We come now to one of the great themes of our lives, though we seldom recognize it when it happens to us. This is the mystery that lies at the heart of the universe. It is found in the most ancient stories over and over again, in the Egyptian story of Isis and Osiris, in the Sumerian story of Inanna, in the Greek story of Persephone and Demeter, and in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the mystery of life /death/life, the mystery of rebirth, the mystery of transformation. And here it is in an ancient Celtic tale.
Let’s take time to reflect on this mystery. We have become so accustomed to living within a culture where time is linear. First this, then this, then this: conception, birth, growth, maturity, diminishment, death. Though they experienced all these stages, our ancient Celtic ancestors, like indigenous peoples everywhere, experienced time as circular. They danced to its rhythms: night gave birth to dawn and day blossomed before it waned into evening, back into night. The Egyptians honoured the sky goddess Nut, mother of the sun, Horus. She gives birth to him each dawn and swallows him at dusk, gives birth to him again at dawn. In Newgrange in Ireland, the very place in our story that is the home of the Mac Og, there is a stone mound where the light of the sun, only at the winter solstice dawn, enters through a small slit and shines in the centre of an inner chamber.
Our ancestors watched the cycles of the moon, the turning of the tides. The women noticed how the rhythms of their own bodies, their regular times of bleeding, followed the moon’s rhythms. No wonder they felt at home in the universe, embraced by the earth.
If we could enter into the ancient ones’ understanding of time, the rhythms of our lives would take on sacred meaning. Our times of inner darkness would hold the promise of a dawn of new joy. Our losses would be seen as invitations to embrace other gifts, our death as birth into a new as yet unimagined life.
We seldom think about the rebirthing that happens many times in our lives. Do you remember the Gospel story of Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night, in secrecy, not wanting others to know he was drawn by this man’s presence and teaching? Jesus speaks to him in the language of death and rebirth. “Unless you are willing to be born again…”
Nicodemus scoffs: “What? Can a man enter again into his mother’s womb?” But Jesus takes him to the deeper meaning. “Born again of water and the Spirit”…. Jesus is talking about radical change, costing not less than everything, offering no less than everything we desire and need for fullness of life.
Were there times in your life when you felt as though you were once more in the womb? When there was no way to see where you were, to understand what was happening? No ability to do anything but wait and wait and wait, nourished by an unknown source, until the walls of this place of ingression squeeze, forcing you back out into the sunlight. Joseph Campbell calls this part of our journey being in the belly of the whale. We can do nothing but wait, be nourished, grow, until we no longer fit in this place, and like Jonah, are cast forth into active life. We find ourselves changed, changed utterly, perhaps only realizing how much when our friends and family no longer know how to be with us or we with them.
This is what is happening now in Etain’s tale.Back into the womb, into the belly of the wife of Etar. A change so radical that when she is reborn as Etain, daughter of Etar, she will recall nothing of her former life, nothing of what came before.
Now, the Storyteller awaits us.
Eochaid, King of Ireland, in the year after his succession, commanded that the great Feast of Tara be held in order to assess the tribute and the taxes. But the people assembled and talked together, and they refused to pay tribute to a King who had no Queen, and they would not hold Festival at that time. So it was that Eochaid, without delay, sent envoys to the North and to the South, to the East and to the West, to seek the fairest maiden in Ireland to be his bride.
As the months passed and, one by one, the messengers returned to Tara, each had audience with the King. He listened to them and conferred with his men of wisdom, and his poets, but his heart did not leap within him until, late on an evening, he was alone on the terrace of Tara and a young envoy asked leave to speak with him. The King bade him draw near, and eagerly, the messenger spoke. “Fifty beautiful maidens there were, O King, bathing in the estuary near to the house of Etar, in Ulster, and one more beautiful than all the others, at the edge of a spring, with a bright silver comb ornamented with gold, washing her hair in a silver bowl with four golden birds on it, and little flashing jewels of purple carbuncle on the rims of the bowl… There were two golden yellow tresses on her head; each one was braided of four plaits, with a bead at the end of each plait. The colour of her hair seemed … like the flower of the water-flag in summer, or red gold that has been polished.
“She was loosening her hair to wash it… her wrists were as white as the snow of one night and they were soft and straight; and her clear and lovely cheeks were red as the foxglove of the moor. Her eyebrows were as black as a beetle’s wing… Her eyes were blue as the bugloss; her lips red as vermillion; her shoulders were high and smooth and soft and white as the foam on the wave… The bright blush of the moon was on her noble face… She was the fairest and loveliest and most perfect of the women of the world that the eyes of men have ever seen…” “She is Etain,” the messenger said, “daughter of Etar, and there is pride on her brow and radiance in her eyes, and it is said, ‘All are fair till compared with Etain.’ I thought her to be out of a Fairy Mound.”
Eochaid, the King, wooed Etain, and married her, and she matched him in lineage, in youth and fame, and she brought joy and happiness to the King’s House.