Category Archives: Ancient Irish Myths

Sophia in Ireland: Thirteen

It is dawn of the following morning. The companions have regathered as they promised on the Hill of Tara beside the Well from which they had made a hasty exit the night before. Last to arrive is the Narrator, who hurries towards them.

The Narrator speaks to them:

Thank you for coming back. I need to apologize, to explain…
Last evening was the first time I ever left the Storyteller like that. The first time I ever left before she did. Before saying goodbye. But I was tired of her evasions, her way of playing with us. I thought I no longer cared anymore to know who she was… if you could know how I have yearned to ask her that question over the many months I have been visiting her in the Well, how I had counted on her finally revealing who she was with all of you there.

I slept badly. I felt the rough edges of a frayed illusion. I thought the Storyteller was merely a projection, conjured up out of my own need for a sacred feminine presence. I thought I had woven her to my own design, out of threads of words and images and old stories, out of poetry and the writings of the Mystics and the Feminist Theologians. I had invented something that neither mystic nor poet nor theologian could possibly recognize. I had done the very thing that all my life others have warned me not to do: I had let my imagination run away with me.

But I wakened in the deep heart of the night from a dream. No, it was more than dream. It was a memory, a clear recollection of a morning during the journey I made to Egypt in 2008 with a group led by Jean Houston.

In memory, I saw the tiny sanctuary sacred to the goddess Isis on the Island of Philae in the Nile River. Jean is reading something about Isis, a series of sacred names. The writing is from a first or second century Roman, not a Christian. It is the way the Sacred One identifies herself to the man named Lucius that makes the connection for me…

I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity…. I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names…. Her words reminded me of the way that the Hafiz poem began, the one the Storyteller recited… I am every particle of dust and wheat… I am singing from the mouth of animals and birds…

The goddess of many names says to Lucius: Behold, I am come to you in your calamity. I am come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow packing. Soon through my providence shall the sun of your salvation rise. Hearken therefore with care unto what I bid. Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.

In my half-dreaming or remembering, I heard one of the women in our group ask us to call out all the names by which we have known the Sacred Feminine. I remember hearing voice after voice calling out wonderful names. I listened as memory sharpened. Mystical Rose. Tower of Ivory. Gate of Heaven. Many of those names were familiar to me, titles I’d learned as a child, and they had then referred to Mary. I heard in memory my own voice call out: Star of the Sea. Then I heard Jean’s voice, strong, certain: Mary in all her forms.

Mary…Star of the Sea… Mystical Rose.

I was deeply asleep as the old litany danced through my memory.

Stretch your imagination way, way back to the dawn of humankind, to the time when God was imaged as woman, for woman was the one who bled without dying, who gave birth to new life. Long before I heard the Story of Etain, I was beginning to understand that the feminine aspect of the Holy had been buffeted by the winds of patriarchy, left abandoned to the mercies of the sea, only now and then finding a bower of rest in the wisdom of a Mac Og. I may even have begun to guess that the Holy feminine is now, in the fullness of time, coming to new birth through those who are willing to nurture her, to embody her. She is coming through our need for Her, our hunger for Her and for all that She represents.

Through millennia of buffeting, relentless harrying, the holy feminine presence was blown away by the winds of time, until, exhausted, she fell into a cup, was swallowed by the earth, buried in deep darkness where she has waited. Until the time is right. The day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.
This is her time.

I know now the one whom the Storyteller embodies, who she is.

But the knowing is not a resolution of mystery. For Mary herself is only another form, another name among so many. The Storyteller may call herself Brigid, the Celtic name for the Sacred Feminine. Brigid, both goddess and saint, was so strong in the hearts and minds of people at the time of the coming of Christianity, that she endured in the spiritual life of the people and the country. Brigid is today the acceptable face of the Feminine Divine in the Celtic Christian tradition, closely associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

When I set out to return here to find you, I was smiling. My heart was flooded with gladness. Like Etain, I lifted my wings. I flew. I know now and can tell you the truth: Any name will do! We may choose to call this loving presence — which now, in the clear light of morning, I know to be more real than my own breath — we may choose to name her as we wish. She will not be bound by a name.

Everything I’ve told you is true. You may trust it. You may trust me. And above all, you may trust her. With your life. It is our desires that will draw her to us.

We need not return to the Well. She will be where we are.

