The Woman Behind the Man: Celtic Warrior Scathach, Teacher of Warriors
Scáthach, meaning “The Shadowy One” in Gaelic, was a mythical Celtic warrior and martial arts trainer. Her school of warriors turned out some of the top Celtic heroes.
Her most famous student was Cú Chulainn, the most notorious warrior from Irish mythology and 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)
Cú Chulainn – The Warrior Scáthach Created
To tell the story of Scáthach (also written as Sgathaich), one must first tell the tale 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, was the only woman who caught his eye, but the natural roadblock in such a scenario was her father—adamantly against his younger daughter marrying before her elder sister. He bargained with Cú Chulainn, demanding proof of dedication by suggesting he train under the warrior woman of Alba, Scáthach. Unbeknownst to Cú Chulainn, who agreed because he was so determined to wed Emer, Forgall Monach's truly hoped that the meeting with Scáthach would lead to the warrior’s 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 occured here, at the matrimonial junction of Cú Chulainn's life. At his behest she taught him the various arts of war in the land of Alba, her home which was believed to be located on the modern Isle of Skye. Even today, legends say the ruins of a castle in the Parish of Sleat, on the coast of the Isle of Skye was the home of this famed woman. Today it is called Dunscaith Castle (or with some variation to the spelling), Tokavaig, or the Fortress of Shadows. It was notoriously difficult to cross the sea to reach her dwelling. And entering Scáthach's fortress was a perilous task in itself.
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Along with numerous other trainees, such as Conchobor and Lóegaire, Scáthach dwelled in an impregnable castle guarded by her own daughter. She also had other children, daughters named Lasair, Ingean Bhuidhe, and Latiaran and two sons named Cet and Cuar. Those two sons were later saved by Cú Chulainn as a sign of loyalty to his former teacher.
The fortress is where Scáthach trained 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. This weapon could allegedly penetrate shields and maim or kill even if it was thrown from a vast distance.
Cú Chulainn Demonstrates Skills Learned in Scáthach’s Training
But Scáthach was not the only warrior woman of Alba; her sister, sometimes her twin, Aiofe was a battle-hardened warrior as well, but with a terrible disdain for her sister. While Cú Chulainn was training under Scáthach, Aiofe challenged her sister to battle. Afraid Cú Chulainn would get involved and perish, Scáthach attempted to put him under a sleeping spell through use of a potion, but Cú Chulainn's strength prevented the potion from working to its full effect and he awakened after an hour, and took on Aiofe 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 (Maeve), and Ulster, protected by the aforementioned Cú Chulainn. The overall value of Scáthach's training, which lasted for seven years, 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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Scáthach’s Impact on Irish Myth
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 did provide Cú Chulainn with the skill to win Emer, however it was not his determination that won her father over. Instead, Forgall once more refused the marriage despite Cú Chulainn's completion of his training.
But it was that same training that enabled Scáthach’s student 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 led to his ultimate victory over Queen Medb.
"Cúchulainn rebuked by Emer", illustration by H. R. Millar from Charles Squire, Celtic Myths and Legends, 1905. (Public Domain)
By Ryan Stone
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