Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 67

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 [pg 159] 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.125 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 naïve 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 [pg 160] 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

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 Erin, but the ale of the Great Plain is headier.
It is one of the wonders of that land that youth does not change into age.
Smooth and sweet are the streams that flow through it; mead and wine abound of every kind; there men are [pg 161] 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 come to my strong people, the purest of gold shall be on thy head—thy meat shall be swine's flesh unsalted,126 new milk and mead shall thou drink with me there, O fair-haired woman.

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.

A Game of Chess

Shortly afterwards he appears to King Eochy, as already related,127 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 [pg 162] 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.