In Sleep, a retelling by Karina Tynan

c231b1f6-fb80-4fad-bee0-827d61d5bdabIntroduction : It was the evening of *Samhain. The people of Ulster were gathered at*Muirthemne for a feast, when a flock of white birds came flying over the plains. It was put to the great hero Cú Chulainn to capture them for the women of the court, to compensate for how much they were all in love with him and couldn’t have him because he was already married to Emer. The birds were in fact, the women of *Tuatha Dé Danann who had changed their shape because of Fand, a fairy woman who loved Cú Chulainn from afar. This is Fand’s account of the time she spent with him

 

It was the first thing I ever knew of pain. Washed up on the shore rejected and alone crying tears enough to fill another ocean. Manannan, King of the sea had finished with me for a hoard of sky larking girls diving and tumbling like waves.

I went home, to *Magh Mell, to my sister, *Lí Ban and my brother, *Aonghus the beautiful who gathered my sadness into their sharing hearts. I rested my grief there and after a while my heart was healed and I was glad to be back. I could dream again with my people, The Tuatha Dé Danann who wore their beauty in their smiles and I fell in love again with the man of my dreams. He was the great hero, Cú Chulainn, son of Lugh of the light. His hair was fair as if it was made of gold. His body was strong and though it was scarred, it seemed like scars enhanced him as they camouflaged the suffering hidden under his boldness. His eyes were blue as if there was a summer sky inside them and when he wore a scowl it was like a veil came down over the world and so, I was there in Magh Mell with a new beginning in my heart. I wanted that hero to come to me and to my people who were his own people too. I wanted him to come and rest from the world that was making him fight for cattle and the end of great forests. I wanted that, not only for myself because to fall in love is not just about a woman and a man; as well, it is an ideal for the power of two can change the world. And if we were together he might be a great help to Labraid of the quick sword who was the husband of Lí Ban, my sister.

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We went out to entice him Lí Ban, myself and our sisters to the plain of Muirthemne where the men of Ulster were feasting with their King, Conchubar Mac Nessa on the evening of Samhain. We sent our sisters flying over the plain as white birds to enchant the wind and lure the women of the gathering. The enchantment caused each woman to feel a desire to have a bird for herself as a pet and so it wasn’t long before Cú Chulainn was chasing them with his sling. He brought two white birds for every woman there, except for one. He had forgotten his own wife Emer and so Lí Ban and myself changed our shapes too. We were two birds linked together with a chain of gold singing a song of sleep on that day that was Samhain, where the awake and the asleep walk together. Cú Chulainn followed us and found us but by that time we had returned to our womanly shapes. When he saw us, his face took on a look of shame so he put his head against a rock. I hit him with a rod and so did my sister. We hit him over and again and it sounds like a cruel thing that we did. We hit him again and again until he was within an inch of his life and that was the inch that was his true essence and we knew that and we stopped. Then we left so that he would be found and put to bed. And the bed that he chose was in the speckled house of the soldiers of Ulster and not the bed he shared with Emer.

Cú Chulainn remained in that sleeping condition for a year where he was with his own dreams and his own terrors, where he shook and shuddered and cried tears for himself and while I waited I cried too for all that he had been through in his short life and then I loved him even more. 

At the end of that year my brother Aonghus went to where the heroes of ulster were sitting around his bed and he told them how Cú Chulainn could be cured. He told them all the good that had been in his dreams was waiting for him in Magh Mell. All our invitations were put to him then, that not only was I waiting for him in love but Labhraid of the quick sword who was the husband of Lí Ban was looking for him too. His wish was that the great Cú Chulainn would  help him in his fight against those who were coming like waves that would bury our people forever if they could. Cú Chulainn said, 

“I will go nowhere until I see Emer.” 

When Emer came she raged at all the men of Ulster for leaving him so sick for so long. She told them, if one of them had been struck down like this, Cú Chulainn would have gone to the ends of the earth to find a cure. She was right about that because all he had come to know was to fight and to protect. Then she said to her husband, 

“Get up and remember all that you have done. Stop letting yourself be taken over by the sleep of the *Sidhe.” 

After she spoke Cú Chulainn rose up into his strength again but it’s not clear to me whether it is what Emer said that cured him or the invitations that had been given to him, that was the love of the fairy in his dreams and the promise of a clean fight. So he went back again to the rock and there again was Lí Ban and she told him about the man who was looking for his help. Labhraid of the quick sword who never went into a fight unless it was the only thing left to do. She told him he would make a ritual with his sword as if he was asking the permission of every animal and every tree if he could use it. And when he went to battle his fighting was like that of a dancer the way he could make a dint in the shield of his opponent with a flick of his elbow. And still Cú Chulainn would not go because it was a woman that was asking him.

