Lands of Legend: Annwn

Trigger warning: references to incest, cannibalism

Welcome to this month’s Land of Legend: Annwn, the Welsh Underworld, where human souls were said to travel after death and errant nobility got press-ganged into impersonating the reigning monarch. In Annwn, the fountains ran with wine instead of water, old age was unknown and life – or afterlife! – was an endless round of feasting and revelry. The cauldron of inspiration was guarded here, along with the Three Birds of Rhiannon, which could sing the dead to life and the living into a sleep of death. No wonder it’s where the Wild Hunt hung out when they were not rampaging around the mortal realm.

In early legends, Annwn was ruled by Gwyn ap Nudd, the Welsh god of battle and the dead. In his later incarnation, he became leader of the Wild Hunt. Gwyn is credited with two probable brothers, Edern and Owain. He features in the ancient Arthurian story of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, as the suitor and then the abductor of a maiden named Creiddylad – who was all set to marry someone else, and may have been Gwyn’s own sister. Creiddylad’s betrothed, Gwythyr son of Greidwal, went with his warriors to get her back, but failed desperately. Of the prisoners he took from among Gwythyr’s allies, Gwyn killed a man named Nwython, cut out his heart and forced his son Kyledyr to eat it, which unsurprisingly sent the boy mad. Eventually King Arthur stepped in. He compelled Gwyn to free his prisoners, and arranged a conditional peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr. Under its terms, Creiddylad would be returned to her father’s house and stay there, and each year on the first of May the two would-be husbands would fight one another for her hand. This contest would continue until the Day of Judgement, when the final victor would claim his bride.

Which implies a whole lot of immortality and a spectacular amount of patience all around, but it kept the warriors busy and Creiddylad was well shot of the pair, so honestly I think it’s one of the best calls Arthur made as a king. It worked out well for him personally, too, because later in the events of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, he called both Gwyn and Gwythyr to his aid in hunting the fearsome boar Twrch Trwyth and battling the witch Orddu (though they do not appear to have been tremendously useful in either encounter).

In the medieval poem ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’, Gwyn played a less brutal role, offering his protection to a king he met while travelling. As they introduced themselves, Gwyn’s description of his origins was blunt: ‘I come from battle and conflict’. This implies that he was a psychopomp, guiding the souls of the dead to the Underworld. Through the poem, he described appearing on many battlefields, including one outside of a fortress called Caer Vandwy. The same fortress is also mentioned in the Preiddu Annwn, a poem taken from the Llyfr Taliesin, which is a fourteenth century Middle Welsh manuscript. In this poem, King Arthur went to war against Gwyn’s realm. Preiddu Annwn references the prison of a man called Gweir ap Geirioed and a number of other fortresses through which Arthur’s warriors pass on their way, including the Fortress of the Mound, the Fortress of Mead-Drunkenness, The Fortress of Four Peaks, The Fortress of Hardness, The Glass Fortress, the Fortress of Hindrance, the Fortress of God’s Peak and the Fortress of Enclosedness.

Another king of Annwn was Arawn, a Welsh god of the Underworld. His name means ‘Silver-Tongue’ and he, too, was a hunter, accompanied by a pack of white dogs with red ears. His rival for leadership of the divided kingdom was Havgan (whose name means ‘Summer-White’). Arawn kept losing ground to him. When by chance a mortal fell into his debt – Pwyll, Lord of Arberth, prince of Dyfed, and very competitive hunter who couldn’t recognise when a kill belonged to someone else – Arawn seized the opportunity to trick his enemy. Pwyll was obliged to take Arawn’s place on the throne in Annwn for one year, disguised with Arawn’s face. At the end of that time, he had to fight Havgan himself. Arawn warned him to strike the rival king only once – if struck twice, Havgan would recover, which presumably is what kept happening when Arawn fought him. It does seem to be the kind of thing you find out the hard way. While all this was happening, Arawn would slum it in the mortal realm, ensuring that Pwyll’s own lands did not go to rack and ruin in his absence.

The really astonishing thing is that this plan worked. Pwyll defeated Havgan and won Arawn’s friendship not just for conquering Havgan’s kingdom, but also for not sleeping with Arawn’s extremely beautiful, elegant wife when he had every opportunity to do so. Incidentally, do you think anyone let her in on the secret? No. No, they did not. The first she knew of it was when her real husband rocked up and wanted sex for the first time in a year.

Anyway. Pwyll later married an actual goddess called Rhiannon, whom he treated very badly. They had a son, Pryderi, and Arawn’s friendship not only extended to him, it extended to Rhiannon’s second husband Manawyddan too – both he and Pryderi being credited as the co-rulers of the Underworld and guardians of its treasures.

