Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
by Thomas Rolleston
Chapter IV: The Early Milesian Kings
The Danaans after the Milesian Conquest
THE kings and heroes of the Milesian race now fill the foreground of the stage in Irish legendary history. But, as we have indicated, the Danaan divinities are by no means forgotten. The fairyland in which they dwell is ordinarily inaccessible to mortals, yet it is ever near at hand; the invisible barriers may be, and often are, crossed by mortal men, and the Danaans themselves frequently come forth from them; mortals may win brides of Faery who mysteriously leave them after a while, and women bear glorious children of supernatural fatherhood.
Yet whatever the Danaans may have been in the original pre-Christian conceptions of the Celtic Irish, it would be a mistake to suppose that they figure in the legends, as these have now come down to us, in the light of gods as we understand this term. They are for the most part radiantly beautiful, they are immortal (with limitations), and they wield mysterious powers of sorcery and enchantment. But no sort of moral governance of the world is ever for a moment ascribed to them, nor (in the bardic literature) is any act of worship paid to them.
They do not die naturally, but they can be slain both by each other and by mortals, and on the whole the mortal race is the stronger. Their strength when they come into conflict (as frequently happens) with men lies in stratagem and illusion; when the issue can be fairly knit between the rival powers it is the human that conquers. The early kings and heroes of the Milesian race are, indeed, often represented as so mightily endowed with supernatural power that it is impossible to draw a clear distinction between them and the People of Dana in this respect.
The Danaans are much nobler and more exalted beings, as they figure in the bardic literature, than the fairies into which they ultimately degenerated in the popular imagination; they may be said to hold a position intermediate between these and the Greek deities as portrayed in Homer.
But the true worship of the Celts, in Ireland as elsewhere, seems to have been paid, not to these poetical personifications of their ideals of power and beauty, but rather to elemental forces represented by actual natural phenomena-rocks, rivers, the sun, the wind, the sea. The most binding of oaths was to swear by the Wind and Sun, or to invoke some other power of nature; no name of any Danaan divinity occurs in an Irish oath formula.
When, however, in the later stages of the bardic literature, and still more in the popular conceptions, the Danaan deities had begun to sink into fairies, we find rising into prominence a character probably older than that ascribed to them in the literature, and, in a way, more august. In the literature it is evident that they were originally representatives of science and poetry - the intellectual powers of man. But in the popular mind they represented, probably at all times and certainly in later Christian times, not intellectual powers, but those associated with the fecundity of earth. They were, as a passage in the Book of Armagh names them, dei terreni, earth-gods, and were, and are still, invoked by the peasantry to yield increase and fertility. The literary conception of them is plainly Druidic in origin, the other popular; and the popular and doubtless older conception has proved the more enduring.
But these features of Irish mythology will appear better in the actual tales than in any critical discussion of them; and to the tales let us now return.
The Milesian Settlement of Ireland
The Milesians had three leaders when they set out for the conquest of Ireland - Eber Donn (Brown Eber), Eber Finn (Fair Eber)) and Eremon. Of these the first-named, as we have seen, was not allowed to enter the land-he perished as a punishment for his brutality.
When the victory over the Danaans was secure the two remaining brothers turned to the Druid Amergin for a judgment as to their respective titles to the sovranty. Eremon was the elder of the two, but Eber refused to submit to him. Thus Irish history begins, alas ! with dissension and jealousy. Amergin decided that the land should belong to Eremon for his life, and pass to Eber after his death. But Eber refused to submit to the award, and demanded an immediate partition of the new-won territory. This was agreed to, and Eber took the southern half of Ireland, "from the Boyne to the Wave of Cleena," [Cleena (Cliodhna) was a Danaan princess about whom a legend is told connected with the Bay of Glandore in Ca. Cork] while Eremon occupied the north. But even so the brethren could not be at peace, and after a short while war broke out between them. Eber was slain, and Eremon became sole King of Ireland, which he ruled from Tara, the traditional seat of that central authority which was always a dream of the Irish mind, but never a reality of Irish history.
Tiernmas and Crom Cruach
Of the kings who succeeded Eremon, and the battles they fought and the forests they cleared away and the rivers and lakes that broke out in their reign, there is little of note to record till we come to the reign of Tiemmas, fifth in succession from Eremon.
He is said to have introduced into Ireland the worship of Crom Cruach, on Moyslaught (The Plain of Adoration'), and to have perished himself with three-fourths of his people while worshipping this idol on November Eve, the period when the reign of winter was inaugurated.
Mica representation of Crom Cruach on Moyslaught Plain
Crom Cruach was no doubt a solar deity, but no figure at all resembling him can be identified among the Danaan divinities. Tiernmas also, it is said, found the first gold-mine in Ireland, and introduced variegated colours into the clothing of the people.
A slave might wear but one colour, a peasant two, a soldier three, a wealthy landowner four, a provincial chief five, and an Ollav, or royal person, six. Ollav was a term applied to a certain Druidic rank; it meant much the same as "doctor," in the sense of a learned man-a master of science. It is a characteristic trait that the Ollav is endowed with a distinction equal to that of a king.
The most distinguished Ollav of Ireland was also a king, the celebrated Ollav Fala, who is supposed to have been eighteenth from Eremon and to have reigned about 1000 B.C. He was the Lycurgus or Solon of Ireland, giving to the country a code of legislature, and also subdividing it, under the High King at Tara, among the provincial chiefs, to each of whom his proper rights and obligations were allotted. To Ollav Fola is also attributed the foundation of an institution which, whatever its origin, became of great importance in Ireland-the great triennial Fair or Festival at Tara, where the sub-kings and chiefs, bards, historians, and musicians from all parts of Ireland assembled to make up the genealogical records of the clan chieftainships, to enact laws, hear disputed cases, settle succession, and so forth; all these political and legislative labours being lightened by song and feast.
