Cú Chulainn: Irish Warrior

The mythic Irish figure who lived fast, died young, and could warp into a Hulk-like warrior monster.

Cú Chulainn is a legendary figure in Irish mythology. While there are numerous variations of his name (Cuchulain, Cuchullin, Cuchulinn, etc.) there are even more variations of his life story. Cú Chulainn (‘Koo KUL-in’) was said to have lived somewhere between the 1st century BCE to 1st century CE in the kingdom of Ulster in the north of Ireland. His tale was a part of the oral storytelling tradition, changing and growing over the years, so by the 7th century when it was recorded by Sechan Torpeist, there were numerous versions.

Differences in his story aside, the basics are that Cú Chulainn was born to a mortal woman, Deichtine, sister to Conchobar mac Nessa the king of Ulster, while his father was the god Lugh (whom the County of Louth is named after). This makes Cú Chulainn a demigod and like other demigods in folklore he had superhuman abilities & looks. He was said to have hair that was three different colors, he had four colored dimples in each cheek, as well as seven pupils per eye, seven fingers per hand, seven toes per foot. In spite of these unusual features (or perhaps because of them) he was considered exceptionally handsome.

As a child, in an early display of his warrior abilities, a wolfhound ran to attack Cú Chulainn but in self-defense he used his hurley to hit a ball down the dog’s throat, eventually killing the dog with his hands. Feeling bad for killing Culann the metalsmith’s dog he offered to take the dog’s place in guarding Culann’s property. This is how Sédana (to add yet another name to his story) became Cú Chulainn. “Cú” means hound and “Chulainn” was the name of the metalsmith – so “Culann’s hound”. In a way Cú Chulainn was named after the dog, like Indiana Jones.

At the age of seven Cú Chulainn heard the druid Cathbad discussing a prophecy that any warrior who took up arms that day would have everlasting fame. Desiring fame & glory Cú Chulainn went to his uncle the King to request a weapon. Unfortunately Cú Chulainn failed to hear the second part of the prophecy which stated that this famous warrior would also have a very short life.

The short, but action-packed, life of Cú Chulainn took him on numerous adventures.

Unleash the beast

Like other demigod warriors, Cú Chulainn had an unmatched prowess in battle. Part of his secret to success was his ability to go into a ríastrad or “battle frenzy/spasm” where he would physically transform like Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde or Bruce Banner into the Hulk, but with more of an H.P. Lovecraft feeling.

Driven by rage his body would contort so his feet and shins turned backwards, his one eye would recede into his head while the other would dangle out, his hair became like spikes, his lungs and liver were somehow visible in his mouth, all while his forehead leaked blood. He became a monstrous killing machine, indiscriminately slaughtering anyone (including allies) who crossed his path. Once the fighting was over he would return to his beautiful, beardless, youthful human form.

Warrior Legend

Cú Chulainn’s superhuman speed, agility, his monstrous ríastrad form, and his good looks led him to many adventures. He trained with Scáthach on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, he got recruited into fighting demons in Tír nAill (the magical “Otherworld”), he accidentally killed his own son, many women (human and magical) fell in love with him, he defended Ulster by single-handedly holding back the army of queen Medb in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, won contests, bested his foes, etc.

Despite his extraordinary abilities Cú Chulainn couldn’t escape that he was cursed to die young. Having slain so many men he understandably made a lot of enemies including the shape-shifting goddess The Morrígan (the magical “phantom queen” who may be three sisters or just one woman in multiple forms). Eventually he was brought down by his various enemies conspiring against him. Towards the end of his final battle Cú Chulainn tied himself to a standing stone (with rope or with his entrails) so he could die on his feet. After the final blow was dealt the surrounding army was afraid to approach him, unsure if he was really dead. A raven (The Morrigan in Badb bird form) landed on his shoulder proving that Cú Chulainn the legendary warrior had died – at 27 years old.

