‘Myths point to the horizon and back to ourselves saying, this is who we are, this is where we came from and this is where we’re going.’ – J. Michael Straczynski
‘Superheroes fulfil a role similar to the ancient gods.’ – Christopher Nolan
Why do you think we create legends? How do they start?
One theory is that the process of legend stories being created likely began with real incidents or events that were worth recording and repeating. These were passed along by word of mouth from person to person and from generation to generation until they’d been retold thousands of times and existed in hundreds of different versions around the world.
Each time a story is retold, it changes due to our tendency to remember things that make a strong impression and forget what doesn’t impress us. A story that has spent centuries in an oral tradition can grow, be exaggerated and change completely. These great stories and mythologies may still contain important bits of truth.
IRISH HEROES: CÚ CHULAINN & FIONN MACCUMHAILL
Read the stories about the two most famous hero warriors of Irish legend, Cú Chulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill, and then have a look at the ideas below about how similar legend themes reappear in legends all around the world, and even in modern superhero stories.
CÚ CHULAINN, the son of Deichtine and the god Lugh, was born at Newgrange. When he was seven, the magician, Cathbad, told him that any boy who used weapons that day would be famous forever. Cú Chulainn took up the weapons of his uncle Conchobar, the King of Ulster, but Cathbad then finished his prophecy saying this boy would also have a short life.
When Cú Chulainn was sixteen, Queen Medb of Connacht attacked Ulster to steal their best bull. Ulster was under a curse stopping its men from fighting so Cú Chulainn challenged the whole Connacht army. They refused to fight a ‘beardless boy’. Cú Chulainn ran off, shaved a goat and made a fake beard before returning to defeat the whole Connacht army at Cooley.
When Cú Chulainn fought, he became a monstrous creature. His legs twisted backwards, his eyes popped out and his mouth opened to his ribs. After one battle, his friends surrounded him with beautiful women. When he turned away in embarrassment, they threw him into a bath of cold water to calm him. The bath exploded.
Cú Chulainn wished to marry Emer but her father Forgall said he must first train in Scotland with the warrior-woman, Scáthach. Forgall expected Cú Chulainn to be killed but when Cú Chulainn fought Scáthach, they were equal. Cú Chulainn eventually got control and forced her to have his son. While she was pregnant, he returned to Ireland, killed Forgall and married Emer. Eight years later, Scáthach sent the young Connla to Ireland in secret. Cú Chulainn killed him, realising only at the last moment it was his son.
On his way to fight a group of men, Cú Chulainn met the Morrigan, three one-eyed old women, eating roast dog. They invited him to join them. Cú Chulainn had two curses which, if broken, would lead to his death – never to refuse hospitality and never to eat dog. He had no choice but to eat and it made him weak. When he was later wounded at Knockbridge, he tied himself to a stone so he would die facing his enemies.
FIONN MAC CUMHAILL
FIONN MACCUMHAILL was the son of Cumhaill who was killed by Goll Mac Morna, the leader of a group of warriors, the Fianna. Cumhaill’s wife Muirne was pregnant with Fionn and she escaped into exile.
Fionn grew up in secret in the forests of the Slieve Bloom mountains not knowing who his parents were. He was trained by the woman warrior Liath. She taught him to hunt and fight. Fionn served many local kings, but often his secret past forced him to leave and travel again.
Fionn studied under the magic druid Finnegas who was searching for the ‘salmon of knowledge’ in the Boyne river. Eventually the old man caught it and told Fionn to cook it for him. While cooking, Fionn burned his thumb on the fish and accidentally put his thumb in his mouth, gaining the salmon’s wisdom.
With his new knowledge, Fionn understood who he really was and how to fight back against Goll. Every year a faery, Aillen, came to Tara, the home of the High Kings, as a beautiful woman. She made the Fianna warriors fall asleep with sensual music. Aillen then changed into a fire-breathing monster and burned down the palace. Fionn arrived and put his spear against his forehead so the pain kept him awake through the music. He killed Aillen.
Fionn replaced Goll as leader of the Fianna. Fionn’s first wife was Sadbh who’d been turned into a deer by a magician. Fionn hunted her but did not kill her and she immediately changed into a beautiful woman. They had a son, Oisín. Later, Sadbh was changed back into a deer and vanished into the forest.
Fionn once threw a piece of land into the sea at an enemy. The hole left behind became Lough Neagh. Fionn also created the Giant’s Causeway as stepping stones from Ireland to Scotland.
When he learned that the Scottish giant Benandonner wanted to fight him, Fionn knew he couldn’t win so he asked his new wife Oona to dress him as a baby. When Benandonner arrived and saw how big and strong the ‘baby’ was, he got scared and ran back to Scotland.
TYPICAL LEGEND THEMES
Typical themes often reappear in legends around the world as well as in modern fantasy and superhero stories. Here are six typical examples:
- The task to win love
- Fighting the monster
- The hero’s hidden origins
- The chosen one
- The bad disguise
- The hero’s revenge
Click on the quiz below to match the legend themes with the modern stories they appear in – The Matrix, Superman, Shrek, Terminator, Braveheart and Star Wars – and also with the specific parts of the Cú Chulainn and Fionn stories which you read above.
What about your culture? What are the most famous legends? Can you recognise any similar themes?