[Editor’s Note: This is a tale from Gaelic Ulster in Northern Ireland. It is about a mythic hero, CuChulain as a part of the Ulster Cycle of early Irish mythology. This rendition is from Cuchulain of Muirthemne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster by Lady Augusta Gregory, 1902]
BRICRIU of the Bitter Tongue made a great feast one time for Conchubar, son of Ness, and for all the chief men of Ulster. He was the length of a year getting the feast ready, and he built a great house to hold it in at Dun-Rudraige. He built it in the likeness of the House of the Red Branch in Emain, but it was entirely beyond all the buildings of that time in shape and in substance, in plan and in ornament, in pillars and in facings, in doors and in carvings, so that it was spoken of in all parts. It was on the plan of the drinking-hall at Emain it was made inside, and it having nine divisions from hearth to wall, and every division faced with bronze that was overlaid with gold, thirty feet high. In the front part of the hall there was a royal seat made for Conchubar, high above all the other seats of the house. It was set with carbuncles and other precious stones of all colours, that shone like gold and silver, so that they made the night the same as the day; and round about it were the twelve seats of the twelve heroes of Ulster.
Good as the material was, the work done on it was as good. It took six horses to bring home every beam, and the strength of six men to fix every pole, and thirty of the best skilled men in Ireland were ordering it and directing it.
Then Bricriu made a sunny parlour for himself, on a level with Conchubar’s seat and the seats of the heroes of valour, and it had every sort of ornament, and windows of glass were put on every side of it, the way he could see the hall from his seat, for he knew the men of Ulster would not let him stop inside.
When he had finished building the hall and the sunny parlour, and had furnished them with quilts and coverings, beds and pillows, and with a full supply of meat and drink, so that nothing was wanting, he set out for Emain Macha to see Conchubar and the chief men of Ulster. Now Bricriu was a devilish trickster who delighted in stirring up troubles among others. He enjoyed using his bitter tongue to set man against man, sister against sister for his own amusement.
It happened that day they were all gathered together at Emain Macha, and they made him welcome, and they put him to sit beside Conchubar, and he said to Conchubar and to them all, “Come with me to a feast I have made ready.”
“I am willing to go,” said Conchubar, “if the men of Ulster are willing.”
But Fergus, son of Rogh, and the others, said: “We will not go, for if we do, our dead will be more than our living, after Bricriu has set us to quarrel with one another.”
“It will be worse for you if you do not come,” said Bricriu.
“What will you do if they do not go with you?” said Conchubar.
“I will stir up strife,” said Bricriu, “between the kings and the leaders, and the heroes of valour, and the swordsmen, till every one makes an end of the other, if they will not come with me to use my feast”
“We will not go for the sake of pleasing you,” said Conchubar.
“I will stir up anger between father and son, so that they will be the death of one another,” said Bricriu; “if I fail in doing that, I will make a quarrel between mother and daughter; if that fails, I will put the two breasts of every woman of Ulster striking one against the other, and destroying one another.”
“It is better for us to go,” said Fergus.
“Let us consult with the chief men of Ulster,” said Sencha, son of Ailell.
“Some harm will come of it,” said Conchubar, “if we do not consult together against this man.
On that, all the chief men met together in council, and it is what Sencha advised: “It is best for you to get securities from Bricriu, as you have to go along with him; and put eight swordsmen around him, to make him leave the house as soon as he has laid out the feast for you.”
So Ferbenn Ferbeson, son of Conchubar, brought the answer to Bricriu. “I am satisfied to do that,” said Bricriu. With that the men of Ulster set out from Emain, host, troop, and company under king, chief, and leader, and it was a good march they all made together to Dun-Rudraige.
Then Bricriu set himself to think how with the securities that were given for him, he could best manage to set the men of Ulster one against the other.
After he had been thinking a while, he went over to Laegaire Buadach, son of Connad, “All good be with you, Laegaire, Winner of Battles, you mighty mallet of Bregia, you hot hammer of Meath, you flame-red thunderbolt, what hinders you from getting the championship of Ireland for ever?”
“If I want it I can get it,” said Laegaire.
“You will be head of all the champions of Ireland,” said Bricriu, “if you do as I advise.”
