During the reign of King Cormac Mac Airt the rivers of Ireland flowed with fish, the land yielded large amounts of fruit and crops. The cows were fat, milk was plentiful and peace reigned.
This story tells of the birth and early life of Cormac son of Airt; where his mother Achtan, the daughter of a Druid protected his future from the many perils that might have been the death of him.
Wolves Horses And A Small King
There are some that are possible to love before they are known. That was the case with him. His smile creased his eyes. His hair captured pieces of the sun the way the sea does when the wind blows it into ripples. His bones, his muscles, his veins made his clothing seem trivial. He was a King. But he was a King who walked the earth knowing his time here was only a part of his spirit’s life. And he walked it truly, with wisdom and sacrifice. He knew that gain for his people often meant loss for himself. He knew he would use his sword with his governing; that was the way then. And then, like now, the great design was at work.
My village had its own druid. On the outskirts of the village we had a sacred grove surrounded by trees. It was a place for communion with the other world. Airt had come to our grove to find a way through his plight. It was from his time spent there that he came to know what his destiny would be; he would meet with his enemy, Lughaidh mac Con whose sword he would die upon at the battle of Magh Mucramha. He knew this because he could go into himself in a way that included the patterns around him, he listened for the voices of the earth and the heavens to tell him.
I am a druid’s child. That day I would have been teaching. We would never have met but for the sick mare I took to the grove. On a fine summer day such as it was I would have been teaching the children how to dream with the bees. If we dream with a creature we will never fear it. So we will never try to kill it unless in sacrifice to bring better to the rest. But that day my own brood mare had singled me out from my daily practices and led me to Airt in the grove. That is the way of the harmony that lives beyond us. That day I walked into the sacred grove led by a sick creature as Airt was harrowing his plight. And along with my presence came his answer and his doubt was blotted out the way the trees can hide the sun to show what lies in the shade.
It was not a love of possession. We didn’t need to conquer each other with games, to possess with fear of loss. It was simply that I knew him. I knew him in the sacred grove like I know the morning. I welcomed him with the song of morning and the goddess breathed into my soul as he entered me with his seed. And with us the dolmen screamed and the sun pirouetted. And later, when we parted we knew we had completed for ourselves a sacred day. And by that evening even the moon hung her jaw at the splendour of our ending.
Airt gave me more than a child. He gave me a king to carry and he placed the destiny of his people in my heart. He gave me a ring for Cormac, which I knew would be the symbol of his identity and a sword, a king’s sword. And as he rode away from me I saw that he would die and I knew the world would go wrong for a time.
The druids chanted as I gave birth to our son. They laboured with me calling on the goddess with prayer as he was taken from my body and brought into his destiny. A blue moon shone and through a still night a boom of thunder unsettled the world. The birds awoke, the hedges rustled with life and the wolves howled as he suckled his first milk while my father began the weaving of circles; protections for a king so small and vulnerable in such a crooked world.
The grove was alight. A fire had been lit in a circle around Cormac son of Airt with his father’s ring of identity on his little belly as he underwent five spells of protection. The first one was a safety spell from burning. Smoke from the circle of fire blotted out the night sky making the grove the brightest star of the evening. Inside the circle wet rowan branches were placed around the baby while he was washed with water from our sacred spring. The druids who had come from other villages, even some from other provinces stood in a circle inside the fire chanting, weaving safety for Cormac Mac Airt against ever burning.
Then a circle of crones from the village came from the outside. They circled in a dance stamping out the fire with their steps before taking their places in the circle. Their wise presences would protect Cormac from sorcery. Women able to withstand the curses of evil chanted their protection as a bigger circle surrounded them; masked evil shouted slander and curses but the old hags were unmoved because right down inside them they were connected to the goddess, needing little for life but earth itself.
Later a circle of blunt swords surrounded him while his sword and the staff of his grandfather crossed his cradle to protect him from wounding as a song of peace was sung to the goddess assuring her that this was a king to walk in harmony with the natural world if she would in turn protect his life.
