BECUMA OF THE WHITE SKIN.
THERE are more worlds than one, and in many ways they
are unlike each other. But joy and sorrow, or, in other
words, good and evil, are not absent in their degree from
any of the worlds, for wherever there is life there is action,
and action is but the expression of one or other of these
After this Earth there is the world of the Shí. Beyond
it again lies the Many-Coloured Land. Next comes the
Land of Wonder, and after that the Land of Promise
awaits us. You will cross clay to get into the Shí; you will
cross water to attain the Many-Coloured Land; fire must
be passed ere the Land of Wonder is attained, but we do
not know what will be crossed for the fourth world.
This adventure of Conn the Hundred Fighter and his
son Art was by the way of water, and therefore he was
more advanced in magic than Fionn was, all of whose
adventures were by the path of clay and into Faery only,
but Conn was the High King and so the arch-magician
A council had been called in the Many-Coloured Land
to discuss the case of a lady named Becuma Cneisgel, that
is, Becuma of the White Skin, the daughter of Eogan Inver.
She had run away from her husband Labraid and had taken
refuge with Gadiar, one of the sons of Manannán mac Lir,
the god of the sea, and the ruler, therefore, of that sphere.
It seems, then, that there is marriage in two other
spheres. In the Shí matrimony is recorded as being
parallel in every respect with earth — marriage, and the
desire which urges to it seems to be as violent and inconstant
as it is with us; but in the Many-Coloured Land marriage
is but a contemplation of beauty, a brooding and meditation
wherein all grosser desire is unknown and children
are born to sinless parents.
In the Shí the crime of Becuma would have been
lightly considered, and would have received none or but
a nominal punishment, but in the second world a horrid
gravity attaches to such a lapse, and the retribution meted
is implacable and grim. It may be dissolution by fire, and
that can note a destruction too final for the mind to contemplate;
or it may be banishment from that sphere to a lower
and worse one.
This was the fate of Becuma of the White Skin.
One may wonder how, having attained to that sphere,
she could have carried with her so strong a memory of the
earth. It is certain that she was not a fit person to exist
in the Many-Coloured Land, and it is to be feared that she
was organised too grossly even for life in the Shí.
She was an earth-woman, and she was banished to the
Word was sent to the Shís of Ireland that this lady
should not be permitted to enter any of them; from which
it would seem that the ordinances of the Shí come from the
higher world, and, it might follow, that the conduct of
earth lies in the Shí.
In that way, the gates of her own world and the innumerable
doors of Faery being closed against her, Becuma was
forced to appear in the world of men.
It is pleasant, however, notwithstanding her terrible
crime and her woeful punishment, to think how courageous
she was. When she was told her sentence, nay, her doom,
she made no outcry, nor did she waste any time in sorrow.
She went home and put on her nicest clothes.
She wore a red satin smock, and, over this, a cloak of
green silk out of which long fringes of gold swung and
sparkled, and she had light sandals of white bronze on her
thin shapely feet. She had long soft hair that was yellow
as gold, and soft as the curling foam of the sea. Her eyes
were wide and clear as water and were grey as a dove's
breast. Her teeth were white as snow and of an evenness
to marvel at. Her lips were thin and beautifully curved:
red lips in truth, red as winter berries and tempting as the
fruits of summer. The people who superintended her
departure said mournfully that when she was gone there
would be no more beauty left in their world.
She stepped into a coracle, it was pushed on the enchanted
waters, and it went forward, world within world, until land
appeared, and her boat swung in low tide against a rock at
the foot of Ben Edair.1
So far for her.
Conn the Hundred Fighter, Ard-Rí of Ireland, was in the
lowest spirits that can be imagined, for his wife was dead.
He had been Ard-Rí for nine years, and during his
term the corn used to be reaped three times in each year,
and there was full and plenty of everything. There are
few kings who can boast of more kingly results than he
can, but there was sore trouble in store for him.
He had been married to Eithne, the daughter of
Brisland Binn, King of Norway, and, next to his subjects,
he loved his wife more than all that was lovable in the
world. But the term of man and woman, of king or queen,
is set in the stars, and there is no escaping Doom for any
one; so, when her time came, Eithne died.
Now there were three great burying-places in Ireland —
the Brugh of the Boyne in Ulster, over which Angus Og
is chief and god; the Shí mound of Cruachan Ahi, where
Ethal Anbual presides over the underworld of Connacht;
and Tailltin, in Royal Meath. It was in this last, the sacred
place of his own lordship, that Conn laid his wife to rest.
