"A young boy is approaching the gate, Scáthach,” announced Cochar Croibhe, the gatekeeper of Dún Scaith, whose great fortifications rose on the Island of Shadows in Alba, an island which today is still called the Island of Scáthach or Sky.
“A boy?” Scáthach was a tall woman, of pleasing figure and long fiery red hair. A closer look at her form showed her well-toned muscles. The easiness of her gait belied a body so well trained that, in a moment the great sword, which hung from her slender waist, would be in her hand—and that sword was not for ornament. Indeed, Scáthach was acclaimed one of the greatest warriors in all the world. No one had ever bested her in combat, which was why all the warriors who had ambition to be champions were sent to her academy, where she taught them the martial arts. Her school was famous in every land.
Cochar Croibhe, the gatekeeper, was himself a warrior of no mean abilities, for such he had to be in order to guard the gates of Dún Scaith. He shrugged.
“A boy,” he confirmed, “but accoutered as a warrior.”
“Does he come alone?”
“He is quite alone, Scáthach.”
“A talented boy, then,” mused Scáthach, “for such he would have to be, to reach this place by himself.”
Cochar Croibhe conceded the fact after some thought. After all, Scáthach’s military academy lay on the Island of Shadows; to reach it, one had to pass through black forests and desert plains. There was the Plain of Ill-Luck, for example, which could not be crossed without sinking into bottomless bogs, for it was one great quagmire. There was the Perilous Glen, which was filled with countless ravenous beasts.
It was with curiosity that Scáthach mounted the battlements of her fortress to view the approach of the boy. She decided that Cochar Croibhe did not lie, but the youth was more than a mere boy. He was short, muscular and handsome, and he carried his weapons as a veteran used to arms.
“He may have crossed the Plain of Ill-Luck and the Perilous Glen,” sneered Cochar Croibhe, at her side, “but he still has to cross the Bridge of Leaps.”
Now Scáthach’s island, the Island of Shadows, was separated from the mainland by a deep gorge through which tempestuous, boiling seas flooded. And the sea was filled with ravenous creatures of the sea. The only way across was by a high bridge, which led to the gate of her fortress.
The point of this bridge was that it had been constructed by a god in the time before time. When one man stepped upon one end of this bridge, the middle would rise up and throw him so that he might be flung into the forge to the waiting creatures of the deep. Only Scáthach knew the secret of the safe crossing, and only when her pupils had graduated from her academy and sworn a sacred oath of friendship did she reveal the secret to them.
As Scáthach watched, the youth trotted up to one end of the bridge. She smiled and turned to Cochar Croibhe. “We will wait to see if he can overcome this obstacle, to assess his worthiness.”
They waited. The youth came and examined the bridge and then, to their surprise, he sat down on the far shore and built a fire, where he rested.
“He cannot cross,” chuckled Cochar Croibhe. “He waits for us to go out and show him the way.”
Scáthach shook her head. “Not so. I think he does but rest from his long journey here; when his strength is recovered, he will attempt the crossing.”
Sure enough, when the grey mists of evening were approaching, the youth suddenly stood up. He walked back a distance and made a run at the bridge. As soon as his foot touched the end of it, it rose up and flung him backwards. He landed without dignity on his back on the ground. Cochar Croibhe laughed sourly.
“He is not finished yet,” smiled Scáthach. “Look.”
The youth tried once more, and again he was flung off the bridge but thankfully not into the foaming waters below. A third time he tried, and with the same result. Then the youth stood for a while in thought. They saw him walk back a distance and run for the bridge.
“My best sword as a wager that he will be thrown into the sea this time,” cried Cochar Croibhe eagerly.
“Done! My best shield will answer your wager,” cried Scáthach in reply.
With the fourth leap, the youth landed on the centre of the bridge. In a fraction of a second, it started to rise but the youth had made a further leap and was safely across and at the gates of Dún Scaith, demanding entrance.
“Let us go down and admit this young man, for his courage and vigour has won him a place in this academy, whatever his name and station.”
Grumbling at the loss of his best sword, Cochar Croibhe went and brought the youth in and escorted him into the presence of Scáthach.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“I am named Setanta, and I am from the kingdom of Ulaidh.”
Scáthach’s eyes widened as she gazed on the handsome, muscular youth. “I have heard that a youth named Setanta, coming late to a feast at the fortress of Cullan, was confronted by a ferocious hound, which Cullan, thinking his guests were all in his fortress, had loosed to guard the place. This hound was so strong that Cullan had no fear of attack, save only if an entire army marched on his fortress. The story I heard was that when this youth was attacked by the hound, he killed it. And while the warriors of Ulaidh were amazed by the feat, Cullan was sorrowful that his faithful hound had died for the safety of his house. The youth Setanta then offered to guard Cullan’s house until such a time as a hound whelp had been trained to take its sire’s place. So Setanta became Cullan’s hound—Cúchullain.”