It was a stringent law that at this season all enmities must be laid aside; no man might lift his hand against another, or even institute a legal process, while the Assembly at Tara was in progress. Of all political and national institutions of this kind Ollav Fola was regarded as the traditional founder, just as Goban the Smith was the founder of artistry and handicraft, and Amergin of poetry. But whether the Milesian king had any more objective reality than the other more obviously mythical figures it is hard to say. He is supposed to have been buried in the great tumulus at Loughcrew, in Westmeath.
Kimbay and the Founding of Emain Macha
With Kimbay (Cimbaoth), about 300 B.C., we come to a landmark in history. "All the historical records of the Irish, prior to Kimbay, were dubious "- so, with remarkable critical acumen for his age, wrote the eleventh-century historian Tierna of Clonmacnois ["Omnia monumenta Scotorum ante Cimbaoth incerta erant." Tierna, who died in 1088, was Abbot of Clonmacnois, a great monastic and educational cantre in medieval Ireland]
The Curse of Macha. Stephen Reid 1910
There is much that is dubious in those that follow, but we are certainly on firmer historical ground. With the reign of Kimbay one great fact emerges into light: we have the foundation of the kingdom of Ulster at its centre, Emain Macha, a name redolent to the Irish student of legendary splendour and heroism. Emain Macha is now represented by the grassy ramparts of a great hill-fortress close to Ard Macha (Armagh). According to one of the derivations offered in Keating's "History of Ireland, "Emain is derived from eo, a bodkin, and muin, the neck, the word being thus equivalent to "brooch," and Emain Macha means the Brooch of Macha. An Irish brooch was a large circular wheel of gold or bronze, crossed by a long pin, and the great circular rampart surrounding a Celtic fortress might well be imaginatively likened to the brooch of a giantess guarding her cloak, or territory. [Compare the fine poem of a modern Celtic writer (Sir Samuel Ferguson), "The Widow's Cloak " - i.e., the British Empire in the days of Queen Victoria] The legend of Macha tells that she was the daughter of Red Hugh, an Ulster prince who had two brothers, Dithorba and Kimbay. They agreed to enjoy, each in turn, the sovranty of Ireland. Red Hugh came first, but on his death Macha refused to give up the realm and fought Dithorba for it, whom she conquered and slew. She then, in equally masterful manner, compelled Kimbay to wed her, and ruled all Ireland as queen. I give the rest of the tale in the words of Standish O'Grady:
"The five sons of Dithorba, having been expelled out of Ulster, fled across the Shannon, and in the west of the kingdom plotted against Macha. Then the Queen went down alone into Connacht and found the brothers in the forest, where, wearied with the chase, they were cooking a wild boar which they had slain, and were carousing before a fire which they had kindled. She appeared in her grimmest aspect, as the war-goddess, red all over, terrible and hideous as war itself but with bright and flashing eyes. One by one the brothers were inflamed by her sinister beauty, and one by one she overpowered and bound them. Then she lifted her burthen of champions upon her back and returned with them into the north. With the spear of her brooch she marked Out on the plain the circuit of the city of Emain Macha, whose ramparts and trenches were constructed by the captive princes, labouring like slaves under her command."
"The underlying idea of all this class of legend," remarks Mr. O'Grady, is that if men cannot master war, war will master them; and that those who aspired to the Ard-Rieship [High-Kingship] of all Erin must have the war-gods on their side." ["Critical History of Ireland," p. 180]
Macha is an instance of the intermingling of the attributes of the Danaan with the human race of which I have already spoken.
Laery and Covac
The next king who comes into legendary prominence is Ugainy the Great, who is said to have ruled not only all Ireland, but a great part of Western Europe, and to have wedded a Gaulish princess named Kesair. He had two sons, Laery and Covac. The former inherited the kingdom, but Covac, consumed and sick with envy, sought to slay him, and asked the advice of a Druid as to how this could be managed, since Laery, justly suspicious, never would visit him without an armed escort. The Druid bade him feign death, and have word sent to his brother that he was on his bier ready for burial. This Covac did, and when Laery arrived and bent over the supposed corpse Covac stabbed him to the heart, and slew also one of his sons, Ailill [pronounced "El«yill] who attended him. Then Covac ascended the throne, and straightway his illness left him.
Legends of Maon, Son of Ailill
He did a brutal deed, however, upon a son of Ailill's named Maon, about whom a number of legends cluster. Maon, as a child, was brought into Covac's presence, and was there compelled, says Keating, to swallow a portion of his father's and grandfather's hearts, and also a mouse with her young. From the disgust he felt, the child lost his speech, and seeing him dumb, and therefore innocuous, Covac let him go.
The boy was then taken into Munster, to the kingdom of Feramorc, of which Scoriath was king, and remained with him some time, but afterwards went to Gaul, his great-grandmother Kesair's country, where his guards told the king that he was heir to the throne of Ireland, and he was treated with great honour and grew up into a noble youth. But he left behind him in the heart of Moriath, daughter of the King of Feramorc, a passion that could not be stilled, and she resolved to bring him back to Ireland.
She accordingly equipped her father's harper, Craftiny, with many rich gifts, and wrote for him a love-lay, in which her passion for Maon was set forth, and to which Craftiny composed an enchanting melody. Arrived in France, Craftiny made his way to the king's court, and found occasion to pour out his lay to Maon. So deeply stirred was he by the beauty and passion of the song that his speech returned to him and he broke out into praises of it, and was thenceforth dumb no more. The King of Gaul then equipped him with an armed force and sent him to Ireland to regain his kingdom.