Her funeral games were played during nine days. Her
keen was sung by poets and harpers, and a cairn ten acres
wide was heaved over her clay. Then the keening ceased
and the games drew to an end; the princes of the Five
Provinces returned by horse or by chariot to their own
places; the concourse of mourners melted away, and there
was nothing left by the great cairn but the sun that dozed
upon it in the daytime, the heavy clouds that brooded on
it in the night, and the desolate, memoried king.
For the dead queen had been so lovely that Conn could
not forget her; she had been so kind at every moment that
he could not but miss her at every moment; but it was in
the Council Chamber and the Judgement Hall that he most
pondered her memory. For she had also been wise, and
lacking her guidance, all grave affairs seemed graver, shadowing
each day and going with him to the pillow at night.
The trouble of the king becomes the trouble of the
subject, for how shall we live if judgement is withheld, or
if faulty decisions are promulgated? Therefore, with the
sorrow of the king, all Ireland was in grief, and it was the
wish of every person that he should marry again.
Such an idea, however, did not occur to him, for he
could not conceive how any woman should fill the place his
queen had vacated. He grew more and more despondent,
and less and less fitted to cope with affairs of state, and one
day he instructed his son Art to take the rule during his
absence, and he set out for Ben Edair.
For a great wish had come upon him to walk beside the
sea; to listen to the roll and boom of long, grey breakers;
to gaze on an unfruitful, desolate wilderness of waters;
and to forget in those sights all that he could forget, and
if he could not forget then to remember all that he should
He was thus gazing and brooding when one day he
observed a coracle drawing to the shore. A young girl
stepped from it and walked to him among black boulders
and patches of yellow sand.
Being a king he had authority to ask questions. Conn
asked her, therefore, all the questions that he could think
of, for it is not every day that a lady drives from the sea,
and she wearing a golden-fringed cloak of green silk through
which a red satin smock peeped at the openings. She
replied to his questions, but she did not tell him all the
truth; for, indeed, she could not afford to.
She knew who he was, for she retained some of the
powers proper to the worlds she had left, and as he
looked on her soft yellow hair and on her thin red
lips, Conn recognised, as all men do, that one who is
lovely must also be good, and so he did not frame any
inquiry on that count; for everything is forgotten in
the presence of a pretty woman, and a magician can be
She told Conn that the fame of his son Art had reached
even the Many-Coloured Land, and that she had fallen in
love with the boy. This did not seem unreasonable to one
who had himself ventured much in Faery, and who had
known so many of the people of that world leave their own
land for the love of a mortal.
"What is your name, my sweet lady?" said the king.
"I am called Delvcaem (Fair Shape) and I am the
daughter of Morgan," she replied.
"I have heard much of Morgan," said the king. "He
is a very great magician."
During this conversation Conn had been regarding her
with the minute freedom which is right only in a king. At
what precise instant he forgot his dead consort we do not
know, but it is certain that at this moment his mind was no
longer burdened with that dear and lovely memory. His
voice was melancholy when he spoke again.
"You love my son!"
"Who could avoid loving him?" she murmured.
"When a woman speaks to a man about the love
she feels for another man she is not liked. And," he
continued, "when she speaks to a man who has no wife
of his own about her love for another man then she is
"I would not be disliked by you," Becuma murmured.
"Nevertheless," said he regally, "I will not come
between a woman and her choice."
"I did not know you lacked a wife," said Becuma, but
indeed she did.
"You know it now," the king replied sternly.
"What shall I do?" she inquired; "am I to wed you
or your son?"
"You must choose," Conn answered.
"If you allow me to choose it means that you do not
want me very badly," said she with a smile.
"Then I will not allow you to choose," cried the king,
"and it is with myself you shall marry."
He took her hand in his and kissed it.
"Lovely is this pale thin hand. Lovely is the slender
foot that I see in a small bronze shoe," said the king.
After a suitable time she continued:
"I should not like your son to be at Tara when I am
there, or for a year afterwards, for I do not wish to meet
him until I have forgotten him and have come to know
"I do not wish to banish my son," the king protested.
"It would not really be a banishment," she said. "A
prince's duty could be set him, and in such an absence he
would improve his knowledge both of Ireland and of men.
Further," she continued with downcast eyes, "when you
remember the reason that brought me here you will see
that his presence would be an embarrassment to us both, and
my presence would be unpleasant to him if he remembers
"Nevertheless," said Conn stubbornly, "I do not wish
to banish my son; it is awkward and unnecessary."
"For a year only," she pleaded.
"It is yet," he continued thoughtfully, "a reasonable
reason that you give and I will do what you ask, but by
my hand and word I don't like doing it."
They set out then briskly and joyfully on the homeward
journey, and in due time they reached Tara of the
It is part of the education of a prince to be a good chess
player, and to continually exercise his mind in view of the
judgements that he will be called upon to give and the
knotty, tortuous, and perplexing matters which will obscure
the issues which he must judge. Art, the son of Conn,
was sitting at chess2 with Cromdes, his father's magician.
