In Irish mythology Cúchulainn (also spelled Cú Chulainn) is the pre-eminent hero of Ulster in the Ulster Cycle. His mother was Deichtine, sister of king Conchobar mac Nessa; his father was either the god Lugh, or Deichtine's mortal husband Sualtam, and his foster-father was Fergus mac Róich. His charioteer, Láeg, is ever-present by his side.
Cúchulainn was almost undefeatable in battle due to his spear (which sang for the blood of its enemies) and his warrior frenzy, comparable to that of the Norse berserkers. It is described in Thomas Kinsella's translation of The Táin this way:
- "The Warp-Spasm overtook him : it seemed each hair was hammered into his head, so sharply they shot upright. You would swear a fire-speck tipped each hair. He squeezed one eye narrower than the eye of a needle; he opened the other wider than the mouth of a goblet. He bared his jaws to the ear; he peeled back his lips to the eye-teeth till his gullet showed. The hero-halo rose up from the crown of his head."
This frenzy caused him to turn about in his skin; his sinews bulged with knots the size of a baby's head; a poisonous black mist rose above his head; and he snapped his jaw shut with enough force to kill a lion, showering sparks. In this fearsome state he could not tell friend from foe, killing in front and behind alike.
A Manx story tries to account for this frenzy. The story claims that Cúchulainn came to the Isle of Man to have his spear made by a famous smith in return for the promise of a part of the land he would conquer. While he waited for the spear to be made, he discovered and captured a mermaid named Teeval "the princess of the sea" who gave him the ability to call on her for help in battle in return for her freedom. The story says that when he called out to her for help, a great strength flowed into him and he cut down his enemies like grass.
The warp spasm of the hero Slaine in the comic book 2000 AD is based on Cúchulainn's frenzy.
His childhood name was Sétanta, but he gained the name Cú Chulainn ("Culann's Hound") when, as a child, he killed (in self-defence) the fierce watchdog of Culann the smith. Out of obligation he offered to take its place while a replacement was reared. He took arms when, at the age of seven, he heard the druid Cathbad prophesy that anyone who took arms that day would have everlasting fame, although his life would be short - one of the reasons he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles.
Emer and Cúchulainn's training
In Cúchulainn's youth he was so beautiful the Ulstermen worried that, without a wife of his own, he would steal their wives and ruin their daughters. They searched all over Ireland for a suitable wife for him, but he would have none but Emer, daughter of Forgall the Wily.
However, Forgall was opposed to the match. He suggested that Cúchulainn should train in arms with the renowned warrior-woman Scáthach in Scotland, hoping the ordeal would be too much for him and he would be killed. Cúchulainn took up the challenge. In the meantime, Forgall offered Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster. However, when he heard that Emer loved Cúchulainn, Lugaid refused her hand.
Scáthach taught Cúchulainn all the arts of war, including the use of the Gae Bulg, a terrible, barbed spear that had to be cut out of its victim. His fellow trainees included Ferdiad, who became Cúchulainn's best friend and foster-brother.
While there he slept with Scáthach's rival Aífe and left her pregnant.
Cúchulainn returned from Scotland fully trained, but Forgall still refused to let him marry Emer. Cúchulainn stormed Forgall's fortress, killing twenty-four of Forgall's men, abducted Emer and stole Forgall's treasure. Forgall himself fell from the ramparts to his death.
Conchobar mac Nessa, the king of Ulster, had the "right of the first night" over all marriages of his subjects. He was afraid of Cúchulainn's reaction if he exercised it in this case, but would lose his authority if he didn't. A solution was found - Conchobar would sleep with Emer on the night of the wedding, but Cathbad the druid would sleep between them.
Seven years later, Connla, Cúchulainn's son by Aífe, came to Ireland in search of his father, but Cúchulainn took him as an intruder and killed him when he refused to identify himself.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
At the age of seventeen, Cú Chulainn single-handedly defended Ulster from the army of Connacht in Táin Bó Cúailnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley). The men of Ulster were disabled by a curse, so Cú Chulainn prevented Medb's army from advancing by invoking the right of single combat at fords. He defeated champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months. When Fergus was sent to face him he agreed to yield, so long as Fergus agreed to return the compliment the next time they met. Finally, he fought a gruelling three day duel with his best friend and foster-brother, Ferdiad. The Ulstermen eventually roused, and the final battle began. Fergus kept his side of the bargain and yielded to Cú Chulainn, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht's other allies panicked and Medb was forced to retreat.