Learning that Covac was at a place near at hand named Dinrigh, Maon and his body of Gauls made a sudden attack upon him and slew him there and then, with all his nobles and guards. After the slaughter a Druid of Covac's company asked one of the Gauls who their Ieader was. "The Mariner" (Loingseach), replied the Gaul, meaning the captain of the fleet - i.e., Maon. "Can he speak?" inquired the Druid, who had begun to suspect the truth. "He does speak" (Labraidh), said the man; and henceforth the name "Labra the Mariner" clung to Maon son of Ailill nor was he known by any other. He then sought out Moriath, wedded her, and reigned over Ireland ten years.
From this invasion of the Gauls the name of the province of Leinster is traditionally derived. They were armed with spears having broad blue-green iron heads called laighne (pronounced "lyna"), and as they were allotted lands in Leinster and settled there) the province was called in Irish Laighin ("Ly-in") after them-the Province of the Spearmen. [The ending ster in three of the names of the Irish provinces is of Norse origin, arid is a relic of the Viking conquests in Ireland. Connacht, where the Vikings did not penetrate, alone preserve: its Irish name unmodified. Ulster (in Irish Ulaidh) is supposed to derive its name from Ollav Fola, Munster (Mumhan) from King Eocho Mumho, tenth in succesion from Eremon, and Connacht was "the land of the children of Conn "- he who was called Conn of the Hundred Battles, and who died A.D.157]
Of Labra the Mariner, after his accession, a curious tale is told. He was accustomed, it is said, to have his hair cropped but once a year, and the man to do this was chosen by lot, and was immediately afterwards put to death. The reason of this was that, like King Midas in the similar Greek myth, he had long ears like those of a horse, and he would not have this deformity known. Once it fell, however, that the person chosen to crop his hair was the only son of a poor widow, by whose tears and entreaties the king was prevailed upon to let him live, on condition that he swore by the Wind and Sun to tell no man what he might see. The oath was taken, and the young man returned to his mother. But by-and-by the secret so preyed on his mind that he fell into a sore sickness, and was near to death, when a wise Druid was called in to heal him "It is the secret that is killing him," said the Druid, "and he will never be well till he reveals it. Let him therefore go along the high-road till he come to a place where four roads meet. Let him there turn to the right, and the first tree he shall meet on the road, let him tell his secret to that, and he shall be rid of it, and recover. So the youth did; and the first tree was a willow. He laid his lips close to the bark, whispered his secret to it, and went home, light-hearted as of old. But it chanced that shortly after this the harper Craftiny broke his harp and needed a new one, and as luck would have it the first suitable tree he came to was the willow that had the king's secret. He cut it down, made his harp from it, and performed that night as usual in the king's hall; when, to the amazement of all, as soon as the harper touched the strings the assembled guests heard them chime the words, "Two horse's ears hath Labra the Mariner." The king then, seeing that the secret was out, plucked off his hood and showed himself plainly; nor was any man put to death again on account of this mystery. We have seen that the compelling power of Craftiny's music had formerly cured Labra's dumbness. The sense of something magical in music, as though supernatural powers spoke through it, is of constant recurrence in Irish legend.
Legend -Cycle of Conary Mor
We now come to a cycle of legends centering on, or rather closing with, the wonderful figure of the High King Conary Mor - a cycle so charged with splendour, mystery, and romance that to do it justice would require far more space than can be given to it within the limits of this work [The reader may, however, be referred to the tale of Etain and Midir as given in full by A. H. Leahy ("Heroic Romances of Ireland"), and by the writer in his "High Deeds of Finn," and to the tale of Conary rendered by Sir S. Ferguson ("Poem's" 1886), in what Dr. Whitley Stokes has described as the noblest poem ever written by an Irishman.]
Etain in Fairyland
The preliminary events of the cycle are transacted in the "Land of Youth," the mystic country of the People of Dana after their dispossession by the Children of Miled. Midir the Proud son of the Dagda, a Danaan prince dwelling on Slieve Callary, had a wife named Fuamnach. After a while he took to himself another bride, Etain, whose beauty and grace were beyond compare, so that" as fair as Etain" became a proverbial comparison for any beauty that exceeded all other standards. Fuamnach therefore became jealous of her rival, and having by magic art changed her into a butterfly, she raised a tempest that drove her forth from the palace, and kept her or seven years buffeted hither and thither throughout the length and breadth of Erin. At last, however, a chance gust of wind blew her through a window of the fairy palace of Angus on the Boyne. The immortals cannot be hidden from each other, and Angus knew what she was. Unable to release her altogether from the spell of Fuamnach, he made a sunny bower for her, and planted round it all manner of choice and honey-laden flowers, on which she lived as long as she was with him) while in the secrecy of the night he restored her to her own form and enjoyed her love. In time, however, her refuge was discovered by Fuamnach; again the magic tempest descended upon her and drove her forth; and this time a singular fate was hers. Blown into the palace of an Ulster chieftain named Etar, she fell into the drinking-cup of Etar's wife just as the latter was about to drink. She was swallowed in the draught, and in due time, having passed into the womb of Etar's wife, she was born as an apparently mortal child, and grew up to maidenhood knowing nothing of her real nature and ancestry.
