Midir and Étain is an ancient Irish myth from the mythological cycle of the myths of Ireland. It is a story about love, reincarnation and transformation. I have told it from the perspectives of the three women in the myth: Fuamnach, Étain and Meas Buachalla
I tell you this from the only place it can be told. I tell you from the night of all souls when the dead and the living relate. It is a threshold to convey. A night for fright if you stay.
The trees shake as a cold wind shivers their last leaves sentenced to rot. Tonight the dead will shimmy darkness into the hearts of the innocent. We are all here to ensure they don’t begin again without a past.
Before me is a parade of souls : A poor child maimed by tragedy. There is great suffering in it and there is Mrs Old with the stooped head almost dead, half here, half there, she will come with us tonight. And a group of children, brothers, sisters never united in life. Lost babies walking behind their mother like ducks. It is a treat to behold, almost. This one was drowned. You can see it in the greenness of the pallor, that puffiness is typical. And the happy man. There’s always one who sailed through life. Just one breath in, one out, love all around him and off he goes to ethereal pleasures never ending. He’s hardly here at all.
Many ordeals, not least, my own. I see my young self pass. Skin like porcelain, hair black as night, limbs taught, ready for flight. Sad to watch when now it is nothing much to see. Almost nothing left of me. Beheading will always speak of punishment, even here, I am condemned to be a hated conclusion.
Ah here she is, Étain, little miss enchanting whether he has a wife or not tripping along with my world so comfortably forgotten. I wonder will she become fearful, even panic, when she sees what I am now? But that will depend on which lifetime she is wearing. She has travelled far I’ll give her that. Much farther than she had when we last met, when I got rid of her for the second time. Wait, I am being cryptic, ghoulishly unclear. I will do better to tell my part in this, up, down, in, out, over and under story to you, tonight, if you can bear it. I will tell it.
I had a husband, a home. I was Queen of the (1) Sidhe dwelling called (2) Brí Leith in Éireann. I had power, magic, but alas, magic that never stretched far enough to give me my own child. My husband was Prince Midir, a judge and brother to the great (3) Daghda who is god of all that is plenty in this world. The Daghda made a son with the great river lady Boann. And since they were made of such greatness and since it was the way of the times, my husband and I were the honoured foster parents of their child that was Aonghus Óg, inspirer of love. But he was ours only until he grew old enough to become the new lord of the greatest of all the Sidhes that is (4) Brú na Bóinne. My name is Fuamnach: wife, foster mother and mistress of sorcery.
In the early days Midir and I walked on air. Our union was perfect. We had power and magic, servants, horses, gold, but none of those compared to having a child. There will be days when a man wishes to observe his gold and on the same day his wife may not wish to join him. There may be days when she wishes to observe her jewels but her husband may be observing his horses instead. But a child surpasses all the riches in the world. There was never a moment when we were not together in our love for him. When Aonghus was with us we were beautifully uprooted from self importance. We were happy to be his wings until he could fly. Our every moment was made for each other. I wanted nothing except what I already had: My Prince and our foster child who was made to be the champion of love.
Now, picture us without him. When Aonghus had grown and gone to Brú na Bóinne, the sound of Midir’s footfall changed. My own too seemed to drag until one day, as if it was thought of on the spot, Prince Midir set out on a journey to visit his foster son.
I should have gone with him. He should have asked me. We would have been rekindled as lovers. I am as sure of that now. As sure as I am that my head is severed from my body. This head that has at last found a free mouth. Free to speak to you tonight without the weightiness of breasts. Yes clear thinking is flowing freely at last.
You could say that she was wronged that hers has been a clean kind of endurance, endured without complaint. Hers, the kind of tribulation that brings pity even envy; makes her the heroine, me the villain.
Oh to be delivered from her syrup, from this collective notion that this pretty little thing could have been the wife of a prince. Not another quality, nor reason to qualify her for my royal position but stupidity and a good pout. The truth is I made the story what it is. What would it be without me? Stories need to be twisted and turned to be good.
Oh but here I am being cryptic again when I should elaborate. Yes, my side of the story, you know. The earlier version on this fateful evening for your entertainment. You could say I have been stormy, that I wreaked havoc on the innocent. It is an opinion easily reached if you look for black or white. But if you look to understand, you’ll see the colours.
