Stories of unrequited love have timeless appeal. For haven’t we all felt the woes of misdirected affection? Does it not bring out the secret poet in us all? And how many letters did you write but never send, declaring a passion worthy of only the gods?
But it would seem that even the gods are not immune to this affliction. And it is now to such a tale of which my tongue will tell.
Born of noble and magical blood, Setanta would always have gifts his peers could not possess. The boy’s parentage has ever remained a mystery, possibly due to scandal. But it is known that his mother was a daughter of the King Conchubar of Ulster. Through the ages, the most common tale told is that the god Lugh was father to the child although it was another who gave the boy a home. A giant he was in stature, and was soon to excel at the game of hurling. However, it was oft that Setanta was the sole player against a team, the odds were stacked so much in his favour.
It was one such game that the king Conchubar came to watch and so impressed by his young nephew’s courage and strength, he invited him to a feast at the house of the blacksmith Culann. The boy said that he had a game to finish, but as he knew the road, he would follow later. Understanding, Conchubar proceeded to his friend’s home.
Culann had a hound the size of a pony with a deadly reputation. While his guests were arriving, the hound was locked away so as to harm none. When the gathering seemed full, Culann asked Conchubar if the full of his retinue had arrived. Forgetting about his young nephew, Setanta, he confirmed that all were present and agreed that the hound should be released.
Meanwhile, Setanta finished his game and good to his word, he made his way to the house of Culann, hurley stick and puck only in hand. On approaching Culann’s house, the hound became alert to his presence and pierced the heavens with its growl. Those inside heard it, and drew their breath knowing that whoever the hound had sensed, they would not have much longer to live. Conchubar cried out, remembering the boy and all ran outside in anguish.
Setanta, with only his skill in hurling to aid him, threw the puck full pelt into the mouth of the growling hound, a throw so powerful it choked the hound and halted its step. He then grasped it by its hind legs and swung it so that its head was smashed against the rock. Although relieved for the boy, Culann was distraught at the loss of his hound and stated that Setanta was no longer welcome to his house. Conchubar protested, feeling himself slighted by the declaration. On realising what he’d done, the boy was full of remorse. He asked Conchubar if he would find and train another hound for the host. This was promised, but Culann asked what would he do in the meantime. His hound had been his sole protection. Setanta promised to be his protector until a hound could be found and trained. To this, Culann agreed and the feasting resumed.
But from that day to this, Setanta came to be known as Cúchulainn, the hound of Culann.
Bards were soon to sing songs and share the stories of his prowess in the courts of kings and was soon to gain the attention of many a maiden fair. It was through his growing reputation that he courted the attention of not a mortal woman, but a feared goddess – the Morrigan.
A talented shapeshifter, the Morrigan rarely appeared to mortals in her true form. She often presided over battles in the form of a menacing hag, and in several tales has appeared as a heifer, a snake, an owl, but most often as a crow or a raven, giving the prophecy of death.
But she did not always appear as a terrifying menace. And it was as a red-robed firey-haired mortal of extraordinary beauty that she first showed herself to Cúchulainn.
Tired after battle, Cúchulainn had woken to the most piercing cry he had ever heard. His company were similarly disturbed by the sound and all agreed to go meet whatever was the cause of it. They saddled their horses and rode swiftly north when their passage was halted by the sight of the Morrigan before them. She first declared falsehood in stating that she was the daughter of one of the great chieftan kings. She then offered her love, her treasure and her protection if Cúchulainn would go with her.
With disdain, Cúchulainn replied that he had no time for a woman’s love. Could she not see that they were weary from the woes of battle?
The Morrigan replied that she had indeed seen his prowess and had many a time come to his aid during the course of battle and would continue to do so.
But again Cúchulainn refused, he had no need of a woman’s help.
She swore that they would henceforth be enemies, promising to thwart his efforts if he ever met an assailant as matched in strength as he. She left Cúchulainn with the knowledge that he had just rebuffed the terrible Morrigan and would come to regret his own arrogance.
The Morrigan came to him thrice. During the first challenge, she appeared as a heifer to knock his balance, giving his opponent the advantage. But Cúchulainn gained the upper hand and broke the heifer’s leg.
The Morrigan appeared to him as a snake and curled herself around his ankles to trip him, giving his opponent the advantage. But Cúchulainn ganed the upper hand and trampled upon the snake.
Yet The Morrigan would appear a third time, but this time as a grey wolf that would tear at his sword arm. But Cúchulainn gained the upper hand and pierced an eye of the wolf.
After the battle, tired and thirsty, he came across a hag milking a cow. He asked of her to give him some milk that he might quench his thirst. This she did. But he was not satiated and asked for yet another drink. This she did. But still Cúchulainn had not satisfied his thirst and requested a third and final cup. This she did.
He thanked her asked her what reward she would like to be granted.
“To heal the wounds only the maker of them can heal.”
Cúchulainn saw then the injuries he had inflicted upon the Morrigan and redressed the harm he had done her, healing her as she had asked.
The Morrigan never appeared to him again during his lifetime, though it is rumoured that a raven sat upon his shoulder at the moment of his death.
Notes: This tale forms part of the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology rather than the mythological cycle that the Tuatha de Dannan, like the Morrigan normally appear in.
I chose this tale for a number of reasons. I recently wrote about my shapeshifting self and the mythology surrounding the Morrigan was inspiration for many of my characters.
I love ravens and with Debbie’s sharing of the Righteous Ravens, I wanted to share a story about my favourite shapeshifting raven! The Morrigan also featured in my poem “The Raven”. So… if it didn’t make too much sense then, perhaps it will now!!