THE COURTSHIP OF ETAIN
LEABHAR NA H-UIDHRI VERSION.
EOCHAID AIREMON took the sovereignty over Erin, and the five provinces of Ireland were obedient to him, for the king of each province was his vassal. Now these were they who were the kings of the provinces at that time, even Conor the son of Ness, and Messgegra, and Tigernach Tetbannach, and Curoi, and Ailill the son of Mata of Muresc. And the royal forts that belonged to Eochaid were the stronghold of Frèmain in Meath, and the stronghold of Frèmain in Tethba; moreover the stronghold of Frèmain in Tethba was more pleasing to him than any other of the forts of Erin.
Now a year after that Eochaid had obtained the sovereignty, he sent out his commands to the men of Ireland that they should come to Tara to hold festival therein, in order that there should be adjusted the taxes and the imposts that should be set upon them, so that these might be settled for a period of five years. And the one answer that the men of Ireland made to Eochaid was that they would not make for the king that assembly which is the Festival of Tara until he found for himself a queen, for there was no queen to stand by the king's side when Eochaid first assumed the kingdom.
Then Eochaid sent out the messengers of each of the five provinces to go through the land of Ireland to seek for that woman or girl who was the fairest to be found in Erin; and he bade them to note that no woman should be to him as a wife, unless she had never before been as a wife to any one of the men of the land. And at the Bay of Cichmany a wife was found for him, and her name was Etain, the daughter of Etar; and Eochaid brought her thereafter to his palace, for she was a wife meet for him, by reason of her form, and her beauty, and her descent, and her brilliancy, and her youth, and her renown.
Now Finn the son of Findloga had three sons, all sons of a queen, even Eochaid Fedlech, and Eochaid Airemm, and Ailill Anguba. And Ailill Anguba was seized with love for Etain at the Festival of Tara, after that she had been wedded to Eochaid; since he for a long time gazed upon her, and, since such gazing is a token of love, Ailill gave much blame to himself for the deed that he was doing, yet it helped him not. For his longing was too strong for his endurance, and for this cause he fell into a sickness; and, that there might be no stain upon his honour, his sickness was concealed by him from all, neither did he speak of it to the lady herself. Then Fachtna, the chief physician of Eochaid, was brought to look upon Ailill, when it was understood that his death might be near, and thus the physician spoke to him: "One of the two pangs that slay a man, and for which there is no healing by leechcraft, is upon thee; either the pangs of envy or the pangs of love. And Ailill refused to confess the cause of his illness to the physician, for he was withheld by shame and he was left behind in Frèmain of Tethba to die; and Eochaid went upon his royal progress throughout all Erin, and he left Etain behind him to be near Ailill, in order that the last rites of Ailill might be done by her; that she might cause his grave to be dug, and that the keen might be raised for him, and that his cattle should be slain for him as victims. And to the house where Ailill lay in his sickness went Etain each day to converse with him, and his sickness was eased by her presence; and, so long as Etain was in that place where he was, so long was he accustomed to gaze at her.
Now Etain observed all this, and she bent her mind to discover the cause, and one day when they were in the house together, Etain asked of Ailill what was the cause of his sickness. "My sickness," said Ailill, "comes from my love for thee." "'Tis pity," said she, "that thou hast so long kept silence, for thou couldest have been healed long since, had we but known of its cause." "And even now could I be healed," said Ailill, "did I but find favour in thy sight." "Thou shalt find favour," she said. Each day after they had spoken thus with each other, she came to him for the fomenting of his head, and for the giving of the portion of food that was required by him, and for the pouring of water over his hands; and three weeks after that, Ailill was whole. Then he said to Etain: "Yet is the completion of my cure at thy hands lacking to me; when may it be that I shall have it?" "'Tis to-morrow it shall be," she answered him, "but it shall not be in the abode of the lawful monarch of the land that this felony shall be done. Thou shalt come," she said, "on the morrow to yonder hill that riseth beyond the fort: there shall be the tryst that thou desirest."
Now Ailill lay awake all that night, and he fell into a sleep at the hour when he should have kept his tryst, and he woke not from his sleep until the third hour of the day. And Etain went to her tryst, and she saw a man before her; like was his form to the form of Ailill, he lamented the weakness that his sickness had caused him, and he gave to her such answers as it was fitting that Ailill should give. But at the third hour of the day, Ailill himself awoke: and he had for a long time remained in sorrow when Etain came into the house where he was; and as she approached him, "What maketh thee so sorrowful?" said Etain. "'Tis because thou wert sent to tryst with me," said Ailill, "and I came not to thy presence, and sleep fell upon me, so that I have but now awakened from it; and surely my chance of being healed hath now gone from me." "Not so, indeed," answered Etain, "for there is a morrow to follow to-day." And upon that night he took his watch with a great fire before him, and with water beside him to put upon his eyes.
