A Faery Tale: The Story of Etain
retold by Amanda Evans
This retelling of the story of Etain was based on a version edited by O. Bergin and R.I. Best in 1938, printed in The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Matthews, 1994.
Note: The Irish have legends that tell of a race of people, the Faery, who look just like normal humans, but are immortal and invisible to humans, unless they want to be seen. Pronunciations: Etain (ATE-tawn), Aengus (ANG-gus), Midir (MY-ter), Dagda (DAHG-duh), fith fath (FEE-fah), Fuamnach (FOO-ahm-nahkh)
Once upon a time, long ago in Ireland, there lived a beautiful girl. She was the fairest maid in all the land and the daughter of a king. Her name was Etain.
The maiden had golden tresses of hair and cheeks as red as the foxglove flower of the mountain. Her eyes were blue like the hyacinth blossom, and her skin was as white as the snow. Her body was slender, long, and soft. Etain was the most wondrous maiden that the eyes of men had ever seen.
On a fine, spring day, a nobleman came to visit Etain and her father. He rode a white horse and wore a mantle of green. At his side, he carried a sword, and a silver shield hung over his back.
The man dismounted and said, "Oh great king, my name is Aengus Mac Oc, and I come from the land of Faery in quest of your daughter, Etain. My foster-father, Midir, king of the Faeries, wishes to marry her." Etain's eyes grew wide with excitement at the thought of going to live with the Faeries.
"I will not give her to you unless you meet my demand," replied the king. "You will clear for me twelve plains in my land so that they may be used for the grazing of cattle, homes for my people, and for games and gatherings and fortresses."
Etain's heart fell, because she knew that her father's demand would take years to complete.
"You will have that," said Aengus. "It shall be done."
The next morning, the king's soldiers reported that the twelve plains had been cleared overnight, as if by magic. Aengus returned to Etain's father to fetch her.
"I have asked the help of my true father, the Good God of the Faery, and your demand is met. Now I will take Etain with me," said Aengus.
"Oh, I want to go with him!" exclaimed Etain.
"I will not part with my dear daughter so easily," said the king. "You'll not obtain her until you make twelve great rivers to bring fish from the sea to my people." Etain thought that the Good God of the Faery must be very powerful to clear twelve plains in one night, but creating twelve rivers would be impossible.
Again, overnight, twelve rivers appeared, coursing toward the sea. Their waters cold and full of fish, the rivers washed over the land in deep channels that had not been there the day before.
A third time, Aengus appeared before Etain and her father. The king sighed and said, "I require the maiden's weight in gold and silver."
Aengus left and came back with piles of gold and silver equal to Etain's weight. His men heaped it upon the floor of the king's castle.
With great sadness, the king said to Aengus, "You have satisifed me. Take my beloved daughter to your father and his realm."
Etain embraced her father and bid farewell to her family. Then Aengus picked her up in his strong arms and carried her to his horse. He placed Etain upon the steed's back and mounted behind her. Weaving her fingers tightly into the horse's mane, with Aengus holding both her and the reins, Etain watched her father and her sisters grow small in the distance as she was carried away from her home.
Once the castle was out of sight, Aengus brought the horse to a stop and said, "Now I will place the Faery fith fath magic upon you so you may enter our realm and be one of us. You will feel nothing unusual, but mortal humans cannot see you unless the fith fath is lifted."
Aengus held his hand above Etain's head and chanted,
"Through the strength of sky,
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
And firmness of rock,
I call upon the ninefold elements
To make thee disappear from mortal sight."
When he had finished the Faery charm, Aengus flicked the reins twice, and the horse broke into a gallop. Soon Etain saw a large house coming into view. It was a tall, stately manor with vast lands all around. There were wide, stone floors extending from each door and decorations of silver and crimson. When they arrived at the front gate, Aengus dismounted and Etain remained upon the horse.
"This is your new home," said Aengus to her, "and here is my father, Midir, your husband." Etain saw a handsome, kingly man approaching. He wore a purple cape clasped with silver brooches in the shape of lions and serpents, and the crown upon his head was wrought of the purest gold.
"Welcome, Etain, my wife!" he exclaimed as he lifted her off the horse. He then put his arm around her and walked with her in his gardens, speaking softly and sweetly to her. When they entered the house, a woman presented herself to Midir.
"Etain," said he, "this is Fuamnach. She will show you to your chambers."
Etain followed the woman, who, as soon as Midir had left, suddenly stopped and pointed to a chair.
"Sit down, girl," she commanded. Etain sat. "I am the wife of Midir, and now he has brought a second woman into the house! My father is a great wizard, and I know powerful magic from him. I am much displeased with you."
