restricted access Cuchulain and the Tain Bo Cuailnge: A Celtic Iliad
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Cuchulain and the Tain Bo Cuailnge:
A Celtic Iliad


The myth of the hero Cuchulain,1 who saved Northern Ireland from the southern marauders in the Tain Bo Cuailnge,2 or great Battle for the Brown Bull of Cooley, has been variously retold for centuries. Lady Augusta Gregory, with the support of her friend William Butler Yeats, first compiled and translated these tales in 1902. Among Irish scholars and writers who have retold the myths, my principal sources include Lady Gregory, Marie Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, Moyra Caldecott, and W. B. Yeats. The selection of episodes included here, as well as the idiom, are my contribution to this myth-making.

Chapter III

The Ambience

Those good old glorious days, the scald crows,war goddesses, and vengeful furies,the cattle raid that brought them all to blows.Wars and chariot fights served as juries.

Battles royal, bodies maimed, underworldbetrayals, beheadings, incest beddingsmet with breezy revenge, javelins hurled,passions, priestly druids, and fixed weddings. [End Page 150]

Chapter IV

The Hangout

Emain Macha,3 Ulster's Palace, a sortof gated community with threehouses. One, the "Red Branch" condo-like fortwhere the king dwelt in warrior esprit.

Two, the "Twinkling Hoard" storage shed and gym,brilliant with golden sword hilts, glimmerof gold goblets, silver shield coils and rims.Other treasures, in the third house, grimmer.

Three, the "Ruddy Branch," a local savings vault.The place of plundered spoils, severed heads.In these houses all men ruled—they thought.But women owned the power—were adept

at supernatural stuff, fertility,sovereign over wars, human destiny—goddesses with great agilityand not committed to virginity.

Chapter VI

The Hero's Backstory: Birth of Cuchulain

Ulster King Conor Mac Nessa's4 sister,Dechtire,5 drank from a cup. A dull budslipped into her mouth. A strange mistercame to her in a dream, said his blood [End Page 151] was the boy he'd planted in her womb.All of Ulster wondered if the fathermight be King Conor himself. None presumeda virgin birth could have bewitched her.

Some say, others, or, the husband Conorarranged, was the true Dad. No bastardthis babe. Dechtire's girlfriends—the onestemporarily turned into birds—

gathered with the men of Ulster to saywho should rear the boy they named Setanta.6The boy's aunt picked, pleased to take him awayuntil he grew to face the arena.

Chapter VII

The Boyhood Deeds of Cuchulain

Called Setanta for his first six years,the bold lad heard tales of how the Red Branchboys—culled and coached by Conor—learned war skills.He went to Emain Macha for a chance

to be champion. His backpack stuffedwith hurling stick, ball, javelin, toy spearand wood shield. He was harshly rebuffedby the boys, but Setanta had no fear.

It took Fergus, the lad's foster father,and King Conor to convince the boysto lay off Setanta, get together."No prob," said the lad. Then made a great noise, [End Page 152]

as a Warp-Spasm caught him—first a slur,and each fire-tipped hair shot up, one eyea slit, the other wide as a saucer,teeth bared, as a hero-halo rose high.

He laid low the three-times-fifty boy troop.Then Setanta offered the panickedboys his protection, drank some stone soup,napped until awakened. At this he balked

and drove his fist into the rouser's skull.They said it was a warrior's fist.None dared to waken him again. The hallmust stay silent for him, they would insist.

Chapter VIII

Cuchulain Gets His Name

At seven, Setanta was invitedto friend Culann's7 banquet to honorthe King. The lad stayed back, excitedto finish games with the boy troop. Conor

agreed, left apart for the special bash."Is all your party present?" asked Culann."Sure thing," the feckless King said, in rashreply. "Thus I'll loose my hound, a sullen

fierce one, protects the place." The hound sprungat the lone arriving innocent childwho approached the fort. Setanta flunghis ball down...