“I am that Setanta, the hound of Cullan,” replied the youth solemnly.
“Then you are thrice welcome, Cúchullain.”
Cochar Croibhe glowered in the background, for jealousy was in his soul.
It happened that Scáthach had a beautiful daughter and her name was Uathach, which means “spectre”. It was Uathach’s duty to serve at the table when the students of her mother’s academy were having their evening meal. One evening, therefore, when Uathach was serving meat, she came to the young man Setanta. She held out the dish of meat to him and he took it.
Their eyes met and, through their eyes, their souls found attraction.
In this moment, Setanta forgot his strength and, in taking the dish of meat from the girl’s hands, his hand closed upon hers and her finger broke in his grasp.
Uathach let out a scream of anguish.
Setanta dropped to his knees before her and asked for her forgiveness. This the girl, in spite of her pain, willingly gave.
But Cochar Croibhe, the jealous doorkeeper, who had already cause to dislike the young man, came running into the feasting hall in answer to the girl’s cry. Now it was known that Cochar Croibhe coveted Uathach, and his amorous suit had twice been rejected by her, in spite of the fact that he was acclaimed the bravest champion at Dún Scaith... with the exception of Scáthach, of course.
Straightaway he challenged Setanta to single combat, as reparation for the injury.
Uathach protested that she had already forgiven the young man, but Cochar Croibhe grew insulting and spoke of a boy hiding behind the apron of a girl.
Setanta stood quietly, for he was not one to lose his temper without just cause.
Osmiach, the physician, having heard Uathach’s scream, came into the feasting hall and set the girl’s finger and applied pain-killing poultices.
All the while Cochar Croibhe, in spite of Uathach’s protests, taunted young Setanta. Finally, he pointed out that everyone knew that Setanta had no father, for was it not common knowledge that his mother, Dectera, had vanished one day from the court of Conchobhar Mac Nessa and then reappeared with the boy child, which she named Setanta?
Now this was true, for Dectera had been beloved of none other than the great god Lugh Lámhfada, and the child was Lugh’s gift to Ulaidh. But Setanta could not bear to hear his mother so insulted.
“Choose your weapons,” he finally snapped at Cochar Croibhe, who was a master of all weapons, but was incomparable with the spear of javelin.
“Javelin and buckler!”
And with that the two went out into the courtyard of Dún Scaith.
Scáthach had the power to stop the fight but she did not. “We shall see,” mused Scáthach to herself, watching from a window. “If Setanta bests Cochar Croibhe in combat, then it will mean that I am right to have accepted him, for he will become the greatest champion of Ulaidh.”
And the combat commenced.
Cochar Croibhe came running forward, buckler before him, javelin held high.
Setanta merely stood there, watching his coming with a frown. He did not even raise his buckler to defend himself. Yet his muscles tightened on his javelin and moved it back into position. Then Cochar Croibhe halted in his run, halted a split second, dropped his buckler and held back his arm for the throw. At that point, Setanta loosed his own javelin. So fast and so swiftly did it cleave the air that it transfixed Cochar Croibhe before he had time to cast his own spear. Spear and buckler dropped from his grasp and he sank on his knees, staring in horrified surprise. Then he collapsed on his side.
“Dead,” exclaimed Osmiach the physician dispassionately.
Setanta’s gaze met that of Uathach, but she was not distressed. Admiration shone from her eyes.
Scáthach appeared, standing frowning at the young man. “You have slain my gatekeeper,” she said, without emotion.
“Then as I fulfilled the duties of Cullan’s hound, and guarded Cullan’s fortress, let me now be your gatekeeper for as long as I stay here.”
So it was, that for a year and a day, Setanta stayed at the martial arts academy of Scáthach and, each night, Uathach warmed his bed. And Scáthach herself taught Setanta all he needed to know to become the greatest warrior in all Éireann, and the fame of Cúchullain, or Cullan’s hound—for as such he was better known than as Setanta—spread far and wide.
At the end of a year and a day, Scáthach drew Setanta to her and led the way down to a large underground cavern, where none but they were allowed to enter. Inside, lit by brand torches, was a great pool of bubbling sulphur, warm and liquid grey.
“Here we will make the final test,” Scáthach announced. “We will wrestle and it shall be the winner of three throws who shall be the greater.”
“I cannot wrestle you!” protested Setanta, for as much as he realised that she was the greatest female champion of Alba, it was against his sense of honour to wrestle a woman.
“You will wrestle as I direct, or it shall be known that you feared a challenge from me,” she said simply.
