THE SICK-BED OF CUCHULAIN
Transcribed from the Lost Yellow Book of Slane
Now once upon a time the men of Ulster held festival upon the Murthemne Plain, and the reason that this festival was held was that every man of them should then give account of the combats he had made and of his valour every Summer-End. It was their custom to hold that festival in order to give account of these combats, and the manner in which they gave that account was this: Each man used to cut off the tip of the tongue of a foe whom he had killed, and he bore it with him in a pouch. Moreover, in order to make more great the numbers of their contests, some used to bring with them the tips of the tongues of beasts, and each man publicly declared the fights he had fought, one man of them after the other. And they did this also--they laid their swords over their thighs when they declared the strifes, and their own swords used to turn against them when the strife that they declared was false; nor was this to be wondered at, for at that time it was customary for demon beings to scream from the weapons of men, so that for this cause their weapons might be the more able to guard them.
To that festival then came all the men of Ulster except two alone, and these two were Fergus the son of Rog, and Conall the Victorious. "Let the festival be held!" cried the men of Ulster. "Nay," said Cuchulain, "it shall not be held until Conall and Fergus come," and this he said because Fergus was the foster-father of Cuchulain, and Conall was his comrade. Then said Sencha: "Let us for the present engage in games of chess; and let the Druids sing, and let the jugglers play their feats;" and it was done as he had said.
Now while they were thus employed a flock of birds came down and hovered over the lake; never was seen in Ireland more beautiful birds than these. And a longing that these birds should be given to them seized upon the women who were there; and each of them began to boast of the prowess of her husband at bird-catching. "How I wish," said Ethne Aitencaithrech, Conor's wife, "that I could have two of those birds, one of them upon each of my two shoulders." "It is what we all long for," said the women; and "If any should have this boon, I should be the first one to have it," said Ethne Inguba, the wife of Cuchulain.
"What are we to do now?" said the women. "'Tis easy to answer you," said Leborcham, the daughter of Oa and Adarc; "I will go now with a message from you, and will seek for Cuchulain." She then went to Cuchulain, and "The women of Ulster would be well pleased," she said, "if yonder birds were given to them by thy hand." And Cuchulain made for his sword to unsheathe it against her: "Cannot the lasses of Ulster find any other but us," he said, "to give them their bird-hunt to-day?" "'Tis not seemly for thee to rage thus against them," said Leborcham, "for it is on thy account that the women of Ulster have assumed one of their three blemishes, even the blemish of blindness." For there were three blemishes that the women of Ulster assumed, that of crookedness of gait, and that of a stammering in their speech, and that of blindness. Each of the women who loved Conall the Victorious had assumed a crookedness of gait; each woman who loved Cuscraid Mend, the Stammerer of Macha, Conor's son, stammered in her speech; each woman in like manner who loved Cuchulain had assumed a blindness of her eyes, in order to resemble Cuchulain; for he, when his mind was angry within him, was accustomed to draw in the one of his eyes so far that a crane could not reach it in his head, and would thrust out the other so that it was great as a cauldron in which a calf is cooked.
"Yoke for us the chariot, O Laeg!" said Cuchulain. And Laeg yoked the chariot at that, and Cuchulain went into the chariot, and he cast his sword at the birds with a cast like the cast of a boomerang, so that they with their claws and wings flapped against the water. And they seized upon all the birds, and they gave them and distributed them among the women; nor was there any one of the women, except Ethne alone, who had not a pair of those birds. Then Cuchulain returned to his wife; and "Thou art enraged," said he to her. "I am in no way enraged," answered Ethne, "for I deem it as being by me that the distribution was made. And thou hast done what was fitting," she said, "for there is not one of these woman but loves thee; none in whom thou hast no share; but for myself none hath any share in me except thou alone." "Be not angry," said Cuchulain, "if in the future any birds come to the Plain of Murthemne or to the Boyne, the two birds that are the most beautiful among those that come shall be thine."
