Mythology Monday: How Cú Chulainn Got His Name

It’s that time of week again, and this week we’re going to take a look at a bit of Irish mythology. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about one of Ireland’s most well known cultural heroes, Cú Chulainn. More specifically, I’m going to be talking about how he came to be called Cu Chulainn in the first place.

Also, Cú Chulainn is not pronounced the way you think it is. Nothing in Irish is pronounced the way you think it is.

First off, as indicated by both the post’s title and the opening paragraph, Cú Chulainn wasn’t originally called that. He originally had the more easily pronounced name Setanta. Now, Setanta was the son of the god Lugh and the mortal woman Dechtaire. Being the son of a god, of course, makes him pretty special, and he turns out to be ridiculously good at fighting. But that mostly comes later.

When Setanta is a small kid, he goes up to his mother one day and tells her that he wants to go to his uncle Conchubar Mac Nessa’s kingdom Ulster to train with the boy’s troop of his army, the Red Branch. His mom basically tells him, “No, you’re like seven. That’s too young to join the army.”

Setanta is basically like, “OK, how about I do it anyway,” and sneaks off to Emain Macha, the capital of Ulster. While on his way there, he practices a sport called hurling, and actually gets pretty good at it. That’s a detail that’ll become important in just a bit.

Anyway, he makes it to his destination, and sees about 150 boys playing the aforementioned sport. This turns out to be the boy’s troop, so he decides to join in the game. And proceeds to utterly annihilate them at it.

This does not go over well, and all 150 of the other kids decide that a good ass-whooping is in order.

Conchubar, who’s nearby playing chess with his main dude Fergus, hears the ruckus and goes to see what’s going on. Upon which he sees his boy’s troop ganging up on his nephew. Amazingly, considering that he’s ludicrously outnumbered by a bunch of older kids, he’s actually holding his known.

At any rate, Conchubar decides he’s not going to put up with this shit, and tells them all to knock it off. Then he asks his nephew why he didn’t follow the city’s protocol for entering. See, anyone who comes up to the city without introducing themselves and asking for sanctuary is basically fair game. Setanta’s like, “I’m a literal child and didn’t know about that, but I can do that now, I guess.” Which he does, and all’s well that ends well.

So Setanta is a member of the boy’s troop for about a year, and things seem to be going pretty well for him. At this time, an extremely well-renowned smith named Cullan comes by and invites the king and a small retinue to a feast he’s planning on having in a bit. Not one to turn down a party, Conchubar accepts.

The day of the feast arrives, and the king and his people head out. While on the way, he comes across the boy’s troop playing a game. He watches for a bit, then asks Setanta if he wants’ to come with. Setanta responds that he’s not done playing, and Conchubar tells him that’s OK, he can just follow their chariot tracks to the party when he’s ready.

Conchubar and the others make it to Cullan’s and chill with their host for a bit, and Cullan asks if there’s anyone coming because he really wants to put his guard dog out. His unbelievably huge, extremely vicious guard dog. Conchubar, who forgot that he invited his nephew, is all like, “No, it’s cool. No one else is coming up tonight.”

I’m sure you all can see where this is heading.

Anyway, Setanta decides to head up to the feast, and follows the chariot tracks to Cullan’s. Where Cullan’s aforementioned unbelievably huge and vicious dog immediately attacks him.

Now, since he’s a kid, he doesn’t have any weapons, just a hurling stick and ball. Well, turns out that’s good enough since he hits the hurling ball at the dog. The ball lodges in its throat, and while the animal is distracted proceeds to beat it to death with a rock. So, that’s nice.

The people at the party hear the commotion and go out to see what’s up. Conchubar is mostly relieved that the dog didn’t eat his sister’s kid, but Cullan is understandably distraught at the sight of his dead dog. He turns to the king and says that everyone except Setanta is welcome at his house.

Conchubar starts to object, but Setanta feels bad about the dog and offers to take its place until Cullan can rear a new guard dog. This causes this druid present at the party, Cathbad, to declare that Setanta’s name is now Cú Chulainn, and that he’ll grow up to do some pretty awesome shit.

And the moral of the story is that you should always RSVP if you’re going to an event.

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