How Cuchulain Got His Name
T HAT evening at supper, Meave sat silent, as though she were revolving matters in her mind. When supper was ended and she and her husband and Fergus, with one or two others of her chief captains, sat in the tent-door around the fire, looking out on the hosts who rested at close of day by the forest fires, singing and telling tales, as was their wont after the evening meal, Meave said to Fergus, "Just now you spoke of that little boy as Setanta, but I have heard him called Cuchulain, or Culain's Hound; how did he get that name?"
And Cormac, Conor's son, answered eagerly, "I will tell you that story myself, for I was present, and I know the way of it."
"Well, tell us now," said Meave and Ailill both at once.
And Cormac said—"In Ulster, near Cuchulain's country, was a mighty artificer and smith, whose name was Culain. Now the custom is, that every man of means and every owner of land in Ulster, should, once in a year or so, invite the King and his chiefs to spend a few days, it may be a week or a fortnight, at his house, that he may give them entertainment. But Culain owned no lands, nor was he rich, for only the fruit of his hammer, of his anvil and his tongs, had he. Nevertheless he desired to entertain the King at a banquet, and he went to Emain to invite his chief. But he said, 'I have no lands or store of wealth; I pray thee, therefore, to bring with thee but a few of thy prime warriors, because my house cannot contain a great company of guests.' So the King said he would go, bringing but a small retinue with him.
"Culain returned home to prepare his banquet, and when the day was come, towards evening the King set forth to reach the fort of Culain. He assumed his light, convenient traveling garb, and before starting he went down to the green to bid the boy‑corps farewell.
"There he saw a sight so curious that he could not tear himself away. At one end of the green stood a group of a hundred and fifty youths, guarding one goal, all striving to prevent the ball of a single little boy, who was playing against the whole of them, from getting in; but for all that they could do, he won the game, and drove his ball home to the goal.
"Then they changed sides, and the little lad defended his one goal against the hundred and fifty balls of the other youths, all sent at once across the ground. But though the youths played well, following up their balls, not one of them went into the hole, for the little boy caught them one after another just outside, driving them hither and thither, so that they could not make the goal. But when his turn came round to make the counter-stroke, he was as successful as before; nay, he would get the entire set of a hundred and fifty balls into their hole, for all that they could do.
"Then they played a game of getting each other's cloaks off without tearing them, and he would have their mantles off, one after the other, before they could, on their part, even unfasten the brooch that held his cloak. When they wrestled with each other, it was the same thing: he would have them on the ground before all of them together could upset him, or make him budge a foot.
"As the King stood and watched all this, he said:
"Then," Fergus said, breaking in upon the tale, "I was vexed because the King seemed to doubt the child, whether his after deeds would equal the promise of his youth; and I spoke up and said, 'That, O King, I think not wisely said; have no fear for this boy, for as his childish deeds outstrip the acts of childhood, so will his manly feats outshine the deeds of heroes and great men.' Then the King said to me, 'Have the child called, that we may take him with us to the banquet.'
"So when Setanta came, the King invited him; but the boy said, 'Excuse me now awhile; I cannot go just now.' 'How so?' said the King, surprised. 'Because the boy‑corps have not yet had enough of play.' 'I cannot wait until they have,' replied the King: 'the night is growing late.' 'Wait not at all,' replied the child; 'I will even finish this one game, and will run after you.' 'But, young one, knowest thou the way?' asked the King. 'I will follow the trail made by your company, the wheels of their chariots and hoofs of the horses on the road,' he replied."
"Thereupon,"—continued Cormac,—"Conor starts; and in time for the banquet he reaches Culain's house, where, with due honour, he is received. Fresh rushes had been strewn upon the floor, the tables all decked out, the fires burning in the middle of the room. A great vat full of ale stood in the hall, a lofty candlestick gave light, and round the fires stood servants cooking savoury viands, holding them on forks or spits of wood. Each man of the King's guests entered in order of his rank, and sat at the feast in his own allotted place, hanging his weapons up above his head. The King occupied the central seat, his poets, counselors, and chiefs sitting on either hand according to their state and dignity. As they were sitting down, the smith Culain came to Conor and asked him, 'Good now, O King, before we sit at meat I would even know whether anyone at all will follow thee this night to my dwelling, or is thy whole company gathered now within?' 'All are now here,' said the King, quite forgetting the wee boy; 'but wherefore askest thou?'
"So Culain loosed the dog, and with one spring it bounded forth out of the court of the house and over the wall of the rath, making a circuit of the entire district; and when it came back panting, with its tongue hanging from its jaws, it took up its usual position in front of the house, and there crouched with its head upon its paws, watching the high road to Emain. Surely an extraordinarily cruel and fierce and savage dog was he.
"When the boy‑corps broke up that night, each of the lads returning to the house of his parent or his fosterer or guardian, Setanta, trusting to the trail of the company that went with Conor, struck out for Culain's house. With his club and ball he ran forward, and the distance seemed short on account of his interest in the game. As soon as he arrived on the green of Culain's fort, the mastiff noticed him, and set up such a howling as echoed loud through all the country-side. Inside the house the King and his followers heard, but were struck dumb with fear, nor dared to move, thinking surely to find the little lad dead at the door of the fort. As for the hound himself, he thought with but one gulp to swallow Setanta whole. Now the little lad was without any means of defence beyond his ball and hurley-stick. He never left his play till he came near. Then, as the hound charged open-jawed, with all his strength he threw the ball right into the creature's mouth; and as for a moment the hound stopped short, choking as the ball passed down its throat, the lad seized hold of the mastiff's open jaws, grasping its throat with one hand and the back of its head with the other, and so violently did he strike its head against the pillars of the door, that it was no long time until the creature lay dead upon the ground.
"When Culain and the warriors within had heard the
mastiff howl, they asked each other, as soon as they
got back their voices, 'What makes the watch-dog cry?'
'Alas!' the King said,
"Quick they were," said Fergus, interrupting, "yet did I outstrip them, and at the rampart's outer door I found the child, and the great hound dead beside him. Without a pause I picked up the boy and hoisted him on my shoulder, and thus, with all the heroes following, we came to Conor, and I placed him between the monarch's knees."
"Yes, so it was," said Cormac, taking up the story
again where he had left it; "but let me tell of Culain.
The smith went out to find his dog, and when he saw him
lying there, knocked to pieces and quite dead, his
heart was vexed within him. He went back to the house,
"So from that day forth the name Cuchulain clung to him, until the time came when he was no longer remembered as the Hound of Culain's Fort, but as the guardian and watch-dog of defence to the Province against her foes; and then men loved best to call him 'The Hound of Ulster.'
"Now," continued Cormac, "it would be reasonable to expect that the little boy, who, at the age of six or seven years slew a dog whom a whole company would not dare to touch when he was at large, would, at the age of a grown youth, be formidable to Ulster's foes."
And Meave was forced to admit that it was likely that he would.