Stories, Myths & Legends

The Wooing of Étaín


There was a famous king of Ireland of the race of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Eochaid Ollathair his name.  He was also named the Dagda (the good God), for it was he that used to work wonders for them and control the weather and the crops. 

Wherefore men said he was called the Dagda.  Elcmar of the Brugh had a wife whose name was Eithne, and another name for her was Boand.  The Dagda desired her in carnal union.  The woman would have yielded to the Dagda had it not been for fear of Elcmar, so great was his power.

Thereupon the Dagda sent Elcmar away on a journey to Bres son of Elatha in Mag nInis, and the Dagda worked great spells upon Elcmar as he set out, that he might not return early and he dispelled the darkness of night for him, and he kept hunger and thirst from him.  He sent him on long errands, so that nine months went by as one day, for he had said that he would return home again between day and night.

Meanwhile the Dagda went in unto Elcmar's wife and she bore him a son, Aengus, and the woman was whole of her sickness when Elcmar returned, and he perceived not her offence, that she had lain with the Dagda.

Midir&Etain.jpg (74721 bytes)

Midir and Etain: 'He took his weapons in his left hand and the woman beneath his right shoulder; and he carried her off through the smoke-hole of the house.'

The Dagda meanwhile brought his son to Midhir's house in Brí Léith in Tethba, to be fostered.  There Aengus was reared for the space of nine years.  Midhir had a great playing field in Brí Léith.  Thrice fifty lads of the young nobles of Ireland were there and thrice fifty maidens of Ireland.  Aengus was the leader of them all because of Midhir's great love for him, and the beauty of his form and nobility of his race.  He was also called Mac Óg (the Young Son) for his mother said: 'Young is the son who was begotten at the break of day and born between it and evening.'

Now Aengus quarreled with Triath son of Febal (or Gobor) of the Fir Bolg, who was one of the two leaders in the game and a foster son of Midhir also.

It was no small matter of pride with Aengus that Triath should speak to him, and he said 'It irks me that the son of a serf should hold speech with me,' for Aengus  had believed up until then that Midhir was his father, and the kingship of Brí Léith his heritage, and he knew not of his kinship with the Dagda.

Triath made answer and said: 'I take it no less ill that a hireling whose mother and father are unknown should hold speech with me.'  Thereupon Aengus went to Midhir weeping and sorrowful at having been put to shame by Triath.  'What is this?' said Midhir.  'Triath has defamed me and cast in my face that I have neither mother nor father.' said Aengus.

'That's not true,' said Midhir.  'Your father is Eochaid Ollathair and Eithne, wife of Elcmar of the Brugh is your mother.  I have reared you unknown to Elcmar, lest it cause him pain that you were begotten in his despite.'  'Come thou with me that my father may acknowledge me then and that I may no longer be kept hidden and suffer the insults of the Fir Bolg.'

Then Midhir set out with his fosterling to have words with Eochaid, and they came to Uisnech of Meath in the centre of Ireland, for that is where Eochaid resided, Ireland stretching equally far from it on every side, to south and north to east and west.  Before them in the assembly they found Eochaid.  Midhir called the King aside to have a word with the lad.  ' What does he want, this youth who has not come here until now?'  'He wants to be acknowledged by his father and for land to be given him,' said Midhir 'for it is not right that thy son should be landless while thou art king of Ireland.'  'He is welcome,' said Eochaid, 'He is my son.  But the land I wish him to have is not yet vacant.' 'What land is that?' asked Midhir 'The Brugh to the north of the Boyne,' said Eochaid.  'Who is there?' asked Midhir.  'Elcmar,' said Eochaid, 'and I have no wish to annoy him further.'

'What counsel do you give this lad?' asked Midhir.  'I have this for him' replied Eochaid 'On the day of the Samhain let him go into the Brugh and let him go armed.  That is a day of peace and amity among the men of Ireland, on which none is at enmity with his fellow.  And Elcmar will be at Cnoc Síd in Broga unarmed save for a fork of white hazel in his hand, his cloak folded about him, and a gold brooch in his cloak, and three fifties playing before him in the playing field; and let Aengus go to him and threaten to kill him.  But it is important that he does not kill him provided Elcmar promises him his will.  And let this be the will of Aengus, that he be king a day and a night in the Brugh; and see that he yields not the land again to Elcmar until he submit himself to my decision.  And when he comes let Aengus plea that the land has fallen to him in simple payment for the sparing of Elcmar's life, and that what he has asked for is kingship for a day and a night, and it is in days and nights that the world is spanned.

