CúRói and CúChulinn

Josef Baudiš

p. 200

PROFESSOR THURNEYSEN (CZ. ix. 189 ff.) has shown that the Aided ConRói in Egerton 88 (fo. 10 a, 1 ff.) is one of the two oldest versions of the Saga of CúRói's death, and that this version belongs to the oldest stratum of CúRói's cycle. As to its origin, he thinks that there was a saga relating to Caher Conree: "and it was related that a monster with magical powers, named CúRaui, son of Dáre, once dwelt there. He was invincible, for he could not be overcome save by his own sword. This at last a youth accomplished with the help of the monster's wife with whom he had eloped. Since then the castle has been desolate. As CúChulinn has become the 'youthful hero,' κατ' ἐξοχήν in the Irish saga, it fell to his lot to slay CúRói" (p. 231). As regards the nature of CúRói, Thurneysen inclines to O'Grady's opinion that the wonder-working magician and king of the Ernai was originally a water demon (p. 233). This is, I think, the only possible explanation. The evidence is furnished by Fled Bricrenn (LU. 110 b 1 ff.): Fer cumachta mori dano in t-Uath mac Imomain sin notolbad in cach richt ba halic leis 7 nogniad druidechta ........ Ba sésin dano in siriti... "This Uath son of Imoman then was a man of great power, he used to assume every shape he pleased, and he used to perform wizardry ......... He also was the siriti etc." Uath mac Imomain plays in one version of Fled Bricrenn the rôle of CúRói, his characteristics being identical with those of CúRói, namely, shape-shifting and wizardry. It is highly probable that the person who is invested in a particular version with the same rôle and attributes as our hero, is of the same origin. He is referred to as a siriti, and lives oc á loch (LU 110 a 50 and cp. 110 a 6 Rancatár iarom co Uath co a loch). Furthermore in a modern Irish story which belongs to this group, the person corresponding to CúRói is described as Fathach 'giant' (Sgéalaidhe Óirghiall p. 8; in the version published in Quiggin's A Dialect of Donegal p. 200 ff. this person is the brother of three giants). This is a

p. 201

characteristic of all demoniacal and supernatural beings in folk-lore. One must not forget that such demons were conceived as having human form, only this form was greatly magnified.

The question of the origin of the CúRói saga, as regards the textual criticism, has been finally solved by Thurneysen. It remains only to solve some questions relating to the different formule and to investigate traces of various folk-elements preserved in the story.

Thurneysen has defined the nature of CúRói, namely, "he can be killed only with his own sword." But in Egerton 88 the circumstances of CúRói's death are more complex: CúRói's soul is hidden in a most inaccessible place, namely in a salmon, which appears only once every seven years in a certain well (tipre) near Slemish; in this salmon is a golden apple (uball óir), and in the apple, which can be split only by his own sword, is his soul. This is a very common formula in folk-tales, the hero having an external soul which he hides in an out-of-the-way place.

Now it is remarkable that in folk-tales the secret of the hero's life is usually drawn from him by the wiles of a woman. And so it is in Aided ConRói. It is very probable therefore that our story belongs to the group generally known as that of the external soul.1/

Now, several stories of this kind occur in Modern Irish, e. g. Aodh Beag Ó Leabharcha, published in 'Sgéalaidhe Óirghiall' (Gaelic League, Dublin, 1905) and Éamon Ua Ciórrthais in Quiggin's 'A Dialect of Donegal' (Cambridge, 1906).2/ The following is a short summary of these stories: — A widow's son after having slain three giants (fathaigh) wins the hand of a princess. On returning from the third encounter he liberates a man hanging from a tree, namely cnochaire tírnochttha, 'the naked Hangman', who in Quiggin's story is the brother of the three dead giants (see p. 207). But no sooner is the Crochaire free from his bonds, than he rushes upon the young man, strips his clothes from off him, and binds him to the very same tree. Then he hastens to the palace of the princess and carries her off (in the Oriel story, p. 6–7, the Crochaire comes disguised as Aodh Beag).


1/ Cp. Frazer, Golden Bough, vol. iii, 351 ff.
2/ Cp. also Mac Innes, Folk and Hero Tales, p. 103 ff.

p. 202

When the young man has been discovered and taken down from the tree, he starts off in pursuit of the princess. On arriving at the Crochaire's castle he meets the princess, who afterwards draws from the Crochaire the secret of his soul or life. The young man then obtains possession of the giant's soul and kills him.

