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Hercules. Achilles. Thor. King Arthur. Beowulf. Gilgamesh. Māui. Chances are you’ve heard of all (or at least most) of these mythological heroes. But what about Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill?
The Irish among you are certainly familiar with these names. Cú Chulainn (pronounced “Ku Kullen”) and Fionn mac Cumhaill (pronounced “Fin Muh-Kool”) are, without a doubt, the most famous warriors from Irish mythology. But who would win in a fight?
That’s what I’m going to figure out.
So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, pull up a chair and prepare yourself for the head-to-head match that’s been centuries in the making. This will be a battle of mythological proportions—literally.
Meet the Combatants
First things first: Who is Cú Chulainn? Who is Fionn mac Cumhaill?
At the highest level, they are both warriors and culture heroes, with stories of their exploits featuring prominently in Irish mythology and folklore. Cú Chulainn has the further distinction of being a demi-god, whereas Fionn mac Cumhaill is often portrayed as “merely” human (although, as we’ll explore later, he may benefit from some divine ancestry).
Both heroes lead armies, wield magical weapons, have supernatural encounters, and cavort with multiple members of the opposite sex. And while Cú Chulainn is known as a protector of cattle (as featured in the Táin Bó Cúailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley), Fionn is known as a hunter. He’s Ireland’s leader of the Wild Hunt, which is an archetype/motif that appears in the folklore of several northern European cultures.
Now, at this point I want to take a moment to cover the alternate spellings of our combatants’ names. As anyone who’s dabbled in Celtic mythology likely knows, the names of gods and heroes can be spelled a bajillion different ways. Cú Chulainn a.k.a. Cúchulainn a.k.a. Cú Chulaind a.k.a. Cuchullain a.k.a. Cu-chullain a.k.a. Cúchulain a.k.a. Cuhullin a.k.a. Cucullan is no exception. Neither is Fionn mac Cumhaill a.k.a. Fhionn Mhic Cumhaill a.k.a. Finn mac Cumaill a.k.a. Finn mac Cumail a.k.a. Fionn MacCool a.k.a. Finn McCool a.k.a. Finn MacCool a.k.a. Finn McCoul. Those latter spellings, of course, are anglicizations—attempts at rendering the original Irish name phonetically in English.
One final bit of housekeeping before we let Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill drop the gloves and have at it: we need to figure out how we’re going to evaluate our combatants so we can name a champion. Here’s what I propose…
I’ve divided this article into 12 sections. Each section explores a different attribute or accomplishment of Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill, and for each one I’m going to make a judgment call. I’ll ask the question: Who did it better? Or, who has the better story? I’ll then award a point to the winner of each round and, at the end, I’ll tally up all the points. The Irish hero with the most points at the end of the article will be crowned the winner.
Let’s get ready to rumble.
Round 1: Origin Story
Cú Chulainn slays Culann’s hound
Before he was Cú Chulainn, he was Sétanta (a.k.a. Sentant). As a 12-year-old, Sétanta and his family were invited to feast at the rath of a blacksmith named Culann. Arriving late, the gates of the fortress closed for the night, the young Sétanta found himself staring down the jaws of Culann’s vicious guard dog.
What was the boy’s next move? According to the Irish poet and dramatist Seumas MacManus, author of The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland, Sétanta “tore the hound asunder.”
Culann, of course, was upset by the untimely death of his prized hound (guard dogs were valuable companions in ancient Ireland and took a long time to train). Pitying the man, Sétanta declared, “I shall henceforth be your hound, O Cullan.” So Sétanta served as Cullan’s guard dog until a new one could be trained, and from that day forward he became known as the Hound (Cú) of Culann, or Cú Chulainn.
In another version of Cú Chulainn’s origin story, the death of Culann’s hound is accidental. Rather than squaring off against the dog, Sétanta is swinging a hurling stick (a.k.a. a “hurley” or “camán”) and hits a hurling ball (a.k.a. “sliotar“) so freaking hard that it goes down the dog’s throat, killing it. Culann is prepared to murder Sétanta in retribution. To save his skin, the boy volunteers to serve as Culann’s hound for a year (source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans).
Regardless of how exactly he entered into Culann’s service, the “Hound of Culann” would go on to impress Ulster’s Red Branch warriors (we’ll learn about them later) with his guarding skills, eventually earning himself a new nickname: the “Hound of Ulster.”
Fionn mac Cumhaill recovers a treasure and tastes the Salmon of Knowledge
Before he was Fionn mac Cumhaill, he was Demna (a.k.a. Deimne a.k.a. Demne). Demna was raised in secret, as his father Cumal, the former leader of the Fianna (the royal bodyguards of Ireland’s High Kings—more on them later) had made enemies with a rival clan.
Demna’s youth is well-documented in the medieval narrative The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn (Macgnímartha Finn). In one of his earliest exploits, Demna chances upon a man threatening a woman and slays him to protect her. Turns out, this man was Lia, Lord of Luachtar, an enemy of Demna’s late father and the keeper of the Treasure Bag of the Fianna (a.k.a. the Crane Bag, or Corr Bolg).
The sea god Manannán mac Lir made the bag from the skin of Aoife—who had been killed while in the form of a crane (don’t you love Irish mythology?)—and filled it with an assortment of enchanted objects, including a shield, a knife, the king of Scotland’s shears, the smith god Goibhniu’s girdle, and the king of Lochlain’s helmet. Originally gifted to the sun god Lugh so he could defeat Balor of the Evil Eye, the treasure bag eventually came into the possession of Demna’s father…before he was killed and it was taken by Lia, Lord of Luachtar. So it was fate that Demna should slay Lia and retrieve the bag.