A little while after this they saw two birds flying over the lake, linked together by a chain of red gold. They sang a gentle song, and a sleep fell upon all the men who were there; and Cuchulain rose up to pursue the birds. "If thou wilt hearken to me," said Laeg, and so also said Ethne, "thou shalt not go against them; behind those birds is some especial power. Other birds may be taken by thee at some future day." "Is it possible that such claim as this should be made upon me?" said Cuchulain. "Place a stone in my sling, O Laeg!" Laeg thereon took a stone, and he placed it in the sling, and Cuchulain launched the stone at the birds, but the cast missed. "Alas!" said he. He took another stone, and he launched this also at the birds, but the stone flew past them. "Wretched that I am," he cried, "since the very first day that I assumed arms, I have never missed a cast until this day!" And he cast his spear at them, and the spear went through the shield of the wing of one of the birds, and the birds flew away, and went beneath the lake.
After this Cuchulain departed, and he rested his back against a stone pillar, and his soul was angry within him, and a sleep fell upon him. Then saw he two women come to him; the one of them had a green mantle upon her, and upon the other was a purple mantle folded in five folds. And the woman in the green mantle approached him, and she laughed a laugh at him, and she gave him a stroke with a horsewhip. And then the other approached him, and she also laughed at him, and she struck him in the like manner; and for a long time were they thus, each of them in turn coming to him and striking him until he was all but dead; and then they departed from him.
Now the men of Ulster perceived the state in which Cuchulain was in; and they cried out that he should be awakened; but "Nay," said Fergus, "ye shall not move him, for he seeth a vision;" and a little after that Cuchulain came from his sleep. "What hath happened to thee?" said the men of Ulster; but he had no power to bid greeting to them. "Let me be carried," he said, "to the sick-bed that is in Tete Brecc; neither to Dun Imrith, nor yet to Dun Delga." "Wilt thou not be carried to Dun Delga to seek for Emer?" said Laeg. "Nay," said he, "my word is for Tete Brecc;" and thereon they bore him from that place, and he was in Tete Brecc until the end of one year, and during all that time he had speech with no one.
Now upon a certain day before the next Summer-End, at the end of a year, when the men of Ulster were in the house where Cuchulain was, Fergus being at the side-wall, and Conall Cernach at his head, and Lugaid Red-Stripes at his pillow, and Ethne Inguba at his feet; when they were there in this manner, a man came to them, and he seated himself near the entrance of the chamber in which Cuchulain lay. "What hath brought thee here?" said Conall the Victorious. "No hard question to answer," said the man. "If the man who lies yonder were in health, he would be a good protection to all of Ulster; in the weakness and the sickness in which he now is, so much the more great is the protection that they have from him. I have no fear of any of you," he said, "for it is to give to this man a greeting that I come." "Welcome to thee, then, and fear nothing," said the men of Ulster; and the man rose to his feet, and he sang them these staves:
Liban, she at swift Labra's right hand who sits, Stood up on Cruach's[FN#25] Plain, and cried: "'Tis the wish of Fand's heart, she the tale permits, To sleep at Cuchulain's side.
"'And if now in my land, as my friend, had been
Cuchulain, of Sualtam[FN#26] son,
"'In the Plains of Murthemne, to south that spread,
Shall Liban my word fulfil:
Then Cuchulain went forth until he came to the pillar, and then saw he the woman in the green mantle come to him. "This is good, O Cuchulain!" said she. "'Tis no good thing in my thought," said Cuchulain. "Wherefore camest thou to me last year?" he said. "It was indeed to do no injury to thee that we came," said the woman, "but to seek for thy friendship. I have come to greet thee," she said, "from Fand, the daughter of Aed Abra; her husband, Manannan the Son of the Sea, hath released her, and she hath thereon set her love on thee. My own name is Liban, and I have brought to thee a message from my spouse, Labraid the Swift, the Sword-Wielder, that he will give thee the woman in exchange for one day's service to him in battle against Senach the Unearthly, and against Eochaid Juil,[FN#27] and against Yeogan the Stream." "I am in no fit state," he said, "to contend with men to-day." "That will last but a little while," she said; "thou shalt be whole, and all that thou hast lost of thy strength shall be increased to thee. Labraid shall bestow on thee that boon, for he is the best of all warriors that are in the world."
