Gods and Fighting Men

Midhir and Etain

   And Midhir took a hill for himself, and his wife Fuamach was with him there, and his daughter, Bri. And Leith, son of Cehchar of Cualu, was the most beautiful among the young men of the Sidhe of Ireland at that time, and he loved Bri, Midhir's daughter. And Bri went out with her young girls to meet him one time at the Grave of the Daughters beside Teamhair. And Leith came and his young men along with him till he was on the Hill of the After Repentance. And they could not come nearer to one another because of the slingers on Midhir's hill that were answering one another till their spears were as many as a swarm of bees on a day of beauty. And Cochlan, Leith's servant, got a sharp wound from them and he died.
   Then the girl turned back to Midhir's hill, and her heart broke in her and she died. And Leith said: "Although I am not let come to this girl, I will leave my name with her." And the bill was called Bri Leith from that time.
   After a while Midhir took Etain Echraide to be his wife. And there was great jealousy on Fuamach, the wife be had before, when she saw the love that Midhir gave to Etain, and she called to the Druid, Bresal Etarlaim to help her, and he put spells on Etain the way Fuamach was able to drive her away.
   And when she was driven out of Bri Leith, Angus Og, son of the Dagda, took her into his keeping; and when Midhir asked her back, he would not give her up, but he brought her about with him to every place be went. And wherever they rested, he made a sunny house for her, and put sweet-smelling flowers in it, and he made invisible walls about it, that no one could see through and that could not be seen.
   But when news came to Fuamach that Etain was so well cared for by Angus, anger and jealousy came on her again, and she searched her mind for a way to destroy Etain altogether.
   And it is what she did, she persuaded Midhir and Angus to go out and meet one another and to make peace, for there had been a quarrel between them ever since the time Etain was sent away. And when Angus was away from Brugh na Boinn, Fuamach went and found Etain there, in her sunny house. And she turned her with Druid spells into a fly, and then she sent a blast of wind into the house, that swept her away through the window.
   But as to Midhir and Angus, they waited a while for Fuamach to come and join them. And when she did not come they were uneasy in their minds, and Angus hurried back to Brugh na Boinn. And when he found the sunny house empty, he went in search of Fuamach, and it was along with Etarlaim, the Druid, he found her, and he struck her head off there and then.
   And for seven years Etain was blown to and fro through Ireland in great misery. And at last she came to the house of Etar, of Inver Cechmaine, where there was a feast going on, and she fell from a beam of the roof into the golden cup that was beside Etar's wife. And Etar's wife drank her down with the wine, and at the end of nine months she was born again as Etar's daughter.
   And she had the same name as before, Etain; and she was reared as a king's daughter, and there were fifty young girls, daughters of princes, brought up with her to keep her company.
   And it happened one day Etain and all the rest of the young girls were out bathing in the bay at Inver Cechmaine, and they saw from the water a man, with very high looks, coming towards them over the plain, and he riding a bay horse with mane and tail curled. A long green cloak he had on him, and a shirt woven with threads of red gold, and a brooch of gold that reached across to his shoulders on each side. And he had on his back a shield of silver with a rim of gold and a boss of gold, and in his hand a sharp-pointed spear covered with rings of gold from heel to socket. Fair yellow hair he bad, coming over his forehead, and it bound with a golden band to keep it from loosening.
   And when he came near them he got down from his horse, and sat down on the bank, and it is what he said: "It is here Etain is to-day, at the Mound of Fair Women. It is among little children is her life on the strand of Inver Cechmaine.
   "It is she healed the eye of the king from the well of Loch da Lig; it is she was swallowed in a heavy drink by the wife of Etar.
   "Many great battles will happen for your sake to Echaid of Midhe; destruction will fall upon the Sidhe, and war on thousands of men."
   And when he had said that, he vanished, and no one knew where he went. And they did not know the man that had come to them was Midhir of Bri Leith.
   And when Etain was grown to be a beautiful young woman, she was seen by Eochaid Feidlech, High King of Ireland, and this is the way that happened.
   He was going one time over the fair green of Bri Leith, and he saw at the side of a well a woman, with a bright comb of gold and silver, and she washing in a silver basin having four golden birds on it, and little bright purple stones set in the rim of the basin. A beautiful purple cloak she had, and silver fringes to it, and a gold brooch; and she had on her a dress of green silk with a long hood, embroidered in red gold, and wonderful clasps of gold and silver on her breasts and on her shoulder. The sunlight was falling on her, so that the gold and the green silk were shining out. Two plaits of hair she had, four locks in each plait, and a bead at the point of every lock, and the colour of her hair was like yellow flags in summer, or like red gold after it is rubbed,
   There she was, letting down her hair to wash it, and her arms out through the sleeve-holes of her shift. Her soft bands were as white as the snow of a single night, and her eyes as blue as any blue flower, and her lips as red as the berries of the rowan-tree~ and her body as white as the foam of a wave. The bright light of the moon was in her face, the highness of pride in her eyebrows, a dimple of delight in each of her cheeks, the light of wooing in her eyes, and when she walked she had a step that was steady and even like the walk of a queen.
