Tag Archives: The Wooing of Etain

The Wooing of Etain Part Seven

King Eochaid has just laid upon Midir the great tasks that have become famous throughout all of Ireland, promising, as Midir requested, that no one would be out of doors all night so that Midir and his people might work unseen. But as soon as Midir departs, Eochaid sends his steward to follow him and spy upon the night’s activity.

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.

Midhir1

“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.

The Wooing of Etain Part Five

The Storyteller has taken us to the moment when Etain, in her new life as daughter of Etar, has become the bride of the High King of Ireland, Eochaid. Today, as she continues the tale, there is a mischievous glint in her eyes, showing she is aware of the questions stirring within us.

What has happened to Midir? Will no one tell Etain of her former life, her former love?

Now the Storyteller continues:

The Great Feast of Tara was held with all splendour, and the people of Ireland rejoiced. The King had two brothers, and Anguba, the younger of them, saw Etain at the Feast and he gazed on her continually, and such gazing is a sign of love. His heart reproached him, and he tried not to love his brother’s wife, but to no avail, and that his honour should not be stained, he ate no food, fell into a decline, and was near to death.

It was the time of the Royal Circuit, and Eochaid, despite his grief and deep distress, was forced to leave Tara. He left his brother in the care of Etain, and bade her attend him, and if he should die, to see that his grave be dug, his lamentations made and his cattle slain.

Every day Etain came to the house where Anguba lay sick, and spoke with him, to comfort him, and his sickness was eased, for as long as she stayed with him, he would be gazing at her. Etain pondered on the matter, and one day she asked him the cause of his sickness.
“It is for love of you,” Anguba said, and Etain answered:
“Pity, indeed, that you have been so long without telling it. Had we but known, you would have been healed a while ago.”

“Even this day I could be whole again,” Anguba said, “if you are willing.”
“ I am willing indeed,” Etain replied, and every day she came to his House and she bathed his head, and carved his meat, and after thrice nine days Anguba was healed of his sickness and he said to Etain:
“And when shall I have from you what is still lacking to cure me?”
“Tomorrow,” Etain said, “but not in the King’s House shall he be shamed. Tomorrow, on the hill above the Court, I will wait for you.”

Etain kept the tryst, but at the hour of meeting a magic sleep overcame Anguba, and he did not waken till the third hour of the next day. When Etain returned to the house, she found the King’s brother sorrowful and distraught.
“That I should have tryst with you, and then fall asleep,” he said.

Twice they made tryst, and each time Anguba slept, and on the third night a man was waiting on the hill above the Court.
“Who are you?” Etain said. “It was not you I came to meet. My tryst with Anguba is not for sin or hurt, but that one who is worthy to be King should be healed of his sickness.”

And the stranger revealed himself to her, and told her his name.
“I am Midir of Bri Leith, and I have loved you for a thousand years. You were daughter to Aylill, Fairy King of Mag Inish, and I was your lover and your husband. I paid a great bride-price for you.”
He was tall and fair, and his purple mantle fell in five soft folds around him, and in it was the golden brooch of Bri Leith, that reached to his shoulder on either side. His bright yellow hair was held back from his brow by a fillet of gold, and the radiance of desire was in his eyes.

“Tell me,” said Etain, “what parted us?”
“The sorcery of Fuamnach divided us, one from the other,” said Midir, and approached her. “It was I who put love for you in Anguba’s heart, so that he was sick with longing and near to dying. It was I who took from him all carnal desire and covered him with sleep that your honour might not suffer.”

Etain was silent, and turned away from him.

“Etain,” he said, “will you come with me to the wondrous land where harmony is?

Hair is like the crown of the primrose there, and the body smooth and white as snow.
There is neither mine nor thine,
White are teeth there, and dark the brows.
A delight to the eye is the number of our hosts.”

But Etain would not look at him.

“A wondrous land is the land I tell of,” Midir said.
“Warm sweet streams flow though the land,
the choice of mead and wine,
stately folk, without blemish,
conception is without sin, without lust,
We see everyone on every side,
And no one seeth us.”
But still she stood apart.

“Will you come with me if the King, your husband, bids you?”

“Willingly,” Etain answered, and they looked into each other’s eyes.

When she returned to the house she found Anguba and he was whole
again, and healed of the cause of his sickness.
“We are well met,” he said, “for now I am healed, and your honour has not suffered.”
“It is well,” said Etain, and they rejoiced together.

When Eochaid returned from his journeying, he gave thanks to Etain for her care of Anguba, his brother, and for all she had done to tend him. There was feasting in the great hall of Tara, and Etain poured the wine for Eochaid, her husband, and for Anguba, his brother, for it is written, “the pouring of wine was a special gift of hers.

The Wooing of Etain: Part Two

We have just heard the first part of the Storyteller’s new tale, “The Wooing of Etain”. She has left us alone to reflect on the story as it ha unfolded thus far, to see how it might relate to our own lives.