Symbol of Nationalism

The story of Cú Chulainn, the heroic Irish warrior, has served as inspiration over the centuries. In the early 20th century there was renewed interest in Cú Chulainn as part of the Celtic Revival where he became a part of the Irish nationalism movement. That he would tie himself to stay upright and continue the fight against a seemingly intractable enemy became symbolic of the republican movement for national independence and the fight against England. In 1935 Éamon de Valera chose the Oliver Sheppard statue The Death of Cuchulainn for the national memorial to the 1916 Rising. Today the statue can be seen inside the General Post Office, O’Connell Street, in Dublin.

Viking Helmets & Wagner

Viking warriors didn’t wear helmets with horns or wings on them.

There’s no evidence that Viking warriors wore helmets with horns or wings. There are actually very few Viking helmets of any kind in existence and none have been found with horns or wings. Medieval sources show Vikings more commonly wearing simple headgear (perhaps made of leather or iron) while others have nothing on their heads at all. Vikings who wore metal helmets were probably in the minority and all of those helmets were fairly plain.

The Gjermundbu helmet is one of the few Viking helmets in existence. Medieval sources show Vikings wearing simple head coverings or nothing at all. Winged or horned helmets were never used in battle.

South of Scandinavia, Germanic and Celtic tribes did have religious headpieces with horns, antlers, wings, etc. but these were purely ceremonial and never worn in battle. To wear a helmet with large decorative extensions in combat would be impractical.

The paintings of August Malmström and the stage productions of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle set the standard for what we think Viking warriors looked like.

Artistic License

Fast-forward to the early 19th century, the Romanticism movement produced works that turned away from classical Greek & Roman influences and embraced medieval history from other European cultures further north (such as the Germanic and Celtic cultures). Within Romanticism was the Viking Revival in which the Swedish painter August Malmström is believed to have been one of the first to paint Viking warriors with wings on their helmets. In the spirit of the Mark Twain quote, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” there are a variety of historical inaccuracies in Malmström’s paintings and the winged helmets are a big one … but they make for some great paintings. The fact that winged headpieces were purely ceremonial and probably Celtic (and not Viking), seems to have been lost on Malmström.

But perhaps the most influential source of this myth is the composer Richard Wagner. Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a German 4 opera cycle by Wagner which tells the tale of a mythical past, a magic ring, and the fall of the Nordic / Germanic gods. For the first Bayreuth production in 1876 Wagner’s costume designer Carl Emil Doepler added wings to the helmets of the female Valkyries and horns to the helmet of the minor character Hunding, husband of Sieglinde.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Over time the Valkyries’ wings were replaced with horns, giving us the idea of a female opera singer with a horned helmet. This spread across pop culture most notably in the comic strip Hägar the Horrible, the Minnesota Vikings football team logo, Julianne Moore’s character in the Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski, and the legendary 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? which pulls from several Wagner operas and features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in winged/horned Wagnerian costumes.

A scene from the 1957 Wagner inspired Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?.

Drop in to see what condition your condition is in with the Wagner inspired Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski.

Beyond the Pale

The expression about unacceptable behavior that’s based in Irish history.

Around 16,000 BCE the melting ice from the Ice Age raised sea levels and separated Ireland from Britain. Then around 6,000 BCE Britain became separated from mainland Europe. Since around 8,000 BCE the island of Ireland has been steadily inhabited but whether these early settlers arrived on a disappearing land bridge or by boats is unknown. The Celts much came later (exactly when is debated) but somewhere starting around 500 BCE.

The long conflict between the Irish and English stems from the 1169 CE Norman invasion of Ireland. An 1155 papal decree by Pope Adrian IV (who, what a coincidence, was English himself) granted King Henry II of England the right to invade & govern Ireland. This was the start of the next several hundred years of English colonization of Ireland.

Us From Them

The Lordship of Ireland began in 1177 but England really only ruled over parts of Ireland. Some of the Lords who had been given land assimilated to the local Irish culture, the crown gained land and lost land, and gradually the area under English control shrank. By the 14th century only a region around Dublin was still under English control. To clearly mark the King’s territory, to separate “us from them”, a wooden fence was constructed along portions of the border. This border was the pale, from the Latin “palus” for a stake or fence. So, the native Irish living free outside of the control of the English crown were “beyond the pale.”

