The Irish Legend of Cu Chulainn

The Irish Story and Legend of Cu Chulainn

(Read the article on one page)

Cu Chulainn is one of the most famous Irish mythological heroes. He appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, and Scottish and Manx folklore. He was said to be the son of Deichtine and the god Lugh, and the nephew of Conchobar mac Nessa, the King of Ulster. His given name at birth was Setanta but he gained the name Cu Chulainn, meaning ‘Culann’s Hound’ after he killed a ferocious guard dog belonging to a smith named Culann. Cu Chulainn offered to take the place of the guard dog until a replacement could be reared.

The stories of Cu Chulainn’s childhood, which date back to the 9 th century, are many. It is said that as a small child, he had asked incessantly to be allowed to join the boy-troop at Emain Macha (today known as Navan Fort in County Armagh, Northern Ireland). According to the legend, he sets out on his own, and eventually runs onto the playing field at Emain, unaware of the custom of asking for protection. The other boys see this as a challenge, and attack Setanta, but he beats them all single-handedly as he carries the trait of ‘ríastrad’, in which he undergoes a sort of distortion, becoming an unrecognizable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. King Conchobar put a stop to the fight.

In the next part of the story, Culann the smith invites Conchobar to his home for a feast. At this point, Conchobar is so impressed by Setanta that he asks him to join the dinner. Setanta is unable to attend right away, but promises to join them at Culann’s house later. However, Conchobar forgets, and Culann lets loose his ferocious hound to protect his house. On arrival at their house, Setanta is forced to kill the guard dog in self-defense. Culann is devastated at the loss of his guard dog and Setanta feels so bad that he offers to rear a new one, and to guard Culann’s house until the new dog is ready to do so.

Cú Chulainn kills the hound

Cú Chulainn kills the hound. Desmond Kinney’s 1974 mosaic mural off Nassau Street in Dublin. Image source .

When Cu Chulainn is seven years old, he overhears a druid named Cathbad teaching pupils at Emain Macha. Cathbad states that any pupil who takes arms that day would have everlasting fame. Desiring everlasting fame, Cu Chulainn goes to King Conchobar to ask for arms. Conchobar gives Cu Chulainn many arms to try, but none can withstand Cu Chulainn’s strength until finally Conchobar gives him his own arms. Unfortunately, Cu Chulainn did not listen to Cathbad’s full prophecy, and he was unaware that a pupil who took arms that day would have everlasting fame, but a short life.

As Cu Chulainn gets older, he decides he would like to take Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach as a wife. However, Forgall is opposed to this, and tells Cu Chulainn that he should train with Scottish warrior-woman, Scáthach. Forgall’s true intent is that Cu Chulainn will be killed. While Cu Chulainn is gone, Forgall offers Emer to Lugaid mac Nóis, a king of Munster, but when the king learns that she loves Cu Chulainn, he refuses to take her hand.

Scáthach teaches Cu Chulainn all the arts of war. His fellow trainees include Ferdiad, who becomes Cú Chulainn's best friend and foster-brother. During his training with Scáthach, Cu Chulainn comes to face Aife, Scáthach’s rival. Although the two are evenly matched, Cu Chulainn eventually seizes Aife, and demands that she bear him a son. While Aife is pregnant, Cu Chulainn leaves Scotland, and returns to his love Emer, but Forgall still refuses to allow the marriage. Enraged, Cu Chulainn storms Forgall’s fortress, kills twenty-four of his men, abducts Emer, and steals Forgall’s treasure. Forgall falls to his death.

Cu Chulainn in single combat with Ferdiad

Cu Chulainn in single combat with Ferdiad. Desmond Kinney’s 1974 mosaic mural off Nassau Street in Dublin. Image source .

King Conchobar fears the marriage of Cu Chulainn and Emer, because Conchobar has the “right of the first night” over all marriages and is afraid of Cu Chulainn’s reaction if he sleeps with Emer. On the other hand, Conchobar will lose all his power and authority over his subjects if he doesn’t. The druid Cathbad suggests that Conchobar sleep with Emer, but Cathbad sleep between them.

After eight years pass by, Cu Chulainn’s son by Aife, Connla, comes to find him. When Connla refuses to identify himself, Cu Chulainn kills him. As Connla dies, his final words are that he and Cu Chulainn could have "carried the flag of Ulster to the gates of Rome and beyond,” leaving Cu Chulainn grief-stricken.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

Open Book Photo
A legend is a tale regarded as historical even though it has not been proven, and the term “myth” can refer to common yet false ideas. Many myths and legends describe our history, but they are often treated skeptically. This is because many of them, while explaining a phenomenon, involve divine or supernatural beings.

Human Origins

Noah's Sacrifice - watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot
The imperfect state of archaeological researches in the Near East impedes any definite identification of the original race or races that created the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. According to Gordon Childe, however, the predominant racial element in the earliest graves in the region from Elam to the Danube is the ‘Mediterranean’.

Ancient Technology

Invention of Wheel - Sumer
In today’s world, technology is developing at an unprecedented rate. The latest gadget today is tomorrow’s antique. As a result of this rapid development of technology, we often take things for...

Ancient Places

Google Earth image of manmade stone structures in Saudi Arabia
Deep in the heart of Saudi Arabia, 400 peculiar stone structures have been found, dating back thousands of years ago. These stone features were discovered by archaeologists with the use of satellite imagery, identifying what they call stone "gates" in an extremely unwelcome and harsh area of the Arabian Peninsula.

Opinion

The ancient and mysterious Sphinx, Giza, Egypt.
In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article