The Training of Cú Chulainn
This story is an alternative version of Cú Chulainn's training to the more familiar account in The Wooing of Emer. It is found in no less than eleven different manuscripts, the earliest being Egerton 106, dated to 1715. In spite of its late date, it may preserve some older traditions.
When Cú Chulainn was a young lad, fine in every way, pride of spirit came upon him, and he wanted to go out into the world to get his training.
His training began in Glenn na Luthaige in Munster, with Uathan of the Glen. But he wasn't there long before he went back across Ulster, intending to get his training in the East. He went with two comrades, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, and they launched Conall's ship, the Engach, onto the sea, and sailed to Alba(1). In that country there lived a warrior-woman called Dordmair, daughter of Domnall Mildemail (the soldierly).(2)
She gave them a great welcome, and foot-washing and bathing was provided for them. They stayed the night, and the next morning the maiden asked them why they had come.
'We have come to learn warfare and heroic feats,' they replied.
She went before them, and demonstrated for them her feats of valour and warfare, as teachers often reveal their secrets to pupils who come to them from foreign lands. She had a five-barbed spear brought to her. She stuck the staff into the ground, point up. The druidess then leapt into the air, and landed on her breast on the point of the spear, but even her clothes suffered no damage. She balanced on the point of the spear for some time. Then she challenged Lóegaire, Conall and Cú Chulainn to do it.
(1 Usually Scotland, but can mean Britain as a whole.
2 In The Wooing of Emer the first tutor is Domnall, not his daughter. This may be the older version, restoring a triple goddess, Dordmail, Scáthach and Aífe, as Cú Chulainn's tutors.)
'Which of us should try it?' they asked.
'Whichever of you is the noblest,' replied Dordmail. It was said that Conall Cernach, son of Amargen, was the noblest and boldest of them, so he went first, but although he was strong and brave, could throw straight and true, and was a terror in battle, he couldn't perform this feat. Lóegaire tried it, but he couldn't do it either.
'It would be a disgrace to us three Ulstermen if none of us could do it,' said Cú Chulainn. He stood up, leapt up hoveringly, and landed on his chest on the point of the spear. 'It wouldn't beother me if this were my resting place for the rest of the day,' he said.
The maiden said to the other two, 'You can keep all the distinctions you have earned up to now. Your blood has dried up, and your sinews have hardened. From now on you will gain no honour from feats of heroism. If you like, I can teach you how to be servants.' Conall refused on behalf of both of them.
Dordmail asked Cú Chulainn to stay with her, and they all agreed he should. Conall and Láegaire bade them farewell and went home, and Cú Chulainn stayed and learned the arts of war.
One day, a year later, Cú Chulainn was performing the feats he had learned when a huge, solitary man, black as coal, approached him from the shore.
'What are you doing?' asked the man.
'I am performing the feats I have learned over the past year,' replied Cú Chulainn.
'Where the feats of heroism are learned, those feats are not counted among them,' said the man. 'Is that true?' asked Cú Chulainn, and the man said yes.
'Is there anywhere in the world a greater warrior-woman than the one I'm with now?' asked Cú Chulainn.
'There is,' said the man. 'Scáthach, daughter of Buanuinne, king of Scythia, in the East.'
'I've heard of her before.'
'I'm sure you have. But it's a long way from here to Scythia, little man.'
'Will you tell me how to get there?'
'I will not.'
'Then may your evil rebound upon you, you spectral, shrivelled phantom,' said Cú Chulainn. 'I've come this far without your help.'
The big man left, and Cú Chulainn went to bed. In the morning, at first light, he took his weapons and headed off towards Scythia. Few guides know what route he took, but he didn't stop until he came to where Scáthach lived. There he saw beautiful, bright youths playing hurley and other games. If one youth was playing well, Cú Chulainn wouldn't speak to him until he'd taken the ball from him and scored a goal. One of the two leaders of the youths came to him and said, 'why did you score a goal against me?'
'I've done it once, I'll do it again,' said Cú Chulainn.
'You'd never have done it if we'd seen you from the beginning.'
'You see me now, and I'll still score against you.'
He scored three times, on his own against all the other youths. Four Irishmen, who were there for their training, came up and embraced him, and asked him for news from Ireland. He asked them what feats they had learned in tbe past year.
