The events of the Cúchulainn cycle are supposed to date from the beginning of the Christian era—King Conchobar's death synchronising with the crucifixion. But though some personages who are mentioned in the Annals figure in the tales, on the whole they deal with persons who never existed. They belong to a world of romance and myth, and embody the ideals of Celtic paganism, modified by Christian influences and those of classical tales and romantic sagas of other regions, mainly Scandinavian. The present form of the tales as they exist in the Book of the Dun Cow and the Book of Leinster must have been given them in the seventh or eighth century, but they embody materials of a far older date. At an early time the saga may have had a more or less definite form, but new tales were being constantly added to it, and some of the longer tales are composed of incidents which once had no connection with each other.
Cúchulainn is the central figure of the cycle, and its central episode is that of the Táin bó Cuailgne, or "Cattle Spoil of Cooley." Other personages are Conchobar and Dechtire, Ailill and Medb, Fergus, Conall Cernach, Cúroi, Deirdre, and the sons of Usnach. Some of these are of divine descent, some are perhaps euhemerised divinities; Conchobar is called día talmaide, "a terrestrial god," and Dechtire a goddess. The cycle opens with the birth of Conchobar, son of Cathbad and of Nessa, daughter of one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, though in an older rescension of the tale he is Nessa's son by the god Lug. During Conchobar's reign over Ulster Cúchulainn was born. He was son of Dechtire, either by Sualtaim, or by her brother Conchobar, or by the god Lug, of whom he may also be a reincarnation.453 Like other heroes of saga, he possesses great strength and skill at a tender age, and, setting out for Conchobar's court, overpowers the king's "boy corps," and then becomes their chief. His next adventure is the slaying of the watch-dog of Culann the smith, and his appeasing the anger of its owner by offering to act as his watch-dog. Cathbad now announced that his name would henceforth be Cú Chulainn, "Culann's hound."454 At the mature age of seven he obtained Conchobar's spears, sword, shield, and chariot, and with these he overcame three mighty champions, returning in the distortion of his "battle-fury" to Emania. To prevent mischief from his rage, the women went forth naked to meet him. He modestly covered his eyes, for it was one of his geasa not to look on a woman's breast. Thus taken unawares, he was plunged into three successive vats of cold water until his natural appearance was restored to him, although the water boiled and hissed from his heat.455
As Cúchulainn grew up, his strength, skill, wisdom, and beauty were unsurpassed. All women fell in love with him, and to forestall a series of bonnes fortunes, the men of Ulster sought a wife for him. But the hero's heart was set on Emer, daughter of Forgall, whom he wooed in a strange language which none but she could understand. At last she consented to be his wife if he would slay a number of warriors. Forgall was opposed to the match, and with a view to Cúchulainn's destruction suggested that he should go to Donall in Alba to increase his skill, and to Scathach if he would excel all other warriors. He agreed, provided that Forgall would give him whatever he asked for on his return. Arrived in Alba, he refused the love of Donall's daughter, Dornolla, who swore to be avenged. Thence he went to Scathach, overcoming all the dangers of the way, leaping in safety the gulf surrounding her island, after essaying in vain to cross a narrow, swinging bridge. From Scathach he learned supreme skill in arms, and overcame her Amazonian rival Aife. He begat a son by Aife, and instructed her to call him Conla, to give him his father's ring, to send him to seek Cúchulainn, and to forbid him to reveal his name. In the sequel, Cúchulainn, unaware that Conla was his son, slew him in single combat, too late discovering his identity from the ring which he wore. This is the well-known saga formula of Sohrab and Rustum, of Theseus and Hippolytus. On his return from Scathach's isle Cúchulainn destroyed Forgall's rath with many of its inmates, including Forgall, and carried off Emer. To the ten years which followed, during which he was the great champion of Ulster, belong many tales in which he figures prominently. One of these is The Debility of the Ultonians. This was caused by Macha, who, during her pregnancy, was forced to run a race with Conchobar's horses. She outran them, but gave birth immediately to twins, and, in her pangs, cursed the men of Ulster, with a curse that, in time of oppression, they would be overcome with the weakness of childbirth. From this Cúchulainn was exempt, for he was not of Ulster, but a son of Lug.456 Various attempts have been made to explain this "debility." It may be a myth explaining a Celtic use of the "couvade," though no example of a simultaneous tribal couvade is known, unless we have here an instance of Westermarck's "human pairing season in primitive times," with its consequent simultaneous birth-period for women and couvade for men.457 Others, with less likelihood, explain it as a period of tabu, with cessation from work and warfare, at a funeral or festival.458 In any case Macha's curse is a myth explanatory of the origin of some existing custom, the duration of which is much exaggerated by the narrator. To this period belong also the tale of Cúchulainn's visit to Elysium, and others to be referred to later. Another story describes his attack upon Morrigan because she would neither yield up the cows which she was driving away nor tell her true name—an instance of the well-known name tabu. Morrigan took the form of a bird, and was then recognised by Cúchulainn, who poured scorn upon her, while she promised to oppose him during the fight of the Táin in the forms of an eel, a wolf, and a cow, all of which he vowed to destroy.459 Like many others in the saga, this story is introductory to the main episode of the Táin. To this we now turn.
