A young woman of immense physical and spiritual beauty, Étaín is a character from Irish mythology with an extraordinary life and story.
Daughter of King Ailill of the Ulaid, later of Ulster chieftain King Etar, and future wife of both Midir of the elfmounds and the mortal Eochaid Feidlech.
She is often described in literature, particularly the Middle Irish text Togail Bruidna Da Derga, as having shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves. Her eyes are recorded to be a vibrant, unnatural blue, and her shape is considered as wavy as sea foam. She is, quite literally, the standard of beauty to which all Irish women are held.
Because of this beauty, she finds herself in a difficult way—loved by two men, a thousand years apart. The chronological tale of Étaín is as follows, beginning with her otherworldly life with Midir of the Tuatha de Danann (‘tribes of the goddess Danu’), and ending with her mortal life with Eochaid.
One of the Tuatha de Danann, the fair-haired warrior Midir lived among the sídhe of Ireland, the fairy race who made their homes in the mounds of the earth. He was wed first to a woman called Fúamnach, but found himself smitten soon after by the beautiful Étaín, who he chose to wed as his second wife. With the aid of his foster son, Oengus—who owed him a great compensation for being blinded by holly during a visit to him—Midir weds Étaín with the permission of her father.
The warrior Midir lived among the sídhe, the fairy-race of Ireland. ‘Fairies’ by Francis Danby, 1840 (Wikimedia Commons)
Étaín quickly became the favorite of Midir and, as a jealous, scorned woman, Fúamnach did everything in her power to rid her husband of the mortal Étaín, at this time the daughter of Ailill of the Ulaid.
Fúamnach casts numerous spells on the unsuspecting mortal, transforming Étaín first into a pool of water, then a worm, and finally into a butterfly. As a butterfly, however, Étaín remains close to her husband who loves her dearly, though has no idea that this creature is his second wife's new form. Nonetheless, he takes the butterfly with him everywhere he goes and soon loses all desire for womanly company. Further angered, Fúamnach forces Étaín away from Midir by creating a wind to blow her away for seven years.
Statue of Midir and Etain in Ardagh, Ireland (Dan Finnan / Flickr)
Unfortunately, the world of the Tuatha de Danann is littered with other relatives and the butterfly Étaín finds herself in the company of Oengus, in some variations Aengus, Midir's foster son. Though Oengus recognizes her as Midir's wife, he does not return her and instead makes her a small windowed chamber from which she can come and go as she pleases, and light enough that he can carry it with him when he goes on his travels.
But when news of Oengus' care of Étaín reaches Fúamnach, she creates yet another wind to blow Étaín away for another seven years, this time forcing the butterfly to land in the goblet of the wife of Etar, Ulster chieftain. Etar's queen unknowingly swallows the butterfly with her wine and becomes pregnant, famously giving birth to Étaín a second time, over a thousand years after Étaín's first birth.
A Victorian era painting of Oengus / Aengus (Wikimedia Commons)
When she grows up in her new life, Étaín has no recollection of her past, and weds Eochaid Airem, High King of Ireland. Interestingly, his brother also falls in love with her and wastes away from his unrequited passion. It is only because Étaín promised her husband to do everything in her power to heal the brother, also named Ailill, that allows Étaín to finally agree to sleep with him in the hopes that it will cure him.
Ironically, Ailill misses the meeting due to a sleeping spell cast upon him by Midir who, in truth, attempts to use a physical glamour so Étaín will sleep with him and remember her former life instead. She is too clever for her former sídhe husband, however, and recognizes that something is amiss.
Three times she refuses to sleep with "Ailill" until Midir finally reveals himself as the true man she is meeting. He tells her of her past with him but refuses to leave her new husband Eochaid and the life she grew to love. However, she does confess that if Eochaid gave her permission to go with Midir, she would not object.
In an attempt to win back his born-again wife, Midir approaches Eochaid in human form numerous times, gambling away all sorts of riches and treasures in an effort to persuade Eochaid. Eochaid, knowing what Midir truly wants, sets the sídhe a series of tasks which Midir completes successfully, after which Midir challenges Eochaid one last time, this time winning and demanding a kiss from Étaín as his prize. However, instead of merely taking what he requested and was granted by Eochaid,
Midir embraces Étaín in such a way that she remembers their former life together, and she allows him to whisk her away to his mound beneath the ground, Brí Léith, believed to be Ardagh Mountain in County Longford.
Depending on the text, the tale ends here, with Midir and Étaín living happily ever after, and Eochaid spending the rest of his life miserable and distressed, digging up every mound—fairy or otherwise—in an attempt to restore his wife.
The oldest version of the story, Tochmarc Étaíne, does go on after the moment of Midir's escape, and tells of Midir's return to Eochaid with one final game and one last attempt to win Étaín back. In the presence of fifty look-a-like Étaíns, Eochaid must choose the one that is his wife and he will be granted her return. The woman Eochaid chooses, however, is his own daughter by Étaín who he impregnates unknowingly before the truth is revealed. In either telling, Eochaid suffers a great personal blow and loss, and is never reunited with his wife.
What is interesting about the tale of Étaín is that it is never begun with the story of her first birth. Rather it instead begins with the introduction of her character to her second husband, Eochaid. She is always referenced as having first been spotted by Eochaid, High King, in the midst of her bathing ritual, utilizing a silver basin over a well. Depicted as a fairy or nymph might have been from Greek mythology, Étaín is caught in the process of washing her long fiery golden hair, combing it through with a precious silver comb, accompanied by fifty maids. Soon after this private moment is observed by the High King, Étaín is wooed and wed by him, and then Eochaid's life takes a turn for the worst.
"The Wooing of Étaín" is as much about Midir and Eochaid's loss, as well as Fúamnach's jealousy. Though Étaín is the central, titular figure, the tale revolves mostly around others' reactions to her presence, or lack thereof, and their desire never to be parted from her. In a way, the story of Étaín is not unlike the Greek myth of Helen of Troy, a woman whose beauty and kidnapping lit the match in the long-pending war between Greece and Troy. Because of this tale's overwhelming emphasis on emotion, "The Wooing of Étaín" remains one of the classics from Irish mythology and literature.
Featured image: A famous scene in Irish mythology. ‘Ossian on the Bank of the Lora’ (Wikimedia Commons)
- Bartlett, Sarah. The Mythology Bible (Sterling: New York, 2009.)
- Castleden, Rodney. The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts (HarperCollins: United Kingdom, 2012.)
- Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas (Penguin Classics: London, 1981.)
- Green, M. Gods of the Celts (Sutton Publishing Limited: United Kingdom, 1986.)
- Bergin, O. and R.I. Best. "Tocharc Étaíne" Tochmarc Étaíne. 2010. Accessed May 13, 2015.http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/G300012.html
By Ryan Stone