Cuchulainn and the Táin Epic
Hugh A Murphy considers an Irish story equal to Homer's Odyssey
The greatest legend of all concerning Cuchulainn, where we see the words of Cathbad being fulfilled, is the Táin Bó Chuailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley. It is here that we see Cuchulainn achieving his final God-like status.
This is the earliest vernacular epic in Western Europe, comprising both prose and poetry, and is regarded as the most significant body of literature of the pre-Christian period in Ireland.
In format, it has been likened by many European scholars to the Homeric legends of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which tell the story of the fall of Troy and the adventures of the Greek warriors on their return journey home. Like the Táin, Homer’s legends would appear to have had their origins in a folklore base, many different tales, which were later drawn together by Homer under the heading of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
This is clearly the case in the Irish epic. The early part of the Táin plots the long and convoluted journey of the Southern warriors, the Fir Éireann, across Ireland from Connacht to the borders of Ulster. The second part deals with the siege of Ulster itself, its stalwart defence by Cuchulainn, and the final retreat of the invading army. If we add to this the Réamhscéalta, the Pre-tales, and the Iarscéalta, the Later Stories, leading up to the death of Cuchulainn, we have a unified and compelling whole.
Just like Homer’s epic, the corpus of the Táin tales can be seen as a foundation legend. The many side tangents to the central story stretch out like roots into the subsoil of an ancient pagan past where a number of Divine-like figures and mystical events are drawn together to form a myth-history, which also has clear soundings of illustrious and heroic origins.
In this legend we get a panoramic view of the origins of many of the figures who formed this early history. It is here, for example, that we get the full life story of Cuchulainn, in whose hands the fate of Ulster rests.
We learn of the early life of Conor MacNeasa, the cathartic figure around whom most of the events are centred, of the origins of the great city of Eamhain Macha and its interlinking with the other great regal centre of the day, Cruachain. We learn also the position of Fearghas Mac Róich in this history, of the meeting and lifelong friendship of Cuchulainn and Ferdia, of the rivalry of the Fir Éireann and the Fir Uladh, of the origins of Meave and Ailill, and the events which led to the greatest army in history, or mythology, descending on Ulster.
We are given clear indications also of Divine intervention in this struggle in the persons of the celebrated Goddess of War, the Morrígan, and the great God Lugh himself, who guided Cuchulainn and, in his person, Ulster to their final victory.
Here, the legendary leaders of the opposing combined force, unlike in the Greek tale, are held at bay. Leaders such as the sons of Nara, Nadcranntail, Fer Baeth, Lóch, Ferdia and of course Meave herself, rendered ineffectual by the Godlike might of Cuchulainn.
Most of the great battles of the Táin were fought inside this area and we see Cuchulainn’s deeds rising in magnitude, from those that we might consider to be acts of a great champion, such as his defeat of the powerful Connacht warrior, Lóch, to those that are beyond the realm of any normal human, such as his great slaughter of Meave’s forces at Knockbridge. Here in a fit of battle fury, he killed so many warriors that they were piled in a circle six deep around the camp.
It was before his contest with Lóch that the Goddess of war, the Morrígan, (i.e. the Mór-Ríoghan – the Great Queen) came to Cuchulainn. She healed his wounds after the battle and remained with him from then on, assisting him. It was also, very significantly, before the great carnage at Knockbridge that Cuchulainn was visited by the God Lugh, who told him that he was his father from the Sí, the Fairy Host, and that he had come to assist him. He stood guard while Cuchulainn slept and regained his strength.
During this slaughter, a graphic description is given of the battle fury, or 'riastradh', that Cuchulainn experienced from his early childhood. The change that comes over him is not just one of spirit but also a mayor physical one. His whole body changes until he takes on the appearance of an invincible, primeval dragon, with distended head and snapping jaws. During the course of the battle he himself, just like the Sí, was completely invisible to the enemy. After this great slaughter, Ailill estimated that almost half the number of men they had set out with, approximately 54,000 warriors, had been slain along the way by Cuchulainn.
Throughout the Táin Epic Cuchulainn performs deeds equal to that of a whole army. In him is personified the might of Ulster, which stands God-like and omnipotent. Through him, the roots of Ulster’s early history are seen to be set firmly in the cult of the Divine, a cult to which the man from whom he derived his name, Culann, is also linked.