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Cúchulainn was a man of many names. His parents called him Sétanta, “the one who knows his way.” The king and courtiers at Emain Macha called him Cúchulainn, “Culann’s Hound,” after the blacksmith’s guard dog he killed while still a young boy. For the same reason, the seeress Scáthach and others named him “Forge Hound.” His charioteer affectionately addressed him as “Little Hound,” for Cúchulainn was not a tall man.

In world cultures, it is unusual for a man to be called “Hound” as an honorific. Despite the early domestication of dogs and their value to humankind, they are typically scorned as submissive, impure creatures. Among the early Celts, however, dogs seem to have been used in warfare, fighting alongside their masters. The huge Irish Wolfhound (Cu Faoil), one of the oldest native breeds, is mentioned in the Old Irish laws and literature. These animals were used as war dogs and to hunt large game including wolves (the last wolf in Ireland was killed in the late 18th century). The description of Cúchulainn as beastlike conveys the wild energy that makes him a formidable warrior, but also a potentially dangerous lack of civilized self-control.


The Irish Wolfhound is the tallest dog breed. Thus the appellation “Little Hound” for Cúchulainn in the sagas could be a joke on his small stature. Photo: Shay Connolly on Flickr.

Cúchulainn’s lovers had names for him too. Uathach called him the Black Dog, when he broke her finger. Emer, his bride, lovingly called him “Cú” for short. His mistress, the fairy woman Fand, named him “Man of Éire.”

But Aoife, the warrior woman whom he raped, called him, simply, “Dog.”

This chapter contains adult material.

26. Forsworn

Aoife came to consciousness in the awareness of a deep ache in her chest and a searing pain on her right thigh, just above the knee. She was lying on a low pallet strewn with wool blankets, her loose hair spread about her shoulders. Above her head, each wrist was bound to one of the legs of the pallet, which projected in painted finials above the level of the straw-stuffed mattress. Her cuirass, boots and tunic were gone, as well as the scían strapped to her thigh, and she was naked and shivering from a recent sponge bath. A very small person was completing the process of sewing up the gash above her knee. She drew in her breath sharply as the iron needle bit into her skin. It felt like a candle flame, weaving its way in and out of her flesh.

“Smarts, doesn’t it?” commented the small person. The voice was odd, not quite a man’s, yet deeper than a woman’s. As a matter of fact, the person possessed no apparent gender. Its legs were small and stumpy, its torso long, its head large in proportion to the rest of it, and covered with thick but close-cropped black hair. It was clothed in a dark green robe. 

Despair dulled her pain somewhat. The images of Darragh, Eoghan, Niall, and her darling Aibhlinn rose to her mind’s eye. All dead, all dead. Though she would gladly have sunk into oblivion, she found that she could not. “Who are you?”

“I am Cepp.” Stump? she thought. “I serve Sétanta, the man you know as the Hound.”

“Are these his quarters? Where is my tunic? How long have I been here?”

“Yes; I burned it; and an hour or two,” said Cepp, lifting her head so she could drink from a silver chalice. The liquid was bitter and she gagged. “Drink it all. You need the fluid and it will ease your pain.” 

She drank, more because her thirst overwhelmed her than because she wished to be healed. “Are you man or woman?”

Cepp smiled grimly and arranged a light blanket over her. “Woman.” 

“Sister, give me back my scían so I can end this. I’ve sworn a geis never to lie with a man.” 

“Then you will be forsworn,” said Cepp implacably, though her eyes held compassion. “Sétanta… will be here soon. The drink will soothe you.” Even as she spoke, the Hound entered the room. He had rinsed the battlefield gore from his body and his long black hair fell past his shoulders. He wore a green belted tunic, and his legs and feet were bare. His eyes met hers, and she turned her head away.

“Leave us.” Aoife knew without looking that Cepp was no longer there. She was alone with the Hound.

He approached silently, then delicately used one finger to turn her chin so that their eyes met. The colors swirled in his strange irises, brown and green and gold and blue. Perhaps, after all, he is the son of Lugh, she thought to herself. There was less shame in being defeated by a demigod.

“Scáthach wanted to come here and gloat over you. I told her not yet,” he said. She had no answer to this. Am I supposed to be grateful? The drink Cepp had given her was doing its work, and the knife-edge of her pain was dulled. Even her hatred was dulled.  

He put one hand on the wool blanket, then twitched it aside to reveal her nakedness. She flinched involuntarily as his eyes passed up and down her body, kindling with renewed battle lust. He moved onto the pallet, which groaned a bit under their combined weight, and held himself above her on all fours, then closed his eyes momentarily and slid a hand between her legs. The heat of his body was intense, and his fingers were hot as iron spits from the fire. She braced herself, then used her unharmed left leg to kick upward as hard as she could.

“Donn!” he swore, but she could tell that his lightning reflexes, and her drugged state, had saved him. She hadn’t hit his stones, or if she had, it was only glancingly. He threw his weight onto her now, grinding himself against her, and she felt his spear, already long and hard, pressing against her groin. Her hands were tied, and she twisted away, but he forced open her legs with his knee and pinned her down, pushing into her. Again he held her chin in one hand and forced her to look into his eyes as he drew himself out, then pushed in again, slowly. She closed her eyelids, willing it all to be a bad dream. 

“Aoife, look at me. I am Sétanta. Look at me.” His voice sounded urgent. “Did Cepp drug you? This displeases me.”

“You wish me to feel pain.” She opened her eyes involuntarily.

“I wish you to feel pleasure.”

Aoife snorted. “Pleasure, you fool? I have broken my geis never to lie with a man. Even if I live, my battle days are over. Brigid will not forgive.” He was still moving back and forth inside her. It felt intrusive and unpleasant. Why do women look forward to this? She sensed pressure from the inside, his spear filling her from within. It stung her. 

He was breathing harder now, like a runner after a footrace. “You never lay with a man before? That is rare for a warrior woman. I claim a double prize.” He grinned, outraging her.

“Go to the crows, Dog.” 

“Your battle days are over,” agreed the Hound. “You will bear my son.” His breath caught and he surged into her hard, again and again. She looked up and saw that his eyes were burning with madness. He made a harsh sound, almost like one in pain, and then rested his weight on her, fully relaxed. After a moment longer, he pulled himself out. He looked down at his spear, streaked with traces of red from her deflowering. The smile returned to his face.

“I will never bear a child of yours,” she said, teeth gritted. “My women know how to kill it. And if it survives and comes to the shores of light, I’ll abandon it in the woods.”

He looked into her eyes, and though she glared at him, he seemed satisfied with what he saw there. “No, Aoife. You won’t.”

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: Aoife thinks of Cúchulainn as “the Hound,” and my narration in her parts of the story always reflects this. She addresses him as “Dog,” a word which can be used to show contempt (at least in English). I struggled with how to depict the relationship between Aoife and Cúchulainn, for the saga itself gives few clues (just as we learn little in the Iliad about the emotions between Achilles and Briseïs). Aoife was a war captive, and as a woman warrior, she knew that she was liable to rape if defeated. But that makes it no easier to write about the actions of the “hero” Cúchulainn.


“The Viking’s Daughter,” by English painter Herbert Dicksee. The Icelandic saga of “Burnt Njal” speaks of an impressive giant hound acquired from the Irish.

Aoife has no love for the Hound, and is not likely to soften toward him, since her desire is all for another woman. Yet she feels for him a grudging respect. As for Cúchulainn, his feelings toward Aoife are complicated. He knows that he may never sire a son with Emer, so he tries with Aoife. But he is also wildly attracted to her, finding her more physically exciting than any other woman he has known. This is because Aoife nearly bested him in battle.