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For my version of the Cúchulainn myth, I relied for the most part upon English translations of the Irish sagas. But once or twice I also drew on Yeats, who wrote a number of poems and plays about Cúchulainn. The phrase “mournful wonder” describing Cúchulainn’s unusual eyes comes from Yeats’ poem “Cuchulain’s Fight With the Sea.”

Among those feasting men Cuchulain dwelt,
And his young sweetheart close beside him knelt,
Stared on the mournful wonder of his eyes,
Even as Spring upon the ancient skies,
And pondered on the glory of his days…


A restless sea beside the Giants’ Causeway in Northern Ireland. Photo: Travel Addicts (click for source).

18. O Mournful Wonder

Scáthach lay in the soft grass beneath a certain apple tree in the grove she maintained on her island. The late afternoon breeze was pleasantly cool, and from time to time she took a bite of the ripe apple in her hand. With a little help from a spell she knew, her apples always arrived before midsummer, but winter would come soon enough. There were many tasks to be completed, many supplies to be laid in, that the dún might be safe and warm through the cold months. Most students left the school before the first icy rains fell, but a devoted few would stay on, unwilling to leave until they learned all that Scáthach could teach them. Once a student left her, he was not permitted to return.

She unbound her black hair, pulled a comb from her belt, and spent a pleasant half-hour combing out the thick locks that fell to her waist. Tending to her hair always reminded her of her mother Lhiannan, a woman of the Sídhe who had kept her in the Otherworld for several mortal lifetimes before allowing her to make her way to the Land of Men, still in the appearance of a young girl. Scáthach did not mind being mortal like her huge, black-haired hero of a father, something her mother simply could not understand. They had parted forever, that day.

She set down the comb and lay back again, leaning on a smooth place in the trunk of her beloved apple tree. She closed her eyes, and though she heard nothing, she suddenly felt the icy cold of a sword point pressing hard between her breasts. “So, warrior, you have arrived,” she said, not bothering to open her eyes. Of course it was he, the one she was expecting.

“By your bond, I ask of you three things.”

This alarmed her as the sword point had not. Sixteen years ago, while in labor with Uathach, she had crouched beside this tree and held onto it for support. The birth pangs were long and arduous, in spite of all her arts. Finally she had made a vow. “O Tree, if I complete my labor and I am delivered of a healthy girl, I bind myself to you. Whatever anyone asks of me beneath this tree, I shall accomplish.” The only person alive who knew of the geis was Uathach, who must have betrayed her secret to the whims of this stranger.

She opened her eyes, and gazed into those of a most unusual young man. He knelt beside her, his black hair glinting in the dappled rays of light that fell through the tree branches. His irises swirled with color, almost making her dizzy. In spite of their beauty, his eyes were sad. O mournful wonder, she thought. O comeliest of men. But aloud she answered him, “Speak, warrior. What three things would you have of me?”

“Train me to the best of your skill and knowledge. Prophesy my fate, for you are a seeress. And give me the friendship of your thighs.”

“I shall accomplish these things, warrior,” she said formally, “but my geis does not bind me as to the time. Your training comes first. Do you accept my authority while you are under training?”

“I do,” he said.

“Let us walk,” said Scáthach, and for hours they walked the circuit of the isle, talking of many things. When they reached a place on the beach, overhung with greenery, where her sweetwater spring made its way to the sea, the warrior said, “There is soft grass, and cool shade, and purple vetch, and cress. Lie with me now, Shadow Woman.”

She turned to face him. He was not a large man like her father, yet she could sense a gentle beam of light shining from his face. The hero-light was only found among the greatest warriors, and even then, one normally saw it only when the battle-madness took them. “You don’t even have your beard yet,” she told him.

“Yet the iron of my sword is as hard as any,” he answered, snaking a hand around her slender waist. She indulged herself with a kiss, running her hands over the hard muscles of his upper arms, his back, his buttocks. It would be no hardship to keep her bond. But not yet. “No doubt you’ve already had my daughter, Uathach. That ought to satisfy you for one day.”

He looked back at her, his expression a frank acknowledgement that she was correct about Uathach. “An acorn is no mighty oak.”

“I don’t drink from the same cup as my daughter until it has been washed. You will enjoy the friendship of my thighs after you are washed clean in the blood of my enemies.”

He nodded, satisfied. “And the prophecy?”

“That comes when it comes. I cannot control it. What is your name, warrior?”

“Sétanta, son of Súaltam mac Róich.” He is no father of yours, thought Scáthach. We shall see who your real father is.

“They call me Culann’s Hound,” he continued.

“A fine name for a fine warrior.”

They walked back to the dún together in companionable silence.

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: In ancient Ireland, people were sometimes bound by individual taboos or prohibitions, called geasa (sing. geis). Scáthach’s geis is one she placed on herself, but they could also be imposed by others. Cúchulainn himself was under a geis never to eat dog meat, which makes perfect magical sense given that he himself was “the Hound of Culann.”