Then Midhir and Aengus return to Brí Léith and on the following Samhain Aengus armed himself and went to the Brugh where he made an attack on Elcmar, so that he promised in return for his life kingship of the Brugh for a day and a night.

Aengus straightaway abode there that day and the following night as king of the land, Elcmar's household being subject to him.  On the morrow Elcmar came to claim this land from Aengus, and threatened him mightily.  Mac Óg said he would not yield up the land until it be put to the decision of the Dagda in the presence of the men of Ireland.

Then they appeal to the Dagda, who adjudged each man's contract in accordance with its undertaking.  'So then this land belongs henceforward to this youth?' asked Elcmar.  'Yes,' replies the Dagda 'You were taken unawares on a day of peace and amity.  You gave your land for the mercy shown you, for your life was dearer to you than your land, Yet I will give you land that will be just as profitable as the Brugh'  'What land is that?' asked Elcmar.  'Cleitech,' says the Dagda 'with the three lands that are round about it, thy youths playing before thee every day in the Brugh, and thou shall enjoy the fruits of the Boyne from this land.  'I agree to that' said Elcmar and away he moved to Cleitech, and built a stronghold there.  Aengus Mac Óg remained at the Brugh and made it his home.

On the following year Midhir came to the Brugh on a visit to his foster son, and he found Aengus on the mound of Síd in Broga on the day of the Samhain with two companies of youths at play before him in the Brugh, and Elcmar on the mound of Cleitech to the south, watching them.  A quarrel broke out among the youths in the Brugh.  'Do not move' said Midhir to Mac Óg 'Lest Elcmar come down to the plain, I will go myself and make peace between them.

Thereupon Midhir went and it was not easy for him to part them.  A spit of holly was thrown at Midhir while he was intervening and it knocked one of his eyes out.  Midhir came to Mac Óg with his eye in his hand and said 'Would that I had never come to visit you, to be put to shame, for with this blemish I cannot hold the land I have come to, and the land I have left I cannot return to it now.'

'It shall not be so,' said Mac Óg.  'I will go to Dian Cécht, that he may come and heal you, and your own land will be yours, and this land will be yours, and your eye will be whole again without shame or blemish because of it.  Then Mac Óg went to Dian Cécht and asked him to save his foster father whose eye had been put out.  Dian Cécht came and healed Midhir so that he was whole again.  'Good is my journeying now since I am healed' said Midhir.  'It is indeed so' said Mac Óg 'Why don't you stay for a year here, in order to see my host, and my folk, my household and my land.'  'I will not stay' says Midhir 'Unless I have a reward therefore.'  'What reward do you require?' asked Mac Óg  'A chariot worth seven cumals, and a mantle befitting me and the fairest maiden in Ireland' replies Midhir.

'I have the chariot and the mantle befitting thee, ' said Aengus.  'There is moreover the maiden that surpasses all maidens in form.'  said Midhir.  'And where might she be?' questioned Mac Óg.  'She is in Ulster, Ailill's daughter Étaín Echraide, daughter of the king of the north-eastern part of Ireland.  She is the dearest and gentlest and loveliest in Ireland' replied Midhir.

So Aengus Mac Óg went to seek her until he came to Ailill's house in Mag nInis.  He was made welcome, and he abode three nights there.  He told his mission and announced his name and race.  He said that it was in quest of Étaín he had come.  'I will not give her to thee,' said Ailill 'for I can in no way profit by thee, because of the nobility of your family, and the greatness of thy power and that of thy father.  If thou put shame on my  daughter, no redress whatsoever can be had of thee.'  'It shall not be so' said Aengus, 'I will buy her from thee straightaway.'  'Thou shalt have that' said Ailill. 'State your demand' said Mac Óg.