Glaring fiercely at Etain, Fuamnach walked to a corner of the room and picked up a wooden rod carved out of scarlet quickentree. She held it high over her head and then struck Etain with it. With that, Etain felt her clothing become wet, although there was no water in the room. She fell off the chair in which she sat and could no longer hold herself up. Laid flat upon the ground, her skin spread itself out on the cold stone floor, and her bones and organs melted into liquid. Etain was turned into a pool of water in that very spot in the middle of the house.
"I must leave this place and go to the house of my father!" shrieked Fuamnach.
Hearing Fuamnach's cry, Midir came to the place in which Etain was transformed. He grasped Fuamnach by the arm, and looked into her wild and frenzied face.
"What have you done with Etain?" he cried.
"She is gone. I have driven her off," replied Fuamnach, wrenching free of Midir's grip and angrily striding away.
Midir sent swift riders to search near and far for Etain. He left the house, as it reminded him of his sorrow at losing her, not knowing that Etain was still there as a pool of water. Presently, the heat of the hearth-fire and the flowing of gentle air touched Etain on the surface of her waters. The earth moved around her, and Etain felt another transformation taking place. The fire brought her the warmth of animal life, and the air gave her breath. The earth pressed in on her, drawing out the water and making her very, very small. Etain was changed from a pool of water to a tiny worm. She crawled out of the house and found a plant with nice, green leaves to eat. After a time, she became sleepy, and she curled up under a large, flat leaf. She spun herself a silken blanket and slept for many days. When she awoke, she yawned and stretched, and two gossamer wings unfolded on her back. She had become a beautiful, purple fly. The sound of her voice was sweeter than music, and her eyes shone like jewels. Etain flew in search of her husband, Midir, and when she found him, she told him what had happened. "Fuamnach will someday pay for what she has done," he said to Etain. "Now you are with me again, my dear wife."
Etain accompanied Midir wherever he went, over his lands and at home. Midir loved Etain, even as a fly, and took no other wife. When people came to Etain, their hunger and thirst disappeared, and the motion of her wings cured all sickness.
In time, Midir's first wife, Fuamnach came for a visit.
"You should not have cast your spell upon Etain," Midir said to Fuamnach. "It was a foul act."
"I do not regret the deed I have done," replied Fuamnach, "for I would rather do good for myself than for another. I will harm Etain as long as she lives, in whatever shape she might be." Fuamnach set her eyes upon Midir's beautiful purple fly. "I know that this is Etain and that you love no other woman!" she cried.
Furious, Fuamnach stirred up a wind of magic that blew Etain away from Midir. For seven years, Fuamnach's wind blew Etain. Whenever she tried to land upon a hill or tree, the wind blew harder and kept her away. The only rest for Etain was on the rocks of the sea and the ocean waves. After the seventh year, Etain came to the place where Midir's foster-son, Aengus lived, and she landed upon his shoulder.
"At last I have found one of my husband's kin," she thought.
Aengus looked down at the beautiful purple fly and immediately recognized that this was his father's wife, and he made her welcome in his house.
"Welcome, Etain, careworn wanderer," said he. "You have met great dangers through the cunning of Fuamnach." He took her to his mansion and showed her the garden room, filled with fragrant herbs and having many windows through which the sunlight streamed. He bid her stay with him there and be happy, for Aengus was the god of the Faery who gave rest and peace to wandering souls. Etain joyfully spent her days flying in and out of the windows and resting in the sun.
One morning when Aengus was out of the house, Fuamnach appeared. "You are loved and honored by Aengus, and I will not have that!" she screamed. She then summoned the same blast of wind that had carried Etain for seven years to take her away for seven more.
After wandering for those seven years, Etain came to the house of a great warrior, whose wife was drinking from a golden goblet.
Exhausted after so long with no rest, Etain thought, "I have been driven by wind from place to place with no chance for love or happiness. Am I to remain a fly for the rest of my days? If only I could have a new life and start afresh."
Etain flew into an open window near the woman with the goblet. Her wings begain to fail, and she felt herself falling through the air. As the woman raised her cup, Etain was caught within it. The woman, not noticing, took a drink and swallowed the fly. Etain felt the warmth of the woman's body fold around her, and she drifted into a deep, deep sleep.
Nine months later, Etain was reborn as a baby from the woman. She was raised by her new mother and kept company with the daughters of the chieftains of Ireland. When she came of age, being once again the most beautiful maiden in all the land, Etain married the king of the chieftains. When Aengus discovered that Fuamnach had worked her foul magic upon Etain, he chased the sorceress to her father's house. There Fuamnach met her death, never to harm Etain again.
Ever heed the rule of three,
For all you do comes back to thee.
copyright 2003, Amanda Evans, all rights reserved