The Death of Cú chulainn (pronounced Ku Hoolain)

When Cú chulainn’s foes came for the last time against him, his land was filled with smoke and flame, the weapons fell from their racks, and the day of his death drew nigh. The evil tidings were brought to him, and a maiden bade him arise, though he was worn out with fighting in defense of the plain of Muirthemne, and Niam, wife of Conall, the Victorious, also spoke to him; so he sprang to his arms, and flung his mantle around him; but the brooch fell and pierced his foot, forewarning him. Then he took his shield and ordered his charioteer to harness his horse, the Gray of Macha. Cú chulainn went to him. And three times his horse turned from his master. Then Cú chulainn reproached his horse, saying that he was not wont to deal thus with his master. Then Cú chulainn leaped into the chariot, and drove it suddenly southwards along the Road of Midluachar.

Then he saw three witches, blind of the left eye, before him on the road. They had cooked on spits of rowan tree a dog with poisons and spells. And one of the things that Cú chulainn was bound by Geis (Gaelic oath) not to do, was requiring food of strangers. And another of the things that he must not do, was eating his namesake’s flesh (his name meant Chulainn’s hound). He sped on and was about to pass them, for he knew that they were not there for his good.

Then the witch said, “Visit us, O Cú chulainn .” “I will not visit you” said Cú chulainn . “The food is only a hound,” said she. “Were this a great cooking-hearth thou wouldst have visited us. But because what is here is little, thou comest not. Unseemly are the great who endure not the little and poor.” So he drew nigh to her, and the witch gave him the shoulder­ blade of the hound and Cú chulainn ate it out of his left hand, and it touched his left thigh. The hand that took it and the thigh it touched were so the normal strength abode not in them.

Then he continued along the Road of Midluachar and his enemy Erc son of Cairbre saw him in his chariot, with his sword shining readily in his hand, and the light of valor hovering over him, and his three-hued hair like strings of golden thread over the edge of the anvil of some cunning craftsman.

“That man is coming towards us, O men of Erin!” said Erc; “prepare to meet him.” So they made a fence of their linked shields, and at each end Erc made them place two of their bravest pretending to fight each other, and a baird (story teller) with each of these pairs. He told the baird to ask Cú chulainn for his spear, for the sons of Calatin (Druids) had prophesied his spear would kill a king. Cu Chulainn drove his chariot into the midst of the army so they were scattered, broadcast throughout the plain of Muirthemne, in number like to the sands of the sea.

Then he saw one of the pairs of warriors contending together, and the baird called on him to intervene, and Cú chulainn leaped at them, and with two blows of his fist killed them. “That spear to me!” said the baird. “I swear what my people swear,” said Cú chulainn “thou dost not need it more than I do. The men of Erin are upon me here and I am attacking them.” “I will revile thee if thou givest it not,” said the baird. “I have never yet been reviled.” With that Cú chulainn flung the spear at him, handle first, and the handle passed through the baird’s head and killed nine on the other side of him. Lugaid picked up the spear and cast it toward Cú chulainn’s chariot, but it struck the charioteer. Cú chulainn drew out the spear, and the charioteer died. Then said Cú chulainn: “Today I shall be warrior and I shall be charioteer also.”

Then he saw the second pair contending, and attacked them. “I will revile thee if you give me not your spear,” said the second baird. “I am not bound to grant more than one request this day, and, moreover, I have already paid for my honor.” “I will revile Ulster for thy default,” said the satirist. “Never yet has Ulster been reviled for my sake. Though little of my life remains to me, Ulster shall not be reviled this day.” Then Cu Chulainn cast his spear at him by the handle and it went through his head and killed nine behind him, and Cú chulainn drove through the host even as he had done before. Then Erc son of Cairbre took the spear. “I heard you say that a king would fall by the spear which Lugaid long since cast.” “And that is true,” said the sons of Calatin. “Thereby fell the king of the charioteers of Erin, namely Cú chulainn’s charioteer.” Now Erc cast the spear at Cú chulainn, and it struck his horse, the Gray of Macha. Cú chulainn snatched out the spear and each of them bade the other farewell.

Thereupon Cu Chulainn again drove through the host and saw the third pair contending, and he intervened as he had done before, and the baird demanded his spear and Cú chulainn at first refused it. “I will revile thee,” said the satirist. “I have paid for my honor today. I am not bound to grant more than one request this day.” “I will revile Ulster for thy fault.” “I have paid for Ulster’s honor,” said Cú chulainn. “I will revile thy race,” said the satirist. “Tidings that I have been defamed shall never reach the land I have not reached. For little there is of my life remaining. So Cú chulainn flung the spear to him, handle foremost, and it went through his head and through thrice nine other men. Then Cú chulainn for the last time drove through the host, and Lugaid took the spear, and said: “What will fall by this spear, O sons of Calatin?” “I heard you say that a king would fall by the spear that Erccast this morning.” “That is true,” said they, “the king of the steeds of Erin fell by it, namely the Gray of Macha.”

Then Lugaid flung the spear and struck Cú chulainn , and he fell from his chariot, the king of the heroes of Erin, dying alone on the plain. Then said Cú chulainn , “I would fain go as far as that loch to drink a drink there out.” “We give thee leave,” said they, “provided that thou come to us again.” “I will bid you come for me,” said Cú chulainn , “if I cannot come myself.” Then he went forth to the loch. And there he drank his drink, and washed himself, and came forth to die, calling on his foes to come to meet him.

Now his eye lit upon a pillar-stone which is in the plain, and he put his belt around it to hold him up that he might not die seated nor lying down, but that he might die standing up. Then came the men all around him, but they durst not go to him, for they thought he was alive. “It is a shame for you,” said Erc son of Cairbre, “not to take that man’s head in revenge for my father’s head which was taken by him.”

Then came the Gray of Macha to Cú chulainn to protect him so long as his soul was in him and the “hero’s light” out of his forehead remained. And the Gray of Macha pranced all around him attacking those who approached Cú chulainn . And fifty fell by his teeth and thirty by each of his hoofs. And hence is the saying, “No greater were the victories of the Gray of Macha than after Cú chulainn’s slaughter.”

And then came the battle goddess Morrigu and her sisters in the form of scald-crows and sat on his shoulder. “It is not right for that pillar be under birds,” said Erc son of Cairbre. Then Lugaid arranged Cú chulainn’s hair over his shoulder, and cut off his head. But Cú chulainn’s sword was lashed in his hand over his head and it fell and smote off Lugaid’s right hand.

In the introduction of his book Clan Donald, Donald J. Macdonald referred to the Celtic legends handed down for many generations in the Highlands and how becoming familiar with these legends could help us understand our ancestors’ values. The Death of Cú chulainn taught the Celtic values of heeding premonitions, staying true to the oaths we take upon us (Geis), and most of all not dishonoring yourself, your clan, or your people. It also demonstrates the significance of the crow or raven in Celtic culture. In the Highlands there are many rocks referred to as “Craigan an Fhithich” (pronounced kragan an eeich) Gaelic for The Raven’s Rock. Most of these mark the location of a battle. The Raven’s Rock is the crest of the MacDonnells of Glengarry. Their battle cry is the Gaelic “Craigan an Fhithich”.