Be very careful about the move you are going to
make," said Cromdes.
"Can I be careful?" Art inquired. "Is the move that
you are thinking of in my power?"
"It is not," the other admitted.
"Then I need not be more careful than usual," Art
replied, and he made his move.
"It is a move of banishment," said Cromdes.
"As I will not banish myself, I suppose my father will
do it, but I do not know why he should."
"Your father will not banish you."
"My mother is dead."
"You have a new one," said the magician.
"Here is news," said Art. "I think I shall not love
my new mother."
"You will yet love her better than she loves you," said
Cromdes, meaning thereby that they would hate each
While they spoke the king and Becuma entered the
"I had better go to greet my father," said the young
"You had better wait until he sends for you," his
companion advised, and they returned to their game.
In due time a messenger came from the king directing
Art to leave Tara instantly, and to leave Ireland for one
He left Tara that night, and for the space of a year he
was not seen again in Ireland. But during that period
things did not go well with the king nor with Ireland.
Every year before that time three crops of corn used to be
lifted off the land, but during Art's absence there was no
corn in Ireland and there was no milk. The whole land
Lean people were in every house, lean cattle in every
field; the bushes did not swing out their timely berries or
seasonable nuts; the bees went abroad as busily as ever,
but each night they returned languidly, with empty pouches,
and there was no honey in their hives when the honey
season came. People began to look at each other questioningly,
meaningly, and dark remarks passed between them,
for they knew that a bad harvest means, somehow, a bad
king, and, although this belief can be combated, it is too firmly
rooted in wisdom to be dismissed.
The poets and magicians met to consider why this
disaster should have befallen the country, and by their arts
they discovered the truth about the king's wife, and that
she was Becuma of the White Skin, and they discovered
also the cause of her banishment from the Many-Coloured
Land that is beyond the sea, which is beyond even the
They told the truth to the king, but he could not bear
to be parted from that slender-handed, gold-haired, thin-lipped,
blithe enchantress, and he required them to discover
some means whereby he might retain his wife and his
crown. There was a way and the magicians told him of it.
"If the son of a sinless couple can be found and if his
blood be mixed with the soil of Tara the blight and ruin
will depart from Ireland," said the magicians.
"If there is such a boy I will find him," cried the
At the end of a year Art returned to Tara. His father
delivered to him the sceptre of Ireland, and he set out on a
journey to find the son of a sinless couple such as he had
been told of.
The High King did not know where exactly he should
look for such a saviour, but he was well educated and knew
how to look for whatever was lacking. This knowledge
will be useful to those upon whom a similar duty should
He went to Ben Edair. He stepped into a coracle and
pushed out to the deep, and he permitted the coracle to
go as the winds and the waves directed it.
In such a way he voyaged among the small islands of
the sea until he lost all knowledge of his course and was
adrift far out in ocean. He was under the guidance of the
stars and the great luminaries.
He saw black seals that stared and barked and dived
dancingly, with the round turn of a bow and the forward
onset of an arrow. Great whales came heaving from the
green-hued void, blowing a wave of the sea high into the
air from their noses and smacking their wide flat tails
thunderously on the water. Porpoises went snorting past
in bands and clans. Small fish came sliding and flickering,
and all the outlandish creatures of the deep rose by his
bobbing craft and swirled and sped away.
Wild storms howled by him so that the boat climbed
painfully to the sky on a mile-high wave, balanced for a
tense moment on its level top, and sped down the glassy
side as a stone goes furiously from a sling.
Or, again, caught in the chop of a broken sea, it
stayed shuddering and backing, while above his head there
was only a low sad sky, and around him the lap and wash
of grey waves that were never the same and were never
After long staring on the hungry nothingness of air and
water he would stare on the skin-stretched fabric of his boat
as on a strangeness, or he would examine his hands and the
texture of his skin and the stiff black hairs that grew behind
his knuckles and sprouted around his ring, and he found
in these things newness and wonder.
Then, when days of storm had passed, the low grey
clouds shivered and cracked in a thousand places, each grim
islet went scudding to the horizon as though terrified by
some great breadth, and when they had passed he stared
into vast after vast of blue infinity, in the depths of which
his eyes stayed and could not pierce, and wherefrom they
could scarcely be withdrawn. A sun beamed thence that
filled the air with sparkle and the sea with a thousand lights,
and looking on these he was reminded of his home at Tara:
of the columns of white and yellow bronze that blazed
out sunnily on the sun, and the red and white and yellow
painted roofs that beamed at and astonished the eye.
Sailing thus, lost in a succession of days and nights, of
winds and calms, he came at last to an island.