Demna brings the bag to his uncle Crimmal (brother of his father Cumal), and there Demna learns that the bag can only be opened—and the items removed—at high tide. After marveling at the treasures within the bag, Crimmal sends Demna to be educated by the druid and poet Finegas, who, for years, had been trying to catch Fintan, the Salmon of Knowledge. A little bit of backstory on this famous fish: Fintan had eaten from the Nuts of Knowledge, which were hazelnuts that fell from the nine trees of wisdom and into the Well of Segais (a.k.a. Connla’s Well) at the source of the River Boyne. The fish then swam down the Boyne and settled in a pool, where, eventually, Fintan would catch him.
Here’s where the story takes a turn:
When Finegas catches the Salmon of Knowledge, he gives it to Demna—his underling—to cook for him. But while cooking the fish, Demna burns his thumb on it, and promptly sucks his thumb to soothe the burn. Bada bing bada boom: Demna is imbued with the wisdom that had been intended for Finegas the druid. Finegas gives Demna the rest of salmon to eat and also bestows upon him a new name: Fionn, the Fair One. (FYI: In addition to “fair,” Fionn can be interpreted as meaning “blessed,” “true,” “just,” “handsome,” “bright,” “light-hued,” “lustrous,” and “white.”)
The Winner: Cú Chulainn
Look, at the end of the day, Fionn mac Cumhaill stumbled upon a treasure and ate a magical fish. Cú Chulainn—at the age of 12, no less—killed a vicious hound and then took the hound’s job. The point goes to Cú Chulainn. (Don’t @ me.)
Round 2: Ancestry
Cú Chulainn is descended from gods
It’s that classic story, immortalized in the song “House of the Rising Sun”:
Okay, so maybe I improvised a little bit. Also, the story of Cú Chulainn’s conception is actually much, much stranger than that.
For starters, Cú Chulainn’s mother was Dechtire, the daughter of the druid Cathbad and the demigod Maga (Maga’s father was the Irish god of love, Aengus Óg). Right off the bat we’ve established that Cú Chulainn’s maternal grandfather was a god. So, even without the whole Lugh “incident,” Cú Chulainn would’ve had some divine DNA.
That “incident,” by the way, involved Dechtire being whisked away on the eve of her wedding (she was betrothed to Sualtaim Mac Roth) by a mysterious flock of birds. The birds carried her—and fifty of her handmaidens—to the Otherworld. There, it can be assumed, some hanky-panky took place. Because when Dechtire returned from the Otherworld, she had a baby with her. Lugh’s baby. Sétanta.
Fionn mac Cumhaill is descended from kings
I went down the rabbit hole researching Fionn mac Cumhaill’s ancestry. It was a deep, deep rabbit hole. It started with Fionn’s father, Cumal (a.k.a. Cumhall a.k.a. Cumall), then Cumal’s father Treunmor (a.k.a. Treun-Mor a.k.a. Trenmor a.k.a. Trénmór a.k.a. Tréanmór a.k.a. Trénmhoir), and then I kept going further and further back until I saw names like “Míl Espáne King of Spain,” namesake of the Milesians—as in the Milesian Invasion of Ireland—and “Scota of Egypt,” namesake of Scotland—as in, you know, the country of Scotland.
My source: a family tree hosted on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s website, which in turn, seems to be based on John O’Hart’s 1892 work Irish Pedigrees. The tree traces Fionn mac Cumhaill’s paternal line all the way back to Adam—as in the first human ever, according to the Bible.
Then there’s Fionn mac Cumhaill’s maternal line, which is, arguably, just as interesting. Fionn’s mother was Murna (a.k.a. Muirne) of the White Neck, daughter of the druid Tadhg (a.k.a. Tadg) mac Nuadat. Now, here’s where we reach a fork in the road–or in the tree, as it were. Because while we know that Tadhg’s father was named Nuada, we don’t know which Nuada.
Now, occasionally Tadhg’s father is (erroneously) cited as being the High King Nuada Necht. But Nuada Necht is actually an ancestor of Fionn on his father’s side. According to Fotha Catha Chnucha, Tadhg’s father is the druid Nuada, the chief druid of the High King Cathair Mór (who also happens to be an ancestor of Fionn). Meanwhile, Acallamh na Senorach cites Nuada of the Silver Arm, the first leader of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, as Tadhg’s father.
It’s impossible to say which version of Fionn’s ancestry is correct—this is mythology we’re dealing with, after all. But given that Fionn’s maternal grandfather Tadgh was a druid, I think it’s more likely Tadhg’s father would be a druid as well (and not a god), especially when we consider the timeline of events (which we’ll explore in the next round).
The Winner: Fionn mac Cumhaill
Who doesn’t like an underdog? While there may be some divine blood in Fionn’s veins, he is primarily descended from Irish leaders who show up in the historic record. Personally, I think that makes him a more compelling hero.
Round 3: Historicity
Cú Chulainn’s reality is “lost in legend”
To quote Seumas MacManus:
“He was to become his country’s immortal hero. And the memory of this hero has run the gauntlet or strange vicissitudes in Ireland—the greatness of the man excessively stimulating the imagination of the poet, in the course of centuries, causing his reality to be lost in legend; and in the course of further centuries, the greatness of the legendary Cuchullain creating for him a new reality in the minds of the Irish people.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
So here’s the deal: it’s possible that beneath the grandeur of the legendary, mythical Cú Chulainn, there is the seedling of a real person. Assuming that person did in fact exist, he would have lived sometime around 200 BCE—probably the late part of the first century BCE, according to professor and folklorist Juilene Osborne-McKnight. That’s the era when most of the stories of the Ulster Cycle (a.k.a. Red Branch Cycle) of Irish mythology take place—during the reign of King Conchobar Mac Nessa.
