Species mentioned: One poor excuse for a water-dog (Lutra lutra); one not-quite god among ravens (Corvus corax).
Source: ‘Aided Con Chulainn’ (The Death of Cú Chulainn). The story of a hero who nearly broke death.
Date of Source: Existing story sixteenth century, but probably first told in the eighth century. Some fragments in a twelfth century manuscript.
Highlights: Two animals try to eat the dying hero. Cú Chulainn won’t accept that, even when he’s dying. The otter shares his name, so should have known better. The raven is an immortal, but still gets mocked, even whilst the hero dies of his wounds.
HISTORY (Scroll down for discussion of animals)
In honour of Gaelic Month, here is one of the quintessential Old Gaelic texts. Don’t be deceived by it’s setting in Ireland. Scottish Gaelic and Irish were a single language with a single literature five hundred years ago. The oldest complete form of this story is in a Scottish manuscript. A thousand years ago a story like this one was probably told on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Cú Chulainn was the greatest hero of medieval Ireland. He single-handedly delayed the armies of Queen Medb of Connacht from invading Ulster (northern Ireland) in the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’. He defeated the greatest champions of Ireland and mastered all of the great hero feats: He could jump like a salmon from his chariot over buildings and throw spears like thunder bolts. He could fight over fire or on the tip of a spear and even wield the strange many headed weapon called the Gaé Bolga.
His conception (text: ‘The Conception of Cú Chulainn’) was very complicated. Ultimately he seems to have been either an incarnation or a child of Lug, one of the Tuatha de Danaan (people of the Otherworld; later fairies). He was fostered with Fergus mac Róich, a previous king of Ulster. Cú Chulainn got his name (the hound of Culann) as a boy, younger than seven years old (as told in ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulainn’): He came late to a party one evening. A terrible guard-dog had been let loose to prevent people from attacking the host’s home. Cú Chulainn killed the dog using only his hurley (hockey) stick and ball. Culann, the owner of the dog was angry, so Cú Chulainn agreed to take the dog’s place until a new puppy could be trained.
One day, after he reached the advanced age of seven, Cú Chulainn decided to become a warrior. He’d overheard a druid explaining that a person who took up arms on that day would win eternal fame but die young. Cú Chulainn, as the archetypal Homeric hero didn’t care about long-life, so he demanded arms from the king. The king gave him seventeen sets of arms (spear, shield, chariot) before Cú Chulainn found a set that would not break from hard-usage. The arms Cú Chulainn bore ended up being the king’s own set.
Within the next few years, Cú Chulainn was sent to find a wife (told in ‘the Wooing of Emer’). Apparently he was so beautiful that none of the single women in Ulster would marry, and the men were all worried their wives would leave them. (Adultery and polyamory were much more common in Irish sagas than they are today.) Cú Chulainn fell in love with a young woman called Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach. Forgall understandably did not want Cú Chulainn as a son-in-law, and set Cú Chulainn an impossible task to prove his worthiness. He was to sail to Scotland and train with the world’s foremost warrior trainer, Scathach. (Modern folklore likes to associate Scathach with an t-Eilean Sgitheanach =the Isle of Sky). Cú Chulainn went to see her, overcame her challenges and became the lover of both her and her daughter. There he learns all the feats of a hero and then returns to Ulster to marry Emer.
Many other legends are told about his career before his greatest triumph in the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’ (‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’). He is the hero of this story and kills thousands of warriors and even other great heroes.
Overall Cú Chulainn is the archetypal precocious and rebellious boy. To scholars, Cú Chulainn’s stories represent some of the most exciting stories that can be read. This is probably the reason the stories are usually assumed to have had a widespread appeal in the medieval period.
Our text (‘the Death of Cú Chulainn’) focuses on Cú Chulainn’s final moments in life, and his triumph at finding the glorious death he wants. From the very beginning of the story we know that the hero is going to die and that fate has turned against him. The appeal of the text lies in how glorious a death Cú Chulainn finds for himself, and the extent to which he defies fate. An approximate translation can be read on MaryJones.us (2014), although this does not include the otter scene.
