Willingly I would sink down into the house of Hades, O woman like the goddesses, once I had come to your bed.
So speaks the Trojan hero Anchises to Aphrodite, when she appears to him on the slopes of Mount Ida, in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. The wily goddess takes the form of a beautiful young virgin in order to prevent Anchises from suffering any… performance anxiety at the prospect of sleeping with her magnificent self.
In 1948, Mark Severin illustrated the hymn for an edition published by the Golden Cockerel Press, one of the great imprints of the book arts.
The goddess then goes to Mount Ida, intent on seducing Anchises. When he sees her, he pays her the elaborate compliment of saying that she looks like a goddess! She demurely replies that she has been sent to him as an untouched virgin with an ample dowry, and urges him to finalize the arrangements with her father. But Anchises cannot wait to take her to bed.
And when they had gone up to the well-fitted bed, first Anchises took off her bright jewelry of pins and twisted brooches and earrings and necklaces, and loosened her belt and stripped off her shining garments, and laid them down upon a silver-studded seat.
Thus Anchises lay with a goddess, not knowing what he did. Afterwards, Aphrodite laughingly woke him, and asked, “Do I look the same now, as when you first saw me?” And she revealed herself to him in all her divine glory.
Aphrodite reassured her lover that he had nothing to worry about (so long as he never boasted of the union) and that she would bear him a fine son, Aeneas.
This is one of the most entertaining erotic tales of Greek mythology. I tried to capture something of its charm and humor when writing about the consummation of Emer’s marriage with Cúchulainn, even though Emer is no goddess, but much closer to what Aphrodite claimed to be– a respectable maiden of good family!
The morning after Emer’s wedding, she emerged on Conchobar’s arm from the inner bedchamber to the royal dressing room, where her husband was waiting. Conchobar stepped forward, and placed her hand in Sétanta’s. “My blessings on you,” he said, a little peevishly. Cathbad nodded. The eyes of her beloved sought hers, and she answered his questioning look with a smile.
“Foster-father, I return the blessing,” he replied. They walked arm in arm from Conchobar’s rooms, to a different part of Emain Macha, where Sétanta slept.
As soon as the door shut behind them, he turned to her. “Are you truly still untouched?” he said, gathering locks of her hair into his fists, and pulling her head back to plant a long kiss on her mouth.
When she could breathe again, she said, “Yes, husband, Cathbad was a faithful guardian. Though Conchobar explained to me that he had more experience with virgins than you. He said I should expect to be roughly handled.”
Sétanta looked thoughtful. “He said that, did he? Come, wife, to the bed.”
“In the light of morning?” she asked, surprised.
“Why not? We are wed now. And we have delayed our union long enough.” He removed the jewels from her body, and unpinned her bridal robe, and lifted the light linen gown over her head, carefully placing each garment on a stool beside the bed. At length she stood naked before him, her unplaited hair reaching her waist. Emer was unashamed, though it felt strange and new to be naked with a man.
“Take yours off too,” she said, suddenly eager to be together with him, in the way she had dreamed of. In a moment, he had cast his garments to the floor. It was the first time she had seen a man naked and aroused.
“Why, you’re just like our great brown bull at Luglochta Loga, with his big sack and his big pole,” she said. “Only… not quite so big.”
He laughed. “How are you so certain of his size against mine, Emer? Did you measure?” He pulled her down onto the bed, strewn with the thick pelts of wolves, and his naked body met hers. His skin was hot, like the metal of a cauldron that sits over a fire. At first she thought it might burn her. Pressing against him was like lowering oneself into a bath poured straight from the kettle.
Holding her in his arms, he whispered, “At last I have come to the fair plain, the plain of the noble yoke.” He began to kiss her neck and chest, surprising her with his gentle touch. Soon he lapped at her breasts with his warm tongue, circling the nipples first, then suckling like a babe. She jumped when he put his hand between her legs.
“Sshhh, sweet Emer, my joy, my love, my heart.” By degrees her body relaxed as she grew accustomed to his touch, and she suddenly said, “Cú, it feels good. Do that some more.”
He did it some more, and she began to feel a kind of suspense, and a need that she didn’t understand. At last her body convulsed pleasurably, as it had when she dreamed of him, and she moaned his name. Quickly, he spread her legs with his knee and pushed his manly part inside her. There was a stinging sensation, but as he began to stroke her, she thought, Yes. This is my need and my dream.
“It isn’t like the bull and the cow at all,” she commented. “I don’t think the cow enjoys it this much. And I’m glad that your part isn’t very big.”
“Emer, be quiet!” said her beloved, shaking with laughter. “You’ve had your turn, now let me enjoy mine.”