The day Midhir left our Sidhe I watched him dress and fuss himself into the red silk tunic I had embroidered back in the days when leaving me behind would have been an absurd thought. I watched him tie back his golden hair with a fastener of silver and when he saw his reflection, I saw excitement grow in the grey of his eyes and I felt a breeze when he flung his green mantle over his broad shoulders, painstakingly clasping it together with gold broaches, shoulder to shoulder. Broaches that had been wrought elaborately to enhance the richness of his perfect maleness. I watched him mount his stallion to be presented with his silver and gold studded shield that he tied across the body that was once other side of my body and fasten it with a gold buckle locking me out of our union. I watched him ride away holding up the five pronged gold spear that was his emblem. It glinted with the sun as if the sun approved of his going away. I swear to you now that was the ugliest sight of my whole existence. Nothing of this night with the dead of the world spewing from the crevices of the darkest realms of ourselves, mingling with the puss and slime that we bury in the earth compares, to the horror I felt on that fateful day. I knew that he was riding into the foolish light of love that would be inspired by our foster son and I was left without a single thought. I saw it clearly written in the demeanour of my Prince and it told me he would always be a Prince. It told me he would never awaken into Kingship which was no consolation at all as I was left there to the rudeness of awakenings. Left to a fire blazing inside me and no one and nothing to put it out.
While on his visit Prince Midhir of the golden countenance lost his eye for interfering among a group group of fighting boys. And since Princes have to be perfect to stay Princes, this was no ordinary disaster. Aonghus called on the top physician, Dien Cheacht to preform his miracles and he did and the eye was replaced in its socket and all should have been well again. But Midir’s pride had taken a blow. He put all the blame on Aonghus and looked for compensation to heal the humiliating wound caused by his sojourn with imperfection.
Aonghus, who looked up to Midir, ran all over the place making it up to him, using up his favours, his magic, his gold. Midir blamed and the blame went in to Aonghus who colluded with him in the unspoken principal of never leaving an empty space in another for fear of a change in self perception. Oh spare me the Gods and their special indulgences and gratitudes used and re used like old coins.
One of Midir’s many requests to make up for his indignity was to have as his own, the best looking woman in the country. I suppose he had to prove to himself that his great sexual prowess was not lost so he could remind himself of life everlasting, the top man, virile, potent, colourful swaggering Midir and her: The one whose beauty was legendary, the one to compare beauty to and isn’t there always one of those around.
This memorising is not good for me, what’s left of me and of course there was no Dein Cheacht for me. I suppose you’ve taken it in by now: I am a talking head. You’re meeting a talking head here tonight at these crossroads between one wind and another. I was hoping she’d remember me. I thought I would stay the precious dainty little thing, frighten her, just once more, hear her pretty squeal again but unfortunately I don’t think I can even nudge her memory. I don’t like that I am nothing to her, nothing, not even to her.
How am I to think? That my severed head is a thing of beauty staked upon the ornamentals of Brí Leith? That my severed head is victory over the entitled side of a woman. The sword that cut the head from the body of Fuamnach of Brí Leith will be mounted on the great wall of ways not to die. A historical emblem to show what happens to jealous queens who get in the way of romance, of sweetness and light of syrup and sap. What a cute little piece of work she is, self serving whore who should be in the place of the sword that took my body. It should have travelled up through her legs into that pretty mouth. See, then, if she could utter an ugly word. That could be painted! No, Sculpted in white! Or would she still emit a sweet moan on a pillow scented with mint to make me go green inside. I was an otherworld queen. She invaded my reign, with her blinking and pouting and light laughter that sent ripples of rage coursing through every vein in my body making my blood boil into using the power that Midir knew I had.
Midir knew I was powerful but he brought her back to my home even so. I was to show her around, make her welcome. The time he spent at Brú na Bóinne with the newness of love had clearly softened his brain. I walked through nights to try to sate the volcano inside me. I couldn’t stop imagining the object of my love turned toward another. I was devastated, and no one cared. No one hears the jilted woman’s pain when there is sweet innocence to feast upon, pinkly blinking under a soft veil. So I changed her. I couldn’t help it. I had the power hadn’t I? I cast a spell bigger than I had ever cast. Up until then it had been newts into mice and back again, a few flowers into butterflies, Aonghus used to love that and sometimes I’d find a way to entice Midir if I wasn’t getting enough attention. That’s the best spell. The spell a woman casts over a man. So I transformed her into what she reminded me of: A pretty little buzzing fly! Except I forgot, a fly will never let you forget its presence and I never thought that he would love a fly!