The historic Cú Chulainn would have also been a warrior, but there wouldn’t have been a need to burden his legacy with divine heritage and complicated origin stories. As Irish folklorist Dáithí Ó hÓgáin points out, while the Irish word cú can literally be translated to “hound,” the ancient Irish also used it figuratively to mean “warrior.” What’s more, cul was an old Irish word meaning “chariot” (source: Myth, Legend, and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Tradition). So it’s possible that the name Cú Chulainn actually meant “chariot-warrior.” (And as you’ll soon learn, Cú Chulainn was famous for wreaking havoc on his enemies while thundering along in his chariot).
Fionn mac Cumhaill is not a figment of “the ancient poets’ fancy”
Here’s Seumas MacManus’s take on the historicity of Fionn and the band of warriors that he led, the Fianna (a.k.a. the Fian):
“Fionn and the Fian were not figments of the ancient poets’ fancy—as think some who know of this lore only by hearsay. The man Fionn lived and died in the third century of the Christian Era. The Four Masters chronicle his death on the Boyne, under A. D. 283—though he must have died some years earlier.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
That is a pretty decisive declaration. And when we look at the timeframe of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, when Fionn’s exploits occur, the timing lines up. Juilene Osborne-McKnight writes that Fionn mac Cumhaill was the “leader of the Fenian warriors of Ireland in the second and third century A.D.” (source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans).
Fionn’s extensive family tree, which we covered in the previous section, further points to the character having a basis in reality—not so much the tracing-him-back-to-Adam bit, but the fact that we can trace his lineage to modern times (source: Irish Pedigrees). There are also a slew of respected Irish and Celtic scholars, including the 17th-century Irish historian Geoffrey Keating and the late 19th-/early 20th German Celticist Heinrich Zimmer, who argue that Fionn was based on a historical figure.
Zimmer even provides a hypothetical identification, equating the Fionn of Irish mythology with the 9th-century Norseman Caittil (a.k.a. Ketill) who was based in Munster and given the Irish nickname Find (“the Fair” or “the White”, etc.). Not only does the name line up, but the location–Munster–lines up as well. To quote MacManus:
“In contrast to the Red Branch which was of Ulster, the Fian was of Munster and Leinster origin. Fionna’s clan, Clan na Baoiscne (which was the heart of the Fian) belonged in North Munster.”
An argument against the Find Caittil theory: the dates don’t work at all, as the Norse Find died in 856 CE, many centuries after the (alleged) time of the mythological Fionn. Granted, time is a malleable substance in the realm of myth-making. It’s absolutely possible that a yarn-weaver who was a contemporary of Find Caittil took aspects of his life and made them into myth. A more damning bit of evidence against the Find Caittil theory, according to Scottish Gaelic scholar George Henderson, is that the Norseman’s father must have had a Norse name as well, which almost certainly wouldn’t have been Cumal or Cumhall.
The Winner: Draw
Even though there’s more evidence pointing toward Fionn having a basis in reality, it’s a moot point. The stories we encounter about the mythological Fionn and Cú Chulainn are exactly that: mythological. They are steeped in supernatural ridiculousness. (And I, for one, am here for it.) In later Irish folklore, Fionn is reimagined as a literal giant who built the Giant’s Causeway between Ireland and Scotland so that he might do battle with a rival giant, Benandonner. Any hint of historicity is thrown out the window for the sake of a good story–as well it should be when dealing with myths, legends, and folklore.
Round 4: Superpower
Cú Chulainn can enter the riastradh (war spasm) during battle, making him invincible
Ulster’s Red Branch warriors, along with nearly all heroes from Irish and Celtic mythology, are known to be tall, strong, and attractive. To quote historian Peter Berresford Ellis: “They are somewhat reminiscent of the description of the ancient Celts which survive in the writing of Greeks and Romans.” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology)
Cú Chulainn does not fit that description…at least not when he’s hanging about. As Juilene Osborne-McKnight explains, “The men of Ulster were tall in general, but Cu Chulainn is short with a bulbous nose and wild, frizzy red hair that forms a halo around his head.” (source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones)
However, when Cú Chulainn goes into battle, everything changes. He unlocks his “superpower,” the riastradh, making him both frightful and invincible. Here’s how Osborne-McKnight explains Cú Chulainn’s transformation:
“He grows to nine feet tall, blood spurts from his forehead, one of his eyes bulges from its socket, his head can turn 360 degrees like the head of an owl…Once he enters the war spasm or riastradh, he cannot be defeated and is impossible to calm down.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones
To be fair, it isn’t *impossible* to calm Cú Chulainn down after he enters his war spasm. Ellis shares this amusing anecdote showing how it can be done:
“On his first battle foray he slew the sons of Nechtan Scéne [Fannell, Foill, and Tuchell] and returned still in a battle frenzy, his chariot decorated with the heads of his enemies. Conchobhar’s wife, Mughain, led the women of Emain Macha forth naked so that the hero, suffused with embarrassment, began to calm down. Whereupon he was seized and immersed into three tubs of ice-cold water; the first of these burst, the second boiled and the third just grew warm.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
Fionn mac Cumhaill can invoke the teinm laída, giving him access to hidden knowledge
We have Google. Fionn mac Cumhaill had teinm laída. Whenever he needed a crucial bit of information (e.g. How do I get my revenge against Goll mac Morna, that one-eyed bastard who took over command of the Fianna from my father after having him killed?), Fionn would chew on his thumb and recite an incantation. The hidden knowledge he was seeking would then be revealed to him—presumably by the gods. That’s the power of teinm laída.
Remember Fionn’s origin story, with the accidental ingestion of magic salmon after an accidental thumb-burning? Well, that burnt thumb became the Thumb of Knowledge. In another version of the story, the Acallam na Sénorach, it’s the Tooth of Knowledge (a.k.a Tooth of Wisdom) that gives Fionn his power.
