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The Legend Of Cu Chulainn

The Legend Of Cu Chulainn - Meet The Myths

The legend of a young warrior known as Cu Chulainn is one of the greatest tales of Irish mythology. Cu Chulainn was a demi-god born to a mortal mother and a divine father in the ancient territory of Ulster. The young warrior is best known for his bravery, inhuman strength and single-handedly defending his kingdom during The Tain Bo Cuailgne.

The Early Life Of Cu Chulainn

Legends suggest that Cu Chulainn was born in county Louth during the first century. His name as a young boy was Setanta, given to him by his mortal mother, Deichtine, and his father, Lugh, a Celtic deity of the sun. Deichtine was a sister of the great Ulster king Conchobar Mac Nessa.

During a hunting trip with her brother, Deichtine had a dream where the deity Lugh appeared to her. He informed her that she was pregnant and that she would give birth to his son, who would be named Setanta. Following his birth, Setanta was raised by various foster fathers, including his uncle Conchobar, as was customary among the ancient tribes of Ulster.

Even as a young boy, Setanta showed great promise as a fighter and had a deep desire to protect his homeland. So, he embarked on a mission to join the legendary group of warriors known as The Red Branch Knights. While traveling from his hometown to the capital of the Ulster King, Setanta earned his famous name, Cu Chulainn.

Cu Chulainn earned his name when he was just seven years old after he killed a fierce hound in self-defense. The hound, which was kept on three chains and required nine strong warriors to control, attacked Setanta when it broke free. However, the young warrior quickly drew his sword and defeated the hound. The hound belonged to a man named Culann, so Setanta was given the name Cu Chulainn in honor of the hound’s owner. To make amends for his actions, Setanta offered to protect Culann’s cattle and replace the hound.

Following this, the young Cu Chulainn made his way onto the Ulster King’s court at their ancient capital of Emain Macha. Upon arrival at the entrance of the capital, the king of Ulster, Conchobar Mac Nessa, was impressed with his nephew’s skills and permitted him to join the fabled knights of The Red Branch.

However, Cu Chulainn wasn’t like most of the warriors of Ulster, who were tall, fair-haired, and blue-eyed. Instead, Cu Chulainn was a short, dark-haired man who possessed god-like energy, speed, and agility. His unique appearance often warranted looks from those in Ulster, as his dark hair had streaks of blonde and red running through it, possibly inherited from his father, Lugh.

The Wooing Of Emer

Cu Chulainn was deeply in love with a woman named Emer, who happened to be the daughter of Forgall Manach, a powerful king of one of Ireland’s many tribes. However, Forgall did not approve of Cu Chulainn and attempted to sabotage their relationship by setting difficult tasks for the young warrior in the hopes that he would not return. Despite already being a renowned warrior in his teenage years, Cu Chulainn was always seeking to improve his skills. When Forgall learned of Cu Chulainn’s ambition to become the greatest warrior in all of Ireland, he devised a plan to send him on a perilous journey.

Forgall disguised himself as a merchant from France and went to the capital of the Red Branch, King Conchobar’s court at Emain Macha, with wares to trade. At the evening feast, he praised Conchobar’s fierce and loyal Red Branch warriors and then wondered aloud why the king did not think highly enough of them to train with Scathach. Did they not know that she was the greatest trainer of warriors in all the world?

When Cu Chulainn heard mention of this incredible trainer, he packed his sack and set off at once, which was Forgall’s plan all along.  Cu Chulainn would be joined on his quest by two of the most famous and well-trained warriors of the Red branch, Conall Cernach, and Laoighre Budhach. They would have to travel a long way to Scathachs Island which lay far to the North in the territory of Scotland. So, accompanied by Conall and Laoghaire, Cu Chulainn set sail for Scotland.

However, no sooner had their boat landed on the shores of Scotland had Forgall sent a vision of Emain Macha and the joys of their land. Conall and Laoighre became so homesick that they had to turn back and thus; Cu Chulainn would have to travel on by himself in the wilderness of the Scottish highlands.

On his quest to find the warrior Scathach, Cu Chulainn faced numerous challenges, including an encounter with a giant beast in Northern Scotland. The beast initially prevented Cu Chulainn from continuing his journey, but he soon discovered that it needed his help. Cu Chulainn assisted the beast, and as a token of gratitude, the beast carried him across the valleys of Northern Scotland. By demonstrating his compassion and willingness to aid those in need, Cu Chulainn proved himself to be a true hero on his journey.

Eventually, Cu Chulainn came to a home in the wilderness of Northern Scotland, and a familiar voice called out his name. She was a princess of the Scottish lands whose family had once stayed with Cu Chulainn’s family in Ulster. The princess would go on to warn the lone warrior that Forgall had set many traps on the road to Scathachs island, and the friendly princess told Cu Chulainn which path to take to avoid the monsters of the valleys and arrive safely to Scathachs island.

Cu Chulainn’s Training With Scathach

Thanks to the help of the Scottish princess, Cu Chulainn was able to avoid the rest of Forgalls mischievous traps and finally arrive at last to Scathachs island. Following his arrival, Cu Chulainn was overjoyed to see his good friend, Ferdia Mac Daman. Ferdia would help the young warrior on his quest by ensuring he could reach Scathach’s home safely.

