This week’s texts are The Birth of Cú Chulaind, The Boyhood Deeds of Cú Chulaind (extracts from Táin Bó Cúailnge), The Death of Aífe’s Only Son, and The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulaind & The Only Jealousy of Emer. All are available in Jeffrey Gantz’s 1981 translation published by Penguin Classics in Early Irish Myths and Sagas (pp. 130-178). These texts are part of what is called the Ulster Cycle or Heroic Cycle, one of the four Cycles of Irish literature (the other three are the Mythological, Fenian, and Kings’ or Historical Cycles).
The Ulster Cycle focuses on Conchobar mac Nessa (king of the Ulaid and Cú Chulainn’s grandfather) and the Ulaid’s struggles against the Connachta led by Queen Medb and her husband Ailill. The Cycle classification is a modern one and it is more likely that the tales were classified by type: birth (compert), wooing (tochmarch), battle (cath), cattle-raid (táin bó), violent death (aided), etc.
The tales come from oral tradition and were later written down by monks. The earliest extant MSS are Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow, early 12th century) and the Book of Leinster c. 1160. Another MS containing this week’s texts is the fourteenth-century Yellow Book of Lecan. The eighth-century Book of Druimm Snechtai also contained a version of the Birth of Cú Chulaind but is unfortunately now lost.
Reading soundtrack: Karl Jenkins’s Adiemus IV: The Eternal Knot (especially the first one: “Cú Chullain”)
Topics for discussion:
- The significance and meaning of Cú Chulainn’s threefold conception.
- Animals (especially birds) and magic
- Cú Chulainn’s ríastarthae (battle-fury)
- Cú Chulainn’s names: Sétantae ‘he who knows paths’ and Cú Chulaind ‘The Hound of Culand’
- Fate and Fame
- Cú Chulainn’s fear of naked women in the Boyhood Deeds v. his fathering a son in Aífe’s Only Son
- Cú Chulainn’s filicide: misfortune or murder?
- Cú Chulainn the lover and husband / The double love-triangle
- Druids: foretelling and spells
- Boy heroes
- The síde (otherworld folk)