Once upon a time there was a High King of the Milesian race in Ireland named Eochy Airem, whose power and splendour were very great, and all the sub-Kings, namely, Conor of Ulster, and Mesgedra of Leinster, and Curoi of Munster, and Ailill and Maev of Connacht, were obedient to him. But he was without a wife; and for this reason the sub-Kings and Princes of Ireland would not come to his festivals at Tara, ‘For,’ said they, ‘there is no noble in Ireland who is a wifeless man, and a King is no king without a queen.’ And they would not bring their own wives to Tara without a queen there to welcome them, nor would they come themselves and leave their womenfolk at home.
So Eochy bade search be made through all the boundaries of Ireland for a maiden meet to be wife of the High King. And in time his messengers came back and said that they had found in Ulster, by the Bay of Cichmany, the fairest and most accomplished maiden in Ireland, and her name was Etain, daughter of Etar, lord of the territory called Echrad. So Eochy, when he had heard their report, went forth to woo the maiden.
When he drew near his journey’s end he passed by a certain spring of pure water where it chanced that Etain and her maids had come down that she might wash her hair. She held in her hand a comb of silver inlaid with gold, and before her was a bason of silver chased with figures of birds, and around the rim of it red carbuncles were set. Her mantle was purple with a fringe of silver, and it was fastened with a broad golden brooch. She wore also a tunic of green silk, stiff with embroidery of gold that glittered in the sun. Her hair before she loosed it was done in two mighty tresses, yellow like the flower of the waterflag, each tress being plaited in four strands, and at the end of each strand a little golden ball. When she laid aside her mantle her arms came through the armholes of her tunic, white as the snow of a single night, and her cheeks were ruddy as the foxglove. Even and small were her teeth, as if a shower of pearls had fallen in her mouth. Her eyes were hyacinth-blue, her lips scarlet as the rowan-berry, her shoulders round and white, her fingers were long and her nails smooth and pink. Her feet also were slim, and white as sea-foam. The radiance of the moon was in her face, pride in her brows, the light of wooing in her eyes. Of her it was said that there was no beauty among women compared with Etain’s beauty, no sweetness compared with the sweetness of Etain.
When the King saw her his heart burned with love for her, and when he had speech with her he besought her to be his bride. And she consented to that, and said, ‘Many have wooed me, O King, but I would none of them, for since I was a little child I have loved thee, for the high tales that I heard of thee and of thy glory.’ And Eochy said, ‘Thine alone will I be if thou wilt have me.’ So the King paid a great bride-price for her, and bore her away to Tara, and there they were wedded, and all men welcomed and honoured the Queen. Nor had she dwelt long in Tara before the enchantment of her beauty and her grace had worked upon the hearts of all about her, so that the man to whom she spoke grew pale at the womanly sweetness of her voice, and felt himself a king for that day. All fair things and bright she loved, such as racing steeds and shining raiment, and the sight of Eochy’s warriors with their silken banners and shields decorated with rich ornament in red and blue. And she would have all about her happy and joyous, and she gave freely of her treasure, and of her smiles and loving words, if she might see the light of joy on the faces of men, but from pain or sadness that might not be cured she would turn away. In one thing only was sadness endurable to her and that was in her music, for when she sang or touched the harp all hearts were pierced with longing for they knew not what, and all eyes shed tears save hers alone, who looked as though she beheld, far from earth, some land more fair than words of man can tell; and all the wonder of that land and all its immeasurable distance were in her song.
Now Eochy the King had a brother whose name was Ailill Anglounach, or Ailill of the Single Stain, for one dark spot only was on his life, and it is of this that the story now shall tell. One day, when he had come from his own Dún to the yearly Assembly in the great Hall of Tara, he ate not at the banquet but gazed as it were at something afar off, and his wife said to him, ‘Why dost thou gaze so, Ailill; so do men look who are smitten with love?’ Ailill was wroth with himself and turned his eyes away, but he said nothing, for that on which he gazed was the face of Etain.
After that Assembly was over Ailill knew that the torment of love had seized him for his brother’s wife, and he was sorely shamed and wrathful, and the secret strife in his mind between his honour and the fierce and pitiless love that possessed him brought him into a sore sickness. And he went home to his Dún in Tethba and there lay ill for a year. Then Eochy the King went to see him, and came near him and laid his hand on his breast, and Ailill heaved a bitter sigh. Eochy asked, ‘Why art thou not better of this sickness, how goes it with thee now?’ ‘By my word,’ said Ailill, ‘no better, but worse each day and night.’ ‘What ails thee, then?’ asked Eochy. Ailill said, ‘Verily, I know not.’ Then Eochy bade summon his chief physician, who might discover the cause of his brother’s malady, for Ailill was wasting to death.
