Cú Chulainn, also spelled Cú Chulaind or Cúchulainn ([kuːˈxʊlˠɪnʲ] ( listen), Irish for “Culann‘s Hound”; and sometimes known in English as Cuhullin ( /kəˈhʊlɨn/), is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore. The son of the god Lug and Deichtine (sister of Conchobar mac Nessa), his childhood name was Sétanta.
He gained his better-known name as a child after he killed Culann’s fierce guard-dog in self-defence, and offered to take its place until a replacement could be reared. At the age of seventeen he defended Ulster single-handedly against the armies of queen Medb of Connacht in the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (“Cattle Raid of Cooley“). It was prophesied that his great deeds would give him everlasting fame, but that his life would be a short one. This is the reason why he is compared to the Greek hero Achilles. He is known for his terrifying battle frenzy or ríastrad, (translated by Thomas Kinsella as “warp spasm” and by Ciaran Carson as “torque”) in which he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. He fights from his chariot, driven by his loyal charioteer Láeg, and drawn by his horses, Liath Macha and Dub Sainglend. In more modern times, Cú Chulainn is often referred to as the “Hound of Ulster”.
Emer and Cú Chulainn’s training
Main article: Tochmarc Emire
In Cú Chulainn’s youth he is so beautiful the Ulstermen worry that, without a wife of his own, he will steal their wives and ruin their daughters. They search all over Ireland for a suitable wife for him, but he will have none but Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach. However, Forgall is opposed to the match. He suggests that Cú Chulainn should train in arms with the renowned warrior-woman Scáthach in the land of Alba (Scotland), hoping the ordeal will be too much for him and he will be killed. Cú Chulainn takes up the challenge. In the meantime, Forgall offers Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster, but when he hears that Emer loves Cú Chulainn, Lugaid refuses her hand.
Scáthach teaches Cú Chulainn all the arts of war, including the use of the Gáe Bulg, a terrible barbed spear, thrown with the foot, that has to be cut out of its victim. His fellow trainees include Ferdiad, who becomes Cú Chulainn’s best friend and foster-brother. During his time there, Scáthach faces a battle against Aífe, her rival and in some versions her twin sister. Scáthach, knowing Aífe’s prowess, fears for Cú Chulainn’s life and gives him a powerful sleeping potion to keep him from the battle. However, because of Cú Chulainn’s great strength, it only puts him to sleep for an hour, and he soon joins the fray. He fights Aífe in single combat, and the two are evenly matched, but Cú Chulainn distracts her by calling out that Aífe’s horses and chariot, the things she values most in the world, have fallen off a cliff, and seizes her. He spares her life on the condition that she call off her enmity with Scáthach, and bear him a son.
Leaving Aífe pregnant, Cú Chulainn returns from Scotland fully trained, but Forgall still refuses to let him marry Emer. Cú Chulainn storms Forgall’s fortress, killing twenty-four of Forgall’s men, abducts Emer and steals Forgall’s treasure. Forgall himself falls from the ramparts to his death. Conchobar has the “right of the first night” over all marriages of his subjects. He is afraid of Cú Chulainn’s reaction if he exercises it in this case, but is equally afraid of losing his authority if he does not. Cathbad suggests a solution: Conchobar sleeps with Emer on the night of the wedding, but Cathbad sleeps between them.