"In Mag Mell,[FN#28] the Plain of Delight," said Liban; "and now I desire to go to another land," said she.
They departed after that, and they went forward until they came to a place where Fand was. And Liban turned to seek for Laeg, and she set him upon her shoulder. "Thou wouldest never go hence, O Laeg!" said Liban, "wert thou not under a woman's protection." "'Tis not a thing that I have most been accustomed to up to this time," said Laeg, "to be under a woman's guard." "Shame, and everlasting shame," said Liban, "that Cuchulain is not where thou art." "It were well for me," answered Laeg, "if it were indeed he who is here."
They passed on then, and went forward until they came opposite to the shore of an island, and there they saw a skiff of bronze lying upon the lake before them. They entered into the skiff, and they crossed over to the island, and came to the palace door, and there they saw the man, and he came towards them. And thus spoke Liban to the man whom they saw there:
[FN#30] Irish metre approximately imitated in these stanzas.
"I will go," he answered, "if I may know the place where she is."
"That is no hard matter to tell thee," she answered; "she is in her chamber apart." They went therein, and they greeted Fand, and she welcomed Laeg in the same fashion as the others had done.
Fand is the daughter of Aed Abra; Aed means fire, and he is the fire of the eye: that is, of the eye's pupil: Fand moreover is the name of the tear that runs from the eye; it was on account of the clearness of her beauty that she was so named, for there is nothing else in the world except a tear to which her beauty could be likened.
Now, while they were thus in that place, they heard the rattle of Labraid's chariot as he approached the island. "The spirit of Labraid is gloomy to-day," said Liban, "I will go and greet him." And she went out, and she bade welcome to Labraid, and she spoke as follows:
Then Labraid bade welcome to Laeg, and he said to him: "Welcome, O Laeg! for the sake of the lady with whom thou comest, and for the sake of him from whom thou hast come. Do thou now go to thine own land, O Laeg!" said Labraid, "and Liban shall accompany thee."
Then Laeg returned to Emain, and he gave news of what he had seen to Cuchulain, and to all others beside; and Cuchulain rose up, and he passed his hand over his face, and he greeted Laeg brightly, and his mind was strengthened within him for the news that the lad had brought him.
[At this point occurs the break in the story indicated in the preface, and the description of the Bull-Feast at which Lugaid Red-Stripes is elected king over all Ireland; also the exhortation that Cuchulain, supposed to be lying on his sick-bed, gives to Lugaid as to the duties of a king. After this insertion, which has no real connection with the story, the story itself proceeds, but from another point, for the thread is taken up at the place where Cuchulain has indeed awaked from his trance, but is still on his sick-bed; the message of Angus appears to have been given, but Cuchulain does not seem to have met Liban for the second time, nor to have sent Laeg to inquire. Ethne has disappeared as an actor from the scene; her place is taken by Emer, Cuchulain's real wife; and the whole style of the romance so alters for the better that, even if it were not for the want of agreement of the two versions, we could see that we have here two tales founded upon the same legend but by two different hands, the end of the first and the beginning of the second alike missing, and the gap filled in by the story of the election of Lugaid.
Now as to Cuchulain it has to be related thus: He called upon Laeg to come to him; and "Do thou go, O Laeg!" said Cuchulain, "to the place where Emer is; and say to her that women of the fairies have come upon me, and that they have destroyed my strength; and say also to her that it goeth better with me from hour to hour, and bid her to come and seek me;" and the young man Laeg then spoke these words in order to hearten the mind of Cuchulain:
Arise! no more be sickly!
Yet Labra's power hath sent his message plain: Rise, thou that crouchest: and be great again.