The text is hard to date. There are fragments of the story in The Book of Leinster (c.1160 AD) which may have an eighth century kernel (Hamel, 1933, p.69). However the majority of the text is only available from sixteenth century manuscripts with modernised language (e.g. Adv. MS.72.1.45 in the National Library of Scotland). Comparisons between Versions A and B show significant differences, so it is clear that Version B has been heavily adapted from Version A.
Cú Chulainn’s undoing is his own fault really. Over the course of his career, he has killed dozens of great heroes. His fate is sealed when the sons of these heroes plot to kill him, and attack Emain Macha with magic. Cú Chulainn, as the defender of Ulster is bound to come into their trap to fight them. As he comes, he finds omen after omen which foretell his death. He asks for a drink, and is given a cup full of blood. His mother begs him not to go. His mantle bursts from around him. His charioteer is unable to bring himself to mount, and Cú Chulainn has to arrange the horse himself. His magical horse turns away from him, and then cries tears of blood to try and stop him. Women wail as he passes and he meets a phantom washer-woman, washing blood from clothes like his own.
Irish legends often have prohibitions (‘geasa’; sing=’geis’) for individual warriors. Because Cú Chulainn is named after the dog, he is thought to have some of its nature, and he is prohibited from eating dog-meat. However he is also prohibited from passing a cooking place without visiting it. Anyone who breaks a prohibition in Irish legends is likely to die. Cú Chulainn meets three witches on the road who are cooking dog. He cannot keep both geasa and he is goaded into eating poisoned dog, which shrivels his left hand and his left thigh.
An army is arrayed against Cú Chulainn, but as a hero he is quite capable of attacking batallions of men by himself. He even bears a spear, capable of killing kings. However there is a problem. In medieval Ireland there was a tradition that a poet could ask for anything they wanted. If the person refused them, the poet could write a satire about them. Since Cú Chulainn’s name is his only treasure he cannot allow anyone to dirty his name. One such poet demands Cú Chulainn’s spear. As soon as the poet has his spear, Cú Chulainn must know that he is doomed to die. A poignant moment in the text comes for the reader as Cú Chulainn protests that the poet does not even need it. Eventually, Cú Chulainn does give the spear to the poet. He throws it straight through the man’s chest and kills him, as well as eighteen men around him. However, the hero’s enemies throw his spear back at him. It kills his charioteer, Lóeg, who is called the king of charioteers. The same thing happens again, and this time the spear hits Cú Chulainn’s horse (The Grey Macha), who is the king of horses. Finally Cú Chulainn himself is hit with his own spear. He falls from his chariot and is fated to die. That’s where our animals come in.
As Cú Chulainn is dying, he bleeds into a nearby loch. In one version of the story an otter (Lutra lutra) comes out, and begins to drink his blood (‘ac ol a fola’). As soon as he sees it, Cú Chulainn contemptuously throws a spear and kills it.
The significance of this is not clear from the English translation, but it is clear in the original version of the story (Hamel, 1933, p.111). In the story, the word used for the animal is ‘doborchu’ (modern Scottish Gaelic ‘dòbhran’; ‘an dobhar-chù’). Originally this term meant ‘water-dog’. After introducing the animal it is called simply a ‘cu’ (‘choin’ – dog/hound). Obviously Cú Chulainn has some connection to this animal. Perhaps the idea was that this was the ultimate betrayal. The hero’s own namesake was turning against him.
Cú Chulainn started off his career by defeating another hound, and if he ended his career by being licked at by a water-hound, there would be some poetic horror to the story. That’s not what happened though. Like he has done all the way through the story, Cú Chulainn defies fate and rebels against the story itself. Although he is weak, he reaches a spear and kills the ‘dog’ that has come for him.
The Badb is another of the Otherworldly Tuatha De Danaan. She has been Cú Chulainn’s enemy throughout his career, and comes to him in the shape of a raven (Corvus corax) to peck at his wounds. I previously spoke about the topos of the ‘beasts of battle’; the raven, eagle and wolf. These creatures come to battlefields and eat the flesh and the blood of fallen warriors. They represent the ultimate and horrific fate of all warriors. However Cú Chulainn continues to reject his fate. The poignant moment is broken when the raven slips on his blood, and Cú Chulainn laughs at her, mocking death even as he dies.
