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Stories, Myths & Legends 

The Wasting Sickness of Cúchulainn 

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Every Year the men of Ulster were accustomed to hold festival together for three days before Samhain, on the Samhain itself and for three days after that.  They would all assemble at Mag Muirthemne and hold sports contests and have markets and games and pomps and splendours, feasting and revelry.

It was the custom to hold these festivals in order that the champions could give accounts of their feats and adventures.  The way they counted their combats was that each man would cut off the tip of the tongue of every enemy he had slain and even the tongues of beasts were cut off in order to bulk out their combats and these were carried in pouches about the waist.  Each man publicly declared the fights he had fought one after another.  They laid their swords over their thighs as they related their stories and their blades would turn on them and cut them if they uttered any falsehoods.

Everyone came to the festival except two men, Fergus Mac Roig and Conall the Victorious.  'Let the festival commence' cried the men of Ulster.

'No,' said Cúchulainn 'It will not be held until Fergus and Conall arrive.' because Fergus was his foster father and Conall was his friend.  Then Sencha Mac Ailella seeking to maintain peace said 'Let us for the present engage in games of chess; and let the bards sing and the jugglers perform their feats.' And it was done as he said.

Now while they were thus employed a flock of birds came down and hovered over a neighbouring lake; never were there such beautiful birds as these seen before in Ireland.  The women who were assembled there longed to possess these birds and each began to boast of the prowess of their husbands at bird-catching.  

'How I wish,' said Ethne wife of Conchobar 'that I could have two of those birds one on either shoulder.'

'It is what we all long for' said the other women.

'If any should have this gift, I should be the first one to have it,' said Emer wife of Cúchulainn.

'What are we to do now?' said the women.

'That's easy' said Leborcham, the daughter of Oa and Adarc.  ' I will go now with a message from you and I will seek Cúchulainn.

She went to Cúchulainn and told him that the women of Ulster would be pleased if he could give them the birds by his own hand.  Cúchulainn, annoyed reached for his sword to unsheathe it against her 'Can they not find someone else to chase after their birds?'

'It is not seemly for you to rage against them', said Leborcham for it is on your account that the women of Ulster have assumed one of their three blemishes, the blemish of blindness.'  For there were three blemishes that the women of Ulster assumed, that of crookedness of gait after Conall the Victorious, that of stammering in their speech after Cuscraid Menn, Conchobar's son and that of blindness after Cúchulainn, for he was accustomed when he was angry to draw in one of his eyes so far in his head that a crane could not reach it, and he would thrust the other eye out so that it was as large as a cauldron in which a calf is cooked.

At that Cúchulainn relented and asked Laeg his charioteer to yoke up the horses.   Cúchulainn went into his chariot and he cast his sword at the birds with a swirling motion so that they all fell down and flapped into the water with their claws and wings.  Laeg and Cúchulainn seized all the birds and distributed them among all the women except for Emer the wife of Cúchulainn who did not receive any birds.

Cúchulainn returned to her 'You are angry with me' he said.

'I am not angry' she replied 'It is right that you should give them all the birds for they all love you, and you have a share in each of them;  but for me, none has any share in me but you alone.'

'Do not be angry' replied Cúchulainn 'The next birds that come to the Mag Muirthemne or to the Boyne, the two most beautiful of these shall be yours.'

Shortly after that they saw two birds flying over the lake linked by a chain of red-gold.  They sang a gentle song and a sleep fell on all the men who were there except Cúchulainn.  He rose up to pursue the birds.  His charioteer Laeg warned him 'Don't go against those birds, they have a strange power, choose some other birds another day!'

'How can you go against my wishes Laeg?  Just put a stone in my sling!' said Cúchulainn.

And so Laeg placed a stone in the sling and Cúchulainn launched it at the birds, but the cast missed.  'Alas' said he and he took another stone and placed it in his sling but this too missed the birds.