Medb had been wife of Conchobar, but, leaving him, had married in succession two chiefs called Ailill, the second of whom had a bull, Findbennach, the White-horned, which she resolved to match by one in every way its equal. Having been refused the Brown Bull of Cuailgne, she summoned all her forces to invade Ulster. The moment was inauspicious for Ulster, for all its men were suffering from their "debility." Cúchulainn, therefore, went out to encounter the host, and forced Medb to agree that a succession of her warriors should engage him in single combat. Among these was his old friend Ferdia, and nothing is so touching as his reluctance to fight him or so pathetic as his grief when Ferdia falls. The reluctance is primarily due to the tie of blood-brotherhood existing between them. Finally, the Ulstermen rose in force and defeated Medb, but not before she had already captured the bull and sent it into her own land. There it was fought by the Findbennach and slew it, rushing back to Ulster with the mangled body on its horns. But in its frenzy a rock seemed to be another bull, which it charged; its brains were dashed out, and it fell dead.
The Morrigan had warned the bull of the approach of Medb's army, and she had also appeared in the form of a beautiful woman to Cúchulainn offering him her love, only to be repulsed. Hence she turned against him, and described how she would oppose him as an eel, a wolf, and a red heifer—an incident which is probably a variant of that already described.460 In each of these shapes she was conquered and wounded by the hero, and knowing that none whom he hurt could be healed save by himself, she appeared to him as an old crone milking a cow. At each draught of the milk which he received from her he blessed her with "the blessing of gods and not-gods," and so her wounds were healed.461 For this, at a later time, she tried to ward off his death, but unsuccessfully. During the progress of the Táin, one of Cúchulainn's "fairy kinsmen," namely, Lug, who announced himself as his father, appeared to aid him, while others of the Tuatha Déa threw "herbs of healing" into the streams in which his wounds were washed.462
During the Táin, Cúchulainn slaughtered the wizard Calatin and his daughters. But Calatin's wife bore three posthumous sons and three daughters, and through their means the hero was at last slain. Everything was done to keep him back from the host which now advanced against Ulster, but finally one of Calatin's daughters took the form of Niamh and bade him go forth. As he passed to the fight, Calatin's daughters persuaded him to eat the flesh of a dog—a fatal deed, for it was one of his geasa never to eat dog's flesh. So it was that in the fight he was slain by Lugaid,463 and his soul appeared to the thrice fifty queens who had loved him, chanting a mystic song of the coming of Christ and the day of doom—an interesting example of a phantasm coincidental with death.464 This and other Christian touches show that the Christian redactors of the saga felt tenderly towards the old pagan hero. This is even more marked in the story in which he appears to King Loegaire and S. Patrick, begging the former to believe in God and the saint, and praying Patrick to "bring me with thy faithful ones unto the land of the living."465 A similar Christianising appears in the story of Conchobar's death, the result of his mad frenzy on hearing from his Druid that an earthquake is the result of the shameful crucifixion of Christ.466