The druid put a newt to his tongue and his ears till he wailed with the pinch of its bite. Then the newt was stabbed and tied to a staff of ash. The druid wove it in circles over Cormac splashing the blood around him to protect him from ever drowning. And a final spell; protection from wolves, where a human sacrifice was made to appease them; she was old and ready, privileged to go to the otherworld in offering for a young king. A circlet was made for the child containing her hair mingled with the hair of a wolf. For protection from wolves he would carry their scent every day of his life.
I brought my baby everywhere so he could be near my breast. When I tended bees he was with me. When I gathered herbs he was with me. When I milked cows he was with me. When I rode my faithful mare he was with me. I knew I could bring him everywhere. He would have no fear if I had none. I knew that I could teach him my ways without ever having to give him a lesson. I would show him how to walk the earth if I walked it well.
One very fine day I took him to the sacred grove. I had work to do. There had been a ritual of prayer the day before to stop the honey from crystallising in the combs. The fluidity of honey was important for the making of mead and the bees were my business. I left Cormac down in the centre of the grove. I thought he would delight in the patterns the tree tops were making against the sun. I left a maid to watch. I should have left my horse to watch. I cleaned the alter and when I returned my maid was fast asleep in the sun and my baby was gone.
Think of a savage beast cornered that has no option but to kill. Think of a wailing wraith that will never know heaven. Think of a snake full of hatred for the man standing on his tail. Think of meeting all of these at once. That is what I met in myself without my son. I ranted, I screamed, I threatened, I pounded but nothing was of any use. I ran, I shook, I raged, I prayed. He was stolen from me. I ran for nights. I ran myself into exhaustion. I had no thought for myself. My well being did not matter. Only my son mattered and if he were not a King at all, he was already one to me. But the wolves had heard his name and though my father gave his own hound in sacrifice, nothing brought him back. To be separated from my baby with his milk going sour in my breasts was the worst cruelty I have ever suffered but I never gave up hope because the trees knew he was alive and I heard him on the wind.
Ranting painful time passed.
Until he was found by a trapper called Luighne who knew the forest. Luighne was so quiet he could pass through it like a ghost. His feet were light as a being from the other world. I think he was one of them, surviving among the trees. He came upon a large cavern within a very old oak tree in a nearby forest and there playing with a litter of wolf pups was my little Cormac. Were the protections a mistake. Had the scent protected him but also included him in their circle. Would he be challenged by all of his protections or is it simply that the animals had claimed him as their king too.
Luighne brought him back but everything had changed. I had been jolted out of the luxury of mere mothering. I had to think for a King. My child was prey. The wolves had indeed protected him. They had protected him from my illusions; that all would be well for him as he grew in the land of the king that had usurped his father. That he would be raised on the milk and honey of my world.
I had to leave there. I had to leave my life. I knew that Art’s foster father Fiachna Casán lived in Ulster. We would be safe there but only if no one knew where we had gone. There could be no stately journey for this little King as he passed through the provinces. There were too many dangers. I knew that. I had seen it and not just from the slaying of the father of my child. I had seen it in abundance; oppositeness is if duality could rule. As if options were not countless. As if magic did not exist, men fought duals. I had seen their lust for possessions and power. I had to let that in. My baby was in danger the wolves had told me.
I set out for the completion of my part. I knew how to walk the earth sacredly as her guest. I knew the songs of welcome for the morning and the dirge for the end of every sacred day of life. I knew how to make decisions; not for myself but for my great grandchildren as my well ran deep and I had the sun in my heart. But I did not know how I would walk through the forests of Ireland with an infant child. I had to trust in myself.
I brought with me the sword and the ring, a small bag of skins and soft cloth to keep my child warm and my senses as acute as they were. I could not take my horse. A woman with a small child on a horse would be too easily seen. I would have to creep through Ireland with my little King in a sling.
