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The Celtic mythology of Ireland and Scotland is home to many fascinating weapons but none can match the gruesome Gae Bulg. The spear of the feared Irish hero Cú Chulainn has no equal in its devastating magical power, and rivals many of the great divine weapons of other religions and mythologies.
What is the Gae Bulg?
The Gae Bulg, also called Gae Bulga or Gae Bolg, literally translates as Belly Spear. The more commonly used meanings of the name, however, are Spear of Mortal Pain and Spear of Death.
The reason for these dramatic interpretations is quite simple – the Gae Bulg spear is a devastating weapon that’s not only guaranteed to kill anyone it’s thrown at, but to also cause unimaginable pain in the process.
The way this weapon accomplished that is quite unique and includes several steps:
- The spear is guaranteed to always penetrate the enemy’s armor and skin, creating a single point of entry.
- Once inside the victim’s body, the single point of Gae Bulg is said to separate into multiple pointy blades and start spreading through the highways and byways of his body so that every single joint is filled with barbs as described in the Ulster cycle. In other words, the spear simultaneously pierces all veins, joints, and muscles of the victim from the inside.
- Once the victim dies an agonizing death, the spear cannot be pulled out because it stays divided into countless blades inside their body. Instead, the only way to get the spear back is to cut the corpse open.
While impractical in anything other than a duel, Gae Bulg is a devastating weapon that’s capable of killing anyone it encounters. It’s often described as either a single-point javelin or as a multi-point spear. According to the Book of Leinster, Gae Bulg was made out of the bones of the sea monster Curruid, which died in a fight with another sea monster, the Coinchenn.
A Gift from the Shadow
Gae Bulg is the signature weapon of one of Ireland’s greatest mythological heroes Cú Chulainn from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Cú Chulainn wasn’t given the deadly spear – he had to earn it.
According to the Ulster cycle, Cú Chulainn is tasked with performing a series of challenges to earn the hand of his beloved Emer, the daughter of the chieftain Forgall Monach. One of these tasks requires Cú Chulainn to travel to the Alba, which is the ancient Gaelic name for modern-day Scotland.
Once in Alba, Cú Chulainn has to receive training from Scáthach, a legendary Scottish warrior woman and martial arts expert. Scáthach was said to live in Dún Scáith on the Isle of Skye but the popular name of her residence is the Fortress of Shadows. In fact, Scáthach herself is often called Warrior Maid or Shadow.
The Shadow’s main rival in the Isle of Skye at the time of Cú Chulainn’s arrival is Aife, a fellow warrior daughter of Árd-Greimne of Lethra.
Cú Chulainn came to Scáthach together with his best friend and foster brother Fer Diad. Scáthach agrees to train both of them in martial arts but she only gives Gae Bulg to Cú Chulainn.
A Series of Unfortunate Affairs
During their training, Cú Chulainn began an affair with Scáthach’s daughter, the beautiful Uathach. On one occasion, however, he accidentally broke her fingers, causing her to scream. Her scream caught the attention of her official lover Cochar Croibhe, who rushed into the room and caught Uathach and Cú Chulainn together.
Against Uathach’s protests, Cochar Croibhe challenged Cú Chulainn to a duel, but the hero was forced to kill the scorned lover with ease. However, he doesn’t use Gae Bulg, but instead kills Cochar Croibhe with his sword.
To make it up to Uathach and Scáthach, Cú Chulainn promises to marry Uathach instead of his beloved Emer.
Later in the story, Scáthach’s rival Aife attacks the Dún Scáith Fortress of Shadows and Cú Chulainn aides in repelling her. With his sword at her throat, Cú Chulainn forces her to swear that she’ll cease her attacks on Scáthach’s realm. In addition, as further payment for her life, Aife is forced to have sex with Cú Chulainn and to bear him a son.
Defeated, raped, and cast out, Aife retreats back to her realm where she gives birth to Cú Chulainn’s son Connia. As Cú Chulainn never goes to visit Aife in Alba, however, he never really sees Connia until later in the story.