His back was turned to it, and long before he saw it he
smelled it and wondered; for he had been sitting as in a
daze, musing on a change that had seemed to come in his
changeless world; and for a long time he could not tell
what that was which made a difference on the salt-whipped
wind or why he should be excited. For suddenly he had
become excited and his heart leaped in violent expectation.
"It is an October smell," he said.
"It is apples that I smell."
He turned then and saw the island, fragrant with apple
trees, sweet with wells of wine; and, hearkening towards
the shore, his ears, dulled yet with the unending rhythms
of the sea, distinguished and were filled with song; for
the isle was, as it were, a nest of birds, and they sang
joyously, sweetly, triumphantly.
He landed on that lovely island, and went forward
under the darting birds, under the apple boughs, skirting
fragrant lakes about which were woods of the sacred hazel
and into which the nuts of knowledge fell and swam; and
he blessed the gods of his people because of the ground
that did not shiver and because of the deeply rooted trees
that could not gad or budge.
Having gone some distance by these pleasant ways he saw
a shapely house dozing in the sunlight.
It was thatched with the wings of birds, blue wings
and yellow and white wings, and in the centre of the house
there was a door of crystal set in posts of bronze.
The queen of this island lived there, Rigru (Large-eyed),
the daughter of Lodan, and wife of Daire Degamra.
She was seated on a crystal throne with her son Segda by
her side, and they welcomed the High King courteously.
There were no servants in this palace; nor was there
need for them. The High King found that his hands had
washed themselves, and when later on he noticed that food
had been placed before him he noticed also that it had come
without the assistance of servile hands. A cloak was laid
gently about his shoulders, and he was glad of it, for his
own was soiled by exposure to sun and wind and water,
and was not worthy of a lady's eye.
Then he was invited to eat.
He noticed, however, that food had been set for no one
but himself, and this did not please him, for to eat alone
was contrary to the hospitable usage of a king, and was
contrary also to his contract with the gods.
"Good my hosts," he remonstrated, "it is geasa (taboo)
for me to eat alone."
"But we never eat together," the queen replied.
"I cannot violate my geasa," said the High King.
"I will eat with you," said Segda (Sweet Speech)," and
thus, while you are our guest you will not do violence to
"Indeed," said Conn, "that will be a great satisfaction,
for I have already all the trouble that I can cope with and
have no wish to add to it by offending the gods."
"What is your trouble?" the gentle queen asked.
"During a year," Conn replied, "there has been
neither corn nor milk in Ireland. The land is parched,
the trees are withered, the birds do not sing in Ireland, and
the bees do not make honey."
"You are certainly in trouble," the queen assented.
"But," she continued, "for what purpose have you
come to our island?"
"I have come to ask for the loan of your son."
"A loan of my son!"
"I have been informed," Conn explained, ** that if the
son of a sinless couple is brought to Tara and is bathed in
the waters of Ireland the land will be delivered from those
The king of this island, Daire, had not hitherto spoken,
but he now did so with astonishment and emphasis.
"We would not lend our son to any one, not even to
gain the kingship of the world," said he.
But Segda, observing that the guest's countenance was
discomposed, broke in:
"It is not kind to refuse a thing that the Ard-Rí of
Ireland asks for, and I will go with him."
"Do not go, my pulse," his father advised.
"Do not go, my one treasure," his mother pleaded.
"I must go indeed," the boy replied, "for it is to do
good I am required, and no person may shirk such a requirement."
"Go then," said his father, "but I will place you under
the protection of the High King and of the Four Provincial
Kings of Ireland, and under the protection of Art, the son
of Conn, and of Fionn, the son of Uail, and under the
protection of the magicians and poets and the men of art
in Ireland." And he thereupon bound these protections
and safeguards on the Ard-Rí with an oath.
"I will answer for these protections," said Conn.
He departed then from the island with Segda and in
three days they reached Ireland, and in due time they
arrived at Tara.
On reaching the palace Conn called his magicians and poets
to a council and informed them that he had found the boy
they sought — the son of a virgin. These learned people
consulted together, and they stated that the young man
must be killed, and that his blood should be mixed with
the earth of Tara and sprinkled under the withered trees.
When Segda heard this he was astonished and defiant;
then, seeing that he was alone and without prospect of
succour, he grew downcast and was in great fear for his
life. But remembering the safeguards under which he had
been placed, he enumerated these to the assembly, and
called on the High King to grant him the protections that
were his due.
Conn was greatly perturbed, but, as in duty bound,
he placed the boy under the various protections that were
in his oath, and, with the courage of one who has no more
to gain or lose, he placed Segda, furthermore, under the
protection of all the men of Ireland.
But the men of Ireland refused to accept that bond,
saying that although the Ard-Rí was acting justly towards
the boy he was not acting justly towards Ireland.
