Celtic Mythology 7: The Life of Cuchulainn: Epic Hero of Ireland

Celtic Mythology 7: The Life of Cuchulainn: Epic Hero of Ireland

With his divine connections, supernatural powers and a short but brilliant life, Cuchulainn was the epic hero par excellence. His mother, Dechtire, was the daughter of the druid Cathbad. His father’s identity, however, was a mystery, although in one story he was the god Lugh.

Lugh is said to have made Dechtire pregnant in a dream while she was staying with King Conchobar and his hunting party. Her child was named Setanta, but became known as Cuchulainn, Hound of Culann, at a young age, after he had killed the fierce watchdog of Culann the Smith and had taken its place until Culann had reared a new one.

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As a boy, he routed Conchobar’s youth brigade and entered the Ulster king’s service. He was trained in arms in Scotland by a female Warrior, Scathach, who taught him such heroic feats as standing on a lance in flight, and also gave him a vicious weapon called the gae bolg. A sort of spear, when it struck home, its head sprouted 30 darts that coursed through every part of the victim’s body, killing him instantly.

When his blood was up, Cuchulainn was gripped by a terrifying battle frenzy, during which his hair stood on end, his muscles bulged, and his body rotated within its skin. One eye protruded from his head, the other sank into his skull, and his battle-cry drove people insane. He had many lovers, but always returned to his wife Emer.

Cuchulainn appears in many Ulster cycle tales, most notably The Cattle Raid of Cooley. His death came seven years after the raid, when the goddess Maeve plotted to kill him with six sorcerers. Conchobar tried to keep the warrior out of harm’s way, but the sorcerers conjured up an illusion of battle which convinced Cuchulainn that Ulster was being laid waste. As he emerged from his hiding place, he was struck by a magic spear thrown by one of the sorcerers. Mortally wounded, he tied himself to a rock so that he would be able to face his enemies with honor, standing up. For three days none of them dared approach him. In the end a war goddess, Badb, landed on his shoulder in the form of a crow. Cuchulainn did not stir, and so everyone knew that Ulster’s greatest hero was dead.