Arawn did not have such a great relationship with other leaders. In the medieval Welsh poem Cad Goddeu (which translates to ‘the Battle of the Trees’), war broke out between Arawn and the enchanter Gwydion after Gwydion’s brother Amatheon stole a dog, a lapwing and a roebuck from the Lord of Annwn. Gwydion roused the forest with his magic to fight on his side and eventually won the battle by guessing the name of Bran, one of Arawn’s men. The same enchanter tricked a herd of pigs out of Pryderi – pigs that had been a gift from Arawn and could never be sold – then, when the sordid business came to a battle, killed Pryderi in single combat. Gwydion was a real charmer.

What is so interesting about Annwn is its sense of place. This is no nebulous, unchanging realm of the dead that can only be reached by gods and their chosen heroes; when war breaks out, there are consequences. Keeping the throne of Annwn is a fierce struggle for all of its kings, however powerful they may be. It’s a land of secrets and splendour, horror and treasure, vulnerable to the greed of its enemies…but watch out if the birds ever start singing.

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), The Celts – Frank Delaney (HarperCollins, 1993), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cad_Goddeu, http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/preiddeu-annwn, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies – [chief consultant] Dr. Alice Mills (Hodder, 2003), Celtic Myth and Legend – Charles Squire (Newcastle Publishing Co., Inc., 1975), http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/culhwch.html, http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/bbc33.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwyn_ap_Nudd, http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/pwyll.html

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

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Lands of Legend: Hy Brasil

In the realms of mythology, there are many disappearing islands and drowned lands. Hy Brasil has the distinction of being both at the same time. It was a round island with a river running through the centre, or at leas that was how it was usually depicted in maps, because oh yes! It featured in maps from the 14th century right up until 1873. The many variations on the island’s name include Hy-Breasal, Ysole Brazil, Bracir, Brazir and Brazil, which may mislead you as to its location – though a scattering of islands with the same name existed in the Atlantic Ocean, Hy Brasil was consistently thought to be located to the west of Ireland.

The name’s origins are up for debate. Brasil could be derived from the Gaelic word breas, meaning ‘noble’, ‘prince’ or ‘fortunate’; it could also have been taken from Breasal, who was apparently the immortal High King of the World in Irish mythology and held his court on Hy Brasil every seven years. Saint Bresal, an early Christian missionary, is another possible etymological parent of the island. More prosaically, a red dye known as brazil was very valuable during the time when the first mentions of Hy Brasil appear in maps. The island may have been considered a potential source of wood or lichen that produced the dye.

For centuries, cartographers continued to add the island into charts of the Atlantic. Sailors claimed to have seen it, even to have landed on it. An account from 1674 details the experiences of the Irish captain John Nisbet and his crew, who stumbled across a mysterious fog-shrouded island on their return home from France. They saw farmland occupied by cattle, sheep and horses, as well as a great many black rabbits, and were met by an elderly man who told them that the island had been made invisible by a necromancer’s spell, but that the magic was now lifted. The story turned out to have been invented by the author Richard Head – disappointingly, for those of us hoping for magical rabbits. While claims of sightings continued into the nineteenth century, Hy Brasil was eventually accepted as a myth.

Mind you, its mythological origins are equally hazy. The Undiscovered Islands claims it doesn’t actually have any, originating instead as a cartographical mistake. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia calls Hy Brasil a fairy island, condemned by the sea god Manannan to only appear above the sea every seven years. If fire and iron were brought onto its shores, the island would be forced to remain in sight. Other, very intriguing names for the island apparently include Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Magh Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue). According to Christian folklore, it was Tir Tairngiri (Land of Promise) or Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum (the Promised Land of the Saints), a paradise to be found by the worthy. Saint Barrind and Saint Brendan were both said to have thoroughly explored the island, returning with treasures.

The interesting thing about a promised land is, what is it promising? In the case of Hy-Brasil, the promise appears to be that it will seem quite solid until you try and get a good look at it – and then it will melt into water and wishes.

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), The Undiscovered Islands – Malachy Tallack (Polygon, 2016), https://www.historicmysteries.com/hy-brasil-the-other-atlantis/, http://www.historyireland.com/medieval-history-pre-1500/what-is-hy-brasil/, Phantom Islands of the Atlantic – Donald S. Johnson (Souvenir Press, 1999)

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!

Onward 2018

It is January 2018, and two things remain consistent with all past years: it is unbearably hot and I feel like the new year has rocked up behind me with no warning instead of giving the usual twelve months notice. Look, it’s the third, it’s sneaking past me already.