"We do not wish to slay this prince for our pleasure,"
they argued, " but for the safety of Ireland he must be
Angry parties were formed. Art, and Fionn the son of
Uail, and the princes of the land were outraged at the idea
that one who had been placed under their protection should
be hurt by any hand. But the men of Ireland and the
magicians stated that the king had gone to Faery for a
special purpose, and that his acts outside or contrary to
that purpose were illegal, and committed no person to
There were debates in the Council Hall, in the market-
place, in the streets of Tara, some holding that national
honour dissolved and absolved all personal honour, and
others protesting that no man had aught but his personal
honour, and that above it not the gods, not even Ireland,
could be placed — for it is to be known that Ireland is a god.
Such a debate was in course, and Segda, to whom both
sides addressed gentle and courteous arguments, grew more
and more disconsolate.
"You shall die for Ireland, dear heart," said one of them,
and he gave Segda three kisses on each cheek.
"Indeed," said Segda, returning those kisses, "indeed
I had not bargained to die for Ireland, but only to bathe in
her waters and to remove her pestilence."
"But, dear child and prince," said another, kissing him
likewise, "if any one of us could save Ireland by dying for
her how cheerfully we would die."
And Segda, returning his three kisses, agreed that the
death was noble, but that it was not in his undertaking.
Then, observing the stricken countenances about him,
and the faces of men and women hewn thin by hunger, his
resolution melted away, and he said:
"I think I must die for you," and then he said:
"I will die for you."
And when he had said that, all the people present
touched his cheek with their lips, and the love and peace of
Ireland entered into his soul, so that he was tranquil and
proud and happy.
The executioner drew his wide, thin blade and all
those present covered their eyes with their cloaks, when a
wailing voice called on the executioner to delay yet a
moment. The High King uncovered his eyes and saw
that a woman had approached driving a cow before her.
"Why are you killing the boy?" she demanded.
The reason for this slaying was explained to her.
Are you sure," she asked, "that the poets and
magicians really know everything?"
"Do they not?" the king inquired.
"Do they?" she insisted.
And then turning to the magicians:
"Let one magician of the magicians tell me what is
hidden in the bags that are lying across the back of my
But no magician could tell it, nor did they try to.
"Questions are not answered thus," they said. "There
are formulae, and the calling up of spirits, and lengthy
complicated preparations in our art."
I am not badly learned in these arts," said the woman,
"and I say that if you slay this cow the effect will be the
same as if you had killed the boy."
"We would prefer to kill a cow or a thousand cows
rather than harm this young prince," said Conn, "but if we
spare the boy will these evils return?"
"They will not be banished until you have banished
"And what is their cause?"
"Becuma is the cause, and she must be banished."
"If you must tell me what to do," said Conn, "tell
me at least to do something that I can do."
"I will tell you certainly. You can keep Becuma
and your ills as long as you want to. It does not matter
to me. Come, my son," she said to Segda, for it was
Segda's mother who had come to save him; and then that
sinless queen and her son went back to their home of
enchantment, leaving the king and Fionn and the magicians
and nobles of Ireland astonished and ashamed.
There are good and evil people in this and in every other
world, and the person who goes hence will go to the good
or the evil that is native to him, while those who return
come as surely to their due. The trouble which had fallen
on Becuma did not leave her repentant, and the sweet
lady began to do wrong as instantly and innocently as a
flower begins to grow. It was she who was responsible for
the ills which had come on Ireland, and we may wonder
why she brought these plagues and droughts to what was
now her own country.
Under all wrong-doing lies personal vanity or the
feeling that we are endowed and privileged beyond our
fellows. It is probable that, however courageously she had
accepted fate, Becuma had been sharply stricken in her
pride; in the sense of personal strength, aloofness, and
identity, in which the mind likens itself to god and will
resist every domination but its own. She had been punished,
that is, she had submitted to control, and her sense of
freedom, of privilege, of very being, was outraged. The
mind flinches even from the control of natural law, and how
much more from the despotism of its own separated likenesses,
for if another can control me that other has usurped
me, has become me, and how terribly I seem diminished
by the seeming addition!
This sense of separateness is vanity, and is the bed of all
wrong-doing. For we are not freedom, we are control, and
we must submit to our own function ere we can exercise it.
Even unconsciously we accept the rights of others to all that
we have, and if we will not share our good with them, it is
because we cannot, having none; but we will yet give what
we have, although that be evil. To insist on other people
sharing in our personal torment is the first step towards
insisting that they shall share in our joy, as we shall insist
when we get it.