'We have to learn the Bridge of Leaps,' they replied.
'How long does it take to learn it?'
'A quarter and a month and a year and three days and three nights.'
'Will you show me how to do it?'
'No!' they replied. 'You can learn it from Scáthach like everybody else.'
'I'd like to see it,' said Cú Chulainn, so they went to the bridge. They showed him how, when you stood on one end of the bridge, it bcame narrow, sharp and slippery, and would rise as high as a mast. Cú Chulainn leapt onto it, and began sliding down.
Scáthach saw his predicament from her bedchamber, which had seven doors, and seven windows between each door, and seven compartments between each window, and 150 girls in each compartment, each wearing a purple and blue cloak. There were 150 boys of the same age, brave champions of great deeds, opposite each door, outside and in, learning feats and heroism from Scáthach.
Scáthach's daughter Úathach was with her. She had slender, white fingers, black eyebrows, and hair like burnished gold, and she was weaving gold thread with a bright-bordered weaver's beam. When she saw Cú Chulainn on the bridge, she immediately fell in love with him, and she couldn't think straight out of desire for the youth she had seen in that predicament. When she should have been weaving with gold thread, she wove with silver. She went as white as a white flower, as red as blood, and back again.
Her mother noticed her appearance, and asked what was the matter with her that had caused such a change. She told her about the young man on the bridge, about how her heart was glad whenever he found a handhold, and terrified when he began to slip, that he would never see his mother or father again, and many would grieve for him.
'Look well at that youth,' said Scáthach, 'for that childlike young man was shown to me not long ago. I saw that he was coming from Ireland in the West; that he would beat the Bridge of Leaps in an hour, even though everyone else needs a quarter, a month, a year, three days and three nights' training to do it; that his brave deeds would be told until the end of the world, and that he would be the Prophesied Son.'
Cú Chulainn began to slip, and fell to earth. The three chief scholars of the world cried out, mocking him for his foolishness in attempting such a feat without first having been taught it by Scáthach. Cú Chulainn was enraged, and leapt up hoveringly, accompanying the wind, so that with one mad leap he landed on the middle pillar of the bridge. It didn't become narrow or sharp or slippery beneath him.
The three young Irishmen gave a great shout, praising Cú Chulainn for this feat, and celebrating that an Irishman had done something so impressive.
When Úathach saw what he had done, Scáthach told her to go to him, and show him to the House of the Barbers, where he was to sleep. So she went, and she thought she had never gone anywhere prouder or happier. She made Cú Chulainn welcome on behalf of her mother and herself, put her hand around his neck, and kissed him long and lovingly. Then she led him to his lodging. When they got to the House of the Barbers, Úathach told the youths there to be nice to Cú Chulainn, for he was a young Irish lad.
'Don't be angry with us for what we're going to do to you,' said the youths. 'There's 27 of us, each with 27 spears of smelted iron, and we do this to everyone who bests the Bridge of Leaps.'
'What are you going to do?' asked Cú Chulainn.
'We'll throw you up onto the ridge-pole at the top of the house, and throw our spears at you until there's no place on your body without a spear-wound.'
'What do you do that for?'
'So you will have no fear of the hardships that await you. They'll seem like nothing compared to what you'll go through tonight.'
'I have sworn to allow no man to pierce my body after challenging me, unless it's a warrior standing against me in open combat,' said Cú Chulainn.
The youths told him that if he depended on his own strength, that oath would not be broken. Then they grabbed him by the ankle, and hurled him up into the rafters, and everyone started throwing their spears and darts at him. Slowly, cunningly, Cú Chulainn made his way down, resting on the point of each spear until he reached the ground.
No-one there had been taught a feat like that, neither by Scáthach, nor Aífe, nor Abloch, nor the Queen of the Land of Snow, nor Ess Enchenn; and none of them had ever seen anything like it until Cú Chulainn came. They threw him up into the roof again, and rage seized Cú Chulainn, and he grabbed his weapons and began killing and dismembering the youths. He cut off all their heads and put them on the gates of the fort, so that fear of him would be increased. The 150 champions outside Scáthach's door fell to him in the same way.