'No hard matter, Clear for me twelve plains in my land that are under waste and wood, so that they may  be at all times for grazing for cattle, and for habitation to men, for games and assemblies, gatherings and strongholds.'  'It shall be done' said Aengus Mac Óg.

So he returns to the Dagda and bewailed to him the strait he was in.  The Dagda then caused twelve plains on Ailill's land to be cleared on a single night.  These are the names of the plains Mag Macha, Mag Lemna, Mag nítha, Mag Tochair, Mag nDula, Mag Techt, Mag Lí, Mag Line, Mag Muirthemne.  Now Aengus went again to Ailill to demand Étaín but he was met with the reply ' Thou shalt not obtain her until thou has drawn out of this land to the sea, twelve great rivers that are in wells, and bogs and moors, so that they might bring produce from the sea to people and kindred, and drain the earth and the land.'

Once Again Aengus went to his father the Dagda to bewail the strait he was in and once again he was helped.  The Dagda caused twelve great waters to course towards the sea in a single night.  They had not been seen there until then.  These are the names of the waters;  Find and Modorn and Slena and Nas and Amnas and Oichén and Or and Banda and Samaír and Loche.  Then Aengus Mac  Óg again went up to Ailill to claim Étaín.  'Thou shalt not get her until thou purchase her, for after thou hast taken her I shall have no profit of the maiden beyond what I shall obtain forthwith.'  'What do you require of me now?' asked Mac Óg.  'I require the maiden's weight in gold and silver, for that is my portion of her price; all thou has done up until now was for the benefit of her folk and her kindred.'  'It shall be done' says Mac Óg.  She was placed on the floor of Ailill's house, and her weight in gold and silver was given for her.  That wealth was left with Ailill, and Mac Óg brought Étaín home with him.

Midhir made the company  welcome.  That night Étaín sleeps with Midhir and on the morrow a mantle befitting him and a chariot were given him, and he was pleased with his foster son.  After that he lived a whole year in the Brugh with Aengus and Étaín.  

The time came when Midhir had to leave, and he brought Étaín with him to Brí Léith, and on that day Aengus warned him to be careful of the jealousy of his first wife Fuamnach for she was of the Tuatha Dé and  had many skills in magic, being fostered by the wizard Bresal, and being daughter of Beothach son of Iardanél.  When they arrived at Brí Léith Fuamnach greeted them civilly enough and showed Midhir and Étaín round the land and property.  Then Fuamnach went before them into her sleeping chamber and she said to Étaín: 'The seat of a good woman hast thou come into.'  When Étaín sat down on the chair in the middle of the house Fuamnach struck her with a rod of scarlet quicken tree, and she turned into a pool of water in the middle of the house.  Then Fuamnach left for the house of her foster father Bresal.  Midhir was left with only a pool of water in the middle of his house and no wife.

The heat of the fire and the air and the seething of the ground aided the water so that the pool that was in the middle of the house turned into a worm, and after that the worm became a purple fly.  It was as big as a man's head, the comeliest in the land.  Sweeter than pipes and harps and horns was the sound of her voice and the hum of her wings.  Her eyes would shine like precious stones in the dark.  The fragrance and the bloom of her would turn away hunger and thirst from any one around whom she would go.  The spray of the drops she shed from her wings would cure all sickness and disease and plague in any one round whom she would go.  She used to attend Midhir and go round about his land with him as he went.

To listen to her and gaze upon her would nourish hosts in gatherings and assemblies in camps.  Midhir knew that it was Étaín that was in that shape, and so long as that fly was attending upon him, he never took himself a wife, and the sight of her would nourish him.  He would fall asleep with her humming, and whenever anyone approached who did not love him, she would awaken him.

After a time, Fuamnach came on a visit to Midhir, and along with her as sureties came the three Gods namely Lugh and the Dagda and Oghma.  Midhir reproached Fuamnach exceedingly and said to her that she should not go from him were it not for the power of the sureties that had brought her.  Fuamnach said she did not repent of the deed she had done, for she would rather do good to herself than to another, and that in whatsoever part of Ireland she might be she would do naught but harm to Étaín so long as she lived, and in whatsoever shape she might be.

