Cúchualainn's Trials

Cúchulainn in Alba

On the morning that Cúchullainn was to go to Domnall Mildemail, the war-like, and then to Scathach, he firstly visited with Emer. It was she who told him his trip had been set up by Forgall, her father, for he did not want her associated with the young warrior. She warned him that his life would be in jeopardy, for it was Forgall's plan to ensure Cúchullainn's death. He took heed of her warning, and both separated, vowing to remain true to each other until next they met, unless one of them died.

Then Cúchullainn turned his face toward the country of Alba, where dwelt Domnall and Scathach, the Shadowy One, who would fine-tune his warrior's skills or kill him in the endeavour. He came to Domnall's fort and learned very well what he was taught; the Pierced Flagstone with the bellows blowing under it. He danced and practised the warrior's arts until his feet were blackened and hardened as granite. He then proceeded to perform the 'Hero's Coil on the Spikes of Spears', where he climbed up a spear and performed on it's point without making his soles bleed.

Eventually Domnall could not teach him more, and he told the youth of Ulster he must conclude his training with Scathach, who lived further to the east. Cúchullainn started off immediately until he eventually came to the place where Scatach's pupils dwelt, by the banks of a lake. He asked of her, and where she might be.
"On that island in the mist of the lake," said one.
"And how may I get there?" Cuchullainn enquired.
"Take the Pupils' Bridge," he was told by another, "but be wary; only he who is trained at arms can cross over. The bridge is made low at each end and high in the middle: a step on one end will have the other end fly at you and put you on your back at least."

Three times Cúchullainn tried to cross over, and three times he hauled himself off the ground in defeat. The pupils jeered and laughed with scorn, until the warp-spasm overtook him, and he flew at the bridge in a fury and leaped his salmon leap directly onto the middle of the bridge and from there to the far end. So quick was he that the bridge had no time to react, and he stepped onto the soil of the island. He proceeded to the fort on the brow of the hill and took his spear and broke through the gate as if it was kindling.

Inside, Scathach was watching his progress. "Now here is a youth who has already received a man's training and more", she thought to herself. She called to her daughter Uathach to go and meet him. Uathach went, and greeted him, and bade him stay still until she returned to bring her mother to him. The sight of him stirred her deeply, and the sight of her made his warp-spasm dissolve the quicker. Back with her mother, she praised him.
"I can see he pleases you" said her mother.
"He does indeed" replied the daughter.
"Well, take him to your bed tonight if you want", she said, "and sleep with him"
"I would enjoy that if he would" smiled the daughter.

That evening Uathach tended to Cúchullainn at the meal, and brought him bread and meat and water, pretending to be a servant, and flirted and aroused him. Cúchullainn caught hold of her and held her close to him, but he hurt her finger, and she cried out. Everyone heard the cry, and of them all one came and attacked Cúchullainn. This one was Cochar Cruibne, one of Scathach's champions. They struggled together a long time, with Cochar trying his special tricks of battle, but Cúchullainn parried them easily. He knocked down the champion and cut off his head.

Scathach was sorry for the loss of Cochar, but Cúchullainn stated he would take on the man's duties and lead her army and be her champion. Uathach returned to him and stayed with him that night for three days. Then she told him that if he wanted to learn from Scathach he must go to the place where she was teaching her two sons Cuar and Cat, and he must impress her mightily once he arrived there.

Cuchullainn went to a place where there were many yew trees, and heard the sons practising and then saw Scathach reclining beneath the largest yew. With his salmon leap he flew to the top-most bough and dropped down the far side with his sword drawn. The point of this he placed between her breasts and made her promise three things: thoroughness in his training, a dowry for his marriage, and tidings of his future - for Scathach was also a prophetess.
"I'll give you these three things", she said, "the three highest desires of your heart, if you can ask them in one breath". This he did, and she started his education.

Cúchulainn Completes his Training

All the while Cúchullainn was staying with Scathach in Alba and sharing her daughter Uathach's bed, there emerged from Munster another great champion called Lugaid mac Nois, who was a foster brother of Cúchullainn's and the son of Alamiach, the King of Munster. He came with twelve princes of Munster, and them with twelve war chariots, the dozen of them to woo the twelve daughters of Coirpre Niafer mac Rosa Ruaid. They came much too late however, and found the girls already betrothed. Emer's father Forgall Monach heard they were around and went to them quickly, to speak to Lugaid. He said to him he had a daughter, unmarried, shapely, pure and tidy. And although Emer had sworn herself to Cúchullainn, Forgal hated him and swore her to Lugaid instead. Lugaid was glad to accept, and the twelve princes were given twelve daughters of landowners who had estates in Forgall's territory, Breg.

The wedding was quickly set up by Forgall, who feared Cúchullainn's early return, and on the day the king of Munster himself attended. Emer was taken to Lugaid's table to sit by his hand, but she took him by the cheeks and swore into his eyes that it was Cúchullainn she loved, whose protection she was under, and it would be a crime against honour for anyone else to take her. Much afraid, Lugaid would not then sleep with her, and the celebrations came to a conclusion as he rose and turned for home.