In the saga, Cúchulainn appears as the ideal Celtic warrior, but, like other ideal warriors, he is a "magnified, non-natural man," many of his deeds being merely exaggerations of those common among barbaric folk. Even his "distortion" or battle frenzy is but a magnifying of the wild frenzy of all wild fighters. To the person of this ideal warrior, some of whose traits may have been derived from traditional stories of actual heroes, Märchen and saga episodes attached themselves. Of every ideal hero, Celtic, Greek, Babylonian, or Polynesian, certain things are told—his phenomenal strength as a child; his victory over enormous forces; his visits to the Other-world; his amours with a goddess; his divine descent. These belong to the common stock of folk-tale episodes, and accumulate round every great name. Hence, save in the colouring given to them or the use made of them by any race, they do not afford a key to the mythic character of the hero. Such deeds are ascribed to Cúchulainn, as they doubtless were to the ideal heroes of the "undivided Aryans," but though parallels may be found between him and the Greek Heracles, they might just as easily be found in non-Aryan regions, e.g. in Polynesia. Thus the parallels between Cúchulainn and Heracles throw little light on the personality of the former, though here and there in such parallels we observe a peculiarly Celtic touch. Thus, while the Greek hero rescues Hesione from a dragon, it is from three Fomorians that Cúchulainn rescues Devorgilla, namely, from beings to whom actual human sacrifice was paid. Thus a Märchen formula of world-wide existence has been moulded by Celtic religious belief and ritual practice.467
It was inevitable that the "mythological school" should regard Cúchulainn as a solar hero. Thus "he reaches his full development at an unusually early age," as the sun does,468 but also as do many other heroes of saga and Märchen who are not solar. The three colours of Cúchulainn's hair, dark near the skin, red in the middle, golden near the top, are claimed to be a description of the sun's rays, or of the three parts into which the Celts divided the day.469 Elsewhere his tresses are yellow, like Prince Charlie's in fact and in song, yet he was not a solar hero. Again, the seven pupils of his eyes perhaps "referred to the days of the week."470 Blindness befell all women who loved him, a reference to the difficulty of gazing at the sun.471 This is prosaic! The blindness was a compliment paid to Cúchulainn the blind, by women who made themselves blind while talking to him, just as Conall Cernach's mistresses squinted as he did.472 Cúchulainn's blindness arose from his habit of sinking one eye into his head and protruding the other—a well-known solar trait! His "distortion," during which, besides this "blindness," blood shot upwards from his head and formed a magic mist, and his anger caused showers of sparks to mount above him, points to dawn or sunset,473 though the setting sun would rather suggest a hero sinking calmly to rest than a mad giant setting out to slaughter friend and foe. The "distortion," as already pointed out, is the exaggerated description of the mad warrior rage, just as the fear which produced death to those who saw him brandish his weapons, was also produced by Maori warrior methods.474 Lug, who may be a sun-god, has no such "distortion." The cooling of the hero in three vats, the waters of which boil over, and his emergence from them pinky red in colour, symbolise the sun sinking into the waters and reappearing at dawn.475 Might it not describe in an exaggerated way the refreshing bath taken by frenzied warriors, the water being supposed to grow warm from the heat of their bodies?476 One of the hero's geasa was not to see Manannan's horses, the waves; which, being interpreted, means that the sun is near its death as it approaches the sea. Yet Lug, a sun-god, rides the steed Enbarr, a personification of the waves, while Cúchulainn himself often crossed the sea, and also lived with the sea-god's wife, Fand, without coming to grief. Again, the magic horses which he drives, black and grey in colour, are "symbols of day and night,"477 though it is not obvious why a grey horse should symbolise day, which is not always grey even in the isles of the west. Unlike a solar hero, too, Cúchulainn is most active in winter, and rests for a brief space from slaughtering at midday—the time of the sun's greatest activity both in summer and winter.