Ulster, though for bounties famed,
Yet, if sleep on Fergus fell,
Aye, had Conall come from wars,
Were it Laegaire[FN#32] war had pressed,
Erin's meads would know no rest,
Had thus crafty Celthar slept,
Furbaid, girt by heroes strong,
[FN#32] Pronounced Leary.
Ah! on me thy sickness swerves,
Ah! 'tis blood my heart that stains,
Sick for him who rode the plains:
He in Emain still delays;
Month-long, year-long watch I keep;
Seasons pass, I know not sleep:
[FN#34] Pronounced Reen-gabra.
See the Ulstermen's clear shining shoulders! Hear their trumpets that call to the fight! See their war-cars that sweep through the valleys, As in hero-chess, leaping each knight.
See their chiefs, and the strength that adorns them, Their tall maidens, so stately with grace; The swift kings, springing on to the battle, The great queens of the Ulstermen's race!
The clear winter but now is beginning; Lo! the wonder of cold that hangs there! 'Tis a sight that should warn thee; how chilly! Of what length I yet of colour how bare!
This long slumber is ill; it decays thee: 'Tis like "milk for the full" the saw saith Hard is war with fatigue; deadly weakness Is a Prince who stands second to Death.
Wake! 'tis joy for the sodden, this slumber; Throw it off with a great glowing heat: Sweet-voiced friends for thee wait in great number: Ulster's champion! stand up on thy feet!
Hundreds his skilled arm repelleth;
Wise be they his deeds who speak:
Head of wolf, for gore that thirsteth,
Near his thin red falchion shakes;
Trust of friend he aye requiteth,
Chiefs at Echaid[FN#35] Juil's name tremble; Yet his land-strange tale-he sought, He whose locks gold threads resemble, With whose breath wine-scents are brought.
More than all strife-seekers noted,
Fiercely to far lands he rides;
Labra, swift Sword-Wielder, gaineth
Fame for actions over sea;
The chains on the necks of the coursers he rides, And their bridles are ruddy with gold: He hath columns of crystal and silver besides, The roof of his house to uphold.
Then Fand bade welcome to Laeg, and "How is it," said she, "that Cuchulain hath not come with thee?" "It pleased him not," said Laeg, "to come at a woman's call; moreover, he desired to know whether it was indeed from thee that had come the message, and to have full knowledge of everything." "It was indeed from me that the message was sent," she said; "and let now Cuchulain come swiftly to seek us, for it is for to-day that the strife is set." Then Laeg went back to the place where he had left Cuchulain, and Liban with him; and "How appeareth this quest to thee, O Laeg?" said Cuchulain. And Laeg answering said, "In a happy hour shalt thou go," said he, "for the battle is set for to-day;" and it was in this manner that he spake, and he recited thus:
There sat yellow-haired Labra,
On my five-folded purple
In one house dwells white Failbe,
On the right, couches fifty,
For each couch copper frontings,
Near that house, to the westward,
On its east side are standing
From a tree in the fore-court
Sixty trees' swaying summits
Near a well by that palace
They who dwell there, find flowing
From the hall steps a lady
And so sweet, and so wondrous
"Who art thou?" said that lady,
Slowly, slowly I neared her;
Ah! long since, for thy healing,
Though I ruled all of Erin
"The quest then is a good one?" said Cuchulain. "It is goodly indeed," said Laeg, "and it is right that thou shouldest go to attain it, and all things in that land are good." And thus further also spoke Laeg, as he told of the loveliness of the fairy dwelling:
We crossed the Plain of Speech, our steps arrested Near to that Tree, whose branches triumphs bear; At length upon the hill-crowned plain we rested, And saw the Double-Headed Serpent's lair.
Then Liban said, as we that mount sat under: "Would I could see--'twould be a marvel strange-- Yet, if I saw it, dear would be that wonder, if to Cuchulain's form thy form could change."
Great is the beauty of Aed Abra's daughters, Unfettered men before them conquered fall; Fand's beauty stuns, like sound of rushing waters, Before her splendour kings and queens seem small.
