Years ago, while traveling through Scotland, a lack of time prevented me from thoroughly visiting the Isle of Skye. However, I found a couple of hours to at least set foot on it, as I didn’t want to miss it. Why? Because Celtic mythology places the Dún Scáith or Fortress of Shadows, the residence of Scáthach, in that location. The name might sound familiar to some: it’s the character played by Lady Gaga in the series American Horror Story: Roanoke. In reality, she was the weapons master of the hero Cú Chulainn, who may be familiar to many readers, so let’s delve into the story.

Cú Chulainn is the protagonist of the so-called an Rúraíocht or Ulster Cycle, a collection of stories about the Ulstermen, the ancient inhabitants of Ulster (the northern part of Ireland), though they are also part of Scottish folklore. These tales, some in prose and some in verse, recount the adventures of their traditional heroes, the most important of whom is Cú Chulainn. In fact, a certain parallel has been drawn between his story, told in the book Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), and that of the Achaean hero Achilles, as both were great warriors and both were prophesied to gain fame and die young.

Moreover, just as the Greek hero was the son of King Peleus and the nymph Thetis, and great-grandson of Zeus, Cú Chulainn also had royal and divine ancestry, as his father was the supreme god Lug and his mother was Queen Dectera, sister of the king of Ulster. This lineage led to his name change, as he was born Setanta but Cathbad, the chief druid of Ulster and his tutor, renamed him Cú Chulainn, meaning the Hound of Culann. This was because he killed Culann’s guard dog in self-defense and then offered to take its place until a new puppy could grow.

Cú Chulain kills Culann's dog (Stephen Reid)
Cú Chulain kills Culann’s dog (Stephen Reid). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Dectera was the daughter of King Conchobar, in whose court Cú Chulainn was raised. Upon reaching adulthood, he was to receive the weapons that would mark him as an adult, and it was then that he heard the druid’s prophecy: whoever received weapons that day would become a great hero, but have a short life.

Cú Chulainn, cunningly, rushed to ask the king for weapons and broke them; he then requested others and repeated the action several times until only the last set remained for him, marking him as the chosen one.

Settled in Murthemney Castle, the other men sought a wife for him, fearing he would seduce theirs or their daughters due to his charisma and fondness for women. They chose Emer, but her father, Chief Forgall Monach, demanded that his future son-in-law prove himself first. Since Cú Chulainn lacked military training, he suggested that the renowned Scottish warrior Scáthach train him, hoping she would kill him instead, as he preferred to marry his daughter to the king of Munster (who declined upon learning who the other suitor was).

Cú Chulainn requests weapons from the king (Stephen Reid)
Cú Chulainn requests weapons from the king (Stephen Reid). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Cú Chulainn accepted the challenge and traveled to find Scáthach, accompanied by illustrious friends like Prince Conchobar (son of the druid Cathbad), Connall Cernach (a warrior who later married Conchobar’s daughter), and Lóegaire (a comic counterpoint). They were first received by another mythical fighter, Domnall (from whom many Irish kings would take their name), as Scáthach only accepted students with prior training. Incidentally, Domnall had a not very attractive daughter who fell madly in love with Cú Chulainn and swore revenge when he rejected her.

Domnall taught them the art of combat, but at a certain point, he considered them ready to continue with Scáthach (or Sgàthach in Scottish Gaelic), also known by aliases such as the Warrior Woman or the Shadowy One. The story of her teachings to Cú Chulainn is featured in the book “Táin Bó Cúailnge”; specifically in the episode titled Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), though there are two versions: a short one written in Old Irish (the oldest of the Goidelic Celtic languages, including Scottish Gaelic and Manx, dating between the 6th and 10th centuries) and a later, more extensive one written in Middle Irish (which succeeded the former between the 10th and 12th centuries).

The young hero arrived accompanied by his foster brother Ferdiad at Dún Scáith, the impregnable fortress mentioned earlier. The gate was guarded by Uathach, Scáthach’s daughter, who was also a skilled warrior. Scáthach accepted them after Cú Chulainn managed to cross the treacherous bridge over a lava-filled moat in two jumps, thus beginning a year-long training in various martial arts. These included unusual skills like pole vaulting – considered useful for scaling battlements – underwater fighting, and wielding a seven-pointed spear of her invention.

Cú Chulainn rebuked by Emer (H.R. Millar)
Cú Chulainn rebuked by Emer (H.R. Millar). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

This last was the most notable teaching for Cú Chulainn, who received the emblematic Gáe Bulg as a gift upon completion. This javelin, made from the bone of the Coinchenn (a sea monster killed in a battle with another, the Curruid), was said to be always lethal as it split into thirty points upon entering the flesh, though some sources say this was only under certain conditions, while others describe it simply as a seven-pointed spear, similar to some harpoons.

In any case, its characteristics necessitated opening the corpse to retrieve the weapon, and mythology provides gruesome examples: Cú Chulainn had to do this with Ferdiad, whom he had faced in single combat, and later with his own son, Connla.

Of course, killing those close to him was a recurring theme in his life. While still in Alba, he fell in love with Uathach, Scáthach’s daughter, but in a moment of uncontrolled passion, he broke her finger, causing her to cry out in pain, triggering a tragedy.

