Category Archives: Ancient Irish Myths

Sophia in Ireland: Eleven

The Storyteller is nearing the end of her tale. We listen attentively, hearts astir with wonder. Will Midir win back his love, Etain?

The steward went with all stealth from Tara, and as he watched, it seemed to him that all the men from all the Elf-mounds in the world were raising tumult there, and Midir, standing on a hill, urged on his Fairy Hosts. Then to his surprise, the King’s man saw that the strong dark blue Fairy oxen were yoked by their shoulders so that the pull might be there, and not on their foreheads, as it had always been in Ireland. And as they worked, the hosts of the Elf-mounds sang:

“Heave here, pull there, excellent oxen,
In the hours after sundown,
And none shall know whose
Is the gain or the loss
From the Causeway of Tavrach.”

And the causeway would have been the best in the world, had not the work of the Fairy Hosts been spied upon, but Midir was angry because of this and he left some defects in the work.

Meanwhile the steward returned to Tara, and told the King of the magic he had witnessed during the night, and he told him of the new way he had seen of yoking the oxen so that the pull might be upon their shoulders. When he heard this, Eochaid decreed that henceforth all the oxen in Ireland should be thus yoked, and for this decree he was called Eochaid Air-em, “The Ploughman.”

“There is not on the ridge of the world a magic power to surpass the magic I have seen this night,” the steward said, and as he spoke, Midir appeared before them, his loins girt and an angry look on his face. Eochaid was afraid, but he made Midir welcome.

“It is cruel and unreasonable of you to lay such hardship and affliction on me and on my people, and then to spy on me,” Midir said. “My mind is inflamed against you.”

“I will not give wrath for your rage,” the King said.

“Then,” said the Fairy King, “let us play chess.”

“What stake shall we set upon the game?” Eochaid asked.

“That the loser pays what the winner shall desire,” said Midir of Bri Leith, and they sat down to play. Midir won with ease, and Eochaid’s stake was forfeit.

“You have taken my stake,” he said.

“Had I wished I could have taken it before now.”

“What do you want of me?”

“My arms about Etain, and a kiss from her lips.”

Eochaid was silent. Then he said: “Come one month from today and it shall be given to you.”

Midir left Tara for the Fair Mound of Bri Leith, and Eochaid, losing no time, called the flower of the warriors to his land, and the best war lords in all Ireland, and he mustered them around Tara, without and within, ring upon ring of the heroes of Ireland to guard the Hill of Tara, and the King and Queen were in the centre of the House; and the Courts were locked and guarded by the Men of Strength, and the Men of Hearing, against the Man of Magic who was to come.

Etain was serving wine to the King and the Lords in the midst of the Hall, and as she bent over towards the goblet in the King’s hand, Midir, in the centre of the Royal House, came towards her. He was fair at all times, but on this night he was fairest, and the hosts of Tara were astonished at his beauty, and at the radiance of him. In the silence, the King made him welcome.

“What is pledged to me, let it be given to me,” Midir said.

“I have given the matter little thought,” said the King.

“What is promised is due,” Midir said.

Etain was silent, and her cheeks were red as the scarlet rowanberry, and then, by turn, white as snow.

“Do not blush, Etain,” Midir said to her. “I have been a year seeking you with gifts and treasures, the richest and most beautiful in Ireland. It is not by the dark magic that I have won you.”

“I will not go with you, Midir, unless the King releases me to you,” Etain replied.

“I will never release you,” Eochaid said. “But as for this stake, I willingly allow this warrior to put his arms about you, and to kiss you, here in the middle of the Royal House, while the hosts of Tara look on.”

“It shall be done,” said Midir, and he took his weapons in his left hand, and with his right arm he held Etain round the waist, and as he kissed her, and kissed her again, he bore her away in his embrace, through the skylight of the House.

The men of Ireland rose in shame about their King, and he led them out in hot pursuit. But Eochaid, High King of Ireland, and his hosts, saw only two snow-white swans in full flight over Tara.

 

Etain Midir Ardagh statue

 

A statue in Ardagh, Ireland, honours the transformation of Etain and Midir into swans.

Sophia in Ireland: Ten

The Storyteller holds our gaze as she continues the story of Etain:

On a day in midsummer Eochaid the King arose and went to the high terrace of Tara to look out over the plain of Breg, shimmering in the haze of summer. He could hear the gentle humming of the bees in the flowers around him, and the cries of the nimble deer from the wooded slopes, and the lowing of the heifers, white-backed, short-haired and merry in the soft fields.