Cú Chulainn does leave Aife a gold thumb-ring and tells her to send Connia to him in Ireland when he grows up. He also tells Aife to instruct Connia on three things:
- To never turn back to Alba once he starts his journey to Ireland
- To never refuse a challenge
- To never tell anyone in Ireland his name or lineage
The Gae Bulg is Used for the First Time
The first time Cú Chulainn uses Gae Bulg is some time after his and Fer Diad’s training with Scáthach is over. The two heroes, friends, and foster brothers find themselves on the opposite sides of a war and are forced to fight to the death in a ford next to a stream.
Fed Diad gets the upper hand in the fight and gets close to landing the killing blow on Cú Chulainn. At the last minute, however, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer Láeg floated the Gae Bulg spear down the stream to his master’s side. Cú Chulainn caught the deadly spear and plunged it into Fer Diad’s body, killing him on the spot.
As Cú Chulainn was distraught for killing his friend, he had Láeg help him get the spear back from Fer Diad’s body. As the story goes:
… Láeg came forward and cut Fer Diad open and took out the Gáe Bolga. Cú Chulainn saw his weapon bloody and crimson from Fer Diad’s body…
Gae Bulg is Used to Commit Filicide
As if killing his brother with Gae Bulg wasn’t traumatic enough, Cú Chulainn later found himself having to kill his own flesh and blood – Connia, the son he had with Aife.
The tragic event happened years later. Cú Chulainn hadn’t used Gae Bulg since killing Fer Diad because of how devastating the weapon was. Instead, he used his sword in most of his feats and kept Gae Bulg as a last resort.
That’s exactly what he had to do when Connia eventually made his way to Ireland. Upon arriving at his father’s land, Connia quickly found himself in several fights with other local heroes. The squabble eventually reaches Cú Chulainn’s ears who comes to face the intruder against the warning of his wife, Emer.
Cú Chulainn tells Connia to identify himself, which Connia refuses to do as per his mother’s instructions (which, if you remember, Cú Chulainn had given her). Father and son start to wrestle in the water of a nearby spring and the young and strong Connia soon starts to get the upper hand. This forces Cú Chulainn to once again reach for his last resort – Gae Bulg.
Cú Chulainn spears Connia with the weapon and wounds him mortally. It’s only then that Cú Chulainn realizes that Connia is his son. but it’s too late to stop the weapon from piercing all of Connia’s internal organs.
Symbols and Symbolism of Gae Bulg
While the Gae Bulg doesn’t carry any fantastic cosmic powers or control over the elements like other mythological weapons, it’s undoubtedly one of the most gruesome and tragic weapons out there.
Capable of slaying anyone and anything, while also guaranteeing devastating pain and suffering, Gae Bulg seems to always lead to sorrow and regret after its use.
The symbolism of this spear isn’t explicitly stated but it does seem pretty clear. Great power should be handled carefully. It often comes at a cost and should be controlled.
Importance of Gae Bulg in Modern Culture
Gae Bulg isn’t as popular internationally today as many weapons from other mythologies, however, the myth of Cú Chulainn and Gae Bulg remains well-known in Ireland.
Some of the modern culture works of fiction which feature variants of Gae Bulg include the visual novel game series Fate, an episode of Disney’s 1994 animation Gargoyles titled The Hound of Ulster, and many others.
The weapon seems especially popular in video game franchises such as the Final Fantasy series, Ragnarok Online (2002), Riviera: The Promised Land, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II, Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu, and others.
There’s also the famous Negima manga series, Patrick McGinley’s 1986 novel The Trick of the Ga Bolga, and the High Moon fantasy webcomics.
The Gae Bulg is a fantastic weapon, but it’s use is always followed by pain and regret. It can be seen as a metaphor for controlling power and wielding power wisely. Compared to other mythological weapons, like Thor’s hammer or Zeus’ thunderbolt, the Gae Bulg doesn’t hold any great inherent powers. However, it remains one of the most fascinating weapons of any mythology.