The wooing of Etain, an Irish legend
The Wooing of Etain
An Irish Legend as retold by Peggy von Burkleo
In the ancient days of Ireland, the Lords of the Daione Sidhe walked the length and breadth of the land, for then the walls between the worlds were thin, and difficult it was to say where, exactly the Faery left off and the mortal world began. Now it was in those times that The Dagda desired a tryst with Boan, the wife of Elcmar. In order to hide their love from Elcmar, the Dagda sent him on an errand to Bres mac Elatha and told him to return at sunset. The Dagda then slowed time so that in the space of a day, an entire year had passed. In that time Boan gave birth to a son, whom she named Angus mac Og, or young son of youth, for as she said,” Young is the son who was conceived at sunrise and borne before night.”
To hide their son from the vengeance of Elcmar, Angus was sent to the home of Midir the Proud, lord of Bri Leith, to be raised as his foster son. In those times children were often sent as fosterlings to the homes of distant kin or friends, in order to learn a trade, and strengthen the bonds of family, and it wasn’t uncommon for a man to have the honor of raising several foster children at one time. So naturally no suspicion fell on either the Dagda or Angus because of this arrangement, and Midir raised Angus with all the affection he would have given his own child.
Angus grew up playing with the other foster children and the young Fir Blog, the children of the mortals who lived in Ireland at the time. One day, in a dispute over the outcome of a hurling match, an argument broke out between Angus and Triath, one of the Fir Blog. Angus declared the he was right, owing to his birth rank, and Triath responded by saying the he didn’t have to take the word of a boy who didn’t even know who his real father was. Angus, who had all his life, assumed that he was the son of Midir, was shocked! He went to his foster father, with tears in his eyes, and asked him for the truth. Midir, seeing his beloved foster son so distraught, said that it was time for Angus to meet his father, and took him to the Dagda.
The Dagda greeted them warmly when they arrived at his home, and told Angus the truth of his parentage and promised him a Brug (fort and land) of his own. But, the Dagda told him, the Brug he had chosen, Brug na Boyne, (now called Newgrange) was currently owned by Elcmar.
“You must go” said the Dagda “to the fort of Elcmar on the sunset of Samhain, when all his host will be assembled in his hall, and none shall be armed. You yourself shall be armed, however, and shall demand of Elcmar to rule his brug for a day and a night.”
This Angus did, and Elcmar acquiesced to Angus’ demands, but took his grievance before the Dagda and the men of Ireland for justice. The Dagda listened to Elcmar’s dispute, and upon handing down his judgment, the Dagda mocked Elcmar for his cowardice and gave the brug to Angus saying, “The brug belongs to Angus, as you gave it to him for a day and a night, and it is in days and nights that the world is spent.”
But in compensation for his loss, the Dagda gave Elcmar the brug at Cleitech, which Elcmar admitted he liked better anyway.
Time passed on and Angus was the lord of the Brug na Boyne, and in time he gathered a household and foster children of his own. Although he now knew the truth of his birth, Angus and Midir remained close and often in the summer evenings Midir would be found at the home of Angus. It was during one such evening as Angus and Midir were watching the foster children playing hurley, that a fight broke out among the foster children, and in the course of settling the matter, Midir was struck in the head by a holly spear and lost an eye. Now in these days a lords vitality and health were strongly tied to the welfare of his lands. Any blemish, wound or imperfection could result in lost crops, floods, or worse. Midir was unable to return home and rule Bri Leith as he was, so Angus took Midir to the healer, Diancecht, to restore the lost eye. Midir the Proud demanded reparation from Angus for the insult of the injury, as in those days a “blush fine“ could be put against any party that caused insult and shame to another. As part of the blush fine, Midir asked for the fairest maiden in Ireland as his bride. Well the fairest maiden was Etain, daughter of the Faery lord of Echrad. Angus Went to the lord and explained that he wanted Etain as a wife for the lord Midir, if he and Etain were willing. Angus and the lord negotiated out the bride price, (which was something like a dowry but paid to the family to compensate for the loss of their daughter) and took Etain to Midir who was waiting at the Brug na Boyne. So beautiful of form, and so sweet of nature was Etain that Midir was well pleased with Angus, and remained his guest with his new bride for a year.