Modern writers often refer to the Badb/Morrigan as the Goddess of Battle. There is strong evidence she was worshipped as a goddess in the pre-Christian era (Green, 2004, p.99; Epstein, 1998). However, Ireland, even in the eighth century was strongly Christian, and it is probably inappropriate to refer to her as a goddess at this point. In any case, she clearly has some power over choosing who will live and who will die in a battle. This makes the scene of Cú Chulainn mocking her at death even stronger.
The text in this case calls her form ‘branfiach Badhbha’ (raven-crow Badb – Hamel, 1933, p.110). Generally ravens and crows are distinguishable in the Gaelic languages with ravens called ‘fiach’ or ‘bran’ (SGaelic: fitheach) and crows being called ‘fennoc’ (SGaelic: feannag) (RIA, 2007; Bauer & Robertson, 2009). This suggests to me that the Badb was in the shape of a raven (Corvus corax). However contemporary and later folkloric depictions of the Badb sometimes describe her as a hooded crow (Corvus cornix), so the distinction is not definite. The hooded crow in the British isles is confined to western Scotland and Ireland. The carrion crow (Corvus corone) is not commonly found in these areas but can be seen across the rest of Britain.
After laughing at the raven, Cú Chulainn drags himself to a stone, and ties himself up, so he can die standing on his feat rather than sitting or lying down. In the most popular version of the story, his enemies refuse to go near him until they see the Badb return. When the hero does not object to her standing on him, it is finally clear that he is dead, and his enemies are able to decapitate him.
‘Aided Con Chulainn’ (The Death of Cú Chulainn) is the story of the fall of a superhero. Cú Chulainn was intended to be the greatest warrior that Ireland would ever know. His death needed to be a story that reflected his life and the authors accomplished their aim. Throughout the tale, Cú Chulainn is not fighting his enemies but raging against the structure of the story itself. He knows he is fated to die, but fights against fate until the very end. Cú Chulainn’s life started when he defeated a monstrous dog but he refuses to be conquered by a lowly water-dog himself. It will come as no surprise to readers that his ghost continues to cause trouble in the afterlife in another story, ‘The Phantom Chariot of Cú Chulainn’.
In the case of this story the animals are plot devices and unlikely to be especially useful records for ecologists, except possibly to provide presence/absence data. However they are very successful at reinforcing the central message of the story. This success is entirely due to the exploitation of these animals’ cultural identities. To this day, I expect Gaelic speakers are more likely to make and understand connections between dogs and otters than monolingual English speakers. This is just one illustration of how speaking a different language can influence how you think.
The Badb in the form of a raven is almost the embodiment of death and defeat in battle. Although no longer a deity, she maintains a very stern profile and no mortals other than Cú Chulainn ever deny her. Defying her may well have seemed not just futile but perhaps even blasphemous to a Gaelic audience. Cú Chulainn cannot escape his fate, but he spends some of his final moments mocking the aspect of death. In fact, the portrayal of raven in ‘The Death of Cú Chulainn’ is a direct contrast to that in Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’. Whilst the latter, seeking ‘surcease of sorrow’, embraces the raven as a messenger, Cú Chulainn fights his death right up until the end.
The fact that the same species has been present in so many stories emphasises the vast cultural importance of Corvus corax. Our literature would be far poorer if it were forgotten. At one point there was a danger that this could happen. At the beginning of the twentieth century, ravens were restricted in range to sparsely inhabited upland north and west Britain. Today, populations are strongly increasing and recovering their former range across Britain. Thanks to this small ecological success, The birds may continue to provide inspiration to poets for centuries to come (Sharrock, 1976, p.290; Baillie et al., 2013).
©Lee Raye, 2014.
Baillie, S. et al. (2013) BirdTrends 2013. (British Trust for Ornithology, Thetford)
RIA (Royal Irish Academy), (2007) Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language.
Epstein, A. (1998) War Goddess. (online thesis)
Bauer, M. & Robertson, W. (2009) Am Faclair Beag.
Green, M. (2004) The Gods of the Celts. (Phoenix Mill, Stroud)
Hamel, A. (1933) Compert Con Culainn. (Dublin Stationary Office)
Jones, M. (2014) ‘The Death of Cu Chulainn’. (The Celtic Literature Collective)
Sharrock, J. (1976) The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland. (T & AD Poyser, London)