Episode 18: The Tain Bo Cualinge Pt. 2
Updated: Nov 26, 2021
We're returning to the old Irish epic of the "Cattle Raid of Cooley" this week, featuring Cu Chulainn's boyhood deeds and a plethora of killing. This slaughterfest demonstrates the blasé manner in which violence is portrayed in Irish epic, as well as the continued absurdity of this tale.
To summarize Part One, King Ailil and Queen Maeb compared their wealth and found that allows equal between them, save that Maeb was missing one bull. Determined to match her husband in wealth and power, she demands to borrow the Brown Bull of Cooley. When negotiations fail, Maeb, Ailil, and the Connachta go to war against the northern Ulstermen. The Ulstermen, however, are cursed by "women's pains" so that they are incapacitated throughout part of the year and cannot go to war. The only person who can protect them is Cu Chulainn, the foster-son of the Ulster king, Conchobar.
The next section of the text recounts Cu Chulainn's boyhood deeds and explains why he is the chosen, fearsome hero to protect the Ulstermen. These stories also recount his fosterage by Conchobar and his complex relationships with both the Ulsterman and the rest of the folk of Ireland.
The first tale of Cu Chulainn's childhood depicts his "play" with a group of boys in Conchobar's home. As was his habit as king, Conchobar sat out with Fergus eating, drinking, and watching a young group of lads playing hurling. Cu Chulainn, now only five years old, approached the pitch, seeking a cadre of lads to become friends with. However, these boys did not recognise him, and since he did not introduce himself, they saw Cu Chulainn as an enemy, since he arrived with a toy spear, shield, and his hurling kit.
These three 50s (i.e. 150) lads all hurled their spears at him, which he blocked with his shield, followed swiftly by their hurling balls and then the clubs. Cu Chulainn has his first "Warpspasm," so that his hair stands on end, his jaw unhinges, and one eye sinks into his head whikle the other falls out. He hurled nine of the boys over Conchobar's head, and as he leapt over the king to finish the job, Conchobar stopped him and admonishes him. After hearing about the unprovoked attack, however, the king lets him go and eventually adopts him as a foster son.
Cu Chulainn continues to protect Conchobar from outside enemies, and to show his appriciation of this service, the king invites the young boy to join him at a feast held by the smith Chulainn. Cu Chulainn, then still called by his birth name, Sétanta, agrees to come along after he's finished playing.
Conchobar arrives at Chulainn's estate, and when the man asks the king if he is expecting anyone else, the king says no, forgetting his invitation. Chulainn lets loose his gaurd dog onto the grounds to protect his property, herds, and guests. Chulainn's hound is so fierce, it takes three chains with a man holding each one to keep the dog from slipping his lead.
Sure enough, Sétanta wanders along into Chulainn's fields to join the feast, still playing with his hurling club. The guard dog spots him and charges headlong at the boy, and Sétanta deftly swings his hurling ball so that it passes through the dog's gullet and out its backside. As this occurs, the dog lets out a yelp, and the king laments, remembering his other guest, and thinks the child has been killed.
Several of the king's men rush out into the yard and find Sétanta. They bring him back and place him on the king's knee. Chulainn is perplexed. He welcomes the boy for his heritage and stastus, but is sorry for his coming because he has lost his prized dog. To resolve the issue, Sétanta offers to serve as Chulainn's "guard dog" until one of the dog's whelps can be reared. This tale explains how Cu Chulainn got his name: the Hound of Chulainn.
Returning to the historical present of the text, Cu Chulainn begins his path of slaughter with the death of Ailil and Maeb's son, Orlam. Cu Chulainn comes upon Orlam's chairioteer in the woods, and the charioteer mistakes him for a Connacht man, and asks him to help clean chariot poles. Amused, Cu Chulainn strips the poles clean with a single swipe of a well-calloused palm, and the charioteer grows fearful, realizing who he is facing.
Promising not to kill him, Cu Chulainn asks the charioteer to lead him back to Orlam, which the frightened servant does. Cu Chulainn decapitates Orlam and sends his head back with the charioteer, ordering him to show the head to Ailil and Maeb in front of all the troops of Ireland. The charioteer does bring the head back, but in a less-than-satisfactory way for Cu Chulainn, for he hurls his sling and kills the charioteer as well. Thus, the tale explains, it was not true that Cu Chulainn did not kill charioteers, but that he never did so without good reason.
In his bid to kill Queen Maeb, Cu Chulainn also accidentally kills her sevant, Loch, by mistaking her for Maeb. Maeb walks the camp half covered by soldiers' sheilds to keep Cu Chulainn from killing her with his sling.
Another challenger offers to face Cu Chulainn, but as he approaches, Cu Chulainn is distracted and trying to catch birds. When this challenger hurls seven spears at Cu Chulainn, he simply leaps atop them in a gravity-defying stunt and continues to go after the birds. The challenger goes back to Maeb and explains what occured. Eventually, the tale comes back to Cu Chulainn that Maeb is calling him a coward for not facing her challenger.
Enraged, Cu Chulainn agrees to face the challenger again, since he was unaware he was in a fight beforehand. When the challenger sees Cu Chulainn again, he does not recognise him up close because he is a beardless boy. To prevent this shame, Cu Chulainn says that the real Cu Chulainn is around the hill, and dashes behind it while smearing on a false beard of grass and mud.
This time, both men face each other. The challenger hurls his spear at Cu Chulainn, but our hero leaps above it. When Cu Chulainn hurls his spear, however, it impales the challenger's face, and his body walks back to Maeb's army to declare defeat.
Finally, in a last ditch effort to help Cu Chulainn, the 150 lads that Cu Chulainn now leads decide to take up arms and go into battle, since their fathers are sick with weakness. Ailil sees them and sends 150 men out to meet them. All are slaughtered in the resulting battle.
We've paused our study of the Tain here to consiuder a significant theme of this text.
One of the principle lessons in this work is that ancient heroes are not good people. In many ancient myths, the heroes embody both positive and negative qualities, but overall, the hero must take on an internalized darkness in order to defeat the greater evil that plagues and threatens society. The hero is the only one that can defeat the darkness because the hero utilizes a darkness found in himself, thereby protecting society from having to sacrifice its own goodness. In this action, however, heroes also become scapegoats and exiles from their society because they can no longer reconcile themselves with the innocence and peace found in their civilization. Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, and Cu Chulainn are good examples of these types of heroes.
Consider this as you write your novel, prep your notes for next tabletop session, or prep your character notes. What sort of monstrosity do your characters have to overcome in themselves? What are they protecting? What goodness in themselves they sacrificing in order to protect that person or thing? Can they reconcile the lighter parts of themselves with their new darkness? We'll see if Cu Chulainn can do so in our next episode of the Tain.
Final Rating: 5
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Searching for our sources? Read the Tain Bo Cualinge here or here, and check out our Library for more! We also talked a bit about the Swedish herding call kulning, which you can see examples of here. Additional references for interested scholars:
Gygax, Gary, and Malcolm Bowers. Gary Gygax's Extraordinary Book of Names. Troll Lord Games, 2004.
Lonigan, Paul R. “Shamanism in the Old Irish Tradition”. Éire-Ireland; a journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 20, Iss. 3 (1985): 109-129.
Ross, Anne. The Pagan Celts. Barnes & Noble Books, 1986.
Stewart, George R. Names on the Land: a Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. Random House, 1945.
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