In order to do so, though, Cu Chulainn would have to first cross over an enchanted bridge. The young warrior looked at the bridge and noticed it rose high in the middle and dropped at either end. As he tried to walk across the bridge it would buck like a wild horse, throwing him back to the path. The few people living on the island would often come to watch anyone who dared to cross the bridge, as many met their final fate here.

Cu Chulainn was determined to get across during his first try; however, as he ran at the bridge, it narrowed and became slippery, and the young hero fell back to the ground. He tried repeatedly, eventually losing patience with the bridge. But as his rage increased, so did his otherworldly powers, and eventually, a light known as the lón láith began to shine around his head. Following this, Cu Chulainn ran one last time, and with a great salmon leap, he jumped to the middle of the bridge once more to get across.

Cu Chulainn caught the attention of Scathach’s daughter as he approached their house. She was struck by his handsome appearance and welcomed him inside. Over a meal, she offered him advice on how to be accepted as a student by her mother. Cu Chulainn then surprised Scathach by ambushing her and holding his sword against her chest. Impressed by his bravery, Scathach agreed to train him as a student.

Cu Chulainn trained for some time with Scathach and quickly became one of the most formidable warriors in Western Europe. Cu Chulainn greatly increased his ability to make prodigious leaps during his time with Scathach and even learned to control his various divine powers.

Cu chulainn training with scathach

After his training was completed, Scathach gave Cu Chulainn a legendary weapon. It was a barbed spear known as Gae Bolga, which, when thrown at an enemy, could cause 30 internal wounds. The spear was made from the bones of a mysterious sea monster and could be thrown at the speed of lighting. This accompanied his unbreakable sword known as Caladbolg.

Cu Chulainn eventually returns to Lusca, the home of Forgall, kills 24 of the king’s best men, and elopes with his daughter Emer and a great quantity of treasure. The pair settled in the fortress of Dundalk, which overlooks the plain of Mag Muirthemne.

The Tain Bo Cualigne

Cu Chulainn is remembered as a hero in Ulster and all of Ireland for his brave defense against a Southern army invasion. The attack was led by Medb, the Queen of Connaught, and her husband Ailill. This story, which is more than 2000 years old, is recounted in the epic tale called the Tain Bo Cualigne or The Cattle Raid Of Cooley.

The invasion began over an argument that was held between Medb and her husband. Ailill, loved to boast about his prized bull, which was the prized possession the queen could not match. This irritated her greatly, and thus overcome by jealousy, she set out to find an even better bull to call her own. The only bull in all of Ireland that could match the prestige of her husband was Donn Cuailnge, also known as the brown bull of Cooley. The bull was worth its weight in gold, and since Medb could not obtain it through persuasion, she set out to conquer Ulster and take the bull by force.

When the Ulstermen heard of the impending invasion, they began to mobilise their famed warriors, the Red Branch Knights. However, a spell placed upon the men of Ulster left them unable to move from their beds. All but the young Cu Chulainn fell to this illness. As his bloodline was of a demi-god, this ensured he did not succumb to the spell.

Cu Chulainn stood at the entrance to Ulster, fending off Medb’s army single-handedly. Despite Medb sending warrior after warrior to face him, Cu Chulainn struck them down before they could enter Ulster. However, when Medb broke the ancient law of single combat and sent several warriors at once to face him, Cu Chulainn did his best to push back the invading forces.

Cu Chulainn was eventually joined by the young warrior boys of Emain Macha, whom he knew from his childhood. This gave the exhausted Cu Chulainn a much-needed rest. While they fought, Cu Chulainn dreamed about meeting his father, Lugh. The young warrior’s father healed him during his dreamstate and this allowed Cu Chulainn to wake up fully rejuvenated. However, when he awoke, he was horrified to see that Medbs forces had slaughtered the young warriors of Emain Macha.

After seeing the bodies of his friends lying in the fields, Cu Chulainn flew into his superhuman form known as ríastrad. This transformed the young man into a tower of raging fury. His body parts warped and grew, his strength increased tenfold, and the great light again shone from his forehead like back at Scathachs island. This led to him becoming an unstoppable force that would slay anyone in his way.

Cu Chulainn began to wipe through hundreds of Medbs soldiers at once, creating mounds of bodies in the surrounding landscape. However, this superhuman form was very taxing on Cu Chuallins body, and his power began to dwindle. Just as Medbs forces began to get the better of  Cu Chulainn, he could hear the war trumpets of his brothers, the Red Branch Knights, in the distance, who finally broke the spell and arose from their sickness.

They scurried south to the border, but by the time they arrived, Cu Chulainn had already been overcome after fighting for days on end. The Ulstermen quickly pushed back the invading forces of Medb and ensured that the brown bull of Cooley remained within Ulster territory. Cu Chulainn had chained himself to a stone dolmen as the Ulstermen arrived to ensure he could stand upright. This gave the impression that he could still fight on with his many wounds. Eventually, a raven comes and plucks out his eyes, which was proof the young hero had passed on.

The standing stone to which Cu Chullain chained himself to can still be seen today in County Louth, in the town of Knockbridge. While Cu Chulainn may have died young, he did get what he always wished for, for he once said:

“Provided I am famous, I do not care whether I live but a single day in this world.”

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