Cúchulainn (“Hound of Culann”) famously earned his nickname as a young child, when he was attacked by the fierce guard dog of the blacksmith, Culann. Where any other child would have been mauled to death, the young Sétanta defended himself, slaying the hound. Having deprived Culann of his guard dog, he promised to take the dog’s place until a new pup was reared for the job. Cúchulainn is in many ways similar to the Greek hero Herakles, who strangled two serpents sent by Hera to kill him in his cradle. Like Herakles, who was twice enslaved, Cúchulainn assumes the humblest status. Both heroes possess a bestial side, which makes them misfits in the social world, and most at home on the battlefield.
12. Culann’s Hound
“So you think to go deceitfully behind my back, do you, meeting this madman of Emain Macha?” said Forgall wrathfully. When Emer looked up in surprise, he said, “Oh yes, I heard all about it from Criofan.” She winced. Criofan was Róisín’s father. “Your swain tried to hide his intent behind riddling speech! But he didn’t fool anyone.”
The next day her father left the house, and he was gone for several weeks. She knew his business was somehow connected with Sétanta, and she lay sleepless at night wondering whether Forgall, with his ruthlessness and wily ways, would succeed in forever separating her from the man she loved. Often too, she dreamed of the face of Sétanta, and his long black hair. Someone ought to plait that hair for him, before he went into battle. Someone ought to see that his white hood had a tassel, and his red cloak a proper fringe.
Finally, Forgall returned, looking smug. She asked Dónal, his charioteer, for an account of his doings. Dónal had always had a soft spot for Emer, and he didn’t fail her now. “Forgall went to Emain Macha to pay his respects to Conchobar and his foster son,” he said. “He brought rich gifts of the type the Fair Foreigners trade, silver chains, inlaid belt buckles of bronze, and glass beads of many colors.”
“And how was he received?” she asked, a little annoyed that her father had never shown her these rare ornaments, although she had run his household since her mother’s death. Instead he kept them locked away in his private storeroom, gloating over them like a miser.
“Oh, there was great feasting over three days, and Conchobar called for displays of manly excellence. Then the chariot-chiefs raced back and forth across the plain, and the warriors jumped from the chariots in motion, and leapt onto them again, brandishing their shields and spears. It was a stirring sight, and the noise of the chariots was like Lugh’s thunder,” said Dónal.
“And was the prize of excellence awarded to anyone in particular?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
“Yes, to the man you love,” he replied. Seeing her reaction, he said, “Don’t try to fool me, Emer. I’ve known you since you were no bigger than an apple-seed.” She was silent, and he went on, “He is Sétanta, the dark man they call Culann’s Hound. Forgall was determined to prevent his marrying you, but he used guile so as not to offend Conchobar. He said that the chariot-chiefs were impressive, and Culann’s Hound most of all, but that he was still a beardless lad who required training. If he went far away to Alba to seek the warrior woman Scáthach on her mysterious isle, and if he learned all the feats of soldiery from her, why then he would truly be a man to reckon with.”
“And what did Sétanta say?” she asked, breathless.
“He agreed that this would be a good thing. But Conchobar pointed out that many who go in search of Scáthach never come back, so Sétanta said he would gladly go, on the condition that Forgall promised to give him any one thing he asked of him upon his return. To this Forgall consented.”
“Oh Dónal! Think you he will be killed on the journey? Or while he is training with this savage foreign woman?” cried Emer fearfully. Before he could answer, she recovered herself. “No. He swore to me that his deeds would be counted among the glories of the men of Éire, and Sétanta will keep his word.”
She took to walking the grounds in the cool of the evening, pondering her lover’s fate, but only a few days later Sétanta found her as she was walking, and clasped her hands in his. “Emer, I am going away to Alba. Wait for me.”
“Forgall tricked you into this,” she said, tears in her eyes. “He wishes to separate us, and he hopes you will be killed on the journey. While you are gone, he will try to force me to wed Lugaid.”
“If Lugaid or anyone else marries you, I’ll take his head and make you a widow,” said Sétanta, looking fierce, and in the fading light of dusk she saw a glow about his face, as though light was shining from his brow. He gathered her into his arms and kissed her, hard and rough. She wasn’t used to being kissed. Even her father never did so, but Sétanta pressed his mouth against hers, so that not only their lips met, but their teeth and tongues. Her breasts were crushed against his chest. His kiss was sweet, yet harsh.
“Is this how heroes make love to their wives?” she asked. “I have no knowledge of this art.”
“And I have no wife,” he said. “But when I claim you, Emer, we will learn together.”
“Yes,” she replied. “That is my desire. But tell me, my love, how did you come to be named Culann’s Hound?”
“It happened when I was five years of age. One day my foster-father Conchobar went to visit Culann, the master of the forge, and I followed behind him, even though he had forbidden it. Not realizing I was there in the yard, the smith loosed his huge guard hound and it came after me with its jaws gaping wide.”
“And you a five year old child!” She was horrified. He bore no obvious scars, but perhaps they were on parts of his body that he kept hidden. “What did you do?”
“I strangled the Hound.” Sétanta looked amused at her expression. “He did me no harm, Emer, though he tried with all his might. But Culann was angry that I had deprived him of the great guardian of his herds and his house. So I offered to take the hound’s place while Culann reared another pup. And ever since that day, I have borne the name Cúchulainn.”
“Emer!” shouted Fiall. “Where are you? Father is growing angry.” Her voice, distant at first, drew closer. Sétanta gave Emer a last, lingering kiss, gentler than the first one, and slipped away into the shadows.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: It is difficult today to imagine that glass beads might be as valuable as those made of gold or silver, but in antiquity, glass was still a new technology. Phoenician and, later, Roman glass beads were traded to all corners of the world, including ancient Ireland. Roman beads are particularly interesting, since the finest examples have tiny “mosaic” faces and patterns. Ancient people who encountered these beads must have regarded them as precious gemstones, and rightly so.