Another theory is that every visit of the hero to a strange land signifies a descent to Hades, suggested by the sun sinking in the west. Scathach's island may be Hades, but it is more probably Elysium with some traits borrowed from the Christian idea of hell. But Emer's land, also visited by Cúchulainn, suggests neither Hades nor Elysium. Emer calls herself ingen rig richis garta, translated by Professor Rh[^y]s as "daughter of the coal-faced king," i.e. she is daughter of darkness. Hence she is a dawn-maiden and becomes the sun-hero's wife.478 There is nothing in the story to corroborate this theory, apart from the fact that it is not clear, even to the hypothetical primitive mind, why dawn and sun should be a divine pair. Emer's words probably mean that she is "daughter of a king" and "a flame of hospitality" (richis garta.)479 Cúchulainn, in visiting her, went from west to east, contrary to the apparent course of the sun. The extravagance of the solar theory is further seen in the hypothesis that because Cúchulainn has other wives, the sun-god made love to as many dawn-maidens as there are days in the year,480 like the king in Louys' romance with his 366 wives, one for each day of the year, leap-year included.
Further examples of the solar theory need not be cited. It is enough to see in Cúchulainn the ideal warrior, whose traits are bombastic and obscure exaggerations of actual custom and warfare, or are borrowed from folk-tale motifs not exclusively Celtic. Possibly he may have been a war-god, since he is associated with Badb481 and also with Morrigan. But he has also some traits of a culture hero. He claims superiority in wisdom, in law, in politics, in the art of the Filid, and in Druidism, while he brings various things from the world of the gods482. In any case the Celts paid divine honours to heroes, living or dead,483 and Cúchulainn, god or ideal hero, may have been the subject of a cult. This lends point to the theory of M. D'Arbois that Cúchulainn and Conall Cernach are the equivalents of Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, said by Diodorus to be worshipped among the Celts near the Ocean.484 Cúchulainn, like Pollux, was son of a god, and was nursed, according to some accounts, by Findchoém, mother of Conall,485 just as Leda was mother of Castor as well as of Pollux. But, on the other hand, Cúchulainn, unlike Pollux, was mortal. M. D'Arbois then identifies the two pairs of heroes with certain figures on an altar at Cluny. These are Castor and Pollux; Cernunnos and Smertullos. He equates Castor with Cernunnos, and Pollux with Smertullos. Smertullos is Cúchulainn, and the name is explained from an incident in the Táin, in which the hero, reproached for his youth, puts on a false beard before attacking Morrigan in her form as an eel. This is expressed by smérthain, "to attach", and is thus connected with and gave rise to the name Smertullos. On the altar Smertullos is attacking an eel or serpent. Hence Pollux is Smertullos-Cúchulainn.486 Again, the name Cernunnos signifies "the horned one," from cernu, "horn," a word found in Conall's epithet Cernach. But this was not given him because he was horned, but because of the angular shape of his head, the angle (cern) being the result of a blow.487 The epithet may mean "victorious."488 On the whole, the theory is more ingenious than convincing, and we have no proof that the figures of Castor and Pollux on the altar were duplicates of the Celtic pair. Cernunnos was an underworld god, and Conall has no trace of such a character.
M. D'Arbois also traces the saga in Gaul in the fact that on the menhir of Kervadel Mercury is figured with a child, Mercury, in his opinion, being Lug, and the child Cúchulainn.489 On another altar are depicted (1) a woodman, Esus, cutting down a tree, and (2) a bull on which are perched three birds—Tarvos Trigaranos. The two subjects, as M. Reinach points out, are combined on another altar at Trèves, on which a woodman is cutting down a tree in which are perched three birds, while a bull's head appears in the branches.490 These represent, according to M. D'Arbois, incidents of the Táin—the cutting down of trees by Cúchulainn and placing them in the way of his enemies, and the warning of the bull by Morrigan in the bird form which she shared with her sisters Badb and Macha.491 Why, then, is Cúchulainn called Esus? "Esus" comes from a root which gives words meaning "rapid motion," "anger," "strength"—all shown by the hero.492 The altars were found in the land of the Belgic Treveri, and some Belgic tribes may have passed into Britain and Ireland carrying the Esus-Cúchulainn legend there in the second century B.C., e.g. the Setantii, dwelling by the Mersey, and bearing a name similar to that of the hero in his childhood—Setanta (Setantios) as well as the Menapii and Brigantes, located in Ireland by Ptolemy.493 In other words, the divine Esus, with his surname Smertullos, was called in Ireland Setanta, after the Setantii, and at a later date, Cúchulainn. The princely name Donnotaurus resembles Dond tarb, the "Brown Bull" of the saga, and also suggests its presence in Gaul, while the name [Greek: dêiotaros], perhaps the equivalent of De[^u]io-taruos, "Divine Bull," is found in Galatia.494 Thus the main elements of the saga may have been known to the continental Celts before it was localised in Ireland,495 and, it may be added, if it was brought there by Gallo-British tribes, this might account for the greater popularity of the native, possibly pre-Celtic, Fionn saga among the folk, as well as for the finer literary quality of the Cúchulainn saga. But the identification of Esus with Cúchulainn rests on slight grounds; the names Esus and Smertullos are not found in Ireland, and the Gaulish Esus, worshipped with human sacrifice, has little affinity with the hero, unless his deeds of slaughter are reminiscent of such rites. It is possible, however, that the episode of the Táin came from a myth explaining ritual acts. This myth may have been the subject of the bas-reliefs, carried to Ireland, and there worked into the saga.