On the day that Midir and Etain left Brug na Boyne For Bri Leith, Angus took his foster father aside and gave him warning.
“Take care of your new wife, for Fuamnach, you wife who awaits you, is a woman of great cunning and power. Also, I gave my word to the Faery Lord of Echrad, that I would protect his daughter from your Dannon wife. Do not forget that Fuamnach, daughter of Beothach is skilled in the wisdom and arts of the Tuatha De Dannon and that she was raised as the foster daughter of the wizard Bresal until she married you.”
When Midir arrived at Bri Leith with his new wife, they were both warmly greeted by Fuamnach. She told them all of what had happened at Bri Leith in the year Midir had been gone and showed them around the lands so that Etain might feel welcome. That evening as Fuamnach retired to her sleeping chamber, she turned to Fuamnach and said “It is into the seat of a good woman you have come.”
That night, when Etain sat in the seat of honor beside Midir, Fuamnach struck her with a wand of scarlet quickentree. In that instant, Etain was transformed into a pool of water. Fuamnach returned to the house of her foster father, and Midir in his grief, left the house to the pool of water that was Etain. Over time, the heat of the fire, and the motion of the air dried the pool until it turned to mud, and that damp earth writhed until it became a worm, and that worm, a purple fly. It was the most lovely in the land, and the size of a mans head. The hum of her wings was sweeter than harps and pipes and horns. Like two dark jewels, shone her eyes and the enchanting scent of her would turn away hunger and thirst from anyone whom she would go around. Likewise would the spray of her wings cure any plague or sickness or disease. The fly that was Etain, flew to where Midir was, and so lovely was her presence, that Midir knew her to be his beloved. Where ever he traveled she would go, and hosts of men who would gather were nourished by the very sight and sound of her. The music of her humming wings would lull Midir to sleep, and she would guard him as he slept, waking him if anyone who did not love him approached.
After a period of time, Fuamnach came to speak with Midir, accompanied by Lugh, the Dagda and Oghma as sureties. Midir strongly reproached her and told her if not for her sureties, she would not leave him. Fuamnach replied that she did not regret what she had done, for she would rather do herself good than another, and that furthermore, she would always do harm to Etain, no matter what part of Ireland she lived in, for as long as she lived, no matter what shape Etain might be. Then deliberately looking at the purple fly, Fuamnach began to recite incantations and spells taught to her by her foster father, the wizard Bresal. She summoned forth powerful winds and banished the transformed Etain from Midir. Of such strength and magic were those winds, that Etain could find in Ireland neither summit nor tree nor plain nor hill that she could rest on for seven years, but only on the tops of waves and ocean rocks. Then one day, by accident, she landed on the fringe of the cloak of Angus mac Og, as he was on the mound of Brug na Boyne.
Gathering her gently in the woolen fleece of his cloak, he whispered, “Welcome, Etain, careworn wanderer, who has suffered much through the vengeance of Fuamnach.”
He carried her into his house to his grianan, a sun filled bower, and gave her every honor and courtesy. Fragrant blossoms and healing herbs he had brought for her and every night he would sleep by her side, comforting her until her strength and happiness returned.
Word eventually reached Fuamnach of Angus’ love and care of Etain, and so she sent word to Midir saying, “Summon your foster son and come yourself so that peace may be made between us all, and I shall bring Etain.”
Then when Angus was traveling to Bri Leith, Fuamnach went to Brug na Boyne, and summoned another magical wind that blew Etain far from the home of Angus. When Angus learned of Fuamnach’s deceit, he went to where she was staying with her foster father, and struck off her head.
Etain was blown on the magic winds for another seven years, again unable to rest anywhere in Ireland, but only on the sea. At last, she lit upon the roof beam of the home of Etar, champion of Ulster where he and his people were drinking. So spent was she, that she fell from the beam into a golden beaker of wine and was swallowed by his wife.
The spirit of Etain entered her womb, and became borne as her daughter. She was named Etain, daughter of Etar. It was one thousand and twelve years since Etain was borne of the Faery King Ailill until she was borne of the wife of Etar.