Note: This concludes the tale of “The Wooing of Etain”. The story itself is translated from ancient Irish manuscripts by Ann Moray and is found in her collection, A Fair Stream of Silver (William Morrow and Company New York 1965). The narration that surrounds Etain’s tale  is from a play written by Anne Kathleen McLaughlin : Silver Stream, Sacred Earth copyright 2017.

 

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Sophia in Ireland: Twelve

crone
The Storyteller looks at us expectantly after ending her tale of Midir and Etain. Shall I leave you now to speak with one another about this story, about transformation in Etain’s life and in your own?

Something in our expressions seems to give her our response.

You don’t feel ready to speak of it? Why ever not, my dears? Have I been all this time with you and you still do not understand? It’s a story of desire. You know well that Celtic mystic, Julian of Norwich, how the Holy One told her, “I am the ground of your desire, the cause of your longing…” and sure haven’t you been reading all about the physicists, how they found that the caterpillar in her cocoon becomes a soup of cells, how the imaginal cells conquer the older caterpillar cells to transform into a butterfly as Etain becomes a purple fly of wondrous size? And then in the womb of Etar‘s wife… Or is it the final transformation you don’t understand… because you have not yet experienced it… the transformation by love into Love?
Do you want me to speak with you about this? to teach you the deeper hidden meaning in the story?

Storyteller looks serious, pauses, considering.

Very well… there is a poem by Hafiz that begins to tell of it.

There is something holy deep inside
Of you that is so ardent and awake
That needs to lie down naked
Next to God.

Hafiz has given you all the teaching you require. His poem speaks of love, the passionate love of the Holy One for you. Hafiz is teaching you of that immense longing for union that is at the deep heart of this story, the longing that kept Midir seeking Etain for a thousand years, giving finally his riches and his labours after losing in the chess game so that he might contrive a way to win her at last from Eochaid. The One whom Hafiz calls the Friend, the Beloved, or sometimes God, is the Holy One who yearns so deeply for you, who is so drawn by your longing that he/she comes to where you dance alone, ready to lift you into the arms of Love. The One who loves you is as full of passion, patience and longing as Midir is for Etain. But there is yet more… Hafiz teaches you one more secret. There is deep within you something so sacred, so holy, that it needs to lie down naked next to God…

The Storyteller adds, with a light playful tone: I could have told you all of that myself when you asked but Hafiz is the better poet.

Now do you understand the story? This is a story of human hunger and longing for love, for deep union. This is a story of the yearning that draws flesh to flesh, that is the allurement that is at the heart of all of life, at the heart of the sacred seeking that first sent humans in quest of the Holy. They sought her among the stars when all the while she lay hidden in the depths of the earth or in the deep sea, in the atoms, the cells, the very stuff of their own bodies.

There is utter silence in the well after she says this.

A listener’s voice breaks through the silence with a question: “Who are you?”

The Storyteller laughs merrily at the question, then says:

Bring your cup and I will pour out God.

In response to our expressions, she adds: Of course that too is Hafiz! Haven’t I told you just now? He’s a better poet than I am.

But another among us asks: “But who are you really?”

The Storyteller begins to sound impatient: Do you still not understand? Why not ask instead who Etain is in the story? In Ireland we name her Aine, or Danu, a name that comes from Anu, the Great Mother of the ancestor gods of the Irish. Aine is ancient and known by many names. She is the womb of life, the vitality in your veins, the sun in your cells. Her breasts are the two hills called the Paps of Anu in Ireland. Her hair flows like the waves, ripples gold like corn. Her eyes hold the starlight, her belly the tors, earth barrows that birth you. Like the cat, the owl, the sow, she eats her young if they are sick or dying. Aine is the cycle of life, the wheel of the seasons. 

We look around at one another, to confirm that we are all feeling the same frustration. A third person speaks: “We don’t want to hear about Aine or Danu or Etain or anyone else just now. Please just tell us who YOU are. “

The Storyteller responds: You want to know who I am?

I am every particle of dust and wheat – you and I
Are ground from the Holy One’s Body. I am rioting at your door;
I am spinning in midair like golden falling leaves
Trying to win your glance.
I am sweetly rolling against your walls and your shores
All night, even though you are asleep. I am singing from
The mouth of animals and birds honoring our
Beloved’s promise and need: to let
you know the Truth.

Storyteller: (examining our faces, reading our expressions) Yes, of course, that, too, is a poem from Hafiz.

One of our group speaks to us with conviction: “We will learn nothing more from the Storyteller today. We may as well leave the well, return to the surface now.”