At the hour that was appointed for the tryst, Etain came for her meeting with Ailill; and she saw the same man, like unto Ailill, whom she had seen before; and Etain went to the house, and saw Ailill still lamenting. And Etain came three times, and yet Ailill kept not his tryst, and she found that same man there every time. "'Tis not for thee," she said, "that I came to this tryst: why comest thou to meet me? And as for him whom I would have met, it was for no sin or evil desire that I came to meet him; but it was fitting for the wife of the king of Ireland to rescue the man from the sickness under which he hath so long been oppressed." "It were more fitting for thee to tryst with me myself," said the man, "for when thou wert Etain of the Horses, the daughter of Ailill, it was I who was thy husband. And when thou camest to be wife to me, thou didst leave a great price behind thee; even a marriage price of the chief plains and waters of Ireland, and as much of gold and of silver as might match thee in value." "Why," said she, "what is thy name?" "'Tis easy to say," he answered; "Mider of Bri Leith is my name." "Truly," said she; "and what was the cause that parted us?" "That also is easy," he said; "it was the sorcery of Fuamnach, and the spells of Bressal Etarlam. And then Mider said to Etain:
Wilt thou come to my home, fair-haired lady? to dwell
"I will not come with thee," answered Etain, "I will not give up the king of Ireland for thee, a man who knows not his own clan nor his kindred." "It was indeed myself," said Mider, "who long ago put beneath the mind of Ailill the love that he hath felt for thee, so that his blood ceased to run, and his flesh fell away from him: it was I also who have taken away his desire, so that there might be no hurt to thine honour. But wilt thou come with me to my land," said Mider, "in case Eochaid should ask it of thee?" "I would come in such case," answered to him Etain.
In the marvellous land of the musical spell,
Where the crowns of all heads are, as primroses, bright,
And from head to the heel all men's bodies snow-white.
In that land of no "mine" nor of "thine" is there speech,
But there teeth flashing white and dark eyebrows hath each;
In all eyes shine our hosts, as reflected they swarm,
And each cheek with the pink of the foxglove is warm.
With the heather's rich tint every blushing neck glows,
In our eyes are all shapes that the blackbird's egg shows;
And the plains of thine Erin, though pleasing to see,
When the Great Plain is sighted, as deserts shall be.
Though ye think the ale strong in this Island of Fate,
Yet they drink it more strong in the Land of the Great;
Of a country where marvel abounds have I told,
Where no young man in rashness thrusts backward the old.
There are streams smooth and luscious that flow through that land,
And of mead and of wine is the best at each hand;
And of crime there is naught the whole country within,
There are men without blemish, and love without sin.
Through the world of mankind, seeing all, can we float,
And yet none, though we see them, their see-ers can note;
For the sin of their sire is a mist on them flung,
None may count up our host who from Adam is sprung.
Lady, come to that folk; to that strong folk of mine;
And with gold on thy head thy fair tresses shall shine:
'Tis on pork the most dainty that then thou shalt feed,
And for drink have thy choice of new milk and of mead.
After all this Etain departed to the house. "It hath indeed been good, this our tryst," said Ailill, "for I have been cured of my sickness; moreover, in no way has thine honour been stained." "'Tis glorious that it hath fallen out so," answered Etain. And afterwards Eochaid came back from his royal progress, and he was grateful for that his brother's life had been preserved, and he gave all thanks to Etain for the great deed she had done while he was away from his palace.
Now upon another time it chanced that Eochaid Airemm, the king of Tara, arose upon a. certain fair day in the time of summer; and he ascended the high ground of Tara to behold the plain of Breg; beautiful was the colour of that plain, and there was upon it excellent blossom, glowing with all hues that are known. And, as the aforesaid Eochaid looked about and around him, he saw a young strange warrior upon the high ground at his side. The tunic that the warrior wore was purple in colour, his hair was of a golden yellow, and of such length that it reached to the edge of his shoulders. The eyes of the young warrior were lustrous and grey; in the one hand he held a five-pointed spear, in the other a shield with a white central boss, and with gems of gold upon it. And Eochaid held his peace, for he knew that none such had been in Tara on the night before, and the gate that led into the Liss had not at that hour been thrown open.
The warrior came, and placed himself under the protection of Eochaid; and "Welcome do I give," said Eochaid, "to the hero who is yet unknown."