She brought powerful spells and incantations from Bresal Etarlam the wizard to banish and warn off Étaín from Midhir, for she knew that the purple fly that was delighting Midhir was none other than Étaín, for whenever he saw the coloured fly he loved no other woman.  And he found no pleasure in in music nor in eating or in drinking when he did not see her and hear the music of her voice.  Fuamnach stirred up a wind of assault and magic so that Étaín was carried off from Brí Léith, and for seven years she could not find a summit or a tree or a hill or a height in Ireland on which she could settle but only rocks of the sea and the ocean waves, and she was floating through the air until seven years from that day, when she lighted on the breast of Aengus Mac Óg as he was on the mound of the Brugh.  

There it was that Mac Óg said, 'Welcome Étaín wanderer careworn, thou that hast encountered great dangers through the cunning of Fuamnach.'  Then Mac Óg made the girl welcome, that is, the purple fly, and gathered her to his bosom in the fleece of his cloak.  He brought her to his house and his sun-bower with its crystal windows for passing out and in, and purple raiment was put on her; and wheresoever he went the sun-bower was carried by Mac Óg and there he used to sleep at night by her side, comforting her, until her gladness and colour came to her again.  And that sun-bower was filled with fragrant and wondrous herbs, and she throve on the fragrance and the bloom of those goodly precious herbs.

Fuamnach came to find out about the love and honour that was bestowed by Aengus on Étaín.  So she said to Midhir 'Let thy fosterling be summoned that I may make peace between you both, while I myself go in quest of Étaín.'  A messenger comes to Aengus from Midhir, and he went down to Brí Léith to speak to him.  Meanwhile Fuamnach came by a circuitous route until she was in the Brugh, and she sent the same blast on Étaín which carried her out of her sun-bower again on the flight which she had been on before for the space of seven years but this time she was on the wind for many centuries.

When Mac Óg came to confer with Midhir he did not find Fuamnach there, and Midhir said to him: 'The woman has played us false, and if she be told that Etain is in Ireland, she will go to do her ill.'  'I agree' said Aengus 'Étaín has been at my house in the Brugh since a little while in the shape in which she was wafted from you, and perhaps it is she that the woman is heading for.'

Mac Óg returns home and finds the crystal sun-bower without Étaín in it.  He turns upon Fuamnach's tracks and came upon her at Aenach Bodbgna at the house of the druid Bresal Etarlám.  He attacked her and cut off her head, and he brought that head with him until he was on the brink of the Brugh. 

Étaín  was blown about and buffeted by storms and winds until at last she alighted on the roof beam of a house in Ulster where folk were drinking, and she fell into a golden beaker that was before the wife of Étar the champion from Inber Cíchmaine, in the province of Conchobar, so that she swallowed her with the liquid that was in the beaker, and in this wise  Étaín was conceived in the womb of Étar's wife and became afterwards their daughter.  She was called Étaín daughter of Étar.  This was a thousand and twelve years from the first begetting of Étaín by Ailill until the begetting by Étar.

After that Étaín was brought up at  Inber Cíchmaine by Étar, and fifty daughters of chieftains along with her, and he it was that fed and clothed them to be in attendance on Étaín always.  On a day it happened that all the maidens were bathing in the estuary when they saw from the water a horseman entering the plain towards them.  He was mounted on a broad brown steed, curvetting and prancing, with curly mane and curly tail.  Around him hung a green mantle in folds, and a red embroidered tunic, and in his mantle a golden brooch which reached to his shoulder on either side.  A silver shield with rim of gold slung over his back, and a silver strap to it  and boss of gold thereon.  In his hand a five pronged spear with bands of gold round about it from haft to socket.  Bright yellow hair he had reaching to his forehead.  A fillet of gold against his forehead so that his hair should not fall over his face.  He halted a while on the bank gazing at the maiden, and all the maidens loved him.  Thereupon he uttered this lay:

This is Étaín here today

at Síd Ban Find west of Ailbe,

among little boys is she

on the brink of Inber Cíchmaine.

