Throughout history, people have used poison-tipped arrows and spears in hunting. The practice survived to the modern day among indigenous peoples such as those of South America, who used toxins from plants (curare) and from poisonous frogs.
Our word “toxic” comes from the Greek adjective toxicon (“poison”) which in turn was formed from the word for bow, toxon. The Greeks knew all about poison missiles: according to legend, Heracles dipped his arrows in the blood of the poisonous serpent Hydra. But what if such weapons, useful for bringing down big, dangerous animals, were turned against other humans?
46. The Golden Man
The sounds of women’s laments filled Emer’s ears, a high shrill keening which differed from the cry raised when warriors fell. It was the lament for youths still unbearded. A troop of thirty smooth-cheeked Ulster lads, unaffected by the pangs that touched grown men, had thought it wrong to let Cúchulainn fight the four provinces of Éire alone, one man against an army. Led by young Fiachna Fuilech, the son of Fir Fhebi, they armed themselves with hurleys and went to battle Medb’s forces.
“They knew well that Conchobar would have forbidden it,” said Emer sadly to Cepp.
“And Sétanta would have sent all of them back home, had he met them,” replied Cepp. But the lads had not found Sétanta, except for one. Fiachna’s younger brother Fíacach was so small that he had been spared by the warriors Medb sent to slaughter the youths.
Wandering alone in the plains and woods, Fíacach had eventually made his way to the ford where Cúchulainn, under a truce agreed to by Medb and Ailill, was fighting one champion from the opposing forces each day. Loeg comforted him, doctoring the terrified lad’s bruises and scrapes. Cúchulainn fed him from his own stores, and told him to bring back word of his feats to Emain Macha.
When Fíacach returned alone, the grief and anger of the Ulsterwomen was terrible. “Murderers!” some screamed over and over. Others asked, “Who will fetch the bodies of our sons? Shall they be consumed by wild beasts and crows?” Still others grumbled that the men of Ulster had been too long in their sickbeds. Wives sat beside their husbands, berating them for their weakness, and naming them craven. For their part, husbands bellowed threats at the wives, then fell back grimacing in pain as the pangs took them. Finally the women set out on the sorrowful journey to the place where the youths had fallen, and buried them on the spot, ringing it round with stones. Beside the youths they found dead warriors of Medb’s army, and rejoiced loudly at their fall. The remains of these men they flung naked outside the circle; the weapons of the enemy they arranged in the center as a trophy of the lads’ work. Only after all these things were completed did they return solemnly to Emain Macha to hear Fíacach’s news of Cúchulainn.
“I saw him fight many men,” reported the lad. “He subdued the haughty Etarcomol, foster-son of Ailill and Medb, and clove him from the top of his head to his navel. Then Nad Crantail came against Cúchulainn and received a spear through his head. He went back alive to his camp, holding the spear steady with his hand, to impart the secret of certain hidden treasures to his sons before he died. After that, he returned and Cúchulainn took his head. The next day, Redg the satirist came out to him in the ford, and demanded Cúchulainn’s spear in exchange for his own lesser weapon. He threatened to dishonor him in a satirical poem unless he received it. Cúchulainn cast his spear through Redg’s body. ‘Well given,’ were his last words. Then Medb offered her daughter Finnabair to the warrior Fer Báeth if he should succeed in taking the head of Cúchulainn. He came out to the ford, bellowing mighty threats. Cúchulainn stepped on a holly shoot and it pierced his own foot through, but he pulled it out and cast it at Fer Báeth, taking him through the neck. ‘Good throw,’ commented Fer Báeth. Then he died.”
“Fine deeds for a song!” exclaimed Conchobar, whose sickbed had been moved to the hall. The other men, as many as could hobble out on their sticks, raised their voices in agreement, but quickly fell silent, eager after their long confinements to hear more tales of warcraft and manly deeds.
“Then Cúchulainn met the druid, Calatin the Bold,” recalled Fíacach, growing more animated as the tale proceeded. “Calatin came against him with his twenty-seven sons and his one sister-son, and all with poison on their spears!”
“How is this?” asked Conchobar disapprovingly. “Medb sent twenty-nine champions against one? And their weapons foul with poison?”
“Aye, for Calatin’s sons said they were as the limbs of his body, and thus united as one. As for the poison, they said no man could be deprived of his native custom in warcraft.”
“Preserve me from the legal niceties of druids!” exclaimed Conchobar in disgust. “How fared our champion?”
“They threw their spears as one, but Cúchulainn’s stout shield Dubh caught them all. Then Loeg tossed him a new shield and drew the spears from Dubh, who gave them up willingly. Cúchulainn made five throws, and each spear drove into a son of Calatin and right through the heads of the four behind. Then he fought Calatin and the other two sons with his sword, and took their heads, but Calatin’s sister-son Glas mac Delga ran away, saying that he was not of Calatin’s body and thus it was only right for him to retreat from the fight.” The warriors in the hall jeered loudly at the cowardice of their enemy.
“Did the Hound take no wounds at all?” asked Conall Cearnach.