To try and control their subjects the English put in place various laws to prevent Irish influence. Marriage between English settlers and the Irish was forbidden, as was speaking Irish Gaelic, dressing like the Irish, or even cutting your hair like an Irish person. These activities were deemed unacceptable behavior and were “beyond the pale.”

Added info: the oldest structures in Ireland, sometimes thought of as Celtic, existed long before the Celts arrived in Ireland. Newgrange, the 5,200 year old passage tomb just North of Dublin, was created 2,500 years before the Celts arrival (it was also created before the pyramids of Giza).

Salvation Mountain

An outsider art environment in the California desert created as a testament to love.

Sitting in the dusty beige desert of southern California is a vibrant candy-colored art project known as Salvation Mountain. Created by Leonard Knight over a 27 year period it’s a 50ft tall 150ft wide monument to God. The mountain is constructed of bales of hay coated with adobe as well as tires, car parts, logs, and whatever else he could find. Covering it all is an estimated 100,000 gallons of paint (which was donated by supporters over the years).

Salvation Mountain is an example of outsider art – art made by an artist outside of the mainstream art world. Knight was a self-taught marginalized artist (but he never considered himself an artist). He was also a visionary artist in the sense that he had a spiritual / religious imperative. Knight was compelled to create Salvation Mountain (a name applied by others) as a testament to God’s love.

God is Love

Begun in 1984, Knight’s construction process was to work on a section, move to new areas, and return to old ones. The high-heat and dry desert conditions means that parts of the mountain are always in need of repairs. The mountain has an estimated 10-15 coats of paint on it, which adds to the structural stability. As for the subject matter there are numerous biblical passages & prayers painted on the mountain (John 3:16 and the Sinner’s Prayer), as well as painted biblical references such as the large Sea of Galilee at the base of the mountain. There are also trees and flowers found all around. While Knight was a nondenominational evangelical Christian, the mountain’s main message is agnostic of any particular faith which is that “God is Love.” This simple message is found all around the mountain.

A bale of hay that is waiting to be coated in adobe clay and painted. Given the conditions of the desert parts of Salvation Mountain are always in need of repairs.
There are multiple painted vehicles at Salvation Mountain, including the truck Knight lived in.

In 2000 Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art Site. Knight died / “went to meet his Mentor” in 2014. Today the mountain is cared for by the Salvation Mountain, Inc. nonprofit organization. The mountain continues to be a popular tourist draw.

“Dont overcomplicate love, lets just keep it simple.”

Leonard Knight

This 2013 video from Vice features Knight discussing his mountain and his message.

Desert Storm Trading Cards

The bizarre 1991 Gulf War trading cards celebrating weapons and the American military.

In 1990, after Iraq invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait, a coalition of Western forces mounted a response in defense of Kuwait (… and oil). The initial operation of the Gulf War was codenamed “Operation Desert Shield” which was followed by the combat phase of “Operation Desert Storm”. Around the same time the American trading card industry was reaching new highs. Trading cards were expanding beyond just sports. There were cards for TV shows, movies, bands, cartoon characters, etc. It was in this world that Desert Storm trading cards were launched.

A collection of cards from Topps Desert Storm series 2 including the “Desert Drink” card which discussed the benefits of staying hydrated.

For the children

In 1991 Topps produced the Desert Storm trading card series. There were 88 cards and 22 stickers with 9 cards & one sticker per 50-cent pack. There were cards of military leaders such as General Norman Schwarzkopf, political leaders such as President George H.W. Bush, as well as cards for vehicles, weapons, and other military equipment. Topps said these cards were not glamorizing war but instead were offering an “encyclopedic look at this military operation and its personalities and weapons …”.

As for being “encyclopedic”, the cards included numerous mistakes such as card 73 (“Machine Gunner”) which listed the 14 NATO member countries, but in 1991 there were actually 16 member countries (they forgot to list France and Iceland). Topps said their information was provided by the Pentagon and arms manufacturers, shirking any fact-checking responsibility.

