Scáthach – the Shadowed – is a woman warrior who turns up in the tenth century manuscript Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer). A supporting character to the narrative adventure that focuses on Irish hero Cú Chulainn, her main purpose is to add an element of depth and context to Cú Chulainn’s legendary fighting skills and, of course some 10th century feminine (cough) “pizzazz”. In the Tomharc Emire, advised by his friends that to complete his martial training he should learn from Scáthach, Cú Chulainn immediately sets sail for Alba (in modern-day Scotland) and the fortress where she’s based.
To be honest, whenever I think of Scáthach, I have this mental image of a longsuffering professional working woman, gritting her teeth and doing her best to hide her irritation at an extended visit from her daughter’s boorish boyfriend. To imagine Cú Chulainn’s visit as a pleasing or welcome one would be to ignore the other interesting elements of the tale. Most people sadly, enamoured by the romanticised aspect of a woman warrior teaching the mythological hero, tend to limit their focus on that.
When Cú Chulainn first arrives and enters Scáthach’s domain, he inveigles his way into her fortress by manipulating the romantic passions of her teenage daughter, Úathach. Despite Cú Chulainn breaking her fingers (and the slaying of the warrior Cochair Cruibne), Úathach is so besotted she casts any loyalty to Scáthach aside, advising her new beau on how to overcome her mother while she’s resting. Following Úathach’s advice, Cú Chulainn overcomes his host, places his sword between her breasts and threatens her with death unless she grants him three wishes:
• that she trains him without neglect,
• that she pays the bride price for him to marry Úathach; and
• that she uses her seer skills to warn him of anything that might befall him.
Over the course of Cú Chulainn’s visit, Scáthach puts up with her unwelcome visitor’s regular acts of violence and trains him as obliged without comment. When Cú Chulainn attacks Aífe and forces her to have his child (Úathach has disappeared from the narrative at this point), she continues to keep her silence.
In the end however, it’s Scáthach who has the last bitter laugh. Prior to his departure back to Ireland and Eamain Macha, she draws up her seer skills and recites the events she sees in store for him, foretelling the bloody slaughter of the Táin Bó Cuailgne. Cú Chulainn, preoccupied, pays her recitation as much attention as a blind man to the cinematic trailer of a subtitled movie.
The moment passes, nothing is learned.
I’m occasionally asked why I’ve never written a contemporary version of Cú Chulainn or An Táin, given that – in some ways – he’s far more well known to non-Irish, English-speaking audiences. The truth of it is I find it hard to write about characters I don’t particularly like. For a contemporary audience, the actions of the Iron Age Cú Chulainn are difficult to get across in a way that would remain true to the original stories. Particularly as, in many of those stories, he comes across as a violent meathead (and, to be honest, a bit of a bastard).
Just like some real life heroes, I suppose.