Eochy arid Etain
About this time it happened that the High King of Ireland, Eochy [pronounced "Yeo«hee"] being wifeless and urged by the nobles of his land to take a queen - " for without thou do so," they said, "we will not bring our wives to the Assembly at Tara "-sent forth to inquire for a fair and noble maiden to share his throne. The messengers report that Etain, daughter of Etar, is the fairest maiden in Ireland, and the king journeys forth to visit her. A piece of description here follows which is one of the most highly wrought and splendid in Celtic or perhaps in any literature. Eochy finds Etain with her maidens by a spring of water, whither she had gone forth to wash her hair:
"A clear comb of silver was held in her hand, the comb was adorned with gold ; and near her, as for washing, was a bason of silver whereon four birds had been chased, and there were little bright gems of carbuncles on the rims of the bason. A bright purple mantle waved round her ; and beneath it was another mantle ornamented with silver fringes: the outer mantle was clasped over her bosom with a golden brooch. A tunic she wore with a long hood that might cover her head attached to it ; it was stiff and glossy with green silk beneath red embroidery of gold, and was clasped over her breasts with marvellously wrought clasps of silver and gold; so that men saw the bright gold and the green silk flashing against the sun. On her head were two tresses of golden hair, and each tress had been plaited into four strands; at the end of each strand was a little ball of gold. Arid there was that maiden undoing her hair that she might wash it, her two arms out through the armholes of her smock. Each of her two arms was as white as the snow of a single night, and each of her cheeks was as rosy as the foxglove. Even and small were the teeth in her head, and they shone like pearls. Her eyes were as blue as a hyacinth, her lips delicate and crimson; very high, soft and white were her shoulders. Tender, polished and white were her wrists; her fingers long and of great whiteness; her nails were beautiful and pink. White as snow, or the foam of a wave, was her neck; long was it, slender, and as soft as silk. Smooth and white were her thighs; her knees were round and firm and white; her ankles were as straight as the rule of a carpenter. Her feet were slim and as white as the ocean's foam; evenly set were her eyes; her eyebrows were of a bluish black, such as you see upon the shell of a beetle. Never a maid fairer than she, or more worthy of love, was till then seen by the eyes of men; and it seemed to them that she must be one of those that have come from the fairy mounds." [I quote Mr. A. H. Leahys translation from a fifteenth-century Egerton manuscript ("Heroic Romances of Ireand," vol. I. P. 12). The story is, however, found in much more ancient authorities.)
The king wooed her and made her his wife and brought her back to Tara.
The Love-Story of Ailill
It happened that the king had a brother named Ailill, who, on seeing Etain, was so smitten with her beauty that he fell sick of the intensity of his passion and wasted almost to death. While he was in this condition Eochy had to make a royal progress through Ireland. He left his brother-the cause of whose malady none suspected - in Etain's care, bidding her do what she could for him, and, if he died, to bury him with due ceremonies and erect an Ogham Stone above his grave. [Ogham letters, which were composed of straight lines arranged in a certain order about the axis formed by the edge of a squared pillar-stone, were used for sepulchral inscription and writing generally before the introduction of the Roman alphabet in Ireland.] Etain goes to visit the brother; she inquires the cause of his illness ; he speaks to her in enigmas, but at last, moved beyond control by her tenderness, he breaks out in an avowal of his passion. His description of the yearning of hopeless love is a lyric of extraordinary intensity. "It is closer than the skin," he cries, "it is like a battle with a spectre, it overwhelms like a flood, it is a weapon under the sea, it is a passion for an echo." By "a weapon under the sea" the poet means that love is like one of the secret treasures of the fairy-folk in the kingdom of Mananan - -as wonderful and as unattainable.
Etain is now in some perplexity; but she decides, with a kind of naive good-nature, that although she is not in the least in love with Ailill, she cannot see a man die of longing for her, and she promises to be his. Possibly we are to understand here that she was prompted by the fairy nature, ignorant of good and evil, and alive only to pleasure and to suffering. It must be said, however, that in the Irish myths in general this, as we may call it, "fairy" view of morality is the one generally prevalent both among Danaans and mortals - both alike strike one as morally irresponsible.
Etain now arranges a tryst with Ailill in a house outside of Tara - for she will not do what she calls her "glorious crime" in the king's palace. But Ailill on the eve of the appointed day falls into a profound slumber and misses his appointment. A being in his shape does, however, come to Etain, but merely to speak coldly and sorrowfully of his malady, and departs again. When the two meet once more the situation is altogether changed. In Ailill's enchanted sleep his unholy passion for the queen has passed entirely away. Etain, on the other hand, becomes aware that behind the visible events there are mysteries which she does not understand.
Midir the Proud
Etain and Midir Stephen ReidFrom The High Deeds of Finn
The explanation soon follows. The being who came to her in the shape of Ailill was her Danaan husband, Midir the Proud. He now comes to woo her in his true shape, beautiful and nobly apparelled, and entreats her to fly with him to the Land of Youth, where she can be safe henceforward, since her persecutor, Fuamnach, is dead. He it was who shed upon Ailill's eyes the magic slumber. His description of the fairyland to which he invites her is given in verses of great beauty:
The Land of Youth
"O fair-haired woman, will you come with me to the marvellous land, full of music, where the hair is primrose-yellow and the body white as snow?
There none speaks of 'mine' or 'thine ' - white are the teeth and black the brows; eyes flash with many-coloured lights, and the hue of the foxglove is on every cheek.
Pleasant to the eye are the plains of Erin, but they are a desert to the Great Plain.
Heady is the ale of Eria, but the ale of the Great Plain is headier.
It is one of the wonders of thit land that youth does not change into age.
Smooth and sweet are the streams that flow through ii; mead and wine abound of every kind; there men are all fair, without blemish; there women conceive without sin.
We see around us on every side, yet no man seeth us; the cloud of the sin of Adam hides us from their observation.
O lady, if thou wilt oome to my strong people, the purest of gold shall be on thy head - thy meat shall be swine's flesh unsalted, new milk and mead shalt thou drink with me there; O fair-haired woman. ' "
[unsalted : The reference is to the magic swine of Mananan, which were killed and eaten afresh every day, and whose meat preserved the eternal youth of the People of Dana.]
I have given this remarkable lyric at length because, though Christian and ascetic ideas are obviously discernible in it, it represents on the whole the pagan and mythical conception of the Land of Youth, the country of the Dead.
