TOCHMARC ÉTAÍNE 1
By Miles Dillon
WE SHALL TELL YOU in this series of Davis Lectures about Irish heroic literature, that is, about the old Irish sagas. They are indeed the most important part of early Irish prose literature, for we have no historians before Keating and Michael O’Clery, no orators, no dramatists, and the novel is a modern invention. We have plenty of. poetry of various kinds, and we have tales about visions of the Otherworld and about voyages in search of the Land of Youth, and we have the sagas. Poetry and legend are the substance of Irish literature.
The sagas fall into four cycles of tales: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, The Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle (or Cycles of the Kings, for there are a number of separate cycles with one or other of the early kings as its central figure). You shall hear where these tales are preserved and what they are about, and you shall hear a few of the sagas from each of the four cycles.
The oldest Irish manuscripts are in Latin and are copies of the Psalms and of the Gospels. The earliest of these Irish Latin manuscripts in existence is the Cathach of St. Columba, written towards the end of the sixth century. The Irish sagas are preserved in great folio manuscripts of vellum, of which the earliest surviving were written in the twelfth century. There are three important twelfth century manuscripts, the Book of Noughaval, commonly called the Book of Leinster, in Trinity College, the Book of the Dun Cow in the Royal Irish Academy, and a MS. the Irish title of which has been lost, listed as Rawlinson B 502, in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Next in importance is the Yellow Book of Lecan, written towards the end of the 14th century and preserved in Trinity College. These are certainly copied from earlier manuscripts now lost, for the language of many of the sagas is as old as the ninth century, and Irish was being written as early as the sixth century, if we may judge from the very ancient language of some poems and law-tracts which survive.
The Mythological Cycle is the earliest in time, as it deals with heroes who were thought to have lived in Ireland before the coming of the Gaels. It is the chief source of knowledge of the religion of the pagan Irish. And very little is known about their religion. They believed in a happy Otherworld in the western sea where some of the gods dwell and which heroes sometimes were allowed to visit. It is not a heaven to which men go after death, but a happy island, Tir na nÓg, where there is no death or old age. Oisín went there with Niamh of the Golden Hair, and after three days he came back to Ireland to find that he had been away for three hundred years, and that all his companions were dead.
Besides this notion of an island (or islands) beyond the sea, there is a tradition that a race of supernatural beings inhabited Ireland before the coming of the Gaels, and that they withdrew into fairy-mounds all over the country where they still dwell, and whence they sometimes emerge to interfere in the affairs of men. These two traditions have become much confused, and we probably have to do with a blend of pre-Celtic and Celtic religious ideas. (It may be said in passing that there seem in Greece also to have been two mythologies, the gods of Homer, and others such as Demeter and Persephone, associated with agriculture, who play no part in heroic tradition.) A few of the names of these divine beings are good Celtic names, and evidently came in with the Celtic immigrants perhaps as early as 1000 B.C.
Chief of the gods is the Dagda (‘Good God ‘). Oengus is his son, and Boann (the river Boyne) is the mother of Oengus. Lug is another, and his name occurs in the place-name Lugdunum in various parts of Europe where Celts have dwelt. The common name for all is Tuatha Dé Danann, peoples of the goddess Danu, of whom nothing further is known. There is a British Don, who is probably the same divinity.
Alfred Nutt suggested that the association of the gods with earth-mounds (such as New Grange, which was the dwelling of Oengus) went back to a stage of nature-worship when rivers, trees, wells and mounds were worshipped. He went on to suggest a common origin for certain features of Greek and Irish mythology, specially the doctrine of re-birth, which was part of the cult of Dionysus and which you will notice in the story I am going to tell. For Étaín is re-born three times, first by falling into the cup of a mortal queen while she is bewitched in the form of a fly, and again as the daughter of Eochaid Airem “king of Ireland, while her mother is in the fairy-mound of Brí Leith, and finally as the daughter of this third Étaín.
Before I come to the story of Étaín in the Mythhological Cycle, let me tell you briefly about the other cycles of heroic tales or sagas. The Ulster Cycle is that of which Cú Chulainn is the central figure. King Conor Mac Nessa is king of Ulster and Maeve is queen of Connacht; the traditional date is the first century of the Christian era. These are the tales which Lady Gregory made into a book in her Cuchullin of Muirthemne, and which gave Yeats many themes for his plays and poems. The longest saga, and one which is epic in scale and temper, is the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúailnge), the story of Cú Chulainn’s defense of Ulster, alone against the whole army of Queen Maeve. The noblest saga, and probably the finest in all Irish literature, is the story of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach. Then there is Bricriu’s Feast, full of interest and humour, and the story of Mac Da Thó’s Pig, in which champions contend for the hero’s portion at a feast, as we are told the Gaulish warriors used to do in Caesar’s time. These are the sagas we have chosen for discussion. There are many others that I would gladly have included.