In the days that followed, Emer learned something of the great palace of the Red Branch. Her husband took her to the rooms where the heads of enemies and their trophy weapons were kept, and she gazed on the rows of hollow-eyed skulls. He took her to the Speckled House, where the shields with their gold and silver bosses, and the spears with their gold rings, and the swords with their hilts of boar’s tusk were kept. All the shields had names. Conchobar’s shield was Ochain, the Moaning One, for it moaned whenever he was in danger, and the other shields answered it. There too resided Quick-Hand, the shield of Cúchulainn’s foster-brother Conall Caernach; Gate of Battle, which belonged to Celthair the Handsome, and the Black, Cúchulainn’s very own shield.
Now Conchobar put Cúchulainn in charge of the young men of Ulster, to train them in battle feats, and he had charge of the poets, and the trumpeters, the pipers of warlike songs, and the jesters, whose office it was to speak sharp words, and goad the young men to greater deeds. Emer set up a new loom, and taught the young girls of the house to spin and dye and weave. At night she slept with her husband, and in the morning she plaited his hair and saw that he was properly arrayed.
One day she went to the apothecary chambers where the dyes were kept, and there she met a tiny woman who waddled about on her short legs, wearing a dark green robe with no ornaments.
“Blessings on you, sister. I have seen you bustling about the House, tending to the sick and injured,” she said. “What is your name?”
“Your blessing is returned, sister. I am Cepp, and I serve your husband, but I lend a hand where it’s needed most.”
Emer was intrigued. She suspected that this woman knew much of her dear Cú, and could tell her many things she wished to learn. “How long have you known Sétanta?”
“Since his birth.” The older woman smiled. “He was not a large babe, but he squalled louder than any in Emain Macha when Deichtire and Súaltam brought him on visits. Then he was fostered here, and was never without his hurley, his sling, his bow and darts, his toy spear and shield.” Her expression darkened. “Until the day he took up a man’s arms, and he yet a young boy.”
“He spoke to me of that,” said Emer quickly. “Did Cathbad ever say… Have you any knowledge of… how soon?”
“No,” said Cepp. “It is better not to know.” She led Emer among the racks and shelves, showing her the dyes of woad, and weld, and all the lichens, which yielded every color for the tinting of wool and linen. Emer was impressed with the tiny woman’s knowledge of fibers and their hues, which exceeded even her own. After that, they spoke often.
“Woad first, and then a second wash in madder makes a good purple,” said Cepp one day, when Emer was supervising the dipping of skeins into the vats. “But better than madder is crottle, a lichen of Alba. I have not found an abundant supply here.”
“Did you live in Alba, then?”
“For a time. I went there to serve Sétanta when he trained with Scáthach.”
“What was she like?”
“She was skilled in all the warlike arts, a seeress, a queen. A strong woman whose words were heeded in her house.”
Emer hesitated. “Was she beautiful?”
Cepp glanced up at her. “Yes, black-haired, slim, and graceful, though well muscled, like a man. And not in her first youth. Alba produces such women, warrior queens. Scáthach’s cousin Aoife was another.”
“Yes, I have heard rumors of her, though Sétanta never speaks of it. Did he kill her in battle?”
Cepp shook her head, looking grim. “No. He bested her, but he took her as a war prize, and ransomed her. Do you wish to know whether she was beautiful? The answer is yes. She was as lovely as a red deer, and her hair as rosy. Her eyes were as green as the hills of Éire.”
Emer pondered this. Her own hair was fair as the fibers of flax, and her eyes the same blue as the flax blossom. “A war prize? I suppose that means he slept with her.”
Cepp put down the skeins she was examining. “It was his wish to plant a son in her, and he did.”
“Oh.” It had not occurred to Emer that her Hound had already sired a child by some other woman. She herself had not yet taken up his seed.
Cepp was looking at her gravely now, as though deciding whether to say more. “I gave Aoife the means to destroy the life in her womb, but I do not know what choice she made.”
“Did she ask you for help?” Emer thought it likely that Aoife would refuse to bear her captor’s child. In her place, she would have done the same.
“The Morrígan left signs that day, which I read. She said that Sétanta’s son was fated to die before he reached manhood.” Cepp drew a wavering breath. “At the hands of his own father.”
Emer’s newborn jealousy turned to shock and grief. “Cannot this be prevented?”
“I tried to prevent it, but it was not my choice.” Cepp shook her head, meeting Emer’s eyes. “A woman who loves Sétanta will know many sorrows,” she said firmly. “He will suffer, and you will suffer with him. He will give his love to another woman, and the pain of it will tear at your heart. And he will leave you bereft, well before you grow old. Do you regret your decision in coming to Emain Macha?”
Emer drew herself up and straightened her spine, though her heart was battering itself against her chest. The greatest womanly virtues are friendship, and loyalty, and love. “No, Cepp,” she said. “I have no regrets now, and I never will.”
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The description of Emain Macha is drawn directly from the Irish saga, but Cepp’s interactions with Emer are my creation.