Though I confess, as from the wise ones hearing, That Adam's race was once unstained by sin; - Yet did I swear, when Fand was there appearing, None in past ages could such beauty win.
I saw the champions stand with arms for slaying, Right splendid was the garb those heroes bore; Gay coloured garments, meet for their arraying, 'Twas not the vesture of rude churls they wore.
Women of music at the feast were sitting, A brilliant maiden bevy near them stood; And forms of noble youths were upwards flitting Through the recesses of the mountain wood.
I saw the folk of song; their strains rang sweetly, As for the lady in that house they played; Had I not I fled away from thence, and fleetly, Hurt by that music, I had weak been made.
I know the hill where Ethne took her station,
And Ethne Inguba's a lovely maid;
Now at early morn Eochaid Juil went out in order to bathe his hands in the spring, and Cuchulain saw his shoulder through the hood of his tunic, and he hurled his spear at him, and he pierced him. And he by himself slew thirty-and-three of them, and then Senach the Unearthly assailed him, and a great fight was fought between them, and Cuchulain slew him; and after that Labraid approached, and he brake before him those armies.
Then Labraid entreated Cuchulain to stay his hand from the slaying; and "I fear now," said Laeg, "that the man will turn his wrath upon us; for he hath not found a war to suffice him. Go now," said Laeg, "and let there be brought three vats of cold water to cool his heat. The first vat into which he goeth shall boil over; after he hath gone into the second vat, none shall be able to bear the heat of it: after he hath gone into the third vat, its water shall have but a moderate heat."
And when the women saw Cuchulain's return, Fand sang thus:
Blood-red canopies o'er him swinging
Chant, but not as the fairies cry;
Steeds are bounding beneath the traces, None to match them my thought can find; Wait a while! I would note their graces: On they sweep, like the spring's swift wind.
High in air, in his breath suspended,
Float a fifty of golden balls;
Sevenfold light from his eyeballs flashes, None may speak him as blind, in scorn; Proud his glances, and dark eyelashes Black as beetle, his eyes adorn.
Well his excellence fame confesses, All through Erin his praise is sung; Three the hues of his high-piled tresses; Beardless yet, and a stripling young.
Red his blade, it hath late been blooded;
Shines above it its silver hilt;
O'er the slain in each slaughter striding, War he seeketh, at risk would snatch: Heroes keen in your ranks are riding, None of these is Cuchulain's match.
From Murthemne he comes, we greet him, Young Cuchulain, the champion strong; We, compelled from afar to meet him, Daughters all of Aed Abra, throng.
Every tree, as a lordly token,
Whether greater or less was his might than mine I have found not at all, nor can right divine; In a mist was he hid whom my spear would slay, Yet I know that he went not with life away.
A great host on me closed, and on every side Rose around me in hordes the red steeds they ride; From Manannan, the Son of the Sea, came foes, From Stream-Yeogan to call them a roar arose.
And I went to the battle with all at length, When my weakness had passed, and I gat full strength; And alone with three thousands the fight I fought, Till death to the foes whom I faced was brought.
I heard Echaid Juil's groan, as he neared his end, The sound came to mine ears as from lips of friend; Yet, if truth must be told, 'twas no valiant deed, That cast that I threw, if 'twas thrown indeed.
Now word was brought to Emer of that tryst, and knives were whetted by Emer to slay the lady; and she came to the place of the tryst, and fifty women were with her. And there she found, Cuchulain and Laeg, and they were engaged in the chess-play, so that they perceived not the women's approach. But Fand marked it, and she cried out to Laeg: "Look now, O Laeg!" she said, "and mark that sight that I see." "What sight is that of which thou speakest?" said Laeg, and he looked and saw it, and thus it was that the lady, even Fand, addressed him:
"Have no fear," said Cuchulain, "no foe shalt thou meet; Enter thou my strong car, with its sunny bright seat: I will set thee before me, will guard thee from harm Against women, from Ulster's four quarters that swarm: Though the daughter of Forgall the war with thee vows, Though her dear foster-sisters against thee she rouse, No deed of destruction bold Emer will dare, Though she rageth against thee, for I will be there."