She it is who healed the King's eye

from the well of Loch Dá Líg;

she it is that was swallowed in a drink 

from a beaker by Étar's wife.

Because of her the King shall chase

the birds from Tethba, 

and drown his two steeds

in the pool of Loch Dá Airbrech.

Full many a war shall be

on Eochaid of Meath because of thee;

there shall be destruction of elf-mounds,

and battle against many thousands.

'Tis she that was sung of in the land;

'tis she that strives to win the King;

'tis she.... Bé Find,

She is our Étaín afterwards.

The warrior departed from them after that, and they knew not whence he had come or whither he had gone.

Part 2.

There was an admirable, noble king in the high kingship over Ireland, namely, Eochaid Airem.  The first year after he ascended the throne, a proclamation was made throughout Ireland that the feast of Tara was to be celebrated, and that all the men of Ireland should attend it, that their taxes and levies might be known.  And the one answer made by all the men of Ireland to Eochaid's summons was:  That they would not attend the feast of Tara during such time, whether it be long or short, as the king of Ireland was without a wife that was suitable for him; for there was not a noble of the men of Ireland who was without a wife that was suitable for him, and there was not a king without a queen, and there would not come a man without his wife to the feast of Tara, nor would there come a woman without a husband.

Thereupon Eochaid sent out from him his horsemen, and his entertainers and his spies and his messengers throughout Ireland, and they all searched for a woman who would be suitable for the king in respect to form, and grace and countenance and birth.  Besides all this there was one more condition; she should not have been given to anyone else before.

The king's men searched all Ireland both north and south until at last they found at Inber Cíchmaine a woman suitable for him;  Etain the daughter of Étar, who was king of Echrad.  Then the searchers returned to Eochaid and gave him a description of the maiden in regard to form and grace and countenance.

So Eochaid set forth to claim the maiden, and the route that he took was across the fair green of Brí Léith.  There he saw a maiden on the brink of a spring.  She held in her hand a comb of silver decorated with gold.  Beside her as for washing, was a basin of silver where on were chased four golden birds, and there were little bright gems of carbuncle set in the rim of the basin.  A cloak of pure purple was hanging in folds about her, and beneath it a mantle with silver borders, and a brooch of gold in the garment over her bosom.  A tunic with a long hood around her and it was smooth and glossy.  It was made of greenish silk beneath red-gold embroidery, and marvelous bow-pins of silver and gold upon her breasts in the tunic, so that the redness of the gold against the sun in the green silk was clearly visible to the men.  Two tresses of golden hair upon her head and a plaiting of four strands in each tress, and a ball of gold upon the end of each plait.

The maiden was there loosening her hair to wash it, and her two arms out through the armholes of her dress.  As white as the snow of one night was each of her two arms, and as red as the foxglove of the mountain her two cheeks.  As blue as the hyacinth was each of her two eyes; delicately red her lips; very high, soft and white her two shoulders.  Tender, smooth, and white were her two wrists; her fingers long and very white; her nails pink and beautiful.  As white as snow or as the foam of the wave was her side, slender, long, and as soft as silk.  Soft, smooth, and white were her thighs; round and small, firm and white were her two knees; as straight as a rule were her two ankles; slim and foam-white were her two feet.  Fair and very beautiful were her two eyes; her eyebrows blackish-blue like the shell of a beetle.  It was she the maiden who was the fairest and the most beautiful that the eyes of men had ever seen; and it seemed probable to the king and his companions that she was out of a fairy mound.  This is the maiden concerning whom is spoken the proverb: 'Every lovely form must be tested by Etain, every beauty by the standard of Etain.'

A desire for her seized the king immediately, and he sent a man of his company to hold her before him.  Then Eochaid approached the maiden and questioned her.  'Whence art thou, O maiden?' said the King and whence hast thou come?'

'Not hard to answer,' replied the maiden.  'Etain the daughter of the king of Echrad out of the fairy-mounds I am called.'

'Shall I have an hour of dalliance with thee?' said Eochaid.

