The Loves Of The Gods

LIKE the gods of Greece and India, the deities of the Celts had many love adventures, and the stories concerning these generally have a romantic aspect. An early tale of this class records that one night, as Oengus slept, he saw a beautiful maiden by his bed-side. He would have caught hold of her, but she vanished, and until next night he was restless and ill. Again she appeared, singing and playing on a cymbal, and so it continued for a year till Oengus was sick of love. Fergne, a cunning leech, diagnosed the cause of his patient's illness and bade Boann, Oengus's mother, search all Ireland for the maiden, but though she sought during a whole year, the girl could not be found. Fergne therefore bade Boann summon Dagda, Oengus's father, and he advised him to ask the help of Bodb, King of the side of Munster, famed for knowledge. Bodb discovered the maiden, and Oengus set out to see whether he could recognize her. By the sea they found many girls, linked two and two by silver chains; and one, taller than the rest, was the maiden of the vision, Caer, daughter of Ethal of sid Uaman. Dagda, advised by Bodb, sought help from Ailill and Medb, King and Queen of Connaught — another instance of mortals aiding gods; but Ethal refused Ailill's request to give up Caer, whereupon Dagda's army with Ailill's forces destroyed his sid and took him prisoner. Still he refused, because he had no power over his daughter, for every second year she and her maidens took the form of birds at Loch Bel Draccan (the "Lake of the Dragons' Mouths"); and thither Dagda bade Oengus go. At this loch, says incidental refer-

ence to the story, the maidens were wont to remain all the year of their transformation, Caer as the most lovely of all birds, wearing a golden necklace, from which hung an hundred and fifty chains, each with a golden ball.1 When Oengus saw the birds, he called to Caer. "Who calls me?" she cried. "It is Oengus that calls thee; come to him that he may bathe with thee." The bird-maiden came, and Oengus also took the form of a bird. Together they plunged three times in the lake, and then flew to Brug na Boinne, singing so sweetly that everyone fell asleep for three days and nights. Caer now became Oen-gus's wife.2

In this story the god Bodb is famed for knowledge, and in the incidental reference cited he is said for a whole year to have kept off by his magic power the harper Cliach, who sought his daughter's hand.3 Possibly the shape-shifting of Caer and her maidens was the result of a curse or spell, as in other instances, unless — being goddesses — the power was in their own hands. The myth uses the folk-tale formula of the Swan-Maiden, though its main incident is lacking, viz. her capture by obtaining the bird-dress, which she has doffed.

In the story of Oengus's disinheriting Elcmar, he later appears as a suitor for Etain, daughter of Ailill, who refused her to him; but Midir was more successful, whence there was enmity between him and Oengus. The long tale which follows is extant in several manuscripts and is here pieced together mainly from the versions in the Egerton Manuscript and the Leabhar na hUidre. Besides Etain, Midir had another consort, Fuamnach, who was jealous of her. With the help of a Druid's spells and by her own sorceries she changed Etain into an insect and by a magic wind blew her about for seven years; but Oengus found her in this state and made for her a grianan, or bower filled with shrubs and flowers, on which she fed and thrived. Perhaps by night she was able to resume her true form, for Oengus slept with her; and when Fuamnach heard of this, she caused Midir to send for Oengus, so that a recon-

ciliation might be effected. Meanwhile, however, Fuamnach went to the grianan and again by a magic wind ejected Etain, who was blown upon the breeze until she fell through the roof of Etair's house into his wife's golden cup. She swallowed the insect and later gave birth to the divinity as an infant called Etain, who, more than a thousand years before, had been born as a goddess. When she now grew up, as she and her maidens were bathing, a warrior appeared, singing about Etain, and then vanished, this being Midir, or possibly Oengus, who had discovered Fuamnach's treachery and struck off her head. Here, however, is interpolated a verse telling how not Oengus but Manannan slew or burned her, as well as her grandson, Siugmall.4