“So, will you go there on the word of a man” said Lí Ban.

And she told him her idea; to take his trusted chariot driver, Laeg Mac Riangabur with her and send him back again to tell Cú Chulainn whether it was a place he would like to go or not. And when he came back, this is what Laeg said of myself and my people: 

“Of all the places I have ever seen it is the greenest. Of all the trees I have ever seen I have never heard so many birds singing inside them, nor seen so many beautiful women in one place and as for Fand, the women who is offering you her love, I promise you that I have never seen one fairer, for it is only your own wife Emer who compares. And I have met the man who wants your help and he is just and fine and there isn’t one lie inside his eyes. I predict to you that for every day you live, you will never be sorry you went there.” 

And so he came to us and just in time because the fighting was on that very day and he joined my sister’s husband as they came like waves and rivers bursting. Senach of the crooked body, Eoghan of the river’s mouth and Eochaid Juil. They came to upset and to steal like great waves will swallow then bury all they have swallowed. But though we were lovers of peace, we were great fighters too. Our swords were forged with magic spells when they cut into our enemy’s hearts. Arrows were wrought to such a point they would go straight through the body of a man, out the other side and into the next man. But our magic was not enough to fight the waves of war coming in such force as it was that day without the greatest of all the warriors that was Cú Chulainn who I loved with all my heart.

He stayed with me for a month and it was very sweet We loved and dreamed together and everything we shared went into my heart which was a good thing for that was all the time we would ever have together in Magh Mell. 

On the day he left we set to meet a month later at the yew at the head of *Baile Strand. But on that night came Emer too among fifty women armed with green eyes and golden armour shaped around their breasts, glinting against the light of the full moon. I’ll give to it. It was a wonderful sight. Each woman held a knife but only one spoke and that was Emer. 

“Get out of my way!” she said to her husband who was sitting in front of me for my protection.  “You have lost your mind woman if you think I will do that while you are looking as ferocious as you are. What is your problem? You know I have often made love to a woman other than yourself.” 

“That was different” she said. “This time you have left me for another and it is shameful for me to say that my husband is gone and taken out of his mind and his wisdom by a woman of the Sidhe, not to mind what everyone is saying: that she is more beautiful than me.” 

“You say that Emer as if I had lost my love for you and I have not. So why can I not have my time with her and come back to you then.” 

“ Because I don’t I know that you will? You are well used to me and so I am like an old cloak to you and Fand is a fairy and new, and that is hurting me greatly.” Then he said to her,

“I never want to hurt you Emer”

It was then that I spoke because I could see the love that was between them. I could even see the colour of it. It was a grave pink speckled with cuts of earth and flecked with stars. I knew then that I must step away from their union for their sake and for my own heart and so I said,

“Emer I will go. I can see the pain I am causing.” 

Then Emer spoke again and this time in a softer tone, 

“I have been foolish. I can see you are good so we two shouldn’t be fighting. If you love him more than me, then I will go and may you be happy together.” 

And we argued for a while as to who would give him up but in the end I was the one to go. I was the new cloak to him and that is not the best one. Wisdom told me what was best. But wisdom couldn’t stop the tears that fell like diamonds from my eyes. Wisdom couldn’t stop my heart opening up outside myself so that the two wounds I carried were visible. One for myself and one for my love, who only once in his short life had time to spend with his dreams. And wisdom told me it was not only me who had lost him. My people were fading and we had been bright again for the short time he was with us. Without him we would meet the fate we couldn’t deny. The waves that were coming to take us underneath.

Copyright

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.

Photographs

by Rowland Henderson 2019

  • Samhain : The last day of October marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. It is said that it is only on that night the dead walk together.
  • Muirthemne : A Kingdom in North Leinster
  • Tuatha Dé Danann 
  • Magh Mell: The happy plain 
  • Lí Ban : Means beauty of women
  • Aonghus : God of love, youth, beauty
  • Sidhe : Mound of earth said to be the living places of the fairies
  • King Conchubar Mac Nessa : The reigning King of Ulster during the time of Cú Chulainn who was the child if his sister Dechtine and her husband Sualdamh though Cú Chulainn was also the child of the god Lugh.  
  • Lugh : God of skill, craft and the arts. His name is also connected to light.
  • Baile Strand : Near Dublin 

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