Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles

Étaín, Eithliu, Vessels and Rebirth

In order to gain some insight into the significance of Étaín, her role and her manner of rebirth, we shall look at related themes as they appear in different sagas. This essay is in two parts – the second part will be published after we have reached the end of The Wooing of Étaín in our podcast episodes. You may also be interested to listen to episode 1.03, “Tales of Eithliu”, and related articles to learn more about the character and role of Eithliu / Boand.

 

The Conception of Cú Chulainn (Compert Con Chulainn)

In the first part of Compert Con Chulainn, the Ulaid follow a flock of birds into the Otherworld, and are stranded in the snow.  They are given shelter in a small house, and that night, Deichtine Ingen Chonchobair helps deliver a baby.  A pair of foals are born at the same moment.  The infant, who will become Sétanta [pronounced Shay-danda] and then Cú Chulainn, is brought from the Otherworld with the two foals by Deichtine.  However, this child of pure Otherworld parentage does not survive the transition from one world to the other.  When the infant dies, Deichtine’s grief manifests as a great thirst, and she calls for her bronze cup [a llestur umai] to quench her thirst.  As she drinks, a “small creature” [míl mbec] keeps trying to leap from the cup into her mouth.  It succeeds at the last, and is swallowed by her.

That night, Deichtine dreams that Lug Mac Ethlenn comes to her, telling her that she is pregnant by him, and that the child will be called Sétanta.  When Deichtine afterwards finds that she is indeed pregnant, rumours begin to circulate that the child is Conchobar’s, her father’s.  To offset this dishonour, Conchobar marries his daughter off to Súaldaim mac Róich.  Deichtine, however, will not go to her marriage-bed while pregnant by another man.  She beats her womb to and fro against the bedpost, inducing a miscarriage, and thus for the second time, Sétanta fails to be born into this world.  This second “incarnation” had an Otherworld father, Lug, and a worldly mother, Deichtine.  So it is only through being conceived for a third time, by two parents of this world, that Sétanta is finally born to Deichtine and Súaldaim, and fostered to the smith, Culann.

The pivotal point of this story is the moment of the second conception, when Deichtine swallows the “little creature” from her drinking cup.  It is a moment of destiny that follows one of those mysterious causal chains so common in Irish literature.  The sequence of events that leads inexorably to this moment is, of course, set in motion by the Otherworld bird-people.  They have brought Deichtine to their Otherworld house so that she delivers the child and fosters him.  He cannot survive the transition to this world, and his death causes the great thirst of Deichtine, so that she calls for a drink from her special cup.  This vessel is specifically described to indicate that, in that moment and role, Deichtine is herself a sacred vessel, and so can undergo the magical conception of a child of two worlds.  As the mid-point of the story, there is a sense of crux, and the dream of Lug Mac Ethlenn is the point of the two worlds meeting and interacting.

It should be noted here that the Otherworld father gives his full name, Lug Mac Ethlenn, and that he first appears in the story in the form of a bird.  Moreover, the bird-people of the first part of the story are bound in pairs by silver chains or yokes.  The naming of Lug’s mother, Eithliu, as opposed to his father, Cian, connects this story to other stories of motherhood, and other stories featuring Eithliu, who is the literal “kernel” of birth, transformation and re-birth.  She often appears on the boundaries of stories, almost the mother or grandmother of a story.  Her name, along with the means of conception by swallowing a fly, and the appearance of Otherworld birds linked with silver chains, put the listener in mind of the story of the Wooing of Étaín (Tochmairc Étaíne), drawing attention to a connection between these two tales and the characters within them.

The Wooing of Étaín (Tochmairc Étaíne)

This is a notoriously long and convoluted saga, so here we will look at the elements of the story that connect it to Compert Chon Culainn (above) and to Togail Bruidne Da Derga (in part 2).