He stayed in the House of the Barbers that night, and in the morning he went to the door of Scáthach's bedchamber and asked if Scáthach was there. He demanded she give him the treasure and jewels and wealth that all the youths of the world brought to her.
'Young lad,' said Scáthach, 'there are many warriors in the world more able to ask for that, and more likely to get it.'
'They haven't managed it so far,' replied Cú Chulainn. 'I will.'
'What vengeance would you inflict on me, young man?'
'Rise up, and we will fight each other.'
'I'll do that,' said Scáthach.
'No you won't,' said her two sons, Cuar and Cet. 'We will.'
Scáthach tried to stop them, but Cuar, a broad-chested giant of a man, insisted he would fight Cú Chulainn alone. He stood up and came at Cú Chulainn, performing his 27 feats(3), his weapons whirling in his hands so that he looked like a bee collecting pollen from white flowers.
(3 A long list of feats follow, but they are incomprehensible, so I've left them out.)
Cú Chulainn lifted his shield, with its seven bosses around the central boss, adorned with white steel, crystal and carbuncle and painted with many colours, to his shoulder. He took his heavy-smiting steel sword, hungry for blood, long and sharp enough among a multitude of bronze sickles to cut a hair against the stream. On his side was a long electrum(4) scabbard on a beautiful silver belt. He took his two five-barbed spears, with their ample sockets, thick red shafts, and perfectly placed rivets. They went straight to the place of combat, and began to fight.
(4 An alloy of gold and silver.)
They planted their feet, moved their hands quickly, and dealt bold blows. Their spirits were raised, and the echo of the noise they made could be heard in the islands and rough-hewn rocks of the surrounding districts. Cú Chulainn allowed Cuar to deal fierce blow after fierce blow, until he tired himself out so much that his legs were trembling, and he lost the strength from his arms. When Cú Chulainn saw his opponent was tiring, his strength arose, and with one blow he cut off his arm at the shoulder. A second blow cut off his right leg; a third cut off his left leg(5), and he fell face down on top of Cú Chulainn. He bit into Cú Chulainn's shoulder and tore off a strip of skin from his shoulder down to his fingertips - and that was Cú Chulainn's shearing.
( 5 I'll do you for that!)
Then Cú Chulainn beheaded Cuar son of Scáthach, with no regard for their fellow-pupilship, and brought his head back to Scáthach's bedchamber.
'What is it, my lad?' asked Scáthach.
'Do you recognise this head?'
'I do. You have done a violent deed, Cú Chulainn. A bed will be made for you at my feet, and you will be leeched and healed of your wounds for three months.'
That night, Úathach came to the room where Cú Chulainn was sleeping. 'What brings you here at this hour,' he asked.
'Attack is the best form of defence,' she replied.
'Don't you know it is taboo for a sick man to sleep with a woman?'
So she went back to her own room, and got dressed, and returned to Cú Chulainn and lay down beside him. Cú Chulainn was very annoyed, and as he reached his good hand out to her, he caught her finger a glancing blow which tore the skin from her hand, and wounded her greatly.
'May your evil rebound upon you, you spectral, shrivelled phantom,' cried Úathach. 'It's shameful to kill women, you know! You could have just sent me away - you didn't need to do that.'
'I prefer to send you away like this,' replied Cú Chulainn, 'because it causes you greater disgrace.'
'I will forgive you for what you have done, so long as you don't put me out of your bed tonight.'
'That's what you wanted all along!' said Cú Chulainn. 'You're not staying here!'
'If you let me stay with you tonight, I'll get my mother to teach you the three feats she has never taught to anyone else - Cuar's feat, Cet's feat, and the feat of eight waters.'
Cú Chulainn held her to her promise, and gave her what she wanted.(6) The next day he asked her what the three feats were, and how he was to obtain them.
(6) There. That wasn't so hard, was it?
'I'll tell you,' said Úathach. 'This is how Scáthach goes to speak with the gods: with a feat-basket beneath her, unarmed. If you find her without her weapons, you will obtain from her all those feats. Follow her tomorrow, and tell her you'll cut her head off unless she teaches them to you.'
