|The heroic tales of Cuchulain are so old that they were almost forgotten.
Thankfully, Sechan Torpeist, a seventh century bard revived the ancient
tales so that we may enjoy them today! Cuchulain studied under the oddess/warrior
Scathach on the Isle of Shadow and returned to Ulster where he would prove
to be a great warrior and leader of the Red Branch, an order of warriors
of Ulster whose exploits make up an entire cycle in Irish mythology. Today,
Cuchulain is honored as a Pagan god.
During ancient times, the island of Ireland was divided into five warring
kingdoms. It was during this time that a powerful Celtic warrior came into
his prime. The warrior was named Cuchulain and he was a Red Branch Knight,
a band of warriors whose title came from the king whom they served, Conchobar
of Ulster, a King descended from Ross the Red. The young Red Branch Knights
were like most Celt's of that time-brilliant and fearless in battle and
united and loyal as brothers against their foes. The three finest knights
of the Red Branch could not agree on who was the proven champion of the
realm, and close though they were, the rivalry for that honor divided them.
Not wishing to court enmity by choosing one man above another, Conchobar
sent the three of them to Maeve, Queen of Connacht and to the King of Muenster
to solicit their opinion as to which one of the three deserved the title.
The judgement of Queen Maeve satisfied no one and the King of Muenster
couldn't be found. So, on Conchobar's orders a truce prevailed among the
three knights and they were given the following titles: Loegaire the Triumphant,
Conall of the Victories and one knight was given the name of Cuchulain.
At the house of the Red Branch in Conchobar's hill fort the King held
a night of feasting. Amid the shouting, boasting and the barking of excited
hounds, nobody noticed the latch of the timbered door rise from its socket.
Nobody saw or heard the door swing on its greased hinges but all were startled
as the door made an earth-shattering slam as it closed. Suddenly alert,
the three great knights turned to the door. There, eyes glowing like flames,
stood a gigantic man. Like great rock cliffs his forehead and nose threw
shadows on his pocked and dusty cheeks, more than half of which lay hidden
beneath a broom of black and bristly beard.
His loins were swathed in cowhide and his shoulders were cloaked with
matted wool In one massive fist he carried a log of Derry oak in the other
rested an ax. The giants footfalls reverberated against the roof beams
as he approached the hearth. All were studying his movements , but nobody
spoke. The terrified hounds tucked their tails under their bellies and
backed away quickly at the giants approach. The giant threw down his log
and surveyed the warriors and silently challenged them to speak. Finally,
after a time, the giant spoke. He said that his name was Uath the Stranger,
and he wandered the earth in search of a man who could hold fast to his
"Surely, here in the house of the Red Branch," he said, "sits one who
will make a compact with me and keep it." Then Fergus Mac Roy, kinsman
of Conchobar, asked Uath "And what is this compact?". "Easy to tell," replied
Uath. "You and Conchobar I put aside, because you are Kings. Outside of
you, I seek one who will make this bargain: He to strike off my head tonight
and I to return the same blow tomorrow night. Surely here there is one
whose courage can meet the terms." There was silence, for the terms were
suprisingly odd ones and smelled of magick. No knight stepped forward.
"There is, then, no champion here?" said Uath as he smiled a cunning smile.
"Here is one who braves your challenge, clown," cried Loegaire the Triumphant
as he leaped to the center of the hall to face the giant. "Kneel, then,"
he said to the giant. "I give you my word: I cut off your head tonight,
you cut off mine tomorrow." Uath knelt and laid his head upon the log that
he brought. Loegaire took the giant's ax, and with a mighty effort, Loegaire
raised the ax high. Down it came, the blade whistling its death song as
it struck through the giants neck and his head lolled and then thumped
to the floor. Great gouts of blood spurted from the the trunk. Speechless,
Loegaire stepped back and stared at the giants body.
After an instant, the body rose to its feet , the lack of a head making
no difference to its steadiness and poise. It took the ax from Loegaire's
hands; it picked up the head, clutching the hair to its chest so that blood
trickled in scarlet rivulets down its legs. The face looked outward, as
disdainful and glowering as when the giant first appeared. Gripping its
blood-soaked baggage, the massive figure marched to the doorway and then
out into the night.
The next night, as before, the door of the House of Red, letting in
the wind and the rain. Uath the Stranger-whole again, without so much as
a mark on his sinewy neck-strode to the hearth, bearing his ax. Loegaire
the Triumphant was not in attendance. His otherwise great heart had failed
him at the prospect of accepting the giant's terrible blow. Uath shrugged
and spat on the floor. He fingered the ax blade and said not a word.
From the crowded benches sprang Conall of the Victories, ready to defend
Ulster's honor. The same murderous compact was struck: a head for a head.
As Loegaire had, Conall swung the ax, the blood of Uath the Stranger spurted
as before. As before, the headless giant left the feasting hall. And as
with Loegaire, Conall was absent on the next night, when it came his turn
to face the blade.
On the third night, stood Uath, again in front of the hearth in the
feast hall of the House of Red. Laughing at the Ulster knights, Uath said
"Two of the best have failed me, and where is the proud stripling Cuchulain?
Lily-hearted, like the rest." Then Cuchulain rose from the bench where
he sat and approached the giant. He told the giant to keep his bargain
for fools. Why, Cuchulain asked, would a sensible man throw his life away
for the sake of a creature that could restore its form by trickery?
The giant bellowed with laughter. He called Cuchulain a coward and a
spineless child. The taunts did the trick. Crimson with pride and rage,
Cuchulain sprang forth, strong in fury, he snatched the huge ax from the
giant and swung it, sending Uath's head spinning, blood spewing forth in
streams across the feasting hall. When the giant's head fell, Cuchulain
smashed it with the edge of the ax. After the spectacle, there was silence,
save for the young knight's heavy breathing.
As before, the giant rose, picked up the ax and the reddened pulp that
had been his head, and strode out into the darkness. The following night,
Cuchulain joined the others at the great feasting hall. He was tight-lipped
and white-faced, but he was there. The Red Branch knights drew back from
him, as from one marked for death. On his raised bench, Conchobar the King
waited impassively. The door swung open and everyone turned their attention
towards Uath the stranger, back to finish the challenge.
Uath called Cuchulain's name, and the young knight rose from his seat.
Cuchulain walked stiffly to the center of the hall, where the giant now
stood. The knight knelt to take the blow, trembling with fear and pale-faced,
but he kept his place while the giant towered over him. The ax swung up-its
blade silvered by the firelight-and paused in the air. "Stretch out your
neck better," Uath the Stranger commanded. "Save your breath and cease
your taunting," Cuchulain snapped. "Strike swiftly, as I did." He bent
his head again.
The giant's eyes gleamed as the ax hurtled down. A hoarse gasp left
a hundred throats, the beginning of the Red Branch's mourning for the loss
of its own. But there was no loss. The giant's ax blade shattered the stones
on which Cuchulain knelt. The young warrior himself rose to his feet unharmed
and turned to face Uath the Stranger. Uath disappeared. In his place stood
Curoi of Muenster who had been strangely absent when the rival knights
presented themselves for judgement.
Curoi had come at Conchobar's asking to settle the quarrel of the Ulster
knights in full view of their peers, so that none would doubt the fairness
of the decision. He told the company that Cuchulain was the King's champion.
Only Cuchulain had refused the giant's bargain. Loegaire and Conall had
accepted it, then failed in valor. Only Cuchulain had struck in the heat
of rage-a rashness appropriate and even necessary to a warrior.
Only Cuchulain had proved his contempt of death by bending his head
for the giant's blow.