Regardless, teinm laída gives Fionn mac Cumhaill a personal, direct line to hidden and prophetic knowledge. For Fionn, knowledge is his power.
Side note: St. Patrick banned teinm laída in his day, arguing that acquiring knowledge through divination required “giving offerings to demons.” (source: T. F. O’Rahilly, ‘Teinm Laeda’, in Early Irish History and Mythology)
The Winner: Cú Chulainn
Sucking your thumb and asking for help is not as cool of a power as turning into the Incredible Irish Hulk. Yes, this is a reductionist take but I stand by it because this is a long list and I don’t have time to psychoanalyze all of my decisions.
Granted, if I were to say anything else, it would be that I think Cú Chulainn’s “superpower” is simply more cinematic. It’s not that brawn is superior to brains; it’s that my lizard brain would rather watch a hero turn into a 9-foot-tall monster in a hypothetical Irish mythology-based Marvel movie than watch one use a divine search engine.
Round 5: Weapons
Cú Chulainn wields the sword Cruaidín Catutchenn and the spears Cletiné, Del Chliss, and Gáe-Bolg
Also known as Socht’s sword, Cruaidín Catutchenn (The Hard-Headed Steeling) could cut a hair off a man’s head without touching his flesh. But more impressively (and disturbingly), it could cut a man in half without either half knowing what had befallen the other. The sword is occasionally confused with Caladcholg (Fergus mac Roth’s sword) because its name has the same root, crúaid (hard). Cruaidín is the diminutive form.
The Cletiné is one of Cú Chulainn’s everyday-use, putting-in-the-hours out on the battlefield spears. He kills so many warriors with it that Medbh, the queen of Connacht, sends a bard to request it from him, under the grounds that one must never refuse a gift requested by a poet. Flash forward a few days and the bard has a Cletiné-sized hole in his head, courtesy of Cú Chulainn. Unfortunately, the spear breaks during Cú Chulainn’s strike and some of its bronze (umal) falls into a nearby steam. This stream becomes known as Uman-sruth (the Bronze Stream).
The Del Chliss is the spear Cú Chulainn uses to kill the three sons of Nechtan Scéne—Fannell, Foill, and Tuchell—while riding in his war chariot. The name Del Chliss makes a lot of sense, as lowercase “del chliss” originally referred to a split piece of wood and later became the name for a charioteer’s goad or spur.
Finally, we reach the star of Cú Chulainn’s arsenal, the sharpest tool in the shed, as it were: the Gae-Bolg (Belly-Spear). Cú Chulainn’s mentor, the female warrior Scáthach, not only gifted him the spear, but taught him how to use it. Specifically, she taught Cú Chulainn how to throw the Gae-Bolg…with his foot. When the spear hits its target, thirty barbs popped open, inflicting gruesome damage. Cú Chulainn used the spear to kill (amongst others) Loc Mac Mofebis, a champion of Medb; Ferdia, who trained with Cúchulainn under Scáthach; and even his own son, Conlaí.
Fionn mac Cumhaill wields the sword Mac An Lúin and the Spear of Fiacha
It’s said that Fionn mac Cumhaill only used the sword Mac An Lúin in times of the greatest danger, as the sword never had to cut twice; it killed with every stroke. It’s possible that the sword’s name, Mac An Lúin (Son of the Spear), is a reference to the Lúin Celtchair, an enchanted, venomous spear that originally belonged to the Tuatha Dé Danaan and was later wielded by the Red Branch warrior Celtchair.
Scottish poet James Macpherson presented an alternative origin and name for the sword: “Son of Luno.”
In Scottish mythology, Luno is a smith of Lochlin, whom Fingal (the Scottish Fionn) chases across the waves for ten days before catching him at the Isle of Skye and forcing him to make the sword. For this reason, Mac An Lúin is also sometimes called “Son of Waves.”
Fionn’s Spear of Fiacha, also known as the Birgha (Spit-Spear), is another one of those enchanted, venomous spears that are all the rage in Irish mythology. Fionn used the spear to defeat the fire-breathing Aillén…but not in the way you might think. Jump down to Round 8: Greatest Victory, to learn more.
The Winner: Cú Chulainn
This was a close one, but in the end, the Gae-Bolg pushed it over the edge. The barbed spear is, arguably, the most famous weapon in all of Irish mythology. (The only real competitor for that crown is the Cliamh Solais, the sword of Nuada of the Silver Hand and one of the Four Treasures/Jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.)
Round 6: Mentor
Cú Chulainn’s mentor is the female warrior Scáthach
Also known as Scáthach Buanand (Victory), Scáthach nUanaind is the most famous female warrior in Irish mythology. Which is funny, because she’s Scottish.
The daughter of Árd-Greimne of Lethra, Scáthach lives on Scáthach’s Island (scáthach = shadowy), which most scholars believe to be the Isle of Skye, part of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides archipelago. The island is home to Scáthach’s military academy, where many of Ireland’s heroes received their martial arts training.
Cú Chulainn was Scáthach’s most famous student. To quote Peter Berresford Ellis:
“[Scáthach] taught him his famous battle leap and also gave him the Gae-Bolg, the terrible spear. Cúchulainn trained with her for a year and a day during which time her daughter, Uathac, became his mistress. Later, he joined her in her expedition against her sister Aoife, reputed to be the strongest of female warriors. After her defeat Aoife became Cúchulainn’s lover and bore him a son, Connlai.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
Just a quick clarification: the Aoife in the story above, Scáthach’s sister, is *not* the same Aoife who was turned into a crane (and then into a bag). Aoife is a common name in Irish mythology.