   And Eochaid sent his people to bring her to him, and he asked her name, and she told him her name was Etain, daughter of Etar, King of the Riders of the Sidhe. And Eochaid gave her his love, and he paid the bride-price, and brought her home to Teamhair as his wife, and there was a great welcome before her there.
   And after a while there was a great feast made at Teamhair, and all the chief men of Ireland came to it, and it lasted from the fortnight before Samhain to the fortnight after it. And King Eochaid's brother Ailell, that was afterwards called Ailell Anglonach, of the Only Fault, came to the feast. And when he saw his brother's wife Etain, he fell in love with her on the moment, and all through the length of the feast he was not content unless he could be looking at her. And a woman, the daughter of Luchta Lamdearg, of the Red Hand, took notice of it, and she said: "What far thing are you looking at, Ailell? It is what I think, that to be looking the way you are doing is a sign of love." Then Ailell checked himself, and did not look towards Etain any more.
   But when the feast was at an end, and the gathering broken up, great desire and envy came on Ailell, so that he fell sick, and they brought him to a house in Teffia. And he stopped there through the length of a year, and he was wasting away, but he told no one the cause of his sickness. And at the end of the year, Eochaid came to visit his brother, and he passed his hand over his breast, and Ailell let a groan. "What way are you?" said Eochaid then. "Are you getting any easier, for you must not let this illness come to a bad end." "By my word," said Ailell, "it is not easier I am, but worse and worse every day and every night" "What is it ails you?" said Eochaid. "And what is it that is coming against you." "By my word, I cannot tell you that," said Ailell. "I will bring one here that wilt know the cause of your sickness," said the king.
   With that he sent Fachtna, his own physician, to Ailell; and when he came he passed his hand over Ailell's heart, and at that he groaned again. "This sickness will not be your death," said Fachtna then; "and I know well what it comes from. It is either from the pains of jealousy, or from love you have given, and that you have not found a way out of." But there was shame on Ailell, and he would not confess to the physician that what he said was right. So Fachtna went away then and left him.
   As to King Eochaid, he went away to visit all the provinces of Ireland that were under his kingship, and he left Etain after him, and it is what he said: "Good Etain," he said, "take tender care of Ailell so long as he is living; and if he should die from us, make a sodded grave for him, and raise a pillar stone over it, and write his name on it in Ogham." And with that he went away on his journey. One day, now, Etain went into the house where Ailell was lying in his sickness, and they talked together, and then she made a little song for him, and it is what she said:
   "What is it ails you, young man, for it is a long time you are wasted with this sickness, and it is not the hardness of the weather has stopped your light footstep."
   And Ailell answered her in the same way, and he said: "I have good cause for my hurt; the music of my own harp does not please me; there is no sort of food is pleasant to me, and so I am wasted away." Then Etain said: "Tell me what is it ails you, for I am a woman that is wise. Tell me is there anything that would cure you, the way I may help you to it?" And Ailell answered her: "O kind, beautiful woman, it is not good to tell a secret to a woman, but sometimes it may be known through the eyes." And Etain said: "Though it is bad to tell a secret, yet it ought to be told now, or how can help be given to you?" And Ailell answered: "My blessing on you, fair-haired Etain. It is not fit I am to be spoken with; my wits have been no good help to me; my body is a rebel to me. All Ireland knows, O king's wife, there is sickness in my head and in my body." And Etain said: "If there is a woman of the fair-faced women of Ireland tormenting you this way, she must come to you here if it pleases you; and it is I myself will woo her for you," she said.
   Then Ailell said to her: "Woman, it would be easy for you yourself to put my sickness from me. And my desire," he said, "is a desire that is as long as a year; but it is love given to an echo, the spending of grief on a wave, a lonely fight with a shadow, that is what my love and my desire have been to me."
   And it is then Etain knew what was the sickness that was on him, and it was a heavy trouble to her.
   But she came to him every day to tend him, and to make ready his food, and to pour water over his hands, and all she could do she did for him, for it was a grief to her, he to wither away and to be lost for her sake. And at last one day she said to him: "Rise up, Ailell, son of a king, man of high deeds, and I will do your healing."
