The Knighting Of Cuculain
Source: Irish Fairy Tales
BY STANDISH O'GRADY
One night in the month of the fires of Bel, Cathvah, the Druid and
star-gazer, was observing the heavens through his astrological
instruments. Beside him was Cuculain, just then completing his
sixteenth year. Since the exile of Fergus MacRoy, Cuculain had
attached himself most to the Ard-Druid, and delighted to be along with
him in his studies and observations. Suddenly the old man put aside
his instruments and meditated a long time in silence.
'Setanta,' said he at length, 'art thou yet sixteen years of age?'
'No, father,' replied the boy.
'It will then be difficult to persuade the king to knight thee and
enrol thee among his knights,' said Cathvah. 'Yet this must be done
to-morrow, for it has been revealed to me that he whom Concobar
MacNessa shall present with arms to-morrow, will be renowned to the
most distant ages, and to the ends of the earth. Thou shalt be
presented with arms to-morrow, and after that thou mayest retire for a
season among thy comrades, nor go out among the warriors until thy
strength is mature.'
The next day Cathvah procured the king's consent to the knighting of
Cuculain. Now on the same morning, one of his grooms came to Concobar
MacNessa and said: 'O chief of the Red Branch, thou knowest how no
horse has eaten barley, or ever occupied the stall where stood the
divine steed which, with another of mortal breed, in the days of
Kimbay MacFiontann, was accustomed to bear forth to the battle the
great war-queen, Macha Monga-Rue; but ever since that stall has been
empty, and no mortal steed hath profaned the stall in which the
deathless Lia Macha was wont to stand. Yet, O Concobar, as I passed
into the great stables on the east side of the courtyard, wherein are
the steeds of thy own ambus, and in which is that spot since held
sacred, I saw in the empty stall a mare, gray almost to whiteness, and
of a size and beauty such as I have never seen, who turned to look
upon me as I entered the stable, having very gentle eyes, but such as
terrified me, so that I let fall the vessel in which I was bearing
curds for the steed of Konaul Clareena; and she approached me, and
laid her head upon my shoulder, making a strange noise.'
Now as the groom was thus speaking, Cowshra Mend Macha, a younger son
of Concobar, came before the king, and said: 'Thou knowest, O my
father, that house in which is preserved the chariot of Kimbay
MacFiontann, wherein he and she, whose name I bear, the great queen
that protects our nation, rode forth to the wars in the ancient days,
and how it has been preserved ever since, and that it is under my care
to keep bright and clean. Now this day at sunrise I approached the
house, as is my custom, and approaching, I heard dire voices,
clamorous and terrible, that came from within, and noises like the
noise of battle, and shouts as of warriors in the agony of the
conflict, that raise their voices with short intense cries as they ply
their weapons, avoiding or inflicting death. Then I went back
terrified, but there met me Minrowar, son of Gerkin, for he came but
last night from Moharne, in the east, and he went to look at his own
steeds; but together we opened the gate of the chariot-house, and the
bronze of the chariot burned like glowing fire, and the voices cried
out in acclaim, when we stood in the doorway, and the light streamed
into the dark chamber. Doubtless, a great warrior will appear amongst
the Red Branch, for men say that not for a hundred years have these
voices been heard, and I know not for whom Macha sends these portents,
if it be not for the son of Sualtam, though he is not yet of an age to
Thus was Concobar prepared for the knighting of Cuculain.
Then in the presence of his court, and his warriors, and the youths
who were the comrades and companions of Cuculain, Concobar presented
the young hero with his weapons of war, after he had taken the vows of
the Red Branch, and having also bound himself by certain gaesa.
But Cuculain looked narrowly upon the weapons, and he struck the
spears together and clashed the sword upon the shield, and he brake
the spears in pieces, and the sword, and made chasms in the shield.
[Footnote 17: Curious vows taken by the ancient warriors. Hardly
anything definite is known of them.--ED.]
'These are not good weapons, O my King,' said the boy.
Then the king presented him with others that were larger and stronger,
and these too the boy brake into little pieces.
'These are still worse, O son of Nessa,' said the boy, 'and it is not
seemly, O chief of the Red Branch, that on the day that I am to
receive my arms I should be made a laughing-stock before the Clanna
Rury, being yet but a boy.'
But Concobar MacNessa exulted exceedingly when he beheld the amazing
strength and the waywardness of the boy, and beneath delicate brows
his eyes glittered like gleaming swords as he glanced rapidly round on
the crowd of martial men that surrounded him; but amongst them all he
seemed himself a bright torch of valour and war, more pure and clear
than polished steel. But he beckoned to one of his knights, who
hastened away and returned, bringing Concobar's own shield and spears
and the sword out of the Tayta Brac, where they were kept, an
equipment in reserve. And Cuculain shook them and bent them, and
clashed them together, but they held firm.
'These are good arms, O son of Nessa,' said Cuculain.
Then there were led forward a pair of noble steeds and a war-car, and
the king conferred them on Cuculain. Then Cuculain sprang into the
chariot, and standing with legs apart, he stamped from side to side,
and shook and shook, and jolted the car until the axle brake and the
car itself was broken in pieces.
'This is not a good chariot, O my King,' said the boy.
Then there were led forward three chariots, and all these he brake in
'These are not good chariots, O chief of the Red Branch,' said
Cuculain. 'No brave warrior would enter the battle or fight from such
Then the king called to his son Cowshra Mead Macha and bade him take
Laeg, and harness to the war-chariot, of which he had the care, the
wondrous gray steed, and that one which had been given him by Kelkar,
the son of Uther, and to give Laeg a charioteering equipment, to be
charioteers of Cuculain. For now it was apparent to all the nobles and
to the king that a lion of war had appeared amongst them, and that it
was for him Macha had sent these omens.
Then Cuculain's heart leaped in his breast when he heard the thunder
of the great war-car and the mad whinnying of the horses that smelt
the battle afar. Soon he beheld them with his eyes, and the charioteer
with the golden fillet of his office, erect in the car, struggling to
subdue their fury. A gray, long-maned steed, whale-bellied,
broad-chested, behind one yoke; a black, ugly-maned steed behind the
Like a hawk swooping along the face of a cliff when the wind is high,
or like the rush of the March wind over the plain, or like the
fleetness of the stag roused from his lair by the hounds and covering
his first field, was the rush of those steeds when they had broken
through the restraint of the charioteer, as though they galloped over
fiery flags, so that the earth shook and trembled with the velocity of
their motion, and all the time the great car brayed and shrieked as
the wheels of solid and glittering bronze went round, for there were
demons that had their abode in that car.
The charioteer restrained the steeds before the assembly, but
nay-the-less a deep pur, like the pur of a tiger, proceeded from the
axle. Then the whole assembly lifted up their voices and shouted for
Cuculain, and he himself, Cuculain the son of Sualtam, sprang into his
chariot, all armed, with a cry as of a warrior springing into his
chariot in the battle, and he stood erect and brandished his spears,
and the war-sprites of the Gaeil shouted along with them, to the
Bocanahs and Bananahs and the Genitii Glindi, the wild people of the
glens, and the demons of the air, roared around him, when first the
great warrior of the Gaeil, his battle-arms in his hands, stood
equipped for war in his chariot before all the warriors of his tribe,
the kings of the Clanna Rury, and the people of Emain Macha.
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