In the morning, Cú Chulainn went to the Bridge of Leaps, and there she saw Scáthach in her feat-basket. She didn't notice him until she saw the light glinting from his sword over her shoulder.
'What do you want, little hound?'
'To inflict death and extinction upon you.'
'Spare me, and you will receive great rewards from me.'
'What rewards would those be?'
'Whatever you ask for,' said Scáthach.
'Then give me the three feats you have never taught to anyone else, and the friendhip of your thighs, and your daughter.'
Scáthach gave her word, and taught him the three feats, and that night he had the festival of hand and bed with the girl, and from then on he had the friendhip of thighs from the queen. He stayed with Scáthach for a year.
At the end of the year he prepared to go to the fortress of the other warrior-woman, Aífe, daughter of a king of Greece. He went to the door of Aífe's bedchamber, and she welcomed him kindly. That night, he had the festival of hand and bed with her. He stayed a year with her, and then prepared to leave.
'It would be wrong for you to go until you have achieved all the feats of bravery,' said Aífe.
'Have I not achieved them now?' said Cú Chulainn.
'No, you haven't. I have three prize-feats, and they take a year's training. If you learn them, you will surpass all the youths of the world.'
So Cú Chulainn stayed another year, and learned the feats, and prepared to leave. But Aífe said, 'I'm pregnant, and it wouldn't be right to go until you know what child I'll have.'
'If it's a daughter,' said Cú Chulainn, 'every mother has the profit of her daughter, so give her to the man you like yourself. If it's a son, nurture him well, and teach him all the feats except the feat of the gae bolga(7), for I'll teach him that myself when he comes to Ireland.'
So Cú Chulainn left Aífe, and she was sorrowful at their parting. He was anxious that day to reach the Bridge of Leaps, but when he got there he saw a hideous hag, tall and ancient, carrying a vessel made from a fist of smelted iron, trying to cross from the other side.
(7 A deadly spear with barbs, which had to be cut out of its victim. May mean 'belly spear' or 'lightning spear'.)
'Leave me the road so I can get past you, Cú Chulainn,' she said.
'There's only room for one on this road,' said Cú Chulainn. 'It's as slender as a hair, as sharp as a thorn, and as slippery as an eel's tail. The thorn of a thistle wouldn't stick to this place.
'Curses and injunctions upon you if you don't let me have the road,' said the old woman.
'Very well,' said Cú Chulainn. 'You may have the road, even though you might get your death from it.' He held onto the bridge with both arms and legs, and by a thunder-feat the hag seized him roughly and wounded him across the back and legs and arms. But he leapt up lightly, hoveringly, landed next to the hag, and cut her head from her body. This was the Death of Ess Enchenn, and Cú Chulainn did a good deed in killing her.
At that time Scáthach was instructing some Irish warriors who had come to her while Cú Chulainn was in Greece. They included Fer Diad and Fer Demain, sons of Damán; Fróech son of Fídach; Noísiu son of Uisliu; Loch Mór son of Mofebhais; and Fergus son of Lua of the Long Mane. The day Cú Chulainn arrived was the day they were preparing to return home to Ireland, but they stayed another year, so that they might learn as many feats from Cú Chulainn (except the gae bolga) as they had from Scáthach.
At the end of that year, Cú Chulainn said to Scáthach, 'It's time for me to return to Ireland with these warriors.'
'You shall not go,' said Scáthach, 'until I bind a covenant of friendship between you, so that no-one will ever set any of you fighting against another, for you are in no danger from anyone else except each other. I place these injunctions upon you: if the stronger man among you picks a fight with the weaker man, the weaker man will win; and, in the same way, if the weaker man picks a fight with the stronger, the stronger will win. Let none of you break these injunctions.' They gave each other their hands to seal the covenant until doomsday. Then they took their leave of Scáthach, paying her the fees due to her for their training.
On their way home they came to the country of the Men of Catt. 'This is the kingdom of the Men of Catt,' said Cú Chulainn, 'and its king is Aed the Red. Which one of us will take the kingdom from him without a night's rest?'
Cú Chulainn went down to the sea shore, to find birds or winged creatures to carry him to the fortress of Aed the Red, so that the women and youths there would marvel at this feat. Everyone else went on foot.
