Academics (and, hopefully, the scholarly-inclined spirituality seekers) are still debating if the old Irish monastic literature sagas were indeed a preservation of pre-Christian lore and mythology, or if the Celtic monks were actually composing fictional allegories that served the context of their own times (or both). It is a reasonable and healthy dose of scepticism when having the quills of a small, literate, monastic elite in the early mediaeval period telling you stories about a world that had ceased to exist hundreds of years before their own time, you know?
Whether ancient pagan lore or Christian-era allegorical compositions, one’s gotta admire the intensity and …oopmh? that the early Celtic Christian monks infused their characters with, which is far from the righteous restraint that characterised the Church in later times. One can almost imagine young, imaginative Brother Aidan and Brother Fiach brainstorming ideas in the scriptorium and going “Yeah bro, and make him spurt blood out of his head when he’s angry!” (as you’ll see on entry #5).
1) Lugh and The Dagda can do EVERYTHING (and better than you)
The pan-celtic hero-god Lugh was in Ireland nicknamed “samildánach”, meaning “the equally skilled in many arts”, which is already a pretty badass title to be known by. He is reputed to have been a king, a warrior, a healer, and the absolute master of all the arts. Not only did he single-handedly deposed the oppressing Fomorian king Bres, he also defeated the Ultimate Boss, his own grandfather Balor of the Evil Eye, by a single shot of his sling, not letting the little detail of being his grandson deter him from delivering the sweet swing of JUSTICE.
When Lugh first came to the Hill of Tara to offer his services to King Nuada of the Silver Arm, the doorkeeper of the palace asked what skill had he to offer, as was customary back then. Lugh said he was a carpenter, but the doorkeeper told him they had one already. Then Lugh said he was a smith too, but received the same answer again. Lugh went on to enumerate all the skills and arts over which he had the highest mastery, and every single time the doorkeeper insisted they had no need for another warrior, poet, harper, man of science, physician, spear thrower, teller of tales, magician, cup-bearer or brass-worker than they already had.
Then Lugh, probably before smirking and putting on a pair of dark sunglasses, said “Go and ask the King if he has any ONE man that can do all these things”.
At this, of course, he was immediately let in, where the first thing he did was own a chess game against the King, just in case there was any son-of-a-gun left in court who still doubted who was the new tightest Boss in town.
An Dagda, the reputed father of the Gods (if there was ever such a thing in the Irish pantheon), had it like Lugh right there in the name: a title which translates to “the GOOD god”. As in, the “good at everything” god. Because, like Lugh, he also possessed the gift of all-encompassing proficiency, only that he strutted his stuff in a slightly more arrogant way:
When time came to plan the final battle against the hordes of Fomorian warriors. Lugh asked the other Tuatha Dé what they could do in the battle. Inspired by their mighty leader, the Gods clamored passionately all the skills they would offer to support their King against this terrible enemy. The magicians said they’d summon the force of the mountains, the druids declared they would summon fire and sickness, the smiths shouted how they would replace all broken weapons, the physicians told they would revive the fallen soldiers, the bards sang about the how they’d shame the enemy with teasing rhymes, the cupbearers swore that they would dry out all the rivers and springs in the Land to suffocate their enemies on unavoidable thirst.
“Then An Dagda raised up and said: “Those great things you are boasting you will do, I will do them all with only myself!”.
We can only imagine the deafening sound of a thousand warrior’s eyes rolling upwards in unison upon hearing this patronizing proclamation.
2) Dian Cecht Murders his Son for Being Too Skilled (and ruins Medicine for everybody)
The old and sacred Brehon Laws of Éire stated that a “blemished” man wasn’t allowed to be King because he was now deemed incomplete and Ancient Ireland was not a kind place to the disabled. So when King Nuada lost his arm in battle against the Fir Bolgs, it was a bit of a national emergency. Luckily for them, his abdication was a short one: Nuada was looked after by Dian Cecht, the Physician of the Tuatha Dé Danaan who made him a prosthetic arm out of silver; thus earning him the right to be King again, the spiffy nickname “Silver Arm”, and the honor of becoming the first and only cyborg-overlord of the pre-Celtic world.