Etain was raised in Etar’s home at Inber Cichmaine, well loved and well cared for, and while she was raised with 50 foster sisters, because of her beauty and grace, she was the constant center of all. And so she spent her childhood, and grew to be an even lovelier maiden.
One spring morning, as she and her foster sisters were bathing in an estuary, they saw a horseman crossing the plain towards them. He was riding a bold noble brown steed, with a long curling main and tail. The man himself wore a generous green cloak, many times folded over, and a red embroidered tunic. His golden brooch, the shape of a crescent moon reached from shoulder to shoulder. A gold rimmed shield of silver with a golden boss he had strapped to his back with a cord of silver. He carried in his hand a spear of five points, its whole length bound with gold. His bright yellow hair was held back from his face by a golden circlet. All the maidens beholding him fell into a swoon of love. Gazing upon them, he spoke this lay:
“It is fair Etain here today
At Sid Ban Find west of Ailbe,
It is she, among young men
At the edge of Inber Cichmaine.
It is she who healed the lord’s eye
From the well of Loch Da Lig;
It is she that was swallowed in the wine
From a beaker by Etar’s wife.
It is she who will cause the King to chase
The birds from Tara,
And drown his two noble horses
In the water of Loch Da Airbrech
It is she who will be the cause
Of many a war on Eochaid of Meath;
There shall be destruction of Faery mounds
And battle against many a thousand.
It is she whom was sung of in the land
It is she that strives to wed the king;
It is she that is at Sid Ban Find,
It is she who will be my Etain, in the end.”
And then the stranger turned and rode away, not one knew where he had gone or where he came from.
Now in this time, Ireland was ruled by a noble and just High King, Eochaid Airem. A year he had been on the throne of Tara, when he decreed that a feast was to be held at Samhain tide and that all the men in Ireland should attend so that their taxes might be known. When word reached the kings and chieftains of Ireland, however, they refused one and all. They said that they all, kings and chieftains, had wives suitable to them and as that they would not attend they feast without their wives nor would their wives attend without them, then likewise the High King should not hold the feast without a wife suitable to him. And they said that until such time as he had such a wife, no one would attend the feast of Tara.
Eochaid said that he would only marry a woman who was his equal in countenance and mind and who furthermore had never been with any other man, and he sent his messengers out over the length and breadth of Ireland to find her.
They searched in the south, in the land of knowledge and poetry. They searched in the north in the land of pride and contentions. They searched in the east, in the land of strength and hospitality. They searched in the west, in the land of histories and judgment. They searched in the center, in the land of renown and prosperity. In Inber Cichmaine they found her, Etain the daughter of Etar.
At once, Eochaid set out to meet her, leaving Tara on his white steed. He went by way of Bri Leith and as he rode across its’ green plain, he espied a maiden kneeling by a spring. On the ground, beside her for washing was a sliver bowl decorated on the rim with bright carbuncles, and around the basin were four golden birds. In her hand she held a silver comb chased through with gold. Her cloak of purest purple fell in deep folds around her form, and under it a mantle with a silver hem rested on her chest, held in place by a golden brooch. A hooded tunic of green embroidered in red she wore under these, clasped in the front with bow pins of gold and silver shining in the sunlight. Her golden hair upon her head in two locks was divided and each lock braided with four plaits held at the end by a ball of gold.
She was loosening her hair to wash it, her two arms outstretched were the whiteness of snow only one night fallen. Her cheeks were as red as mountain foxglove and her eyes the blue of hyacinth; her lips delicately red, soft and high her two white shoulders. Her delicate wrists and long fingers, smooth and pale. Pink and long, her nails. As white as the foam of the sea was her side, and pale and long her legs. Beautiful were her two fair eyes; her brows and lashes the blue black of a beetles wing. Of all the most beautiful and fair of maidens that men had ever seen she was the greatest. Looking at her it seemed to Eochaid and his men as if she had come out of the faery mounds. Of Etain it was said, “Every beauty was beautiful, ‘til compared with Etain, every lovely form lovely ‘til compared with her.”