Fionn mac Cumhaill’s mentor is the druid Finegas
You already learned about Finegas and the whole magical-fish-burning-Fionn’s-thumb ordeal in previous sections, so I’ll keep this brief: Finegas a.k.a. Finnegas a.k.a. Finn Eces a.k.a. Finneces was a fisher-poet-druid who lived in the Boyne valley. Finegas spent seven years fishing for the Salmon of Knowledge before the arrival of his protégé Fionn. When Fionn accidentally tastes the salmon, Finegas recognizes that the knowledge was not intended for him after all, so he allows Fionn to eat the rest of the salmon.
The Winner: Cú Chulainn
There should be more stories about Scáthach and her island. She definitely gives off Wonder Woman/Amazon/Themyscira vibes. Oh, oh… how about a Xena Warrior Princess-esque Scáthach TV series? Finegas, on the other hand, I can take or leave. Dude spent seven years trying to catch one fish. Who is he, my dad?
Round 7: Sidekick(s)
Cú Chulainn’s faithful sidekick is the charioteer Laeg
Here, I’ll let Seumas MacManus explain why Laeg, son of Ríangabur and the so-called “king of charioteers,” was such a good sidekick to Cú Chulainn:
“Cuchullain’s charioteer, Laeg, is, too, clothed in immortality, because of the frequent references to him in The Tain. Laeg’s usefulness to Cuchullain did not end with his superb ability as a charioteer: he was worth gold, for abusing and taunting his master into hotter ire and fiercer effort, whenever in the course of a fight his master relaxed, or weakened, or was being worsted.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
Remember Cú Chulainn’s superpower, the riastradh (war spasm)? Turns out, Laeg helped him get there. Wondering what kind of things he said to Cú Chulainn to get him to go full Hulk / berserker mode? Wonder no longer:
“Alas, indeed,” said Laeg, “the warrior who is against thee casts thee away as a lewd woman would cast her child. He throws thee as foam is thrown by the river. He grinds thee as a mill would grind fresh malt. He pierces thee as the felling axe would pierce the oak. He binds thee as the woodbine binds the tree. He darts on thee as the hawk darts on small birds, so that henceforth thou has not call, or right, or claim to valour or bravery to the end of time and life, thou little fairy phantom.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
Of course, as a charioteer, Laeg did more than taunt Cú Chulainn: he drove Cú Chulainn’s two famous horses, the Black of Sainglend and the Grey of Macha. During Cú Chulainn’s final battle, Laeg dove in front of a spear intended for his master, proving his loyalty by paying the ultimate price.
Fionn mac Cumhaill’s faithful sidekicks are his dogs
Fionn mac Cumhaill had two trusty canine companions, who also happened to be his nephews. These were Bran and Sceolan (a.k.a. Sceólang), the children of Fionn’s bewitched sister Tuireann—or the children of Fionn’s aunt Uirne, dedpeing on the version of the story you’re reading.
Bran, whose name means raven, and Sceolan, whose name means silver, stand as tall as Fionn’s shoulder. According to Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, both dogs are mostly white with blue feet, crimson tails, and purple haunches (source: Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Images of the Gaelic Hero). The dogs appear throughout the Fenian Cycle, accompanying Fionn on his hunts and, occasionally, making beautiful music.
Unfortunately, the story of Fionn’s hounds does not have a happy ending. Upon finding Sadhbh, the future mother of Fionn’s child who happens to be in the shape of a fawn, Fionn has to “crush Bran to death between his legs to prevent the dog from savaging the fawn.” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology)
In another, somehow even sadder version of events, Sceolan dies in “The Chase of Thrush Glen” while pursuing a doe and Bran chooses to drown himself after Fionn strikes him in an impulsive moment. (Source: Reinhard, John R.; Hull, Vernam E. (January 1936). “Bran and Sceolang”. Speculum)
The Winner: Cú Chulainn
Dog might be man’s best friend but a good charioteer is so hard to find these days.
Round 8: Greatest Victory
Cú Chulainn single-handedly defended Ulster from Medb’s army
Sure, Cú Chulainn had a grueling battle with his friend and foster-brother Ferdiad, and slaying the sons of Nechtan Scéne was a real headline-grabber, but if I had to pick *one* battlefield victory that sealed Cú Chulainn’s fate as a legendary warrior, it’d be his single-handed defeat of the army of Medb (a.k.a. Maeve), Queen of Connacht. Here’s what happened:
Having heard stories about the famed Brown Bull of Cuailgne, Medb decides she wants it for her own herd. She convinces her husband, Ailill mac Máta, King of Connacht, to help her lead an army into Ulster so she can take it. This is the setup to the Táin Bó Cúailnge or Cattle Raid of Cooley, arguably the most famous epic in Irish mythology (and one that is sometimes referred to as the Irish Iliad).
Anyway, when Medb’s army arrives in Ulster, the war goddess Macha debilitates the Red Branch warriors, defenders of Ulster, with a curse. Only one warrior is immune: the 17-year-old Cú Chulainn. Cú Chulainn fends off Medb’s entire army, by himself, until his comrades recover and come to his aid.
It’s an impressive feat, to be sure, single-handedly holding an army at bay. Although as Juilene Osborne-McKnight points out, the rules of engagement ensured Cú Chulainn didn’t have to fight all of Medb’s soldiers simultaneously:
“Fortunately, ancient Ireland had an honor code of hand-to-hand combat, so in much of the Tain, Cu Chulainn is going up against warrior after warrior on his own strength. However, his own strength is rather unusual.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones
Fionn mac Cumhaill single-handedly defended Tara from a fire-breathing monster
As is the case with Cú Chulainn, Fionn mac Cumhaill is the victor of many an important battle. For example, during the Battle of Ventry, which is immortalized in the story Cath Finntrágha (Fionn’s Strand), Fionn defeats Daire Donn, the so-called King of the World.