'What's going on here?  Since the first day I assumed arms, I have never missed a cast until this day!' exclaimed Cúchulainn.  And he threw 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 Cúchulainn departed, and he rested his back against a stone pillar, and his soul was angry within him, and he fell asleep.  Then in his dream he saw two women come to him: the one of them had a green mantle upon her, and the other was a purple mantle folded in five folds.  And the woman in the green mantle approached him, and she gave him a stroke of a horsewhip and laughed at him.  The other woman approached in the same way and she laughed at him and struck him with the whip also.  For a long time this continued each one coming at him until he was all but dead; and then they left him.

Now the men of Ulster perceiving the state that Cúchulainn was in, they cried out that he should be wakened.  But Fergus told them no, that he was seeking a vision and should not be disturbed.  And shortly after that Cúchulainn awoke.

'What has happened to you'  they all asked but he had not got the power of speech to answer them.  'Let me be carried to the sick-bed that is in Tete Brece; not to Dún Imrith, or to Dún Delgan.'

'Will you not return to Dún Delgan your stronghold where Emer awaits you?' they questioned him.

'No, bring me to Tete Brece' he replied. 

And so he was carried there where he stayed for one whole year not having communication with anyone.

Now on a certain day before the next Samhain, at the end of the year, when the men of Ulster were in the house where Cúchulainn lay.  Fergus being at the side wall, and Conall the Victorious at his head, and Lugaid Red-Stripes at his pillow, and his wife at his feet.  A man came to them and seated himself near the entrance of the room in which Cúchulainn lay.

'What has brought you here?' asked Conall the Victorious.

'Not hard to answer' replied the man.  'If the man who lies over there were in health, he would be a good protection to all of Ulster.  In the weakness and sickness that he has now, so much more is the protection that they have from him.  I have no fear of any of you,' he said, 'for it is to give this man a greeting that I have come.'

'Welcome then and do not fear' said the men of Ulster.

And the man rose up and sang a poem telling Cúchulainn that his sickness would not last much longer and that Fann and Liban the daughters of  Aed Abrat would heal him if they could.  He said that Fann was in love with Cúchulainn and that he should go to Mag Muirthemne to meet Liban on Samhain night.

'Who are you?' the men asked.

'I am Angus, the son of Aed Abrat,' he answered, and then he left them and none knew from where he had come or where he went to.

Then Cúchulainn sat up, and at last he spoke to them.  'This is fortunate, indeed!' exclaimed the men of Ulster.  'Tell us what has happened to you' they said to him.

'Upon Samhain last year, I saw a vision..' and he told them all he had seen.

'What should I do now?' Cúchulainn asked his uncle Conchobar.

'You should go to the stone on Mag Muirthemne where you were struck with the illness' replied Conchobar.  

Then Cúchulainn went to the stone and he saw the woman in the green mantle approach him.  'This is good to see you, Cúchulainn' she greeted him.

'I do not think it is such a good thing' replied Cúchulainn, 'why did you come to me last year?'

'We had no intention of injuring you' she replied, 'we sought your friendship.  I have come on behalf of my sister Fann, the daughter of Aed Abrat.  Her husband Manannan Mac Lír, has abandoned her, and she has set her love on you.  My name is Liban and I have a message for you from my husband Labraid the Swift Sword-Wielder, that he will give you Fann in exchange for one day's fighting service in battle against Senach Siaborthe and Eochaid Iuil, and Eogan Inber.'

'I am not well enough, to fight anyone today'  replied Cúchulainn.

'That weakness will fade and you shall regain all the strength you have lost.  Labraid shall heal you for he is the best of all the warriors in the world' said Liban.

'Where does Labraid live?' asked Cúchulainn.

'In Mag Mell, the Plain of Delight, and now I myself wish to return there,' said Liban.

'Let my charioteer Laeg go with you that he might learn of your land' said Cúchulainn.

'Let him come then' replied Liban.

Laeg and Liban then went to Mag Mell, and Liban turned to Laeg and placed him by her shoulder and said 'You would never be able to enter here without my protection!'  And he replied  'I am not accustomed to the protection of a woman!'   and she replied 'It is a great shame that Cúchulainn did not come here himself'

'Indeed', replied Laeg 'It would be better for me if he had come himself.'