So what did happen in my 2017? My novella ‘Humanity for Beginners’ was published in February with Less Than Three Press and I was interviewed by Eugen Bacon for Issue 69 of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I concluded my two year blog project Ladies of Legend! And I was sick a lot. I am currently the most well I have been since the end of April. The rollercoaster of colds and viruses, along with an increase in personal commitments, has forced a certain narrowing of focus. I will not be writing any more reviews for the foreseeable future. I’m sad to be stopping, since I read some amazing books in 2017 and I’m excited about my TBR pile for this year too, but I’m going to need the energy for 2018’s blog project.

In the course of my research for Ladies of Legend, I started getting curious about the places where these women lived and, frequently, ruled. Myth and legend is fertile ground for stories of strange roads and mysterious kingdoms, drowned lands and disappearing islands. Starting on the 26th and updating on the last Friday of each month, I’ll be posting about Lands of Legend. I’m looking forward to getting started – I hope you’ll enjoy the project too!

Ready or not, roll on 2018. May it be a healthy and creative one for you!

Queen, Warrior, Goddess

I have been reading fairy tales and legends from a very young age, and that reading has populated my mind with women: some so important to who I am that the imagery is etched into my bedrock, others more elusive, whispers and ghosts like snatches of half-remembered poetry. This project was not so much an in-depth exploration of figures of myth and legend (I referenced Wikipedia more than once, academia this is not) as a remembrance, a rediscovery. Were these women who I remembered them to be? What else were they, that I never knew?

Myth and legend are not an exclusively masculine province and never have been, any more than history was made by men, but you have to pay attention to realise it. The grand stories are named after male heroes – the Odyssey, the tales of King Arthur, of Robin Hood, it goes on – and the old adage that behind every great man there is a great woman doesn’t mean very much when generations of storytellers have kept her firmly in his shadow.

There are a thousand ways to dismiss a female character you don’t like, and not all of these women are easy to like. Some didn’t want to be. They wanted to be feared; they wanted to be worshipped. They wanted to live. These are the girls who were forgotten, or given up on. They are the mothers and lovers and wives, the sisters and daughters, but those words are just starting points, not finishing lines. Their roots go so much deeper.

Camelot was a court of bright and brilliant women. There would have been no Golden Age without them. Lyonet and Lyonesse were dangerous by name and nature, beloved by the men who saw their savagery and didn’t flinch away. Ragnell’s face could be changed by a curse but her silver tongue was always her own; kings and princes and rebels were no match for her mind. Guinevere and Isolde found each other, they saw past beautiful faces and powerful husbands to the pain of two hearts that loved too much. They were friends. How did I never know that before? Guinevere adopted the girls of her court like sisters; she locked herself in a tower to escape a would-be king and made her walls unbreachable. And how is she remembered? For marrying Arthur and sleeping with Lancelot. Oh, Guinevere, your heart was always fiercer than either of those men could handle.

Marian was the Queen of Sherwood, an heiress who turned outlaw. In some versions she was Robin’s equal as a fighter, but here’s the thing, she doesn’t need to be. She was not Robin’s competitor – she was his equal. Fair Janet was the woman who looked the Queen of Faerie in the eye and thought no, you move. Nothing could make her let go of something she wanted to keep. Medb was shameless, proud of everything she had and everything she was. Savitri could talk rings around Death himself. Blodeuwedd called her soul her own and was ready to kill to keep it.

Circe was a capricious lover, a reluctant aunt, a notorious sorceress. Medea was a passionate, vicious thunderstorm of a woman who would rip up the world to get what she wanted. Andromeda’s wedding was a battlefield; she took a leap into the unknown and she did not fall. They are so much bigger, so much more terrible, than the men they slept with. Helen and Psyche were defined by their beauty, cursed by it, loved and hated and hounded and blamed for it. That they might not be treasures for the winning – that they might, in fact, have wills and wishes of their own – was unthinkable. Pandora wanted answers and became a punchline moral to the perils of feminine curiosity; Medusa asked for nothing except to be left the hell alone and somehow she is remembered as the monster.

Mythology is filled with stories of women warriors and brutal queens, heartless witches and implacable goddesses. Maybe it makes sense that they became cautionary tales; the very least you’d need is caution to survive them.

I started this project because names matter. Because the stories behind those names matter. Because the women of myth and legend have been ignored and diminished and dismissed for so long that those stories can be hard to find, and it is worth taking them out of the dusty corners to hold up to the light and realise that they were here all along.

They are not ghosts. They are wicked and golden and wise, and they are here.

Ladies of Legend: The Fates

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moirai, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/slavic-star-goddess-zorya-guardian-doomsday-hound-and-servant-sun-god-006303, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/z/zorya.html, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html#Zeus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotho, http://www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Sudice_(mythology),

Welcome to the last installment of Ladies of Legend! I tried to post yesterday but the website crashed, which seems rather ominous given who I’m talking about. Let’s try again.