Etain, however, is by no means ready to go away with a stranger and to desert the High King for a man "without name or lineage." Midir tells her who he is, and all her own history of which, in her present incarnation, she knows nothing; and he adds that it was one thousand and twelve years from Etain's birth in the Land of Youth till she was born a mortal child to the wife of Etar. Ultimately Etain agrees to return with Midir to her ancient home) but only on condition that the king will agree to their severance, and with this Midir has to be content for the time.
[ See: The Story of Etain and Midir ]
A Game of Chess
Shortly afterwards he appears to King Eochy, as already related [p. 124] on the Hill of Tara. He tells the king that he has come to play a game of chess with him, and produces a chessboard of silver with pieces of gold studded with jewels. To be a skilful chess-player was a necessary accomplishment of kings and nobles in Ireland, and Eochy enters into the game with zest. Midir allows him to win game after game, and in payment for his losses he performs by magic all kinds of tasks for Eochy, reclaiming land, clearing forests, and building causeways across bogs - here we have a touch of the popular conception of the Danaans as earth deities associated with agriculture and fertility. At last, having excited Eochy's cupidity and made him believe himself the better player, he proposes a final game, the stakes to be at the pleasure of the victor after the game is over. Eochy is now defeated.
"My stake is forfeit to thee," said Eochy.
"Had I wished it, it had been forfeit long ago", said Midir.
"What is it that thou desirest me to grant?" said Eochy.
"That I may hold Etain in my arms and obtain a kiss from her," said Midir.
The king was silent for a while; then he said: "One month from to-day thou shalt come, and the thing thou desirest shall be granted thee."
Midir and Etain
Eochy's mind foreboded evil, and when the appointed day came he caused the palace of Tara to be surrounded by a great host of armed men to keep Midir out. All was in vain, however; as the king sat at the feast, while Etain handed round the wine, Midir, more glorious than ever, suddenly stood in their midst. Holding his spears in his left hand, he threw his right around Etain, and the couple rose lightly in the air and disappeared through a roof-window in the palace. Angry and bewildered, the king and his warriors rushed out of doors, but all they could see was two white swans that circled in the air above the palace, and then departed in long, steady flight towards the fairy mountain of Slievenamon. And thus Queen Etain rejoined her kindred.
War with Fairyland
Eochy, however, would not accept defeat, and now ensues what I think is the earliest recorded war with Fairyland since the first dispossession of the Danaans. After searching Ireland for his wife in vain, he summoned to his aid the Druid Dalan. Dalan tried for a year by every means in his power to find out where she was. At last he made what seems to have been an operation of wizardry of special strength - " he made three wands of yew, and upon the wands he wrote an ogham; and by the keys of wisdom that he had, and by the ogham, it was revealed to him that Etain was in the fairy mound of Bri-Leith) and that Midir had borne her thither."
Eochy then assembled his forces to storm and destroy the fairy mound in which was the palace ot Midir. It is said that he was nine years digging up one mound after another, while Midir and his folk repaired the devastation as fast as it was made. At last Midir, driven to the last stronghold, attempted a stratagem - he offered to give up Etain, and sent her with fifty handmaids to the king, but made them all so much alike that Eochy could not distinguish the true Etain from her images. She herself, it is said, gave him a sign by which to know her. The motive of the tale, including the choice of the mortal rather than the god, reminds one of the beautiful Hindu legend of Damayanti and Nala. Eochy regained his queen, who lived with him till his death, ten years afterwards, and bore him one daughter, who was named Etain, like herself.
The Tale of Conary Mor
From this Etain ultimately sprang the great king Conary Mor, who shines in Irish legend as the supreme type of royal splendour, power, and beneficence, and whose overthrow and death were compassed by the Danaans in vengeance for the devastation of their sacred dwellings by Eochy. The tale in which the death of Conary is related is one of the most antique and barbaric in conception of all Irish legends, but it has a magnificence of imagination which no other can rival. To this great story the tale of Etain and Midir may be regarded as what the Irish called a priomscel, "introductory tale," showing the more remote origin of the events related. The genealogy of Conary Mor will help the reader to understand the connexion of events.
The Law of the Geis
The tale of Conary introduces us for the first time to the law or institution of the geis, which plays hence-forward a very important part in Irish legend, the violation or observance of a geis being frequently the turning-point in a tragic narrative. We must therefore delay a moment to explain to the reader exactly what this peculiar institution was.
Dineen's "Irish Dictionary" explains the word geis (pronounced "gaysh "-plural, "gaysha") as meaning "a bond, a spell, a prohibition, a taboo, a magical injunction, the violation of which led to misfortune and death." [The meaning quoted will be found in the Dictionary under the alternative form geas] Every Irish chieftain or personage of note had certain geise peculiar to himself which he must not transgress. These geise had sometimes reference to a code of chivalry - thus Dermot of the Love-spot, when appealed to by Grania to take her away from Finn, is under geise not to refuse protection to a woman. Or they may be merely superstitious or fantastic - thus Conary, as one of his geise, is forbidden to follow three red horsemen on a road, nor must he kill birds (this is because, as we shall see, his totem was a bird). It is a geis to the Ulster champion, Fergus mac Roy, that he must not refuse an invitation to a feast ; on this turns the Tragedy of the Sons of Usnach. It is not at all clear who imposed these geise or how any one found out what his personal geise were-all that was doubtless an affair of the Druids. But they were regarded as sacred obligations, and the worst misfortunes were to be apprehended from breaking them. Originally, no doubt, they were regarded as a means of keeping oneself in proper relations with the other world-the world of Faery - and were akin to the well-known Polynesian practice of the "tabu." I prefer, however, to retain the Irish word as the only fitting one for the Irish practice.