Where now is the Crochaire's soul hidden? In Quiggin's story it is in a tree by the seashore; and in this tree is a fox which can be captured only by the little Hound of Rough Wood (Cú Beag na Garbhchoilleadhn). If this fox is caught a duck will fly out of him, and this duck can only be overtaken by the hawk of the Yellow Coloured Glen (Seabhac Gleann Dath Bhuidhe); in the duck is an egg, which will fall into the sea, and can only be brought back by the aid of the water-dog Dobhrán (= Dobhorchú) Donn Loch an Iubhair. And in the end the Crochaire can only be killed if a black spot in the lower part of his intestine is struck with this egg (ní bhéidhinnse marbh go mbuailtí an uibh sin ar an bhall dubh atá thíos air thóin mo ghoile). The young man (Éamonn) secures the help of these three animals: the first shortly after leaving his mother, the other two when in quest of the princess.1/

According to the Oriel story the Crochaire's soul is in a tree by the seashore, in the tree there is a duck, and the duck has an egg, and in this egg is his soul; and he cannot be killed unless Aodh Beag comes and fells the tree with the broken gapped axe which is under the bed. (Tá crann thíos annsin ar bhruach an fairrge is tá tonnóg istigh 'sa chrann 7 tá uigh ag an tonnóig 7 istigh 'san uigh atá m'anam, 7 chan fhaghaim-sa bás a choidhche go dtí go dtiocfaidh Aodh Beag O Leabharcha atá i n-Eirinn 's


1/ The last two animals were originally conceived in the animistic manner. It is two old men who promise the help of these animals. Though there is no trace that these men are identical with the animals, it must be assumed that they are. Evidence of this is the fact that in the Oriel story the animals themselves promise their help, just as the dog does in the Donegal story. I have heard a Connacht story containing the same formula: A youth (Seaghan) meets an old man who warns him to fight his (Seaghan's) enemy: "sin é Ridire Ruadh Gleann Uathbháis níor iomchuir sé a chroidhe ón teach 7 ní féidir é (a) mharbhadh nuair nach mbeadh an croidhe ann." And as the youth insists on his proposal, "Is mise" adeir an seanfhear "Bradán Ruadh na Linne Goirme má theastuigheann uait blaoidh orm 7 béidh mé agad"... One can see that the salmon is here conceived as a human being, as a being perhaps which is at one time a man and at another an animal. This is an old trait belonging to the animistic view of early man, which drew no sharp lines between animal and man.

p. 203

go ngedrrfaidh se an crann leis an tuaigh bhriste bhearnaigh tá faoi'n liobaid.) We find further that the death of the Crochaire is effected by striking him in the forehead with the egg. (Bheir Aodh Beag ar an uigh 7 bhuail i gelán an éadain é.)

Now we see in these stories that (1) the owner of the external soul is betrayed by a woman; that (2) the hero who kills the giant is helped by a grateful animal.

The external soul is here hidden in an animal, and in one of our modern tales must be obtained by means of a certain instrument belonging to the giant, namely his axe. In both stories the gaining possession of the external soul does not itself cause death, it is only a means of killing the giant. Now in Aided ConRói we find several of the first-named formulæ1/: CuRói has a separable soul, and can be killed only by some one who gets possession of his soul; the woman he has taken to wife against her will betrays him. The only question is how his death will be brought about; the sword was no doubt originally only the instrument, the chief thing being to get possession of the external soul. Whether CúRói was killed immediately by the splitting of the golden apple, which corresponds to the egg of moderu stories, or whether this act reduces him to the condition of an ordinary mortal, it is impossible to say. At any rate we must regard both stories, the old and the modern, as identical.

Unfortunately the passage describing the death of CúRói is corrupt, or at least very obscure: Dogede cū ineo ł 2/ Thurneysen would render Goíte ó ChoinChulinn int éo "the salmon was killed by CúChulinn." If this is correct, the following words: 'It took courage and strength from CúRói,' need not be taken to mean, that this was the only effect of getting possession of CúRói's soul. If it were merely a salmon that had been killed, CúRói could still live; but of course he felt weak, since his soul was in another person's hands. Gegni CúChulinn iarum, 'CuChulinn killed him then,' may then be understood to mean that CuChulinn killed him by the mere act of splitting the golden apple.