Fate, according to the Reader’s Digest Word Power dictionary, is ‘the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined’. It also refers to the cross-cultural mythic tradition that the biggest of the big guns, the manipulators of destiny itself, are a trio of women.

In Greek mythology, they are known as the Moirai, or Moerae, meaning ‘apportioners’. When a baby was born, it was said they would appear within three days to decided the course of the child’s life. The fates of mortals were threads to them, to be spun together and, in due time, cut off. They also ruled over the fates of the gods. They are described (Fragments 1018, from Stobaeus, Anthology, trans. Campbell) as sitting ‘nearest of the gods to the throne of Zeus’, weaving their work on adamantine shuttles, and some sources claim that he alone could control them, but other accounts imply that the Moirai were completely independent and that Zeus, too, was subject to their will. Which is obviously the version I like better.

The three figures of the Moirai were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. They are usually described as old women, dressed in white robes and sometimes crowns, each either carrying a staff or a symbol of her work. According to some versions, the Moirai were the daughters of Nyx, goddess of night, giving them the siblings Thanatos (god of peaceful death), Nemesis (goddess of vengeance) and the Keres (goddesses of violent death). Other sources say that their mother was Themis, goddess of divine law, and their father was Zeus, with the goddesses Eunomia (of law and order), Dike (of justice) and Eirene (of peace) as their sisters. Yet another account has them as the children of Ananke, goddess of inevitability and necessity.

Clotho’s role was to spin the thread of life. It was she who decided when a person was born and when they died, and one time when the notorious Tantalus murdered his son, the gods piled all the bits of the dismembered boy into a cauldron and Clotho brought him back to life. Being the original multi-tasker, she also helped Hermes invent the alphabet. Lachesis, meanwhile, was the measurer. It was up to her how much life any individual received, measuring it precisely with her rod, and her other duty was Reincarnation Instructor, providing the options – animal and human – for souls to take on as their new life. Atropos, meanwhile, was the eldest of the three sisters, and wielder of the shears that could end any (and every) thread of life. The nature of death was her particular province. During certain battles of the gods, the three of them took a more active role in dealing out judgement, wielding bronze clubs to take down their enemies.

The Moirai had companions in their work – Eileithyia, the Minoan goddess of childbirth, and the Erinyes, or Furies, who punished evil-doers. But the Moirai could also be placated, or even tricked. Athenian brides offered the Moirai locks of hair. Booze would also do the trick. Alcestis, widow of Admetus, once got all three Moirai thoroughly drunk and Clotho admitted that if a replacement could be found to go into the Underworld in Admetus’ stead, he would be freed. Alcestis gave up her own life, but was rescued by Heracles when Death came to get her, so the lovers both cheated destiny and survived.

The Roman parallel to the Moirai were the Parcae, or Fata: Nona, Decima and Morta. They were known as ‘the sparing ones’ and were, of course, anything but. On the day that a child’s name was chosen – this being the ninth day after birth for a boy and the eighth day for a girl – the Parcae would decide upon how long the child’s life would be.

In Slavonic mythology, there are the Sudice, also known – depending on region – as the Sudičky, Suđaje, Rodzanice, Narecznice, Sudiczki, Sojenice or Rojenice. At the birth of every child, it was the Sudice who foretold their destiny. The Slavic Fates appeared as three elderly spinners, the first with an oversize lower lip from licking the thread, the second with a thumb widened from handling the fibres, and the third with a foot swollen from turning the spinning wheel.

Another Slavonic trio of goddesses were the Zoryas, guardians of the universe who kept the Doomsday Hound Simargl chained to the star Polaris. The maiden figure was Zorya Utrenyaya, the Dawn, a warrior spirit and patroness of horses. Her duty was to open the gates so that her father Dazbog’s sun chariot could pass through. She was Zwezda Dnieca in Polish, Dennitsa in Eastern Slavonic and Auseklis in Latvian. The mother figure was Zorya Vechernyaya, the Dusk or Twilight, who closed the gates after the return of the sun chariot. She was Zwezda Wieczórniaia in Polish. The crone figure was Zorya Polunoshnaya, the Midnight, also known as Zwezda Polnica or Polunocnica. She was associated with witchcraft and the Underworld. The three guardians could merge to form the warrior goddess Zorya, who used her veil to shield warriors from death. She lived on Bouyan Island, home of the sun, where the winds of the North, East and West all met. Zorya was married to the god Perun in some versions, while in others her husband was Myesyats, the god of the moon, making her the mother of the stars.