“Oh, terrible were the wounds he took in his battle with Lóch mac Mofemis,” answered the lad. Emer gripped the long table to steady herself, and a murmur went up around the hall. Fíacach looked about him, suddenly uncertain, as though he had said something wrong.
“Go on then, lad,” said Conchobar kindly. “Tell us what happened.”
Fíacach looked at Emer and said, “Do not fear, my lady. Your husband is well in spite of all his wounds, grievous though they were. For upon the next day, wondrous things happened at the ford. Lóch came to meet Cúchulainn, and the two were well-matched. They fought for a long time, and neither gained the advantage. Then an eel slithered up and entwined itself about Cúchulainn’s heels so that he fell on his face. Lóch attacked him, and the river ran red with his blood. When I saw that, I wanted to run away, but his charioteer Loeg took my hand and said, ‘Stay, lad.’”
As the boy spoke, Cepp, who was sitting beside Emer on the long bench, slipped her hand into Emer’s, and Emer put her arm around Cepp.
“Finally he rose up,” continued Fíacach, “and ground the eel under his foot. Then a she-wolf entered the river and harried him. He slung a stone that burst one of her eyes, and she ran off howling. Then a hornless heifer rampaged into the ford against him. He slung a stone and broke her leg. Cúchulainn chanted,
Let Conchobar be told that it is time
He rode from his dún to aid a faltering hero.
A single log is difficult to kindle;
Two or three will make the fire blaze up.
My enemies have almost overcome me,
So fatigued am I with mighty effort,
A hero calls for aid from Conchobar.
Then Cúchulainn sank dejected into the river, but Loeg spoke to him and incited him, calling out that even we lads with our hurleys had showed more bravery, that we had more of manhood in us than he. Loeg made a verse upon it, and as he listened, Cúchulainn arose in anger. His bones became fluid and reshaped themselves. His feet and knees turned backward, and his heels and calves protruded forward, while one eye sank deep into his head and the other was extended, large and round as a sheep’s bladder. Every hair on him stuck out like a spike of hawthorn, and the hair was tipped with drops of blood that rose from his head in a mist. Thus he fell upon Lóch and smote him, running him through with his spear.”
At this, there were exclamations all around the hall: some of triumph, some of reproach against Conchobar, and others of wonderment at the sign of the eel, the she-wolf and the heifer in the ford. “The Morrígan, the Great Queen, came in triple form to aid Lóch,” whispered Cepp, gripping Emer’s hand tightly. “Sétanta has defied her.”
Fíacach said, “After that, Cúchulainn was very weak. Scarcely an inch of his body lacked its wound after the long weeks of fighting, and I helped Loeg carry him from the bloody water. We took him to his camp and laid him on the ground. Then we saw a curious sight: a tall man, with a head of golden curls, was drawing near to us from the other side of the river. He passed through the army as though invisible, and crossed the stream in one step. He wore a green mantle with a brooch of white silver; in his hands he held a black shield, a five-pointed spear, and a forked javelin. When he arrived, he said to Cúchulainn, ‘Sleep now, my son, while your wounds are healed.’ But Cúchulainn answered, ‘Nay, for who will fight the champions?’ The golden man laughed and said, ‘Why, I shall fight them in your stead. Sleep.’ Then he chanted over him to heal his wounds, while Loeg and I gathered the herbs that he asked for. ‘Are you a warrior or a healer?’ I asked, and he said to me, ‘I am he of the long arm. I have many skills.’”
Fíacach paused, but all were silent. Finally the lad said, “This man, I think, came from one of the mounds of the Sídhe. I never learned his name.”
“His name is Lugh,” said Conchobar. “I have often wondered at the unusual qualities of our Little Hound. It seems that Lord Lugh paid a visit to my sister Deichtire’s bed while Súaltam mac Róich was away. But continue the story, Fíacach. How was Cúchulainn healed?”
“It is soon told. He slept for three days while the golden man chanted over him and applied herbs to his wounds, and fought the champions in the ford. They believed that he was the same hero, but we knew otherwise. Cúchulainn awoke refreshed and strong to continue the fight. Then he asked the golden man to stay and fight beside him, but that one said, ‘No, I will go, for the deeds of a man who fights at your side will not be accounted to him, but to you.’ He went. When Cúchulainn realized I was still there, he chided me and said I must come home.” He turned to Emer. “And he sent word for you to go to the house in the Meadow of the Two Oxen, at Sliab Fuait, and wait there. He wishes to see you.”
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: This chapter illustrates the great prestige of poetry in ancient Irish society. Whenever something of great import is to be said, it should be put into verse. The Irish sagas also reveal the role of “satirists” and insult poetry, which could be used to bring great shame on an enemy. In this chapter, Loeg used it with good intentions, to rouse Cúchulainn to greater feats when he was nearly exhausted.
The early Greeks also thought that insult poetry was very powerful. It is said that Archilochus (ca. 700 BCE) wrote such devastating verses about an enemy that the man and his daughters all hanged themselves in shame.
I have yet to find an image of Lugh that satisfies me. In some ways he is very much like Apollo, a figure of golden sunlight, a poet and a healer. The early Christians imagined Christ as just such a figure.