Topps ended up producing three different Desert Storm card series, for a total of 264 cards, but they weren’t alone. A host of other companies got in on the action producing similar cards. Pro Set had 350 cards in their Desert Storm series with interesting cards such as Greenwich Mean Time, oil, as well as a card for the U.S. Constitution.

A collection of Pro Set Desert Storm cards including the “Greenwich Mean Time” card.

Strange days

Today the cards feel like a satirical take on America’s love of guns & patriotism – an odd relic of the early ‘90s. Critics at the time felt the cards trivialized warfare, that they were propaganda, and were desensitizing kids to violence. As for their monetary value, because of their popularity they were mass produced and so Desert Storm trading cards aren’t worth much. You can buy the entire Topps first series for $10.

Added info: at the same time as the Desert Storm trading cards Topps also produced Desert Shield baseball cards. The baseball cards were the same as regular baseball cards but with an Operation Desert Shield palm tree crest stamped on the front in gold foil. Also, after 9/11 Topps created the Enduring Freedom line of trading cards which included a collectible Osama bin Laden trading card.

House Numbers & Chinoiserie

The style of common American house numbers was influenced by Chinese design.

There is a fairly ubiquitous design style to the address numbers on American houses. While there are some variations to the design it’s essentially a brush script typeface.

The earliest example of this typeface is the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog of letters & numbers, a catalog of physical type to be used in signage, monuments, headstones, etc. Described as simply “Door Numbers” with no comment on the design, the catalog offers two different styles of numbers with the other being more of a traditional serif typeface. It’s the brush script set of numbers though that we see most frequently, but why?

A collection of houses with variations of the typeface found in the Knight & Son catalog.

Chinoiserie

From the late 17th through the 18th century there was a European fascination with things from the East and in particular China. Europeans emulated the Chinese decorative style and incorporated it into their own work. “Chinoiserie” is essentially French for “Chinese style” and came to encapsulate this orientalist movement of European produced creations that were designed in a (sometimes loose interpretation of) Chinese style. In the 19th century there was a Chinoiserie revival which lasted into the 1920s. The Art Deco movement was strongly influenced by designs from China (just look at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Which brings us back to H. W. Knight & Son in 1927.

Some examples of Chinoiserie and how the Chinese design style influenced the Rococo style of the 18th century.
The Chinoiserie revival of the 19th century extended into the Art Deco of the 1920s.

The design of the H.W. Knight house numbers was influenced by the Art Deco Chinoiserie style of the day. Looking at traditional Chinese calligraphy as well as more modern Chinese inspired fonts it’s easy to draw a connection between these house numbers and Chinese designs. In 2006 Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside which is a new font inspired by the H. W. Knight & Son typeface.

Drawing on the script numbers from the the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog, Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside.

Winter Warmer

Drinking alcohol in cold weather only warms you temporarily and then you need to get inside.

Our bodies are designed to regulate heat in order to stay alive. When you’re too hot the blood vessels nearest the skin use vasodilation to open wide and allow heated blood to pass through and radiate heat away from the body, cooling you down.

When you’re cold you body does the opposite. In the cold your body uses vasoconstriction to close off the blood vessels closest to the skin to prevent heat loss. In order to keep your core warm your body limits the blood flow to your extremities, conserving heat. This is why your fingers, toes, skin, etc. get stiff & cold before your core. Fingers are expendable, your organs are not. When your body is using vasoconstriction to keep warm the last thing you want to do is dilate those blood vessels … which is exactly what alcohol does.

From old myths and advertisements, the idea that alcohol is a good way to warm up in the cold has been around for centuries.

Hot Shots

Part of why we think alcohol helps comes from St. Bernards rescuing avalanche victims in the snow wearing small barrels of brandy to warm them up. Unfortunately no St. Bernard dog has ever worn such a cask – it’s a myth popularized by the Edwin Landseer 1820 painting Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller.