If this is the true interpretation of the passage, then the Old Irish version of the death of CúRói has a trait which is distinctly older than the modern one, namely, CúRói's death being the


1/ Egerton 88, fol. 10 b.     2/ Egerton 88, fol. 10 b 35.

p. 204

immediate result of destroying the external soul. We can trace this feature aiso in other stories of the group, for example in Scotch-Gaelic tales (Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, I, pp. 18, cp. 93, 98, 102) and also in non-Gaelic stories: Russian (Immortal Koshchei); Lithuanian (Brugmann und Leskien Lithauische Volkslieder und Märchen, pp. 192 ff.);1/ Norwegian ("The Giant with no heart in bis body," Asbjörnsen's Collection). This agrees also with the primitive conception of the external soul as we find it in a Bengal story, though in another setting. In this story the hero's life is in a golden necklace, which is again in a fish. His father's second wife wishes to kill him, and finding out the secret of his life obtains means to secure the fish. As soon as the fish is caught, the hero feels sick; when it is brought on dry land he feels that he is about to die, and as the queen puts the golden necklace round her neck he dies. But he can return to life every night, because then the queen puts her necklace off. Here we have the same traits as in the CúRói story: the moment the external soul comes into possession of another man the mightful owner of it feels ill. (Cp. also the Turkish stories, and the instance from Hahn's collection below.)

We can trace the formula of the external soul into the most distant lands (see Frazer l.c. and MacCulloch, The Childhood of Fiction, pp. 120 ff.). Even our own version of this formula is very common (ibid. 133. Hahn, Griechische und Albanesische Märchen II. 23 f., 204, 259, 294;2/ Kunos, Türkische Märchen aus Stambul, pp. 164 ff. and 125, also Gaelic, Slavonic, Lithuanian, and Norse; see above.)3/


1/ As to the formula of immortality in Slavonic folk-tales, see ibid., p. 569.
2/ Dr. Pokorny (Mitteilungen der anthropol. Gesellschaft in Wien XLII. 349) remarks concerning the other version of CúRói's death: Allerdings entspricht CúRói in der Geschichte, in der er geschildert wird, wie ihn seine Frau beträgt an seinen Haaren ans Bett bindet und CúChulinn, der ihn dann erschlägt ... dem Simson und "dem Starken Hans." Then he quotes Hahn ii, p. 189 f, but this is quite a different formula. When he refers to "Starker Hans," cp. I, 59, he means, perhaps, the story "der Starke Hans" (Hahn No. 64), which has indeed an external soul formula (ii, p. 23). But he attaches little importance to these parallels, and explains CúChulinn after the manner of the mythologicai school.
3/ The same formula in another context, Hahn ii, 215. — A very old story with separable soul formula, but with a different context, is the old Egyptian story of "Twa Brothers" (from Papyrus d'Orbiney, see Records of the Past, London, 1874, ii, 137; Maspero, Les contes populaires de l'Égypte ancienne, Paris, 1889, p. 5 ff.; Flinders Petrie, Egyptian Tales II, 36; cp. also MacCulloch l.c., Frazer ii. 377 f.).

p. 205

The external soul formula is often connected with another which folklorists classify simply as helpful animals: the hero of the tale is kind to some animals and they help him in return (see MacCulloch l.c., also the Slavonic and Lithuanian stories cited above; — Kunos pp. 125 ff.) In modern Irish stories it is only the hero's kindness that procures him the help of these animals; in some other stories the mutual relations are much closer, the helpful animals are his brothers-in-law (so for instance in Lithuanian and Turkish). There are usually three animals; and if we find only two in the Oriel story, it is uncommon. The story-teller has probably forgotten that the egg falls into the sea. The old Irish tale has, however, no traces at all of this formula. Either the modern stories are then a combination of two originally independent formulæ, or in the oldest form of the story this trait has been discarded. The former is the more probable, and, so far as I know, the one generally accepted. In any case the various means for obtaining the external soul of CúRói do not admit of any help from three animals. When CúChulinn destroys the salmon in the presence of CúRói, the egg cannot drop into the sea, for the reason that the golden apple was not hidden in a bird or such like — there is no opportunity in fact for the help of a bird. If help were necessary at all, it would be for securing the salmon. It is most strange, however, that we should find the same combination of these formulæ all the world over. It is impossible of course to say how far this may be due to intercommunication. Many of these episodes can only be explained, I think, in this way. Still it would be instructive to consider the possibility that two formulæ became united. And this brings us to the question of the origin of the 'extemnal soul' and the 'helpful animals.'

