The Ulster Cycle is one of the four cycles of Irish epics, centered around the heroes of Ulster (surprise). The most well known part of the cycle is the Táin Bó Cúailnge (in English, the Cattle Raid of Cooley), and the only reason this whole post was not under T yesterday is because I couldn't find another candidate for U. So, one day late, but here we are!
The Táin (as well as the rest of the cycle) takes place about two thousand years ago, in the 1st century AD. The earliest written versions are from the 12th century. This is an old, old, old story, you guys. And extremely important to Ireland's culture, history, and identity. It revolves around Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connaught, going to war against Ulster over a bull, and re-arranging the Irish landscape while at it.
While most of the story revolves around Cú Chulainn, both sides of the war have a great lineup of heroes. The great nemesis is Queen Medb, who is not only an incredibly (physically and mentally) strong woman, but also very entertaining in her many ways of trying to secure victory. She repeatedly offers her "friendly thighs" to heroes who might fight in her name, for example. Also on the Connaught side is Fergus mac Róich, an honorable and clever exile from Ulster who refuses to fight against his friend Cú Chulainn (and is not-so-secretly also bonking the queen). Both sides enumerate their many great heroes over the course of the epic, and honestly, I greatly enjoyed their individual descriptions.
yuup). The legend is called "The Pangs of Ulster" and it includes the hands down best curse in Irish mythology.
Another part close to my heart is Cú Chulainn's training in Scathach's school for warriors. Because of the coolness factor of a lady training Ireland's best heroes in her own (hard to approach) institution, and for all the things she teaches them, this part would merit an entire movie all on its own.
The pillow-talk that sets off the entire war is also quite great - Medb and her husband have a long discussion about which one of them is in fact running their kingdom. Medb calls her royal husband a "kept man."
Apart from Cú Chulainn being constantly badass, another Ulster hero kind of steals the spotlight for a while. Cethern returns from the fight against the enemy all wounded, and then proceeds to explain how he got each would. When the healer tells him he can rest and live, or fight and die, he chooses the latter, and they re-create his broken body with borrowed bone marrow and various chariot parts. He goes back to fight some more.
Other entertaining moments include:
Medb calling Cú Chulainn a "peppery overgrown elf."
Cú Chulainn threatening his opponent with "I will stand above you like a cat's tail erect."
Cú Chulainn encountering Medb alone while she is having her period in the woods, and deciding not to kill her.
The detailed description of Cú Chulainn going into his "war-spasm" and hulking out in a way that would make Bruce Banner cower in shame.
The women of Ulster flashing Cú Chulainn in order to cool down his war-spasm (and the order from the king "Bring the naked women!!!")
The Táin was also the chosen epic for this year's Epic Day. We told it in six hours! I blogged about the experience here.