The Celtic Literature Collective

The Death of Cu Chulainn

When Cu 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 the maiden Leborcham bade him arise, though he was worn out with fighting in defence 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 Loeg to harness his horse, the Gray of Macha.

“I swear by the gods by whom my people swear,” said Loeg, “though the men of Conchobar’s province were around the Gray of Macha, they could not bring him to the chariot. I never refused thee till today. If thou wilt, come thou, and speak with the Gray himself.”

Cu Chulainn went to him. And thrice did the horse turn his left side to his master. On the night before, the Morrigu had broken the chariot, for she liked not Cu Chulainn’s going to the battle, for she knew that he would not come again to Emain, Macha. Then Cu Chulainn reproached his horse, saying that he was not wont to deal thus with his master.

Thereat the Gray of Macha came and let his big round tears of blood fall on Cu Chulainn’s feet. And then Cu Chulainn leaped into the chariot, and drove it suddenly southwards along the Road of Midluachar.

And Leborcham met him and besought him not to leave them; and the thrice fifty queens who were in Emain Macha and who loved him cried to him with a great cry. And when he turned his chariot to the right, they gave a scream of wailing and lamentation, and smote their hands, for they knew that he would not come to them again.

The house of his nurse that had fostered him was before him on the road. He used to go to it whenever he went driving past her southwards and from the south. And she kept for him always a vessel with drink therein. Now he drank a drink and fared forth, bidding his nurse farewell. Then he saw three Crones, blind of the left eye, before him on the road. They had cooked on spits of rowantree a dog with poisons and spells. And one of the things that Cu Chulainn was bound not to do, was going to a cooking-hearth and consuming the food. And another of the things that he must not do, was eating his namesake’s flesh. He sped on and was about to pass them, for he knew that they were not there for his good.

Then said a Crone to him: “Visit us, O Cu Chulainn.”

“I will not visit you in sooth,” said Cu 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.”

Then he drew nigh to her, and the Crone gave him the shoulder­blade of the hound out of her left hand. And then Cu Chulainn ate it out of his left hand, and put it under his left thigh. The hand that took it and the thigh under which he put it were seized from trunk to end, so that the normal strength abode not in them.

Then he drove along the Road of Midluachar around Sliab Fuait; and his enemy Erc son of Cairbre saw him in his chariot, with his sword shining redly 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; “await him.” So they made a fence of their linked shields, and at each corner Erc made them place two of their bravest feigning to fight each other, and a satirist with each of these pairs, and he told the satirists to ask Cu Chulainn for his spear, for the sons of Calatin had prophesied of his spear that a king would be slain by it, unless it were given when demanded. And he made the men of Erin utter a great cry. And Cu Chulainn rushed against them in his chariot, performing his three thunder-feats; and he plied his spear and sword; so that the halves of their heads and skulls and hands and feet, and their red bones were scattered broadcast throughout the plain of Muirthemne, in number like to the sands of the sea and stars of heaven and dewdrops of May, flakes of snow, hailstones, leaves in the forest, buttercups on Mag Breg, and grass under the hoofs of herds on a day in summer. And gray was the field with their brains after that onslaught and plying of weapons which Cu Chulainn dealt unto them.

Then he saw one of the pairs of warriors contending together, and the satirist called on him to intervene, and Cu Chulainn leaped at them, and with two blows of his fist dashed out their brains.

“That spear to me!” said the satirist.

“I swear what my people swear,” said Cu 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 satirist.

“I have never yet been reviled because of my niggardliness or my churlishness.”

With that Cu Chulainn flung the spear at him with its handle foremost, and it passed through his head and killed nine on the other side of him.

And Cu Chulainn drove through the host, but Lugaid son of Cu Roi the spear.

“What will fall by this spear, O sons of Calatin?” asked Lugaid. “A king will fall by that spear,” said the sons of Calatin. Then Lugaid flung the spear at Cu Chulainn’s chariot, and it reached the charioteer, Loeg mac Riangabra, and all his bowels came forth on the cushion of the chariot.

Then said Loeg, “Bitterly have I been wounded,” etc. Thereafter Cu Chulainn drew out the spear, and Loeg bade him farewell. Then said Cu Chulainn: “Today I shall be warrior and I shall be charioteer also.”

Then he saw the second pair contending, and one of them said it was a shame for him not to intervene. And Cu Chulainn sprang upon them and dashed them into pieces against a rock.

“That spear to me, O Cu Chulainn!” said the satirist.

“I swear what my people swear, thou dost not need the spear more than I do. On my hand and my valor and my weapons it rests today to sweep the four provinces of Erin today from the plain of Muirthemne.”

“I will revile thee,” said the satirist.

“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 refusal nor for my churlishness. 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 Cu Chulainn drove through the host even as he had done before.

Then Erc son of Cairbre took the spear. “What shall fall by this spear, O sons of Calatin?” said Erc son of Cairbre

“Not hard to say: a king falls by that spear,” said the sons of Calatin.

“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 Cu Chulainn’s charioteer, Loeg mac Riangabra.”

Now Erc cast the spear at Cu Chulainn, and it lighted on his horse, the Gray of Macha. Cu Chulainn snatched out the spear. And each of them bade the other farewell. Thereat the Gray of

Macha left him with half the yoke under his neck and went into the Gray’s Linn in Sliab Fuait.

Thereupon Cu Chulainn again drove through the host and saw the third pair contending, and he intervened as he had done before, and the satirist demanded his spear and Cu 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 Cu 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 Cu Chulainn flung the spear to him, handle foremost, and it went through his head and through thrice nine other men.

