rage, the women went forth naked to meet him. He modestly covered his eyes, for it was one of his geasa not to look on a woman's breast. Thus taken unawares, he was plunged into three successive vats of cold water until his natural appearance was restored to him, although the water boiled and hissed from his heat.

As Cúchulainn grew up, his strength, skill, wisdom, and beauty were unsurpassed. All women fell in love with him, and to forestall a series of bonnes fortunes, the men of Ulster sought a wife for him. But the hero's heart was set on Emer, daughter of Forgall, whom he wooed in a strange language which none but she could understand. At last she consented to be his {129} wife if he would slay a number of warriors. Forgall was opposed to the match, and with a view to Cúchulainn's destruction suggested that he should go to Donall in Alba to increase his skill, and to Scathach if he would excel all other warriors. He agreed, provided that Forgall would give him whatever he asked for on his return. Arrived in Alba, he refused the love of Donall's daughter, Dornolla, who swore to be avenged. Thence he went to Scathach, overcoming all the dangers of the way, leaping in safety the gulf surrounding her island, after essaying in vain to cross a narrow, swinging bridge. From Scathach he learned supreme skill in arms, and overcame her Amazonian rival Aife. He begat a son by Aife, and instructed her to call him Conla, to give him his father's ring, to send him to seek Cúchulainn, and to forbid him to reveal his name. In the sequel, Cúchulainn, unaware that Conla was his son, slew him in single combat, too late discovering his identity from the ring which he wore. This is the well-known saga formula of Sohrab and Rustum, of Theseus and Hippolytus. On his return from Scathach's isle Cúchulainn destroyed Forgall's rath with many of its inmates, including Forgall, and carried off Emer. To the ten years which followed, during which he was the great champion of Ulster, belong many tales in which he figures prominently. One of these is The Debility of the Ultonians. This was caused by Macha, who, during her pregnancy, was forced to run a race with Conchobar's horses. She outran them, but gave birth immediately to twins, and, in her pangs, cursed the men of Ulster, with a curse that, in time of oppression, they would be overcome with the weakness of childbirth. From this Cúchulainn was exempt, for he was not of Ulster, but a son of Lug. Various attempts have been {130} made to explain this "debility." It may be a myth explaining a Celtic use of the "couvade," though no example of a simultaneous tribal couvade is known, unless we have here an instance of Westermarck's "human pairing season in primitive times," with its consequent simultaneous birth-period for women and couvade for men. Others, with less likelihood, explain it as a period of tabu, with cessation from work and warfare, at a funeral or festival.458 In any case Macha's curse is a myth explanatory of the origin of some existing custom, the duration of which is much exaggerated by the narrator. To this period belong also the tale of Cúchulainn's visit to Elysium, and others to be referred to later. Another story describes his attack upon Morrigan because she would neither yield up the cows which she was driving away nor tell her true name—an instance of the well-known name tabu. Morrigan took the form of a bird, and was then recognised by Cúchulainn, who poured scorn upon her, while she promised to oppose him during the fight of the Táin in the forms of an eel, a wolf, and a cow, all of which he vowed to destroy. Like many others in the saga, this story is introductory to the main episode of the Táin. To this we now turn.

Medb had been wife of Conchobar, but, leaving him, had married in succession two chiefs called Ailill, the second of whom had a bull, Findbennach, the White-horned, which she resolved to match by one in every way its equal. Having been refused the Brown Bull of Cuailgne, she summoned all her forces to invade Ulster. The moment was inauspicious for Ulster, for all its men were suffering from their "debility." Cúchulainn, therefore, went out to encounter the host, and forced Medb to agree that a succession of her warriors should {131} engage him in single combat. Among these was his old friend Ferdia, and nothing is so touching as his reluctance to fight him or so pathetic as his grief when Ferdia falls. The reluctance is primarily due to the tie of blood-brotherhood existing between them. Finally, the Ulstermen rose in force and defeated Medb, but not before she had already captured the bull and sent it into her own land. There it was fought by the Findbennach and slew it, rushing back to Ulster with the mangled body on its horns. But in its frenzy a rock seemed to be another bull, which it charged; its brains were dashed out, and it fell dead.


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