Wave 2 – Midir and Etain

A thrice born goddess and an exploration of jealousy

Midir, a mythical chieftain of the Tuatha de Danann, is married to Fuamnach, They live in the otherworld of Bri Leith.  They have a foster son, Aengus Óg, born from the union of the Daghda and Bóinn.  He is called Midir the Proud because he wore such magnificent clothes.  Fuamnach, knowledgeable and clever was well versed in magic and sorcery.

When Aengus Óg moved to his own Sidhe at Brúgh na Bóinne, Midir missed him very much and decided to visit.  When he arrived a fight broke out between a group of boys.  Midir intervenes.  But he loses an eye so he is now blemished.  He demands compensation from Aengus Óg.  Part of this compensation is the fairest maiden of Ireland.  This is Etain.  Aengus Óg manages to speak to her father, King Aillil of Ulster and it is agreed she can go.

Etain stays with Midir for a year in Brúgh na Bóinne but then decides to return to his sidhe.  They were made welcome by Fuamnach, especially Etain.  But she was actually plotting her rival’s demise.  She strikes her with a wand that turns her into a pool of water.  From this emerges a worm which then turns into a beautiful crimson fly, which created beautiful music as it moved.

Midir and the fly were constantly together and he knew he could never love another woman. When this became apparent Fuamnach was overcome with jealous rage and called up a great wind that blew Etain out to sea.  For seven years she was buffeted by the wind hither and yon and could find no resting place. Midir was so angry at her actions that he cut off Fuamnach’s head.  

Meanwhile Etain was blown inland towards the great hall of the castle and alighted on a beam high above the room where a festival was taking place.  This was the Castle of Etar, a great Ulster champion.  Etain, exhausted, fell into the golden goblet of Etar’s wife.  Etar swallowed the wine and the fly in one mouthful.  Nine months later she gives birth to a beautiful girl.

Now, sometime later, the High King in Ireland, a man named Eochaid Airem, was told by his advisors that it was time for him to find a wife. He heard rumours of this beautiful king’s daughter, Etain, and decided that she should be the one for him. He called for Etain, to meet her, and she was well pleased with the match, and so they married and lived happily together.

After some time, King Eochaid Airem’s brother fell sick. In his sickbed, he called for Etain, and when she came to him, he told her that he was lovesick, because of the great love he had for her. He insisted that he would die if she would not agree to meet him in a love tryst the very next day. She agreed, and at once he felt better.

The next day, Etain came to meet the king’s brother at the arranged place, but as soon as she saw him, he changed form. He grew taller, and a glorious light shone out of him, and she realized that this was not her husband’s brother. Indeed it was Midir, who told her the story of their love, and how he had been searching for her for three hundred years, and now that he had found her, after all the obstacles that they had overcome, he was never going to let her go again.

But Etain drew herself up. She told him she knew none of this, and had no memory of the things he was telling her, and besides all that, she was a married woman. Midir called after her and said, “If I get your husband’s permission, will you come away with me?” Etain said yes, thinking it unlikely.

The next day, Midir turned up at the house of Eochaid Airem, and challenged him to a game of chess. Eochaid Airem won the first game, and the second game, and was so confident in his skills that he agreed to wager that the winner of the next game could claim any gift he asked from the loser. Midir won, and demanded that he be allowed to embrace and kiss the king’s wife, Etain.

Eochaid Airem was annoyed at this request: he certainly did not want another man to embrace and kiss his own wife! So he asked Midir for a month’s grace, and Midir left, promising to come back and claim his prize.

Eochaid Airem readied all his army, and spent the month training them and making sure they were fit, well-equipped, and battle-ready. On the day Midir was to return, he put all the men in his banqueting hall, surrounding Etain and prepared to repel any invader. But Midir entered by magic, and appeared inside the fort. He embraced Etain, and the moment he put his arms around her, she remembered everything. She remembered the storm, she remembered her immortal life, and she remembered Midir and their great love. She kissed him passionately, and as the king and all his men watched, Etain began to shine with the light of the immortals. She and Midir rose up off the ground, and floated out of the window, never to be seen again. Eochaid Airem, broken-hearted, spent the rest of his life digging up every fairy fort he came across, in search of his lost love.

The Connections and insights from Participants

Joni Spring – Midir and Etain

Karina Tynan – Fuamnach tells her story

Connection 1 – Disempowerment of Women
One of the strongest discussion points was the frequent disempowerment of women in this story.  Midir’s behaviour in going off to see Aengus Óg but then spending a year with Etain and bringing her back with no consultation whatever with Fuamnach.  In early Bard tellings the group tended to move on with Fuamnach being seen as the jealous, jilted wife who takes revenge on Etain. This stereotyping was to change!

Connection (and Discussion) 2 – Fuamnach’s Revenge
Some participants questioned why was it that Fuamnach’s revenge was directed towards Etain.  Surely it was Midir who was far more culpable.  Etain may not have known the situation in Brúgh na Bóinne.  One participant mentioned the custom of female self-punishment for men’s flaws in Lesotho and Zambia.  Why?  This evoked an angry response.  One modern day parallel was the lack of accountability for men involved in the Mother and Baby Homes abuses – a topical issue in Ireland.

Connection 3 – Relatability of Fuamnach’s Experience
Karina’s telling from Fuamnach’s perspective was powerfully evocative of the jealousy and rage.  It was very relatable for the group.  It seemed to give voice, to articulate exactly what would be going on inside, beneath the surface in such a context.  Considerable sympathy emerged for Fuamnach.

Connection 4 – Sympathy for Etain
The group also expressed considerable sympathy for Etain, the buffeting by the winds and the storm, the loss of who she was.  There was ready comparisons with psychological trauma – the buffeting.  There were also connections made to this as a journey of love, loss and rediscovery and the role love plays as an anchor in one’s sense of self and one’s own humanity.

Connection 5 – The Resilience of the Butterfly
One comment made had to do with the butterfly not as vulnerable but actually as incredibly resilient against wind and poison and also that they were naturally transformative beings.  The butterfly symbolism also was connected with the Greek equivalence with ‘psyche’.

Connection 6 – The Trope of enchanting Beauty
The matter of enchanting beauty and its consequences echoed a theme from the first story of the Immersion III Deirdre of the Sorrows.  It also echoed a non-gendered expression in the figure of Diarmuid in the story from Immersion II Diarmuid and Gráinne.

Connection 7 – The Shadow Speak

One comment made was how refreshing it was to hear the ‘shadow’ speak its truth.  This was specifically in relation to Karina’s telling of the story from Fuamnach’s perspective.  She did an excellent job voicing the inner monologue of the jilted partner.

Connection 8 – Male Mid Life Crisis

The male ‘falling in love’ in mid-life with a younger woman as a ‘real life’ element of modernity.  In Jungian psychology this is the male being taken over by the unconscious ‘anima’.

Connection 9 – Hero and Heroine’s Journey

The story of Etain had far more resonances with Pinkola Estes’ “Heroine’s Journey” than the Campbell Heroes Journey.  The ‘maiden with no hands’ where bad things happen to the innocent, the dismemberment, the wandering, the finding love in the other world are all the early stages in the Heroine’s Journey. 

Connection 10 – Love or Illusion

The distinction between love and love as illusion was brought out in some discussions.  For some these stories are ‘incredible stories of the illusions and traps masquerading as love’.

Connection 11 – Playing Chess

Chess as a metaphor for life?  Or is chess just a game with one set of rules and that there are other games with other rules, even vastly different rules and players.  And is ‘chess’ just one set of rules handed down, one perspective ….. and that there are choices.

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