“Look” he said to me “ at the rainbow colours in her wings. Listen” he said to me “to her music.”
I tried to humour him so he might forget her.
“Ah, of course you can’t hear it” he said to me “It is only made for me.”
I couldn’t stand it. Someone had to teach his sickly bouncing a lesson and so I cast her again, this time, to the four winds to be blown hither and thither for seven years. And what’s wrong with that? Haven’t we all been there? Good looks don’t save you there. But he was blown too, gravely blown by her absence. Maybe I should have waited for it to fizzle out, disfigured her, made her lame, that would have been fun, but I couldn’t wait. I was sickened by, her frilly, flapping innocence. He never looked at me again. What they had was strong. It was what we had when Aonghus had us wrapped together in his golden chains.
Time went on and eventually she fell exhausted into Aonghus’s hand. He made a tiny glass bower to capture the sun to warm her so she could rest her weary wings, recover. He called for Midir to come. But that time I got to her before he had his gold broaches fastened. I blew her away into a whole other lifetime. It cost me my head. My own foster son took up his sword and made my end.
Now, here comes the sun. I am fading in the daylight. I’m sorry I cannot stay. Am I lighter now? I don’t know. Am I angry still? Yes, I think so. I leave now feeling like a blunted sword laid down after battle, never to be used again.
* * * * *
But she will live again. She will be born again. A mortal with immortal memory. We all have that if we listen. She will fall, little fly, into a glass of wine to be drunk down into the belly of a chieftain’s wife. She will become her child. She will become the most beautiful woman in all the land, again!
Then one day as she braids her hair by a font in the garden of her home, uncloaking her mantle of purple he will see her and while he spies she will reveal a frock of green with silver fringes dancing in the breeze. And during her ablutions he will see her skin, white as alabaster, cheeks pink as the foxglove, eyes green and deep as a pool reflecting all the beauty of the world.
It was so strange. Every time he passed I could see his sickness grow. I felt guilty, as if I had caused it somehow, but I masked it well. He would stare. I would look elsewhere. What else could I do? Ailill was my husband’s brother. The king’s brother, in love with his queen! Wasting away, plain for all to see and I had a twisted feeling inside me even though I had done nothing to bring it on. I’ve always been described as a beauty. I knew the descriptions: ethereal, skin like alabaster, everyman’s dream. I used to wonder, Why is everyman dreaming of me? Does that mean every other woman is no man’s dream? What will they say when I grow old? And then I would remember that I would never grow old but I didn’t know how I knew that, so I blocked it out. I was a queen for goodness sake, a good queen to the good king, Eochaid Airem and he was a nice man, I suppose and I was born to be loyal.
Kings have duties. The time had come for him to make his parade around Éireann.
“How can you go?” I said “Your brother is so terribly ill.” but Eochaidh said
“A king must leave his heart behind so many times. You must stay. Be my heart a while.”
“Yes my Lord” I said.
“Étaín my love, do what ever it takes to find a cure for Ailill.”
“Yes my Lord” I said.
What I didn’t say was, Do you not know what you are asking me to do? Can you not see he is wasting away because it is me he is pining for? Don’t you know you’re married to every man’s dream and it’s not safe to leave me out of your sight?
Unfortunately kings horses are so high they can easily ride over the truth and Eochaid loved his brother and he dearly wished to be greeted by him, well again, on his return.
I thought, How am I to keep Ailill alive unless I become his lover. And how is it Eochaid has no clue about what is ailing him. Everyone has seen his lovesickness. It’s the gossip. No one is speaking of anything else.
He said it again,
“Do anything you can to help him my dear.”
And I was loyal and trying so hard to be the innocence that was my identity: The young queen whose past had nothing in it to show her unworthy. And indeed my past was pure except for sometimes in my dreams: There were things, a king would not approve of that molested me but I believed a dream to be a harmless thing didn’t I? Still I was perturbed and it was vile for me to think of disloyalty, like pulling my own skin away from my upstanding bones.