"Thy reception is such as I expected when I came," said the warrior.
"We know thee not," answered Eochaid.
"Yet thee in truth I know well!" he replied.
"What is the name by which thou art called?" said Eochaid.
"My name is not known to renown," said the warrior; "I am Mider of Bri Leith."
"And for what purpose art thou come?" said Eochaid.
"I have come that I may play a game at the chess with thee," answered Mider. "Truly," said Eochaid, "I myself am skilful at the chess-play."
"Let us test that skill! said Mider.
"Nay," said Eochaid, the queen is even now in her sleep; and hers is the palace in which the chessboard lies."
"I have here with me," said Mider, "a chessboard which is not inferior to thine." It was even as he said, for that chessboard was silver, and the men to play with were gold; and upon that board were costly stones, casting their light on every side, and the bag that held the men was of woven chains of brass.
Mider then set out the chessboard, and he called upon Eochaid to play. "I will not play," said Eochaid, "unless we play for a stake."
"What stake shall we have upon the game then?" said Mider.
"It is indifferent to me," said Eochaid.
"Then," said Mider, "if thou dost obtain the forfeit of my stake, I will bestow on thee fifty steeds of a dark grey, their heads of a blood-red colour, but dappled; their ears pricked high, and their chests broad; their nostrils wide, and their hoofs slender; great is their strength, and they are keen like a whetted edge; eager are they, high-standing, and spirited, yet easily stopped in their course."
[Many games were played between Eochaid and Mider; and, since Mider did not put forth his whole strength, the victory on all occasions rested with Eochaid. But instead of the gifts which Mider had offered, Eochaid demanded that Mider and his folk should perform for him services which should be of benefit to his realm; that he should clear away the rocks and stones from the plains of Meath, should remove the rushes which made the land barren around his favourite fort of Tethba, should cut down the forest of Breg, and finally should build a causeway across the moor or bog of Lamrach that men might pass freely across it. All these things Mider agreed to do, and Eochaid sent his steward to see how that work was done. And when it came to the time after sunset, the steward looked, and he saw that Mider and his fairy host, together with fairy oxen, were labouring at the causeway over the bog;] and thereupon much of earth and of gravel and of stones was poured into it. Now it had, before that time, always been the custom of the men of Ireland to harness their oxen with a strap over their foreheads, so that the pull might be against the foreheads of the oxen; and this custom lasted up to that very night, when it was seen that the fairy-folk had placed the yoke upon the shoulders of the oxen, so that the pull might be there; and in this way were the yokes of the oxen afterwards placed by Eochaid, and thence cometh the name by which he is known; even Eochaid Airemm, or Eochaid the Ploughman, for he was the first of all the men of Ireland to put the yokes on the necks of the oxen, and thus it became the custom for all the land of Ireland. And this is the song that the host of the fairies sang, as they laboured at the making of the road:
Thrust it in hand! force it in hand!
Nobles this night, as an ox-troop, stand:
Hard is the task that is asked, and who
From the bridging of Lamrach shall gain, or rue?
Not in all the world could a road have been found that should be better than the road that they made, had it not been that the fairy folk were observed as they worked upon it; but for that cause a breach hath been made in that causeway. And the steward of Eochaid thereafter came to him; and he described to him that great labouring band that had come before his eyes, and he said that there was not over the chariot-pole of life a power that could withstand its might. And, as they spake thus with each other, they saw Mider standing before them; high was he girt, and ill-favoured was the face that he showed; and Eochaid arose, and he gave welcome to him. "Thy welcome is such as I expected when I came," said Mider. "Cruel and senseless hast thou been in thy treatment of me, and much of hardship and suffering hast thou given me. All things that seemed good in thy sight have I got for thee, but now anger against thee hath filled my mind!" "I return not anger for anger," answered Eochaid; "what thou wishest shall be done." "Let it be as thou wishest," said Mider; "shall we play at the chess?" said he. "What stake shall we set upon the game?" said Eochaid. "Even such stake as the winner of it shall demand," said Mider. And in that very place Eochaid was defeated, and he forfeited his stake.
"My stake is forfeit to thee," said Eochaid.
"Had I wished it, it had been forfeit long ago," said Mider.
"What is it that thou desirest me to grant?" said Eochaid.
"That I may hold Etain in my arms, and obtain a kiss from her!" answered Mider.