Probably the main reason we think alcohol warms us up in the cold is because it sort of does. Alcohol is a vasodilator and so it isn’t the alcohol warming you but what alcohol does to the body that warms you. In the cold alcohol opens the blood vessels that the body has closed down to preserve warmth, the result of which is that the warm reserve of blood in your core is suddenly released out to your extremities. Unfortunately this sudden warmth comes at a cost. As the warm blood reaches your extremities there is a loss of heat and as it travels back to your core your overall body temperature drops. Further, alcohol reduces your body’s ability to shiver (which is another mechanism used to increase warmth) so you’re cold and only getting colder. Now you no longer have a reserve of warmth and need to get indoors.

In this bootlegged video from MythBusters, they explore the myth that alcohol helps warm you up in cold weather.

Mount Tambora & Frankenstein

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 led to the creation of Frankenstein.

Mount Tambora is a volcano on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia and on April 5, 1815 it began a monumental multi-day eruption. The eruption is still the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, the estimated equivalent of a 14,000-megaton nuclear bomb. It was so powerful it removed the top 4,750 feet of the volcano, reducing it to 9,350 feet tall as it sent more than 38 cubic miles of debris into the sky. The explosion was so loud it was heard 1,600 miles away, the equivalent of an explosion in Philadelphia being heard in Denver.

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, cause global devastation.

The eruption immediately killed over 10,000 people on the island. All of the island’s vegetation was destroyed and the water was poisoned which led to starvation and disease killing a further 37,825 Sumbawanese people. As the tsunami it generated, and the ash it expelled, spread to other islands, it killed off more vegetation and more people. Over 71,000 people are believed to have died in the immediate area of Indonesia from the eruption. However, with so much material being sent into the sky, the full impact of the eruption was only beginning.

Into the Stratosphere and Around the World

The long-term effects of the eruption were caused by the gases & ash sent into the stratosphere 141,000 feet into the sky. The sulfur dioxide (SO2) released caused a global greenhouse effect, blocking out sunlight and changing weather patterns. While the effects were spread around the world they were worse in the northern hemisphere. The cold weather and constant rain (such as the 8 weeks of “unceasing and extraordinary rain” in Ireland) killed crops around Europe causing food shortages in what became the worst famine in 19th century mainland Europe. Over 65,000 people died around the British Isles as a result of a typhus epidemic which was made worse by the volcanic induced weather. A new strain of cholera also developed in this weather, killing thousands more.

In North America a dry fog descended on the northeastern states which lasted for months. The extended cold was felt up & down the eastern seaboard. On the 4th of July the high in Savannah, Georgia was only 46° F. Rivers and lakes were still frozen in Pennsylvania in August. The extreme weather and bitter cold is believed to have been a catalyst for the westward expansion across America – people wanted to find a place that wasn’t awful. The eruption of Mount Tambora lowered global temperatures by 0.7 to 1.3 °F but its particularly brutal effects on the northern hemisphere is why 1816 came to be known as the “year without a summer.” The initial volcanic eruption, the extreme cold, the unusual weather patterns, as well as the spread of diseases resulted in a global death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Silver Lining

Despite the adversity there were some positives. German inventor Karl Drais was motivated to find an alternate means of transportation to the horse (since horses require food which was in short supply at the time). He invented the first bicycle, the Laufmaschine, in 1817.

The eruption caused strange dark colors in the skies captured by a variety of painters of the day.

In the arts painters were inspired by the unusual hazy skies. Particulate matter from Mount Tambora hung in the stratosphere frequently blocking the shorter wavelength colors of blue light. A study of paintings from between 1500 to 1900 found that the paintings around 1816 got redder & darker than other time periods. The polluted skies might have made for more depressing daily life but they made for some great paintings.

But perhaps the greatest byproduct of the year without a summer was in literature. In the summer of 1816 a group of English friends traveled to Cologny near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They hoped to escape the bad weather of England but ended up in even more rain. Sitting around with nothing to do Lord Byron proposed everyone write a ghost story. John William Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, took a story idea by Byron and eventually wrote 1819’s The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story.

The year without a summer generated two of the most influential stories in Gothic horror.

An 18 year old Mary Godwin had trouble coming up with a story until (literally) one dark & stormy night, sometime after midnight, she had a “waking dream” of a pale man kneeling beside the thing he had put together that showed signs of life. With the encouragement/help of her soon to be husband Percy Shelley, Mary (Godwin) Shelley had the beginnings of Frankenstein. In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, considered the first science-fiction story.