The next section of the story exists in two forms and relates how Etain was married by Eochaid Airem, King of Ireland. His brother, Ailill Anglonnach, fell in love with her, and when at last he disclosed this to Etain, she, after much persuasion, arranged a meeting-place with him. At the appointed time however, Ailill did not come, being hindered by sleep; but one in his likeness appeared to Etain on successive occasions and at last announced himself to be Midir, who had thus dealt with Ailill, and told her how she was his consort, parted from him by magic. Nevertheless, she refused to go with him; but when she told Ailill, he was cured of his love. The Egerton version then relates how Midir, appearing in hideous form, carried off Etain and her handmaid Crochan to his sid of Bri Leith, near the rising of the sun, first staying on the way at the sid of his divine relative Sinech; and when Crochan complained of wasting time there, Midir said that this sid would now bear her name.

In the version given by the Leabhar nahUidre the incident of Midir's disclosing himself is more mythical in character. He invited Etain to the gods' land, "the Great Plain," or Mag Mor — a marvellous land, wherein is music. Its people are graceful, and nothing is called "mine" or "thine." The plains of Ireland are fair, but fairer is this plain, its ale more intoxicating than that of Erin! There is choice of mead and wine, and conception is without sin or crime (hence Segda in the story of Becuma was "son of a sinless couple"). Its people are invisible: they*see but are not seen, and none ever grows old. The magic food of the gods' land will be Etain's — un-salted pork,( new milk, and mead. Midir now met Eochaid and proposed a game of chess with him, allowing him to win, whereupon Eochaid demanded that Midir and his folk should perform four tasks — clear the plains of Meath, remove rushes, cut down the forest of Breag, and build a causeway across the moor of Lamrach. In the Dindsenchas, a topographical treatise, these tasks are an eric, or fine, on Midir for taking Eochaid's wife, and in performing them the divine folk taught a new custom to the men of Erin, viz. placing the yoke over the oxen's shoulders instead of on their foreheads, whence Eochaid's cognomen, Airem ("Ploughman").5 In a second game Midir won and asked that he might hold Etain and kiss her. Eochaid would not consent until a month had passed, and then Midir arrived in splendour for his reward, surrounded by armies. Etain blushed when she heard his demand, but he reminded her that by no will of hers had he won her. "Take me then," said she, "if Eochaid is willing to give me up." "For that I am not willing," cried Eochaid, "but he may cast his arms around thee." So Midir took her and then rose with her through the roof, and the assembly saw the pair as two swans winging their way to the jid.

The Egerton version ends by telling, how through the divination of a Druid, Eochaid discovered Midir's sid, destroyed it, and recovered Etain. The version in the Leabhar na hUidre is defective after narrating how Eochaid and his men dug up several sid one after another; but the Dindsenchas relates that Ess, Etain's*daughter, brought tribute of cattle and was fostered by Midir for nine years, during which Eochaid besieged the sid, thwarted by his power. Midir brought out sixty women in Etain's form, among them Ess, Eochaid's daughter; but Eochaid mistook her for Etain and by her had a daughter Mess Buachalla, mother of Conaire. Recognizing his mistake, he went to Midir, who restored Etain to him; and in revenge Siugmall, Midir's grandson, afterwards killed Eochaid.6

Although folk-tale formulae are found in this story, it is based on myths of divine love and magic power and of a goddess's rebirth as a mortal. Midir's poetic description of the gods' land is archaic and may only later have been connected with the underground sid. Curious, too, is the idea, which we have noted above, of the subjection of gods to mortals — performing tasks and permitting their abode to be spoiled or a consort taken from them — but it may reflect the belief in magic power to which even divinities must yield. Nevertheless, the deities get their own back: Etain's recapture is preceded by the incest incident; Midir is slain; and his descendant, Conaire, dies because the god causes him to break his tabus, as already described.

