Irish Sagas, Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaín III

Tochmarc Étaíne 3 : The Wooing of Étaín 3
by Miles Dillon

The third story is in a form familiar to those of you who have heard folk-tales recited, or who have read Padraic Colum’s book, The King of Ireland’s Son. A stranger visits the hero and offers to play a game of cards (here it is a game of chess). The hero wins three times “but the stranger wins the last game, and lays a penalty on the hero.

I shall read you the opening of this story, following pretty closely the translation of Bergin and Best.

Another time on a lovely summer day, Eochaid Airem king of Tara arose and climbed the terrace of Tara to gaze over Mag Breg. It was radiant with flowers of every colour. As Eochaid looked around, he saw a strange warrior on the terrace before him. A purple tunic was about him, and his hair was golden yellow and reached to his shoulders. His eyes were bright blue. He had a spear in one hand, and a shield in the other with a white boss and ornament of gold.

Eochaid said “Welcome to the warrior whom we do not know.” “It is for that we have come” said the warrior (That is to say: ‘I come as a friend, not as an enemy’). “We know you not,” said Eochaid. “But I know you,” said the warrior. (Many of you will be reminded of the common episode in the folk-tales about the king of Ireland’s Son: Aithnionn tusa mise 7 ni aithnim-se thú). “What has brought you? ” said Eochaid. “To play chess with you,” said he … “The queen is asleep,” said Eochaid, “and it is in her house that the chess is.” “I have here,” said Midir’, ” a set of chess that is as good.” That was true: a silver board and golden men, and each corner of the board lit up by a precious stone, and the bag for the chessmen was of plaited links of bronze.’

They play three games of chess and Eochaid wins each time, and Midir gives him rich prizes. The fourth time they play for a stake to be named by the winner. Midir  wins the game, and the stake he claims is a kiss from Étaín. Eochaid was vexed at that, but he bade Midir come a month from that day to receive his prIze.

On the day appointed Eochaid had gathered his warriors around him and the doors were locked. But Midir appeared in the banqueting-hall. ‘What is promised is due,’ he said. He put his arms around Étaín and rose with her into the air and through the roof of the house; and they flew away in the form of two swans.

Eochaid and his men set out to recover Étaín, and attacked Bri Leíth, the fairy-mound which was Midir’s home. He appeared before them and promised to restore Étaín. The next morning fifty women appeared at Tara all like Étaín in form and dress, and Eochaid was in doubt which one to choose. The one he chose turned out to be not Étaín herself, but her daughter and his daughter too, another Étaín. She bore him a child, and the child was put out to die, as it was a child of incest. It was found by a herdsman and he and his wife reared the girl, and she prospered, for she was the daughter of a king and queen. Etarscéle became King of Ireland, and one day his people saw the herdsman’s child and told him of her beauty. She was Étaín reborn, and Etarscéle made her his wife, so that she was the mother of Conaire son of Etarscéle.

This brings us to the opening chapter of the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, a saga of the Ulster Cycle which you shall hear later on. I may conclude with the description of this young Étaín at the beginning of that story. I first learned of it from A.E. who told me of this wonderful description to illustrate what he called the incandescent imagination of Irish story-tellers:

He saw a woman at the edge of a well, and she a silver eomb with gold ornament. She was washing in a silver basin in which were four birds of gold, and bright little gems of purple carbuncle on the chasing of the basin. She wore a purple cloak of good fleece, held with silver brooches chased with gold, and a smock of green silk with gold embroidery. There were wonderful ornaments of animal design in gold and silver on her breast and shoulders. The sun shone upon her, so that the men saw the gold gleaming in the sunshine against the green silk. There were two golden tresses on her head, plaited in four, with a ball at the end of every lock. The color of her hair was like the flower of the iris in summer or like pure gold after it had been polished. She was undoing her hair to wash it, so that her arms were out from beneath her dress. White as the snow of one night were her hands, and her lovely cheeks were soft and even, red as the mountain foxglove. Her eyebrows were as black as a beetle’s back. Her teeth were like a shower of pearls. Her eyes were as blue as the hyacinth, her lips as red as Parthian leather. High, smooth, soft, and white were her shoulders, clear white her long fingers. Her hands were long. White as the foam of a wave was her side, long and slender, yielding, smooth, soft as wool. Her thighs were warm· and smooth and white; her knees small and round and hard and bright, Her shins were short and bright and straight. Her heels were even and lovely. If a rule had been laid upon her feet it would hardly have shown any imperfections in them, unless it should crease the flesh or the skin. The blushing light of the moon was in her noble face, a lofty pride in her smooth brow. The radiance of love was in her eyes ; the flush of pleasure on her cheeks, now red as a calf’s blood and changing again to snowy   whiteness. There was gentle dignity in her voice. Her step was firm and graceful. She had a walk of a queen. She was the fairest, loveliest, finest that men’s eyes had seen of all the women of the world. They thought she was of the fairies. Of her it was said:  “All are lovely till compared with Étaí.  All are fair till compared with Étaín.'”

Taken from Radioe Éireann.  Thomas Davis lectures.  IRISH SAGAS