According to Irish Archaeology, hurling is “arguably the fastest field sport in the world and quite possibly the oldest.” It is played by two teams with sticks called hurleys and a ball (sliotar). The ball can be kicked or held in the hand for up to four consecutive steps, but it cannot be picked up by hand. The hurley is used to flip it into the air or to advance it on the field. Hurling is a contact sport and shoving is allowed in pursuit of the ball, but “a player may not grab or hold another player’s hurley.” Just so.
Hurling in some form likely goes back to the Bronze Age. It is often mentioned in the Irish sagas, especially the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Youths, including Cúchulainn, use the hurley as a weapon–a quite effective one. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Irish law provided compensation for injuries received from hurling, and Medieval Kilkenny, a bastion of the modern game, tried to ban the game “from which great evils and maims have arisen.”
“I am dissatisfied,” said Medb to Fergus mac Róich.
“Apologies, Queen,” he replied. “Usually I last much longer, but your great beauty overwhelmed me.” They were lying together in the woods, out of Ailill’s sight. Her guards sat at a distance, facing away.
“I meant that it is no use to me, having rounded up all the cattle in Cuailgne, if the Donn has escaped us.” She shifted uncomfortably on Fergus’ scratchy blue cloak, which he had spread beneath them. It was not of the best quality.
“Ah, your mind strays from matters of love,” observed Fergus. He sighed. “They say the Donn tore the guts from Lóthar, our best cowherd, and then did a good deal of damage in the camp before he thundered off, leading his three score heifers. He could be as far as Sliab Cuilinn by now, for all we know.”
Medb stood up and allowed Fergus an admiring glance at her naked body before she began to dress. “I am troubled by our ill luck,” she continued. “We finally had a chance to deal with Cúchulainn when we reached the ford of the Cronn, but it rose up like the waves of the sea and washed thirty men away before they could reach him. Then the same happened again. Another thirty men gone, with their chariots. How is such a thing possible?” The dark man they called the Hound had stood on the other side of the river with his fiery-haired charioteer, grinning at them. He’d even waved a friendly hand at Fergus.
“This is some druidry,” he replied, adjusting his tunic about him and shaking out the blue cloak. “And yet I know not how it is achieved. Cathbad, I heard, is off in Alba on business of his own, and Conchobar has no other druids capable of such magic. The power over water, to move and to still it, is a rare one. Perhaps the river Cronn rises of itself, to protect its own.” He hunted about in the grass, shaking his head. “Where is my sword? It seems to have vanished quite suddenly.”
“All too true,” replied Medb.
They sent Lugaid mac Nóis of Munster to parley with the Hound, and the river Cronn allowed him to cross safely. After a time, he returned and reported to Medb and Ailill.
“This Cúchulainn is a fearsome opponent. The heads of our men hang from the frame of his chariot like great clusters of berries. How wise I was, these many years ago, not to wed Emer, the daughter of Forgall.”
“This is tedious talk,” said Medb sharply. “What did he say?”
“He wishes to fight one of us every day in the ford of the Cronn and thereby defend Ulster.”
“Why should we agree to that? We have hundreds and he is but one man.”
Lugaid smiled, enraging her. “Ah, yes, Queen, but you cannot reach the man, for the river protects him. If you do not agree to his terms, he says he will kill thirty men each night with his sling.”
“He can do it, too,” put in Fergus. “Once when he was a lad, a group of marauders came from the islands of Faichi on a summer evening. There were at least twenty of them. They broke through the enclosure where the younger lads were playing with their hurley-sticks and ball. Cúchulainn flung stones at them, and each stone smashed in a skull.” He chuckled fondly. “Then the wee lad whirled about with his hurley, and sent a head flying neatly between the goal posts.”
“I’ve heard more than enough of Cúchulainn’s marvelous boyhood deeds,” hissed Medb. “We won’t try to cross here. We’ll ignore him, and move on to Focherd in Muirthemne. There may be some word of the Donn Cuailgne.”
The next morning, they awoke to find thirty men dead, lying in various places about the camp with their skulls smashed. The same thing happened the following night. However watchful they were, the lethal stones flew swift and silent out of the dark, and never more than twice from the same direction. “It would be better to lose one man a night than thirty,” said Ailill dryly. “Perhaps we should reconsider our refusal.”
“I won’t agree to that. Not yet,” answered Medb. She had an idea of her own about how best to bring this Hound to heel. “Ask him to meet me by the standing stone in the woods. Tell him I wish to offer terms of peace. I will be alone, and as a sign of good faith, he is to come unarmed.” In secret, she gathered a group of eight men, and told them to hide themselves about the woods.