   Then he put his arms about her, and she kissed him, and she said: "Come at the morning of to-morrow at the break of day to the house outside the dun, and I will give you all your desire."
   That night Ailell lay without sleep until the morning was at hand. And at the very time he should have risen to go to her, it was at that time his sleep settled down upon him, and be slept on till the full light of day.
   But Etain went to the house outside the dun, and she was not long there when she saw a man coming towards her having the appearance of Ailell, sick and tired and worn. But when he came near and she looked closely at him, she saw it was not Ailell that was in it. Then he went away, and after she had waited a while, she herself went back into the dun.
   And it was then Ailell awoke, and when he knew the morning bad passed by, he would sooner have had death than life, and he fretted greatly. And Etain came in then, and he told her what had happened him. And she said: "Come to-morrow to the same place."
   But the same thing happened the next day. And when it happened on the third day, and the same man came to meet Etain, she said to him: "It is not you at all I come to meet here, and why is it that you come to meet me? And as to him I came to meet," she said, "indeed it is not for gain or through lightness I bade him come to me, but to heal him of the sickness he is lying under for my sake." Then the man said: "It would be more fitting for you to come to meet me than any other one. For in the time long ago," he said, "I was your first husband, and your first man." "What is it you are saying," she said, "and who are you yourself?" "It is easy to tell that," he said; "I am Midhir of Bri Leith." "And what parted us if I was your wife?" said Etain. "It was through Fuamach's sharp jealousy and through the spells of Bresal Etarlaim, the Druid, we were parted. And you will come away with me now?" he said. But Etain said: "It is not for a man whose kindred is unknown I will give up the High King of Ireland." And Midhir said: "Surely it was I myself put that great desire for you on Ailell, and it was I hindered him from going to meet you, the way you might keep your good name."
   And when she went back to Ailell's house, she found his sickness was gone from him, and his desire. And she told him all that had happened, and he said: "It has turned out well for us both: l am well of my sickness and your good name is not lessened." "We give thanks to our gods for that," said Etain, "for we are well pleased to have it so."
   And just at that time Eochaid came back from his journey, and they told him the whole story, and he was thankful to his wife for the kindness she had showed to Ailell.
   It was a good while after that, there was a great fair held at Teamhair, and Etain was out on the green looking at the games and the races. And she saw a rider coming towards her, but no one could see him but herself; and when he came near she saw he had the same appearance as the man that came and spoke with her and her young girls the time they were out in the sea at Inver Cechmaine. And when he came up to her he began to sing words to her that no one could hear but herself. And it is what be said:
   "O beautiful woman, will you come with me to the wonderful country that is mine? It is pleasant to be looking at the people there, beautiful people without any blemish; their hair is of the colour of the flag-flower, their fair body is as white as snow, the colour of the fox-glove is on every cheek. The young never grow old there; the fields and the flowers are as pleasant to be looking at as the blackbird's eggs; warm, sweet streams of mead and of wine flow through that country; there is no care and no sorrow on any person; we see others, but we ourselves are not seen.
   "Though the plains of Ireland are beautiful, it is little you would think of them after our great plain; though the ale of Ireland is heady, the ale of the great country is still more heady. O beautiful woman, if you come to my proud people it is the flesh of pigs newly killed I will give you for food; it is ale and new milk I will give you for drink; it is feasting you will have with me there; it is a crown of gold you will have upon your hair, O beautiful woman!
   "And will you come there with me, Etain?" he said. But Etain said she would not leave Eochaid the High King. "Will you come if Eochaid gives you leave?" Midhir said then. "I will do that," said Etain.
   One day, after that time, Eochaid the High King was looking out from his palace at Teamhair, and he saw a strange man coming across the plain. Yellow hair he had, and eyes blue and shining like the flame of a candle, and a purple dress on him, and in his hand a five-pronged spear and a shield having gold knobs on it.
   He came up to the king, and the king bade him welcome. "Who are you yourself?" he said; "and what are you come for, for you are a stranger to me?" "If I am a stranger to you, you are no stranger to me, for I have known you this long time," said the strange man. "What is your name?" said the king. "It is nothing very great," said he; "I am called Midhir of Bri Leith." "What is it brings you here?" said Eochaid. "I am come to play a game of chess with you," said the stranger. "Are you a good player?" said the king. "A trial will tell you that," said Midhir. "The chess-board is in the queen's house, and she is in her sleep at this time," said Eochaid. "That is no matter," said Midhir, "for I have with me a chess-board as good as your own." And with that he brought out his chess-board, and it made of silver, and precious stones shining in every corner of it. And then he brought out the chessmen, and they made of gold, from a bag that was of shining gold threads.