It wasn’t long after Eochaid had gone that Ailill confessed the only thing that would help him would be a tryst with his brother’s wife, me, his queen. But illness is not always what it seems, not straightforward like losing an eye that can be put back in, not simple like that. No, some illness’ are connected to other things, which was the case with Ailill when all was revealed.
So shaking and denying myself my life’s truth I went to meet with him over a hilltop and beyond where no one would see us. When I got there Ailill was nowhere to be seen. I stood for a while in the seclusion of the place we had chosen to meet. The night sky was clear and reflecting in the pond under a line of old oak trees beginning to thicken into forest. You could see the dents the flies were making on the pond water when they landed. I thought to myself, Flies are so light they can walk on water. I was beginning to enjoy my solitude, the breeze on my face. The moon full and smiling. It was refreshment for a queen to be alone. I relaxed and then, through the trees, I saw a man or, I thought I did. It wasn’t Ailill, nor my husband. His hair was long and golden. His suit was gold and silver. He smiled and then he was gone. I was alone again and sad, so very sad. I glided home in a dream. I removed my shoes to feel the grass between my toes. When I returned I asked a servant to check on the King’s brother. The news returned that he had just woken from a long sleep, still unwell.
Ailill asked to meet with me again saying he didn’t know what had happened. He had slept through the night having walked the floor for months tormented by dreams of me. His plea was desperate, his very life dependent, so I agreed again to put my loyalty aside if only it would cure my King’s brother. And so the next night I went to the same place and again Ailill was nowhere to be seen. And again I saw him, fair and smiling. This time I spoke to him.
“Who are you?”
No answer came. Ripples of quiet music sang through the trees. Golden leaves fell on to the pond like little boats sailing, almost dancing to a light breeze. Then he vanished leaving behind a feeling of promise, excitement like a butterfly awakening deep down in my belly.
On my return I enquired after Ailill and the same story was told and I agreed to meet with him for a third and last time because he begged on his shaking knees. In his stead stood the most beautiful man I had ever seen except for somewhere in my dreams and even though I strangely recognised him, I asked again,
“Who are you?”
“I have come from your old home that is Brí Leith where the rivers make music, where the dance to that music will awaken your soul. I am the bird inside you that sings the perfect note.”
“How could that be” I said to him, “I am a Queen and loyal to my bones.”
“Bones have no music, only the wings inside you have music.”
I insisted on my loyalty. I mean if I was not loyal, who was I? Then he told me his name, Prince Midir of the Tuatha dé Dannan.
“We had a life before. You and I were together” and he said, “If your King gives you to me will you come there where your loyal bones can rest.”
“Yes” because I knew that day would never come. I knew my husband loved the bones of me and would protect me from the tearing I felt inside. I felt sure and said to myself, He does not have the power make a fly’s dent in my loyalty. Though I will admit that he did awaken a girlish dreaming that I indulged in for a while, saying to myself, This is innocent and sure aren’t you young. The strangest thing of all was that when I returned I found Ailill well and completely cured.
Gods don’t ever give up on what they want. They are ever present and ever changing so when Midir of the golden hair came again, he came to woo the King.
Eochaid was home again and delighted to find his house completely in order after his splendid journey where he had enjoyed his subjects respect and welcome all over the country. His brother was well and I was innocent and I knew he could see that. How did I know? I don’t know how, but all was well again and that was all that mattered. Until a caller came. Eochaid opened his doors. The visitor impressed him with his stature and beauty wearing the clothes of a king from no one knew where, with a countenance that had an effect on the other, even if that other was a king. I could see my husband felt slightly knocked over by him and that lit the competitor in him. Then when they played fidchell (chess) the King won each game and every time he won he considered himself more and more the superior of his opponent. It puffed him up, I could see it. So much so, that he lost all sight of any suspicions he might have had. His head swelled up and a satisfied grin landed on his fattening face.
The first win provided King Eochaid Airem with fifty dappled horses adorned with the finest bridles lavished with precious jewels. The next wins provided him with fifty boars, fifty cattle, fifty sheep. They played on, day after day until the plains were magically cleared of rocks and stones. A causeway was built over the Bog of Tethbae. The King swelled into a pride that blackened out all suspicion.