So Fachtna the chief physician came and he laid his hand upon Ailill, and Ailill sighed. Then Fachtna said, ‘This is no bodily disease, but either Ailill suffers from the pangs of envy or from the torment of love.’ But Ailill was full of shame and he would not tell what ailed him, and Fachtna went away.
After this the time came that Eochy the High King should make a royal progress throughout his realm of Ireland, but Etain he left behind at Tara. Before he departed he charged her saying, ‘Do thou be gentle and kind to my brother Ailill while he lives, and should he die, let his burial mound be heaped over him, and a pillar stone set up above it, and his name written thereon in letters of Ogham.’ Then the King took leave of Ailill and looked to see him again on earth no more.
After a while Etain bethought her and said, ‘Let us go to see how it fares with Ailill.’ So she went to where he lay in his Dún at Tethba. And seeing him wasted and pale she was moved with pity and distress and said,
‘What ails thee, young man? Long thou hast lain prostrate, in fair weather and in foul, thou who wert wont to be so swift and strong?’
And Ailill said,
‘Truly, I have a cause for my suffering; and I cannot eat, nor listen to the music makers; my affliction is very sore.’
Then said Etain,
‘Though I am a woman I am wise in many a thing; tell me what ails thee and thy healing shall be done.’
‘Blessing be with thee, O fair one; I am not worthy of thy speech; I am torn by the contention of body and of soul.’
Then Etain deemed that she knew somewhat of his trouble, and she said,
‘If thy heart is set on any of the white maidens that are my handmaids, tell me of it, and I shall court her for thee and she shall come to thee,’ and then Ailill cried out,
‘Love indeed, O Queen, hath brought me low. It is a plague nearer than the skin, it overwhelms my soul as an earthquake, it is farther than the height of the sky, and harder to win than the treasures of the Fairy Folk. If I contend with it, it is like a combat with a spectre; if I fly to the ends of the earth from it, it is there; if I seek to seize it, it is a passion for an echo. It is thou, O my love, who hast brought me to this, and thou alone canst heal me, or I shall never rise again.’
Then Etain went away and left him. But still in her palace in Tara she was haunted by his passion and his misery, and, though she loved him not, she could not endure his pain, nor the triumph of grim death over his youth and beauty. So at last she went to him again and said, ‘If it lies with me, Ailill, to heal thee of thy sickness, I may not let thee die.’ And she made a tryst to meet him on the morrow at a house of Ailill’s between Dún Tethba and Tara, ‘But be it not at Tara,’ she said, ‘for that is the palace of the High King.’
All that night Ailill lay awake with the thought of his tryst with Etain. But on the morrow morn a heaviness came upon his eyelids, and a druid sleep overcame him, and there all day he lay buried in slumbers from which none could wake him, until the time of his meeting with Etain was overpast.
But Etain, when she had come to the place of the tryst, looked out, and behold, a youth having the appearance and the garb of Ailill was approaching from Tethba. He entered the bower where she was; but no lover did she there meet, but only a sick and sorrowful man who spake coldly to her and lamented the sufferings of his malady, and after a short time he went away.
Next day Etain went to see Ailill and to hear how he did. And Ailill entreated her forgiveness that he had not kept his tryst, ‘For,’ said he, ‘a druid slumber descended upon me, and I lay as one dead from morn till eve. And morever,’ he added, ‘it seems as if the strange passion that has befallen me were washed away in that slumber, for now, Etain, I love thee no more but as my Queen and my sister, and I am recovered as if from an evil dream.’ Then Etain knew that powers not of earth were mingling in her fate, and she pondered much of these things, and grew less light-hearted than of old. And when the King came back, he rejoiced to find his brother whole and sound and merry, as Ailill had ever been, and he praised Etain for her gentleness and care.
