The Gáe Bolg is a powerful and extremely dangerous weapon in Irish legend. It features prominently in the Ulster Cycle, where it is the weapon of Cú Chulainn.
In this article, you will learn:
- What the name ‘Gáe Bolg’ means
- Where this weapon came from
- How it was used
- Who was killed with it
Also, don’t forget to visit our Celtic Mythology hub, where we have a LOT more articles like this one.
What is the Gáe Bolg?
Put simply, the Gáe Bolg (also spelled Gáe Bulga, Gáe Bolg, Gáe Bolga) was an extremely dangerous spear or javelin.
In some descriptions, it is said to have had a single point with which it pierced through the flesh of its victim. It then opened up into 30 barbs, tearing through its victim’s flesh from the inside.
In another version, the Gáe Bolg has seven main spearheads. Each one of these had seven barbs.
In either case, the Gáe Bolg was said to tear into the flesh of its victim so thoroughly that it could not be simply pulled out of their body. The body had to be cut open to be able to retrieve the weapon.
Because it would take some time to recover it after each use, the Gáe Bolg was not very useful in general warfare. It was, however, very useful in single combat.
It was an extremely deadly weapon. So deadly, in fact, that it was only used as a last resort, perhaps because it would have been dishonourable to use such a deadly weapon right away.
Etymology of the Name
There are several different theories as to what the name ‘Gáe Bolg’ means. The first part of the name, at least, is simple. The word ‘gáe’ in Old Irish means ‘spear’.
The second part of the name is much more controversial. The most obvious etymology is that it comes from the Old Irish ‘bolg’, meaning ‘belly’. This would mean that the name of the weapon translates as ‘belly spear’.
While this is the most direct translation of the two parts of the name, this translation does not really make sense. What has the spear got to do with bellies?
For this reason, some linguists argue that the second part of the name actually comes from Old Irish ‘bolc’, meaning ‘breach’, or ‘notch’. This could refer to the piercing of the flesh performed by the spear. Or it could refer to the spear itself as having notches.
Another explanation is that the second half of the name, ‘Bolg’, comes from a hypothetical Proto-Celtic phrase ‘balu-gaisos’, meaning ‘spear of mortal pain’. It is theorised that the word ‘Gáe’ was then added back onto the start of the name by later generations who did not know what the word ‘Bolg’ originally meant.
Origin of the Gáe Bolg
The Gáe Bolg is said to have come from the body of a sea monster.
Somewhere in the Red Sea, thousands of miles from Ireland, the sea monster Curruid was fighting a fierce battle against the sea monster Coinchenn.
The first monster was slain, and its remains ended up being washed ashore. A warrior named Bolg mac Buain found it and made the Gáe Bolg from the bones of this sea monster.
Bolg mac Buain was said to have then given the Gáe Bolg to an obscure figure named Mac Inbar, who then passed it on to his companion Lena. Lena, in turn, gave the spear to a figure named Dermeil.
From Dermeil, the Gáe Bolg passed on to the hands of Scáthach, a warrior woman who lived in Scotland. She was the tutor of Cú Chulainn, the hero of the Ulster Cycle.
The Weapon of Cú Chulainn
According to some versions, Scáthach gave Cú Chulainn the weapon. In other versions, she gave it to her sister (and later enemy) Aífe, from whom Cú Chulainn took it after defeating her in combat.
In either case, Scáthach was certainly the one who taught Cú Chulainn how to use this deadly weapon.
The technique seems to have involved holding the spear between one’s toes and then launching it at the enemy with a kick of the foot. Perhaps this method was utilised to enable the spear to slip past the defences of the enemy.
Although other people had possessed the Gáe Bolg before, it became the signature weapon of Cú Chulainn, more closely associated with him than with any other figure.
There are not many instances in Irish legend in which Cú Chulainn actually uses the Gáe Bolg. In fact, it seems to have only been used twice. Both times he does, it is in an extremely desperate situation.
Apparently the first instance in which Cú Chulainn used the Gáe Bolg was against his foster brother and best friend, Ferdiad.
The two men met in single combat at a ford during the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, which occurred when Cú Chulainn was just 17 years old.
The two men engaged in a terrible fight which lasted three days. It was a very evenly-matched engagement, with Ferdiad actually coming close to winning.
However, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer Láeg sent the Gáe Bolg floating down the stream just in time for it to reach Cú Chulainn before his foster brother could kill him. Cú Chulainn then used the terrible weapon, killing his foster brother.
The second time in which Cú Chulainn used the Gáe Bolg was when he fought against his own son.
After he defeated Aífe in Scotland, Cú Chulainn had relations with her and they conceived a son. He then left her in Scotland, travelling back to Ireland.
Years later, their son – named Connla – travelled to Ireland to find his father. Cú Chulainn mistook him for an enemy, so they fought each other.
Once again, this was a very close battle. Cú Chulainn nearly died when Connla had the opportunity to take a fatal shot, but he missed intentionally because he did not want to kill his father.
In this desperate situation, Cú Chulainn resorted to using the Gáe Bolg. He struck Connla with it, mortally wounding him.
Tragically, it was only as he was dying that Cú Chulainn realised that Connla was his son, which he realised by noticing that he was wearing a special gold ring that he had given Aífe all those years ago.
Gáe Bolg in Modern Media
The Gáe Bolg has appeared in several pieces of modern media. Examples include:
- Patrick McGinley’s The Trick of the Ga Bolga (1985)
- Disney’s animated TV show Gargoyles (1994), in which it is the weapon of Cú Chulainn, one of the main characters
- Gravity’s role-playing game Ragnarok Online (2002)
- TYPE-MOON’s visual novel game Fate (2004)
- Various entries in Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series
Frequently Asked Questions About the Gáe Bolg
What Does the Gáe Bolg Do?
The Gáe Bolg enters its victim’s flesh and opens into thirty separate barbs, tearing through the victim’s body from the inside.
According to a description of one of the times it was used, the Gáe Bolg ‘coursed through the highways and byways of his body so that every single joint filled with barbs.’
How Many Times Did Cú Chulainn Use the Gáe Bolg?
There are only two surviving tales of Cú Chulainn using this deadly weapon. The first was against his foster brother, Ferdiad, during the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
The second instance was when he fought against his son Connla after mistaking him for an enemy.
Who was the Owner of the Gáe Bolg?
The Gáe Bolg was owned by the following people:
- Bolg mac Buain
- Mac Inbar
- Aífe (in one version)
- Cú Chulainn
Cú Chulainn was by far the most famous and notable owner of the Gáe Bolg.
What was the Gáe Bolg Made Of?
The Gáe Bolg was made from the bones of a sea monster called the Curruid that washed up somewhere on the shores of the Red Sea after being slain by another monster, the Coinchenn.
Celtic Mythology Bibliography
- James MacKillop – A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
- Proinsias Mac Cana – Celtic mythology (Library of the world’s myths and legends)
- Philip Freeman – Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes
- Margaret Alice Murray – The God of the Witches