A strong love came upon Eochaid and he approached her and asked “Who are you, fair maiden? From where have you come?’”
“Not hard an answer, that.” She replied. “I am Etain, of the same name as the daughter of the lord of Echrad of the faery mounds. I come from Inber Cichmaine, where my father Etar is lord.”
“Woman of my heart, will you be mine?” asked King Eochaid.
“Men of this land, both kings and nobles have desired my love, but none have I given. For my heart I have given you, since I was a small child, for the stories of your valor and beauty. Though we have never before met each other, still I know your face, for so long I have held the thought of you in my heart, Eochaid Airem.”
“This is not the answer of a bad friend.” said Eochaid. “You are welcome, indeed, and all others I shall put aside for your sake, and with you alone I shall live, as long as it pleases you.”
So Eochaid went to her father, and paid her bride price and brought her home to Tara, where she was warmly welcomed.
The feast at Tara was held at Samhain tide, and all the chieftains and kings were in attendance, and all agreed that the High King had found a wife suitable for him. The feast started fourteen days before Samhain night, and lasted fourteen days after. It was during this time that Eochaid’s brother Ailill Anglonnach fell ill. He scarcely ate or drank or slept, but would sit apart from the others, and stare into the distance, and grew very pale and wan. After the feast had ended, and the chieftains and kings had returned to their homes, Ailill Anglonnach remained ill, so his brother had him sent to the hall of Fremain in Tara, Eochaid’s favorite stronghold. Ailill Anglonnach remained there a full year and showed no sign of improvement.
“The illness you are under, it does not appear serious, brother.” said Eochaid, “In truth, how fare you?”
“I give you my word, brother. It is not well with me, and it grows worse every night and every day.”
“Then I shall bring someone to you who may discover what ails you.” said Eochaid.
Fachtna, the kings own physician, was brought to the hall of Fremain. Fachtna placed his hand on the chest of Ailill Anglonnach. The Kings brother let go a sigh.
“Not serious at all, is this matter.” The physician informed Ailill. “One of two things is the matter with you. Either you suffer from the pain of love you gave, or from the pain of jealousy.”
At this Ailill blushed deeply, but said nothing to Fachtna. For ever since Samhain, he had been deeply in love with Etain, but had told no one, out of loyalty to his brother. And so in silence he had suffered in his pain, the shame of his jealousy and love driving all ease from him. But as he would not reveal the cause of his condition to the physician, Fachtna left, unable to aide him.
As to Eochaid, as High King, he was duty bound to complete a king’s circuit of Ireland, visiting the brug of every king and chieftain on a tour that would last a full year. Eochaid left the care of his brother to Etain, saying “Be kind to Ailill, while he yet lives, and should he die, have him buried at Tara and let his name be written in ogham upon his stone pillar.”
And so he left Tara with a heavy heart believing his brother would not live out the year.
Every day Etain would go to the hall of Fremain, and care for Ailill Anglonnach. It grieved her deeply to see her husband’s beloved brother wasting away, for she knew how much Eochaid would miss Ailill if he died. One day, when she was caring for him, she said “What ever is this sickness you are under? If only I knew what was making you ill, I would do what ever I could to make you well again.”
Then, gazing at Etain, Ailill spoke, saying, “It has only ever been for the want of you that I have suffered.”
Etain said nothing to this, but continued to come to the hall of Fremain every day to see to Ailill. One morning she said “It is not right that you should suffer so, nor that my husband should lose his brother on account of me. Meet me tomorrow morning at the break of day, at the house that is outside my husband’s fortress, so that we will not dishonor him in his own home, and I shall give you the cure for your illness.”
That night Ailill lay in his bed unable to sleep, but when the appointed hour drew near, an irresistible slumber fell upon him and he was unable to rouse to meet Etain. At the house outside the walls of Tara, Etain had not long to wait until she saw a man come toward the trysting place, weak and ill, but she marked that it was not Ailill. When it became apparent that Ailill was not coming, she went back to Tara, and found him sleeping. When she woke him and he found what had passed, he cried in his grief that he would rather die than live. But Etain comforted him saying that they would meet again at the same place tomorrow. But once again Ailill slept not at all that night and again a heavy sleep fell on him just before dawn. And again as Etain waited she saw a weakened man who was not Ailill. Once again she and Ailill agreed to meet the following dawn, and again the same events happened. This time however, when the stranger came to the house outside the walls of Tara, Etain spoke to him, saying “Why is it you who have come to meet me instead of him whom I would heal?”