Now after a time as Etain was by herself in her sunny bower she was aware of a man standing by her, whom she had never seen before. Young he was, and grey-eyed, with curling golden hair, and in his hand he bore two spears. His mantle was of crimson silk, his tunic of saffron, and a golden helmet was on his head. And as she gazed upon him, ‘Etain,’ he said, ‘the time is come for thee to return; we have missed thee and sorrowed for thee long enough in the Land of Youth.’ Etain said, ‘Of what land dost thou speak?’ Then he chanted to her a song:—
‘Come with me, Etain, O come away,
To that oversea land of mine!
Where music haunts the happy day,
And rivers run with wine;
Where folk are careless, and young, and gay,
And none saith ‘mine’ or ‘thine’.
‘Golden curls on the proud young head,
And pearls in the tender mouth;
Manhood, womanhood, white and red,
And love that grows not loth
When all the world’s desires are dead,
And all the dreams of youth.
‘Away from the cloud of Adam’s sin!
Away from grief and care!
This flowery land thou dwellest in
Seems rude to us, and bare;
For the naked strand of the Happy Land
Is twenty times as fair.’
When Etain heard this she stood motionless and as one that dreams awake, for it seemed to her as if she must follow that music whithersoever it went on earth or beyond the earth. But at last remembrance came upon her and she said to the stranger, ‘Who art thou, that I, the High King’s wife, should follow a nameless man and betray my troth?’ And he said, ‘Thy troth was due to me before it was due to him, and, moreover, were it not for me thou hadst broken it already. I am Midir the Proud, a prince among the people of Dana, and thy husband, Etain. Thus it was, that when I took thee to wife in the Land of Youth, the jealousy of thy rival, Fuamnach, was awakened; and having decoyed me from home by a false report, she changed thee by magical arts into a butterfly and then contrived a mighty tempest that drove thee abroad. Seven years wast thou borne hither and thither on the blast till chance blew thee into the fairy palace of Angus my kinsman, by the waters of the Boyne. But Angus knew thee, for the Fairy Folk may not disguise themselves from each other, and he built for thee a magical sunny bower with open windows, through which thou mightest pass, and about it were all manner of blossoming herbs and shrubs, and on the odour and honey of these thou didst live and grow fair and well nourished. But in the end Fuamnach got tidings of thee, and again the druid tempest descended and blew thee forth for another seven years of wandering and woe. Then it chanced that thou wert blown through the roof-window of the Dún of Etar by the Bay of Cichmany, and fell into the goblet from which his wife was drinking, and thee she drank down with that draught of ale. And in due time thou wast born again in the guise of a mortal maid and daughter to Etar the Warrior. But thou art no mortal, nor of mortal kin, for it is one thousand and twelve years from the time when thou wast born in Fairy Land till Etar’s wife bore thee as a child on earth.’
Then Etain was bewildered, and her mind ran back on many a half-forgotten thing and she gazed as into a gulf of visions, full of dim shapes, strange and glorious. And Midir as she looked at him again seemed transfigured, taller and mightier than before, and a light flame flickered from his helmet’s crest and moved like wings about his shoulders.
But at last she said, ‘I know not what thou sayest if it be truth or not, but this I know, that I am the wife of the High King and I will not break my troth.’ ‘It were broken already,’ said Midir, ‘but for me, for I it was who laid a druidic sleep on Ailill, and it was I who came to thee in his shape that thy honour might not be stained.’ Etain said, ‘I learned then that honour is more than life.’ ‘But if Eochy the High King consent to let thee go,’ said Midir, ‘wilt thou then come with me to my land and thine?’ ‘In that case,’ said Etain ‘I will go.’
And the time went by, and Etain abode in Tara, and the High King did justice and made war and held the great Assembly as he was used. But one day in summer Eochy arose very early to breathe the morning air, and he stood by himself leaning on the rampart of his great Dún, and looking over the flowery plain of Bregia. And as he thus gazed he was aware of a young warrior standing by his side. Grey-eyed the youth was, and golden-haired, and he was splendidly armed and apparelled as beseemed the lord of a great clan of the Gael. Eochy bade him welcome courteously, and asked him of the cause of his coming. ‘I am come,’ he said, ‘to play a game of chess with thee, O King, for thou art renowned for thy skill in that game, and to test that skill am I come. And my name is Midir, of the People of Dana, whom they have called The Proud.’
‘Willingly,’ said the King; ‘but I have here no chessboard, and mine is in the chamber where the Queen is sleeping.’
‘That is easily remedied,’ said Midir, and he drew from his cloak a folding chessboard whose squares were alternate gold and silver. From a men-bag made of brazen chainwork he drew out a set of men adorned with flashing jewels, and he set them in array.