Becuma considered that if she must suffer all else
she met should suffer also. She raged, therefore, against
Ireland, and in particular she raged against young Art,
her husband's son, and she left undone nothing that could
afflict Ireland or the prince. She may have felt that she
could not make them suffer, and that is a maddening
thought to any woman. Or perhaps she had really
desired the son instead of the father, and her thwarted
desire had perpetuated itself as hate. But it is true that
Art regarded his mother's successor with intense dislike,
and it is true that she actively returned it.
One day Becuma came on the lawn before the palace,
and seeing that Art was at chess with Cromdes she walked
to the table on which the match was being played and for
some time regarded the game. But the young prince
did not take any notice of her while she stood by the
board, for he knew that this girl was the enemy of Ireland,
and he could not bring himself even to look at her.
Becuma, looking down on his beautiful head, smiled
as much in rage as in disdain.
"O son of a king," said she, "I demand a game with
you for stakes."
Art then raised his head and stood up courteously,
but he did not look at her.
"Whatever the queen demands I will do," said he.
"Am I not your mother also," she replied mockingly,
as she took the seat which the chief magician leaped from.
The game was set then, and her play was so skilful
that Art was hard put to counter her moves. But at a
point of the game Becuma grew thoughtful, and, as by a
lapse of memory, she made a move which gave the victory
to her opponent. But she had intended that. She sat
then, biting on her lip with her white small teeth and
staring angrily at Art.
What do you demand from me?" she asked.
"I bind you to eat no food in Ireland until you find the
wand of Curoi, son of Darè."
Becuma then put a cloak about her and she went from
Tara northward and eastward until she came to the dewy,
sparkling Brugh of Angus mac an Og in Ulster, but she
was not admitted there. She went thence to the Shí
ruled over by Eogabal, and although this lord would not
admit her, his daughter Ainè, who was her foster-sister,
let her into Faery. She made inquiries and was informed
where the dun of Curoi mac Darè was, and when she had
received this intelligence she set out for Sliev Mis. By
what arts she coaxed Curoi to give up his wand it matters
not, enough that she was able to return in triumph to
Tara. When she handed the wand to Art, she said:
"I claim my game of revenge."
"It is due to you," said Art, and they sat on the lawn
before the palace and played.
A hard game that was, and at times each of the combatants
sat for an hour staring on the board before the next
move was made, and at times they looked from the board
and for hours stared on the sky seeking as though in heaven
for advice. But Becuma's foster-sister, Ainè, came from
the Shí, and, unseen by any, she interfered with Art's
play, so that, suddenly, when he looked again on the board,
his face went pale, for he saw that the game was lost.
"I didn't move that piece," said he sternly.
"Nor did I," Becuma replied, and she called on the
onlookers to confirm that statement.
She was smiling to herself secretly, for she had seen
what the mortal eyes around could not see.
"I think the game is mine," she insisted softly.
"I think that your friends in Faery have cheated,"
he replied, "but the game is yours if you are content to
win it that way."
"I bind you," said Becuma, "to eat no food in Ireland
until you have found Delvcaem, the daughter of Morgan."
"Where do I look for her," said Art in despair.
"She is in one of the islands of the sea," Becuma
replied, "that is all I will tell you," and she looked at him
maliciously, joyously, contentedly, for she thought he would
never return from that journey, and that Morgan would
see to it.
Art, as his father had done before him, set out for the
Many- Coloured Land, but it was from Inver Colpa he embarked
and not from Ben Edair.
At a certain time he passed from the rough green ridges
of the sea to enchanted waters, and he roamed from island
to island asking all people how he might come to Delvcaem,
the daughter of Morgan. But he got no news from any one,
until he reached an island that was fragrant with wild apples,
gay with flowers, and joyous with the song of birds and the
deep mellow drumming of the bees. In this island he
was met by a lady, Credè, the Truly Beautiful, and when
they had exchanged kisses, he told her who he was and
on what errand he was bent.
"We have been expecting you," said Crede, "but alas,
poor soul, it is a hard, and a long, bad way that you must
go; for there is sea and land, danger and difficulty between
you and the daughter of Morgan."
"Yet I must go there," he answered.
"There is a wild dark ocean to be crossed. There is
a dense wood where every thorn on every tree is sharp as a
spear-point and is curved and clutching. There is a deep
gulf to be gone through," she said, "a place of silence and
terror, full of dumb, venomous monsters. There is an
immense oak forest — dark, dense, thorny, a place to be
strayed in, a place to be utterly bewildered and lost in.
There is a vast dark wilderness, and therein is a dark house,
lonely and full of echoes, and in it there are seven gloomy
hags, who are warned already of your coming and are
waiting to plunge you in a bath of molten lead."
"It is not a choice journey," said Art, "but I have no
choice and must go."