Cúchulainn and Cú Roí
Cúchulainn had encounters with Cú Roí mac Dáire of Munster, both as an ally and an enemy.
The troublemaker Briccriu once incited three heroes, Cúchulainn, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Búadach, to compete for the champion's portion at his feast. In every test that was set Cúchulainn came out top, but neither Conall nor Lóegaire would accept the result. Cú Roí settled it by visiting each in the guise of a hideous churl and challenging them to behead him, then allow him to return and behead them in return. Conall and Lóegaire both beheaded Cú Roí, who picked up his head and left, but when the time came for him to return they fled. Only Cúchulainn was brave and honourable enough to submit himself to Cú Roí's axe; Cú Roí spared him and he was declared champion.
Cú Roí, again in disguise, joined the Ulstermen on a raid on Inis Fer Falga (probably the Isle of Man), in return for his choice of the spoils. They stole treasure, and abducted Blathnat, daughter of the island's king, who loved Cúchulainn. But when Cú Roí was asked to choose his share, he chose Blathnat. Cúchulainn tried to stop him taking her, but Cú Roí cut his hair and drove him into the ground up to his armpits, before escaping, taking Blathnat with him.
Later, Blathnat betrayed Cú Roí to Cúchulainn, who beseiged his fort and killed him. However Ferchertne, Cú Roí's poet, enraged at the betrayal of his lord, grabbed Blathnat and leaped off a cliff, killing her and himself.
Emer's only jealousy
Cúchulainn had many lovers, but Emer's only jealousy came when he fell in love with Fand, wife of Manannan mac Lir. Manannan had left her and she had been attacked by three Fomorians who wanted to control the Irish Sea. Cúchulainn agreed to help defend her as long as she married him. She agreed reluctantly, but they fell in love when they met.
Manannan knew their relationship was doomed because Cúchulainn was mortal and Fand was a fairy; Cúchulainn's presence would destroy the fairies. Emer, meanwhile, tried to kill her rival, but when she saw the strength of Fand's love for Cúchulainn she decided to give him up to her. Fand, touched by Emer's magnanimity, decided to return to her own husband. Manannan shook his cloak between Cúchulainn and Fand, ensuring the two would never meet again, and Cúchulainn and Emer drank a potion to wipe the whole affair from their memories.
In Dublin, a statue of Cúchulainn outside the General Post Office shows his demise. Medb conspired with Lugaid, son of Cú Roí, Erc, son of Cairbre Nia Fer, and the sons of others Cúchulainn had killed, to draw him out to his death.
Cúchulainn's fate was sealed by his breaking of the geasa upon him. In Cúchulainn's case, his geasa included both a obligation to accept any meal offered to him, and a ban against eating dog meat. His enemies contrived to force him to break one of these geasa by the simple approach of offering him a meal of dog meat. In this way he was spiritually weakened for the fight ahead of him.
Mortally wounded by Lugaid's spear, Cúchulainn tied himself to a pillar-stone in order to remain standing. Only when a raven landed on his shoulder did his enemies believe he was dead. Lugaid cut off his head, but as he did so Cúchulainn's sword fell from his hand and cut Lugaid's hand off.
Conall Cernach had sworn that if Cú Chulainn died before him he would avenge him before sunset, and he kept his promise. He pursued Lugaid, and fought him with one hand tucked into his belt, as his opponent had lost a hand, but he only won after his horse took a bite out of Lugaid's side.
He also killed Erc, and took his head back to Tara, where his sister Achall died of grief for her brother.
- The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella from the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Oxford University Press, 1969; ISBN 0192810901
- Simon James, The World of the Celts, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1993; ISBN 0500050678
In the animated series, Gargoyles, Cúchulainn is a featured character in the episode, "The Hound of Ulster". In this episode, part of the World Tour story arc, the travelers, especially Bronx, play an important role in awakening an Irish wastral, Rory Dugan, to realizing that he is the reincarnation of the Irish hero who is depicted much like the Marvel Universe's Thor.