Like the Sudice, the Norns of Norse myth were said to manifest at births to map out the child’s future life. The judgement of Norns nearly always meant a death sentence. There were many such spirits – unlucky people were known to bemoan the malice of their personal Fates – but there were three giantesses said to be the greatest of the Norns. These are Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld, associated respectively with the past, presence and future. One of their duties was to draw water from the Well of Urðr to pour over Yggdrasill, the World Tree, to keep it alive.

Though the mythic traditions vary from region to region, the Fates tend to represent the natural order of things, and woe betide you if you go against it. They are the warriors of the law, the guardians of justice. Fate may not always be kind, but it can be named. It can even, occasionally, be defied. And it might just win your war for you.

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!

Ladies of Legend: Savitri

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Savitri, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savitri_and_Satyavan, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes From Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, https://www.mahabharataonline.com/stories/mahabharata_story.php?id=11, http://www.indianscriptures.com/vedic-society/women-of-bharat/puranic/savitri,

For the penultimate Lady of Legend, I have chosen Savitri from ‘Savitri and Satyavan’. The first known version of this story comes from the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic. The birth of Savitri was the result of kindly divine intervention after her parents’ many years of hoping and praying for a baby, and she was named after her parents’ benefactor, the sun god Savitr. Her father was King Asvapati and her mother was his queen Malavi.

Savitri’s default state was intimidating perfection. She was polite and devout and very obedient…except when she was right and you were not. No man dared to ask for her to be his bride, so Asvapati told Savitri to find a husband herself, which she duly went and did. She encountered Satyavan, a prince hacking out a living in the forest with his exiled father, the blind king Dyumatsena of the Salwas. Satyavan had absolutely no prospects. What was more, upon Savitri’s return home, the Sage Narada informed her that Satyavan was doomed to die in exactly a year’s time. Asvapati begged his daughter to choose a different husband. Savitri would not budge: she had picked Satyavan and nothing could sway her away from him.

Instead of bringing him to live with her in the palace, Savitri went to live and work with Satyavan in the forest. Three days before her husband’s prophesied death, she took up a devoted vigil and fast, so rigid in its austerity that her father-in-law expressed his concern. On the morning of the dreaded day, however, when she asked permission to follow Satyavan into the forest, Dyumatsena gave Savitri her way, because it was the first favour she had asked of him in the year they had lived together.

Satyavan was cutting wood when he abruptly grew faint and lay down to rest with his head on Savitri’s lap. It was more than a passing weakness; he died there in her arms. Servants of the god of death appeared to take his soul, but Savitri’s personality burned so fiercely that they could not get near her. Eventually Yama himself had to come for Satyavan. He kindly explained that death was an inevitability and that Savitri had to let go.

Savitri did not let go. She followed Yama and would not be turned back, insisting that her love was faithful and eternal. She kept talking, giving speeches praising obedience to the law and friendship to the strict, then praising Yama as a fair ruler, the god of Death being the ultimate judge and therefore King of the Law. The subject of her final speech was ‘noble conduct with no expectation of return’. Yama was so affected by her eloquent wisdom that he offered her whatever favour she chose to ask – anything except her husband’s life. He had a job to do here, after all.

Savitri’s first request was for the kingdom of her father-in-law to be returned to him, along with his sight. Yama granted it – still Savitri followed him. Her next wish was for a hundred siblings, because apparently that’s something her parents wanted? Anyway, Yama agreed. Savitri did not stop following him. Lastly, she wished for a hundred children to be born of her marriage to Satyavan. Yama was put in a bit of quandary. He had, after all, told Savitri she could have anything she wanted except Satyavan’s life – only how could she have a hundred children without him? Channelling the ‘why am I even bothering to argue about this’ kind of exhaustion that gods of death tend to have when faced with epic love stories, he allowed Savitri a free choice of wishes and she asked, of course, for her husband’s life. Yama not only restored Satyavan, he honoured her other wishes in genuine goodwill and gave her his blessing.

For Satyavan, death was like a brief and passing sleep. When he and Savitri returned home, they found Dyumatsena with newly restored eyesight, and a procession of royal ministers arrived shortly afterwards to announce the sudden death of the enemy who exiled him. Savitri was once again a princess – more importantly, she was the woman who outwitted Death.

The festival of Vat Savitri is still celebrated by married women, who fast through the night and pray for their husbands. After all, if there is anyone you’d want on your side to protect your loved ones, it would certainly be her.

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!