Yes, defeating the King of the World in a career-defining military exploit is cool, but what’s even cooler is defeating a fire-breathing monster from the Otherworld as a ten-year-old. That’s the victory that first earned Fionn his legendary status. Here’s what happened (via my article “The 7 Most Mesmerizing Musicians From Irish Mythology“):
“Every Samhain, Aillén mac Midgna, a malevolent monster from the Otherworld, uses music to lull the defenders of Tara to sleep so he can burn down the royal residence of the High King with his fire breath.
“While Aillén carries with him a flute and a timpán—the latter being a lyre-like stringed instrument—he only relies on the timpán to incapacitate his victims… Aillén doesn’t merely play suantraí (lullaby) on his timpán, he weaponizes it, demonstrating how the genre can be used to induce not just peaceful rest, but also disorientation and a deep, death-like sleep.
“Aillén is ultimately defeated by Fionn mac Cumhail… Fionn uses the enchanted Spear of Fiacha, also known as Birgha (Spit-Spear), to inoculate himself against the drowsying effects of Aillén’s music. He accomplishes this by placing the spear against his forward and inhaling its magical fumes. Alert and on the offensive, Fionn kills Aillén and gives the spoils of his victory—Aillén’s flute and timpán—to the High King of Ireland at Tara.”Source: “Who Is the Irish God of Music? (The 7 Most Mesmerizing Musicians From Irish Mythology)”
The Winner: Fionn mac Cumhaill
Yes, Cu Chulainn fought off an entire army, but he faced each soldier one-on-one, mano-a-mano. Fionn, as a 10-year-old, defeated a fire-breathing monster from the Otherworld one-on-one, mano-a-monstero, and he used brains (and a bit of magic)—not brawn—to do it.
Round 9: Affiliation
Cú Chulainn leads the Red Branch
The Red Branch was one of two great warrior societies that arose in ancient Ireland (the other being the Fianna, which you’ll learn about next). The knights of the Red Branch served under Conchobhar (a.k.a. Conor) Mac Nessa, and were tasked with defending Ulster. Here’s how Seumas MacManus explains their significance:
“Emain Macha was the headquarters of the famed Knights of the Royal Branch—now more commonly known as the Knights of the Red Branch. And it was in the days of Conor [MacNessa], and at his court, that these warrior champions reached the climax of their fame…The deeds of the Red Branch Knights in Conor’s day, over and over again chronicled by succeeding generations of poets and chroniclers, have not been, and never will be, forgotten.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
The Red Branch, or Craobh Ruadh in Irish, was possibly named for the group’s founder, Ross the Red of Ulster. However, many scholars believe that ruadh might actually be a mistranslation of rígh, meaning king, which is why the Red Branch was once commonly known as the Royal Branch. (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology)
A boy (or girl) who wished to join the Red Branch started training at age seven, and this was true of Cu Chulainn. Before becoming the leader of the Red Branch Knights, he was a member of the Boys’ Corp at Emain Macha, which consisted of “three fifties” of sons of chieftains and kings.
The banner of the Red Branch was a yellow lion on a field of green silk. The group’s legacy still lives on in the Northern Irish village of Creeveroe, an anglicization of Craobh Ruadh. The village is near Navan, believed to be the site of the Red Branch’s headquarters and the seat Ulster royalty, Emain Macha.
Fionn mac Cumhaill leads the Fianna
The Fianna is the second of two great warrior societies that arose in ancient Ireland (the first being the Red Branch, which you just learned about). Also known as the Fian and the Fenian soldiers, the Fianna was a standing army tasked with defending not just the seat of the High King of Ireland at Tara, but all of Ireland — or at least all its lords and petty kings.
Here’s how Seumas MacManus describes them:
“It was in the reign of Conn, at the very end of the second, or beginning of the third century that was founded the Fian—a great standing army of picked and specially trained, daring warriors, who duty was to carry out the mandates of the high-king— “To uphold justice and put down injustice, on the part of the kings and lords of Ireland—and to guard the harbors from foreign invaders.” From this latter we might conjecture that an expected Roman invasion first called the Fian into existence.
“They were soldiers in time of war, and a national police in time of peace. We are informed that they prevented robberies, exacted fines and tributes, put down public enemies and every kind of evil that might afflict the country. Moreover they moved about from place to place, all over the island. During the summer and harvest, from Beltinne to Samain—May first till November first—they camped in the open, and lived by the chase. During the winter half-year they were quartered upon the people.”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
Also, it should be noted, for posterity, that MacManus insists on calling Fionn’s army the “Fian” because “Fianna”—meaning “bodies of the Fian”—is the plural of the collective noun, Fian.
Sooo we’ve all been saying it wrong?
We have A LOT of information on what it took to join the Fianna. The application process was rigorous, to say the least. As Osborne-McKnight explains:
“[Fionn] required that his warriors live by a strict code of honor; even getting into the Fenian army was extremely difficult. Warriors had to leap into a waist-high pit and fend off arrow and arrow, armed only with a small forearm shield. Next they had to braid their hair and run barefoot through a forest, neither breaking a twig beneath their feet nor catching a branch in their hair, all while being chased by other warriors. Then, they had to recite from memory twelve long epic poems, because Fionn believed that a warrior could not be wise unless he knew his country’s past. Finally, he had to decorate himself ecland agus dithir—clanless and landless. His family became, de facto, the Fenian army.”
“They were required to be excellent stewards of the land, leaving no sign of their passing—down to the ashes of their fire. In wartime, they were required to respect women and children. Rape was not tolerated, and if a child was orphaned during war, the Fenian who orphaned him was obligated to find him a suitable foster family.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones
That is some seriously noble and knightly stuff, especially when you consider the source material for these stories comes out of the Middle Ages.
