Scathach: The Mythical Female Teacher Of The Greatest Celtic Warriors

By Karen Harris

Neist Point Lighthouse, Isle of Skye. (Juan Maria Coy Vergara/Getty Images)

According to Celtic legends, Scathach was a great warrior, but where she excelled most was teaching. She was best known as the teacher of some of the greatest Celtic warriors.

Scathach's Backstory

Historians today doubt that Scathach was a real person, evidenced by her name, which means "the shadowy one" in ancient Gaelic. She was said to be the daughter of Ard-Greimne of Lethra and live on an island with an impenetrable castle that had a tall gate guarded by her own daughter, Uathach, on what many Scots today believe was the Isle of Skye. Only a select few were allowed inside, for that is where Scathach did her important work: training warriors.

According to legend, she was a restless woman who grew easily bored and refused to participate in the accepted feminine traditions of her day, such as poetry, instead desiring action on the battlefield. She may or may not have seen it, but at some point, she retreated to her island fortress and started her school for warrior training. As a teacher, Scathach believed that her students learned best by doing, so she engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. She also taught them how to pole vault, a useful trick to scale walls and gates or reach a tall fortress window, and even fight underwater.

Statue of Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad in Ardee, County Louth, Ireland. (Adrian Crawley/Wikimedia Commons)

Scathach's Greatest Student

Undoubtedly, Scathach's most famous pupil was Cu Chulainn, the great warrior of Ulster who was initially just a lovestruck lunk. He only came to the school because the father of the girl he hoped to marry insisted on it as a condition of his blessing, convinced the poor schlub would never make it through the brutal training even if he could find the fortress. It turned out not to matter because after Cu Chulainn successfully located Scathach, she demanded he marry Uathach—without a dowry, no less—as the price of admission. He was also required to battle her bitter enemy, the warrior queen Aoife. She also warned him that she could see his future, and if he completed her training, his career as a warrior would be great but short.

Inexplicably, this was all good to Cu Chulainn, who became Scathach's favorite student. He overpowered Aoife easily, forcing her to free all of the hostages she'd taken from Scathach, maintain a peace agreement with Scathach forever, and bear him a son for good measure. Scathach was so pleased that she bestowed him a secret gift, a spear of her own design called Gae Bolga that separated into barbs when it hit its victim, tearing their flesh apart and instantly killing them, which he was eventually forced to use against his best friend and fellow student, Ferdiad, in the Saga of Tain. Historians have been quick to note the similarities between the legend of Scathach and Cu Chulainn and that of the Lady of the Lake who gifted the sword Excalibur to King Arthur, and it's possible the old Celtic stories inspired this aspect of Arthurian folklore.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.