Tara_3_Hill[1]

the high terrace of Tara

The cuckoo called with familiar voice, and the early blackbird sang the dawn, and as he looked about him at the fair land, suddenly he saw on the terrace before him a young warrior. He wore a purple cloak, and a golden brooch that reached from one shoulder to the other. He held a five-pointed spear in one hand, and in the other a white-bossed shield. It was richly encrusted with jewels and precious stones that gleamed in the morning sunlight, so that the King could not see the warrior clearly for the radiance of him.

Midhir1

This warrior was not in Tara last night when the gates were locked, he thought, and the Courts have not yet been opened for the day. The visitor walked towards him.
“Welcome to you, Warrior. I do not know you,” the King said.

“It is for that we have come,” said the warrior.

“We do not know you,” the King said again.

“Yet, in truth, I know you well,” the stranger replied.

“Then, in truth, tell me your name.”

“I am Midir of Bri Leith.”

“And what has brought you here?”

“I have come to play chess with you.”

“Of a truth, I am good at chess,” said Eochaid, who was the best chess player in all of Ireland, “but the chessboard is in the House of the Queen, and she is yet asleep.”

“It is of no matter,” said Midir, “I have one here that is not inferior.”

And in a trice, there on the table in front of them, was a silver chessboard with golden men delicately carved by the finest artificers. Each corner of it was lit by a precious stone of golden hue, and the bag for the chessmen was of plaited links of bronze. The King looked down at it.  “It is not inferior,” he said.

“Then what shall be the stake?” Midir asked, and Eochaid said:

“It is of no matter.”

“If you win my stake,” the warrior said, “at the hour of terce tomorrow you shall have from me fifty dark grey steeds with dappled, blood-red heads, and pointed ears, broad-chested, with distended nostrils and slender limbs. Mighty, keen, huge, swift, steady, yet easily yoked with their fifty enamelled reins.”

Eochaid agreed to the stake and the play began. The King won with ease, and the strange warrior left the terrace of Tara, taking his chessboard with him. But when the King arose on the morrow, his opponent was already waiting for him, and he wondered again how the warrior had entered the House before the Courts had been opened. Then he saw fifty darkly beautiful steeds on the Plain of Breg, each with its wrought enamelled bridle, and all other thoughts left his mind. He turned to his visitor.
“This is honourable, indeed,” he said.

“What is promised is due,” said Midir of Bri Leith, and he repeated his words. “What is promised is due”. They sat down again, to play. This time Eochaid asked what the stake should be.

“If you win my stake, you shall have from me fifty young boars, curly-mottled, grey-bellied, blue-backed, with horse’s hoofs to them…and further you shall have fifty gold-hilted swords, and again fifty red-eared cows,” Midir said, “and fifty swords with ivory hilts.”

“It is well,” agreed the King, and again, he won, and the fruits of his winning were there at his House when he wakened. He was filled with wonder, and was counting his rich gains when his foster-father came upon him.

“From whence, Eochaid, is this great wealth?” he asked, surprised, and the King told him of the strange warrior to whom locked doors were no barrier, but who could not defeat him at the chess game. “Have a care, Eochaid,” his foster-father said, “for this is a man of great magic power that has come to you. See that next time you lay heavy burden on him.”

And the King’s foster-father bade him farewell, and left Tara for his own kingdom. The King went out to the terrace, and on the instant Midir was there, and the chessboard ready. Remembering the advice he had been given, Eochaid made the stake, and he put on Midir the famous tasks that are remembered in Ireland to this day.

“If I take your stake,” he said, “you must clear the rocks and stones from the hillocks of Great Meath, and the rushes from the land of Tethba. You must cut down the forest of Breg, and lay a causeway over the Great Bog of Tavrach, and all this you must accomplish in a single night.”

“You lay too much upon me,” Midir said.

“I do not indeed,” the King replied.

“Then grant me this request,” asked Midir. “That none shall be out of doors till the sun shall rise tomorrow.”

“It shall be done,” Eochaid agreed, and they began to play. The King won again, and when Midir left, Eochaid called for his steward and commanded him to go to the Bog of Tavrach, forthwith, and to watch the efforts and the work of that night.

(to be continued)