As to the latter formula, folklorists explain it as an old reminiscence of a wide-spread totemistic culture. This is most probable in cases where the helpful animals are closely related to the hero. The same explanation accounts for the instances we have in modern Irish stories, namely, where the hero obtains the help of the animals through his kindness to them. These and similar formulæ are reminiscences of the old zoolatrical stage at which the animals were regarded as powerful protectors of families or of individuals even. Of course, these are only reminiscerices of a time when totemistic culture was dying

p. 206

out.1/ The formula of the external soul has sprung from various sources, but so far as the soul is hidden in an animal it belongs most probably to the same stratum of culture as the totem. But it is again only a survival, and may be a survival which in later ages was often misunderstood. I would especially call attention to the manitou which some savage tribes believe to be closely connected with the person who receives it.

Now, it would be in no way surprising if two conceptions reflecting the same culture stratum should have become united; for one of them, the helpful animals, gives a good, one might almost say, natural, combination of the other, and both postulate the same conception of the world. Ireland is one of the countries in which similar beliefs survive2/ in various old tales, and it is therefore not to be wondered at if we find these formulæ combined in this way. The fact that they are not combined in Aided ConRói can be explained on other grounds. Either the idea of the external soul was formerly much more familiar, and the killing of the giant was therefore not regarded as a task requiring extraordinary help; or the giant-killer was endowed with so many gifts3/ that he experienced no difficulty at all, and so by the story-teller it was taken for granted that the young hero could perform his task.4/ It is not necessary, however, to suppose that these formulæ were always connected.

At all events it is evident that the main theme of Aided ConRói is that of the external soul: it is identical with the folk-tale formula, still found in Modern Irish. And it must not be overlooked that both in the old saga and in the modern folk-tale the young hero is at first overcome by the giant, hut his life is spared.5/ The same


1/ Cp. MacCulloch, pp. 249 ff.
2/ See Rev. Celt. xii, 243; xxii, 20 (Conaire Mór) xxi, 286 (CúChulinn).
3/ Sometimes the hero can assume the shapes of different animals. But he is instructed again by the helpful animals; cp. the Basque story: Webster, Basque Legends, p. 82; the Gaelic, Campbell, i, p. 96. But this is again the helpful animals formula, and we need not assume anything of the kind for CúChulinn.
4/ It is to be observed that CúChulinn's cleasa enable him to accomplish feats which in folk-tales would require extraordinary help, as for example the catching of birds (TBC. in Macgním.; S. C.) or deer (TBC. ibid.).
5/ The description of CúRoi and CúChulinn wrestling recalls that of modern Irish tales; the difference being that in the old Irish tale it is not the giant who is beaten, but the young hero; cp. adsoí fris int óclach, facairt úad isin talmain, aill co a glún, a fecht n-aill co a thóin, a fecht n-aill co a criss, a n-aill co (a) dí oxail; and Oriel (p. 3): Char bh'fhada go dtug Aodh Beag fásgadh dhó; chuir se go dtí n-a ghlúine is-talamh e, an dara fásgadh go dtí bhásta a bhrístí, an treas fásgadh go dtí ubhall a sgórnaighe. (This is a commonplace in descriptions of wrestlings with giants of all kinds.)

p. 207

feature is found in analogous stories of other nations. Whether the oldest form of the Irish story contained originally a similar reason of it (namely that the hero had set free the giant from prison) I do not venture to decide.1/

It is also remarkable that in the Old-Irish story the demon has noble features; he is a prince, and we can hardly find a trace of the repellent character of the popular fathach.2/ This I would ascribe to the political motives of the old story-tellers. The Ulster people claimed a close relationsbip with CúRói and clanna Dedad. CúRói belonged to the same epic cycle as CúChulinn, namely the Ulster cycle. So it came about that the people who had put the Ulster epics into historical form, and who claimed probably some relationship with the Ulster epical heroes, were attached to this powerful magician CúRói, and endowed him with the noble mien of a great king.