"Speak! and tell me, Cuchulain," cried Emer, "Why this shame on my head thou wouldst lay? Before women of Ulster dishonoured I stand, And all women who dwell in the wide Irish land, And all folk who love honour beside: Though I came on thee, secretly creeping, Though oppressed by thy might I remain, And though great is thy pride in the battle, If thou leavest me, naught is thy gain: Why, dear youth, such attempt dost thou make?
"Speak thou, Emer, and say," said Cuchulain,
"Should I not with this lady delay?
For this lady is fair, pare and bright, and well skilled,
A fit mate for a monarch, in beauty fulfilled,
And the billows of ocean can ride:
And in steeds hath she wealth, and much cattle
Doth she own; there is naught under sky
A dear wife for a spouse should be keeping
But that gift with this lady have I:
Though the vow that I made thee I break,
Thou shalt ne'er find champion
"Desert me, then!" cried Fand. "Nay," said Emer, "it is more fitting that I should be the deserted one." "Not so, indeed," said Fand. "It is I who must go, and danger rusheth upon me from afar." And an eagerness for lamentation seized upon Fand, and her soul was great within her, for it was shame to her to be deserted and straightway to return to her home; moreover the mighty love that she bare to Cuchulain was tumultuous in her, and in this fashion she lamented, and lamenting sang this song:
Sweeter were it resting
Emer! noble lady!
Oft in shelters hidden
Ah! no maid her longing
Fifty women hither,
Till the day I need them
Yet to-day, although excellent sounds his cry,
No love fills my noble heart,
When I dwelt in the bower of the Yeogan Stream,
At the Son of the Ocean's side,
When the comely Manannan to wed me came,
To me, as a spouse, full meet;
When the comely Manannan my lord was made,
When I was his equal spouse,
Through the heather came bride-maids, in garments brave
Of all colours, two score and ten;
Four times fifty our host; for no frenzied strife In our palace was pent that throng, Where a hundred strong men led a gladsome life, One hundred fair dames and strong.
Manannan draws near: over ocean he speeds, From all notice of fools is he free; As a horseman he comes, for no vessel he needs Who rides the maned waves of the sea.
He hath passed near us now, though his visage to view Is to all, save to fairies, forbid; Every troop of mankind his keen sight searcheth through, Though small, and in secret though hid.
But for me, this resolve in my spirit shall dwell, Since weak, being woman's, my mind; Since from him whom so dearly I loved, and so well, Only danger and insult I find.
I will go! in mine honour unsullied depart, Fair Cuchulain! I bid thee good-bye; I have gained not the wish that was dear to my heart, High justice compels me to fly.
It is flight, this alone that befitteth my state, Though to some shall this parting be hard: O thou son of Riangabra! the insult was great: Not by Laeg shall my going be barred.
I depart to my spouse; ne'er to strife with a foe
Shall Manannan his consort expose;
Then Cuchulain bounded three times high into the air, and he made three great leaps towards the south, and thus he came to Tara Luachra,[FN#37] and there he abode for a long time, having no meat and no drink, dwelling upon the mountains, and sleeping upon the high-road that runneth through the midst of Luachra. Then Emer went on to Emain, and there she sought out king Conor, and she told Conor of Cuchulain's state, and Conor sent out his learned men and the people of skill, and the Druids of Ulster, that they might seek for Cuchulain, and might bind him fast, and bring him with them to Emain. And Cuchulain strove to slay the people of skill, but they chanted wizard and fairy songs against him, and they bound fast his feet and his hands until he came a little to his senses. Then he begged for a drink at their hands, and the Druids gave him a drink of forgetfulness, so that afterwards he had no more remembrance of Fand nor of anything else that he had then done; and they also gave a drink of forgetfulness to Emer that she might forget her jealousy, for her state was in no way better than the state of Cuchulain. And Manannan shook his cloak between Cuchulain and Fand, so that they might never meet together again throughout eternity.