Ladies of Legend: Etain

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, Irish Folk & Fairy Tales Omnibus (Time Warner Books, 2005) by Michael Scott, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr Alice Mills

Celtic myth and legend brims over with tragedies. Whether the story of Etain is one of these depends on the perspective you choose to take. Also known as Edain, she was either the lover or the second wife of Midar, king of Ireland’s fairy folk, the Tuatha dé Danaan. His first wife Fumhnach/ Fuanach hated Etain – and probably Midar – so much that she cast a particularly vicious enchantment on the unfortunate girl. According to The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Etain was turned first into a pool of water, which became a worm, which became a beautifully scented fly. In Irish Folk & Fairy Tales, she is transformed directly into a butterfly.

The circumstances around this curse are similarly up for debate. Fumhnach acts alone in the Encyclopaedia and Irish Folk & Fairy Tales, with Angus (Irish god of love and Lord of the Birds) as a rescuer in the latter version, taking in the butterfly girl after seven years of her wandering lost in the world. He even manages to crack the curse enough that she can take her human shape by nights, and encases her in a guarded crystal casket by day so that her more fragile form won’t be harmed. This is because he has developed a largely unrequited passion for her and doesn’t wish her to leave. But, being quite resourceful, she breaks the casket’s lock and leaves anyway – only to be blown into a goblet and swallowed with the ale.

Angus plays a much less generous role in Celtic Myth and Legend’s version of events, in which he kidnaps Etain and she escapes him with the aid of an unnamed rival for Midar’s affections (presumably Fumhnach) who then turns her into a fly and blows her away deliberately. Etain catches no breaks.

The upshot of all this being, Etain ends up in the stomach of a human woman – the queen of Leinster, in one story, the wife of a king’s vassal called Etair in another – whereupon she is soon reborn as a baby girl and called Etain (ironically, after herself). She grows up with no memory of her previous life. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, she meets the high king Eochaid and becomes his queen. It’s only now Midar catches up with her. As she does not have any recollection of her former love, he approaches Eochaid as a Mysterious Stranger. They play chess for stakes that will be decided by the winner, and at first that is Eochaid, who demands and receives useful miracles. But Midar is the true expert. When he wins, he claims Eochaid’s beautiful wife.

Eochaid wins my approval by disregarding all questions of honour and point-blank refusing. A wife is not a possession! She cannot be gambled away! All Eochaid’s guards, however, are no match for Midar’s bewitching harp music and he spirits Etain home to his own kingdom. In Michael Scott’s version, she remembers her past life at Midar’s first kiss – Celtic Myth and Legend chooses to focus on Eochaid’s reaction instead. Because unlike Midar, he manages to track down his wife’s abductor and throws every ounce of force in his not inconsiderable arsenal into getting her back. He sets his men to digging up Midar’s fairy hill. In a desperate ploy, Midar sends fifty fairy women to the surface, each identical to Etain. Eochaid is not fooled. He does not stop his attack until Midar finally gives up the real Etain.

By all accounts, she is happy with Eochaid, giving birth to a daughter who is also named Etain and living to an astonishing old age. Midar never makes another attempt to reclaim her hand or heart. In fact, in the Illustrated Encyclopaedia’s version, the whole aspect of butterflies and past lives is completely erased from the story and Midar is simply a very talented kidnapper – the moment she sees Eochaid, the fairy king’s enchantment falls away and Etain returns willingly to her true love.

The Midar of Celtic Myth and Legend never forgives Eochaid. Etain, her daughter and granddaughter Messbuachallo are all left in peace, but Eochaid’s first male descendant is destined for a violent death.

Each version shows Etain’s feelings for Midar is a different light. From a forgotten love to a remembered one, to a man she never really loved at all, her story becomes tragedy or victory depending on which angle you believe. She could be seen as a victim, but that’s not how I look at it. Outside of any romance, Etain is a survivor.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

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