The Emain Macha of my tale is Navan Fort in County Armagh, a hilltop site first occupied in the Neolithic period. At times it may have been a royal residence, for the Irish sagas identify Emain Macha as the principal center for the kings of the Ulaid (that is, the Ulstermen), but it was also a ceremonial site for the goddess Macha.
During the first century BCE, a huge roundhouse was built on the site, forty meters across, with a central, thirteen-meter ridgepole of oak. Not long after its construction, it was filled with stones, and the entire structure was burned, then filled in to create a mound. Although this building seems to have been purely for ritual use, I wonder if its great size influenced the description of Emain Macha as a fort “with three times fifty rooms, paneled in red yew with copper rivets.”
31. These Dreams
Beltaine with its fires came and went, and summer spread its greenery over the hills. Still Sétanta had not returned from Alba, but Emer’s dreams of him began to grow more vivid. Sometimes the dreams were so sweet that she tried in vain to recapture them by sleeping again. In these dreams, he came to her bed and kissed her, and whispered to her. Once, when his breath touched her ear, her whole body convulsed and she opened her eyes, startled.
But from other dreams she awoke gasping in a cold sweat, dreams in which Sétanta’s shape turned to that of a terrifying monster as he hacked men’s arms or legs from their bodies, impaled them on spears, or sliced their bellies open so that their guts fell into their hands. In his battle madness, the very bones of his body transformed and reversed themselves beneath his skin; one eye was sucked into his skull leaving a dark pit, while the other swelled and bulged from his face; every hair of his head stood on end, rigid and sharp as a knife, and a gushing tower of dark matter, like black blood, seemed to explode from the top of his head, as the hero light blazed from his brow. The work of warriors brought glory, but the path to glory was a terrible thing to behold. Nor did he come unscathed from these dream battles, but often sustained dire wounds. Whenever this happened, the dream Sétanta charged ahead as though he felt no pain, but Emer came to consciousness shivering, and leaned over the bedside to vomit.
One morning she noticed a great bustle of activity about her father’s house. Luglochta Loga was not well fortified, for all the men of Mide and Leinster were in accord, and neither the men of Alba nor the Fair Foreigners desired war, but instead preferred to trade. Yet now Forgall was busily directing the excavation of a ditch around the house, and the erection of three palisades.
On Forgall’s orders she was not permitted out of doors, but her eldest brother Scibor came to her and said angrily, “What a trouble you have brought on us, Emer. The Hound of Culann has returned and made his way to Emain Macha. No doubt he will be here soon.”
“Scibor, why can’t Father simply let me go with Sétanta?”
“He has other plans for you. Forgall does not wish an alliance with Ulster, but with Munster. And besides, he doesn’t want to forfeit a bride-price by handing you over.”
“He should have thought of that before he gave his word to Sétanta,” said Emer.
“He supposed the Hound would be dead before it was time to pay,” said Scibor with a shrug and a bitter twist of his mouth. He looked exactly like Forgall when he did that.
“Sétanta may kill you,” she said. “Help me escape.”
He glared at her, his expression scornful. “Stay here and don’t make any more trouble, sister, or it will be the worse for you.”
After three further days of preparations, she rose one morning to find herself locked in her chamber. Forgall hadn’t even bothered to leave her some bread to break her fast. Soon she heard the shouts of men, the clatter of chariots, the neighing of horses, the clash of swords. The shouts turned to screams of agony, and she pounded on her door. “Let me out! Scibor, Ibor, Cat! Fiall, my sister, are you there? I can tend to the wounded men.” She beat upon the door until her hands were bruised and aching. But nobody heard her.
She sat on her bed with her hands in her lap, trying to ignore the terrible shouts and groans from outside. Then she rose and drew two gowns from her big chest, and laid them on the bed. Over these she spread her best ornaments, her brooches, her ear-drops and rings, and her ivory comb. After some hesitation, she laid her favorite hand loom in the middle, with a half-finished braid still attached to it. She rolled up the gowns tight with her treasures inside, wrapped the whole in a patterned cloth, and pinned it shut. She had expected to bring much more with her when she married, all her furniture and gowns and jewels and cleverly-fashioned tunics and plaids and hangings, and many cauldrons of bronze, and chalices of silver, and gilded jugs. This small bundle would have to do.
