Cú Chulainn: Irish mythology's Incredible Hulk

Humanity has long been obsessed with individuals who, in a fit of rage, transform into something not-quite human. Irish mythology serves up another example.

  • There are plenty of cultural figures who are known for their inhuman transformations: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Incredible Hulk, werewolves... the list goes on.
  • One infrequently mentioned example is the Irish version of Achilles: Cú Chulainn.
  • What does the mythological Irish hero represent?

Famed comics creator Jack Kirby was inspired to create the Incredible Hulk when he saw a woman lifting a car to save her trapped baby underneath. "It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that," he said. "We can knock down walls, we can go berserk, which we do."

Though the Hulk is maybe the most modern take on this idea, it's one that humanity has been obsessed with for a long time. History features a number of references to transformation of individuals into something terrifying and awe-inspiring: There's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Scandinavian berserkers, and werewolves. But perhaps one of the most striking and least-discussed example of a Hulk-like character comes from Irish mythology's Cú Chulainn.

Cu Chullainn's "warp spasms"

Stories of Cú Chulainn date back to the first century. Said to be the son of Lug, an Irish god associated with warfare, kings, and craftsmen, and a mortal princess, Cú Chulainn was born under the name Setanta. At the age of six, he gained the name Cú Chulainn, meaning "Culann's hound," after he killed a guard dog in self-defense by driving a hurling stone down its throat. (Hurling was an ancient Gaelic game that resembles lacrosse, which is still practiced in Ireland today). Culann, the smith who owned the hound, was dismayed at its loss. Setanta offered to serve as Culann's guard until a replacement guard dog could be found, gaining the name Cú Chulainn in doing so.

Where Cú Chulainn begins to resemble the Hulk, however, comes from his ríastrad, commonly translated as a "warp spasm." Here's an excerpt from Thomas Kinsella's translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge describing Cú Chulainn's warp spasms:

The first warp-spasm seized Cúchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins and knees switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front. The balled sinews of his calves switched to the front of his shins, each big knot the size of a warrior's bunched fist. On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child. His face and features became a red bowl; he sucked one eye so deep into his head that a wild crane could not probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared; his lungs and liver flapped in his mouth and throat; his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram's fleece reached his mouth from his throat. His heart boomed loud in his breast like the baying of a watch-dog at its feed or the sound of a lion among bears. Malignant mists and spurts of fire flickered red in the vaporous clouds that rose boiling above his head, so fierce was his fury.

When Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk, he grows larger, turns green, and miraculously preserves the integrity of his purple jorts; so, not entirely similar to the eyeball-popping transformation of Cú Chulainn. The incredible strength Cú Chulainn gains from this transformation and his inability to distinguish between friend and foe, however, remain significant parallels.

At the age of 5, Cú Chulainn experienced the first of these warp spasms when he traveled to join a troop of boys playing hurley. He walked onto the playing field, unaware of a local custom to ask for protection first. The 150 other boys saw Cú Chulainn entering the playing field as an affront and sought to kill him, but Cú Chulainn transformed and fought all 150 off until Conchobar, the king of Ulster, puts a stop to the fight.

Cú Chulainn's other significant warp spasm occurred when he defended Donn Cúailnge, a particularly fertile bull and the central figure of the Táin Bó Cúailnge (or, The Cattle Raid of Cooley), from an invading army. After defending against the army, Cú Chulainn is seriously wounded, but a figure, "one of my friends of fairy kin," approaches Cú Chulainn and tells him to sleep:

Then it was that the warrior from Faery laid plants from the fairy-rath and healing herbs and put a healing charm into the cuts and stabs, into the sores and gaping wounds of Cuchulain, so that Cuchulain recovered during his sleep without ever perceiving it.

Cú Chulainn sleeps for three days and three nights, and when he awakes, he finds that a troop of boys from Emain Macha, his home, has been slaughtered. This sends him into a fit of rage; he transforms, killing or wounding all nearby:

Ten and six-score kings, leaders and men of the land, Cuchulain laid low in the great slaughter on the Plain of Murthemne, besides a countless horde of dogs and horses and women and boys and children and common folk; for there escaped not a third man of the men of Erin without a lump or without having half his skull or an eye hurt, or without an enduring mark for the course of his life.

What Cu Chullainn represents today

Cú Chulainn has an important role in Irish mythology, one that parallels Achilles's in Greek mythology. As such, he's often used as a symbol by Ireland's different cultural groups. The symbol of Cú Chulainn has been adopted by unionists from Ulster, or Northern Ireland (where Cú Chulainn was born), who consider him to be a hero defending Ulster from southern enemies, while nationalists also claim Cú Chulainn as a national symbol that represents all of Ireland and its history. It's unclear whether the character of Cú Chulainn ever had its basis in a real historical figure, but it can be safely said that the real Cú Chulainn, if he existed, likely did not transform into a gruesome figure with one dangling eyeball and sharp, spiky hair.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

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University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

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