Guest Author - Phyllis Doyle Burns
It was a time of gallant chivalry, a time when great chieftains led bands of warriors and High Kings ruled the land. All over Ireland, on her green hills and in the valleys, fierce warriors stood ever faithful to their chieftains and the High Kings. It was during this time that Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, became one of the mythological heroes of Ireland.
In The Saga of Cu Chulainn he was depicted as an unusual yet very handsome lad. Eleanor Hull edited the translation in 1898 which gives us a fairly detailed description:
A handsome lad was he that stood there, Cu Chulainn son of Sualtam. Three colours of hair had he; next to his skin the hair was brown, in the middle it was red; on the outside it was like a diadem of gold; comparable to yellow gold was each glittering long curling splendid beautiful thread of hair, falling freely down between his shoulders. About his neck were a hundred tiny links of red gold flashing, with pendants hung from them. His headgear was adorned with a hundred different jewels. On either cheek he had four moles, a yellow, a green, a blue and a red. In either eye he had seven pupils, sparkling like seven gems. Each of his feet had seven toes, each of his hands seven fingers; his hands and feet were endowed with the clutching power of hawk's talons and hedgehog's claws.
He wore his gorgeous raiment for great gatherings; a fair crimson tunic of five plies all. The champion carried a trusty special shield coloured dark crimson with a pure white silver rim all around its circumference; at his left side hung a long golden hilted sword. Beside him in his chariot was a lengthy spear, together with a keen aggressive javelin fitted with a hurling thong and rivets of white bronze. In one hand he carried nine heads, and nine more in the other; he held these heads as emblems of his valour and skill in arms, and at the sight of him the opposing army shook with terror.
Two myths from the Book of the Dun Cow (Leabhar na hUidre), and The Book of Leinster follow.
Birth of Cu Chulainn
Dechtire, the mother of Cu Chulainn, was sitting at her wedding feast about to be married to the Ulster chieftain Sualtam, when a mayfly landed in her wine cup. She drank the wine without noticing and fell into a deep sleep. Lugh, the god of light, appeared to her in a dream and revealed to her that he was the mayfly that she had swallowed. He transformed Dechtire and her fifty serving maidens into a flock of birds and they all disappeared without trace.
Many months later the Warriors of Emain Macha were out hunting when they noticed a wondrous flock of beautiful birds, so they decided to give chase to these birds. They followed in their chariots for a long while until darkness fell and they discovered that they had arrived at Brugh na Boyne, the home of the gods and goddesses. Suddenly they saw a large hall of such magnificence that they could never remember seeing its like before.
A tall, handsome man greeted them and invited them inside for some food and drink. When they entered they saw a beautiful woman with her fifty serving maidens seated at the table which was laden with the most sumptuous feast they had ever laid eyes on. When they had finished eating and drinking they were offered beds for the night and duly retired. However their sleep was broken by the cries of a new born baby in the middle of the night.
When they awoke their host revealed that he was none other than Lugh the long-handed and that the woman was Dechtire, half sister of King Conchobar mac Nessa, and that she had just given birth to a son who was to be taken back to Emain Macha and raised in the court and trained in the ways of the warrior.
Thus the warriors escorted Dechtire, her new son, and her fifty maidens back to Emain Macha where there was much rejoicing at her safe return. Sualtam received herself and her child into his home and cared for the boy as his own flesh and blood and he was named Setanta, later known as the hero Cu Chulainn.
How The Name Cu Chulainn Came To Be
At first the son of Dechtire and Sualtam was called Setanta. As a child he was the strongest of all his peers and won all the sports competitions. One day while playing Hurley single-handed against a team of other boys and beating them, he was summoned to the court of King Conchobar so that he might attend a feast at the house of the sidhe blacksmith Culann. Setanta promised to come along as soon as his game was finished.
When the Ulster champions entered the smith's hall, the king gave permission for Culann to let loose his fierce guard hound, forgetting that Setanta had not yet arrived. When Setanta came into Culann's front yard the hound attacked him fiercely, Setanta reacted quickly and hurled his sliotar (Hurley ball) into the mouth of the hound choking him, he then grabbed him by his hind legs and smashed out his brains on a rock.
Culann, the chief smith, was enraged to find that his guard dog had been killed. Setanta apologized and promised to find another hound and train it for Culann but in the meantime he himself would act as Culann's guard. Thus from that time onwards he was known as Cu Chulainn, the hound of Ulster.