I’ll leave you with this one final tidbit about the Fianna. Actually, four tiny tidbits. These were the four geasa that were placed upon candidates who had passed all the tests. It was the final condition of their acceptance into the Fianna.
- He shall marry his wife without portion—choosing her for her manners and her virtues.
- He shall be gentle with all women.
- He shall never reserve to himself anything which another person stands in need of.
- He shall stand fight to all odds, as far as nine to one.
Note: MacManus translates geasa—singular: geis—as “vows of chivalry,” but a more accurate translation would be “taboo” or “bond.” Geasa were not optional. When placed upon you (typically by a druid), you were compelled to obey.
The Winner: Fionn mac Cumhaill
This was a tough one. Ultimately, the Red Branch Knights and the Fianna are very similar groups that set similarly high expectations for their members. As MacMacuns writes:
[I]t should be remarked that the high ethical code of the Red Branch Knights in the day of Christ was not any more admirable than the code of justice and honor observed now, two centuries after, by the Fian.”(source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland)
But I’m giving this one to Fionn for both their progressive attitudes toward women and the broader scope of their responsibility (e.g. protecting all of Ireland from a Roman invasion).
Round 10: Love Life
Cú Chulainn crushes on Uathac, Aoife, Emer, Bláthnat, and Fand
We learned about Uathac and Aoife in Round 6 (the “Mentor” section). They’re warrior women from the Isle of Skye who trained under Scáthach. Uathac, Scáthach’s daugther, was Cú Chulainn’s mistress while he underwent his training with her mom. Cú Chulainn then struck up a love affair with Scáthach’s siter, Aoife, after defeating her in single combat. Here’s how the fight went down, according Peter Berresford Ellis:
“Cúchulainn asked Scáthach what Aoife cared about most and Scáthach told him that she valued her chariot and horse. During the combat Aoife had shattered Cúchulainn’s and while she was raising her weapon for the death blow Cúchulainn called out that her horse and chariot had fallen. Aoife glanced around and Cúchulainn ran in and caught her.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
Naturally, they fell in love after that. Cú Chulainn spent some time in the Land of Shadows with Aoife, who would go on to bear Cú Chulainn’s son, Connlai.
Another love interest of Cú Chulainn’s was Emer, daughter of Forgall the Wily. Forgall did not want Emer to marry Cú Chulainn, the famed champion. So to delay the wooing of his daughter, Forgall declared that no warrior would be worthy of his daughter lest he train with Domhall the Warlike of Alba (Scotland). So Cú Chulainn goes off to Scotland and after training under Domhall, he trains under Scáthach (and we all know how that whole story turns out).
Finally, Cú Chulainn returns to Ireland to claim Emer’s hand in marriage but Forgall the Wily still isn’t having any of that. Cú Chulainn ends up breaking into Forgall’s fortress and killing a bunch of his warriors. Rather than face Cú Chulainn in combat, Forgall jumps from the ramparts, killing himself.
Cú Chulainn and Emer live happily ever after…except when Cú Chulainn cheats on her with Bláthnat, wife of Cú Roí, a king of Munster. Cú Chulainn ends up killing Cú Roí and carrying Bláthnat off into the sunset…until Cú Roí’s bard avenges his death by grabbing Bláthnat and jumping over a cliff with her in a murder-suicide.
And they all lived happily ever…
Oh and then there was that time when Cú Chulainn cheated on his wife Emer with Fand, the Pearl of Beauty, a literal goddess who lives in the Land of Promise (Tír Tairnigri a.k.a. Tír Tairngire). The wife of sea god Manannán mac Lir, Fand calls on Ireland’s greatest hero to protect her from her enemies after she and her sea-god husband split up. Cú Chulainn sends his wingman / charioteer Laeg to scope out the Land of Promise and make sure everything’s on the up and up. Then he makes the journey himself and ends up living with Fand for a month.
Fionn mac Cumhaill falls for Sadhbh, Gráinne, Ailbe, and Oona
Sadhbh (a.k.a San) is Fionn’s first love. She is the daughter of Bodb Dearg, who succeeded the Dagda as the ruler of the Tuatha de Danaan. She also happens to be in the form of a deer, the Dark Druid having cast a spell on her. Fionn encounters Sadhbh one day while he’s out hunting with his hounds on the Hill of Allen. He has to kill one of them, Bran, to prevent him from running after the beautiful dawn. Later, Sadhbh comes to Fionn in human form and goes on to bear him a son: Ossian, Ireland’s greatest poet.
Perhaps the most famous of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s love interests is Gráinne, of The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne fame. The daughter of the High King of Ireland, Cormac Mac Art, Gráinne is promised to Fionn, who, at this point in his storied career, is an old man. Instead of marrying him, Gráinne runs off with one of Fionn’s soldiers, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne (Diarmuid of the Love Spot), whose foster father happened to be the god of love, Aengus Óg.
The Fianna pursue Gráinne and Diarmuid. Shenanigans ensue. And in the interim, Fionn mac Cumhaill starts shacking up with Gráinne’s sister, Ailbe.
In later folklore, when Fionn is reimagined as a literal giant, his wife is named Oona (and is also a giant). When the Scottish giant Benandonner arrives on Fionn and Oona’a doorstep, challenging Fionn to a fight, Oona dresses her husband up like a baby and tells Benandonner, “Fionn isn’t home, but you can meet his baby son.” Thus, Oona intimates Benandonner and tricks him into returning home. “If Fionn’s baby son is this big and strong,” he thinks, “his father must be ginormous.” (Paraphrasing.)