It matters little for my point of view at what time the heroes of this tale got their respective names, or when the whole saga was brought into connection with the Ulster cycle. But I am of opinion that it must have been at a very ancient period, the names of both heroes exhibiting the same formation, namely Cú-Rói : Cú-Chulinn. In our version the sword is a necessary instrument for getting possession of the hero's soul, because it is his own sword and was probably — in my opinion — part of him. For the same reason the sword plays an exclusive rôle in the other version of our tale. It was only natural then that the slaying power of the sword should have been explained, not as a possession of the hero who is to be killed, but as a supernatural quality of the sword itself. This point is very clear in the Welsh story of Llew Llaw gyffes (Mabinogion: Math vab Mathonwy), which contains a similar formula: the hero can be killed only by a charmed spear, and in a particular position. As regards the rôles of the heroes, Sir John Rhys has already pointed out


1/ As regards the relations between Blathnait and CúChulinn it is to be observed that she is in the older version a daughter of Chonchobor; in other words, the plays the same rôle as in the folk-tales. There is nothing said as to whether she was CúChulinn's leman (or spouse as in mod. tales); it was probably sufficient for the story-teller that she was a king's daughter, and that one of the king's champions is to bring her to hem father.
2/ But there are other features which are identical with those of giants, for instance, CúRói's journeying throughout the world. He is in same far-off region, but at night ha returns (Fled Bricr.): we find the same in modern folk-lore.

p. 208

(Hibbert Lect.) that it is "somewhat as if Llew and Goronwy had changed places in the story of Blodeuedd's infidelity." Indeed, the tendency which we have already observed in the Irish stories here gets the upper hand — the sympathy of the story-teller is altogether with the deceived husband. But the Welsh story is not quite identical with the Old-Irish tale. Perhaps the Welsh story was influenced by some other, or it is a quite different tale with a similar formula.1/

We see that the Irish story has its origin in a very old stratum, namely totemistic culture. M. Salomon Reinach2/ has already pointed out that CúChulinn's tabu not to eat dog's flesh has the same origin. CúChulinn's character has then one totemistic feature more. The story of his killing the hound was most probably invented to explain his name. But there is one thing puzzling: why is this only his second name? In Irish tradition it is well known that his boyish name was Setanta. Why then has he another name? It might of course be explained as a nick-name; but then would it not be strange that this nick-name should impose a tabu upon him?

A clue to this enigma is again afforded us in the folk-lore of savage tribes belonging to the totemistic stratum. I have already mentioned that some savage tribes have an individual totem, i.e. manitou. This manitou is not received at birth, but at the age of puberty.3/ As 'CúChulinn' is not his birth-name, we must then assume that CúChulinn's manitou was dog, and that he got his name in some ceremonial way, similar to that in which the savages received their manitous. The story "How CúChulinn slew the Hound" is then probably a transformation of an old story relating how CúChulinn got his manitou. And indeed the boyish deeds of CúChulinn show that he was at this time fully qualified for it.

* * *

All this proves that we have here a very old stratum of folk-lore which intrudes into the historical Ulster cycle. By historical I mean only that the background was historical: the struggle


1/ For other formulæ, as power in hair, see MacCulloch l.c., Frazer l.c., and Hahn i, 187, 217; cp. also 179.
2/ Rev. Celt. xxi, 286.
3/ See Frazer, The Golden Baugh, iii, 419; cp. 422 ff. MacCulloch, pp. 88 f, 146.

p. 209

of two races, the Connacht and the Ulstermen. The themes of Ulster epics are very often taken from popular tradition. The late Alfred Nutt has already shown that in Tochmarc Étáine and Tochmarc Emere motives and situations occur which are well known in modern Gaelic stories (see Fians xvii), and he argues that "sagas recorded in writing from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries presuppose a background of traditional fancies, beliefs, and conceptions of the same essential character as those still current.; (ibid. p. xviii.) I would add to this, that in the ancient tales we frequently find the same elements and formulæ as in modern Gaelic stories and in those of other nations, introduced into the national epic in order to infuse more life into the character of the ancestors of those peoples who were interested in creating the epic.

There are other formulæ which might be added to the above, but of these I hope to write later on.





Published in: Ériu, 7, 1914, pp. 200–209.

→ back