Unveiling the Mystery of Etain

The Storyteller sits near us in silence, allowing us to absorb the tale of “The Wooing of Etain” with its surprising ending. The silence stretches for such a long while that I am wondering if she means for us to quietly leave the well on Tara Hill. Perhaps she has no more to say to us..

Suddenly she asks:
Shall I speak with you about the deeper meaning of this story?
You know it is about love, about longing, and about the many transformations we pass through in a lifetime. Etain’s first transformation, from a woman into a purple fly, came through the treachery of Fuamnach, just as our transformations sometimes come through treachery, betrayal or cruelty on the part of another.

Her second transformation came through exhaustion, causing her to tumble from the roof of the house of Etar into the wine cup of his wife, entering the woman’s womb. After a gestation of nine months, Etain is reborn as a human baby, daughter of Etar, without memory of her former life. Some of our transformations also may come through exhaustion: women who suddenly cannot keep up the frenetic pace of their lives, who develop an illness or a depression that demands a kind of “rebirth” into a different way of being.

Yet the final transformation, the most important, is wrought by love. Midir’s love for Etain and hers for him work the miracle that reunites them, as they fly over Tara as two white swans. They are transformed by love into love.

Now the Storyteller turns to me and asks, What are the words on your spiral pendant?
I am surprised that she has forgotten, for she asked me this same question on an earlier visit.

As though reading my thoughts, the Storyteller says, I have not forgotten the poem. I ask because it is important that you read the words aloud. They hold the key to the love story I have just told.

Still puzzled, but willing now to allow her to teach us in her own winding way, I say by heart the words of the Sufi poet Hafiz that are carved on my necklace:
There is something holy deep inside of you that is so ardent and awake, That needs to lie down naked next to God.

The Storyteller pauses while the words reverberate around the well’s inner cavern, echoing and re-echoing in our hearts.
Hafiz has given you all the teaching you require. You had these words carved on your necklace because they speak of love, the passionate love of the Holy One for you. Hafiz is teaching you of that immense longing for union that is at the deep heart of this story, the longing that kept Midir seeking Etain for a thousand years, giving finally his riches and his labours after losing in the chess game so that he might contrive a way to win her at last from Eochaid.

The One whom Hafiz calls the Friend, the Beloved, or sometimes God, is the Holy One who yearns so deeply for you, who is so drawn by your longing that he/she comes to where you dance alone, ready to lift you into the arms of Love. The One who loves you is as full of passion, patience, and longing as Midir is for Etain.
But there is yet more…

Hafiz teaches you one more secret. There is deep within you something so sacred, so holy, that it needs to lie down naked next to God…

With a half-smile that is both playful and inscrutable, the Storyteller adds, I could have told you all of that myself when you asked but Hafiz is the better poet.

Now do you understand the story? This is a story of human hunger and longing for love, for deep union. This is a story of the yearning that draws flesh to flesh, that is the allurement that is at the heart of all of life, at the heart of the sacred seeking that first sent humans in quest of the Holy. They sought her among the stars when all the while she lay hidden in the depths of the earth or the deep sea, in the atoms, the cells, the very stuff of their own bodies.

Who really is Etain in the story? In Ireland we name her Aine, or Danu, a name that comes from Anu, the Great Mother of the ancestor gods of the Irish. Aine is ancient and known by many names. She is the womb of life, the vitality in your veins, the sun in your cells. Her breasts are the two hills called the Paps of Anu in Ireland. Her hair flows like the waves, ripples gold like corn. Her eyes hold the starlight, her belly the tors, earth barrows that birth you. Like the cat, the owl, the sow, she eats her young if they are sick or dying. Aine is the cycle of life, the wheel of the seasons.

And having stunned us with these disclosures, she is suddenly gone! We sit like carvings for what seems a very long while, then shake off the amazement, dive into the pool and swim to the other side. Lifted by a current of water, we make our way back up through the well to Tara’s hillside.

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