To fight was every man’s prime duty, and the man who had slain the largest number of his fellows was acclaimed as the greatest hero. It was the proud boast of Conall Cernach, “the Victorious”, that seldom had a day passed in which he had not challenged a Connachtman, and few nights in which a Connachtman’s head had not formed his pillow. It shows the primitive savagery of the period that skulls of enemies were worn dangling from the belt, and were stored up in one of the palaces of Emain Macha as trophies of valor. So warlike were the heroes that even during friendly feasts their weapons had to be hung up in a separate house, lest they should spring to arms in rivalry with their own fellows.
Yet in spite of this rude barbarism of outward life, the warriors had formed for themselves a high and exacting code of honor, which may be regarded as the first steps toward what in later times and other countries became known as “chivalry”; save that there is in the acts of the Irish heroes a simplicity and sincerity which puts them on a higher level than the obligatory courtesies of more artificial ages. Generosity between enemies was carried to an extraordinary pitch. Twice over in fights with different foes, Conall Cernach binds his right hand to his side in order that his enemy, who had lost one hand, may fight on equal terms with him. The two severest combats sustained by Cuchulainn, the youthful Ulster champion, in the long war of the Tain are those with Loch the Great and Ferdiad, both first-rate warriors, who had been forced by the wiles of Medb into unwilling conflict against their young antagonist. In their youth they had been fellow-pupils in the school of the Amazon Scathach, who had taught them both alike the arts of war. When Loch the Great, as a dying request, prays Cuchulainn to permit him to rise, “so that he may fall on his face and not backwards towards the men of Erin,” lest hereafter it should be said that he fell in flight, Cuchulainn replies: “That will I surely, for it is a warrior’s boon thou cravest,” and he steps back to allow the wounded man to reverse his position in the ford. The tale of Cuchulainn’s combat with Ferdiad has become classic; nothing more pathetic or more full of the true spirit of chivalry is to be found in any literature. Each warrior estimates nobly the prowess of the other, each sorrowfully recalls the memory of old friendships and expeditions made together. When Ferdiad falls, his ancient comrade pours out over him a passionate lament. Each night, when the day’s combat is over, they throw their arms round each other’s neck and embrace. Their horses are put up in the same paddock and their charioteers sleep beside the same fire; each night Cuchulainn sends to his wounded friend a share of the herbs that are applied to his own wounds, while to Cuchulainn Ferdiad sends a fair half of the pleasant delicate food supplied to him by the men of Erin. We may recall, too, Cuchulainn’s act of compassion