‘I will not play,’ then said Eochy, ‘unless we play for a stake.’
‘For what stake shall we play, then?’ said Midir.
‘I care not,’ said Eochy; ‘but do thou perform tasks for me if I win and I shall bestow of my treasures upon thee if I lose.’
So they played a game, and Eochy won. Then Eochy bade Midir clear the plains of Meath about Tara from rocks and stones, and Midir brought at night a great host of the Fairy Folk, and it was done. And again he played with Eochy, and again he lost, and this time he cut down the forest of Breg. The third time Midir lost again, and his task was to build a causeway across the moor of Lamrach. Now at night, while Midir and the fairy host were labouring at the causeway and their oxen drawing to it innumerable loads of earth and gravel, the steward of Eochy stole out and hid himself to watch them, for it was a prohibition to see them at work. And he observed that the fairy oxen were not harnessed with a thong across their foreheads, that the pull might be upon their brows and necks, as was the manner with the Gael, but with yokes upon their shoulders. This he reported to Eochy, who found it good; and he ordered that henceforth the children of the Gael should harness their plough-oxen with the yoke upon their shoulders; and so it was done from that day forth. Hence Eochy got his name of Airem, or ‘The Ploughman,’ for he was the first of the Gael to put the yoke upon the shoulder of the ox.
But it was said that because the Fairy Folk were watched as they made that noble causeway, there came a breach in it at one place which none could ever rightly mend.
When all their works were accomplished, Midir came again to Eochy, and this time he bore a dark and fierce countenance and was high girt as for war. And the King welcomed him, and Midir said, ‘Thou hast treated me hardly and put slavish tasks upon me. All that seemed good to thee have I done, but now I am moved with anger against thee.’
‘I return not anger for anger,’ said Eochy; ‘say what satisfaction I can make thee.’
‘Let us once more play at chess,’ said Midir.
‘Good,’ said Eochy, ‘and what stake wilt thou have now?’
‘The stake to be whatever the winner shall demand,’ said Midir.
Then they played for the fourth time and Eochy lost.
‘Thou hast won the game,’ said he.
‘I had won long ago had I chosen,’ said Midir.
‘What dost thou demand of me?’ said Eochy.
‘To hold Etain in my arms and obtain a kiss from her,’ replied Midir.
The King was silent for a while and after that he said, ‘Come back in one month from this day and the stake which I have lost shall be paid.’
But Eochy summoned together all the host of the heroes of the Gael, and they surrounded Tara, ring within ring; and the King himself and Etain were in the palace, with the outer court of it shut and locked. For they looked that Midir should come with a great host of the Danaan folk to carry off the Queen. And on the appointed day, as the kings sat at meat, Etain and her handmaids were dispensing the wine to them as was wont. Then suddenly as they feasted and talked, behold, Midir, stood in the midst of them. If he was fair and noble to look on as he had appeared before to the King and to Etain, he was fairer now, for the splendour of the Immortals clothed him, and his jewels flamed as he moved like eyes of living light. And all the kings and lords and champions who were present gazed on him in amazement and were silent, as the King arose and gave him welcome.
‘Thou hast received me as I expected to be received,’ said Midir, ‘and now let thy debt be paid, since I for my part faithfully performed all that I undertook.’
‘I must consider the matter yet longer,’ said Eochy.
‘Thou hast promised Etain’s very self to me,’ said Midir; ‘that is what hath come from thee.’ And when she heard that word Etain blushed for shame.
‘Blush not,’ said Midir, ‘for all the treasures of the Land of Youth have not availed to win thee from Eochy, and it is not of thine own will that thou art won, but because the time is come to return to thy kin.’
Then said Eochy, ‘I have not promised Etain’s self to thee, but to take her in thine arms and kiss her, and now do so if thou wilt.’ Then Midir took his weapons in his left hand and placed his right around Etain, and when he did so they rose up in the air over the heads of the host, and passed through a roof-window in the palace. Then all rose up, tumultuous and angry, and rushed out of doors, but nothing could they see save two white swans that circled high in air around the Hill of Tara, and then flew southwards and away towards the fairy mountain of Slievenamon. And thus Etain the immortal rejoined the Immortals; but a daughter of Etain and of Eochy, who was another Etain in name and in beauty, became in due time a wife, and mother of kings.