From one miserable vacation, caused by a volcano thousands of miles away, two of the most defining works of the Gothic horror genre were born.

Why are barns red?

Barns are red because of an abundance of iron from exploding stars.

Barns get painted because it helps protect them from the elements where, if left untreated, they would rot. In the spirit of Louis Sullivan that “form follows function”, barns are painted for practical reasons more so than artistic ones. Red was originally chosen because it was the cheapest paint. It was the cheapest paint because of exploding stars.

Stardust

Iron is the most abundant element on Earth, making up 32.1% by mass. The iron on rocky planets such as Earth came from red giant stars which produced iron atoms towards the end of their lives. Once a star is producing iron it’s on a one-way ticking timeline towards going supernova. When the star finally explodes it sends elements across space, including iron.

Because of an abundance of iron in the soil, the easiest (and cheapest) paint to produce was red.

Fast-forward billions of years, in the mid 19th century American farmers began painting their barns with homemade paint. Farmers mixed skimmed milk, lime, linseed oil, and the readily available red iron oxide found in clay soil to create red paint. Red paint protected the wood from rot as well as from mold since iron oxide (rust essentially) kills mold. By the late 19th century when commercially produced paints were more widely available red paint was still cheaper than other colors and so farmers continued painting their barns red. Today barns are painted red largely out of tradition.

the Bystander Effect

In larger groups people become less likely to help. When people are waiting for someone to do something, maybe you’re the person who should do something.

The bystander effect is a psychological theory where, the more people who are present the less likely someone is to help a person in need. Alone you would probably help but in a crowd you just expect someone else to do something. We regularly hear stories in the news or have examples in our own lives of situations that could have been avoided if someone in the crowd had acted – people who knew someone was dangerous but never told the authorities, people who witness harassment at work but never speak up, the driver broken-down on the side of the highway that everyone drives past, etc.

Part of why this happens is a “diffusion of responsibility” where members of a crowd feel less responsible to take action. “There are so many people here I bet someone else has already called an ambulance” or “someone else is probably more qualified to help”. Of course, if everyone assumes someone else will take action then nobody does.

Another reason this happens is social influence. People look around and take their cues from how others are behaving. We’re social creatures and most of us don’t like to go against the crowd. We try and fit in by doing what other people are doing. If a crowd of people seem unconcerned by something, and they continue going about their day as usual, you are less likely to go against the crowd and take action.

Less Likely To Help (… Some Conditions Apply)

While it is true that the larger the crowd the less likely someone is to assist, there are some caveats. For example: while we take our cues from how others around us are behaving, and if nobody is helping we are less likely to help, the opposite is also true. If other people are lending a hand then we’re actually more likely to help.

People are also more likely to help when a situation is a clear emergency. Ambiguous situations that aren’t life-threatening aren’t as likely to get assistance as an obvious emergency. Also someone who is trained to assist in an emergency is more likely to intervene. For example a medical professional who regularly helps people is more likely to provide assistance even if the rest of the crowd won’t. We’re also more likely to lend assistance to people who we perceive as part of our in-group, our “uchi” (people wearing the jersey of a team we support, people with political bumper stickers we agree with, etc).

I Need Help

If you find yourself in an emergency and there is a crowd of people, there are things you can do to improve your chances of getting help. The first thing is to make it clear you need help. Remove any ambiguity by clearly stating you need help. Singling people out also improves your chances. Make eye contact with individuals, ask them for help, tell them what you need. Directly appealing to individuals improves your chances of receiving help.

As for being a bystander, remember that you are someone. Instead of waiting for someone else to take action maybe you’re the very someone who should take action. If you were the only person around how would you behave? If you begin to help you increase the chances that other people will join in and help too, canceling out the bystander effect.

Added info: while many examples of the bystander effect exist, the definitive example is the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. Multiple people heard and even saw her being attacked but failed to take action until it was too late. There is a very good Stuff You Should Know episode about this case as well as a documentary.