Cu Chulainn and Emer
Although this tale was written in the 10th or 11th century CE, it is safe to assume that this tale – like so many others – contains a much older nucleus.
What is interesting about this story, which comes from the Ulster Cycle of mythic stories, is that it refers to the four fire festivals around which the wheel of the year is constructed.
The handsomeness of Cu Chulainn caused much consternation amid the men, the Princes and The Kings of Ulster – for their looks, no matter how impressive, could not match that of the Hero.
Though their thinking be shallow, it was felt that their women could easily be seduced by Cu Chulainn.
They determined to find a woman to marry him, and tame his roaming eye.
Messengers were sent out far and wide but none could find a woman that Cuchulainn would fall for.
In The court of Forgall the Clever they found the match.
Emer was the noble daughter of the Chieftain named Forgall who had a reputation for slyness.
Cu Chulainn was invited to visit Forgall’s court where he saw Emer conversing with her attendants.
For his eye she had the six gifts which he sought in a wife; the gift of beauty, the gift of a good voice, the gift of sweet speech, the gift of needlework, the gift of wisdom and the gift of chastity.
Forgall was not warm to the idea, so decided to set a challenge for Cu Chulainn.
He would need to prove himself a worth warrior and so was required to train with the warrior women, Scathact of Scotland. He thought that Cu Chulainn might fail the training, but if not he would be away for some time so could ensure his court was protected upon the warriors return.
Actually Emer herself was not averse to Cu Chulainn’s advances, but wishing to test him set conditions of her own.
Cu Chulainn had spoken to Emer in code words and phrases; complicated riddles and puns that made no sense to the other listeners.
While others looked at him aghast (that was not how he thought one should talk to a beautiful woman), Emer smiled at him, and replied in the same vein of seeming nonsense, incomprehensible to all the others. For example They went when Cu Chulainn peeked down the top of her shirt and said “I see a fine country there with a sweet resting place.”
Emer replied, “No man shall rest there unless he can leap over three walls, kill three groups of nine men with one blow, leaving one man in each group alive, and slay one hundred men at each of the fords between here and Emain Macha.”
“Fair is the plain, the plain of the noble yoke,” said Cu Chulainn.
“No one comes to this plain,” said she, “who does not go out in safety from Samhain to Oimell, and from Oimell to Beltaine, and again from Beltaine to Bron Trogain.”
“Everything you have commanded, so it will be done by me,” said Cu Chulainn.
“And the offer you have made me, it is accepted, it is taken, it is granted,” said Emer.
“‘I shall go out from Samhain to Oimell,’ he said.
“That is, that I shall fight without harm to myself from Samhain, the end of summer, to Oimell, the beginning of spring; and from the beginning of spring to Beltaine, and from that to Bron Trogain. For Oi, in the language of poetry, is a name for sheep, and Oimell is the time when the sheep come out and are milked, and Suain is a gentle sound, and it is at Samhain that gentle voices sound; and Beltaine is a favouring fire; for it is at that time the Druids used to make fires with spells and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues every year. And Bron Trogain, that is the beginning of autumn, for it is then the earth is in labour, that is, the earth under fruit, Bron Trogain, the trouble of the earth.”
Scathact taught Cu Chulainn the art of war – and he excelled.
Now Scathact had a rival, Aoife who some say was her twin sister.
They had long held a grievance and so it was that during Cu Chulainn’s training Aoife made her attacks on Scathact’s home on the Isle of Skye.
Cu Chulainn was not ready for battle so Scathact attempted to drug him, but he was too strong and so revived from the sleeping potion.
He asked her “What things does Aoife think most of in all the world?”
“Her two horses and her chariot and her chariot-driver,” said Scathach.
Cu Chulainn and Aoife met in battle and he was very near defeat – his spear, his sword and strength almost broke, he decide to call out that Aoife’s horses and chariot were near to falling over the cliff.
Distracted for a moment, Cu Chulainn over powered her and offered to spare her life on two conditions.
The first that she cease all hostilities against Scathact and that she bear him a child – she agreed.
All the time Cu Chulainn was away, Forgall the Wily had made preparations.
At first he tried to marry Emer to the great king in Munster, Lugaid, son of Ros.
He had travelled northward with twelve chariot chiefs to look for a wife among the daughters of the men of Mac Rossa, but they had all been promised before. When Forgall Manach heard this he told Lugaid that the best of the maidens of Ireland, both as to form and behaviour and handiwork, was in his house unwed.
Lugaid said he was well pleased to hear that, and Forgall promised him his daughter Emer in marriage.
And to the twelve chariot chiefs that were with him, he promised twelve daughters of twelve lords of land in Bregia, and Lugaid went back with him to his dun for the wedding.
But when Emer was brought to Lugaid to sit by his side, she laid one of her hands on each side of his face, and she said on the truth of her good name and of her life, that it was Cu Chulain she loved, although her father was against him, and that no one that was an honourable man should force her to be his wife.
Then Lugaid did not dare take her, for he was in dread of Cuchulain, and so he returned home again.
Forgall had fortified his stronghold with three walls, and gathered his best warriors in the courtyard. The strongest were in three groups of nine, each one commanded by one of his own sons.
Cu Chulainn was not daunted by these preparations: he simply leaped over the wall, and struck down each of the three groups of men with one blow of his sword, leaving Emer’s brothers unharmed.
When Forgall saw this, he was sure Cu Chulainn would kill him for trying to keep his daughter away from him. He climbed over the walls to try and escape, but he slipped and fell to his death.
Cu Chulainn picked up Emer, and her weight in gold, and leaped back over the three walls as easily as he had arrived.
At each ford, he killed a hundred men, fulfilling the last of the conditions she had set for him.
Emer grieved for her father, but she told Cu Chulainn she did not hold him responsible, as he had not actually killed her father: his death had been an accident, and his own fault.
So the two of them were married, and proved to be well-suited.
They were each other’s equal it wit and wisdom, and though Cu Chulainn was often away with battles and feats of arms, and often spent time with other women, Emer was without jealousy, because she knew he would always return to her.