“‘Tie grace with wrath, O Cu Chulainn,” said the satirist.

Then Cu 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 Erc cast 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 Cu Chulainn, and his bowels came forth on the cushion of the chariot, and his only horse, the Black Sainglenn, fled away, with half the yoke hanging to him, and left the chariot and his master, the king of the heroes of Erin, dying alone on the plain.

Then said Cu Chulainn, “I would fain go as far as that loch to drink a drink thereout.”

“We give thee leave,” said they, “provided that thou come to us again.”

“I will bid you come for me,” said Cu Chulainn, “if I cannot come myself.”

Then he gathered his bowels into his breast, and 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 a great mearing went westwards from the loch and his eye lit upon it, and he went to a pillar-stone which is in the plain, and he put his breast-girdle round it 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 Cu 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 wrought three red route all around him. And fifty fell by his teeth and thirty by each of his hoofs. This is what he slew of the host. And hence is the saying, “Not keener were the victorious courses of the Gray of Macha after Cu Chulainn’s slaughter.”

And then came the battle goddess Morrigu and her sisters in the form of scald-crows and sat on his shoulder. “That pillar Is not wont to be under birds,” said Erc son of Cairbre.

Then Lugaid arranged Cu Chulainn’s hair over his shoulder, and cut off his head. And then fell the sword from Cu Chulainn’s hand, and smote off Lugaid’s right hand, which fell on the ground. And Cu Chulainn’s right hand was cut off in revenge for this. Lugaid and the hosts then marched away, carrying with them Cu Chulainn’s bead and his right hand, and they came to Tara, and there is the “Sick-bed” of his head and his right hand, and the full of the cover of his shield of mould.

From Tara they marched southwards to the river Liffey. But meanwhile the hosts of Ulster were hurrying to attack their foes, and Conall the Victorious, driving in front of them, met the Gray of Macha streaming with blood. Then Conall knew that Cu Chulainn had been slain. And he and the Gray of Macha sought Cu Chulainn’s body. They saw Cu Chulainn at the pillar-stone. Then went the Gray of Macha and laid his head on Cu Chulalnn’s breast And Conall said, “A heavy care to the Gray of Macha is that corpse.”

And Conall followed the hosts meditating vengeance, for he was bound to avenge Cu Chulainn. For there was a comrades’ covenant between Cu Chulainn and Conall the Victorious, namely, that whichever of them was first killed should be avenged by the other. “And if I be the first killed,” Cu Chulainn had said, “how soon wilt thou avenge me?”

“The day on which thou shalt be slain,” said Conall, “I will avenge thee before that evening. And if I be slain,” said Conall, “how soon wilt thou avenge me?”

“Thy blood will not be cold on earth,” said Cu Chulainn, “before I shall avenge thee.” So Conall pursued Lugaid to the Liffey.

Then was Lugaid bathing. “Keep a lookout over the plain,” said he to his charioteer, “that no one come to us without being seen."

The charioteer looked. “One horseman is here coming to us,” said he, “and great are the speed and swiftness with which he comes. Thou wouldst deem that all the ravens of Erin were above him. Thou wouldst deem that flakes of snow were specking the plain before him.”

“Unbeloved is the horseman that comes there,” said Lugaid. “It is Conall the Victorious, mounted on the Dewy-Red. The birds thou sawest above him are the sods from that horse’s hoofs. The snow-flakes thou sawest specking the plain before him are the foam from that horse’s lips and from the curbs of his bridle. Look again,” said Lugaid, “what road is he coming?”

“He is coming to the ford,” said the charioteer, “the path that the hosts have taken.”

“Let that horse pass us,” said Lugaid. “We desire not to fight against him.” But when Conall reached the middle of the ford be spied Lugaid and his charioteer and went to them.

“Welcome is a debtor’s face!” said Conall. “He to whom he oweth debts demands them of him. I am thy creditor for the slaying of my comrade Cu Chulainn, and here I am suing thee for this.”

They then agreed to fight on the plain of Argetros, and there Conall wounded Lugaid with his javelin. Thence they went to a place called Ferta Lugdach.

“I wish,” said Lugaid, “to have the truth of men from thee.”

“What is that?” asked ConaIl the Victorious.

“That thou shouldst use only one hand against me, for one hand only have I."

“Thou shalt have it,” said Conall the Victorious.

So Conall’s hand was bound to his side with ropes. There for the space between two of the watches of the day they fought, and neither of them prevailed over the other. When Conall found that he prevailed not, he saw his steed the Dewy-Red by Lugaid. And the steed came to Lugaid and tore a piece out of his side.

“Woe is met” said Lugaid, “that is not the truth of men, O Conall.”

“I gave it only on my own behalf,” said Conall. “I gave it not on behalf of savage beasts and senseless things.”

“I know now,” said Lugaid, “that thou wilt not go till thou takest my head with thee, since we took Cu Chulainn’s head from him. So take,” said he, “my head in addition to thine own, and add my realm to thy realm, and my valor to thy valor. For I prefer that thou shouldst be the best hero in Erin.”

Thereat Conall the Victorious cut off Lugaid’s head. And Conall and his Ulstermen then returned to Emain Macha. That week they entered it not in triumph. But the soul of Cu Chulainn ap­peared there to the thrice fifty queens who had loved him, and they saw him floating in his phantom chariot over Emain Macha, and they heard him chant a mystic song of the coming of Christ and the Day of Doom.