The Woman Behind the Man: Celtic Warrior Scathach, Teacher of Warriors
The most notorious warrior from Irish mythology, akin in many ways to the great Greek warrior Achilles, the intense tales of Cú Chulainn's life and battles were really only possible because of one very important person—one very important woman. A woman whose only purpose in Irish mythology is to teach the best and strongest of Ireland's warriors to harness their martial skills, but who is only recognized through the exploits of the men she trains. That woman is Scáthach of Alba.
"Cú Chulainn Riding His Chariot into Battle", illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston's Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911. ( Public Domain )
To tell the story of Scáthach then, one must first tell the story of the male warrior she created. And as all good mythological warriors, the combative talents of Cú Chulainn are forged by the love of a woman. In Tochmarc Emire, "The Wooing of Emer", Cú Chulainn must take a wife for the peace of mind of the fellow men of Ulster—men terrified that a man of Cú Chulainn's beauty will steal their wives and daughters. Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach, is the only woman who catches his eye but the natural roadblock in such a scenario is her father—adamantly against his younger daughter marrying before her elder sister. He bargains with Cú Chulainn, demanding proof of dedication by suggesting he train under the warrior woman of Alba, Scáthach. Unbeknowest to Cú Chulainn, who agrees so determined is he to wed Emer, Forgall Monach's true intention is to hope the meeting with Scáthach leads to his death.
"Cuchulain Desires Arms of the King", illustration by Stephen Reid in Eleanor Hull's The Boys' Cuchulain, 1904. ( Public Domain )
Scáthach's part in the Ulster Cycle thus occurs here, at the matrimonial junction of Cú Chulainn's life. At his behest she teaches him the various arts of war in the land of Alba, her home believed to be located on the modern Isle of Skye.
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Along with numerous other trainees such as Conchobor and Lóegaire, Scáthach dwells in an impregnable castle guarded by her own daughter in which she trains warriors in underwater combat, pole vaulting (as it teaches men to scale tall structures) and how to battle with a weapon of her own creation: a barbed harpoon called gáe bolg. But Scáthach is not the only warrior woman of Alba; her sister, sometimes her twin, Aiofe is a battle-hardened warrior as well, but with a terrible disdain for her sister. While Cú Chulainn is training under Scáthach, Aiofe challenges her sister to battle. Afraid Cú Chulainn will get involved and perish, Scáthach attempts to put him under a sleeping spell through use of a potion, but Cú Chulainn's strength prevents the potion from working to its full effect and he awakens after an hour, and takes on Aiofe himself on Scáthach's behalf.
Historically, Tochmarc Emire is considered an early edition of Táin Bó Cúailnge, also called "The Cattle Raid of Tooley" or "The Táin", an epic describing the war between the queen of Connacht, Medb, and Ulster, protected by the aforementioned Cú Chulainn. The overall value of Scáthach's training becomes evident in the epic as Cú Chulainn leads his men to victory in the war between Ulster and Connacht, though with many casualties. In later traditions, Cú Chulainn himself suffers a mortal injury on the field of battle and dies after the enemy forces have retreated—not unlike the tale of King Arthur's final battle.
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Although Scáthach does not play as much of an active role in Táin Bó Cúailnge or Tochmarc Emire, her impact in Irish myth lies with Cú Chulainn. Training under Scáthach does provide Cú Chulainn with the skill to win Emer, however it is not his determination that wins her father over. Instead, Forgall once more refuses the marriage despite Cú Chulainn's completion of his training, and it is that same training that enables him to storm Forgall's castle and steal Emer and Forgall's treasure. Furthermore, as arguably the most well-known character of Irish mythology—whether readers can pronounce his name correctly or not—Scáthach's time with Cú Chulainn leads to his ultimate victory over Medb.