CUCHULINN (Cūchúlinn; pronounced “Coohoollin”), the chief warrior in the Conchobar-Cuchulinn or older heroic (Ulster) cycle of Ireland. The story of his origin is very obscure. The god Lug is represented as having been swallowed in a draught of wine by his mother Dechtire, sister of Conchobar, who was king of Ulster. But it is not unlikely that this story was invented to supersede the account of the incestuous union of Conchobar with his sister, which seems to be hinted at on various occasions. Usually, however, he is styled son of Sualdam, an Ulster warrior who plays a very inferior part in the cycle. His earliest name was Setanta, and he was brought up at Dun Imbrith (Louth). When he was six years of age he announced his intention of going to Conchobar’s court at Emain Macha (Navan Rath near Armagh) to play with the boys there. He defeats all the boys in marvellous fashion and is received as one of their number. Shortly after he kills Culann, the smith’s hound, a huge watch-dog. The smith laments that all his property is of no value now that his watchman is slain, whereupon the young hero offers to guard his domains until a whelp of the hound’s has grown. From this the boy received the name of Cū Chulinn or Culann’s Hound. The next year Cuchulinn receives arms, makes his first foray, and slays the three sons of Necht, redoubtable hereditary foes of the Ulstermen, in the plain of Meath. The men of Ulster decide that Cuchulinn must marry, as all the women of Ireland are in love with him. Chosen envoys fail to find a bride worthy of him after a year’s search, but the hero goes straight to Emer, the daughter of Forgall the Wily, at Lusk (county Dublin). The lady is promised to him if he will go to learn chivalry of Domnall the Soldierly and the amazon Scathach in Alba. After enduring great hardships he goes through the course and leaves a son Connlaech behind in Scotland by another amazon, Aife. On his return he carries off and weds Emer. He is represented as living at Dun Delgan (Dundalk). The greatest of all the hero’s achievements was the defence of the frontier of Ulster against the forces of Medb, queen of Connaught, who had come to carry off the famous Brown Bull of Cualnge (Cooley). The men of Ulster were all suffering from a strange debility, and Cuchulinn had to undertake the defence single-handed from November to February. This was when he was seventeen years of age. The cycle contains a large number of episodes, such as the gaining of the champion’s portion and the tragical death by the warrior’s hand of his own son Connlaech. When he was twenty-seven he met with his end at the hands of Lugaid, son of Cūrōi MacDaire, the famous Munster warrior, and the children of Calatīn Dāna, in revenge for their father’s death (see Celt: Irish Literature).
Medieval Christian synchronists make Cuchulinn’s death take place about the beginning of the Christian era. It is not necessary to regard Cuchulinn as a form of the solar hero, as some writers have done. Most, if not all, of his wonderful attributes may be ascribed to the Irish predilection for the grotesque. It is true that Cuchulinn seems to stand in a special relation to the Tuatha De Danann leader, the god Lug, but in primitive societies there is always a tendency to ascribe a divine parentage to men who stand out pre-eminently in prowess beyond their fellows.
See A. Nutt, Cuchulainn, the Irish Achilles (London, 1900); E. Hull, The Cuchullin Saga (London, 1898). (E. C. Q.)