They journeyed on and came to the opposite shore of an island, and there they found a skiff of bronze lying on the lake beside them.  They entered the skiff and crossed over to the island, and they then came to a palace door, and saw a man and he approached them.  Liban spoke to the man and asked him where her husband Labraid was.  The man replied that he was preparing for the battle of Mag Fidga.

They entered into the palace and saw there one hundred and fifty couches within and one hundred and fifty women sitting on each of these.  The women all bade Laeg welcome.

'Will you go now and speak to Fann?' asked Liban.

'I will go, If you tell me where she is' replied Laeg.

'She is in her own chamber' said Liban and she escorted Laeg there.

Fann was the daughter of Aed Abrat.  Aed means fire, and he is the fire of the eye: the eye's pupil.  Fann, is the name of the tear that runs down from the eye; it was on account of the clearness of her beauty that she was so called.  There is nothing else in the world except a tear-drop to which her beauty could be compared.

As they were walking they heard the sound of Labraid's chariot as he approached the palace.  'Labraid is in low spirits today, I will go to greet him.' said Liban.  And she went and greeted him with many pleasantries and flatteries but he was in no mood to hear them and replied  'There is no pride or arrogance in me, We are going into a battle which has a doubtful outcome, against the armies of Eochaid Iuil, I have no presumption of victory, no arrogance in the matter at all, my wife!'

'Then let your mind be appeased' replied Liban 'Laeg, the charioteer of Cúchulainn is here, and Cúchulainn has sent word with him that he will join your hosts.'

And Labraid greeted Laeg and said 'Welcome, Laeg, for the sake of Fann, and for the sake of Cúchulainn.  Go back now to your own land and Liban will go with you.'

Then Laeg returned to Emain Macha, and he gave news of what he had seen and heard to all assembled.

Cúchulainn, then rose up out of his sick-bed and greeted Laeg brightly and his mind was strengthened within him for the news that Laeg had brought.  Then he said to Laeg 'Go to Dún Delgan and tell my wife Emer that the fairy women have destroyed my strength; but that now things are getting better by the hour, and ask her to come to see me.'

So Laeg went to Emer and brought her the news of Cúchulainn.  She was upset about all that had befallen her husband at the hands of the fairy women and said 'You travelled to the Fairy Land, and yet you brought back no cure, Shame upon all the men of Ulster!  For they have not sought to do a great deed and heal him.  Yet had Conchobar been fettered, had it been Fergus who lost his sleep, had it been Conall the Victorious to whom wounds had been dealt,  had it been Laegaire Battle-Winner, Cúchulainn would have saved them!'

Then Emer went to Emain Macha to visit Cúchulainn and she said to him 'Shame on you! to lie in bed pining for a woman's love!  It's no surprise that you are ill lying so long in your sick-bed!  And she chanted a lay over him advising that sleeping too long made one ill and that it would be better to get up out of the bed and face the world.

At her words Cúchulainn stood up and passed his hand over his face, and he cast all heaviness and weariness away from him and went to the enclosure on Mag Muirthemne.  Then Liban appeared to him and she tried to persuade him to go to Fairy Land but Cúchulainn was hesitant and asked her what kind of a place it was.

She told him it was across a pure lake, where troops of women congregated and she spoke in flattering words of the deeds of her husband Labraid there.  Cúchulainn replied brusquely that he would not go at a woman's invitation.  'Let Laeg come again, then and tell you all the tidings of our land and people.'

And so Laeg went forth again with Liban and they came to Mag Lauda, and to Bile Buada, and over the fair green of Emain Macha, and over the fair green of Fidga, and in that place lived Aed Abrat with his daughters.  Then Fann bade welcome to Laeg and asked why Cúchulainn had not come with him.  'He does not want to be at a woman's beck and call, also he wanted a full account of everything before he makes any move.'