The folk-versions of the saga, though resembling the literary versions, are less elaborate and generally wilder, and perhaps represent its primitive form.496 The greatest differences are found in versions of the Táin and of Cúchulainn's death, which, separate in the saga, are parts of one folk-tale, the death occurring during the fighting over the bull. The bull is his property, and Medb sends Garbh mac Stairn to take it from him. He pretends to be a child, goes to bed, and tricks Garbh, who goes off to get the bull. Cúchulainn arrives before him and personates the herdsman. Each seizes a horn, and the bull is torn in two.497 Does this represent the primitive form of the Táin, and, further, were the bull and Cúchulainn once one and the same—a bull, the incarnation of a god or vegetation spirit, being later made anthropomorphic—a hero-god whose property or symbol was a bull? Instances of this process are not unknown among the Celts.498 In India, Indra was a bull and a divine youth, in Greece there was the bull-Dionysos, and among the Celts the name of the divine bull was borne by kings.499 In the saga Morrigan is friendly to the bull, but fights for Medb; but she is now friendly, now hostile to Cúchulainn, finally, however, trying to avert his doom. If he had once been the bull, her friendliness would not be quite forgotten, once he became human and separate from the bull. When she first met Cúchulainn she had a cow on whom the Brown Bull was to beget a calf, and she told the hero that "So long as the calf which is in this cow's body is a yearling, it is up to that time that thou art in life; and it is this that will lead to the Táin."500 This suggests that the hero was to die in the battle, but it shows that the Brown Bull's calf is bound up his life. The Bull was a reincarnation of a divine swineherd, and if, as in the case of Cúchulainn, "his rebirth could only be of himself,"501 the calf was simply a duplicate of the bull, and, as it was bound up with the hero's life, bull and hero may well have been one. The life or soul was in the calf, and, as in all such cases, the owner of the soul and that in which it is hidden are practically identical. Cúchulainn's "distortion" might then be explained as representing the bull's fury in fight, and the folk-tales would be popular forms of an old myth explaining ritual in which a bull, the incarnation of a tree or vegetation spirit, was slain, and the sacred tree cut down and consumed, as in Celtic agricultural ritual. This would be the myth represented on the bas-reliefs, and in the ritual the bull would be slain, rent, and eaten by his worshippers. Why, then, should Cúchulainn rend the bull? In the later stages of such rites the animal was slain, not so much as a divine incarnation as a sacrifice to the god once incarnated in him. And when a god was thus separated from his animal form, myths often arose telling how he himself had slain the animal.502 In the case of Cúchulainn and the bull, the god represented by the bull became separate from it, became anthropomorphic, and in that form was associated with or actually was the hero Cúchulainn. Bull sacrifices were common among the Celts with whom the bull had been a divine animal.503 Possibly a further echo of this myth and ritual is to be found in the folk-belief that S. Martin was cut up and eaten in the form of an ox—the god incarnate in the animal being associated with a saint.504 Thus the literary versions of the Táin, departing from the hypothetical primitive versions, kept the bull as the central figure, but introduced a rival bull, and described its death differently, while both bulls are said to be reincarnations of divine swine-herds.505 The idea of a fight for a bull is borrowed from actual custom, and thus the old form of the story was further distorted.
