Emerald Isle

The Death of Cuchulainn

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle

A hero meets a heros end

Cúchulainn, although still a young man, had made many powerful enemies, but none more bitter and dark than Queen Medb of Connaught, whose armies he had routed and whose ambitions he'd thwarted. Long into the dark nights of winter, year after year she brooded on the humiliations visited upon her, for undying is the wrath of a Queen.

She held council with the families of those slain by the youthful hero, nodded and commiserated with their tears, but the only ones that were of any use to her schemes were the three daughters of Calatin, who between them had three eyes and a terrible hunger for vengeance. For it was their father who had been slain by Cúchulainn along with twenty seven of their brothers, even though Calatin had been a powerful sorcerer and druid with many foul shades at his beck and call.

Seeing that their blood ran true, Medb took them into her household and sent them to Alba and Babylon that was of old to learn the arts of magic, and this task they fulfilled well, returning with the lore of Old Night at their command.

Medb felt the time was right for her revenge, so she waited until the men of Ulster fell ill with the birth pangs of Macha, a curse laid upon them by a Sidhe woman they had wronged, and set out with her armies to invade Ulster yet again.

King Conchobar of Ulster heard about her schemes though, and knew he had to keep his champion away from the battle, for if his mightiest warrior fell, Emain Macha was sure to fall with him. As the daughters of Calatin approached, he bid his court, groaning with agony as they were, to make merry and sing loud songs and let the mead flow freely.

From thistles and bushes outside the fortress the daughters of Calatin conjured up the form of a mighty and fell-handed army, fierce of aspect and heavily armed, and made the glamour bellow and shriek to drown out the feasting within. Cúchulainn started at the noise and made ready to ride out and fight, but the King's druids and women convinced him that it was but an illusion.

Knowing he'd had a close call, King Conchobar declared that the best place for the carousing would not be at Emain Macha, but rather in a valley nearby called Glenn na Bodhar, which meant the valley of the deaf, for no noise from outside could penetrate it - so strangely was it formed that sound itself was reflected back.

But this didn't deter the three witches, who wrought mightily their evil spells and made long-lasting pacts with the Other world, and soon an even more powerful illusion was raised, with fire and smoke and the sounds of shrieking women passing tormented down the high winds.

Seeing the smoke and flame and the flights of arrows, Cúchulainn was incensed and filled with rage, but Cathbad the druid again managed to calm him down before the furies could take hold of him, and he relaxed even less comfortably than the last time, casting many dark gazes at the land beyond the valley walls.

Baffled, the daughters of Calatin conferred among themselves but it was Medb who showed them the way, and they worked their magics one more time to bestow the appearance of Niamh, a close friend of Cúchulainn, upon one of their number. She went to Cúchulainn and entreated with him to come forth and save the land, for darkness was all about and the innocent were being slaughtered.

Well, after that nothing could hold the hero back, and he went straight away to his mighty horse, Lia Macha, the Grey of Macha, and tried to yoke it to his chariot, but it refused and wept tears of red blood, shying away from him. He cried out that his horse should not betray him, and so the lordly beast agreed to be yoked and his charioteer Laeg, best in all the lands, took the reins before him.

His mother Deichtre came to him then and offered him wine to drink, but as it touched his lips he spat it out, for it had turned to blood! She washed the cup and twice more offered it to him, but twice more the same thing happened, and he could not taste the wine.

Riding forth from Emain Macha, he saw a Badb, an old woman of the Sidhe, washing clothes in the river, keening quietly to herself.

“Whose gore-stained garments are those?” demanded Cúchulainn, and she answered, “Why my lord, they are yours!”

Shaking his head he rode towards the banners of Medb's army which he could see in the distance, but before he could get there he was hailed by three old crones roasting a dog over an open fire. They invited him to take a bite, but he was repulsed, for not only was the meat foul but it was against his geas, or sacred forbidding, to partake of dog flesh.

The hags reminded him then that there was also a geas against refusing hospitality, even more powerful than his own geases, and they mocked him for his weakness, saying he was too used to the fancy fare served in the King's hall.

Stung and bewildered, he took a bite of the meat, and half his strength fell from him in that moment. The old women cackled and ran away with surprising vigour, for they were none other than the Morrigan, taking her revenge for Cúchulainn's spurning of her advances earlier!

And now before Medb's army he stood, and beheld their banners flapping in the wind. He bore with him three spears, each fated to slay a king, so his enemies had decided they needed to get the weapons away from him. A druid came forth and asked him for a spear, as it was forbidden to refuse the request of a druid, and so Cúchulainn agreed.

“Let none say that I want for generosity!” he said, and threw the spear clean through the druid, killing him on the spot. Lugaid Cú Roí, the Hound of the King, whose long rivalry with Cúchulainn lent strength to his arm, cast the spear back instantly – but shaking with wrath, he missed and instead killed Laeg the charioteer, king among horsemen, to Cúchulainn's great grief.

Another druid stepped forward and asked for a spear, saying that if he didn't get it he'd compose ballads and tales to mock the whole of Ulster for their miserly ways, but Cúchulainn said he was under no obligation to give more than one gift a day. However he'd rather not have the name of Ulster blackened, so he obligingly killed that druid with a well aimed throw of the spear.

Erc, the King of Leinster, sprang forward and returned the throw, missing Cúchulainn by the breadth of a hair, killing instead his horse the Grey of Macha, king among horses.

Before Cúchulainn had a chance to recover from that miserable loss, a third druid stood up and with great eloquence told Cúchulainn how his family's name would live in infamy if he didn't hand over the last spear. Grinding his teeth and with the hero-light coming on him, Cúchulainn said through his blinding tears that he'd sooner die, and killed that druid by his spear too.

“Then die you shall!” bellowed Lugaid, and plucking the spear from the twitching body of the druid, he threw straight and true this time, mortally wounding Cúchulainn across the stomach, spilling his bowels out before him.

Even in his death throes Medb's army feared to come too close to the hero, and watched from a distance as he dragged himself to a lake for a drink of water. Not wishing to die on his back, he pulled himself up to a nearby dolmen and bound himself standing to it, holding tight his sharp sword over his shoulder, ready to strike.

A raven came and tripped over his innards, and Cúchulainn laughed to see it, and so died the king of warriors. For three days and three nights Medb's army stood back, fearful that he was not yet dead, until the Morrigan at last perched in the form of a raven on his head, and they knew it was over.

Lugaid Cú Roí swaggered forward then, thinking to take the sword of the champion of Ulster for himself, but so tight was his grip that the blade wouldn't come loose. Lugaid cut the tendons in his arm and reached to catch the falling blade, but it sliced clean through his wrist, and dropped his own hand on the ground beside it.

And for all the violent vengeance that was taken by the men of Ulster for the slaying of their hero, the light of Emain Macha faded and the power of Ulster fell, never to recover, as King Conchobar had feared.

The place where Cúchulainn bound himself to a rock, called Clochafarmore, is marked on the map below.


Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore