After reading several sources about the fabled warrior Cú Chulainn, I need to ask–was he really the quintessential Gaelic hero? Or was he, as Irish playwright Samuel Beckett famously described him, “the . . . patron saint of pure ignorance and crass violence”?
First, let’s get his tongue-twisting name straightened out. In the Irish Gaelic tongue, his name (a bit simplified) would be roughly coo HOO lun where the “ch” sound is similar to the Germanic “ch” sound, as in ach.
Every age, every culture needs its larger-than-life heroes. If Cú Chulainn did not exist, he would have to be invented to fill a human need. Just so, the filí--the bards–of ancient Ireland needed to sing the exploits of a young man who was beloved of women, admired by warriors, respected by enemies, and indomitable in battle. In short, he was a man who represented all that the beautiful, wild land of Éire was to its people.
Legends about Cú Chulainn abound from about the end of the iron age, just about the time when Caesar was riding roughshod over Celtic territory. Perhaps there is a link between the hero and the conquerer here, but history is silent. Because Caesar’s exploits took place in Gaul, and our warrior was centered in Ireland, there may be no more connection than a universal knowledge of the hero Achilles in the ancient Homeric epic, or that deep-seated need for a people to extol a national hero.
Cú Chulainn was not born with that name. Legend has it that he was the son of a god and a mortal woman. He was named Sétanta, roughly sha DAN tuh in Gaelic.
Although still a stripling, his aspect was so striking and his talents so amazing that he was pressured into seeking a wife. His fancy was for beautiful Emer–but she taunted him with the fact that he was still a boy and sent him off to learn to be a warrior.
So learn he did. He studied under a famous female warrior whom he not only bedded, but he sired a son by her daughter! He later married Emer, who became devoted to him. Cú Chulainn was definitely attractive to the ladies. But women would prove to be his undoing.
Again at a tender age, he attended a feast at the home of one named Culann, a sidhe smith who owned a huge wolfhound. As the legends have it, the dog attacked Sétanta, who killed the beast in self-defense. Feeling bad about killing the dog, the hero offered to stay until another guard dog could be trained. From that time onward, he bore the name “Cú” meaning whelp or young dog, and “Chulainn,” a form of Culann–The Hound of Culann.
Even such a warrior as Cú Chulainn would be just another legend if it were not for Queen Maeve and the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley. The mortal warriors of Ulster, true to a curse uttered by the goddess Macha, were rendered impotent for battle when Maeve’s army attacked. So our divine-born hero, unaffected by the curse, took them on single-handedly.
The standard of battle in legends was that one warrior could challenge another on behalf of whole armies. And so Cú Chulainn, greater than any warrior of the time, easily conquered any that Queen Maeve could send. Finally she was forced to make a bargain with him to end the bloodshed.
One of the most enduring aspects of Cú Chulainn was the “battle frenzy” or ríastrad, that seized him while fighting. Similar to the berserker aspect of the later Vikings, many a legend and picture of him shows him in full “warp spasm,” a term coined by the translator Thomas Kinsella.
Cú Chulainn died as violently as he had lived. Having angered the powerful Queen Maeve, he was cursed by her sending against him the deadly triple aspect of Goddesses called the Morrigan. To make a short tale of a brutal and bloody end, he was pierced by his own spears. He dragged himself to a standing stone and lashed himself there in order to remain standing. Most renditions of his death–including a famous statue in the General Post Office of Dublin–show him bound to the stone with a raven perched on his shoulder as a symbol of death. There is even a rock in Co. Louth fabled to be the stone he died upon.
As for my initial question–whether Cú Chulainn is a true hero or a symbol of all that is ignorant and brutal–I shall leave that for others to decide. If he is crass and ignorant, so then are the indomitable heroes of the Iliad, and mighty Beowulf, and for that matter the Biblical David and scores of other heroes who made their names not by their intellects but by their mighty deeds.
Erin O’Quinn’s romance novels are set in fifth-century Ireland, when deeds of old would soon give way to the godspels of Jesus as spread by tonsured priests and the famous bishop Patrick.
The books are available as follows:
Storm Maker: http://www.amazon.com/Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-Romance-ebook/dp/B00845V8X6
The Wakening Fire : http://www.amazon.com/Wakening-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008BKSGES
Captive Heart: http://www.amazon.com/Captive-Ireland-BookStrand-Publishing-ebook/dp/B008K2X1QA
Fire & Silk (on Strand): http://www.bookstrand.com/fire-silk