The Fenian Cycle is later in time, being set in the reign of Cormac Mac Airt, who was supposed to have reigned at Tara in the third century. These are the tales of Fionn and Oisin and Caoilte, of Conán Maol and Goll Mac Morna, many of which may still be heard from story-tellers in the Gaeltacht. The Pursuit of Diarmuit and Gráinne is the Fenian love-story. And the last survivors of the Fenians are made to live on into St. Patrick’s time, so that we have a famous tale called The Colloquy of the Ancients (Acallam na Senórach) which Professor Gerard Murphy will tell you about.
And last come the Cycles of the Kings, from which we have found room for only two stories, one of them having to do with the birth of King Cormac Mac Airt and his accession to the Kingship of Tara (there is a parallel here to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus), the other a saga about a young queen married to an old husband and her love for her stepson. It is a motif which occurs in ancient Greek tradition, and which supplies the theme of T. C. Murray’s Autumn Fire. There are some seventy sagas in this Historical Cycle, some of them about legendary kings, many about historical persons, and they are not without moments of pathos and of humour. Some of them were made into poetry by Ferguson a hundred years ago, when there was more interest in these traditions than there is now.
A.E. once said: ‘We have often thought a book surpassing the Arabian Nights might be made by a writer of genius who would weld into a continuous narrative the tales of the Gods, the Fianna and the Red Branch, so full of beauty, mystery and magnificence that, as the raw material for romance, there is hardly anything to equal them in the legendary literature of other countries.’
The Wooing of Étaín is one of the two chief tales of the Mythological Cycle. (The other is The Battle of Moytura, which you shall hear about next time). It is in the Book of the Dun Cow, but owing to loss of leaves a great deal of it was missing, and scholars had made various attempts to supply the lost passages. Then some twenty years ago Dr. Best made an exciting discovery. He was examining the Irish manuscripts in the Phillipps Collection at Cheltenham, when he saw among them a gathering of parchment leaves which looked familiar, and he recognised it as part of the famous Yellow Book of Lecan. And these leaves, which are now in the National Library, contain the complete text of the Wooing of Étaín. It has since been published in Ériu xii.
The chief points that have been cleared up by the discovery of the complete text concern details of the relationship between various mythological persons, and I shall not discuss them. But one matter is worth mention because it gave rise to more than one false scent, and serves to show how hazardous it is to guess the answer to a problem in mythology. At a certain point in the story, as you shall hear, Étaín was changed into a beautiful fly by the curse of a jealous wife, and in this form she was carried out to sea by the wind. Oengus rescued her and kept her in a glass cage which he carried about with him. He fed her with flowers. The passage describing her transformation is missing from the Book of the Dun Cow, which was the only manuscript known until Best discovered the lost leaves of the Yellow Book of Lecan. Zimmer, indeed, made a shrewd guess at what must have happened in the missing part of the story. But other scholars gave rein to their imaginations. Sir John Rhys in his Arthurian Legend decided that Oengus was the Celtic Zeus, and Étaín the goddess of Dawn. ‘Her dwelling in the glass house which the god carried about with him seems to be a sort of picture of the expanse of the heavens lit up by the light of the sun.’ Alfred Nutt thought rather of Snow White in her glass coffin watched by the seven dwarfs. Roger Loomis seized upon the diet of flowers, and sought to equate Étaín with Persephone of Greek mythology, who was gathering flowers when she was carried off to Hades. Étaín, he says, is a flower-maiden and moon-maiden. It is now plain that Étaín had been changed into a fly, and the glass cage and the flowers are no longer a problem.
Now to the story, which dates from the ninth century in its present form. There are indeed three stories, but they form a sequence and appear as a sequence in the two manuscripts which contain them. There is a strange beauty here which perhaps no other Irish story shares. The temper of love is there, and the power of magic, and a happy ending. It is one story in three, as it were, a comedy in three acts. The Dagda became the lover of Boann, wife of EIcmar of the Brug (New Grange), and from their union was born Oengus. He was given in fosterage to Midir of Bri Leith (near Ardagh, Co. Longford). Later when Oengus had grown to be a man, and was in possession of the Brug, Midir came to visit him. While he was there he suffered an injury and he claimed in compensation the fairest maiden in Ireland, Étaín the daughter of Ailill. Oengus won her from her father for Midir with the Dagda’s help, by clearing twelve plains and making twelve rivers and giving her weight in gold and silver.
Midir returned home with the beautiful Étaín, but his first wife, Fuamnach, struck her with a magic quicken rod and turned her into a pool of water. The heat of the air and of the earth turned the water into a worm, and the worm became a purple fly of wonderl’ul size and beauty. I ts music was sweet, and the air was fragrant around it. The fly was always with Midir, and he knew that it was Étaín. Then Fuamnach drove her away by causing a magic wind which carried. her out on to the rocks and waves of the sea. For seven years she was in misery until she alighted one day on the breast of Oengus himself. For some time he carried her about in a sun-lit cage of crystal, but the jealous Fuamnach got to know of it and drove her away again. This time she came to rest on the roof of a house in Ulster, and fell into the cup of one of the women in the house, the wife of Étar who was an Ulster king. The woman swallowed the fly, and she was re-born as the daughter of Étar. It was a thousand and twelve years from the time of her birth as daughter of the fairy Ailill to the time of her birth in the house of Étar.
That is the end of the first story.