We begin to stand, to move to the edge of the pool, preparing to swim across to the opening into the well. Some of us have begun swimming upwards to the surface when the Storyteller calls out to us:

Wait!! Are you leaving? Like this? You haven’t said goodbye…..

The Storyteller begins to follow, reaches out, drops her arm, lets us go.

 

Sophia in Ireland: Eleven

The Storyteller is nearing the end of her tale. We listen attentively, hearts astir with wonder. Will Midir win back his love, Etain?

The steward went with all stealth from Tara, and as he watched, it seemed to him that all the men from all the Elf-mounds in the world were raising tumult there, and Midir, standing on a hill, urged on his Fairy Hosts. Then to his surprise, the King’s man saw that the strong dark blue Fairy oxen were yoked by their shoulders so that the pull might be there, and not on their foreheads, as it had always been in Ireland. And as they worked, the hosts of the Elf-mounds sang:

“Heave here, pull there, excellent oxen,
In the hours after sundown,
And none shall know whose
Is the gain or the loss
From the Causeway of Tavrach.”

And the causeway would have been the best in the world, had not the work of the Fairy Hosts been spied upon, but Midir was angry because of this and he left some defects in the work.

Meanwhile the steward returned to Tara, and told the King of the magic he had witnessed during the night, and he told him of the new way he had seen of yoking the oxen so that the pull might be upon their shoulders. When he heard this, Eochaid decreed that henceforth all the oxen in Ireland should be thus yoked, and for this decree he was called Eochaid Air-em, “The Ploughman.”

“There is not on the ridge of the world a magic power to surpass the magic I have seen this night,” the steward said, and as he spoke, Midir appeared before them, his loins girt and an angry look on his face. Eochaid was afraid, but he made Midir welcome.

“It is cruel and unreasonable of you to lay such hardship and affliction on me and on my people, and then to spy on me,” Midir said. “My mind is inflamed against you.”

“I will not give wrath for your rage,” the King said.

“Then,” said the Fairy King, “let us play chess.”

“What stake shall we set upon the game?” Eochaid asked.

“That the loser pays what the winner shall desire,” said Midir of Bri Leith, and they sat down to play. Midir won with ease, and Eochaid’s stake was forfeit.

“You have taken my stake,” he said.

“Had I wished I could have taken it before now.”

“What do you want of me?”

“My arms about Etain, and a kiss from her lips.”

Eochaid was silent. Then he said: “Come one month from today and it shall be given to you.”

Midir left Tara for the Fair Mound of Bri Leith, and Eochaid, losing no time, called the flower of the warriors to his land, and the best war lords in all Ireland, and he mustered them around Tara, without and within, ring upon ring of the heroes of Ireland to guard the Hill of Tara, and the King and Queen were in the centre of the House; and the Courts were locked and guarded by the Men of Strength, and the Men of Hearing, against the Man of Magic who was to come.

Etain was serving wine to the King and the Lords in the midst of the Hall, and as she bent over towards the goblet in the King’s hand, Midir, in the centre of the Royal House, came towards her. He was fair at all times, but on this night he was fairest, and the hosts of Tara were astonished at his beauty, and at the radiance of him. In the silence, the King made him welcome.

“What is pledged to me, let it be given to me,” Midir said.

“I have given the matter little thought,” said the King.

“What is promised is due,” Midir said.

Etain was silent, and her cheeks were red as the scarlet rowanberry, and then, by turn, white as snow.

“Do not blush, Etain,” Midir said to her. “I have been a year seeking you with gifts and treasures, the richest and most beautiful in Ireland. It is not by the dark magic that I have won you.”

“I will not go with you, Midir, unless the King releases me to you,” Etain replied.

“I will never release you,” Eochaid said. “But as for this stake, I willingly allow this warrior to put his arms about you, and to kiss you, here in the middle of the Royal House, while the hosts of Tara look on.”

“It shall be done,” said Midir, and he took his weapons in his left hand, and with his right arm he held Etain round the waist, and as he kissed her, and kissed her again, he bore her away in his embrace, through the skylight of the House.

The men of Ireland rose in shame about their King, and he led them out in hot pursuit. But Eochaid, High King of Ireland, and his hosts, saw only two snow-white swans in full flight over Tara.

 

Etain Midir Ardagh statue

 

A statue in Ardagh, Ireland, honours the transformation of Etain and Midir into swans.