The story of the birth of the hero Cúchulainn is based on the love of a god, Lug, for a mortal, Dechtere, sister of Concho-bar, King of Ulster. It is told in two versions, one found in two recensions, the Leabhar na hUidre and the Egerton Manuscript; the other is also given in the Egerton Manuscript. We follow the latter (c), noting the chief points of difference between it and the others (a and b). Dechtere, with fifty maidens, left Conchobar's house for three years, at last returning in the form of birds which devoured everything, so that Conchobar organized a hunt which continued unsuccessfully till nightfall. The other version begins with the devastation wrought by nine flocks of mysterious birds, joined two and two by silver chains, the leading pair in each group being many-coloured; but these birds are not Dechtere and her companions, for she accompanies Conchobar in his chariot on the hunt. The next incident is obscurely told in version c, but comparing it with the other, it is evident that the hunters en-

tered a small house where were a man and a woman, and that it was suddenly enlarged, beautified, and filled with all desirable things, for it was one of the gods' magic dwellings, which they could produce on earth by glamour. The man was Lug, the woman Dechtere, though this was known only to Bricriu. Conchobar believed that they were his vassals and demanded his right of sleeping with the woman, who escaped by saying she was enceinte; and in the morning an infant was discovered, the child of Dechtere by Lug, though it had the appearance of Conchobar. The child was called Setanta, but afterward was known as Cuchulainn.

In version b the host told his guests that his wife was in childbed. Dechtere assisted her and took the child to foster him; and at the same time the host's mare gave birth to two foals — a common folk-tale coincidence. In the morning all had vanished, and Conchobar's party returned home with the child, which died soon after. When the funeral was over, Dechtere in drinking swallowed a mysterious tiny animal, and that night Lug appeared, telling her that she was with child by him, for it was he who had carried her off with her companions as birds — an incident lacking in this version. His was the child whom she had fostered, and now he himself had entered her as the little animal. Her child, when born, would be called Setanta. Here Setanta is at once Lug's son and his rebirth; but the two ideas are not exclusive if we take into account ancient ideas. In early Indian belief the father became an embryo and was reincarnated in his first-born son, whence funeral rites were performed for the father in the fifth month of pregnancy, and he was remarried after the birth.7 Probably for a similar reason, preserved in Celtic myth after it was no longer believed of mortals, a god who had a child by a mortal was thought to be reborn while still existing separately himself; and this explains why the Ulstermen sought a wife for Cuchulainn so that "his rebirth might be of himself." In various texts Cuchulainn is called son of Lug.

When Dechtere was found to be with child, it was thought that Conchobar himself was the father, for she slept by him — a glimpse of primitive manners in early Ireland. Elsewhere Cuchulainn calls Conchobar his father,8 and this may represent another form of the story, with Conchobar as Cuchulainn's parent by his sister Dechtere. Dechtere was meanwhile affianced to Sualtam, but ashamed of her condition, she vomited up the animal and again became a virgin; yet the child whom she bore to Sualtam was the offspring of the three years' absence — Setanta or Cuchulainn. On the whole this is a much distorted myth, but two things emerge from it — Lug's amour with Dechtere and his fatherhood of Setanta.9