Suddenly she heard the bellow of her beloved as he charged into the house. “Emer! Emer!”
“Cú! I am here!”
“Keep away from the door!” She heard a great thud, and then another, before he kicked the heavy door open so violently that it banged against the wall and fell off its hinges. He strode into the room, fierce and bloodied, and crushed her against him.
“Does my sister Fiall live?” she asked.
“She is not here,” he said. “Forgall must have sent her away.” He buried his face in her neck, breathing in deeply, and then kissed her on the mouth.
“My brothers?” she asked when he lifted his lips from hers.
“I spared them. They lie bound outside the house.” His voice was hoarse from shouting the war cry. He maneuvered her backward toward the bed. His mad eyes were burning into her, and his hands gripped her upper arms painfully.
“What of Dónal, my father’s charioteer?”
“He fought bravely, but I lopped his right hand. It will not hold the reins again.” Sétanta pushed her onto the bed and pressed his weight onto her. His manly part, stiff as a dagger, jabbed against her belly.
“Dead. He leapt at me from the roof, but I dodged away, and his fall killed him.”
“Sétanta, listen to me.” He ignored her, pulling at her gown, and running a gore-stained palm up her thigh. “Listen! Your hands are bloody, man of Ulster. I will not lie with you until we are married. I know my worth. Do you think I am your war prize? I, Emer, who agreed to be your wife?”
At this he stopped and stared at her, the madness in his eyes draining away. “Emer, you are right. You deserve far better of me. Let us go from here.”
They left the house, she carrying her little bundle, and looking sorrowfully upon the corpses of her father’s men, and the pitiful form of her father himself, his neck broken, with blood pooling about his head. When they were outside the three palisades, Sétanta suddenly turned to her and said, “I must tell you a thing, and when I do, perhaps you won’t want me as a husband.”
“What is it?” she asked. Had he killed her father after all, or one of her brothers?
“When I was a young lad at Emain Macha, I heard the druid Cathbad teaching the older boys indoors, and they asked whether he had seen anything special concerning that day. He replied that the lad who first took up arms that day would win a name greater than any in Éire. I was playing outside, but I ran to Conchobar’s sleeping room and asked to take arms. He was surprised, but already I had killed Culann’s hound, so he did not deny me.”
He paused, and she waited to hear the rest of the story.
“Then Cathbad entered the room and said that I had run away before hearing all his words. The lad who took up arms that day would win a great name, but live a short life.”
Emer’s heart contracted as though a great fist was squeezing it tightly, but she said, “Even if our married life lasts no more than a day and a night, my Cú, I still wish to be your bride.”
They traveled north with the small troop of Ulstermen Sétanta had brought with him to the seige of Luglochta Loga. Sometimes she rode on horseback before her beloved, and sometimes in the chariot, with Loeg driving. “’Tis a hard road for a gently born lady like yourself,” commented Loeg, “and your father’s house broken.”
“Sétanta spared my brothers,” she said evenly. “Were the cases reversed, they would not have done the same for him.”
“Take this for the memory of your father,” said Loeg, and he handed her a pouch from his own spoils. It was filled with the jewels of the Fair Foreigners, glass beads of marvelous pattern and color. She was unable to speak, but smiled her thanks through tears. Loeg passed the time by telling her of Sétanta’s two glorious horses, the Grey of Macha and Black Sanglain. “They arrived at Súaltam’s house on the same day as Sétanta, two lively colts,” he said. “Only they know whence they came.”
At night, she slept on the ground in her beloved’s arms, the two of them enveloped in the same cloak. Every night, and every morning, she felt his manly part throbbing against her, but he left her a maiden still. She began to think they would never reach Emain Macha.
At last they came in sight of that great dún, and were met by cheering warriors and ladies, and entered the hall. Conchobar’s house was huge, with three times fifty rooms, paneled in red yew with copper rivets. Emer had never seen anything like it. She was taken away by the ladies of the house to be bathed and fed, to have her hair combed and dressed, to be robed in linen and exotic silk. When the ladies would have laden her with gold from their own trousseaux, she politely refused, and opened her small bundle from home, that she might wear her own jewels. That night, they led her into the great hall to sit beside Sétanta at the wedding feast. He looked the better for being home again. He was freshly bathed, his hair was trimmed and plaited —who, she wondered enviously, had enjoyed the privilege of doing this for him?— and he was gorgeously arrayed in garments similar to those he wore on the day she first beheld him, all of white, and red, and gold.
They feasted, and watched acrobats and jugglers, and heard music, and the songs of poets. As the evening wore on, she saw King Conchobar conferring with his men and looking troubled. Sencha the Wise, and Blai the Lord of Lands, and Amergen the Poet, all glanced from her to Sétanta and back at Conchobar, and shook their heads doubtfully.
At last Sencha said, “Dear foster-son of ours, great Forge-Hound, thou knowest that every man of Ulster yields the first night of his bride to our king, Conchobar.” A hush fell over the hall. Emer had not expected this. Surprised, she looked over at Conchobar and his lady Mugain, where they were sitting further up the board. Mugain gazed back at her calmly, but Conchobar would not meet her eye. Beside her, Sétanta stared at Sencha wordlessly, and then his body began to tremble. His cheeks turned white, then red, then white again, and the colors in his irises swirled madly.
“Foster-son, dost thou recognize thy king’s authority?” asked Sencha formally.
Her husband did not answer, but closed his eyes and hugged himself as the shaking grew stronger. The hero-light began to blaze visibly from his brow, and his teeth chattered.
Sencha looked worried, and stepped closer to Conchobar. “He is unable to agree, yet he cannot disobey his king. I fear his wrath,” she heard him say, and there were murmurs throughout the hall. Conchobar’s men kept their eyes on the Hound.
“Peace,” said the druid Cathbad, rising from his seat. “We’ll have no bloodshed on this night of rejoicing. Conchobar, because you are the king and must not yield your authority, Emer shall sleep in your bed tonight.” At this, the murmurs increased, and Sétanta’s shaking began to still. His hand crept to the hilt of his sword. “But because Cúchulainn is your champion, and acts for you,” continued Cathbad, “his wife shall be chaste until she comes to his own bed. I shall sleep between Emer and Conchobar tonight, that he may know his bride is untouched. My daughter’s son, do you consent to this arrangement?”
“I do consent,” said Sétanta, letting go of his sword, and putting his arm about Emer. His face was lightly beaded with sweat. The assembled company in the hall cheered as he kissed her.
That night she lay in her bridal clothing, hair unplaited, beside Cathbad, who stared stonily up at the ceiling, hands crossed over his chest. On Cathbad’s left lay Conchobar in his nightshirt. “It wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, you know,” argued Conchobar. “I have a great deal of experience deflowering maidens. I’ve learned to be gentle, Emer. But Cúchulainn is rough and has few courtesies. He’s likely to cleave you in half with his weapon.”
“Should I agree, it’s you he’s likely to cleave in half, my lord.”
“Silence!” commanded Cathbad in his reverberating voice.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I deliberately contrasted the situation of Aoife, Cúchulainn’s defeated opponent, with that of Emer, his intended bride. At first, still maddened from the ríastrad, he thinks that Emer too is his war captive, but she is able to bring him to his senses, so that he avoids dishonoring both her and himself. Cúchulainn’s charioteer Loeg is notable in the sagas for his wry sense of humor, and also for his kindness and loyalty. I tried to convey some of that sweetness in this chapter.
Scibor, Ibor and Cat are the three sons of Forgall, Emer’s brothers.
The droit du seigneur, or right of the chieftain/king to sleep with his underlings’ women, is an ancient custom which appears in Iron Age and Medieval European lore. It goes back as far as Mesopotamia and the Gilgamesh epic, for powerful men throughout history have claimed sexual access to multiple women as their prerogative–be it through polygamy or less obvious methods. Even in the nineteenth century, aristocratic European men believed it was their right to meddle with daughters of their tenants. So long as they provided for any offspring of these liaisons, they considered their behavior honorable.
The movie Braveheart with Mel Gibson portrayed the Scots’ rebellion against an evil English king claiming the ius primae noctis (“right of the first night”), but historians say that this is inaccurate.