Who is Scathach?

What we know from myth, history, and inspiration

Scathach4In the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology, Scathach or Sgathaich is the Teacher of Warriors. She appears in myth when the hero CuChulain decides that he needs more than just magical strength and berserk rage to be his best in battle. He seeks out Scathath at her stronghold on the Scottish Isle of Skye, where she lives in a high fortress at what is now Dun Scaith. (The ruins of Dun Sgathaich on Skye are said to stand on the place where Scathach had her castle.)

Scathach’s name means “shadowy one”, and she was said to be the daughter of Ard-Greimne of Lethra, as was her sister and rival Aoife. To get to her fortress, first one has to cross the Plain of Ill-Luck and the Glen of Peril. Then one has to cross the “Bridge of Leaping”; as one sets foot on it, the end swings up and flings them back where they came from. Few would-be students even make it across.

At this impregnable castle, she trained heroes in the arts of (among other things) pole vaulting in order to assault forts, underwater fighting, and combat with a barbed harpoon of her own invention, the gáe bolg. She is also a diviner and mistress of the art of palmistry, or imbas forosnai – she eventually reads CuChulain’s future for him and predicts dark battles. There is reference to Scathach sexually initiating the young warriors as well, and she takes CuChulain into her bed at the end of his training, as a reward. Before he graduates, however, he takes on Scathach’s sister Aoife as part of his training, defeats her in battle, and forces her to make peace.

Scathach has several children mentioned in various places – sons Cet and Cuar who were trained within a magic yew tree, daughters Lasair, Ingean Bhuidhe, and Latiaran – but her most notable child is her daughter Uathach who guards her castle and aids her in teaching young warriors. Like her mother, Uathach is a free woman who gives her love where she will; she begins an affair with CuChulain although she also has an existing lover, Cochar Croibne. Uathach and CuChulain are sparring partners and one day he accidentally breaks her fingers during training. She screams and Cochar Croibne runs out and challenges CuChulain to a duel in which he is slain. Out of remorse, CuChulain offers himself to Scathach to serve her daughter for a time, doing all the necessary duties as well as keeping her happy sexually. Eventually the two marry.

Scathach was also identified later as a Celtic goddess of the dead, specifically one who ensures the passage of those killed in battle to the Lands of Eternal Youth. In this way, she is similar to a Norse Valkyrie. She is both warrior goddess/mentor and guide into death.

Artwork by Manuel Aguila Yañez.