Scáthach was a warrior queen who lived on Skye, an island that is part of the archipelago called the Hebrides, west of Scotland. Young warriors from Ireland and other kingdoms nearby were sent to be trained by her in the arts of battle. But while Scáthach taught her pupils she also had to contend with an enemy. A warrior woman as great as herself whose name was Aife. Some say they were sisters. Two of the warriors who went to her were Cú Chulainn and Ferdia: the friends who tragically fought against each other when Queen Meadhbh marched on the men of Ulster. It was Aife who gave birth to Connla, Cú Chulainn’s only child.
We were put up against each other since before we could walk, my sister Aife and myself, Scáthach of Skye. I used to wonder how life would have gone if we’d been friends. But the truth was, neither of us would have been as good as we were if it wasn’t for the rivalry between us. She would climb, I would climb higher. I would ride, she would ride faster. We climbed up to the *Old Man of Storr when we were still five years old, we dived into ice cold fairy pools. We didn’t care about cold or danger as long as we were concentrating on who could swim the fastest, dive the deepest.
Grown ups told us to fear the fairies. We taunted them and they never touched us. We taunted every creature from every story. We called out giants and goblins saying to them, Come out and fight us if you’re there but they didn’t. And so, without the fears put out to control us, we were free. The giants were dead and turned to stone and fairies a thing of the past was how our thinking went.
We came to swords. Mine was better than hers. I was sure of it. We came to javelins. Hers was better than mine and all the time without knowing it we were honing skills beyond the skills of men. Time passed. Words went out. People came to see if we were a true tale. Two girls almost grown into womanhood better than any warrior. Who had ever heard of it? And all the while my sister and I remained enemies.
More time passed. The stories about us grew bigger. Young warriors who had come to laugh at us were sent home with sword holes in them big as fists. It became a pleasure of mine to teach a laughing man with his own blood.
More time passed. Things changed. Those that came to our shores preferred to learn from us. Two schools for warriors grew into fame on our island, one was hers, one was mine. We never spoke a word to each other. We taught our skills independently to the pick of the young warriors sent to us from the kingdoms around us. Ferocious competition was our devotion for the fear of becoming an old tale and nothing more: Two women who thought themselves great until they grew soft like the rest of them. That, we were sure, would never come to pass.
I was a different kind of teacher to Aife. I made sure they didn’t think too much of themselves. I taught them up against each other the way I had learned myself. No matter how good they were they began with a sling. If they complained they would go back to the start. I taught them how to scream a thin penetrating scream that had the power to make enemies into wandering fools. I have to say it is a thing to hear: a band of young warriors screaming in pitches comparing to all the ghosts of the world. The next part of their training was shield carrying. The had to carry them every day and if they struggled they carried them for whole nights too without a wink of sleep. That was to show them good sword skills are useless if a shield is heavy on the arm. The javelin was the last to conquer before I let them take up a sword and that was when they were ready to be wounded. They were wounded as much during my teaching as they would be in the extremities of war. Training was not considered successful if at its end of it they did not know they would live on the edge of death as long as their lives rode out. As their teacher I made sure I lived on that same edge every day of my life. I was always awake to the reality of my death. She did that for me. I did the same for her. I had to hate her with all the vehemence I could muster. Stoking my hatred of Aife to keep it fresh was my own survival. She would have killed me if she could and I would kill her too. I was sure of it.
She occupied my dreams when ever I slept, recurring sometimes night after night, She, riding a winged horse, followed by an army of giants and goblins who marched on my kingdom, breaking down its walls that were so light they crumbled like chalk. She would cut off my arms, my legs, once even my tongue. Another night she took my womb. I knew I would never bare a child of my own. I had surrounded my heart with iron.
My sister had a different way of teaching. She taught her warriors feats and so with her, they were in danger of making spectacles of themselves. Sometimes she would steal my warriors who were delighted to be showing off at last. That is what she did with him. Cú Chulainn who had been sent to me reluctantly from *Emain Macha in the northern province of Éire. Sent because he was in love with a woman called Emer whose father connived to have him put out of the way of her, hoping she would forget him and he would be killed. It took me a long time to work on his pretensions but after a while he began to learn but I don’t think I could have done that alone. I was training another warrior who was his equal in every way that I could ever see. His name was Ferdia and though they were up against each other every day they formed a friendship that was beautiful to behold. It made me wonder what it would have been like if my sister and I could have made that for each other. It showed me so clearly that a competition could live alongside a friendship. I had never considered that before.
It wasn’t long before she heard about the great Cú Chulainn. She saddled up for a battle to get him. She wanted him for herself and she got him. In every way she got him. He was the only man to defeat her in a combat and so she submitted using a tactic that should only be used in the bed. He fell for her and remained with her for the rest of his time on our island.
I knew he had no intention of making her his wife. I could see that and I could see a small inkling of pity for her rise inside me like a little flame. But I banished it. I knew it would mean my death if it was kindled. Hatred was my best shield.
I taught Cú Chulainn to be a great warrior, to leap like a salmon as high as a house, to cut the sod from under the feet of his opponent and to tame his *ríastradh so he wouldn’t be powerless over it like a small child, so he could play fair.
She taught him to attach blades to the back axles of his chariot, to juggle like a fool, to walk on ropes and fire. She had him know what would goad him into a ríastradh that was so fierce it was a danger to himself and all about him, woman, man or child. And she gave him the Gáe Bolga, a weapon to make a single wound but when inside the body would open into thirty barbs. He was the only warrior to leave Skye with a weapon such as that. She ruined my work.
He came to say goodbye to me. He had to return to Emain Macha. He told me Aife was with child. He told me he gave her a ring for the child to wear when his finger was big enough so that he would recognise his own son when he came to look for him. He told me she wasn’t happy at all that he was leaving to go and marry his great love, Emer who had been waiting patiently and never forgot her love for him.
Women are good at waiting but while some wait for love, others wait for revenge. I was very sure Cú Chulainn was right about her anger and just as sure that he didn’t know the measure of its depth. I knew her well enough to know she would never take another man to her bed. Feelings were fierce in Aife and she was loyal to them if they were good or if they were bad.
She thought he would come back but he didn’t. She gave birth to a boy with eyes so blue you could see a summer sky inside them. She called him Connla which was the name Cú Chulainn had given to him before he left. As soon as he was born she put him to the breast of a wet nurse. As he grew she taught him every skill she had and then she sent him to me for more. Teaching her son was the closest to sisterhood I ever felt. But I always knew I was helping her to implement revenge. I always knew I was training him to kill the great Cú Chulainn of *Muirthemne for leaving her. And when she, and I deemed him to be ready he would leave for Éire in a war ship wearing his father’s ring. A father he knew nothing about. She gave him three *geasas before he sailed. Never turn back. Never refuse a fight. Never say your name. We sisters remained in hatred after that but as I grew old I realised my hatred was indeed my love.
The retellings on this site (though true to the myths them selves) are my own work and copyrighted to me so please ask before using elsewhere.
Drawing by Kathy Tynan
- Bodach an Stórr : The old man of Stor a rock formation in the north east of Skye often thought to be the thumb of a giant that was turned to stone and buried all except for his thumb.
- Emain Macha : Navan Fort
- Ríastradh : A warrior’s battle frenzy
- Muirthemne : Co Louth by the sea
- Geasa or Geis : Is like a vow mixed up with a taboo.