Scáthach (pronounced: scou’-ha, or skah ‘ – thakh) (Scottish Gaelic: Sgàthach an Eilean Sgitheanach), or Sgathaich, is a figure in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. She is a legendary Scottish warrior woman and martial arts teacher who trains the legendary Ulster hero Cú Chulainn (Koo-hull-un or “coo-CHOOL-in) in the arts of combat. She is called “the Shadow” and “Warrior Maid” and is the rival and sister of Aífe or Aoife (ee-fa or AY-fah), both daughters of Árd-Greimne of Lethra.
Texts describe her homeland as Scotland; she resided in an impregnable castle known as Dún Scáith, or “Dun Sgathaich” (Fortress of Shadows), on an island (thought to be the Isle of Skye), the gate of which was guarded by her daughter Uathach (OO-ha). At this fortress Scáthach trained numerous Celtic heroes in the arts of pole vaulting (useful in the assault of forts), underwater fighting, and combat with a barbed harpoon of her own invention, the gáe bolg. A number of other heroes of Celtic mythology also owed their prowess to the training of Scáthach. Scathach did not train women because of a Celtic belief which stated that only women could teach men effective battle skills, and only men could teach them to women”
It was her job to look over the battlefield after a war for the souls of the dead to lead them on the Death Journey. Although she had a preference for warriors, she would also make sure to collect any wandering soul that had gotten lost on the path. As such, it was said that she is helpful when mourning for the death of a loved one, as she leads the dead through the dangers found on the path to the Land of Eternal Youth. If she collected any wrong-doer on her journey, she would leave them on an island where they would pay for their crimes and learn their lessons. Scáthach’s instruction of the young hero Cú Chulainn notably appears in Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), an early Irish foretale to the great epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. Cú Chulainn is honour-bound to perform a number of tasks before he is found worthy to marry his beloved Emer, daughter of the chieftain Forgall Monach.
The tale survives in two versions: a short version written mainly in Old Irish and a later, expanded version of the Middle Irish period. In both versions, Cú Chulainn is sent to Alpae, a term literally meaning “the Alps”, but apparently used to refer to Scotland. Cú Chulainn is sent there with Lóegaire (loygh-EE-re) and Conchobor, and in the later version also with Conall Cernach, to receive training from the warrior Domnall (whose hideous daughter falls in love with the hero and when refused, promises revenge). After some time, Domnall assigns them to the care of Scáthach for further training.
Cú Chulainn and his companion Ferdiad travel to Dún Scáith, where Scáthach teaches them feats of arms, and gives Cú Chulainn her deadly spear, the Gáe Bulg. Cú Chulainn begins an affair with Scáthach’s daughter Uathach, but accidentally breaks her fingers. She screams, calling her lover Cochar Croibhe to the room. Despite Uathach’s protests, he challenges Cú Chulainn to a duel, and Cú Chulainn dispatches him easily. To make it up to Uathach and Scáthach, Cú Chulainn assumes Cochar’s duties, and becomes Uathach’s lover. Scáthach eventually promises her daughter to him, without requiring the traditional bride price. Scáthach also grants Cú Chulainn the “friendship of her thighs” when his training is almost complete. When her rival, the warrior woman Aífe, sister to Scathach, threatens her territory, Cú Chulainn defeats her in battle and forces her to make peace. Aífe also sleeps with Cú Chulainn, producing his son Connla, whom Cú Chulainn kills years later realizing their relation too late.