'It was indeed myself who sent the message' said Fann, 'and now, let him come here quickly for it is today that the battle has been set.'  Then Laeg returned to Cúchulainn with Liban.   And Cúchulainn asked him what he thought of the venture.  Laeg replied 'You must go in an hour for the battle is set for today' and he described the marvellous country where he had been where Labraid of the long hair had sat on a cairn of twenty armies, with all his weapons, wearing an apple of gold on his fair head.  

He described the palace where the kings Failbe the Fair and Labraid lived with their one hundred and fifty men.  He described the richness of the palace with golden posts and an illuminating light which comes from a precious brilliant stone.  'There are horses of grey with dappled manes, and horses of purple-brown in the stables.  The trees are made of purple glass and the birds that live in them sing sweetly to the children who live in the palace.  At the entrance of the fairy stronghold is a tree from whose branches emanates a beautiful and harmonious music.  It is a silver tree and when the light shines on it glistens like gold.  

There are one hundred and fifty trees and each one feeds three hundred people with abundant food without rind.  There is a well there were you will find one hundred and fifty splendid cloaks, with a brooch of shining gold in each one.  There is a cauldron full of invigorating mead which never grows less no matter how many people dip their cup in it.  There is a woman there who is beautiful beyond words, she inspires love in every man and wounds him to his heart and she called me to her and asked of you Cúchulainn, it is a pity you did not go yourself and see all the marvels there, if I had the chance I would give up the green land of Erin and go live in that wondrous world instead.'   

'So the quest seems like a good one to you, Laeg?' asked Cúchulainn.

'Indeed it is, it would be fitting for you to go there, Cúchulainn, for all things are good and pure in that land.'  And he recounted how the women were all beautiful and how Fann was the loveliest of them all.  He told of the rich garments of everyone none were dressed like underlings or servants and all wore many-coloured and bright vestments.  He said the men were as fair as the women.  He said he had to hurry away from the sound of the music being played at the court for fear of falling under a spell of enchantment. 'Indeed, the woman Fann would drive whole armies to madness with her beauty' he finished.

Then Cúchulainn at last decided to go with Liban to that land and he took his chariot with him and they came to the island of Labraid and all there bade him welcome and Fann gave a special welcome to him.

'What must we do now?' asked Cúchulainn.

'We must make a circuit of the army' replied Labraid.

And Labraid and Cúchulainn went to view the opposing army and the host seemed to be innumerable.  Cúchulainn then bid Labraid to leave him in peace for a while.  So Labraid left him confronting the army.  There were two ravens there who spoke and revealed druidic secrets but the opposing army laughed at them and said 'It must surely be the madman from Ireland who is there.  It is he who the ravens would make known to us' and then they chased the ravens away so that they found no resting place in that land.

Now at early morning Eochaid Iuil went out in order to bathe his hands in the spring, and Cúchulainn saw his shoulder through the hood of his tunic, and he hurled his spear at him and it pierced him.  And by himself he slew thirty-three of the opposition.  Then Senach Siaborthe assailed him and a great fight was fought between them, and Cúchulainn slew him.  Then Labraid entered the fray and he broke before him those mighty armies.

Then finally Labraid entreated Cúchulainn to stay his hand from the slaying as he had worked himself up to a tremendous heat.  Then Laeg said; 'I fear that he will turn his wrath upon us, for he can find none to match him in battle.  Go now, and bring here three vats filled with cold water to cool his heat.  The first vat he goes into will boil over; after he has gone into the second vat no one will be able to bear the heat of it; but the third vat he goes into will be of moderate heat.'

And after Cúchulainn had cooled himself down he went back to the palace and the women sang his praises; and Fann and Liban made special lays to him and made him welcome.

'Tell us of your deeds' said Liban.

And Cúchulainn replied 'I threw a cast of my spear into the court of Eogan Inber, and then a host of fair, red-complexioned men on horseback appeared and they pierced me from all sides.  They were the men of Manannan Mac Lír invoked by Eogan Inber.  I heard the death pangs of Eochaid Iuil if I heard rightly it certainly won the battle the cast that I threw.'