'It is for that I have come hither under thy protection,' said she.  ' I have been here for twenty years since I was born in the fairy-mound, and the men of the fairy-mound, both kings and nobles, have been wooing me, and naught was got by any of them from me, because I have loved thee, and given love and affection to thee since I was a little child and since I was capable of speaking.  It was for the noble tales about thee and for thy splendour that I have loved thee, and although I have never seen thee before, I recognized thee at once by thy description.  It is thou, I know, to whom I have attained,'  said she.

'That is by no means the invitation of a bad friend,' replied Eochaid;  'thou shalt be welcomed by me, and all others shall be left for thy sake, and with thee alone will I live as long as it is pleasing to thee.'

'Give me my fitting bride-price,' said the maiden, 'and thereafter let my desire be fulfilled.'

'That shall be done' said the king.

The value of seven bond-slaves was given to her for a bride-price; and after that he took her with him to Tara, and a truly hearty welcome was given to her.

Now there were three brothers of one blood who were the sons of Finn:  Eochaid Airem and Eochaid Fedlech and Ailill Anglonnach, or Ailill of the One Stain, because the only stain that was upon him was that he loved his brother's wife.  At that time came the men of Ireland to hold the feast of Tara, and they were there fourteen days before Samhain and fourteen days after Samhain.  It was at the feast of Tara that Ailill Anglonnach fell in love with Etain the daughter of Étar.  Ailill gazed at the woman as long as he was at the feast of Tara.  Then Ailill's wife, the daughter of Luchta Red-Hand from the borders of Leinster, said to her husband:  'Ailill, why do you keep gazing into the distance? For such long-looking is a sign of love.'  Thereupon Ailill was ashamed and blamed himself and he did not look at Etain after that.

After the feast of Tara the men of Ireland separated from one another, and then it was that the pains of jealousy and great envy filled Ailill, and a heavy illness came upon him.  As a result he was carried to Dun Fremain in Tethba, the favorite stronghold of his brother, the king.  Ailill remained there to the end of a year in long sickness and in pining, but he did not confess the cause of his sickness to any one.  Eochaid Airem came to enquire after his brother.  He put his hand on Ailill's chest, whereupon Ailill gave a sigh.

'Now,' said Eochaid,  'the sickness in which thou art does not appear to be serious.  How is everything with thee?'  'By my word, it is getting worse daily' replied Ailill.  'What is the matter?' asked Eochaid Airem.  'By my word, I do not know' replied Ailill.  Eochaid then asked for a physician to be brought in to determine the cause of this mysterious illness.

Then Fachtna, the physician of Eochaid was brought in and he put his hand on Ailill's breast and Ailill sighed.  'Now, the matter is not serious it is only one of two things either jealousy or unrequited love' and Ailill was ashamed but he did not tell the physician the cause, and the physician left him.

Eochaid went out to make his royal circuit throughout Ireland, and he left Etain in the stronghold of Fremain and he said to her 'Deal gently with  Ailill as long as he is alive, and should he die, have his grave of sod dug, and let his pillar stone be raised and be written on in Ogham.'

Etain went each day in to see Ailill to minister to him.  One day she asked him:  'What is the matter with thee?  I would help you if I knew how.'  Ailill answers her and Etain finally understands that he is pining with love-sickness for herself.  Etain continued to care for Ailill but seeing him get no better she said to him 'Come meet me tomorrow at daybreak in the house outside the stronghold and I will grant you what your heart desires of me'  Ailill was so full of expectation that he could not get any sleep that night and he fell into a deep slumber just before daybreak and could not make the tryst.

Etain waited for him at the appointed hour and she saw someone who appeared like Ailill but she knew it was not him, and continued waiting for Ailill.  Then she returned to the stronghold and when Ailill awoke he was full of shame and grief and he explained to her what had happened and she said that they  would try to make the tryst again on the morrow.  The next day the same thing happened, and a man in the likeness of Ailill approached and she knew it was not Ailill and ignored him.  Each day it was the same, until the last day came and the stranger approached Etain.  'It is not with thee that I trusted but with a man who I neither desired nor feared yet I just wanted to heal him from his desire for me' said Etain.  'It is more fitting for thee to come tryst with me, for when thou wast Etain daughter of the king of Echrad and when thou wast the daughter of Ailill, I myself was thy first husband' said the man.