"Should you pass those hags," she continued, "and
no one has yet passed them, you must meet Ailill of the
Black Teeth, the son of Mongan Tender Blossom, and who
could pass that gigantic and terrible fighter."
"It is not easy to find the daughter of Morgan," said
Art in a melancholy voice.
"It is not easy," Credè replied eagerly, "and if you
will take my advice—"
"Advise me," he broke in, "for in truth there is no
man standing in such need of counsel as I do."
"I would advise you," said Credè in a low voice, "to
seek no more for the sweet daughter of Morgan, but to
stay in this place where all that is lovely is at your service."
"But, but—" cried Art in astonishment.
"Am I not as sweet as the daughter of Morgan?" she
demanded, and she stood before him queenly and pleadingly,
and her eyes took his with imperious tenderness.
"By my hand," he answered, "you are sweeter and
lovelier than any being under the sun, but—"
"And with me," she said, "you will forget Ireland."
"I am under bonds," cried Art, "I have passed my
word, and I would not forget Ireland or cut myself from it
for all the kingdoms of the Many-Coloured Land."
Credè urged no more at that time, but as they were
parting she whispered, "There are two girls, sisters of
my own, in Morgan's palace. They will come to you with
a cup in either hand; one cup will be filled with wine and
one with poison. Drink from the right-hand cup, O my
Art stepped into his coracle, and then, wringing her
hands, she made yet an attempt to dissuade him from that
"Do not leave me," she urged. "Do not affront
these dangers. Around the palace of Morgan there is a
palisade of copper spikes, and on the top of each spike the
head of a man grins and shrivels. There is one spike
only which bears no head, and it is for your head that spike
is waiting. Do not go there, my love."
"I must go indeed," said Art earnestly.
"There is yet a danger," she called. "Beware of
Delvcaem's mother. Dog Head, daughter of the King of
the Dog Heads. Beware of her."
"Indeed," said Art to himself, "there is so much to
beware of that I will beware of nothing. I will go about
my business," he said to the waves, "and I will let those
beings and monsters and the people of the Dog Heads go
about their business."
He went forward in his light bark, and at some moment
found that he had parted from those seas and was adrift on
vaster and more turbulent billows. From those dark-green
surges there gaped at him monstrous and cavernous jaws;
and round, wicked, red-rimmed, bulging eyes stared fixedly
at the boat. A ridge of inky water rushed foaming mountainously
on his board, and behind that ridge came a vast
warty head that gurgled and groaned. But at these vile
creatures he thrust with his lengthy spear or stabbed at
closer reach with a dagger.
He was not spared one of the terrors which had been
foretold. Thus, in the dark thick oak forest he slew the
seven hags and buried them in the molten lead which they
had heated for him. He climbed an icy mountain, the cold
breath of which seemed to slip into his body and chip off
inside of his bones, and there, until he mastered the sort of
climbing on ice, for each step that he took upwards he
slipped back ten steps. Almost his heart gave way before
he learned to climb that venomous hill.
In a forked glen
into which he slipped at nightfall he was surrounded by
giant toads, who spat poison, and were icy as the land they
lived in, and were cold and foul and savage. At Sliav
Saev he encountered the long-maned lions who lie in wait
for the beasts of the world, growling woefully as they squat
above their prey and crunch those terrified bones. He
came on Ailill of the Black Teeth sitting on the bridge
that spanned a torrent, and the grim giant was grinding
his teeth on a pillar stone. Art drew nigh unobserved and
brought him low.
It was not for nothing that these difficulties and dangers
were in his path. These things and creatures were the
invention of Dog Head, the wife of Morgan, for it had
become known to her that she would die on the day
her daughter was wooed. Therefore none of the dangers
encountered by Art were real, but were magical chimeras
conjured against him by the great witch.
Affronting all, conquering all, he came in time to
Morgan's dun, a place so lovely that after the miseries
through which he had struggled he almost wept to see
Delvcaem knew that he was coming. She was waiting
for him, yearning for him. To her mind Art was not only
love, he was freedom, for the poor girl was a captive in
her father's home. A great pillar an hundred feet high
had been built on the roof of Morgan's palace, and on the
top of this pillar a tiny room had been constructed, and in
this room Delvcaem was a prisoner.
She was lovelier in shape than any other princess of
the Many-Coloured Land. She was wiser than all the
other women of that land, and she was skilful in music,
embroidery, and chastity, and in all else that pertained to
the knowledge of a queen.
Although Delvcaem's mother wished nothing but ill to
Art, she yet treated him with the courtesy proper in a
queen on the one hand and fitting towards the son of
the King of Ireland on the other. Therefore, when Art
entered the palace he was met and kissed, and he was bathed
and clothed and fed. Two young girls came to him then,
having a cup in each of their hands, and presented him with
the kingly drink, but, remembering the warning which
Credè had given him, he drank only from the right-hand
cup and escaped the poison.