In the early part of this story, Eithniu (Eithliu*), who is identified with Boann (the Boyne River), is involved in a wondrous conception.  She is married to Elcmar, but she and the Dagda (named in the first paragraphs of the story as Eochaid Ollathair “Horsely All-Father”) are sexually attracted to one another.  The mutuality of this attraction is stressed, by saying that Eithniu would have lain with the Dagda if she had not been afraid of her powerful husband, Elcmar.  The Dagda sends Elcmar on a long errand, and puts enchantments upon Elcmar so that he will think he has only been away for one day, whereas his absence will be for nine months.  This enables the Dagda and Eithniu to have sex, and for Eithniu to bear Óengus Mac Ind Óc, “the Young Son”.  He is called that because Eithniu comments “Young is the boy that is conceived and born in a single night”.  Óengus, through his father Eochaid (the Dagda), has many connections with the manipulation of time, and this story later tells of how Óengus gains land from his father through another trick of time and space.  This episode brings us back to Eithniu, or Boann, as the land Oengus inherits is Brú na Bóinne – literally, “Boann’s Womb”.  There is a perhaps deliberate word-play here between brú, “womb”, and bruig, “territory, land”.  Indeed, it is from bruig < mrig that we get the name of Brig > Brigit.

The account of the conception and birth of Óengus Mac Ind Óc precedes the telling of “The Wooing of Étaín” because it explains why Óengus was sent in fosterage to Midir, and from there how and why Midir sends Óengus to fetch Étaín for him as a second wife.

Étaín Echraide is the daughter of Ailill, king of the north-eastern part of Ireland.  She is held to be the most beautiful girl in Ireland.  In order that Óengus may “buy” her, he is tasked to clear twelve plains, raise twelve rivers and to give her weight in gold and silver to her father.  Each of these tasks is in fact accomplished by the Dagda, each completed in a single night, recalling some of the tasks he accomplished under the kingship of Bres of the Fomoire in Cath Maige Tuired, “The Battle of Moytura”.  These again emphasise the mastery of the Dagda over the shape of the land and the passing of natural time.

When Midir brings Étaín home to Brí Leith as his wife, she kindles the jealousy of Midir’s first wife, Fuamnach (“noisy, thunderous”).  Fuamnach is skilled in magic, having been fostered by the magician (druí) Bresal.  When Étaín is seated in the middle of the house, Fuamnach strikes her with a wand of purple rowan, turning her into a pool of water.  Fuamnach then flees to her foster-father, Bresal.  The pool of water condenses in the heat of the house until it becomes a worm or caterpillar (O. Ir cruim > Mod. Ir cruimh), and then a purple fly (cuil corcrai).  In this shape, she remains with Midir, until Fúamnach returns, and calls up a magical wind to drive Étaín in her fly-shape from Midir’s house.  She is blown about Ireland and its seas for seven years – not unlike the exile of Cluinne Lir, “The Children of Lir”, to the stormy seas and lakes of Ireland.  She has a respite with Óengus Mac Ind Óc, who builds her a sun-bower, but Fuamnach blows her away again when she is discovered.

After her second exile on the wind, she alights, exhausted, on the rafter of a house in Ulster.  There, she falls into the golden beaker (airdigh óir) held by the wife of Étar, a battle-champion, and the fly is swallowed with the drink in the vessel (lestur), so that Étaín is conceived and born again as the daughter of Étar.

Étaín is reared by Étar and his queen, with fifty hand-maids.  As young ladies, they have an encounter with an Otherworld “warrior” while they bathe in the estuary of Inbir Cíchmaine.  He speaks a poem telling of Étaín’s identity, including her having healed “the King’s eye” [suil an rígh] from a well.  He goes on to prophesy the destruction that will be wreaked on her account, including the drowning of her future husband’s, Eochaid Airem’s, two horses in a river-pool.  He confirms that it is she who is called Bé Find, a name or title usually translated as “Fair Lady”.  is a term that tends to be reserved for Otherworld women, and is redolent (whether intentionally or unintentionally) of .  The names Boann and Bé F(h)ind are tantalisingly close, the former feeling like a neutralised (broadened) pronunciation of the latter. Whatever the linguistic connection between these two names, the poetic connection between Eithniu / Boann and Étaín / Bé Find is irresistable.

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Isolde Carmody