Until their last game when Eochaidh was high on a winning frenzy beyond his wildest dreams.
The final bet: a kiss from his queen was the prize to be won or lost. And of course Eochaidh lost that one having said, Sure what harm is a kiss?
As soon as Midir had me in his arms I was transformed. As birds we flew together high up into the clouds away from my mortal existence. To Brí Leith where every memory, harsh and light came back to me in my old home I had no memory of wings until I was back in Brí Leith with Midir again, in love again but I wasn’t innocent anymore. I missed that. My old life with Eochaid niggled, my past life too. I felt your absence like a snake too quick to see, haunting me.
I gave birth to my daughter there. A beautiful girl with green eyes like Eochaidh to haunt. But Midir had been right I didn’t need my bones to hold me up in Brí Leith. I didn’t need to be so loyal with all its incongruous pain. Instead the trees held me up, music held me up, watching my daughter laugh and sing with the animals held me up, harmony held me up. So why would I need bones to stand, why would I ever leave? And she blossomed and she was beautiful and she was already wise the way children are and the worry softened and I told myself she was safe and I felt like forgetting and I nearly did and I was was nearly delivered.
Outside Eochaid Airem and his men persevered with their search for me. He was as determined as he had been foolish but each time he sacked a Sidhe, Midir would rebuild it again.
He became a thorn in the side of the Tuatha Dé Danann, constantly bringing discord to their harmony.
Until one day Midir’s voice came up from his dwelling and said to Eochaid Airem that if he could pick me from a crowd he could have me back and if he could not, that would be the end of it. Eochaid agreed and with that, forty nine woman and I emerged from the Sidhe and true to Midir’s magical style, each one of us looked identical to the eye of the mortal beholder.
Brave Eochaid was undaunted by the turn in the event. This time he kept his head. He asked each one of fifty women to pour wine. He knew how talented I was at this task and would recognise my talent. As each one of us poured. Eochaid’s head shook, “No” then again “No” until he came to the one who was like me because she is my daughter and like him because she is his daughter and he said,
“This is my love.”
Eochaid chose his own daughter as his lover while I was bound inside a spell. I could not speak to tell him it was not me. I watched him take our daughter while my whole being was bursting with a frenzy I had never felt before but I could not scream. I had never screamed. All I could do was watch his happiness as he took our girl thinking his whole world complete.
(The cowherd’s fosterling)
I was born in the Sidhe that is called Brí Leith in Éireann where every breath was a perfect note. The floor was so soft every footstep was cradled by earth. Flowers twined around trees that roofed our world evergreen. I lived there with the people of the Goddess, the Tuatha Dé Danann and though I was a mortal child I felt no different to them. It was easy for a child to be infused by their ways.
I lived there with my mother and the fine Prince Midir who had taken her (or, as he would have put it, awakened her) from her mortal life as the wife and Queen of King Eochaid Airem who was my birth father.
During my time there, rumours were all I knew of my father, a King who, it was said, had never stopped looking for his lost love: My mother. He had been stupid enough to place her into a bet to be won by another man. Midir was the other man who like my father had been looking for her for the length of a mortal lifetime.
I heard that my father had been defeated over and again, by the skill and magic of the Tuatha Dé Danann. I heard that he tirelessly sacked every Sidhe in Éireann. Until one day, tired of the constant defending, Midir of Brí Leith decided to treat with the King as they had done before.
In truth I didn’t look much like her. I was young and underdeveloped. My mother and I were paraded with forty eight other women under a spell that had us all looking the same.
“If you know her all that well you can pick her from a crowd.”
The King said,
“I would know my Queen anywhere”
I had heard the stories and even I, a mere girl wondered how was it that my father hadn’t learned his lesson. Surely he knew that Midir would always win. I suppose he didn’t do badly taking into account that we looked exactly the same. Apparently I have her pour and so I was chosen. Eochaidh thought I was my mother and he was convinced by his joy and he never wanted to be parted from it again.
I had no idea what was happening. I looked like a woman because of the spell when in fact I was not nearly a woman, pouring wine when I had never poured a drop before that day. Then taken, away from the world I knew in a King’s carriage and the King was my father.