The Cowherd's Fosterling
We now return to follow the fortunes of Etain's great-grandson, Conary. Her daughter, Etain Oig, as we have seen from the genealogical table, married Cormac, King of Ulster. She bore her husband no children save one daughter only. Embittered by her barrenness and his want of an heir, the king put away Etain and ordered her infant to be abandoned and thrown into a pit. "Then his two thralls take her to a pit, and she smiles a laughing smile at them as they were putting her into it." [I quote from Whitley Stokes' translation, Revue Celtique, January 1901, and succeeding numbers] After that they cannot leave her to die, and they carry her to a cowherd of Eterskel, King of Tara, by whom she is fostered and taught "till she became a good embroidress and there was not in Ireland a king's daughter dearer than she." Hence the name she bore, Messbuachalla (" Messboo'hala"), which means "the cowherd's foster-child"
For fear of her being discovered, the cowherds keep the maiden in a house of wickerwork having only a roof-pening. But one of King Eterskel's folk has the curiosity to climb up and look in, and sees there the fairest maiden in Ireland. He bears word to the king, who orders an opening to be made in the wall and the maiden fetched forth, for the king was childless, and it had been prophesied to him by his Druid that a woman of unknown race would bear him a son. Then said the king: "This is the woman that has been prophesied to me."
Parentage and Birth of Conary
Before her release, however, she is visited by a denizen from the Land of Youth. A great bird comes down through her roof-window. On the floor of the hut his bird-plumage falls from him and reveals a glorious youth. Like Dana‘, like Leda, like Ethlinn daughter of Balor, she gives her love to the god. Ere they part he tells her that she will be taken to the king, but that she will bear to her Danaan lover a son whose name shall be Conary, and that it shall be forbidden to him to go a-hunting after birds.
So Conary was born, and grew up into a wise and noble youth, and he was fostered with a lord named Desa, whose three great-grandsons grew up with him from childhood. Their names were Ferlee and Fergar and Ferrogan; and Conary, it is said, loved them well and taught them his wisdom.
Conary the High King
Then King Eterskel died, and a successor had to be appointed. In Ireland the eldest son did not succeed to the throne or chieftaincy as a matter of right, but the ablest and best of the family at the time was supposed to be selected by the clan. In this tale we have a curious account of this selection by means of divination. A "bull-feast" was held - i.e., a bull was slain, and the diviner would "eat his fill and drink its broth"; then he went to bed, where a truth-compelling spell was chanted over him. Whoever he saw in his dream would be king. So at Aegira, in Achaea, as Whitley Stokes points out, the priestess of Earth drank the fresh blood of a bull before descending into the cave to prophesy. The dreamer cried in his sleep that he saw a naked man going towards Tara with a stone in his sling.
The bull-feast was held at Tara, but Conary was then with his three foster-brothers playing a game on the Plains of Liffey. They separated, Conary going towards Dublin, where he saw before him a flock of great birds, wonderful in colour and beauty. He drove after them in his chariot, but the birds would go a spear-cast in front and light, and fly on again, never letting him come up with them till they reached the sea-shore.
Then he lighted down from his chariot and took out his sling to cast at them, whereupon they changed into armed men and turned on him with spears and swords. One of them, however, protected him, and said: "I am Nemglan, king of thy father's birds; and thou hast been forbidden to cast at birds, for here there is no one but is thy kin." "Till to-day," said Conary, "I knew not this."
"Go to Tara to-night," said Nemglan; "the bull-feast is there, and through it thou shalt be made king. A man stark naked, who shall go at the end of the night along one of the roads to Tara, having a stone and a sling-'tis he that shall be king."
So Conary stripped off his raiment and went naked through the night to Tara, where all the roads were being watched by chiefs having changes of royal raiment with them to clothe the man who should come according to the prophecy. When Conary meets them they clothe him and bring him in, and he is proclaimed King of Erin.
A long list of his geise is here given, which are said to have been declared to him by Nemglan. "The bird-reign shall be noble," said he, "and these shall be thy geise:
"Thou shalt not go right.handwise round Tara, nor
left-handwise round Bregia,
Thou shalt not hunt the evil-beasts of Cerna,
Thou shalt not go out every ninth night beyond Tan.
Thou shalt not sleep in a house from which firelight shows after sunset, or in which light can be seen from without.
No three Reds shall go before thee to the house of Red.
No rapine shall be wrought in thy reign.
After sunset, no one woman alone or man alone shall enter the
house in which thou art.
Thou shalt not interfere in a quarrel between two of thy thralls."
[Bregia was the great plain lying eastwards of Tara between Boyne and Liffey] Conary then entered upon his reign, which was marked by the fair seasons and bounteous harvests always associated in the Irish mind with the reign of a good king. Foreign ships came to the ports. Oak-mast for the swine was up to the knees every autumn; the rivers swarmed with fish. "No one slew another in Erin during his reign, and to every one in Erin his fellow's voice seemed as sweet as the strings of lutes. From mid-spring to mid-autumn no wind disturbed a cow's tail."
Beginning of the Vengeance
Disturbance, however, came from another source. Conary had put down all raiding and rapine, and his three foster-brothers, who were born reavers, took it ill. They pursued their evil ways in pride and wilfulness, and were at last captured red-handed. Conary would not condemn them to death, as the people begged him to do, but spared them for the sake of his kinship in fosterage. They were, however, banished from Erin and bidden to go raiding overseas, if raid they must. On the seas they met another exiled chief, Ingcel the One-Eyed, son of the King of Britain, and joining forces with him they attacked the fortress in which Ingcel's father, mother, and brothers were guests at the time, and all were destroyed in a single night. It was then the turn of Ingcel to ask their help in raiding the land of Erin, and gathering a host of other outlawed men, including the seven ManŽs, sons of Ailell and Maev of Connacht, besides Fence, Fergar, and Ferrogan, they made a descent upon Ireland, taking land on the Dublin coast near Howth.