“I will do that, indeed,” said Laegaire.
“Well,” said Bricriu, “if you can get the Champion’s Portion at the feast in my house, the championship of Ireland will be yours for ever. And the Champion’s Portion of my house is worth fighting for,” he said, “for it is not the portion of a fool’s house. There goes with it a vat of good wine, with room enough in it to hold three of the brave men of Ulster; with that a seven-year-old boar, that has been fed since it was born on no other thing but fresh milk and fine meal in spring-time, curds and sweet milk in summer, the kernel of nuts and wheat in harvest, beef and broth in the winter; with that a seven-year-old bullock that never had in its mouth, since it was a sucking calf, either heather or twig tops, but only sweet milk and herbs, meadow hay and corn; along with that, five-score wheaten cakes made with honey. That is the Champion’s Portion of my house. And since you are yourself the best hero among the men of Ulster,” he said, “it is but right to give it to you; and that is my wish, you to get it. And at the end of the day, when the feast is spread out, let your chariot-driver rise up, and it is to him the Champion’s Portion will be given.”
“There will be dead men if that is not done,” said Laegaire. Then Bricriu laughed, for he liked to hear that.
When he had done stirring up Laegaire Buadach, he went on till he met with Conall Cearnach. “May good be with you, Conall,” he said. “It is you are the hero of fights and of battles; it is many victories you have won up to this over the heroes of Ulster. By the time the men of Ulster cross the boundary of a strange country, it is three days and three nights in advance of them you are, over many a ford and river; it is you who protect their rear coming back again, so that no enemy can get past you or through you, or over you. What would hinder you from being given the Champion’s Portion of Emain to hold for ever?”
Great as was his treachery with Laegaire, he showed twice as much in what he said to Conall Cearnach.
When he had satisfied himself that Conall was stirred up to a quarrel, he went on to Cuchulain. “May all good be with you, Cuchulain, conqueror of Bregia, bright banner of the Life, darling of Emain, beloved by wives and by maidens. Cuchulain is no nickname for you to-day, for you are the champion of the men of Ulster; it is you keep off their great quarrels and disputes; it is you get justice for every man of them; it is you have what all the men of Ulster are wanting in; all the men of Ulster acknowledge that your bravery, your valour, and your deeds are beyond their own. Why, then, would you leave the Champion’s Portion for some other one of the men of Ulster, when not one of them would be able to keep it from you?”
“By the god of my people,” said Cuchulain, “whoever comes to try and keep it from me will lose his head.”
With that Bricriu left them and followed after the army, as if he had done nothing to stir up a quarrel at all.
After that they came to the feasting-houses and went in, and every one took his place, king, prince, landowner, swordsman, and young fighting man. One half of the house was set apart for Conchubar and his following, and the other half was kept for the wives of the heroes of Ulster.
And there were attending on Conchubar in the front part of the house Fergus, son of Rogh; Celthair, son of Uthecar; Eoghan, son of Durthact; the two Sons of the king, Fiacha and Fiachaig; Fergus, son of Leti; Cuscraid, the Stutterer of Macha; Sencha, son of Ailell; the three sons of Fiachach, that is Rus and Dare and Imchad; Muinremar, son of Geirgind; Errge Echbel; Amergin, son of Ecit; Mend, son of Salchah; Dubthach Doel Uladh, the Beetle of Ulster; Feradach Find Fectnach; Fedelmid, son of Ilair Cheting; Furbaide Ferbend; Rochad, son of Fathemon; Laegaire Buadach; Conall Cearnach; Cuchulain; Conrad, son of Mornai; Erc, son of Fedelmid; Iollan, son of Fergus; Fintan, son of Nial; Cethern, son of Fintan; Factna, son of Sencad; Conla the False; Ailell the Honey-Tongued; the chief men of Ulster, with the young men and the song-makers.
While the feast was being spread out, the musicians and players made music for them. As soon as Bricriu had spread the feast with its well-tasting, savory meats, he was ordered by his sureties to leave the hall on the moment; and they rose up with their drawn swords in their hands to put him out. So he and his followers went out, and when he was on the threshold of the house he turned and called out: “The Champion’s Portion of my house is not the portion of a fool’s house; let it be given to whoever you think the best hero of Ulster.”