“It would be better to tryst with me Etain, daughter of Etar, for when you were Etain daughter of the lord of Echrad it was I who was your first husband.”
“What is your name, who would speak so boldly to me?” she asked.
“Not hard,” he answered, “I am Midir of Bri Leith”
“And why were we parted, if we were once married as you say?”
“Again, it is easy to tell.” He said “It was the spells of Fuamnach learned from the sorcerer Bresal that parted us.”
Then Midir looked at Etain and asked softly, “Will you come with me?”
“No.” said Etain “I’ll not leave the King of all Ireland for a man I’ve only just met and about whom I know nothing.”
“Yet I was I who placed your husband’s brother under a spell of love of you, and I again who made him sleep these three days and saved your honor.”
Blushing, Etain answered, “Still, I will not go from my husband to you, unless he says himself that I may.”
With that, she left and returned to Tara.
When Etain arrived at the hall of Fremain, She found Ailill Anglonnach roused and well, his strength returned to him. She told Ailill of all the strange happenings that morning, and he smiled and said, “It is well, what you did. For when I woke, this day, I found my love of you lifted, and my illness gone.”
That summer, when Eochaid returned to Tara, Etain and Ailill Anglonnach told him all of what transpired from beginning to end. Eochaid, for his part, was relieved that his brother was well and grateful to Etain in that she had been gracious enough to have been willing to sacrifice her own honor to save the life of his brother.
It was the custom of Eochaid Airem, High King of Ireland, when in his royal residence, to rise in the dark morn before each dawn and walk the ramparts of Tara as the sun broke the shadows of night into the light of day. One summer dawn, as the first rays of light were painting the clouds with blushing pink, and Eochaid was upon the ramparts, he saw before him a stranger. This unknown warrior had golden hair reaching to his shoulders and a tunic of deep purple stitched in red over which he wore a rich green cloak held in place by brooch of gold in the shape of a new moon so large in size that it stretched from shoulder to shoulder. In his hand he carried a spear of five points and on his back he wore a shield of silver with a golden rim and boss. Eochaid was put in surprise, as he knew that no such man had been in Tara when the gates had been closed the night before, and neither had the guards opened the gates yet that morn. The man approached Eochaid and greeted him, and Eochaid gave him welcome.
“Kind are the welcomes given at Tara, from the High King Eochaid.” said the stranger.
“Indeed.” said Eochaid. “By what name is it that you are known, stranger?” he asked.
“Not hard, that. I am Midir of Bri Leith.”
“And why this morning have you come to fair Tara?”
“I have heard of your skill at Fitchell (an ancient predecessor of chess) and have desired to test my skill against so worthy an opponent.”
“You have heard well.” replied Eochaid. “But we must wait for the Queen to wake to play, as the fitchell board is kept in her sleeping chamber.”
“I have brought with me my own.” said Midir.
He produced a silver board inlaid with purple jewels. From a bag of woven bronze he took the game pieces, each made of finely wrought gold.
“Let us play for a stake.” said Eochaid, as Midir set up the game.
“What would you care to wager?” Midir asked.
“It matters not.” returned Eochaid.
“Very well.” Midir said. “Then if I shall lose to you fifty horses shall I pay, all of them dark grey dappled, red their heads, and sharply pointed their ears. Swift and strong and spirited are they, yet yielding to command. Silver shall their bridles be, befitting a king. If you should lose then I shall be given a small thing asked of you.”
Long it was they played, from dawn ‘til dusk. At last, as the grey of twilight stole across the plains of Tara and the gates closed for the evening, the High King won and Midir promised to bring the horses the following dawn.