Some time later, Dian Cecht’s own son Miach, also a physician, was able to regrow Nuada’s actual flesh and bone arm from its stump, showing far more prowess and healing skill than his father could ever dream of. Far from being proud of his little wittle Doogie Howser MD, Dian Cecht proceeded to straight out murder his own son in a fit of jealous, professional envy, because apparently there can only be ONE royal physician in the Tribe of Danu.
Four times he had to chop his own son’s head off, because the little bastard kept healing himself and not-dying after each blow. At least he managed to keep trolling his father down to his last breath.
But this wasn’t enough for Dian Cecht and his crippling, professional inferiority complex. While his daughter Airmid mourned over her brother’s grave, all the healing herbs in the world sprouted from where her tears touched the earth (Medicine ran so deep in this family’s blood that they literally cried it out). Airmid set to the task of cataloguing and sorting the 365 herbs on her cloak, to protect and share the knowledge of healing lore with the world in memory of her brother. Of course, Dian Cecht was not impressed with his daughter’s pharmaceutical achievement and would have none of this carryon, so he swooped in on another jealous fit to grab the cloak and scatter the herbs to the wind, preferring to let that knowledge be lost forever before letting any of his children be good at anything better than him.
He was basically that detestable childhood friend who would turn off the console whenever he was losing against you.
3) Macha Wins a Non-consenting Race Against the King’s Horses (while pregnant with twins)
Though many characters bear the name Macha in Irish legends, in this particular story a mysterious and beautiful woman of that name shows up one day at the secluded farmstead of an Ulster widower called Crundchu, and without saying a word sets down to fulfill a wife’s duty: cleaning, cooking, raising the kids and yes, keeping the bed warm. In return, she only asks that Crundchu never reveal her existence to anyone, only a reasonably manageable thing to do in exchange for scoring a perfect fairy wife in the middle of County Nowhere.
On a certain day, Crundchu attends a festival where among other wonders, two of the King’s prized horses are being paraded as the crowd remarks how there’s no creature swifter in all of Ireland than the two royal equines. Not one to let a good boasting opportunity go to waste, Crundchu decides to loudly proclaim that he had a wife at home that could run faster than the King’s horses.
Macha, who is by now pregnant with the twins of a man who’s just betrayed her, is then immediately summoned to the assembly to respond for her husband’s insult to the King’s honor by running a race against the horses. Because restoring a king’s honor was clearly more important than showing compassion to a woman with child, she is forced to race the horses after her plead for time to deliver her babies is denied. The race takes off and not only does she outrun the horses, but also delivers her babies by herself at the finish line. Collapsing to death from her exhaustion, she utters a curse on the men of Ulster which provides an answer to that impossible, eternal dilemma that tickled the curious mind of humanity since the dawn of time: Is a kick in the nuts as painful as giving birth?
“As she uttered that cry, however, all the spectators felt themselves seized with pangs like her own and had no more strength than a woman in her travail. And Macha prophesied “From this hour the shame you have wrought on me will fall upon each man of Ulster. In the hours of your greatest need ye shall be weak and helpless as women in childbirth, and this shall endure for five days and four nights – to the ninth generation the curse shall be upon you.”
And this is how the curse of “Noinden Ulad”, or the Debility of the Ulstermen, came to be, and it came into effect over the most horrific and tragic event that could befall an Iron Age society – the stealing of a priceless piece of cattle.
4) Queen Maedb Goes to War (over a bull)
Queen Medb of Connacht was not someone to screw around with. She was a daughter of the High King of Ireland, who had her married to the King of Ulster. Not only did she leave him, but also murdered her own pregnant sister when she in turn was married to the Ulster King in her place, which seems both messy and unnecessary.
The High King, who seems surprisingly nonchalant at the whole matter of a daughter killing another, deposes the King of Connacht and places his favorite daughter Maedb in his place. Once made Queen again, Medb takes up a new husband but decides to kill him shortly after, because it turns out who she actually wants to marry is her bodyguard, Aillil. It seems as if she couldn’t have any big life decisions made without having someone murdered first.