On the beach, Cú Chulainn saw a gathering of 100 men and 100 women sitting in the bay. In the midst of them was a beautiful maiden, the noblest in the world. The others were weeping and lamenting around her.
'What is this great sorrow afflicting you?' said Cú Chulainn.
'The Fomoiri(8) take a tribute from this country every seven years,' said the maiden, 'the first-born of the king's children. This time it has fallen to me to be taken as the tribute, for I am the dearest of the king's children.'
'How many come to take the tribute?'
(8 Mythological enemies of Ireland, who regularly raid its shores. They are creatures of evil, often misshapen.)
'The three sons of Alatrom of the Fomoiri - Dub, Mell and Dubross.'
Soon they saw a large, well-manned vessel approach. A single warrior, dark, gloomy and devilish, sat in the stern of the ship, laughing so loudly you could see his entrails down his throat. At the sight of this, everyone except Cú Chulainn fled.
'What's he laughing at?' said Cú Chulainn.
'He thinks it is excellent that this year you should be added to the tribute,' said the maiden.
'He wouldn't brag like that if he knew what would come of it.'
The big man came ashore and stretched forth his long, sinewy arm to seize Cú Chulainn before the royal tribute. Cú Chulainn raised his right arm, bared his sword, and struck off his head. His two brothers followed, but Cú Chulainn killed them as well, leaving their bodies lying neck-to-neck. He didn't pay any heed to the maiden, as he didn't think it honourable or sensible to speak to someone who had been abandoned by her people. When he caught up with his comrades, he didn't tell them anything of what had happened.
They came to the gate of the fortress and knocked. 'Who goes there?' said the gatekeeper.
'A band of Irish warriors,' they said, 'here in the east to complete our training,'
The gatekeeper went to the king, who was sad and mournful over the loss of his daughter, and told him there was a band of Irish warriors at the gate. 'Let them in,' said the king, and he gave them a hearty welcome.
The hadn't been there long when the maiden appeared. 'Well, my daughter,' said the king, 'are you sorrowful about your followers, or was it fear made you flee?'
'Neither,' said the maiden. 'One young lad came to me and stayed after all my followers had fled. He fought and killed the three sons of Alatrom on my behalf. To prove it, you can send someone to bring back the rest of the tribute.'
'These are good tidings,' said the king, and sent a servant to fetch the rest of the tribute. He told the women of the fortress to bathe his Irish guests. They did so, one woman to each warrior. Aífe(9), Aed the Red's daughter, happened to be the one to wash Cú Chulainn, and his hand chanced to hers. 'Great is the valour and bravery of this hand,' she said.
(9) The princess's name is Derbforgaill in The Wooing of Emer.
'What's that, my daughter?' said the king.
'This is the hand of the one who killed the three soms of Alatrom, and rescued me from my captivity.'
'Is this true?' the king asked the warriors. 'When you arrived was there one of you absent?'
'Cú Chulainn wasn't with us,' they replied. 'He had gone to the shore to look for birds to carry him to the fortress.'
'Is that the renowned warrior Cú Chulainn, whose fame has spread from Ireland? If so, then take the royal tribute, and the maiden.'
'May your evil rebound upon you, you spectral, shrivelled phantom,' said Fer Diad. 'None of us could hope to gain honour and distinction while we travel with you!' But Cú Chulainn ignored him. He divided the tribute in three - a third for the warriors, a third for the hospitallers of the Men of Catt, and a third for the maiden's dowry. That night he had the festival of hand and bed with her.
They stayed a month and half there, and were shown great hospitality, before setting out for Ireland. They landed at Tráig na Folad in Ulster, and travelled on to fair Emain Macha, where Conchobor son of Fachtna Fathach lived. Conchobor kept the warriors on for a year, paying them with tributes from the province. It is said that no king anywhere on the continent of Europe at that time had heroes as brave and hardy as those in Ulster, the Champions of the Red Branch: Conall Cernach, Fergus mac Róich, Láegaire Búadach, Cormac Connlongas son of Conchobor, and the eight warriors who came to Ireland with Cú Chulainn.
At the end of the year Conchobor didvided lands among them, posted them along the borders of Ulster, and brought them tribute from across the whole of Ireland by dint of their great valour.