This blog is part of the Scáth na Feannóige/Shadow of the Hooded Crow project exploring fénnidecht as a practice to follow the War Goddessses, Badb, Macha and the Morrígan whose name is Anann. This is a less formal place for me to discuss various issues of interest to someone on a modern version of the Outlaw warrior path such as physical training, history, Old Irish literature, pop culture inspirations, werewolves, ecstatic trance (okay, I find that one tough to write about but I may try), gender issues the wilderness....


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Excerpt from: The Hounds Betwixt and Between: Cú Chulainn and Finn as Liminal Heroes


Published in Air n-Aithesc,Volume  4, Issue 2 Lugnasadh 2017. An earlier version, titled The Hero Betwixt and Between, appeared in Keltria Journal #43,"Heroes & Heroines," 2013. 


Cú Chulainn of the Ulster Cycle and Finn Mac Cumhail of the Fenian Cycle are the two early Irish warriors that are most familiar, who have the greatest number of stories told. Many other warriors in the literature boast heroic quests of their own, including the warrior-kings; however, these make up a smaller amount of known literature. There are other warriors known only for their relationships with Cú Chulainn or Finn, as fighting beside them or dying at their hands, while many warriors are only names in long lists. There are also many villains and semi-villains and a, sadly, small number of warrior-women, either protagonist or antagonist.[1] These two heroes have large bodies of material focused on them and what makes them such important heroes compared to the others is of interest. 

When they are brought up together, it is often to describe Cú Chulainn and Finn as very different, even opposites. This may have originated from Marie Louise Sjoestedt’s declaration that Cú Chulainn was a “Hero of the Tribe”[2] while Finn was a “Hero Outside the Tribe.”[3] The distinctions Sjoestedt noted may be useful in exploring each of these heroes individually,[4]  and they certainly are individuals; however, her designation of Cú Chulainn as a “tribal” insider and assertion that the two warriors’ stories were “irreconcilable” are questionable. [5] Both of these heroes were liminal and quite dangerous to the culture they defended, but were outsiders of. In the different times their tales were recorded, they represent views of those warriors who stood between society and the wilderness, being never fully part of either. 

It is difficult in a casual study such as this to sort out what might be similarities due to the nature of the tales and what might be influences of the earlier stories.  Cú Chulainn’s tales were written centuries before Finn’s. We do not have evidence that Cú Chulainn’s stories truly come from oral traditions or whether they were told orally after they were written. Both seem likely, at least to some extent. Finn’s stories continued in oral tradition, which gives us even more variations. While knowledge of Cú Chulainn’s stories may have influenced the tellers and writers of Finn’s, the latter are clearly not reproductions. This may be influences of the time, but also may be a hint that they were seen as warriors of a certain nature and place, similar but not identical. Therefore, I believe the comparisons where we find the similarities yet note the differences help us understand the archetype of the Outlaw Warrior in this literature, without losing sight of the individual nature of both Cú Chulainn and Finn.

To read more you can purchase a copy of Air n-Aithesc,Volume  4, Issue 2 Lugnasadh 2017 or a PDF from me via the website 



[1] I have written about some of these female warriors  in “‘By Force in the Battlefield’: Finding the Irish Female Hero,” Air n-Aithesc Volume 1 Issue 1 Imbolc 2014; “Muimmecha naFiann: Foster-mothers of the heroes,” Air n-Aithesc Volume 1 Issue 2 Lughnasadh 2014; “The War Goddess’s Bitch,” Air n-Aithesc Volume 3 Issue 1 Imbolc/Beltaine 2016;  “There Was Not Found a Man to Withstand Her,” Air n-Aithesc Volume 3 Issue 2 Lughnasadh/Samhain 2016.
[2] Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola 2000, pg. 57-80.
[3] Sjoestedt, Celtic Gods and Heroes, pg. 81-91.
[4] As is noted by Joseph Falaky Nagy. The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, pg. 10.
[5] Kim McCone, “Werewolves, Cyclopes, Díberga and Fíanna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, issue 12, 1986, pg. 8.