Meantime Conary had been lured by the machinations of the Danaans into breaking one after another of his geise. He settles a quarrel between two of his serfs in Munster, and travelling back to Tara they see the country around it lit with the glare of fires and wrapped in clouds of smoke. A host from the North, they think, must be raiding the country, and to escape it Conary's company have to turn right-handwise round Tara and then left-handwise round the Plain of Bregia. But the smoke and flames were an illusion made by the Fairy Folk, who are now drawing the toils closer round the doomed king. On his way past Bregia he chases "the evil beasts of Cerna "- whatever they were - "but he saw it not till the chase was ended."
Da Derga's Hostel and the Three Reds
Conary had now to find a re sting-place for the night, and he recollects that he is not far from the Hostel of the Leinster lord, Da Derga, which gives its name to this bardic tale. ["The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel"] Conary had been generous to him when Da Derga came visiting to Tara, and he determined to seek his hospitality for the night. Da Derga dwelt in a vast hall with seven doors near to the present town of Dublin, probably at Donnybrook, on the high-road to the south. As the cavalcade are Journeying thither an ominous incident occurs - Conary marks in front of them on the road three horsemen clad all in red and riding on red horses. He remembers his geis about the "three Reds," and sends a messenger forward to bid them fall behind. But however the messenger lashes his horse he fails to get nearer than the length of a spear-cast to the three Red Riders. He shouts to them to turn back and follow the king, but one of them, looking over his shoulder, bids him ironically look out for "great news from a Hostel." Again and again the messenger is sent to them with promises of great reward if they will fail behind instead of preceding Conary. At last one of them chants a mystic and terrible strain. "Lo, my son, great the news. Weary are the steeds we ride - the steeds from the fairy mounds. Though we are living, we are dead. Great are the signs : destruction of life sating of ravens ; feeding of crows ; strife of slaughter; wetting of sword-edge; shields with broken bosses after sundown. Lo, my son !" Then they ride forward, and, alighting from their red steeds, fasten them at the portal of Da Derga's Hostel and sit down inside.
"Derga," it may be explained, means "red." Conary had therefore been preceded by three red horsemen to the House of Red. "All my geise," he remarks forebodingly, "have seized me to-night."
Gathering of the Hosts
From this point the story of Conary Mor takes on a character of supernatural vastness and mystery, the imagination of the bardic narrator dilating, as it were, with the approach of the crisis. Night has fallen, and the pirate host of Ingcel is encamped on the shores of Dublin Bay. They hear the noise of the royal cavalcade, and along-sighted messenger is sent out to discover what it is. He brings back word of the glittering and multitudinous host which has followed Conary to the Hostel. A crashing noise is heard - Ingcel asks of Ferrogan what it may be - it is the giant warrior mac Cecht striking flint on steel to kindle fire for the king's feast. "God send that Conary be not there to-night," cry the sons of Desa; "woe that he should be under the hurt of his foes." But lngcel reminds them of their compact - he had given them the plundering of his own father and brethren ; they cannot refuse to stand by him in the attack he meditates on Conary in the Hostel. A glare of the fire lit by mac Cecht is now perceived by the pirate host, shining through the wheels of the chariots which are drawn up around the open doors of the Hostel. Another of the geise of Conary has been broken.
lngcel and his host now proceed to build a great cairn of stones, each man contributing one stone, so that there may be a memorial of the fight, and also a record of the number slain when each survivor removes his stone again.
The scene now shifts to the Hostel, where the king's party has arrived and is preparing for the night. A solitary woman comes to the door and seeks admission.
Morrigan. Stephen Reid 1910
Morrigan, a Celtic goddess of war, hovered over the battlefield as a crow or raven. She has been equated with Medh. The hero Chulainn rejected her because he failed to recognize her. When he died, Morrigan sat on his shoulder as a crow.
She appeared sometimes as a warrior in a battle and her presence is said to signify imminent death.
"As long as a weaver's beam were each of her two shins, and they were as dark as the back of a stag-beetle. A greyish, woolly mantle she wore. Her hair reached to her knee. Her mouth was twisted to one side of her head." It was the Morrigan, the Danaan goddess of Death and Destruction. She leant against the doorpost of the house and looked evilly on the king and his company. "Well, O woman," said Conary, " if thou art a witch, what seest thou for us?" "Truly I see for the;" she answered, "that neither fell nor flesh of thine shall escape from the place into which thou hast come, save what birds will bear away in their claws." She asks admission. Conary declares that his geise forbids him to receive a solitary man or woman after sunset. "If in sooth," she says, "it has befallen the king not to have room in his house for the meal and bed of a solitary woman, they will be gotten apart from him from some one possessing generosity." "Let her in, then," says Conary, "though it is a geis of mine."
Conary and his Retinue
A lengthy and brilliant passage now follows describing how Ingcel goes to spy out the state of affairs in the Hostel. Peeping through the chariot-wheels, he takes note of all he sees, and describes to the sons of Desa the appearance and equipment of each prince and mighty man in Conary's retinue, while Ferrogan and his brother declare who he is and what destruction he will work in the coming fight. There is Cormac, son of Conor, King of Ulster, the fair and good; there are three hug; black and black-robed warriors of the Picts ; there is Conary's steward, with bristling hair, who settles every dispute - a needle would be heard falling when he raises his voice to speak, and he bears a staff of office the size of a mill-shaft; there is the warrior mac Cecht, who lies supine with his knees drawn up they resemble two bare hills, his eyes are like lakes, his nose a mountain-peak, his sword shines like a river in the sun. Conary's three sons are there, golden-haired, silk-robed, beloved of all the household, with" manners of ripe maidens, and hearts of brothers, and valour of bears.' When Ferrogan hears of them he weeps and cannot proceed till hours of the night have passed. Three Fomorian hostages of horrible aspect are there also; and Conall of the Victories with his blood-red shield; and Duftach of Ulster with his magic spear, which, when there is a premonition of battle, must be kept in a brew of soporific herbs, or it will flame on its haft and fly forth raging for massacre ; and three giants from the Isle of Man with horses' manes reaching to their heels.