Ladies of Legend: Deidre and Grainne

References: http://bardmythologies.com/diarmuid-and-grainne/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pursuit_of_Diarmuid_and_GráinneIrish Folk & Fairy Tales Omnibus (Time Warner Books, 2005) by Michael Scott, http://www.timelessmyths.com/celtic/ossian.html#Pursuit, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loathly_lady#Diarmuid, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney

Trigger warning: references to suicide and sexual coercion

Irish mythology is filled with the stories of sad women, and these are two of the saddest. They never met, but there is a thematic resonance between them: theirs are the stories of jealous kings, reckless hearts and unnecessarily tragic love.

During a rowdy feast at the house of the bard Fedlimid, the heavily pregnant mistress of the house patiently waited on the men until they had all drunk themselves under the table, before retreating to her chamber to rest. No sooner had she reached the room, however, than her unborn child began to scream. Everyone woke in uproar. Fedlimid’s wife turned to the druid Cathbad for an explanation of what was happening. He laid a hand on her belly, and prophesied that she would give birth to a beautiful golden-haired girl, beloved by great warriors and kings. A few days later, however, when the baby was born, Cathbad made a second, much darker prophecy: that the baby girl, named Deidre, would bring shame and ruin to her land, that she would bring about the banishment of the sons of Usnach and the desertion of the warrior Fergus.

Fedlimid’s household were so horrified by this prophecy that some demanded the baby be killed. King Conchobar of Ulster, however, commanded that Deidre be brought to his palace, to be raised there and to in due time become his wife. He believed this arrangement would be enough to avert the prophecy. He was, needless to say, a very arrogant man.

Deidre grew up into a very beautiful young woman, golden-haired and blue-eyed, just as the druid had predicted – so beautiful that Conchobar grew possessive of her and housed her in isolation, much as one might lock up a prized piece of jewellery in a box. The only people Deidre was allowed to see were her foster-parents and a very stubborn (female!) satirist called Leborcham. One day the two women were watching Deidre’s foster father butchering a calf outside when a raven alighted on the snow to drink the spilled blood. “I could only love a man with those three colours,” Deidre claimed. “His hair must be as black as that raven, his cheeks must be as ruddy as the calf’s blood, and his skin should be as white as snow.”

If that sounds familiar, it should. Snow White’s mother made a similar set of wishes for her child. It would seem that Naoise, the eldest son of Usnach, came by his unusual colouring naturally. Leborcham told Deidre about his existence, which was not necessarily the best decision she could have made. Naoise was also an extraordinarily gifted singer, a powerful warrior and a skilled hunter. One day Deidre heard Naoise singing and sought him out. Recognising her as the future bride of the king, he was wary, but Deidre was having none of that; she pounced on him, seizing hold of his ears. “These two ears will be your shame and mockery, unless you take me away with you,” she told him, laughing. Naoise sang to call his brothers Ardan and Ainle to him and explained the command Deidre had laid on him. They all apparently saw the command as inescapable, because instead of trying to dissuade her, they decided to take her and escape to another kingdom.

The brothers and their followers journeyed through Ireland with the wrath of Conchobar always biting at their heels. In time they crossed the sea to England, first as cattle raiders, then as warriors in the service of the king. Deidre was once again kept in seclusion, but unfortunately the king’s steward spotted her in Naoise’s bed early one morning and decided that she would make the perfect queen. Her being very obviously taken was no problem at all – the steward only needed permission to have Naoise killed. The king of England, however, ordered that Deidre be wooed in secret first.

Deidre could not have been less interested. She repeated every promise and bribe to Naoise. The king sent the sons of Usnach on increasingly dangerous tasks, in the hope they would be killed, but they came back safely every time. Finally, the king instructed two of his guards to kill Naoise while he lay sleeping. Deidre heard of the plot in time and her whole party escaped.

The brothers had friends in Ulster who chose to blame the whole situation on Deidre and urged Conchobar to forgive and forget. Conchobar offered a safe return home, with his warriors Fergus, Dubhthach and Cormac as guarantors, and gave only one stipulation: the brothers were not to eat until they arrived at Conchobar’s table. Deidre suspected the worst. Prone to visions of darkness of her own, she argued to stay in England, but the homesick brothers agreed to Conchobar’s terms.

He betrayed them, as Deidre had said he would. According to one account, a band of mercenaries lay in wait, rising up when the brothers came in view. Naoise was stabbed with a spear, and when Fergus’s son leapt to shield his fallen friend, he was murdered too. The brothers and their friends fought fiercely, but were overcome by the number of opponents. There is another account in which Cathbad enchanted the brothers, making them believe that waves were rising up around them on dry land; Cathbad believed that Conchobar would spare them, but instead the king had all three beheaded at one stroke with Naoise’s sword Retaliator. When the guarantors heard of the treachery, there was war between them and Conchobar. Fergus did indeed desert Ulster, leaving to serve Queen Medb. Cathbad laid a curse on Conchobar and on his land. And Deidre was left alone for Conchbar to claim.

