Cuchulain: The Champion of Ulster-Violence by Kieran Judge
Native myths and legends are something that are quickly glossed over in schools, or not taught enough. In Wales, or when I was at school here, aside from anything to do with dragons, you’d get a brief introduction to The Mabinogion through the story of the black cauldron, which some people might know of from a Disney movie roughly based on an adaptation of The Chronicles of Prydain, which was based on the Mabinogion in turn. That, really, was about it. In the island of Ireland (to avoid any political debates I’ll refer to the whole land mass as such from now on), the main texts are the four cycles, the Ulster Cycle, the Mythological Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. From these legends, perhaps no figure has captured the imagination more than Cuchulain.
Spelt in various ways (Cu Chulainn, Cúchulainn, etc), Cuchulain is a mythic descendant of the gods known for being almost unbeatable in battle even from a young age. He was the warrior hero, the Champion of Ulster, as many of the tales will tell. Renowned poet and playwright W. B. Yeats wrote a whole series of plays and poems about the mythic man as part of his attempt to revive Irish culture, a movement heavily tied in with Lady Gregory and the National Irish Theatre in the early 1900’s. However, Cuchulain was also a madman, prone to becoming overwhelmed in his bloodlust, going on to slaughter hundreds, thousands, without stopping. In his frenzy, he recognises neither friend nor foe, and in one tale, even kills his own son when he refuses to identify himself.
It’s this blood lust that I find most fascinating about Cuchulain. When he fights he becomes a man who is unable to tell his allies from his enemies, much like the typical description of the werewolf. He slaughters everyone in his path. This frenzy, however, can be stopped in a very unique fashion, as the final section of Jeffrey Gantz’s translation of The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind tells:
‘The women of Emuin went to meet Cú Chulaind gathered round Mugain, Conchubar’s wife, and they bared their breasts before him. …Cú Chulaind hid his face, whereupon the warriors of Ulaid seized him and thrust him into a vat of cold water. This vat burst, but the second vat into which he was thrust boiled up with fist-sized bubbles, and the third he merely heated to a moderate warmth.’ (Gantz, 1981, p. 146)
It’s clear to see that Cuchulain is much different to many of the hyper masculine heroes we see in other myths, such as Pryderi or Arthur from The Mabinogion, in that there is a switch inside him which takes tremendous effort, and the feminine form, to subdue. Even most of the Greek heroes remain themselves throughout the course of their many trials. Other heroes remain mostly gallant or noble, if a little misogynistic at times, but the Champion of Ulster seems to have that Jekyll and Hyde double inside him which I think is fascinating. It’s something that Cuchulain can’t control.
Perhaps, if we were to look into this a little further, one could suggest that the thrill of the battle brings out the warrior in him, the masculine of the superhuman. In contrast, the sight of the female form brings him back to the feminine human. The godly side of him, when in control, never wants to be contained again, never wants to accept the feminine. If you were really going to go into it, you could argue that the vats represent the womb and Cuchulain must be reborn through this into the mortal realm once again from his divine rage. I think this may be getting too far into it, however.
That Cuchulain was a flawed hero is obvious, but he was also understanding in his own way as well, as one of the tales in The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind shows; ‘…they met Cúscraid son of Conchubur; he was badly wounded, so Cú Chulaind carried him on his back…’ (p.138). The mighty warrior that would defend Ulster in single combat for months, defeating an entire army (as the prophet Fedelm says of the upcoming attack on Ulster, ‘‘I see it crimson, I see it red.’’ (Carson, 2008, p. 13)), also has the time to help his fellow soldiers in combat. This is a classic bit of storytelling. If we know he is human, and have a reason to sympathise with him, we can get behind him and we can forgive him in the future for any misdeeds he may commit.
Though not known outside of Ireland, he is still one of the main figures of legend on the emerald isle. At the Tayto Park theme park, their flagship attraction is the Cu Chulainn rollercoaster, complete with gigantic stone figure near the entrance to the ride. Many murals in Belfast also depict him as a reminder of the figure who would ward off Irish attacks to protect Ulster from its armies. Though both sides of the border may try to claim the figure, Cuchulain remains Ireland’s Hercules, their Arthur, and their Conan. A man who would slaughter thousands to defend his land, but turn on his own side just as quickly. Perhaps, disguised in a mighty warrior, this is a discussion on the meaningless of violence, the way in which a price must be paid for the blood that is shed.
Article by Kieran Judge
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Carson, C., 2008. The Tain. England: Penguin Classics.
Gantz, J., 1981. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Great Britain: Penguin Books.