Eochaid was silent for a while and then he said: "One month from this day thou shalt come, and the very thing that thou hast asked for shall be given to thee." Now for a year before that Mider first came to Eochaid for the chess-play, had he been at the wooing of Etain, and he obtained her not; and the name which he gave to Etain was Bèfind, or Fair-haired Woman, so it was that he said:
Wilt thou come to my home, fair-haired lady?
as has before been recited. And it was at that time that Etain said: "If thou obtainest me from him who is the master of my house, I will go; but if thou art not able to obtain me from him, then I will not go." And thereon Mider came to Eochaid, and allowed him at the first to win the victory over him, in order that Eochaid should stand in his debt; and therefore it was that he paid the great stakes to which he had agreed; and therefore also was it that he had demanded of him that he should play that game in ignorance of what was staked. And when Mider and his folk were paying those agreed-on stakes, which were paid upon that night; to wit, the making of the road, and the clearing of the stones from Meath, the rushes from around Tethba, and of the forest that is over Breg, it was thus that he spoke, as it is written in the Book of Drom Snechta:
Pile on the soil; thrust on the soil:
Red are the oxen around who toil:
Heavy the troops that my words obey;
Heavy they seem, and yet men are they.
Strongly, as piles, are the tree-trunks placed
Red are the wattles above them laced:
Tired are your hands, and your glances slant;
One woman's winning this toil may grant!
Oxen ye are, but revenge shall see;
Men who are white shall your servants be:
Rushes from Teffa are cleared away:
Grief is the price that the man shall pay:
Stones have been cleared from the rough Meath ground;
Whose shall the gain or the harm be found?
Now Mider appointed a day at the end of the month when he was to meet Eochaid, and Eochaid called the armies of the heroes of Ireland together, so that they came to Tara; and all the best of the champions of Ireland, ring within ring, were about Tara, and they were in the midst of Tara itself, and they guarded it, both without and within; and the king and the queen were in the midst of the palace, and the outer court thereof was shut and locked, for they knew that the great might of men would come upon them. And upon the appointed night Etain was dispensing the banquet to the kings, for it was her duty to pour out the wine, when in the midst of their talk they saw Mider standing before them in the centre of the palace. He was always fair, yet fairer than he ever was seemed Mider to be upon that night. And he brought to amazement all the hosts on which he gazed, and all thereon were silent, and the king gave a welcome to him.
"Thy reception is such as I expected when I came," said Mider; "let that now be given to me that hath been promised. 'Tis a debt that is due when a promise hath been made; and I for my part have given to thee all that was promised by me."
"I have not yet considered the matter," said Eochaid.
"Thou hast promised Etain's very self to me," said Mider; "that is what hath come from thee." Etain blushed for shame when she heard that word.
"Blush not," said Mider to Etain, "for in nowise hath thy wedding-feast been disgraced. I have been seeking thee for a year with the fairest jewels and treasures that can be found in Ireland, and I have not taken thee until the time came when Eochaid might permit it. 'Tis not through any will of thine that I have won thee." "I myself told thee," said Etain, "that until Eochaid should resign me to thee I would grant thee nothing. Take me then for my part, if Eochaid is willing to resign me to thee."
"But I will not resign thee!" said Eochaid; "nevertheless he shall take thee in his arms upon the floor of this house as thou art."
"It shall be done!" said Mider.
He took his weapons into his left hand and the woman beneath his right shoulder; and he carried her off through the skylight of the house. And the hosts rose up around the king, for they felt that they had been disgraced, and they saw two swans circling round Tara, and the way that they took was the way to the elf-mound of Femun. And Eochaid with an army of the men of Ireland went to the elf-mound of Femun, which men call the mound of the Fair-haired-Women. And he followed the counsel of the men of Ireland, and he dug up each of the elf-mounds that he might take his wife from thence. [And Mider and his host opposed them and the war between them was long: again and again the trenches made by Eochaid were destroyed, for nine years as some say lasted the strife of the men of Ireland to enter into the fairy palace. And when at last the armies of Eochaid came by digging to the borders of the fairy mansion, Mider sent to the side of the palace sixty women all in the shape of Etain, and so like to her that none could tell which was the queen. And Eochaid himself was deceived, and he chose, instead of Etain, her daughter Messbuachalla (or as some say Esa.) But when he found that he had been deceived, he returned again to sack Bri Leith, and this time Etain made herself known to Eochaid, by proofs that he could not mistake, and he bore her away in triumph to Tara, and there she abode with the king.]
Heroic Romances of Ireland. Vol I. A. H. Leahy, ed.
London: David Nutt, 1905. 23-32.
Woodcuts 1, 2, 4 — "The Fortunatus Woodcuts." Dr. Michael Haldane. Link.
Woodcut 3 — Caxton, William. Game and Playe of the Chesse.
London: Elliot Stock, 1883.