The Táin - Question
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I had thought that when Setanta took on the name of Cú Chulainn he did so under oath to protect Emain Macha and Conchobar until such time as the hound could be replaced. So, why then, when he breaks this oath and threatens his own people, is he not punished? Am I missing something?
In the standard English translation (T. Kinsella) it is given quite clearly.
"That doesn't matter," the boy said. "I'll rear you a pup from the same pack. Until that hound grows up to do his work, I will be your hound, and guard yourself and your beasts. And I will guard all Murtheimne Plain. No herd or flock will leave my care unknown to me."
"Cúchulainn shall be your name, the Hound of Culann," Cathbad said.
"I like that for a name!" Cúchulainn said.
'What wonder that the man who did this at the end of his sixth year should do a great deed at the present time when he is full seventeen?' Conall Cernach said.
Conall Cernach was one of Cúchulainn's friends, partially because of their kinship via Findchóem, and here offers admiration as well as narrative foreshadowing as Fergus relates the tales.
The two relevant parts here are the terms of Cúchulainn's oath and Conall's comment about Cúchulainn's age. The first thing to note is that in the versions of this tale, Cúchulainn's age is given as five to six years of age. We know that he went to study with Scáthach not long after the "Hound of Culann" event because he was just a few years older at that time. The second thing to note is the oath- raising a hound to replace the slain hound. It does not take very long for a wolfhound, or other similar breeds, to come into their full growth. We can safely assume that within a year, two at most, the oath would be fulfilled.
For comparison, here is the relevant passage in Recension 1 of the Táin:
"Fecht aile dano bátár Ulaid inna nóendin. Ní bí nóenden linni íarom, for Fergus, for mnáib & maccaib nách for neoch bís fri crích n-Ulad anechtair nach for Coin Culaind fora athair. Ocus ane ní lamar fuligud forro-som, ar conscescing in cess for intí nod goin nó a meth nó a garséle. Tonnecat trí nónbair a h-Insib Faíche. Lottar for in n-íarless tan bámár inar nóendin. Égit in bantrocht isind liss. Boí in macrad i m-maig in chluchi. Doíagat-side fóna h-égme. Amal atchoncatár in macrad na firu duba duabsecha, tíagait ar teched ule acht Cú Chulaind a óenur. Imbert-side na lámlecca foraib a luirg áne foraib. Marbaid nónbor díib fácbait cóeca cned fair-seom documlat ass íarom olchena. Fer dorigni inna gníma sin inraptar lána a choic blíadna, nírbo machtad cé na thísed co h-or cocríchi & cé no éisged a cinnu don chethror ucut."
One final note: Thomas Kinsella translates the text as Sétanta being six years old when he slay's Culann's hound. Both of the major recensions of the original manuscripts give Sétanta's age as five. I know that Kinsella amended bits here and there since there are so many internal inconsistencies in the tales, and presumably this is one of them. The point remains, though, that he was quite young and had more than enough time to raise a hound before he went and beat the snot out of everyone.
"Playing the Hero: Reading the Irish Saga Táin Bó Cúailnge"
It is quite good for both the content and the bibliography.