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Cúchulainn’s famous spear, the gáe bolg or “spear of mortal pain,” was made from the bone of a sea monster, Coinchenn, which perished in combat with another leviathan of the deep, Curruid. Some sources have it the other way around, however:

Curruid fell in the furious fight
By the noble, fierce Coinchenn,
Upon the boisterous, proud red sea
On the ridge of the cool and deep abyss.

(-from a poem collected in the early 18th century, cited in On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, by Eugene Curry, 1873)

Illustration of a sperm whale and squid. An actual battle has never been witnessed, since they take place in the deep sea. Click for source.

When I read about this epic battle of sea monsters, I couldn’t help thinking of the Colossal Squid and its antagonist, the Sperm Whale. The whales are known to prey on squid, while the squid have evolved huge eyes and bodies to help them detect and fight off their antagonists. They are well able to defend themselves, and many sucker-scar marks have been observed on the whales, from the squid’s tentacles. Could it be that the ancient Irish somehow knew of these conflicts?

Alas, I believe not, since the Colossal Squid, which grow to about the same length as the whales, live only in the Southern hemisphere. Still, a cryptozoologist has suggested that the northern seas may have formerly included a really huge squid, which gave rise to the myth of the Kraken. The ordinary giant squid (Architeuthis) lives in the north, though at about 13 meters, it doesn’t seem much of a match for a sperm whale. As for yielding the raw materials for a spear, even the Colossal Squid could not do so, since its internal shell or gladius is made of a relatively weak material. On the other hand, a colossal squid gladius looks remarkably like a transparent, “fairy” spear!

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Dissection of a colossal squid: part of the gladius. Photo: Tepapa’s blog. Click for source.


21. Son of Lugh

Scáthach asked Sétanta to meet her by the stream of sweet water, past the place where the greenery was lush and the cress grew in the shallows. When he arrived, she said, “Culann’s Hound, you are no son of Súaltam.”

He bristled at this. “Do you question the honor of my mother Deichtire, sister to Conchobar of Ulster?”

“Not at all.” She added by way of explanation, “My mother was Sídhe, and I sense the hero-light shining from you even when you are at rest. Your father is Lugh, the bright one with the strong hand, the many-skilled, he who wields the thunder-spear.”

Sétanta stared at her. “Can this be?”

“I know what I know,” replied Scáthach. The truth had come to her as she watched Sétanta train against his fellow students. He had the long arm of Lugh, especially when he wielded a spear. As a young girl in the Otherworld, Scáthach had witnessed Lugh’s power firsthand. Even in that blessed land, his jagged, brilliant missiles sometimes split the skies when he was angry or joyful, and his huge figure often strode the horizon, blazing with light.  

“One feat remains for you to learn, one feat which is known to no other scholar. Long ago,” she said, thinking of the years with only a little regret, “long ago I came here with my sword, my scían, and the gáe bolg, the spear of mortal pain.” She held out the spear for him to examine. It was long and thin, not made of wood, but of bone, and bone-tipped. The blade was very narrow, and at the other end was an odd projection with a groove in it.

Sétanta took the spear into his hands reverently. It was about his own height, not as long as a standard man-killing spear. “I bless the beast whose bone this is,” he said.

“It is the bone of Coinchenn, a great monster of the sea. His mouth was like a hundred flint blades, and his tail clove the sea. He strove with the many-armed Curruid, and the thrashing of his body caused waves that engulfed a hundred seaside villages. Then he washed up dead near Gaillimh, many lifetimes ago, and they drew this bone from the wreckage of him. It was fashioned by Sídhe craftsmen.”

“How does a man wield it?” asked Sétanta. He looked wryly at Scáthach. “Or a woman?”

“Its use is limited. It can only function after being bathed in a freshwater stream.” She took the spear and bent to immerse it in the clear, sweet water of the island spring. “One wields it not with the hand, but with the foot.” He looked surprised at this, and she laughed softly. “Watch.” With the spear still underwater, she fitted it to the space between her big and first toes, then suddenly thrust it upward, using a special kick. The spear shot explosively from the water, and seven barbs opened from its shaft. From each of these, seven smaller barbs unfolded, like petals on a flower, but sharp and deadly. They retrieved the spear from the bank where it had fallen, and Sétanta’s eyes grew wide.

“Teach me this feat.”

“So I shall. And the spear of Coinchenn will be my gift to you, son of Lugh.”

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: Fans of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (and its Disney World ride) will remember that Captain Nemo’s fantastical submarine, the Nautilus, is mistaken for a sperm whale and attacked by a giant squid. This movie is a favorite of mine, for the memorable performance by James Mason.

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Mason as Captain Nemo. Beautiful!!

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