Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 79

“His praise will be in the mouths of all men; charioteers and warriors, kings and sages will recount his deeds; he will win the love of many. This child will avenge all your wrongs; he will give combat at your fords, he will decide all your quarrels.”

The Hound of Cullan

When he was old enough the boy Setanta went to the court of Conor to be brought up and instructed along with the other sons of princes and chieftains. It was now that the event occurred from which he got the name of Cuchulain, by which he was hereafter to be known.

One afternoon King Conor and his nobles were going to a feast to which they were bidden at the dūn of a wealthy smith named Cullan, in Quelgny, where they also meant to spend the night. Setanta was to accompany them, but as the cavalcade set off he was in the midst of a game of hurley with his companions and bade the king go forward, saying he would follow later when his play was done. The royal company arrived at their destination as night began to fall. Cullan received them hospitably, and in the great hall they made merry over meat and wine while the lord of the house barred the gates of his fortress and let loose outside a huge and ferocious dog which every night guarded the lonely mansion, and under whose protection, it was said, Cullan feared nothing less than the onset of an army.

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But they had forgotten Setanta! In the middle of the laughter and music of the feast a terrible sound was heard which brought every man to his feet in an instant. It was the tremendous baying of the hound of Cullan, giving tongue as it saw a stranger approach. Soon the noise changed to the howls of a fierce combat, but, on rushing to the gates, they saw in the glare of the lanterns a young boy and the hound lying dead at his feet. When it flew at him he had seized it by the throat and dashed its life out against the side-posts of the gate. The warriors bore in the lad with rejoicing and wonder, but soon the triumph ceased, for there stood their host, silent and sorrowful over the body of his faithful friend, who had died for the safety of his house and would never guard it more.

“Give me,” then said the lad Setanta, “a whelp of that hound, O Cullan, and I will train him to be all to you that his sire was. And until then give me shield and spear and I will myself guard your house; never hound guarded it better than I will.”

And all the company shouted applause at the generous pledge, and on the spot, as a commemoration of his first deed of valour, they named the lad Cuchulain,135 the Hound of Cullan, and by that name he was known until he died.

Cuchulain Assumes Arms

When he was older, and near the time when he might assume the weapons of manhood, it chanced one day that he passed close by where Cathbad the Druid [pg 185] was teaching to certain of his pupils the art of divination and augury. One of them asked of Cathbad for what kind of enterprise that same day might be favourable; and Cathbad, having worked a spell of divination, said: “The youth who should take up arms on this day would become of all men in Erin most famous for great deeds, yet will his life be short and fleeting.” Cuchulain passed on as though he marked it not, and he came before the king. “What wilt thou?” asked Conor. “To take the arms of manhood,” said Cuchulain. “So be it,” said the king, and he gave the lad two great spears. But Cuchulain shook them in his hand, and the staves splintered and broke. And so he did with many others; and the chariots in which they set him to drive he broke to pieces with stamping of his foot, until at last the king's own chariot of war and his two spears and sword were brought to the lad, and these he could not break, do what he would; so this equipment he retained.

His Courtship of Emer

The young Cuchulain was by this grown so fair and noble a youth that every maid or matron on whom he looked was bewitched by him, and the men of Ulster bade him take a wife of his own. But none were pleasing to him, till at last he saw the lovely maiden Emer, daughter of Forgall, the lord of Lusca,136 and he resolved to woo her for his bride. So he bade harness his chariot, and with Laeg, his friend and charioteer, he journeyed to Dūn Forgall.

As he drew near, the maiden was with her companions, daughters of the vassals of Forgall, and she was teaching them embroidery, for in that art she excelled all women. She had “the six gifts of [pg 186] womanhood—the gift of beauty, the gift of voice, the gift of sweet speech, the gift of needlework, the gift of wisdom, and the gift of chastity.”

Hearing the thunder of horse-hoofs and the clangour of the chariot from afar, she bade one of the maidens go to the rampart of the Dūn and tell her what she saw. “A chariot is coming on,” said the maiden, “drawn by two steeds with tossing heads, fierce and powerful; one is grey, the other black. They breathe fire from their jaws, and the clods of turf they throw up behind them as they race are like a flock of birds that follow in their track. In the chariot is a dark, sad man, comeliest of the men of Erin. He is clad in a crimson cloak, with a brooch of gold, and on his back is a crimson shield with a silver rim wrought with figures of beasts. With him as his charioteer is a tall, slender, freckled man with curling red hair held by a fillet of bronze, with plates of gold at either side of his face. With a goad of red gold he urges the horses.”