Author and folklorist Rosemary Sutcliff once wrote, “You can learn a lot about a people from their stories, because their stories show the way they think and feel and look at things.”1 This is the power of mythology — it allows us to see through the eyes of cultures long past. Sometimes it reveals forgotten facets of Truth and Beauty. At other times, however, it embodies the darker side of the culture. This is what I found while reading The Hound of Ulster.
The Hound of Ulster is Sutcliff’s rendition of the tale of Cuchulain, a hero of Irish myth. The ancient Celts were a barbaric race, and Cuchulain is no exception. Though honorable and patriotic, he is also cruel, unchaste, and even bloodthirsty. As I read, I shuddered to think of a culture so godless, asking myself, “Where is the worth in stories such as this?”
Still, I kept reading. Cuchulain wins many victories, sometimes doing good, but more often bringing sorrow upon himself and others. Finally, he is met with a threat like no other. A war-host invades his beloved Ulster, while his countrymen are stricken by a curse of weakness. Only Cuchulain and his charioteer are unaffected. They alone must defend their people from the armies of all Ireland, several thousand strong. As they drive to meet the enemy, Cuchulain sends up a great cry in his heart to his father, the god of light: “Father, if I am indeed your son, help me in this, for sorely I will be needing your help — you who gave me as a gift to Ulster, let me be a gift worth having!”2
I paused in wonder, and a thrill ran through me. Here was a man, born of a pagan culture, praying as a Christian might pray. Then I remembered the natural law, which the Lord has written in the hearts of all men.3 Cuchulain’s mind was darkened by ignorance and pride, but in his need, his heart remembered how to pray, though he did not know Who he was praying to. I think I can hope that the Lord heard him,4 for surely the Shepherd loves even the lost sheep?
If the Lord was with them, then surely He is with us. And so, when we are overwhelmed and outnumbered, when darkness falls and we cannot see the way, we can pray:
Father, God of Light and Truth, hear your child.
I am faced with a task that is bigger than I am
and desperately need your help.
Father, you who gave me as a gift to the world,
let me be a gift worth having.
- The Hound of Ulster, Author’s Note.
- Chapter 10.
- The Holy Bible, Romans 2:14-15, RSV: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts …”
- or those who composed his story.
Image credit: “Cuchulain in Battle,” illustration by J. C. Leyendecker for T. W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911.