These days the heat and humidity weigh on us. Let’s return to the cool deep well of the Storyteller. Surely there are tales she has not yet told us.
You remember the way. We climb Tara Hill, follow the spiral path towards the south east. We arrive at the well, its low surrounding stones forming a protective wall. Here we remove our shores, bend down, grasp firmly a large stone for balance, then swing with the grace of an Olympic gymnast above and across the stones, letting our body sink upright into the welcoming cool of the water. Now, we let go. We sink down, down, down, pulled by our weight, until the right wall of the well disappears, pulling us into a womb–like opening that pushes us out into an underground pool. We swim across, climb up onto the rocky ledge. We are wholly dry, as refreshed as though just wakened from a sweet afternoon nap.
The Storyteller is here, seated near us, her dark eyes luminous in the shadow of of her purple hooded cloak. She smiles, welcomes us with delight in her voice:
You’ve come for another story!
The Storyteller gazes at us, scrutinizing each face, nodding as though she has reached a decision. It must be a story of longing and desire. It all begins with longing…
She looks directly at me as she says, Isn’t that what I have taught you? But this tale you have not heard before. You were not ready. Perhaps you are ready now. We shall see.
This is a love story from ancient Ireland, “The Wooing of Etain”.
In the early days when the children of the Goddess Danu, the Fairy gods, were defeated by the Sons of Mil, they agreed to make their vast and beautiful dwelling places inside the mountains and under the rivers and lakes of Ireland. The High King of the Fairy gods was the Dagda. He played upon his wooden harp to make the seasons to follow one another. He commanded the winds and the rains and the crops. His people called him “the good god”.
According to ancient custom, the Dagda sent his son Angus mac Og to be fostered by Midir, the proud Fairy King of Bri Leith. Angus’ companions were thrice-fifty of the noblest youths in Ireland and thrice-fifty of the loveliest maidens, and for all their great number, they all lived in one House. Their beds had columns and posts adorned with wrought gold that gleamed in the light of a precious stone of great size, brilliant in the roof at the centre of the House. Angus was leader of them all, for the beauty of his form and face and for his gentleness.
His days were spent in the Playing field, in feasting and taletelling, in harping and minstrelsy, and the reciting of poetry, and every youth was a chess player in the House of Midir of Bri Leith. Angus stayed with his foster-father for nine years, then he returned to his own Sid, Brugh on the Boyne.
One year to the very day of Angus’ departure, Midir, lonely for his foster son, decided to visit him. He put on his white silk, gold-embroidered tunic and his shoes of purple leather with silver-embroidered tips. He fastened his purple cloak of good fleece with the golden gem-encrusted brooch of Bri Leith, that reached from shoulder to shoulder, in splendour, across his breast, and on the Eve of the autumn Feast of Samhain, he came to the Sid of Angus mac Og, at Brugh on the Boyne.
The Mac Og was standing on the Mound of the Brugh, watching two companies of his youths at play before him. The first company rode horses of purple-brown colour, and their bridles were of white bronze, decorated with gold, and the horses of the second company were blue as the summer sky at early morn, and they had bridles of silver.
The battle sport was joyful, and the air was filled with the clash of arms, the clean ring of metal against metal and the lusty, clear-voiced challenging cries. Angus embraced his foster-father with delight, and they watched the play together, until, inadvertently, Midir was hurt in the eye by one of the youths. Though he was cured by the Dagda’s Physician, he was angered, and demanded satisfaction.
Angus readily agreed. “If it is in my power,” he said, “it is yours. What is your desire?”
“The hand of Etain who is the gentlest and loveliest in all Ireland.”
“And where is she to be found?” Angus asked.
“In Mag Inish, in the North East. She is daughter of the Fairy King Aylill.”
“Then it shall be so,” the Mac Og said, and at the end of the feasting he set out over the soft, cloud-bright fields of our many-hued Land, and came to Mag Inish, in the North East.
Aylill the King demanded a high bride-price. “I will not give my daughter to you except that you clear for me twelve plains in a single night,” he said, “and furthermore, that you draw up out of this land twelve great rivers to water those plains.”
Angus knowing he could not himself accomplish these feats, went to his father, the Dagda, who, of his great power, caused twelve plains to be cleared in the Land of Aylill, and he caused twelve rivers to course towards the sea, and all in a single night. On the morrow, Angus mac Og came to Etain’s father to claim her for Midir.
“You shall not have her till you purchase her,” Aylill said.
“What do you require now?” Angus asked.
“I require the maiden’s weight in gold and silver,” Aylill answered and the Mac Og said: “It shall be done.”
And forthwith he placed the maiden in the centre of her father’s House, measured the weight of her in gold and silver, and leaving the wealth piled up there on the floor, he returned to Brugh on the Boyne with Etain, and the ancient manuscript says, “Midir made that company welcome.”
Etain looked into Midir’s eyes, and that night she became his bride.
Here the Storyteller pauses for that is her way, allowing us time to ask, “What surprised me so far in this tale?”
“What gift have I received from this first part?”
(to be continued….)