Another tale, with Christian interpolations, tells how Connla, son of Conn, who reigned from 122 to 157 a. d., one day saw a strange woman who announced that she was from Tir na mBeo ("the Land of the Living"), where was no death, but perpetual feasting, and her people dwelt in a great sid, whence they were called aes side, or "people of the sid." The goddess was invisible to all but Connla, whence Conn asked him with whom he spoke, to which she replied that she was one who looked for neither death nor old age and that she loved Connla and desired him to come to Mag Mell ("the Pleasant Plain"), where reigned a victorious king. Conn bade his Druid use powerful magic against her and her brichta ban, or "spells of women," against which at a later time St. Patrick made his prayer. The Druid pronounced an incantation to hinder Connla from seeing, and all others from hearing, the goddess, who withdrew after giving an apple to Connla. He would eat nothing but this, nor did it ever grow less; and in a month the love-lorn Connla saw her reappear in a boat of glass, calling him to come, for "the ever-living ones" invited him, so that he might escape death. Conn again called his Druid, whereupon the goddess sang that the Druids would soon pass away before a righteous one, St. Patrick — a Christian interpolation, post eventum; and Conn then spoke to his son, but the goddess sang that once on the waves Connla's grief at leaving his friends would be forgotten, and the land of joy would soon be reached, where there were none but women. Connla sprang into the boat, which sped across the sea into the unknown, whence he has never returned.10 In this tale the land of women is obviously but a part of the divine land, since that is ruled by a king; and there is also confusion between the idea of an overseas region of the immortals — Mag Mell — and that of the subterranean sid. Connla's adventure is mentioned in the Coir Anmann, or Fitness of Names, where another account is given, viz. that he was slain by enemies.11 A parallel myth, perhaps of Celtic origin, is found in one of the Lais of Marie de France concerning the knight Lanval, with whom a fairy fell in love. When she declared herself, he sprang on horseback behind her and went away to Avalon, a beautiful island, the Elysium of the Brythonic Celts.12

The Land of Ever-Living Women recurs in some tales of the imm-rama, or romantic voyage, type, e. g. in The Voyage of Maelduin, an old pagan story reconstructed in Christian times. Maelduin and his companions went on a quest for his father's murderers and met with the strangest adventures, one of which describes their arrival at an island where they saw seventeen girls preparing a bath. A warrior appeared who, on bathing, proved to be a woman and sent one of the girls to bid the men enter her house. There a splendid repast was given them, and the woman, Queen of the isle, desired each to take the girl who best pleased him, reserving herself for Maelduin. In the morning she begged all to remain. Their age would not increase; they would be immortal; and perpetual feasting and excessive love without toil would be theirs. She had been wife of the King of the island, the girls were her daughters, and now she reigned alone, so that she must leave them each day to judge cases for the people of the isle. The voyagers remained three months, when all but Maelduin grew home-sick; yet he consented to go with them, and all entered their boat in the Queen's absence. Suddenly she appeared and threw out a rope which Maelduin seized, with the result that they were drawn back to the shore, where they remained three months longer, escaping then once more. This time one of Maelduin's men caught the rope thrown by the Queen, but the others severed his hand, and seeing this, she wept bitterly at their going.13 These women were not mortals but goddesses, eager for the love of men.

Another myth tells of a goddess's love for Cuchulainn. A flock of beautiful birds appeared in Ulster, and caused all the women to long for them. Cuchulainn, in distributing his catch among them, omitted his mistress Ethne, and to appease her he promised that the two most beautiful birds which next appeared would be hers. Soon after, two birds linked together flew over the lake, singing a song which made everyone but Cuchulainn sleep. He pursued, but failing to catch them, he rested, angry in soul, against a stone, and while sleeping saw two women approaching, one in a green mantle, and the other in a purple, each armed with a horse-whip with which they attacked him. When he was all but dead, his friends found him, and on his awaking, he remained ill for a year. Then appeared a stranger who sang of the healing which could be given him by Aed Abrat's daughters, Liban and Fand, wife of Manannan. Fand desired his love, would he but come to her wondrous land; and had he been her friend, none of the things seen by him in vision would have happened. The stranger, Oengus, son of Aed Abrat, disappeared, and after the Ulster-men had persuaded Cuchulainn to tell his vision, he was advised to return to the pillar-stone. There he found Liban, who told him that Manannan had abandoned Fand, and she brought him a message from her own husband, Labraid, that he would give him Fand in return for one day's service against his enemies.14 Labraid dwelt in Mag Mell, and there Cuchulainn would recover his strength; but the hero desired his charioteer Loeg first to go and report upon this land.

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  • Constance Alexander
    Is MAELDUIN'S VOYAGE a celtic myth?
    8 years ago

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