And with that he left them.
Then the distributors rose up to divide the food, and the chariot-driver of Laegaire Buadach, Sedlang, son of Riangabra, rose up and said to them, “Let you give the Champion’s Portion to Laegaire, for he has the best right to it of all the young heroes of Ulster.”
Then Id, son of Riangabra, chariot-driver to Conall Cearnach, rose up, and bade them to give it to his master. But Laeg, son of Riangabra, said, “It is to Cuchulain it must be brought; and it is no disgrace for all the men of Ulster to give it to him, for it is he is the bravest of you all.”
“That is not true,” said Conall, and Laegaire said the same.
With that they got up upon the floor, and put on their shields and took hold of their swords, and they attacked and struck at one another till the one half of the hall was as if on fire with the clashing of swords and spears, and the other half was white as chalk with the whiteness of the shields. There was fear on the whole gathering; all the men were put from their places, and there was great anger on Conchubar himself and on Fergus, son of Rogh, to see the injustice and the hardship of two men fighting against one, Conall and Laegaire both together attacking Cuchulain; but there was no one among the men of Ulster dared part them till Sencha spoke to Conchubar. “It is time for you to part these men,” he said.
With that, Conchubar and Fergus came between them, and the fighters let their hands drop to their sides.
“Will you do as I advise?” said Sencha.
“We will do it,” they said.
“Then my advice is,” said Sencha, “for this night to divide the Champion’s Portion among the whole gathering, and after that to let it be settled according to the judgment of Ailell, king of Connaught, for it will be better for the men of Ulster, this business to be settled in Cruachan.”
So with that they sat down to the feast again, and gathered round the fire and drank and made merry.
All this time Bricriu and his wife were in their upper room, and from there he had seen how things were going on in the great hall. And he began to search his mind how he could best stir up the women to quarrel with one another as he had stirred up the men. When he had done searching his mind, it just chanced as he could have wished, that Fedelm of the Fresh Heart came from the hall with fifty women after her, laughing and merry. Bricriu went to meet her. “All good be with you to-night; wife of Laegaire Buadach. Fedelm of the Fresh Heart is no nickname for you, with respect to your appearance and your wisdom and your family. Conchubar, king of Ulster, is of your kindred; Laegaire Buadach is your husband. I would not think well of it that any of the women of Ulster should go before you into the hall, for it is at your heel that all the other women of Ulster should walk. If you go first into the hall to-night; you will be queen over them all for ever and ever.”
Fedelm went on after that, the length of three ridges from the hall.
After that there came out Lendabair, the Favourite, daughter of Eoghan, son of Durthact, wife of Conall Cearnach.
Bricriu came over to her, and he said, “Good be with you, Lendabair; and that is no nickname, for you are the favourite and the darling of the men of the whole world, because of the brightness of your beauty. As far as your husband is beyond the whole world in bravery and in comeliness, so far are you before the women of Ulster.” Great as his deceit was in what he said to Fedelm, it was twice as great in what he said to Lendabair.
Then Emer came out and fifty women after her. “Health be with you, Emer, daughter of Forgall Manach, wife of the best man in Ireland! Emer of the Beautiful Hair is no nickname for you; the kings and princes of Ireland are quarrelling with one another about you. So far as the sun outshines the stars of heaven, so far do you outshine the women of the whole world in form, and shape, and birth, in youth, and beauty, and nicety, in good name, and wisdom, and speech.”
However great his deceit was towards the other women, it was twice as much towards Emer.
The three women went on then till they met at one spot, three ridges from the house, but none of them knew that Bricriu had been speaking to the other. They set out then to go back to the house. Their walk was even and quiet and easy on the first ridge; hardly did one of them put her foot before the other. But on the next ridge their steps were closer and quicker; and when they came to the ridge next the house, it was hardly one of them could keep up with the other, so that they took up their skirts nearly to their knees, each one trying to get first into the hall, because of what Bricriu had said to them, that whoever would be first to enter the house, would be queen of the whole province. And such was the noise they made in their race, that it was like the noise of forty chariots coming. The whole palace shook, and all the men started up for their arms, striking against one another.