The couple is happily settled into bed at the palace in Cruachán talking about how much wealth each of them has, which for royalty is probably everyday pillow-talk, and suddenly Medb realizes that her wealth and her husbands’ are the exact same… except for one particularly fertile bull in her husbands’s herd. Since having inferior wealth to her husband was simply not acceptable, Maedb sets off a plan to first try and rent, then buy, and finally directly steal Ulster’s legendarily strong and fertile bull, Donn Cuailnge. Since this was a society that viewed cattle as currency, a particularly virile stud was basically a living money-printing farm appliance.
And a sexy one at that.
This bull was a mighty, majestic beast of bovine fertility whose theft sets off a terrible provincial war between Connacht and Ulster, a bit of an overreaction about something that could’ve been foreseen and downright avoided with a prenup.
As per Macha’s curse, the fighting men of Ulster begin to feel all the pains and vulnerability of a woman in labor, so it falls upon the Ulster hero Cú Chulainn to fight host after host of Medb’s minions, warriors and champions, during a stand-alone battle that extends for days. Luckily for the Ulstermen, Cú Chulainn was Lugh’s reincarnation/son/avatar and was not only impervious to the curse, but had also the power of HULKING-OUT when really, really pissed off…
5) Cú Chulainn was the INCREDIBLE Celtic HULK (but far creepier)
Bruce Banner wasn’t the first person to become so angry that his whole body transmuted into an abominable juggernaut fueled by rage and violence. Cú Chulainn was an Irish hero who, when just too over stimulated in the wrong way, would enter a berserkian battle-frenzy like no other called a “ríastrad”, where his whole body would churn, contort and bloat, becoming a murdering monstrosity to which the notions of “friend” and “foe” meant exactly the same: nothing.
“For it was customary with him, when his flame of valour sprang in him, that his feet would go round behind him, and his hams before; and the balls of his calves on his shins, and one eye in his head and the other out of his head; a man’s head could have gone into his mouth. Every hair on him was as sharp as a thorn of hawthorn, and a drop of blood on each hair. He would not recognize comrades or friends. He would strike alike before and behind.”
He first experiences this ecstasy of rage as a 7 year old child, when upon his first arrival at the Ulster King’s court, he badly beats up a band of boys who attack him for entering their playing field without asking for their protection first, as was the custom in those times. The King of Ulster, far from being concerned by this ordeal of juvenile disturbance of the peace, is actually impressed enough to allow the boy to join his warrior force with honors.
Some accounts of this unholy frenzy tell that a column of blood also sprouts out from the top of his head, encasing him and his surroundings in a thin, red mist. Delightful.
But his most horrifying transformation occurs several years later during the war for the Ulster Bull, right after he sees the Boy-Troop of his hometown slaughtered by the forces of Queen Maedb:
“The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front… On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his lungs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”
Have you ever gotten so angry that you actually built walls with the corpses of your victims? Because Cú has:
“He attacks the army and kills hundreds, building walls of corpses, 6 feet high. This transformation brings Cuchulainn up to the status of a god.”
6) The Test to Join the Fianna Warrior-band was… thorough.
Fianna bands were a real, historical, elite social institution, brotherhoods without banners which lived liminally, half within society and half in the wilds, fighting to defend Ireland as a whole. Being accepted into one basically showered you with honors.
The most famous of course were Finn McCumhla and his Fianna Warriors, a kind of Marvel Superhero Team of their time. Finn himself was a sort of demigod blessed with the power of intuitive knowledge (which he could summon by the very warrior-like act of sucking on his own thumb). They went around Ireland delivering justice, manliness and really, really, really high standards.
So if you wanted to hang and hunt with Finn’s gang, your chances of ever being able to make it past the first round of interviews were… dim.
See, if your whole tribe and kindred didn’t endorse you, you weren’t let in. If you didn’t know the 12 books of poetry by heart, you weren’t let in. If you were wounded while buried down to your waist with only a shield and a stick to defend yourself while nine other men threw spears at you, you weren’t let in. If a branch undid your hair or if you cracked a dry stick while being chased by them through the woods, or if you got caught, guess what: YOU WEREN’T LET IN.
To be let in, you had to accomplish all that and also be able to jump your own height, limbo lower than your own knees, and take a thorn from your feet with your nails WHILE RUNNING.
It almost seems as if they DIDN’T want anyone new to join their special club.