Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race
Page: 65[pg 156]
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 for 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 [pg 157] 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 and Etain
About this time it happened that the High King of Ireland, Eochy,123 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, [pg 158] and each tress had been plaited into four strands; at the end of each strand was a little ball of gold. And 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.”124