In one version, she lived as Conchobar’s bride for a year, so deep in grief that no one could so much as make her smile. She hated everyone at the court, most of all Conchobar and Eoghan, leader of the mercenaries, and she was not afraid of saying so. Conchobar’s pride couldn’t take that. He gave her to Eoghan, who placed her in his chariot and tied her up so that she couldn’t run – but that did not stop Deidre, who threw herself over the side and died in the fall. In another version, Conchobar never got his hands on her. She dashed her head open on a rock rather than return to him. Her friends had her buried beside Naoise and from each grave grew a pine tree, the branches entwined, inseparable. Thus ends one of the Three Sorrows of Storytelling.

Deidre was treated as a thing from birth; loving Naoise wasn’t just a rebellion, it was a deliberate act of escape. It’s a classic Helen of Troy situation – men choose to kill each other and say it was a woman’s fault. If there was a prophecy of future wrongs to be made about anyone, it should have been Conchobar.

Grainne was the daughter of Cormac, the High King of Ireland, and Queen Aeta. When Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna – a famous band of warriors – paid court to her, both she and her father consented, but at the celebratory feast Grainne actually saw Fionn, who was much too old for her. She also saw Diarmait O’Duibhn, who was not.

He was one of Finn’s warriors and very handsome, with a beauty mark on his cheek that made any woman who saw him love him. As such, it’s hardly surprising that he had already played one of the lead roles in a tragic romance. Years ago, an ugly old woman who had wandered the world alone for seven years came to the lodge where the Fianna were sleeping, begging each warrior in turn to share the warmth of his bedroll with her. Only Diarmait took pity on her. In the morning, she awoke as a beautiful young woman, and she became Diarmait’s wife. She gave him the house he had always wanted by the sea, and all she asked of him was that he never mention how she had looked when they first met. Basic courtesy, you might think! But when she gave away the pups of his hunting dog to his friends, he rubbed her face in how noble he had been that one time, and in doing so he lost everything. She vanished. Diarmait’s search for her led him into the Otherworld, where he discovered that she was the king’s daughter and deathly ill. He saved her with a cup of healing water, but the price was that his love for her ended with her sickness.

He returned home to the Fianna, and met another beautiful princess. This one, however, was made of harder stuff, and what she wanted, she got.

Grainne sent around a drinking-horn of drugged wine, but did not offer it to Diarmait, so he was left awake. She told him that she loved him, and asked for his love in return. When he refused out of loyalty to his chieftain, Grainne laid a geasa – a bond – on him to run away with her.

When his fellow Fianna woke, Diarmait went around to each of them with his dilemma, and each told him that he could not break the geasa. Even Finn, when told the same story without Grainne’s name attached to it, gave the same advice. So that night Diarmait fled with Grainne. For some time they travelled together in a state of sexually frustrated antagonism, with Diarmait leaving small signs where she had slept to tell Fionn that Grainne was not his lover. As they were crossing a ford, a splash of water wet Grainne’s thigh and she remarked acerbically that it was braver than Diarmait was. She may have forced him into running away with her, but she needled him into bed.

Diarmait wove her a hut to sleep in, surrounded by a fence with seven doors. When the Fianna finally caught them up, the odds looked very bad. Diarmait had an impressive ally on his side, however: his foster-father Angus, the Irish god of love. Angus came to the lovers with a mantle of invisibility, offering to spirit them away. Diarmait’s pride wouldn’t allow him to leave in that eminently advisable way, but he asked Angus to take Grainne to safety. Nor were the Fianna really against him; of the seven doors, five were guarded by good friends who would have let Diarmait pass without bloodshed. It was his choice to go out of the one guarded by Fionn himself, and to do so with such a dramatically high leap that no one could catch him. Pure show-offery. He caught up with Angus and Grainne, unharmed.

Angus advised the lovers to never hide in a tree with one trunk, to never rest in a cave with one entrance, to never land on an island with one channel of approach, not to eat where they cooked and sleep where they ate, and where they slept once, to never sleep again – in short, to never ever stop moving. That was enough for a time, but Fionn was always hunting them. Knowing that he could not trust his own men to capture Diarmait, he sent other warriors to do the deed.

Diarmait and Grainne befriended the giant Muadhan, who travelled with them for a while as a protector. While the  group were sheltering in a cave, three warriors came to camp in the same place and talked of pursuing Diarmait without realising the man himself was before them. Which does rather raise the question of how they were expecting to find him at all? Diarmait solemnly informed them that he had learned tricks from the hero they hunted, and would show them how dangerous their quest was. He then proceeded to slaughter the champions’ followers and left the champions themselves tied up on the beach. He also evaded their venomous (venomous?) hounds.