A forest is not a wasteland. It is rich with life of every kind but as I walked the oak woods of middle Ireland there was such a wasteland in my heart that the tree trunks might have been marble pillars and each leaf a piece of ice. I had left my warm life behind. The children I taught. My mother and father, people I loved, animals I loved, plants, flowers I was waiting to see dancing under the summer sun. I froze lest I felt the losses and I froze too so that I would not feel the losses of my loved ones. My father would take it silently. I knew that he would trust my wisdom but he would suffer alone because of his position, not even my mother would be able to reach him. I knew that. I was leaving my life behind to be a wet nurse to a future King. I knew when I went to the province of war that my child would be protected but I would not. Oh I would be protected by their ramparts but not with music, not with poetry, with flowers, not with mead and oak wine, not with prayers to the sun, not by my own father, my own mother, my own belonging.
I walked for days. I travelled on. I crept for nights. I slept in crevices and cracks. I barely touched the earth for fear of waking the wolves. I held back my song, I held back my lament.
It was by the shores of Lough Ree that I found myself beaten. We had emerged from a long forest walk, four days in all. I had slept little. Cormac had slept at my breast when he needed to. He was getting heavier and stronger by the day and my strength was waning. Then, on the edge of the lake with neither a way across nor back that seemed reasonable I fell into lament. My child was as energetic as ever when all mine was spent and I had a lake to cross. I wondered why I ever thought I could do this. I, who had always had the support of a mother, a father, a whole community. Now I was at the mercy of every danger nature could provide. I had walked the earth in its glory within a pattern and I found myself outside it with nothing but my wits and waning physical strength to rely on. My legs were tired and wounded and stung. I was lost. This could be any lake. How was I to know where I was. A voice inside my head said, get to the other side. I didn’t know if I could trust it. I could have been mad with tiredness. I had seen if before; fellows coming home overcome by the cold or the viciousness of battle not knowing their own mind. Get to the other side, with flies buzzing around my head, landing on my child. I wanted to scream at flies as if a scream would change anything, me who could dream with bees. I had never known such tiredness. I needed sleep but that was not a luxury I could give to myself with a spirited toddler playing beside a lake. I continued as doggedly as I have done many a time since. And there were no magic boats, there were no golden bridges, no gods with magical winds, only two tired sore feet to carry a little King around the lake through flies and reeds lashing at my legs and the lament for everything I was leaving for the greater good, of what? I was never less sure.
I got to the other side. It was night again and the new scene was empty of water and trees. I made my way to a hilltop. The moon lit the scene. I fell right there on the spot with exhaustion. And with no other shelter except for herself above and the warmth of my sleeping child at my breast I slept under her and I think she heated me. The moon mothered me for the night. And when I awoke with the dawn I was replenished.
But as morning came so did those who had claimed him before. Surrounding us, closing in on us was a large pack of red furred wolves. Menacing, threateningly slow, creeping, heads low, eyes holding their stare, fangs baring. They would kill me to have him back. I knew this. To them he was wolf and I was not. The sun was rising. I looked to the sun. All I had was the sun. I heard my father say you never have nothing when you have yourself. I began to pray at the top of the hill. I put my heart in my hands. I put my child in my hands. I raised them up over my head and prayed for wings. Wishing for feathers to take me, fragile feathers might be blown away. I might be blown away. Some bird might take my heart and my child and leave the rest of me. I didn’t mind so long as he had my heart. They approached still, slowly. Would they charge? I stopped the thought and prayed instead for wings. Wishing to be a bird woman but they remained. A red wave of wolf was all around me promising themselves my flesh and my blood.
Until I heard it; faint at first, then rolling, like thunder. The earth was shaking from the outside in. They circled the wolves. Horses. Where had so many horses come from?
White, rowan, dun, black, bay manes blowing, making them like waves and it was deafening. The morning had answered my prayer but not with wings. Nature had her own design. The wolves began to depart. The scene was incredible. Horses circled the hill spiralling their way to us as the wolves tore away graceless, confused by the spectacle, the noise under and over them thundering. Growls turned to whimpers. Tails turned under. Their menacing approach changed into a submissive retreat until we were surrounded again but this time with protection, kingly protection at last. The horses would bring us to Ulster.