Sophia in Ireland: Ten

The Storyteller holds our gaze as she continues the story of Etain:

On a day in midsummer Eochaid the King arose and went to the high terrace of Tara to look out over the plain of Breg, shimmering in the haze of summer. He could hear the gentle humming of the bees in the flowers around him, and the cries of the nimble deer from the wooded slopes, and the lowing of the heifers, white-backed, short-haired and merry in the soft fields.

Tara_3_Hill[1]

the high terrace of Tara

The cuckoo called with familiar voice, and the early blackbird sang the dawn, and as he looked about him at the fair land, suddenly he saw on the terrace before him a young warrior. He wore a purple cloak, and a golden brooch that reached from one shoulder to the other. He held a five-pointed spear in one hand, and in the other a white-bossed shield. It was richly encrusted with jewels and precious stones that gleamed in the morning sunlight, so that the King could not see the warrior clearly for the radiance of him.

Midhir1

This warrior was not in Tara last night when the gates were locked, he thought, and the Courts have not yet been opened for the day. The visitor walked towards him.
“Welcome to you, Warrior. I do not know you,” the King said.

“It is for that we have come,” said the warrior.

“We do not know you,” the King said again.

“Yet, in truth, I know you well,” the stranger replied.

“Then, in truth, tell me your name.”

“I am Midir of Bri Leith.”

“And what has brought you here?”

“I have come to play chess with you.”

“Of a truth, I am good at chess,” said Eochaid, who was the best chess player in all of Ireland, “but the chessboard is in the House of the Queen, and she is yet asleep.”

“It is of no matter,” said Midir, “I have one here that is not inferior.”

And in a trice, there on the table in front of them, was a silver chessboard with golden men delicately carved by the finest artificers. Each corner of it was lit by a precious stone of golden hue, and the bag for the chessmen was of plaited links of bronze. The King looked down at it.  “It is not inferior,” he said.

“Then what shall be the stake?” Midir asked, and Eochaid said:

“It is of no matter.”

“If you win my stake,” the warrior said, “at the hour of terce tomorrow you shall have from me fifty dark grey steeds with dappled, blood-red heads, and pointed ears, broad-chested, with distended nostrils and slender limbs. Mighty, keen, huge, swift, steady, yet easily yoked with their fifty enamelled reins.”

Eochaid agreed to the stake and the play began. The King won with ease, and the strange warrior left the terrace of Tara, taking his chessboard with him. But when the King arose on the morrow, his opponent was already waiting for him, and he wondered again how the warrior had entered the House before the Courts had been opened. Then he saw fifty darkly beautiful steeds on the Plain of Breg, each with its wrought enamelled bridle, and all other thoughts left his mind. He turned to his visitor.
“This is honourable, indeed,” he said.

“What is promised is due,” said Midir of Bri Leith, and he repeated his words. “What is promised is due”. They sat down again, to play. This time Eochaid asked what the stake should be.

“If you win my stake, you shall have from me fifty young boars, curly-mottled, grey-bellied, blue-backed, with horse’s hoofs to them…and further you shall have fifty gold-hilted swords, and again fifty red-eared cows,” Midir said, “and fifty swords with ivory hilts.”

“It is well,” agreed the King, and again, he won, and the fruits of his winning were there at his House when he wakened. He was filled with wonder, and was counting his rich gains when his foster-father came upon him.

“From whence, Eochaid, is this great wealth?” he asked, surprised, and the King told him of the strange warrior to whom locked doors were no barrier, but who could not defeat him at the chess game. “Have a care, Eochaid,” his foster-father said, “for this is a man of great magic power that has come to you. See that next time you lay heavy burden on him.”

And the King’s foster-father bade him farewell, and left Tara for his own kingdom. The King went out to the terrace, and on the instant Midir was there, and the chessboard ready. Remembering the advice he had been given, Eochaid made the stake, and he put on Midir the famous tasks that are remembered in Ireland to this day.

“If I take your stake,” he said, “you must clear the rocks and stones from the hillocks of Great Meath, and the rushes from the land of Tethba. You must cut down the forest of Breg, and lay a causeway over the Great Bog of Tavrach, and all this you must accomplish in a single night.”

“You lay too much upon me,” Midir said.

“I do not indeed,” the King replied.

“Then grant me this request,” asked Midir. “That none shall be out of doors till the sun shall rise tomorrow.”

“It shall be done,” Eochaid agreed, and they began to play. The King won again, and when Midir left, Eochaid called for his steward and commanded him to go to the Bog of Tavrach, forthwith, and to watch the efforts and the work of that night.

(to be continued)