A strange and unearthly touch is introduced by a description of three naked and bleeding forms hanging by ropes from the roof-they are the daughters of the Bav, another name for the Morrigan,or war-goddes; "three of awful boding," says the tale enigmatically, "those are the three that are slaughtered at every time." We are probably to regard them as visionary beings, portending war an death, visible only to Ingcel. The hall with its separate chambers is full of warriors, cup- bearers, musicians playing, and jugglers doing wonderful feats; and Da Derga with his attendants dispensing food and drink. Conary himself is described as a youth; "the ardour and energy of a king has he and the counsel of a sage; the mantle I saw round him is even as the mist of May-day - lovelier in each hue of it than the other." His golden-hilted sword lies beside him - a forearm's length of it has escaped from the scabbard, shining like a beam of light. "He is the mildest and gentlest and most perfect king that has come into the world, even Conary son of Eterskel · great is the tenderness of the sleepy, simple man till he has chanced on a deed of valour. But if his fury and his courage are awakened when the champions of Erin and Alba are at him in the house, the Destruction will not be wrought so long as he is therein . . . sad were the quenching of that reign."
Champions at the House
lngcel and the sons of Desa then march to the attack and surround the Hostel:
"Silence a while ! " says Conary, what is this ?"
"Champions at the house," says Conall of the Victories.
"There are warriors for them here," answers Conary.
"They will be needed to-night," Conall rejoins.
One of Desa's sons rushes first into the Hostel. His head is struck off and cast out of it again. Then the great struggle begins. The Hostel is set on fir; but the fire is quenched with wine or any liquids that art in it. Conary and his people sally forth - hundreds are slain, and the reavers, for the moment, are routed. But Conary, who has done prodigies of fighting, is athirst and can do no more till he gets water. The reavers by advice of their wizards have cut off the river Dodder, which flowed through the Hostel, and all the liquids in the house had been spilt on the fires.
Death of Conary
The king, who is perishing of thirst, asks mac Cecht to procure him a drink, and mac Cecht turns to Conall and asks him whether he will get the drink for the king or stay to protect him while mac Cecht does it. "Leave the defence of the king to us," says Conall, "and go thou to seek the drink, for of thee it is demanded." Mac Cecht then, taking Conary's golden cup, rushes forth, bursting through the surrounding host, and goes to seek for water. Then Conall, and Cormac of Ulster, and the other champions, issue forth in turn, slaying multitudes of the enemy; some return wounded and weary to the little band in the Hostel, while others cut their way through the ring of foes. Conall, Sencha, and Duftach stand by Conary till the end; but mac Cecht is long in returning, Conary perishes of thirst, and the three heroes then fight their way out and escape, "wounded, broken, and maimed."
Meantime mac Cecht has rushed over Ireland in frantic search for the water. But the Fairy Folk, who are here manifestly elemental powers controlling the forces of nature, have sealed all the sources against them. He tries the Well of Kesair in Wicklow in vain ; he goes to the great rivers, Shannon and Slayney, Bann and Barrow - they all hide away at his approach; the lakes deny him also; at last he finds a lake, Loch Gara in Roscommon, which failed to hide itself in time, and thereat he fills his cup. In the morning he returned to the Hostel with the precious and hard-won draught, but found the defenders all dead or fled, and two of the reavers in the act of striking off the head of Conary. Mac Cecht struck off the head of one of them, and hurled a huge pillar stone after the other, who was escaping with Conary's head. The reaver fell dead on the spot, and mac Cecht, taking up his master's head, poured the water into its mouth. Thereupon the head spoke, and praised and thanked him for the deed.
Mac Cecht's Wound
A woman then came by and saw mac Cecht lying exhausted and wounded on the field.
"Come hither, O woman," says mac Cecht.
"I dare not go there," says the woman, "for horror and fear of thee."
But he persuades her to come, and says: "I know not whether it is a fly or gnat or an ant that nips me m the wound."
The woman looked and saw a hairy wolf buried as far as the two shoulders in the wound. She seized it by the tail and dragged it forth, and it took "the full of its jaws out of him."
"Truly," says the woman, "this is an ant of the Ancient Land."
And mac Cecht took it by the throat and smote it on the forehead, so that it died.
"Is thy Lord Alive?"
The tale ends in a truly heroic strain. Conall of the Victories, as we have seen, had cut his way out after the king's death, and made his way to Teltin, where he round his father, Amorgin, in the garth before hii dun. Conall's shield-arm had been wounded by thrice fifty spears, and he reached Teltin now with half a shield, and his sword, and the fragments of his two spears.
"Swift are the wolves that have hunted thee, my son," said his father.
"'Tis this that has wounded us, old hero, an evil conflict with warriors," Conall replied.
"Is thy lord alive?" asked Amorgin.
"He is not aiive," says Conall.
" I swear to God what the great tribes of Ulster swear: he is a coward who goes out of a fight alive having left his lord with his foes in death."
"My wounds are not white, old hero," says Conall. He showed him his shield-arm, whereon were thrice fifty spear-wounds. The sword-arm, which the shield had not guarded, was mangled and maimed and wounded and pierced, save that the sinews kept it to the body without separation.
"That arm fought to-night, my son, says Amorgin. "True is that, old hero," says Conall of the Victories. "Many are they to whom it gave drinks of death to-night in front of the Hostel."
So ends the story of Etain, and of the overthrow of Fairyland and the fairy vengeance wrought on the great-grandson of Eochy the High King.