An affair with Otherworld Woman – The Wasting Sickness
This story begins one day when the Ulstermen were celebrating the feast of Samhain. While the festivities were going on a flock of birds appeared out of the sky. They were extraordinarily beautiful and they settled on a lake. All the women of Emain Macha were enchanted and longed to have a pair. They wanted the feathers, one for each shoulder.
Cuchulain threw his sword into the sky, caught the birds and distributed them to all the women. All that is, except Emer. She had been left short! To deal with this he promised her that if any more birds showed up he would catch them for her. Shortly afterwards, two birds flew over the lake, linked by a golden chain and singing a song that put all the men to sleep. Cuchulain rose to pursue them but Emer and Laeg warned him not to tamper with these as they had special powers.
Cuchulain was not to be put off by such warnings and put a stone in his catapult. But he missed. It was the first time he had ever failed. He missed again. He failed again. Now he picked up and threw his spear. It went right through the wing of one of them. The birds flew away. After this humiliation he rested against a pillar and fell asleep. Two women, one in a green and one in a purple mantle came by. They laughed at the great Ulster Warrior. They then hit him with a horse whip, over and over until he was all but dead.
He requested he be taken to his bed where he lay for a whole year. At Samhain a visitor appeared from the other world. It was the brother of the otherworld woman, Fand, the wife of Mannanan Mac Lir. He invited Cuchulain to the otherworld to be healed and to meet Fand who was in love with him. He told the men of Ulster of this experience.
King Conor told him to go to the pillar of his earlier encounter. When he did one of the women who had whipped him appeared. She said her name was Li Ban, wife of the otherworld chief Labraid the sword wielder. She told him she was one of the birds he had wounded and they had decided to teach him a lesson. But now she brought a message from her sister, Fand. If he would fight for one day for Labraid, he could have the love of Fand and be healed.
He said, I’ am in no fit state to fight’ but he was told he would be made whole. Emer found out the cause of his sickness and in no uncertain terms told him ‘shame on you to be prostrate for a woman’s love, well may this long sickbed of thine cause thee to act’. But he was so enchanted he made up his mind to go. Cuchulain defeated Labraid’s enemies and Fand and he became lovers.
The arrangement was that they would be lovers for a month. Emer found out and headed to the trysting place with 50 armed women. She challenged him. He told her how lovely Fand was. She responded “all that glitters is fair, all that is new is bright, the well known is sour’ and ‘once we dwelled in honour together and we would do so again, if I could find favour in thy sights’. This moved Cuchulain. Both Fand and Emer expressed a willingness to give Cuchulain up. Fand however, realised Mannanan was without partner, decided to return to her husband. The druids gave Cuchulain and Emer a draught of forgetfulness so they forgot all about the affair. And Manamann shook his cloak of forgetfulness between Cuchulain and Fand so they too would forget.
The Connections and insights from Participants
Fand and Cuchulain – Fiona Doris
Fand’s Perspective – Karina Tynan
Connection 1 – The Otherworld Crossing
This story of a crossing to the otherworld is unusual in the (relatively this worldly) Ulster Cycle. Is this an outlier within the story, a quite un-Cuchulain episode or is this the goddess culture of the Tuatha de Danann seeking to challenge ‘horse whip’ the Ulster hero, the exemplar of the warrior, masculine world.
Connection 2 – Civilization and Emotion
A short input had been given which described the notion of civilisation seeming to be equated with manners and the repression of emotion, ‘stiff upper lip’. Whereas the myths and in this Fand story deal overtly with powerful primal emotions such as revenge, anger, jealousy. Is the essence of civilization to repress emotion? But repression does not mean the emotions go away. The simply emerge in other ways! Another approach is to acknowledge, look at the powerful emotions and to exert Agency and make choices.
Connection 3 – Emotions and the Indigenous People
Building on the Civilization point it seems clear that indigenous people, are naturally closer to the mythic world and are much closer to their emotional nature, and to the natural world. This Rational Enlightenment may have treated these people as ‘savage’ but emotionally were they actually much better adapted, more emotionally mature!
Connection 4 – Confronting bits of yourself
A psychological reading of the story could take the Cuchulain/Fand interaction from an intrapersonal point of view. The otherworld women who do the horse whipping as a highly developed internal critic whipping the warrior into shape. And doing so because he ignored the feminine, overlooking something very important in his life. From a Jungian perspective, Fand and Li Ban as the anima figures, the rejected feminine in the male psyche. The love affair with Fand as the male mid-life crisis.
Connection 5 – Confronting Failure
For the first time in his life Cuchulain has to process failure and the associated pain and shame. The super achiever does not seem to handle it very well! It is as if his emotional world was something he was not able to handle well. He is stuck in bed for a year. Depressed? He is unable to make creative use of pain, crisis and failure.
Connection 6 – Outer Beauty, Inner Beauty
Is outer beauty a “geasa”, superficial and often represents illusion and the repression of truth and the tragic path it leads to. True beauty is where inner and outer meet. In the case of Cuchulain does he have to be beaten to an inch of his life to awaken to ‘his true self’, his unfulfilled potential and an inner beauty?
Connection 7 – The Forgetting Potion
The druids give Cuchulain and Emer potions of forgetfulness. Manannan Mac Lir waves a cloak of forgetfulness between Cuchulain and Fand. But is this just covering up? Does this not mean the hero Cuchulain and Emer never deal with what has happened. Does this mean he never matures emotionally.
Connection 8 – Diverse Understanding
There were some diverse and conflicting understandings and points of view. For some the whipping of Cuchulain was distasteful, for others it was the only way to get him to ‘wake up’. In some ways the story raised questions more than answered them.
Connection 9 – Matter of Gender
The story raised the matter of History, Herstory and the truth as multiple sides of relationship. Is gender two monolithic fixed blocs and so violates truth by reducing complexity. For a Jungian the male gender has a female side (anima) and the female genders is male (animus). And individuation, or finding the self is about the internal genders getting to a place of harmony, a sacred marriage!
Connection 10 – Rites of Passage/Rebirth
This could be seen as a rite of passage story, a rebirth. But does Cuchulain get transformed or reborn in any way. Or does he just stay stuck, never develops emotionally as some commentators see.