woman was enough to make her fall instantly in love with him.
The men of Ulster became worried that Cúchulainn would entice away their wives with his good looks, so they demanded he find a wife of his own. A party was formed and sent to the furthest corners of Ireland, but even after a full year, they could not find a woman Cúchulainn found suitable.
At last, Cúchulainn came across Emer, daughter of Forgall. She possessed all six “gifts” by which women were judged: the gifts of beauty, voice, sweet speech, needlework, wisdom, and chastity.
When Cúchulainn first approached Emer, she laughed at his advances, saying that he was too young. Ignoring her dismissals, Cúchulainn admired her beauty aloud. Emer replied that no man would ever possess her beauty before slaying hundreds of men and making his name known across Ireland.
Cúchulainn pledged to do just that, provided that Emer would agree to marry him once he succeeded in his quest. Emer agreed, so Cúchulainn went off to win his fame and fortune, stopping at King Conchobar’s palace on the way.
Emer’s father, Forgall, was not pleased with these arrangements, however. He had had a premonition that his daughter’s marriage to Cúchulainn would somehow lead to his own death.
To guard against such a fate, he wanted to make sure that Cúchulainn would not survive his adventures. He disguised himself as a traveler and followed Cúchulainn to the king’s court. There, he watched Cúchulainn and the other Champions of the Red Branch demonstrate their skill and strength before their king.
Still disguised, Forgall approached the king and said loud enough to be overheard that Cúchulainn’s skill was impressive. It would be even greater, Forgall continued, if Cúchulainn made his way to the island of Alba to study the craft of war under Scáthach the Amazon, the fiercest female warrior in the world.
Forgall knew that Cúchulainn, who prided himself on being the best at everything, would not be able to resist such a challenge. Sure enough, Cúchulainn declared he would indeed make his way to Alba. Forgall secretly hoped that Cúchulainn would be killed in the process.
Cúchulainn made his way to Alba, the Island of Shadows. He faced many perils along the way. When he finally arrived, he was faced with the Bridge of Leaps, which offered the only passage onto the island.
The treacherous bridge was very long and worked something like a see-saw—whenever weight was added to one side, the other end lifted up until the entire bridge stood straight up in the air. Three times Cúchulainn tried to cross, and three times he failed.
Perhaps because of his divine relatives, Cúchulainn was blessed with a few seemingly-super human powers. When he got very angry, for example, his rage would build up inside him to the point that he would grow hot and almost glow.
With this extra energy, Cúchulainn was able to perform “the hero’s salmon leap,” which enabled him to jump huge distances. After failing three times to cross the bridge, Cúchulainn became enraged and did his salmon leap directly onto the middle of the bridge. He reached the far end of the bridge so quickly that it did not have time to spring back on him.
Cúchulainn did not realize it, but he was being watched by Scáthach and her daughter, Úathach, as he crossed the bridge and approached their home. Upon seeing the beautiful young man, Úathach fell immediately in love with him. She went to greet him at the door. But Cúchulainn wasted little time with Úathach and demanded right away to know where Scáthach was.
Overcome with love, Úathach not only told him where to find her mother, but the secret way to force her to grant whatever he wished, as well. Úathach revealed that Scáthach was up in a yew tree with her two sons. If Cúchulainn were to surprise her and quickly draw his sword on her, she would promise him anything in return for her life.
So, Cúchulainn performed the hero’s salmon leap straight up into the highest branches of the tree. He drew his sword on Scáthach and placed its point on her breast. He threatened to kill her if she did not take him as her student. Wanting to be spared a painful death, Scáthach promised to teach him all she knew.
Cúchulainn stayed with Scáthach for a year and a day, learning the art of battle and the techniques of war. Cúchulainn was such a good student that Scáthach presented him with the gae bolga—a terrible weapon that made only one wound when entering, but exploded into thirty small barbs once inside the enemy’s body.
Cúchulainn’s new skills were soon put to use on the island. Scáthach was at the time at war with Aife, queen of another tribe on the island and an equally fierce warrior. The day of the great fight, Scáthach tried to prevent Cúchulainn from fighting, thinking that the terrible Aife would surely kill him.
Scáthach gave him a sleeping potion so that he would not be awake during the battles. But the potion, which was strong enough to last thirty-six hours on any normal man, only lasted one hour on Cúchulainn.
As soon as he awoke, he went to join the fight. He arrived just in time to discover Aife had challenged Scáthach to single combat. Cúchulainn demanded to go in his teacher’s place, but first asked Scáthach to tell him what Aife valued most in the world. Scáthach answered that Aife prized her two horses, her chariot, and her charioteer above all else.
Cúchulainn and Aife began to fight, and at first it appeared that the young man was no match for the fierce woman warrior. With just one blow, she shattered Cúchulainn’s sword. But at the very moment it looked like she would kill him, Cúchulainn called out “Look! Aife’s chariot and horses have fallen into the valley! They are all dead!”
When Aife turned around to see what had happened to her beloved possessions, Cúchulainn grabbed her and put a knife to her throat. He offered to spare her life only if she pledged peace with Scáthach and offered hostages as proof of the agreement. Aife agreed and peace was returned to the island.
In the meantime, Emer was at home warding off potential suitors. Word that Emer might be forced to marry another made its way back to Cúchulainn on Alba. Not wanting to lose his bride, Cúchulainn decided that it was time to return home to Ireland.
Forgall, of course, was dismayed to learn that not only had Cúchulainn survived his adventure, but that he was returning an even stronger warrior than before. Forgall took great pains to guard his home against any attacks.
The barricades Forgall put up were so strong that it took Cúchulainn a full year just to reach the wall of the fortress. When he finally got there he leaped over the high walls, killing eight men with each stroke of his blade.
Forgall was among those slain. Cúchulainn quickly grabbed Emer and her foster sister, along with their weight in silver and gold, then performed another of his salmon leaps to make their escape.
As they began to ride away, they heard a loud cry and saw Forgall’s sister, Scenmed, following them with a troop of men to avenge her fallen brother. Cúchulainn killed her on the spot, which has been known ever since as the Ford Scenmed.
Scenmed’s men continued to chase the hero, but at Glondath, Cúchulainn killed one hundred of them with ease. Emer praised her love for his great deed and declared the place would be called Glondath, the Ford of Deeds, forevermore.
Cúchulainn and the women continued riding, coming eventually to Rae Bann, the White Plain. Once again they were attacked and once again Cúchulainn slaughtered his assailants. As streams of his enemies’ blood ran over the once-white plains, Emer said the place would henceforth be known as Crúfóit, Sod of Blood. Finally, the group reached another ford near Boinne.
At this place, Cúchulainn chased his enemies northward, with the sod, or grass, from his horses’ hooves flying all over the ford. He then repeated his action in the opposite direction, spraying the ford with sod toward the south. From that day on, the place has been known as the Ford of Two Sods.
With no enemies left to conquer, Cúchulainn and Emer were free to marry. They never parted again.