And while this was going on, Scathach in Alba was at war with another territory, whose chief was the woman Aife. By agreement the two armies chose a setting place for the deciding battle, but not before Scathach had slipped Cúchullainn a sleeping draught and then tied him up. She wanted to keep him out of battle in case he anything happened to him. As was normally the case with the young Ulsterman, these things had little or no effect on him, and after an hour he awoke, freshened, to hear the sound of weapons clashing.

He dressed and armed himself and took his place with Scathach's two sons to face three of Aife's soldiers, Cuar, Cat and Crufe, who were sons of Ilsuanach. Leaping to the fore he slew all three before he could be joined by his comrades. The next morning the battle started anew, and three of Aife's warriors, Ciri, Biri and Blaicne, who were sons to their mother Eis Enchenn, the bird-headed, challenged Scathach's sons to individual combat, choosing the 'rope of feats'. At this Scathach gave a great moan, not knowing what would be the outcome. 'Two against three', she sighed, but again Cúchullainn leaped onto the cord between the two factions and slew all three of Aife's warriors.

Choosing not to lose more men than she needed to Aife then chose to challenge Scathach to single combat, and Scathach selected Cuchullainn to represent her.
"Be wary", said she to the youth, "for there is no fiercer nor finer warrior woman in all the world than Aife". Cuchullainn asked her in turn what were the things Aife held most dear.
"Without a doubt, these would be her chariot, charioteer and her two horses" was her answer.

Aife again chose the rope of feats, and there met Cúchullainn and raged against him. She took Cúchullainn's sword close to the hilt and severed the blade with her own, leaving him with little more than a piece of steel no longer than his hand.
"Look!" shouted Cúchullainn, "Aife's charioteer and horses and indeed the chariot as well have fallen over the edge of the bluff and are dashed on to the boulders in the valley below. They are dead!"

Aife spun to look behind her and Cuchullainn leaped at her and grabbed her by the two breasts. He swung her onto his back like a sack of grain and ran to the circle of Scathach's encampment, for Aife's men were outraged and affronted by his brazen trickery. There he tossed her to the ground and took a fresh sword to her throat.
"A life for a life, Cúchullainn!" she pleaded.
"If you are able to grant me three desires it shall be so", he replied.
"Whatever you ask for in one breath will be yours", she said to him.
"Firstly", he demanded, "hostages for Scathach's keep, then you will never attack her again; secondly you will have my company in your fort tonight; lastly you will bear me a son".
"I will grant you these three desires", she said, rising to her feet.

That night Aife entertained Cúchullainn in her own fort, and bedded him. Soon afterwards she confirmed she was with child, and it would be a boy.
"On this day in seven years time I will send him to you in Ireland" she said to him. "But now you must name him". Cúchullainn gave to her a gold thumb-ring and gave instructions the boy was to come to him at a time when the ring would fit. He gave as a name Connla, but directed that the boy was to tell this name to no-one, that he must make way for no man, and he must refuse no man combat. Then Cúchullainn made preparations to return to Scathach's fort.

On his way there he met with a wizened old one-eyed hag on a narrow path, one side of which fell far all the way down to the sea. She shouted at him to move out of her way. He told her he could not, else he would fall off the edge, but she begged so, and he relented, and stood with his back to the sea and only his toes gripping the path. As she passed she kicked at his toes, to dislodge him and send him plummeting to his death. Cúchullainn leaped his hero's salmon leap and landed in front of her with his sword drawn, and struck off her head. As she fell she shifted to the shape of Eis Enchenn, the bird-headed, the mother to the three soldiers fallen to Cuchullainn. It was this way she planned to avenge her children.

Cúchullainn arrived without further event at Scathach's fort. There he quickly completed his training: the apple feat - juggling nine apples with never more than one in his palm; the thunder-feat; the feats of the sword-edge and sloped shield; the feats of the javelin and the rope; the body-feat; the feat of Cat and the heroic salmon-leap; the pole-throw and the leap over a poisoned stroke; the noble chariot-fighter's crouch; the gae bolga; the spurt of speed; the feat of the chariot-wheel thrown on high and the feat of the shield-rim; the breath-feat, with gold apples blown up into the air; the snapping mouth and the hero's scream; the stroke of precision; the stunning-shot and the cry-stroke; stepping on a lance in flight and straightening erect on its point; the sickle chariot; and the trussing of a warrior on the points of spears.

Then Cúchullainn received word that he was to be recalled to Ulster, and he bade Scathach and her kin a teary farewell. Calling him to her house on the night before he left for Ireland, Scathach spoke to him in prophesy, using the imbas forasnai, the Light of Foresight. She chanted to him in the smoky confines of her wickered chamber, saluting him after his win in battle. She prophesied the murderous events on the Muirtheimne Plain, foretelling of red-eyed women and scavenger animals scouring the battlescene. Cúchullainn left her in the murky night and went to his bed, his emotions both joyful and sorrowful.

previousPrevious - Cúchullain and Emer
Next - The Union of Cúchulainn and Emernext