   "Let us play now," said Midhir. "I will not play without a stake," said the king. "What stake shall we play for?" said Midhir. "We can settle that after the game is over," said the king.
   They played together then, and Midhir was beaten, and it is what the king asked of him, fifty brown horses to be given to him.
   And then they played the second time, and Midhir was beaten again, and this time the king gave him four hard things to do: to make a road over Moin Lamraide, and to clear Midhe of stones, and to cover the district of Tethra with rushes, and the district of Darbrech with trees.
   So Midhir brought his people from Bri Leith to do those things, and it is hard work they had doing them. And Eochaid used to be out watching them, and he took notice that when the men of the Sidhe yoked their oxen, it was by the neck and the shoulder they used to yoke them, and not by the forehead and the head. And it was after Eochaid taught his people to yoke them that way, he was given the name of Eochaid Airem, that is, of the Plough.
   And when all was done, Midhir came to Eochaid again, looking thin and wasted enough with the dint of the hard work be had been doing, and he asked Eochaid to play the third game with him. Eochaid agreed, and it was settled as before, the stake to be settled by the winner. It was Midhir won the game that time, and when the king asked him what be wanted, "It is Etain, your wife, I want," said he. "I will not give her to you" said the king. "All I will ask then," said Midhir, "is to put my arms about her and to kiss her once." "You may do that," said the king, "if you will wait to the end of a month." So Midhir agreed to that, and went away for that time.
   At the end of the month he came back again, and stood in the great hall at Teamhair, and no one had ever seen him look so comely as he did that night. And Eochaid had all his best fighting men gathered in the hail, and he shut all the doors of the palace when he saw Midhir come in, for fear he would try to bring away Etain by force.
   "I am come to be paid what is due to me," said Midhir. "I have not been thinking of it up to this time," said Eochaid, and there was anger on him. "You promised me Etain, your wife," said Midhir. The redness of shame came on Etain when she heard that, but Midhir said: "Let there be no shame on you, Etain, for it is through the length of a year I have been asking your love, and I have offered you every sort of treasure and riches, and you refused to come to me till such a time as your husband would give you leave." "It is true I said that," said Etain. "I will go if Eochaid gives me up to you."
   "I will not give you up," said Eochaid; "I will let him do no more than put his arms about you in this place, as was promised him." "I will do that," said Midhir.
   With that he took his sword in his left hand, and he took Etain in his right arm and kissed her. All the armed men in the house made a rush at him then, but he rose up through the roof bringing Etain with him, and when they rushed out of the house to follow him, all they could see was two swans high up in the air, linked together by a chain of gold.
   There was great anger on Eochaid then, and he went and searched all through Ireland, but there was no tidings of them to be had, for they were in the houses of the Sidhe.
   It was to the Brugh of Angus on the Boinn they went first, and after they had stopped there a while they went to a hill of the Sidhe in Connacht. And there was a serving-maid with Etain at that time, Cruachan Croderg her name was, and she said to Midhir: "Is this your own place we are in?" "It is not," said Midhir; "my own place is nearer to the rising of the sun." She was not well pleased to stop there when she heard that, and Midhir said to quiet her: "It is your own name will be put on this place from this out." And the hill was called the Hill of Cruachan from that time.
   Then they went to Bri Leith; and Etain's daughter Esa came to them there, and she brought a hundred of every sort of cattle with her, and Midhir fostered her for seven years. And all through that time Eochaid the High King was making a search for them.
   But at last Codal of the Withered Breast took four rods of yew and wrote Oghams on them, and through them and through his enchantments he found out that Etain was with Midhir in Bri Leith.
   So Eochaid went there, and made an attack on the place, and he was for nine years besieging it, and Midhir was driving him away. And then his people began digging through the hill; and when they were getting near to where Etain was, Midhir sent three times twenty beautiful women, having all of them the appearance of Etain, and he bade the king choose her out from among them. And the first he chose was his own daughter Esa. But then Etain called to him, and he knew her, and he brought her home to Teamhair.
   And Eochaid gave his daughter Esa her choice of a place for herself. And she chose it, and made a rath there, that got the name of Rath Esa. And from it she could see three notable places, the Hill of the Sidhe in Broga, and the Hill of the Hostages in Teamhair, and Dun Crimthain on Beinn Edair.
   But there was great anger on Midhir and his people because of their hill being attacked and dug into. And it was in revenge for that insult they brought Conaire, High King of Ireland, that was grandson of Eochaid and of Etain, to his death afterwards at Da Derga's Inn.


Deidre of the Sorrows, by John Duncan