So the two of them stripped off, there and then, and took their places on either side of the sulphur pool. At the first clash, Scáthach threw Setanta. The next time they touched, Setanta, no longer fearful to harm her, threw her. And then the third time they came together in the centre of the sulphur pool. They held each other so tightly in an embrace that neither could throw the other. And, after an hour, Scáthach released her hold and said: “The pupil has become the master.”
Setanta then made love with her, for it is written that the apprentice must show his willingness to marry his vocation.
In return, Scáthach gave Setanta a special spear, which was called the Gae-Bolg, or belly spear. This spear was thrown by the foot. It made one small wound when it entered a man’s body but then thirty terrible barbs opened so that it filled every limb and crevice with mortal wounds. Scáthach gave this to Setanta and taught him how to cast it.
And both Scáthach and Uathach knew that the time was now approaching when Setanta would leave Dún Scaith.
It happened about this time that Scáthach received a challenge to combat from her own sister Aoife, whose name means “radiantly beautiful”. Now she was Scáthach’s twin sister and they had both been born of the goddess of war, the Mórrígán. Each was as proficient as the other in arms, but each claimed to be the superior of the other. Sibling rivalry warped their relationship.
Aoife had sent Scáthach a message saying: “I hear that you have a new champion at Dún Scaith. Let us test his mettle. My champions and your champions will contest together.”
When she read this, Scáthach was fearful for the safety of Setanta, for she knew, deep in her heart, that her sister was the greater of the two; that she was the fiercest and strongest champion in the world. But the challenge could not be rejected, and so Scáthach prepared her warriors to go out and meet her sister Aoife.
The night before they were to set forth, Scáthach called Osmiach the physician to her, and told him to prepare a potion which would send a man to sleep for four-and-twenty hours. And Osmiach prepared the sleeping draught, and it was administered in secret to Setanta.
The warriors of Scáthach set out to meet the warriors of Aoife.
What Scáthach overlooked was that the potion, which might have caused an ordinary man to sleep for four and twenty hours, only held Setanta in sleep for one hour.
As the armies gathered, great was Scáthach’s astonishment when Setanta’s chariot came careering up and he joined her lines, for he had followed Scáthach’s army by the tracks of the chariots.
The champions met in combat and great deeds were wrought that day. Setanta and two sons of Scáthach fought with six of Aoife’s mightiest warriors and slew them. Several of Scáthach’s pupils were cut down, but they did not fall alone. As the day grew dark, both armies were still evenly matched.
Then Aoife challenged Scáthach directly to combat to resolve matters.
Setanta intervened and claimed the champion’s right to meet Aoife in place of Scáthach and such was the ethic of the situation that Scáthach could not refuse him.
“Before I go,” Setanta said, “tell me what your sister Aoife loves and values most in the world.”
Scáthach frowned. “Why, she loves her two horses, her chariot and her charioteer, in that order.”
So Setanta drove out into the battlefield to meet Aoife.
At first, he was amazed that Aoife was so like Scáthach, but her beauty seemed more radiant than Scáthach’s and she handled her weapons with greater dexterity. It was truly said that she was the greater warrior of the two. They clashed together, Setanta and Aoife. They fought in single combat and tried every champion’s feat they knew. Blow to blow, shield to shield, eye to eye.
Then skill was with Aoife. She aimed such a blow that the sword of Setanta shattered at the hilt. She raised her sword for the final stroke.
Setanta cried out: “Look! Your horses and chariot have fallen from the cliff into the gorge!”
Aoife hesitated and glanced round fearfully.
At once, Setanta rushed forward, seized her around the waist and flung her to the ground. Before she could recover, there was a knife at her throat and Setanta was demanding her surrender. Angrily, she realized that she had no option but to plead for her life and Setanta granted it, on condition that she made a lasting peace with her sister Scáthach and gave Scáthach hostages for the fulfillment of the pledge.
“You are the first person who has bested me in combat,” Aoife ruefully admitted, staring at the handsome youth. “Albeit, it was by a trick.”
“Victory is victory, however it was achieved,” replied Setanta calmly.
“There is wisdom on your tongue,” agreed Aoife. “Come and join me at my fortress, that we may get better acquainted.”
To this invitation, Setanta agreed.
Scáthach and her daughter Uathach watched his departure with Aoife in sadness, but in resignation of his destiny. He would become Aoife’s lover and she would bear his son, Connla, whom the gods would force him to kill. In sadness, he would stride forth to become the defender of Ulaidh, his name praised in the mouths of all men; charioteers and warriors, kings and sages would recount his deeds and he would win the love of many. He would be Cúchullain. And whenever the name of Cúchullain was spoken, the name of his famous tutor would also drop from the tongue—Scáthach, the Shadowy One, ruler of Dún Scaith on the Isle of Sky.
Taken from “Celtic Myths and Legends.” Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York. © Peter Berresford Ellis, 2002.