The Winner: Fionn mac Cumhaill
Both fellas find their fair share of love, but Fionn definitely comes across as less of a philander. Also, I feel bad about his dog. Also, also, the Oona-dressing-Fionn-up-like-a-baby story is priceless.
Round 11: Death
Cú Chulainn straps himself to a pillar stone so he can fight to the bitter end
Yes, you read that correctly. Cú Chulainn was such a badass that when faced with certain death in battle, he tied himself by his girdle to a Celtic standing stone and went down swinging. But perhaps even more impressively, he had a premonition on the eve of his death that the end was near.
To quote Ellis:
“Just before Cúchulainn’s death at the Pillar Stone, he had a vision of Emain Macha in flames and Emer’s body being tossed over the ramparts. He hurried to Dún Dealgan and found her alive and well. But it was a forewarning of his own impending doom. Emer tried to persuade him to stay with her but went on to the road which would lead him to the Pillar Stone and his own death.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
After Cú Chulainn’s death, no one dared go near his body until they saw ravens picking at it (so they could be sure he was dead). These ravens were likely representations of the war goddess the Morrigan.
Fionn mac Cumhaill dies in battle…or he’s still alive and hiding in a cave?
This one is up for debate. Some accounts say Fionn mac Cumhaill was killed by one of his own soldiers, Aichleach, while attempting to quell an uprising among the Fianna. Another account follows a popular Celtic motif and says that Fionn is still alive. He’s waiting in a cave, waiting to jump back out onto the battlefield if Ireland ever needs him.
The Winner: Cú Chulainn
Yes, the Fionn-is-still-alive ending is fun and gives off King Arthur vibes, but Cúchulainn tying himself to a rock is drama at its finest.
Round 12: Influence/Reach
Cú Chulainn inspires Arthurian Legend
Cú Chulainn appears not only in Irish mythology but in Manx and Scottish mythology as well. In fact, there’s a mountain range on the Isle of Skye, the Cuillin, that is named for the Irish hero.
But when it comes to having an influence on other cultures and mythologies, none of Cú Chulainn’s exploits are more famous than when he attends Bricriu’s Feasts. To quote my article “‘Was the Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Really Inspired by the Dullahan, the Headless Horseman of Irish Mythology?”:
“The story, ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ (“Fled Bricrenn”), dates back to the 8th century and is preserved in the 11th-century text, The Book of the Dun Cow. In it, the trickster Bricriu promises the hero’s portion of his feast to three different warriors, Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Buadach. Their pride (and rumblings stomachs) on the line, the warriors engage in a series of contests.
“When a giant arrives wielding an axe, the stakes are raised considerably. The giant challenges the warriors to take a swing at him with the axe, on the condition that he be able to return the favor. (Sound familiar?). Conall Cernach strikes the first blow, lopping off the giant’s head. The giant scoops up his head, puts it back on his neck, and leaves. When he returns to take his turn, Conall has fled. The same scenario plays out with Lóegaire Buadach, who cuts off the giant’s head but flees before the giant can return the favor.
“Only Cú Chulainn is brave enough to play the giant’s game to completion. He chops of the giant’s head, the giant returns, and Cú Chulainn places his own head on the chopping block, preparing for the inevitable. Twist! The giant is really the wizard Cú Roi in disguise. And instead of chopping off Cú Chulainn’s head, he proclaims him the first hero of Ulster.”source: “‘Was the Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ Really Inspired by the Dullahan, the Headless Horseman of Irish Mythology?”
Fionn mac Cumhaill: the hero that keeps getting photocopied
The warrior Fionn has cognates in other Celtic cultures. For example, he shows up in Scottish mythology as Fingal (which means “white stranger” in Scottish Gaelic) and in Welsh mythology as Gwyn (which means “fair,” “white,” or “bright” in Welsh). Granted, that later connection is a bit more tenuous. Gwyn isn’t exactly a cognate of Fionn mac Cumhaill, but the latter likely inspired the former. How do we know this? In addition to sharing a name, the heroes share an ancestor. In Welsh mythology, Gwyn’s father is Nudd, cognate with the Irish Nuada. In Irish mythology, Nuada is Fionn’s grandfather.
Fionn also shows up in Manx mythology, and is often credited with creating the Isle of Man itself, which he accomplished—accidentally—by hurling a big chunk of clay and rock into the Irish sea during his battle with the Scottish giant Benandonner.
The Winner: Draw
Both armies [the Red Branch and the Fianna] lived by a strict code of behavior, and again, both included female members, although the preponderance of warriors were men. Their culture included tales of great deeds, with warriors vying for the best haunch of deer or boar at massive feasts by embellishing stories of their own prowess. The best of those stories were often immortalized by bards (who sang of them with a small, portable harp called a clarsach) or storytellers (called seanchai, pronounced shan-a-key) who would take the stories from rath to rath, sometimes embroidering them even as they traveled. Thus did history become myth.”source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones
And Ireland’s Champion of Champions is…
The final score was Cú Chulainn: 6, Fionn: 4, with two draws.
What do you think of this result? Let me know if I got it right (or wrong) in the comments section below!
☘ Further Reading ☘
Books About Cú Chulainn
Cú Chulainn of Eirú – Book I: The Isle of Shadows by Richard Roche and Derek Fennell
Celtic Warrior: The Legend of Cú Chulainn by Will Sliney
The Tain: Translated from the Irish Epic Tain Bo Cuailnge by Thomas Kinsella
Books About Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhail: Celtic Myth in English Literature by James MacKillop
Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma: The Fionn mac Cumhal Series – Book 1 by Brian O’Sullivan
Finn McCool and the Great Fish (Myths, Legends, Fairy and Folktales) by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Zachary Pullen
Books About Both
Introduction to Early Irish Literature by Muireann Ni Bhrolchain
Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth by Mark Williams
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