'And who might you be?' she asked incredulously.  'I am Midhir of Brí Léith' he replied.  'And what made you part from me, if we were as thou sayest?'  she asked.  'It was the sorcery of my first wife Fuamnach and the spells of her foster father Bresal Etarlam that put us apart.'  and then Midhir asked Etain to come with him but she declined saying 'I will not exchange the king of all Ireland for thee; a man whose kindred and lineage is unknown to me.  Then Midhir lets her know that it was him that wrought spells on Ailill to have him fall in love with Etain and that it was he who made him fall into a deep slumber and miss the trysts so that her honour would not be spoiled and so that he could come in Ailill's stead and explain himself.

After all that Etain returned to the stronghold and went into Ailill and told him all that had happened and he was glad saying that he was now cured and that her honour was without blemish.  They were both thankful that things had turned out in this way.   When Eochaid returned they told him the whole story and he was glad his brother was well again and Etain was unharmed and no honor was sullied between them.  


Now upon another time it chanced that Eochaid Airem, the king of Tara, arose upon a certain fair day in the summer and he ascended the high ground of Tara to behold the plain of Breg; beautiful was the colour of the plain, and there were many flowers glowing with all the hues that are known.  As he looked about him, he saw a strange young warrior upon the high ground at his side.  The tunic that the warrior wore was purple in colour, his hair was of 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.  Eochaid kept quiet for he knew that none the like had been in Tara the night before, and the gate that led into the enclosure had not at that hour been thrown open.

The warrior came and placed himself under the protection of Eochaid.  'Welcome do I give to the hero who is yet unknown' said Eochaid.  'This is the reception I expected from you' replied the warrior.  'We know you not' replied Eochaid.  'Yet thee in truth I know well!' replied the warrior.  'What is the name by  which you are called?' asks Eochaid.  'My name is not well-known, I am Midhir of Brí Léith' replied the warrior.  'And for what purpose have you come?' asked Eochaid.  'I have come that I may play a game of chess with thee,' answered Midhir.  'In truth, I am skillful at chess-play' replied Eochaid.  'Then let us test that skill!' rejoins Midhir.  'No, the queen is asleep in her chamber and it is within that the chessboard lies.'

'I have here a chessboard which is not inferior to thine' says Midhir.  It was so, for his chessboard was made of silver, and the chess-pieces were of gold; and upon the board were inlaid costly stones, casting their light on every side, and the bag that held the chess-pieces was of woven chains of brass.

Midhir then set out the chessboard, and he called upon Eochaid to play.  'I will not play unless we play for a stake' said Eochaid.  'What stake shall we have upon the game then?' asked Midhir.

'It makes no difference to me,' said Eochaid.  'Then, if thou obtains 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 hooves 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.'

Several games were played between Eochaid and Midhir and since Midhir did not put forth his whole strength, the victory on all occasions rested with Eochaid.  Instead of the gifts, which Midhir had offered, Eochaid demanded that Midhir and his folk should perform services which would 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 of Lamrach that men might pass freely across it.  All these things Midhir agreed to do, and Eochaid sent his steward to see how the work was done.

  When it came to the time after sunset, the steward looked, and he saw that Midhir and his fairy host, together with fairy oxen, were working at the causeway over the bog; and thereupon much of earth and gravel and stones was poured into it.  

Now it had 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 until that very night when the steward saw that the fairy folk had placed the yoke over the shoulders of the oxen so that the pull might be there; and this was the way the yokes were placed ever after by Eochaid, and that is how he got his name for ever after he is called Eochaid Airem, 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.

This is the song that the host of the Sidhe sang, as they laboured at the making of the road;

Thrust it in hand!  force it in hand!

Noble this night, the troop of oxen:

Hard is the task that is asked, and who

From the bridging of Lamrach shall receive gain or harm?