“Stop,” said Sencha, “it is not enemies that are coming, it is Bricriu has set the women quarreling. By the god of my people!” he said, “unless the hall is shut against them, those that are dead among us will be more than those that are living.” With that the doorkeepers shut the doors. But Emer was quicker than the other women, and outran them, and put her back against the door, and called to the doorkeepers before the other women came up, so that the men rose up, each of them to open the door before his own wife, so that she might be the first to come within.
“It is a bad night this will be,” said Conchubar; and he struck the silver rod he had in his hand against the bronze post of the hall, and they all sat down.
“Quiet yourselves,” said Sencha; “it is not a war of arms we are going to have here, it is a war of words.”
Each woman then put herself under the protection of her husband outside, and then there followed the war of words of the women of Ulster.
Fedelm of the Fresh Heart was the first to speak, and it is what she said:
“The mother who bore me was free, noble, equal to my father in rank and in race; the blood that is in me is royal; I was brought up like one of royal blood. I am counted beautiful in form and in shape and in appearance; I was brought up to good behaviour, to courage, to mannerly ways. Look at Laegaire, my husband, and what his red hand does for Ulster. It was by himself alone its boundaries were kept from the enemies that were as strong as all Ulster put together; he is a defence and a protection against wounds; he is beyond all the heroes; his victories are greater than their victories. Why should not I, Fedelm, the beautiful, the lovely, the joyful, be the first to step into the drinking-hall to-night?”
Then Lendabair spoke, and it is what she said: “I myself have beauty too, and good sense and good carriage; it is I should walk into the hall with free, even steps before all the women of Ulster. For my husband is pleasant Conall of the great shield, the Victorious; he is proud, going with brave steps up to the spears of the fight; he is proud coming back to me after it, with the heads of his enemies in his hands. He brings his hard sword into the battle for Ulster; he defends every ford or he destroys it to keep out the enemy; he is a hero will have a stone raised over him. The son of noble Amergin, who can speak against his courage or his deeds? It is Conall who leads the heroes.”
“All eyes look on the glory of Lendabair; why would she not go first into the hall of the king?”
Then Emer spoke, and it is what she said: “There is no woman comes up to me in appearance, in shape, in wisdom; there is no one comes up to me for goodness of form, or brightness of eye, or good sense, or kindness, or good behaviour. No one has the joy of loving or the strength of loving that I have; all Ulster desires me; surely I am a nut of the heart. If I were a light woman, there would not be a husband left to any of you to-morrow. And my husband is Cuchulain. It is he is not a hound that is weak; there is blood on his spear, there is blood on his sword, his white body is black with blood, his soft skin is furrowed with sword cuts, there are many wounds on his thigh.”
“But the flame of his eyes is turned westward; he is the strong protector; his chariot is red, its cushions are red; he fights from over the ears of horses, from over the breath of men; he leaps in the air like a salmon when he makes his hero leap; he does strange feats, the dark feat, the blind feat, the feat of nine; he breaks down armies in the hard fight; he saves the life of proud armies; he finds joy in the terror of the ignorant. Your fine heroes of Ulster are not worth a stalk of grass compared with my husband, Cuchulain, letting on to have a woman’s sickness on them; he is like the clear red blood, they are like the scum and the leavings, worth no more than a stalk of grass.”
“Your fine women of Ulster, they are shaped like cows and led like cows, when they are put beside the wife of Cuchulain.”
When the men in the hall heard what the women said, Laegaire and Conall made a rush at the wall, and broke a plank out of it at their own height, to let their own wives in. But Cuchulain raised up that part of the house that was opposite to his place, so that the stars and the sky could be seen through the wan. By that opening Emer came in with the fifty women that waited on her, and with them the women that waited on the other two. None of the other women could be compared at all with Emer, and no one at all could be compared with her husband. And then Cuchulain let the wall he had lifted fall suddenly again, so that seven feet of it went into the ground, and the whole house shook, and Bricriu’s upper room was laid flat in such a way that Bricriu himself and his wife were thrown into the dirt among the dogs.
“My grief,” cried Bricriu, “enemies are come in!” And he got up quickly and took a turn round, and he saw that the hall was now crooked and leaning entirely to one side. He clapped his hands together and went inside, but he was so covered with dirt that none of the Ulster people could know him, it was only by his way of speaking they made out who he was.
