Mythic Monday: Irish Warrior Cuchulainn

Top image: Cuchulainn is known as the great mythological defender of all Ireland.
Credit: Harold B. Lee Library/Brigham Young University


Last Friday, March 17, was St. Patrick’s Day. And while each year on that day many people wear shamrocks in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, Hibernophiles (fans of Irish culture) might also want to honor the great mythological defender of all Ireland: Cuchulainn (koo KUHL ihn).

Cuchulainn (also spelled Cuchulain) inherited extraordinary powers from his father, Lugh (loo), an important Celtic god. Cuchulainn’s given name was Sétanta. He won the name Cuchulainn (Hound of Culann) by offering to take the place of a ferocious watchdog he had killed in self-defense at the house of Culann, a blacksmith.

Many stories about Cuchulainn appear in the Ulster cycle of ancient Irish tales. The cycle centers on the court of King Conchobar (kahn KOH bahr) at Ulster. The Ulster cycle manuscripts date from about 1100. Probably the best known is the cycle’s central story, Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). It is the oldest epic tale of western Europe in a native language. Said to have taken place about the time of Jesus Christ, the story has slim basis in fact, but the details are magically mythological.

In The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Maeve (also spelled Medb), the legendary warrior queen of the western province of Connaught, orders a raid on Ulster to capture a famous brown bull. Cuchulainn single-handedly fights off the queen’s army, but her forces eventually capture the bull. Ulster warriors led by King Conchobar then come to Cuchulainn’s aid, however, and drive the invaders out of the country. Queen Maeve then plots revenge against Cuchulainn and, several years later, she uses supernatural means to cause his death.

Cuchulainn’s reputation as a warrior grew in Irish folk tales until he came to be regarded as a demigod. In some ways, the Irish hero resembled the Greek hero Achilles. But unlike Achilles and other Greek heroes, Cuchulainn had many supernatural powers. For example, he could spit fire in battle. He was also a magician and poet. Cuchulainn became a favorite character among writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance of the late 1800's.

So during the month of March, enjoy a parade, eat corned beef and cabbage, and remember the great Cuchulainn, heroic defender of Erin!



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