The Cúchulainn saga is more coherent than the Fionn saga, because it possesses one central incident. The "canon" of the saga was closed at an early date, while that of Fionn has practically never been closed, mainly because it has been more a saga of the folk than that of Cúchulainn. In some respects the two may have been rivals, for if the Cúchulainn saga was introduced by conquerors from Britain or Gaul, it would not be looked on with favour by the folk. Or if it is the saga of Ulster as opposed to that of Leinster, rivalry would again ensue. The Fionn saga lives more in the hearts of the people, though it sometimes borrows from the other. This borrowing, however, is less than some critics, e.g. Zimmer, maintain. Many of the likenesses are the result of the fact that wherever a hero exists a common stock of incidents becomes his. Hence there is much similarity in all sagas wherever found.
IT i. 134; Nutt-Meyer, ii. 38 f.; Windisch, Táin, 342; L. Duvau, "La Legende de la Conception de Cúchulainn," RC ix. 1 f.
Windisch, Táin, 118 f. For a similar reason Finnchad was called Cú Cerca, "the hound of Cerc" (IT iii. 377).
For the boyish exploits, see Windisch, Táin, 106 f.
RC vii. 225; Windisch, Táin, 20. Macha is a granddaughter of Ler, but elsewhere she is called Mider's daughter (RC xvi. 46).
Rh[^y]s, CFL ii. 654; Westermarck, Hist. of Human Marriage, ch. 2.
Miss Hull, Folk-Lore, xii. 60, citing instances from Jevons, Hist. of Religion, 65.
Windisch, IT ii. 239.
Windisch, 184, 312, 330; cf. IT iii. 355; Miss Hull, 164 f.; Rh[^y]s, HL 468.
LL 119a; RC iii. 175.
RC iii. 175 f.
Crowe, Jour. Kilkenny Arch. Soc. 1870-1871, 371 f.
LL 68a; Rh[^y]s, 437; Ingcel the one-eyed has also many pupils (RC xxii. 58).
Miss Hull, lxiii.
RC viii. 49.
LL 77b; Miss Hull, lxii.
Other Celtic heroes undergo this distortion, which resembles the Scandinavian warrior rage followed by languor, as in the case of Cúchulainn.
Miss Hull, p. lxvi.
Irish saints, standing neck deep in freezing water, made it hot.
IT i. 268; D'Arbois, v. 103; Miss Hull, lxvi.
See Meyer, RC xi. 435; Windisch, IT i. 589, 740. Though richis means "charcoal," it is also glossed "flame," hence it could only be glowing charcoal, without any idea of darkness.
IT i. 107.
Arch. Rev. i. 1 f.; IT i. 213; see p. 381, infra.
See p. 164, infra.
Diod. Siculus, iv. 56.
IT iii. 393.
Les Celtes, 58 f. Formerly M. D'Arbois identified Smertullos with Lug, ii. 217; Holder, i. 46, 262. For the incident of the beard, see Windisch, Táin, 308.
IT iii. 395.
IT i. 420.
RC xxvii. 319 f.
RC xviii. 256.
Les Celtes, 63; RC xix. 246.
D'Arbois, RC xx. 89.
D'Arbois, RC xxvii. 321; Les Celtes, 65.
Les Celtes, 49; Cæsar, vi. 14.
In contradiction to this, M. D'Arbois elsewhere thinks that Druids from Britain may have taught the Cúchulainn legend in Gaul (RC xxvii. 319).
See versions in Book of the Dean of Lismore; CM xiii.; Campbell, The Fians, 6 f.
CM xiii. 327, 514. The same story is told of Fionn, ibid. 512. See also ballad versions in Campbell, LF 3 f.
See p. 212, infra.
A Galatian king was called Brogitaros, probably a form of Brogitaruos, "bull of the province," a title borne by Conchobar, tarb in chóicid (IT i. 72). This with the epithets applied to heroes in the Triads, "bull-phantom," "prince bull of combat" (Loth, ii. 232, 243), may be an appellative denoting great strength.