After many arduous miles I was taken to his bed. And he had strangeness in his eyes, a blindness I would like to call it for I was just a girl when he lay with me. I had no breasts to speak of nor even a shape, but he saw nothing until he had taken his pleasure, when I was lying there crying, bleeding, bruised and bewildered.
It wasn’t until then that he woke up to me, to ask me who I was and when I told him I was Étaín’s child, he asked my age and I saw his horror grew into monstrosity. But he was a King and he had the wherewithal to have his dirty deeds done for him. He beat me in horror. He thrashed me to the floor revealing his disgust at himself. Then he called a young soldier to take me out of his sight forever, to kill me as fast as was possible for his impulse was to bury his revulsion so that it would stop there for him. He never looked for my mother again. Blindness isn’t only for the blind. I learned that so very early in my life.
The soldier didn’t say much. He caught my by my collar until we were out of sight, then his voice softened. He was young and unable to kill in cold blood so he took me to his mother and father. Cowherds they were, living out past the edge of the oak forest. They were terrified at the prospect of killing me and they were terrified at the prospect of not killing me. But they chose the latter because they were good. It was a lowly replacement for Brí Leith but good people can make up for many ills. They called me Meas Buachalla, the cowherds fosterling. I don’t remember my name before that.
They had a pen, warm with plenty of straw. They gave it to me for shelter, boarded it up so that it had no doors but they left a part of the roof open to the sky. They would climb up to me to give me food so I could grow and though they never meant to, they gave me more than life and food and cloths. They gave me four walls that acted like an unyielding mother. My mother had wanted the stars in the sky for me and they gave me the stars in the sky and the sky mattered while I was fostered there in the mud of a cattle pen.
Imagine it, who has it? Imprisoned by kindness yet cast to the mud and the rat and the slug slime that made the walls slide and the sun and the stars and the moon. Storms some days then days when the world became still and drying. Days when it froze, days when the ice melted and rained enough water to wash my hair. They gave me clothes but sometimes I didn’t wear them because the rain would trickle down my naked body and I would see drops travel over me like teardrops falling for me letting me see my sadness, allowing me to wear it. And when the world grew cold I was given cow skins stitched together. They gave me reeds to tie them. I had plenty of food but no words. They never spoke to me for fear their voices would travel on the wind.
Cow skin kept me warm at night and on those nights when I was warmed enough to stop shivering, I could forget myself and be with the heavens and after a while, heaven entered me, filled me inside with its splendour. On those nights I never slept, yet, the next day I would be as rested as a baby with a full belly lying on a soft breast awoken with birdsong. Birds were fearful of me at first until I courted them. Then they would land on my hand and when that happened it was as if I belonged to them. In that cow pen I matured. I became a woman. I bled under the moon and I saw my mother’s smile in her face. The slime and the mud changed me and the seasons gave me a shape. I lived there long enough for the heavens to fill me up. My cow pen home acted like a kind bridle on a wild horse. It taught me that no matter what the circumstance, a soul can be big as if you had flown over the whole world on a birds back. I discovered the worth of being held tightly without interruption to meet all that is wild in me.
Then one night he came to end my time there. I had never seen such an expanse of wing lighting the night brighter than the stars. What kind of bird was it I wondered. I was entranced until he changed his shape to become a man. That night I was to marry the heavens. I had been seen by the stars and everything that flew. That night I was to be taken again, in pain again, chosen again, pain again, why pain again. I never knew why it had to be pain for me for if he had asked me, Would I like to become the mother of a King who would never kill a bird, a King who would walk naked to Tara to claim his rightful throne, I would have said, Yes.
The retellings on this site (though true to the myths them selves) are my own work and copyrighted to me so please ask before using elsewhere.
Paintings by Kathy Tynan
- A Sidhe is an earthen mound known to be the dwelling place of the people of the Goddess Danu called the Tuatha de Dannann.
- Brí Leith is a Sidhe situated on Slieve Glory, near Ardagh, Co Longford
- Daghda Irish god of plenty. He had a huge cauldron that was never empty and was known to be one of the four gifts the Tuatha dé Danann brought to Ireland.