Warrior Archetypes VI: Cuchulain - Sacred Berserker
In Celtic mythology, Cuchulain is the greatest of all the hero-gods. Like other divine heroes, his tale is less that of a deity as a human whose magical gifts set him apart from others. He is the nephew of Conchobar, the King of Ulster, by an unknown father who may be the god Lugh. He is originally named Setanta, and earns his name in his first great battle, where he kills the great Hound of Culann that protected the borders of Ulster. Realizing that he has left the kingdom short of a great protector, he offers to take the Hound’s place as guardian of the lands, and is renamed Cu-Chulainn, or Culann’s Hound, the name of his slain prey. This shows that he takes part in the ancestral bond between hunter and hunted, where the prey’s spirit enters into its conqueror after death.
Being a Cuchulain warrior is a very hard thing. He generally understands death, and he respects a worthy fallen opponent more than most others. However, this does not stop him from attacking and conquering them. He is not the big brawny boasting warrior - Cuchulain, by all accounts, was a small youth whom one would not have expected to be so physically powerful. He was handsome, with spots of blue, crimson, green, and yellow on his cheeks (probably magical tattoos) and hair that shaded from clear yellow to red (probably from the Celtic custom of dyeing hair in streaks with urine). He seems an unlikely foe at first, and then he leaps into the fray and downs fifty opponents.
The Cuchulain warrior tends to be silent and act rather than speak, but his actions can be extreme. When he decides on an enemy, nothing will do but that it must be entirely destroyed and obliterated. He loathes halfway measures, and he often lacks compassion and mercy. When he does actually get angry enough to lose his iron control, all hell breaks loose. He will do devastating things that horrified onlookers may characterize as complete overkill, and he may lose his sense of perspective - and even morality - when he is seized by this frenzied wrath.
Of all the famous warriors of mythology, Cuchulain is renowned for one thing above all else: his berserker battle-rage. Although he normally fought like an ordinary if highly skilled warrior, when he became angry he underwent a horrible transformation. First he quivered all over, and then his body began to twist backwards. His knees and shins shifted themselves to the back, as did the frontal sinews of his neck, where they protruded out like lumps. One eye receded back into his head, and the other bulged out upon his cheek. His mouth widened until it met his ears, and sparks flew out of it. His heart pounded as loud as a great metal drum, and his locks stood up on end, with a spark of flame at the end of every hair. A great horn jutted out of his forehead, and a vast spurt of black blood jetted up from his skull, where it spread out like a cloud of dark gloom over the battlefield.
This warrior will be learning the lessons of anger management and discipline all his life. This isn’t unusual for any warrior - They all need it, especially Ares - but for a Cuchulain warrior it may well be what keeps him out of a lifelong prison sentence or away from a lethal injection. He does much better when he has an actual cause towards which to focus his violent energies. Without a goal to hurl himself against, his intensity turns inward on himself or explodes out at others. If Ares goes into battle in a kind of glee, Cuchulain goes in with a kind of teeth-gritted fight-to-the-death determination that smokes with barely-repressed anger.
It was part of Cuchulain’s birth prophecy that he should be the greatest warrior in all of Ireland, and yet should have a short life. Sometimes this warrior acts as if this is true for him, taking risks to his survival that would scare off other people. He has a tendency to live as if death doesn’t matter, and it may feel true for him, as he would rather die than find himself in an intolerable situation. Often this god’s energy bestows not only a lack of fear with regard to death, but a great fascination with it as well. This is the person who forges into the plague-ridden area to help others, or takes the possibly fatal hallucinogenic drug, just to show that nothing can conquer him.
Indeed, it’s as if he’s secretly looking for something that can conquer him, and if he survives it, it becomes an ideal of great respect. The Cuchulain warrior will only follow someone who has proven that they can outfight and outlast him. He will test all potential leaders with constant challenges, and love them only if they can slap him down. If they fail to subdue him, he no longer respects them. The primitive dynamic of the alpha who rules by sheer power is strong in him. The test may be physical (can they beat him up?) or mental (can they browbeat him into submission?) or even moral (can they hold stronger and more unswervingly to some code of honor than he himself?), depending on the value system of the individual in question. It’s almost as if, in spite of his formidable will, he secretly fears that his inner monster will get out of hand, and he’d better have a stronger person around to keep it in check.
When Cuchulain falls in love with Emer, the daughter of Forgall the Wily, he is sent off to hone his skills on Scatha’s island in order to be worthy of her hand. Scatha is a martial goddess who teaches combat skills; to even approach her isle one must undergo a dangerous obstacle course, ending in a huge leap over a deep river. After a year of learning combat from her skilled teachings, Cuchulain returns and requests Emer’s hand again. Forgall, intimidated by this alarming suitor, refuses him again. After Scatha’s training, however, he is powerful enough that he merely kidnaps her and runs away. This is one of the Cuchulain warrior’s faults; if you betray or wrong him, or go back on your word, he may feel that honorable behavior no longer applies to you and that you are fair game for any sort of revenge. Before he can learn compassion, he must first embrace a code of honor and understand that dishonorable behavior, even as a means to an end or directed toward someone who may deserve it, belittles one’s own spirit.
Cuchulain’s downfall comes through his own pride. He meets a strange woman who propositions him; when he rudely refuses and threatens to kill her, she reveals that she is the Morrigan, the Irish goddess of battle and death. She tells him that she has owned him since his birth, and that he should do her honor by becoming her lover. When he responds yet more rudely, certain of his own power, she says that she will take away the ungrateful life that she has given him. They meet later to fight, and Cuchulain temporarily overpowers her, but she comes back in another incarnation....the sorceress Maeve, who swear to destroy Cuchulain.
Cuchulain is bound by a number of geases - odd taboos that he must obey or lose his power. In Celtic myth, the greater the power, the more numerous and difficult the geases. This can reflect this warrior’s addiction to doing things the hard way, loading himself down with extra challenges. It can also reflect the weird fears that may assail him from the watery depths of his unconscious. At any rate, Maeve and her band of hired sorceresses set deliberate traps for him that are geared to every one of his geases, forcing him to violate them all. His power is diminished, and his enemies conquer him at last, although he fights defiantly to his last breath.
Cuchulain dies because he has failed to fully acknowledge that he has no power over death, and that he must give some gratitude for the Powers that sustain him. So much of the Cuchulain warrior’s time is spent attempting to be independent that he often forgets how interdependent we all are, and how that cannot be escaped. He also fails to properly appreciate Lady Death and her place in the world; after all that time spent ending other people’s lives, when Death comes along and offers deeper knowledge of what he has been handing out blindly, he rejects her. He needs to learn Death’s place in the cycle of life, on a deep spiritual level, in order to properly respect it. If he has no respect for death, then She will come, in one form or another, to teach it to him directly.