Not in all the world could a road be found that was better than the road they made, had it not been that the fairy-folk were observed as they worked upon it; but for that cause a breach had been made in the highway.  The steward went before Eochaid, and he described to him the great band of workers 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.  As they spoke thus with each other they saw Midhir standing before them; high was he girt and ill-favoured was the face that he showed; and Eochaid arose and welcomed him.  'Thy welcome is such as I expected when I came, 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 your sight I have gotten for thee, but now anger against thee hath filled my mind!' spoke Midhir harshly.

'I return not anger for anger!' Eochaid spoke hastily 'whatever thou wishes shall be done.'

'Then let us play again at chess' said Midhir.  'What stake shall be on the game this time?' asked Eochaid.  'Whatever the winner demands' replied Midhir.  This time Eochaid was defeated and he said 'My stake is forfeited to thee.'  Midhir told him that if he had wished it would have been forfeited long ago.  'What is it thou wants me to grant?' asks Eochaid.  'That I may hold Etain in my arms and obtain a kiss from her!' replied Midhir.

Eochaid was silent for a while, and then he said:  'One month from this day thou shalt come, and that very thing that thou hast asked for shall be given to thee.'  Now for a year before that Midhir first came to Eochaid for chess-play, he had been wooing Etain, and he obtained her not; and the name which he gave Etain was Béfind, or fair haired woman, so it was that he said:

Wilt thou come with me, fair-haired woman?

as has been recited before.  It was at that time that Etain had said: 'If thou obtainest me from the master of the house, I will go; but if thou art not able to obtain me I will not go.' So that is why Midhir went to Eochaid and allowed him to win victory over him at first in order that Eochaid should stand in his debt; and that was why he agreed to the high stake that Eochaid had demanded.  It is thus that he spoke as is written in the book of Drum Snechta:

Pile on the soil; thrust on the soil;

Red are the oxen who labour;

Heavy the troops that obey my words.

Heavy they seem, and yet men are they;

Strongly, as piles, are the tree-trunks placed:

Red are the wattles bound over them:

Tired are your hands, and your glances slant;

One woman's winning this toil may yield!

Oxen ye are but revenge shall see;

Men who are white shall be your servants:

Rushes from Tethba are cleared:

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?

Now Midhir 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 within and without; and the king and queen were in the midst of the palace, and the outer court was shut and locked, for they knew that the great night 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 Midhir standing before them in the centre of the castle.  He was always fair, yet fairer than ever he seemed to be that night.  And he amazed all the hosts on which he gazed, and all were silent, and Eochaid gave a welcome to him.

'Thy reception, is such as I expected when I came, let that which was promised now be given to me' said Midhir.  'I still must consider the matter!' flustered Eochaid.  'Thou hast promised Etain's very self to me and that is what I come to claim!' replied Midhir.  Etain blushed with shame when she heard that.  'Blush not, for in no way has thy wedding feast been disgraced;  I have been seeking thee with jewels and treasures for a year, and I have not taken thee until the time came when Eochaid would permit it;  it is not through any will of thine that I have won thee.'  'Take me then, seeing as Eochaid has resigned me to you' said Etain.  'But I will not resign thee!  Nevertheless he shall take thee in his arms upon the floor of this house as thou are' said Eochaid.

'It shall be done' said Midhir.  He took his weapons in his left hand and the woman beneath his right shoulder; and he carried her off through the smoke-hole of the house.  And the hosts rose up around the king, for they felt they had been disgraced, and they saw two swans circling around Tara and the way they took was to the elf-mound of Femen. 

 And Eochaid with an army of the men of Ireland went to the elf-mound of Femen, 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 within.

Midhir and his hosts 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 mound of Brí Léith, Midhir 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 Mess Buachalla (or Esa).  But when he found that he had been deceived, he returned again to sack Brí Léith, 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 him.

It was because of all this trouble that the fairy folk of Mag Breg and Midhir of Brí Léith broke the taboos of Conaire and ended his life and brought about the laying waste of Mag Breg, because of the destruction of Brí Léith and Eochaid Airem's taking away Etain by force.

Sources: Eriu, vol 12, 1938 ed. O. Bergin & R.I. Best

Ancient Irish Tales - ed. T.P. Cross & C. H. Slover 1936 (republished Barnes & Noble 1996)


horizontal rule

© Shee-Eire: