This week I’ve got an offbeat one for you all. For your consideration I present Étaín, heroine of Irish mythology, who: spent her life being shunted around a ludicrous number of suitors; was transformed at various points into a worm, a butterfly, a swan, and a pool of water; and induced one of the strangest pregnancies since Jesus. Onward!
The first part of Étaín’s tale — and honestly, a lot of the rest of it — has no focus at all on Étaín. Instead, it has to do with a really bizarre backstory establishing the debt of one god (Oengus) to another god (Midir). The repaying of the debt has Oengus doing crazy shit to obtain Étaín’s hand in marriage for Midir. Normally I’d omit this backstory and skip to Étaín’s intro, but it is just too weird to gloss over:
- The big-boss god sees the wife of another god (Elcmar), and is like, “I gotta sleep with her.”
- Big boss comes up with some busy work for Elcmar, sleeps with her, and she gets insta-pregnant.
- The big boss is like, “oh man, Elcmar is gonna be *mad*. What do I do? Uh… uh… I know, I’ll speed up time, so she’s pregnant for only a day!” I mean, obviously.
- Bam, Oengus is born. Midir, the big boss’s brother, is quickly saddled with raising the little bastard.
- Oengus grows up, and Midir helps him trick Elcmar out of a bunch of land. Poor Elcmar, he really just gets crapped on in this story.
- While refereeing a game between Oengus’s kid and Elcmar’s kid, Midir loses his eye in a game of what I take to be caber toss.
- Oengus gets Midir healed and is like, “Oh shit man, I’m so sorry. Anything I can do to make it up to you?”
- Midir is like, “Dude, I raised you, I got you land, and I lost an eye for you. You want to settle all that? Why don’t you just get me the most beautiful woman in Ireland.”
Cut to: Étaín. Ding!
So Oengus does a bunch of heroic landscaping to win Étaín for Midir. No, seriously: he cleans rivers, clears brush, and generally makes Ireland prettier. This does the trick, and soon Étaín and Midir are married! Everything is great! Well, except for one thing which maybe should have been brought up earlier. Midir was already married.
Midir’s first wife, Fuamnach, was understandably pissed off. Being a powerful magician, she sets to avenging her honor, by turning Étaín into a pool of water. Then, in the strangest Pokemon evolution ever, she becomes a worm, and then a fly. Or a butterfly. Or dragonfly. Depends on who you ask.
Thankfully, this story predates Rule 34, and we are spared the obvious next step of human-on-butterfly mating mechanics.
Well, Fuamnach finds out about this, shows up at Oengus’s house, and uses magic to set Étaín wandering off again. Oengus then promptly decapitates her.
At this point, it may be useful to address the fact that I’ve not described Étaín in any other terms than “beautiful.” Yeah. The original story didn’t really, either. Between that, and depicting Fuamnach (the only woman with anything approaching agency in the entire story!) as a villainous backstabber, this story has some issues. But if you can put that aside (and granted, that’s a big “if”), I think you can find the story oddly awesome. Anyways, continuing!
So butterfly-Étaín eventually — and I’m talking 1,000-years-later eventually (the timeline is confusing) — lands on a woman’s wine glass and is promptly consumed. But instead of dissolving in stomach acid, she somehow makes her way to the woman’s ovaries and gets the woman pregnant with, uh, herself. It… yeah, it doesn’t make much sense. Anyways, 9 months later, bam, Étaín 2: Electric Boogaloo!
It keeps going for a while, so I’ll try and speed up. Étaín 2 gets married to a king! King-hubby’s brother is like, “oh Étaín 2, you’re so hot, it makes me sick. Literally, I’m bedridden, come take care of me.” Étaín 2 is like, “okay, cool, sure.” Then little bro is like, “hey, maybe if we sleep together, I’ll feel better,” and Étaín 2 is like, “sounds legit.” But surprise, lil bro’s lust was all a nonsensical plot by Midir (who’s just been playing video games for a millennium or something) to romance Étaín 2!
Even though Étaín 2 doesn’t remember him at all, she’s totally cool with marrying him (!), if her husband agrees. So Midir plays her husband in chess (or some game like it) for Étaín 2, and loses. He loses a LOT, ostensibly on purpose. Because Midir loses, he is set to more Irish landscaping duty. Eventually, he does win a game, and claims a kiss from her. However, when Midir gets up close to Étaín 2, he yells, “PSYCH!”, turns them into swans, and flies out through the roof. As you do.
Hubby-king sets about torching every fairy-mound he can (since that’s where godfolk like Midir live) to get her back. Eventually Midir is like, “bro, chill. It’s cool. Here, let’s do this. I’m going to present fifty ladies who all look exactly like Étaín, and if you can pick out the right one from Étaíns 2-51, you can have her back.”
And how does her husband figure out which one’s Étaín? By having them all serve him. Apparently Étaín, besides being beautiful, is an awesome server. This is seriously almost the only characteristic she’s given besides “beautiful.”
“That gal you just knocked up is your daughter, Étaín 3. SHYAMALAN TWIST! MIDIR OUT!”
Daddy/Hubs is like, “GROSS” and orders his new daughter/granddaughter to be tossed into a pit of wild animals. His servants take her out in the woods, apparently just get tired or something, and dump her in a woodsman’s kennel. They also eat all the woodman’s food, because they are dicks.
And that’s basically the end of the story! Étaín 3 grows up to be another pretty queen-type, and Midir gets the girl! Oh, except Elcmar (remember him from way back at the beginning? the guy who got crapped on by life?) shows up later and kills him. Then Oengus kills Elcmar for killing Midir. But after that, though, totally happily ever after!
Whew. So, that was weird. What’s the deal?
Well, the only way to read this story where it makes any sense is as a (very loose) allegory for the history of Ireland. It, and other Irish mythology, were grouped together in a conscious fashion to give Ireland a historical artifact akin to what the Torah is to the Jews. Almost everyone in the story is strongly associated with certain geographical areas of Ireland, and clans of people. If you take Étaín to be a goddess of sovereignty, then her actions (of coupling with any clan that improved Ireland) makes a certain allegorical amount of sense.
Lastly: realize that this is a largely oral history, passed down by bards for generations. It could be that Étaín was far more assertive in an earlier version, and the story we have is the end result of a long-running game of telephone.
I put in a LOT of little details this go-around.
- Étaín’s appearance (eye color, blush, hair color/style, dress color, on and on) were all derived from the stories about her. I figured she’d be annoyed by being constantly traded around, so she’s rolling her eyes.
- She’s dipping her toe in a pool of water with some worms by it, and has a butterfly on the rim of the glass of wine she’s serving (presumably, to herself, in order to deal with the guys around her). The butterfly has Celtic Knot markings and a little purple cape.
- She has a lot of light playing off of her, as I’ve read that her name means The Shining One, although that might be more of a modern re-interpretation.
- Midir and the king are playing Fidchell (the chess analog mentioned earlier), and the king is tossing a piece at Midir, hitting him in his eye. This is a callback to Midir losing his eye in a game earlier in the story.
- Fuamnach, in mid-ground, is conjuring up a wind to blow her around Ireland. The pattern of the wind being summoned also makes a celtic knot.
- The area in the background is a large surviving fairy mound at Newgrange, thought to be the area that Elcmar was tricked out of at the beginning of the story. The stone she’s sitting on is a famous one located at the entrance. Although its modern appearance is apparently drastically different than it was in the olden days (thanks, lilylionandbone!)
- Also, there’s a bunch of horses in the field in front of the fairy mound, as a reference to Étaín’s status as a horse-related goddess.
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Next Time on Rejected Princesses
Raising the red flag about putting trunks in junks.