The ancient times of Ireland, the seldom seen Faery people, children of the Goddess Danu, their dwelling places under the mounds, the power of magic that both creates and destroys… these elements of the story may seem very far removed from our lives.

Yet the Storyteller chose this tale because it speaks of desire and longing. Midir had so long yearned for Etain that when his foster son offered compensation for an injury, Midir knew at once his heart’s deepest desire.

This is the first thing I learned from the Storyteller: to know and to trust the deepest longings of my heart. This was not easy for me. Like most women, I had been taught to consider the desires of others, but not my own. I had been taught to distrust desire, to fear my own body where desire dwells.

Yet, in my time with the Storyteller, I have come to reverence desire as the opening to the sacred. I have learned to distinguish a surface desire that may be only a fill-in for what I truly want from the deeper longing which is the desire of
the Holy in and for me.
And what of you? What are the deepest longings of your heart? If someone were to offer you as compensation what you most desire, would you know at once, as Midir did, what to ask for?
Julian of Norwich, that great 14th century English mystic and teacher of wisdom,
tells us what God taught her:

I am the ground of your prayers.
First, it is my will that you have what you desire.
Later, I cause you to want it.
Later on, I cause you to pray for it and you do so.
How then can you not have what you desire? 

In my time with the Storyteller, I have come to understand that allurement is at the heart of the universe. The great physicists who have been called the mystics of our time, tell us that the whole universe is drawn by allurement: the moon is allured to the earth, held in its orbit; the ocean tides are drawn by the moon; the earth and the planets of our solar system are held in allurement as they move around the sun, even as the immense universe spins in wonder, in a great dance of desire and longing.

In the tale of Midir and Etain, we see that our desires are fulfilled at a cost: the great labours that Angus undertook to gain Etain for Midir, the price paid for her in gold and silver.

But what of Etain? Her desire was awakened by a long look, for the Story tells that “Etain looked into Midir’s eyes and that night she became his bride”. Her longing for Midir is satisfied for their wedding follows that very night.

Though this story is new to me, I have heard enough stories to know that this joy may not last very long…

The Storyteller is with us now and continues her tale:

Midir and Etain stayed together in the Brugh with Angus for a year and a day, sporting and playing chess for precious stones, drinking the choice wines and listening to the music of Angus’ three half-brothers, the sons of Boann, his mother, who were called “the Fair and Melodious Three”. Their names were Goltraiges, Gentraiges and Suantraiges, and the harps on which they played were of gold, and silver, and white bronze, with figures of serpents and birds and hounds wrought upon them. When Goltraiges played the Music of Weeping, twelve warriors of the household died of sadness, but when Gentraiges played the Music of Smiling, the Brugh was full of gladness and laughter, and when Suantraiges played the Music of Sleeping, there were gentleness and peace in the House, and in all Ireland the women whose time was upon them gave easy birth, and no animal was fierce in all the land. And so the days and the nights of the year passed, and sweet was the intimacy of Midir and Etain, and fond their espousal.

When the time came for them to return to Bri Leith, Angus, embracing them, said to Midir: “Take care, Midir, of Etain, for your wife awaits you at Bri Leith, and Fuamnach is a dreadful and a cunning woman.”

The warning of Angus was timely, for when the lovers returned, Fuamnach came out to meet them. With cleverness, she put them at their ease. She talked to Midir of his House and household, of his lands and herds, and of his people, but later, when Etain was in her chamber alone, combing her hair and waiting for Midir, Fuamnach came to her and struck her, as she sat, with a rod of scarlet quicken-tree. Etain, on the instant, became a shining pool of water in the centre of the room.

In triumph, Fuamnach went to Midir and told him what she had done, and moreover, swore that she would harm Etain for as long as she lived, and in whatever form she might be. Then she left Bri Leith and returned to the House of her foster-father, the wizard Bresal . Midir, without solace, and lonely, left his House to wander over the far lands of his kingdom.

Meanwhile the crystal pool that was Etain dried, rolled itself together and became a small worm, and because Etain was lovely and full of joy, the worm turned into a beautiful purple fly, of wondrous size.
“(S)weeter than pipes and horns was the sound of her voice, and the hum of her wings. Her eyes would shine like precious stones in the darkness, and the fragrance and bloom of her would turn away hunger and thirst from anyone around whom she would go, and the spray that fell from her wings would cure all sickness.”

She longed for Midir, and when she had tried her wings and gathered strength, she flew to the far reaches of Bri Leith, and when she came to him, Midir knew that the lovely purple fly was Etain. Everywhere he went, she attended him, and while she was there he took no other woman, and the sight of her nourished him, and the sweet sound of her humming would send him to sleep, and Midir would neither eat nor drink, nor dance, nor play the chess game, nor hear any other music, if he could not hear the music of her voice, and the sound of her wings, and he could not see her and smell the fragrance of her.

(to be continued….)