Then he said, from the middle of the floor, “It is a pity I ever made a feast for you, men of Ulster. My house is more to me than everything else I have. I put geasa, that is, bonds, on you, not to drink or eat or to sleep till you leave my house the same way as you found it.”
At that; all the men of Ulster went out and tried to pull the house straight, but they did not raise it by so much as a hand’s breadth.
“What are we to do?” they said. “There is nothing for you to do,” said Sencha, “but to ask the man that pulled it crooked to set it straight again.”
Upon that they bid Cuchulain to put the wall up straight again, and Bricriu said, “O king of the heroes of Ireland, unless you can set it up straight, there is no man in the world can do it.”
And all the men of Ulster begged and prayed of Cuchulain to settle the matter. And that they might not have to go without food or drink, Cuchulain rose up and tried to lift the house with a tug, and he failed. Anger came on him then, and the hero light shone about him, and he put out all his strength, and strained himself till a man’s foot could find place between each of his ribs, and he lifted the house up till it was as straight as it was before. After that they enjoyed the feast, with the chief men on the one side round about Conchubar, High King of Ulster, and their wives on the other side–Fedelm of the Nine Shapes (nine shapes she could take on, and each shape more beautiful than the other), and Findchaem, daughter of Cathbad, wife of Amergin of the Iron Jaw, and Devorgill, wife of Lugaid of the Red Stripes, besides Emer, and Fedelm of the Fresh Heart, and Lendabair; and it would be too long to count and to tell of all the other noble women besides.
There was soon a buzzing of words in the hall again, with the women praising their men, as if to stir up another quarrel between them. Then Sencha, son of Ailell, got up and shook his bell branch, and they all stopped to listen to him, and then to quiet the women he said: “Have done with this word-fighting, lest you drive the men of Ulster to grow white-faced in the anger and the pride of battle with one another. It is through the fault of women the shields of men are broken, heroes go out to fight and struggle with one another in their anger.”
“It is the folly of women brings men to do these things, to bruise what they cannot bind up again, to strike down what they cannot raise up again. Wives of heroes, keep yourself from this.”
But Emer answered him, and it is what she said:
“It is right for me to speak, Sencha, and I the wife of the comely, pleasant hero, who is beyond all others in beauty, in wisdom, in speaking, since the learning that was easy to him is done with. No one can do his feats, the over-breath feat, the apple feat, the ghost feat, the screw feat, the cat feat, the red-whirling feat, the barbed-spear feat, the quick stroke, the fire of the mouth, the hem’s cry, the wheel feat, the sword-edge feat; no one can throw himself against hard-spiked places the way he does. There is no one is his equal in youth, in form, in brightness, in birth, in mind, in voice, in bravery, in boldness, in fire, in skill; no one in his equal in hunting, in running, in strength, in victories, in greatness. There is no man to be found who can be put beside Cuchulain.”
“If it is truth you are speaking, Emer,” said Conan Cearnach, “let this lad of feats stand up, that we may see them.”
“I will not,” said Cuchulain. “I am tired and broken to-day, I will do no more till after I have had food and sleep.”
It was true what he said, for it was on that morning he had met with the Grey of Macha by the side of the grey lake at Slieve Fuad. When it came out of the lake, Cuchulain slipped his hands round the neck of the horse, and the two of them struggled and wrestled with one another, and in that way they went all round Ireland, till late in the day he brought the horse home to Emain. It was in the same way he got the Black Sainglain from the black lake of Sainglen.
And Cuchulain said: “To-day myself and the Grey of Macha have gone through the great plains of Ireland, Bregia of Meath, the seashore marsh of Muirthemne Macha, through Moy Medba, Currech Cleitech Cerna, Lia of Linn Locharn, Fer Femen Fergna, Curros Domnand, Ros Roigne, and Eo. And now I would sooner eat and sleep than do any other thing. But I swear by the gods my people swear by,” he said, “I would be ready to fight with any man of you if I had but my fill of food and of sleep.”
“Well,” said Bricriu, “this has gone on long enough. Let food and drink be brought, and let the women’s war be put a stop to till the feast is done.”
They did so, and it was a pleasant time they had till the end of three days and three nights.
Myths For A New Tomorrow
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