There was a rowan tree guarded by a one-eyed giant named Sharvan the Surly, who looked so terrifying that no warrior dared cross into his lands, making his general vicinity a good place for determined outlaws to hang out. Diarmait, who after all was very charming, managed to sweet-talk Sharvan into letting the lovers camp indefinitely on his lands. The only rule was that they were never to eat the berries of the tree. So of course, Grainne desperately wanted the berries. She was pregnant and the cravings were unbearable. When she told Diarmait, he took her request to Sharvan, only to be flatly denied. Diarmait then fought the giant and won. Sharvan died; Diarmait fetched Grainne and the two of them climbed the tree to eat the sweetest berries in the higher branches.

Fionn heard of Sharvan’s death and knew instinctively that Diarmait had killed him. He arranged his men underneath the tree and decided to lure Diarmait out with a game of chess, played against his son Oisin. Every time Oisin went to make a move that would lead to his defeat, a berry fell on the place he ought to move. Only one man in Ireland could beat Fionn at chess, and when Oisin managed that for the first time, Fionn knew he had been guided by Diarmait. Another extraordinary leap saved Diarmait from capture, and Angus swept Grainne away in his cloak.

Fionn called on his old nurse, likely to have been the druidess Bodhmall, who was also Fionn’s aunt. She flew through the air on a water lily and when she caught up to Diarmait, she pierced his shield with poisoned darts. Though the pain was agonising, Diarmait managed to retaliate in kind, killing her with a spear. What was more, he survived afterwards.

Diarmait and Grainne had five children together, four sons and a daughter, and if ANYONE can find out what their names were, have mercy and tell me. Not one of my sources names one of them. Life on the run with a large family was hellish, one would imagine. Between the imploding Fianna and the actual god of love pointing out the absurdity of the situation, Fionn finally gave up on the pursuit and allowed the lovers to live in peace. Diarmait had a fort built for his family, named Rath Grainia after Grainne, and he even managed to salvage some of his friendship with Fionn. There are versions in which Fionn eventually married Grainne’s sister, Ailbe Grúadbrecc.

But he never quite lost his desire for vengeance.

Grainne missed her father and Diarmait missed his comrades from the Fianna. Grainne convinced him to invite their nearest, dearest and most deadly to a feast, including Fionn as a gesture of goodwill. That night, as the household slept, Diarmait woke to the sound of hunting hounds. Each time he woke, Grainne – for all her sweet overtures, not trusting Fionn an inch – convinced him not to leave the bed. In the morning, she could not convince him to leave the matter be, or go outside with his armour on and his best weapons to hand.

What happened next depends on the version you read. In one, Fionn’s intentions were not actively destructive. Diarmait’s father had murdered Diarmait’s half-brother Roc, and the dead boy had been transformed into a savage boar for the sole purpose of exacting revenge. Fionn warned Diarmait of the danger, and Diarmait chose to disregard that warning. In this version, Diarmait killed the boar but was gored in the process. In an alternative account, Fionn knew exactly what he was doing. Diarmait survived the boar hunt uninjured, but Fionn asked him to measure out the beast’s skin with his bare feet, and Diarmait’s heel was pierced by a poisoned bristle.

Diarmait lay dying. If Fionn brought him a drink of water between his hands, he would be healed; Fionn had once stuck his thumb in the cauldron of Cerridwen, and ever after there was a magic in it. Fionn went to the river, but let the water trickle away as he remembered Diarmait’s elopement with Grainne. Torn by the old friendship, he returned to fetch more water, only to let it trickle away again. The third time, he pulled himself together and brought the water to Diarmait’s mouth – but too late. By then, Diarmait was dead.

Angus would not let the Fianna bury his foster-son. He took the body away with him, and through his divine arts, sometimes gave it what little life he could, so that he could speak with Diarmait again. Even in her grief, Grainne was relieved Angus had what was left of her husband in his keeping. What else she felt varies widely in different accounts. In one version, Fionn was not married to Ailbe, and paid court to Grainne again. Though at first she scorned him, she finally agreed to be his wife. In another version, she died of a broken heart.

In a third version, she raised her boys on a diet of fury to avenge their father. Not that they really needed to, in the end – Diarmait’s death was the beginning of the end for the Fianna.

Grainne was not a kind woman. When she saw something she wanted, she went after it without giving a damn about the consequences to herself or to anyone else. She essentially kidnapped Diarmait and taunted him into sleeping with her. But damn, what a hurricane of a personality. I like to think she did live, and raged, and Fionn knew better than to set foot near her for the rest of his days.

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!