Next he was visited by Delvcaem's mother. Dog Head,
daughter of the King of the Dog Heads, and Morgan's
queen. She was dressed in full armour, and she challenged
Art to fight with her.
It was a woeful combat, for there was no craft or
sagacity unknown to her, and Art would infallibly have
perished by her hand but that her days were numbered,
her star was out, and her time had come. It was her head
that rolled on the ground when the combat was over, and
it was her head that grinned and shrivelled on the vacant
spike which she had reserved for Art's.
Then Art liberated Delvcaem from her prison at the
top of the pillar and they were affianced together. But the
ceremony had scarcely been completed when the tread of
a single man caused the palace to quake and seemed to jar
It was Morgan returning to the palace.
The gloomy king challenged him to combat also, and
in his honour Art put on the battle harness which he had
brought from Ireland. He wore a breastplate and helmet
of gold, a mantle of blue satin swung from his shoulders,
his left hand was thrust into the grips of a purple shield,
deeply bossed with silver, and in the other hand he held
the wide-grooved, blue-hiked sword which had rung
so often into fights and combats, and joyous feats and
Up to this time the trials through which he had passed
had seemed so great that they could not easily be added to.
But if all those trials had been gathered into one vast
calamity they would not equal one half of the rage and
catastrophe of his war with Morgan.
For what he could not effect by arms Morgan would
endeavour by guile, so that while Art drove at him or
parried a crafty blow, the shape of Morgan changed before
his eyes, and the monstrous king was having at him in
another form, and from a new direction.
It was well for the son of the Ard-Rí that he had been
beloved by the poets and magicians of his land, and that
they had taught him all that was known of shape-changing
and words of power.
He had need of all these.
At times, for the weapon must change with the enemy,
they fought with their foreheads as two giant stags, and the
crash of their monstrous onslaught rolled and lingered on
the air long after their skulls had parted. Then as two
lions, long-clawed, deep-mouthed, snarling, with rigid
mane, with red-eyed glare, with flashing, sharp-white
fangs, they prowled lithely about each other seeking for
an opening. And then as two green-ridged, white-topped,
broad-swung, overwhelming, vehement billows of the deep,
they met and crashed and sank into and rolled away from
each other; and the noise of these two waves was as the
roar of all ocean when the howl of the tempest is drowned
in the league-long fury of the surge.
But when the wife's time has come the husband is
doomed. He is required elsewhere by his beloved, and
Morgan went to rejoin his queen in the world that comes
after the Many-Coloured Land, and his victor shore that
knowledgeable head away from its giant shoulders.
He did not tarry in the Many-Coloured Land, for he
had nothing further to seek there. He gathered the things
which pleased him best from among the treasures of its
grisly king, and with Delvcaem by his side they stepped
into the coracle.
Then, setting their minds on Ireland, they went there
as it were in a flash.
The waves of all the worlds seemed to whirl past them in
one huge green cataract. The sound of all these oceans
boomed in their ears for one eternal instant. Nothing was
for that moment but a vast roar and pour of waters. Thence
they swung into a silence equally vast, and so sudden that
it was as thunderous in the comparison as was the elemental
rage they quitted. For a time they sat panting, staring at
each other, holding each other, lest not only their lives but
their very souls should be swirled away in the gusty passage
of world within world; and then, looking abroad, they saw
the small bright waves creaming by the rocks of Ben Edair,
and they blessed the power that had guided and protected
them, and they blessed the comely land of Ir.
On reaching Tara, Delvcaem, who was more powerful
in art and magic than Becuma, ordered the latter to go
away, and she did so.
She left the king's side. She came from the midst of
the counsellors and magicians. She did not bid farewell
to any one. She did not say good-bye to the king as she
set out for Ben Edair.
Where she could go to no man knew, for she had been
banished from the Many-Coloured Land and could not return
there. She was forbidden entry to the Shí by Angus Og,
and she could not remain in Ireland. She went to Sasana3
and she became a queen in that country, and it was she who
fostered the rage against the Holy Land which has not
ceased to this day.
The original of this tale is in the Book of Fermoy, compiled in the 14th century, now in the Royal Irish Academy. For a transcription and translation, see
"The Adventures of Art Son of Conn", by R. I. Best, in Ériu, Vol. III, Kuno Meyer and John Strachan, eds., Dublin: David Nutt, 1907, 149-173. -> online.
1. Ben of Howth, near Dublin.
2. The original story has fidchell, an ancient celtic boardgame.
3. Old Irish name for England.]
Stephens, James, ed. Irish Fairy Tales.
London: The Macmillan Co., Ltd., 1920. 219-255.