She arrayed herself in her finest robe, the grass-green one shot through with gold threads, with golden bird-shaped clasps at each shoulder. A belt gathered the fabric at her waist and showed how slender she was, in spite of the sons and the daughter she had borne. A maid arranged her fair hair, with two loose tresses in front, and a long plaited section flowing down her back. She walked deep into the woods, found the standing stone, and waited calmly, curious to see whether Cúchulainn’s sense of manly honor would lure him into her trap.
Soon she saw the Hound approaching through the bare trees in the distance. So. He is armed. Two of her men emerged from behind a great fallen log. He moved as quickly as a woodlark takes wing. In seconds, both men were on the ground, but others were running to meet him. A group converged on the Hound, who kept the trunk of a great oak at his back as he fought. A bright light shone from the center of the moving throng, and she heard steel clash against steel, and the groans of the dying. The brown-cloaked figures of her warriors fell, one by one, and the Hound continued his progress toward the standing stone. Six down, she thought, looking about her. I still have two. Where are they? In disgust, she saw that the last pair were cravenly running back toward the camp. I’ll skin them alive for this.
Medb stiffened her spine and kept her eyes on Cúchulainn as he approached, sword in hand. He wore a magnificent red cloak with a great gold ring-brooch, but the tunic beneath the cloak, which had once perhaps been white, was stained with blood both old and new. His long black hair was loose about his shoulders, and a strange glow emanated from his forehead. She held her ground as he came face to face with her. They were almost the same height. A comely man, yes, she thought. His eyes…
“Medb. You wished to speak with me?” he asked politely, wiping and sheathing the dripping sword.
“I have no words for you, Hound. You came armed. Do the Ulstermen hold their honor so low?”
“No lower than you hold your own.”
“Not true. My honor lies in securing the Donn Cuailgne. That is my sole purpose here, and I hold it above all other considerations. Allow my army to pass, and I will give you a tract of the Plain of Ai as great as Muirthemne itself, and a round shield of the Danaoi worked in silver with wondrous figures which seem to move, and a torc studded with the purple gem that is sovereign against drunkenness— and a thing more rare than these.”
“The friendship of my thighs.” She moved forward, so that their bodies were only inches apart, keeping her eyes on the Hound’s. The colors moved slowly in his strange irises, mingling, hypnotic, and she felt a surge of desire.
“That is no rare gift,” he replied, smiling faintly. “They say your thighs are as renowned for their hospitality as the merry dún at Cruachan.”
She had her needlelike scían ready, and tried to plunge it upward between his ribs, but he caught her wrist and gripped it so tightly that the scían fell from her nerveless fingers.
“You would lay hands on a woman of royal blood, you plague dog?” she spat. “If I were a man, I’d cut the heart from you and feast on it.”
Cúchulainn seized her and yanked her head backwards by the plait. His body was hot. Although the season was late autumn and the wind was chill, she might as well have been standing by the great hearth fire at Cruachan. He said softly, “You are not a man, Medb.”
“So you remind me,” she panted. “Lie with me, right now. Right here.”
The green in his eyes glowed golden, and she thought he would agree. But instead he said, “Go home where you belong.” Suddenly her head was released, and she saw that he held two feet of her blonde plait, loose in his hand. She gasped in humiliation and rage.
“The next time you and I meet, I’ll take your head,” said the Hound. He turned and strode purposefully away, the rope of hair swinging from his hand. Medb watched him go. Then she loosened the remainder of her plait, and carefully joined it with her two front tresses, forming the whole into a single braid and winding it round her head to hide what he had done. I am bested for the moment, Forge Hound, she thought, but I play the long game. She bent to retrieve her scían, straightened her robe, and started the walk back to camp.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: From time to time I have used my own knowledge of Greek epic in composing this version of Irish myth. Medb’s bloodthirsty anger echoes that of Hera in the Iliad. (Zeus complains that her wrath is so great, it could only be assuaged by devouring King Priam raw, and all his sons and all the Trojans besides.) But this kind of anger is also attributed to warriors who have run amok. In Book 22 of the Iliad, Achilles threatens to eat Hector’s raw flesh.
Medb offers Cúchulainn “a round shield of the Danaoi worked in silver with wondrous figures which seem to move.” This is a shield like the one Thetis brings Achilles in Book 18. And the “gem sovereign against drunkenness” is amethyst, which means in Greek “not drunk.”