Cú Chulainn carrying Ferdiad's body (Ernest Wallcousins)
Cú Chulainn carrying Ferdiad’s body (Ernest Wallcousins). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Hearing her cries, Cochar Croibhe, Uathach’s fiancé, rushed in to find his beloved in a compromising situation with Cú Chulainn, not just due to the accident. Indignant, the spurned lover challenged his rival to a duel and was easily killed by him, as he was no match. Thus, Cú Chulainn definitively won her favor, with Scáthach’s consent, who was glad and did not demand the customary bride price. Thus, he joined the family, but another member remains to be introduced.

This is Aífe, Scáthach’s sister, sometimes described as her twin. Both were daughters of Árd-Greimne, king of Alba, though other sources place him ruling over Lethra, the peninsula now encompassing Brittany, the northwest of the Loire region, and all of the Normandy coast, once known as Armorica, a region of the Celtic Atlantic arc. Aífe and Scáthach did not get along and eventually declared war. Fearing for her pupil – now son-in-law – Scáthach gave him a potion to keep him asleep throughout the impending battle. It was a sedative strong enough to render a man unconscious for a whole day, but, of course, Cú Chulainn was not like other men.

As expected, he awoke after just an hour, with time to join the fight and help his mother-in-law and teacher defeat the enemy host. To avoid further bloodshed, Aífe and Scáthach agreed on a single combat, but Cú Chulainn convinced the latter to let him represent her. He won through a trick: with his sword broken and about to be pierced by Aífe’s, he shouted that her chariot was falling off a cliff; when she turned, he disarmed her, forcing her to surrender.

Aífe (John Duncan)
Aífe (John Duncan). Credit: Stephencdickson / Wikimedia Commons

Before the fight, Cú Chulainn had asked Scáthach what her sister loved most in the world, and the answer was her chariot and horses. Thus, he confirmed the cunning that had already made him embrace the druid’s prophecy, matching his combat skills with his sharp mind. Also, his lust; it must be emphasized, as in this moment of triumph, he forgot both Emer and Uathach, taking advantage of his situation to enjoy Aífe.

He then returned to Ireland to marry Emer, which he had to do by force since her father still refused to give his consent (by force meaning killing him and his men and abducting her). Ironically, the trial set by Forgall Monach to eliminate that suitor for his daughter backfired, as Cú Chulainn returned as an exceptional warrior.

But there remained an awkward detail: King Conchobar had the right of the first night. Though he did not dare exercise it for fear of the formidable Cú Chulainn, all agreed on the druid Cathbad’s solution: the king would sleep with Emer on the wedding night… but with the druid between them.

Cú Chulainn in battle (J.C. Ledeyeker)
Cú Chulainn in battle (J.C. Ledeyeker). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Cú Chulainn had left Dún Scáith, leaving Aífe pregnant but giving her a gold ring to give their son when he turned seven, then sending him to Ireland to meet his father with the strict order not to reveal his identity. The Tochmarc Emire leaves the story in suspense but it resumes in another book, Aided Óenfhir Aífe (The Death of Aífe’s Only Son), in which the boy indeed sets out to find his father, arriving in Ireland in a bronze boat with golden oars. This son’s name is Connla.

As a stranger unknown to all, the boy is received with suspicion and ends up fighting Connall Cernach, the warrior who had accompanied his father to Alba, defeating him. Cú Chulainn, unaware of the intruder’s identity, decides to avenge Connall, defeats Connla with his deadly spear… and upon dismembering him to retrieve it, he discovers the ring, realizing he has killed his own son. This story might sound familiar as it appears in other cultures; a good example is Persian, where a similar event happens with the hero Rostam and his son Sohrab, among others.

Cú Chulainn’s story does not end there. He would live through many more adventures narrated in the Ulster Cycle and, of course, kill more people, earning many enemies. One of them, Lugaid, defeated him by exploiting the weakened state of his spirit after breaking a vow not to eat dog meat; he did so to avoid offending an old woman’s invitation, but remember there was a prophecy of his early death.

Tradition says this monolith at Rathiddy is the stone to which Cú Chulainn was tied
Tradition says this monolith at Rathiddy is the stone to which Cú Chulainn was tied. Credit: Kieran Campbell / Wikimedia Commons

Cú Chulainn stands tied to a stone to defend himself until the circling crows indicate he has died. Then Lugaid beheads him; Connall Cernach avenges him, but that’s beyond the scope of this story.

And Scáthach? Ignoring that some versions also attribute a romance with Cú Chulainn to her, she subsequently focused on magic – she had clairvoyant abilities – and ended up being assimilated as a Celtic goddess of the dead, responsible for guiding the souls of those fallen in battle to Tír na nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth, an island where the gods reside and time stands still, later assimilated into other legends, including that of St. Brendan (a monk who supposedly sailed into the Atlantic in search of the Earthly Paradise).

Finally, it’s worth noting that on the Scottish Isle of Skye, there are ruins called Dun Sgathaich (Dunscaith Castle) that legend identifies with Dún Scáith. However, mythology places Scáthach around the 3rd century BC while that site was built in the medieval period by the MacDonald clan of Sleat. As usual, the myth is more entertaining.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 20, 2018: Scáthach, la mítica guerrera escocesa que enseñó a luchar al héroe Cú Chulainn

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