The Ulster Cycle

Heroic legends from Ireland

Archive for the ‘Cu Chulainn’ Category

The Conception of Cú Chulainn version 1

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There follows the Conception of Cú Chulainn from the Book of Druimm Snechta.

Conchobar and the nobles of Ulster were at Emain Macha.  A flock of birds arrived on the plain before Emain, and ate, leaving not so much as a root or a leaf or a blade of grass in the ground. It was upsetting for the Ulstermen to see their land so despoiled. That day they made ready nine chariots to chase them away, for hunting birds was a custom of theirs.

There was Conchobar in his chariot, his full-grown sister Deichtine beside him, for she was her father’s charioteer. Then the champions of Ulster in their chariots, Conall Cernach and Lóegaire Buadach and everyone else. Even Bricriu was with them.

The birds went before them effortlessly, past Slíab Fúait, past Edmond, past Brega. There was neither earthwork nor fence nor stone wall in the country of Ireland at that time, only level plains (it wasn’t until the times of the sons of Áed Slane that they created boundaries in Ireland, so great were the number of dwellings).

The flight of the birds, and their song, captivated the Ulstermen with their beauty. There were nine score birds in all, with a silver chain between each pair of birds, and each score flew its own way. And two birds flew out in front, a silver yoke between them.

As evening drew on, three birds split off from the rest and flew on ahead towards the Brug na Bóinde. Night fell upon the Ulstermen, and there was a great fall of snow. Conchobar told his retinue to unyoke the chariots and to have a look for some shelter for them.

Conall and Bricriu went to have a look. They found a single, newly-built house. They went in, and found a couple there, who made them welcome. Then they returned to the retinue. Bricriu said it wasn’t fit for them to stay in a house that couldn’t offer them food or clothing, and which was on the small side, but they went all the same, taking their chariots with them.

They barely fit into that house. Immediately they saw a door to a storehouse. When it was time to serve food, the Ulstermen were soon merry with drink and in good humour.

Then the man of the house told them his wife was in labour in the storehouse. Deichtine went in and gave her assistance, and she bore a son. At the same time, a mare gave birth to two colts in the doorway of the house. The Ulstermen took the boy, and they gave him the colts as a gift. Deichtine nursed him.

When morning came, the Ulstermen found themselves to the east of the Brug, and neither the house nor the birds could be seen, only their own horses, and the boy and his colts. They took them to Emain with them, and the boy was raised to early childhood among them. Then he took sick, and died of it. He was mourned.

Deichtine was devastated at the loss of her foster-child. Her sighing made her thirsty. She asked for a drink from a copper vessel, and one was brought to her. When she brought it to her lips, a tiny creature leaped from the liquid into her mouth. When she put it down, empty, she felt drained.

As she slept that night, she saw a man who spoke to her. He told her she would bear his child. It was he who had brought her and her companions to the Brug na Bóinde, and it was in his house they’d spent the night. The child she had nursed was his, as was the one he had put into her belly. His name was to be Sétanta, and the colts were to be reared for him. The man was Lug mac Ethnenn  himself.

And so the girl was pregant, and this was a matter of concern among the Ulstermen, because she didn’t have a husband. They attributed the child to a drunken Conchobar, for the girl used to sleep next to him.

After that, Conchobar betrothed the girl to Súaltam mac Róich. She was very ashamed to go to her husband’s bed pregnant by another, o she went to the bedstead and stabbed and beat her belly this way and that, until she was virgin-whole. Then she slept with her husband, and immediately became pregnant again. She bore him a son.

Culann the smith took him as his foster-son. When he was a lad, he killed Culann’s dog, which came from the síd,  when he was playing, and because of that he said, ‘I’ll be your dog, master.’ And that’s how the name Cú Chulainn – Culann’s Hound – became attached to him.


Manuscript sources

  • This version of the story is found in Lebor na hUidre (the Book of the Dun Cow, c.1106) and a number of other manuscripts, where it is claimed to have been copied from the lost Book of Druimm Snechta, believed to date from the early eighth century. The version given here is my own translation, from the text edited by A G Van Hamel, and the text of Lebor na hUidre edited by R I Best and Osborn Bergin.

References

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Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Cú Chulainn’s Shield

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A law was made by the Ulstermen that they should make silver shields, and that the engraving on each shield should be different. At that time Cú Chulainn was at his training with Scáthach and Búanann. When he saw the kind of shields that were being made for him in that land, he went to the specialist shield-maker, Mac Endge.

‘Make me a shield,’ he said, ‘and make sure no other other Ulsterman’s shield has the same engraving on it.’

‘I can’t do that,’ said Mac Endge, ‘for I used up all my skill on the Ulstermen’s shields.’

‘I swear by my weapon,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘I will kill you if you don’t make it as I ask.’

‘I am under Conchobar’s protection against you,’ said Mac Endge.

‘Go to Conchobar for protection,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘and I’ll still kill you.’

Cú Chulainn headed home, and Mac Endge became very depressed. Just then he saw a man sitting in the skylight, a two-pronged fork in his hand.

‘This is terrible,’ said the man.

‘You’re telling me!’ said Mac Endge. ‘I’ll be killed if I don’t make Cú Chulainn his shield.’

‘Clean your house,’ said the man, ‘and have ashes strewn on the floor, as deep as a man’s feet.’

It was done as he said, and he marked out one of the portions of the design in the ashes. Lúathrinde (a point brought swiftly, or a point brought from the ashes) was the name of the point, and, as Dubdetba said, ‘If I were Mac Endge, this is how I would engrave,’ and further, ‘this is how Dubdetba makes shields.’

It was this Lúathrinde that was cut into Cú Chulainn’s shield, and Dubán (“Blackie”) was the name of the shield.


Notes and manuscript sources

  • An anecdote found in the manuscript H.3.17. This is my own translation, with thanks to Breandán Dalton, Dennis King, and especially David Stifter for their help and suggestions. © Patrick Brown 2003.
  • Lúathrinde (‘swift-point’ or ‘ash-point’) is thought to be the name of a motif or style of engraving, or perhaps the instrument used to create such engraving. Given the “two-pronged fork” weilded by Mac Endge’s mysterious visitor, it is probably a pair of compasses, such as would have been used to create the familar La Tène style of Celtic art.


References

  • R I Best (1911), “Cuchulainn’s Shield”, Ériu 5, p.72

Written by paddybrown

November 7, 2009 at 10:52 am

Posted in Arms, Crafts, Cu Chulainn