The next day, even as he was walking the ramparts, Eochaid espied Midir inside the locked gates of Tara, and there beside him where the promised horses. Eochaid greeted him and asked him again to play a game of Fitchell.
“For what stakes shall we play this time?” Midir asked.
“Let us decide that when the game is done.” responded Eochaid. “I for one shall honor my debt, should I lose, as I am sure you shall honor yours.”
Again they played from sunrise to sunset and again at the setting of the sun, Eochaid won.
“And what payment shall you have, o King?” Midir asked.
“A simple thing for you” said Eochaid, who suspected that his opponent was out of the faery mounds. “To, in the space of one night, clear the fields of Meath of brush and stone, and drain the marshes of Tara that they may be fertile, cut down the forest of Breg, and build a causeway across the moor of Lamrach, that men might cross.”
“It is a heavy burden you lay upon me, knowing I may not refuse.” complained Midir.
“The fault is yours for pledging your honor so lightly.” answered the king.
“These things you ask, I shall have done, but on this condition only; that no man shall witness the feats of my labor.”
“I shall have the halls of Tara locked and prohibit the men from leaving.” said Eochaid.
But that night Eochaid sent his chief steward out to spy on Midir and see what he did. On the plain of Tara was a host of faery at work clearing the land. Owning to their labor, their shirts they had removed and heaped in a pile, and on top of that pile stood Midir, shouting out orders. The steward looked on a sight of great wonder, as such had never been seen by mortal eyes. In the space of one night all the work was done, except the faery folk, catching sight of the steward, put a flaw in the causeway that could never be fixed, for the insult of his spying.
The next morning the steward reported to the High King every detail of what he had seen, down to the unusual yokes used by the faery oxen. Now up until that very day, the men of Ireland had fastened the yokes of their plows to the heads of their oxen as they pulled, but Eochaid, hearing how the faery oxen had their yokes around their necks to better pull their plows, issued a decree that day that all plows in Ireland should be thus used from then on. It was from this that he was called Eochaid Airem, or Eochaid the Plowman.
And even as the steward had finished his report, Midir appeared before them, a look of great anger on his face.
“Great is the suffering I have endured from the cruel welcome of you, Eochaid High King.”
“I’ll not meet anger with anger.” Eochaid responded. “What repayment would you have of me?”
“Whatever pleases you.” said Midir with dark eyes. “Shall we play a game of Fitchell?”
“That pleases me well.” replied Eochaid. “And what ever the winner claims as stakes shall be paid.”
Once again they played from dawn ‘til dusk, but this time it was Eochaid High King who lost.
“My stake is pledged to you, and on my honor I shall pay it. What claim you, Midir?”
“Had I so desired it, I would have won long ago. That stake you shall pay is that you give leave to Etain come to me, that I may embrace her in my arms.”
At this Eochaid was silent. After a space, he spoke saying, “In one months time, return you here at the end of day, and you shall be given what you ask.”
When the evening of the agreed upon day arrived, Eochaid had assembled all the mightiest heroes of Ireland in the Great Hall and placed hosts of warriors outside the barred doors so that his wife was well guarded, there on the height of Tara. Inside the Great Hall, Etain attended the High King, for the pouring out of his drink was her special honor. Though the gates and doors were locked and barred, though all of Tara was filled with the Finest Warriors in Ireland, armed and ready for battle, as the last rays of the sun faded from the sky, there in the Great Hall, Midir stood. If before he had been splendid to look on, then this evening his beauty shone brighter still. All who beheld him stood in awe of the sight.
“I have come to claim my stake, and embrace Etain, as you have agreed.” He said.
“Etain shall not go to you while she stands on the ground of Tara!” shouted Eochaid.
“As you say, so it shall be.” spoke Midir, and crossing the room, he gathered Etain into his arms and up through the smoke hole in the roof they went.
At once Eochaid and his host left the Hall in pursuit, and scanned the skies, but no sign of Etain or Midir did they see. All they saw were two swans flying toward Bri Leith.
(Some stories say Eochaid managed to regain her, others say not, and the consequences of his attempts were what led to legend of the destruction of Da Dergs Hostel, but that is another story.)
-Copyright Peggy von Burkleo, 2006