Now after all this had happened Cúchulainn went and he lay down with Fann and they were lovers for a month, after which time Cúchulainn came to bid farewell.

'Tell me' said Fann 'which place we may go for our tryst and I will be there.'  So they arranged to meet at the yew tree by the strand that is known as Iubar Cinn Trachta (Newry).

Now Emer heard of that tryst and she whetted knives to slay the fairy woman.  And she went to the place of the tryst and fifty of her women were with her.  And there she found Cúchulainn and Laeg and they were engrossed in playing chess and did not see her approach.  But Fann saw the women and called out to Laeg to look up and see what she saw.  So the men looked up and saw the host of angry women approaching with whetted knives.

Then Cúchulainn put Fann in his chariot and he promised to protect her against the women.  When Emer approached near enough he said to her 'I cannot fight you, I must avoid you as I would a friend in battle, for my power is stronger than yours and I am honour bound not to raise a fist against you, it would be hard for me were I to be conquered by the weak power of a woman.'

'Why did you shame me then, in front of all the women of Ireland?  If you leave me you will gain nothing by it' said Emer 'why are you doing this?'.

'Should I not remain with this woman for she is fair, and well-skilled and can ride the  waves of the ocean and her mind can guide with firmness.'

'Truly,' answered Emer, 'the woman to whom you cling is in no way better than I am myself!  Yet fair seems all that's red; what's new seems glittering; and bright what's set overhead; and sour are things well known!  Men worship what they lack and what they have seems weak; in truth you have all the wisdom of the time!  O youth!' she said 'once we dwelled in honour together, and we would do so again, if only I could find favour in your sight!' and her grief weighed her down.

'By my word,' said Cúchulainn, 'you do find favour with me, and will find it as long as I live!'

'Desert me, then!' cried Fann.

'No,' replied Emer 'It is more fitting that I should be the deserted one.'

'Not, so indeed' said Fann.  'It is I who must go and danger rushes me from afar.'

Then Fann made a lament for she was heavy in her heart.

Now when she was finished her lament it had been discerned by Manannan Mac Lír that Fann the daughter of Aed Abrat was engaged in unequal warfare with the women of Ulster, and that she was likely to be abandoned by Cúchulainn.  And then Manannan came from the east to seek for Fann, and she saw him, but no one else could see him and when Fann saw him she was seized by great bitterness and grief and she sang another song telling of how she loved Manannan and was a worthy  wife to him and how he had grieved her by abandoning her and she bade Cúchulainn farewell.

Then Fann rose behind Manannan as he passed, and Manannan greeted her and asked her whether she would stay with Cúchulainn or come away with him.  And she replied 'In truth, either of the two of you would be a fitting husband to adhere to, and neither of you is better than the other.  Yet Manannan, I will go with you, nor will I go with Cúchulainn for he has betrayed me; and there is another matter that weighs with me  and that is that you have no consort of equal worth to you, but Cúchulainn has one already.'

And Cúchulainn saw Fann as she went from him to Manannan, and he cried out to Laeg 'What does all this mean?'

'Fann, is going away with Manannan Mac Lír, since she has not pleased you,' replied Laeg.

Then Cúchulainn bounded three times high into the air, and he made three great leaps south to Tara Luachra, and there he lived for a long time, having neither food nor water, dwelling upon the mountains and sleeping upon the high-road that runs through the middle of Luachra.

Then Emer went on  to Emain, and there she sought out King Conchobar, and she told him of the state that Cúchulainn was in.  And Conchobar gathered around all his learned men, and his people of skill and all the druids of Ulster, to find Cúchulainn and to bind him fast, and bring him with them to Emain. 

 And Cúchulainn tried to kill the people of skill, but they chanted incantations against him, and they bound fast his feet and 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 remembrance of Fann or of anything else that he had done during that time; They also gave Emer a drink of forgetfulness that she might forget her jealousy, for her state was in no way better than the state of Cúchulainn.  And Manannan shook his cloak between Cúchulainn and Fann, so that they might never meet again throughout eternity.


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