Among the most beloved treasures in the British Museum are the Lewis Chessmen, carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth in the late twelfth century, probably at Trondheim in Norway. Someone, perhaps a merchant, buried a hoard of these and other game pieces (and one belt buckle) on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of what is now Scotland (then, part of Viking Norway). He was probably on his way to Dublin to sell them, but fate intervened.
My taste in chessmen runs to the traditional wooden Staunton pieces, and I usually find elaborate sets distracting. But I would make an exception for these charming little people.
Some of the pieces were originally stained red (not black). They range up to about 10 cm high, and the pawns are not people, but little cylinders with dome tops.
34. Secrets and Gifts
On the plane back to New York, Tabitha showed Rúairí the fruits of her previous night’s labors, a translation of the rest of the Scivius fragment. “This is what comes after he reaches the Amazon’s school,” she said, handing him her notebook.
There he dallied with Atra the daughter of Umbrosa, and lay with the Amazon queen herself. She looked on him with favor and taught him many feats of weaponry, giving him a spear of deadly pain. Having killed her chief of arms, he agreed to be Umbrosa’s champion until his training should be complete. When Candida, a rival Amazon, attacked the realm of Umbrosa, Scivius defeated her and took her captive for a ransom. Having sired a son of her, he returned to the Citadel of the Plain, leaving instructions for the boy to seek him out there once he came of age, and to make way for no man until he reached that place. Upon his return home to claim Parata for his bride, her father refused to surrender her, whereupon Scivius attacked his house and forcibly removed her.
“This is definitely Cúchulainn,” said Rúairí. “There’s no doubt. Atra, that’s Scáthach’s daughter Uathach, whose name means ‘the terrible.’ And Candida must be Aoife, ‘the radiant one.’ She was a Scottish warrior queen who fought Cúchulainn and bore his son. It’s a sad story.” He handed her the notebook. “When the son arrives in Ireland, Cúchulainn kills him as an invader, not realizing his identity.”
I know, she almost said, and sighed. “Rúairí, if I tell you something weird about myself, do you promise not to think the worse of me?”
He unbuckled his seatbelt, ignoring the glowing seatbelt sign, and shifted in his seat so that he was facing her. “Tabitha, I do promise that.” She was taken aback, yet comforted, at how serious he seemed.
“I’ve been having very vivid dreams for the last several weeks. And they’re about Cúchulainn, I’m sure of it. I didn’t realize what they were until I read the manuscript, and heard about his story from you.”
“Vivid dreams about Cúchulainn?” Rúairí looked surprised. “What are they like?” He smiled wickedly. “Do they include any… ah… erotic content? He was known to be quite the lad.”
“Sometimes they do. Last night, for example, I dreamed of his wedding, and his first lovemaking with Emer.” As Rúairí’s grin widened, she said quickly, “But it’s a lot more complicated than that. There’s the prophecy of him killing his own son, and women dyeing wool, and a great house full of shields and swords, with skulls lining the walls, and… it all seems so real to me, even after I wake up.”
“Skulls, eh? Interesting. Are the dreams frightening you? Is that why you’re worried that this is weird?”
“Of course it’s weird!” she said. “Usually dreams don’t make much sense. But these always do. It’s as though I’m inhabiting the bodies of different women who knew him, and the story is marching relentlessly forward, almost every night.” She didn’t mention that occasionally she had normal dreams, and that more than once, these had involved Rúairí himself, carrying her in his arms through a huge labyrinthine house, or laying her on a bed of thick green grass to stroke her breasts. “I was so freaked out by it that I went to see a psychologist. She says that the hero in the dreams is my Jungian animus figure, and I suppressed him when I was growing up, so now he’s coming to bother me.”
He snorted, clearly amused by this, as the flight attendant approached them with the drinks cart. They each ordered a glass of merlot. “Tabitha, that’s one interpretation of what you’re experiencing, but there are others. In my family, we would call it an aisling, a dream vision. They say it can happen to people in certain circumstances, that you see things from another time or place. Or even from a past life.”
“And you believe that? Do you believe in reincarnation, or the supernatural?” she asked, curious. Her own worldview was completely secular and scientific.
“I don’t disbelieve,” he said carefully. “I’m not convinced that we know all there is to know just yet.”
“A skeptic would say it’s all because I’ve been reading this Latin manuscript,” she said in frustration. “In fact, if someone told me my own story, I’d assume that was the explanation. But the dreams began on the day of my job interview, before I ever saw the manuscript. And they have a lot more detail.” She paused for a moment, and added, “The people in the dream place speak a different language. It’s not Latin. The hero isn’t called Scivius. That’s one reason I didn’t make the connection at first.”
“What’s he called?”
“It sounds strange to me. Something like SHAY-don-da.”
“Sétanta?” he repeated. “Yes, that’s Cúchulainn’s given name. Makes perfect sense.” He didn’t seem at all disturbed by the oddity of her having learned the name through a dream.
“God, this is too bizarre. I’m not sure I can handle it. Maybe I should get Dr. Liffey to give me some medication to drug me, so I don’t dream.”
“Dr. Liffey? Are you serious?” Rúairí chuckled. “I wonder if she’s read any Joyce?” Then he saw her expression and said, “Listen, Tabitha, this is going to be okay. There’s a reason the aisling came to you. You don’t know what it is yet, but before this is over, you’ll understand it better.”
“All right. But I’m scared, because I know he dies young. Emer and Cepp are aware of that, and it’s a terrible knowledge for them to bear.”
“She’s this tiny woman with black hair, his biological mother. Not exactly a druid, but a healer and a wisewoman. I don’t know whether she ever had a given name other than that. It means something like ‘stock’ or ‘stump’ to the other people in the dream.”
“I’ve never heard of her, but she’s in your manuscript,” said Rúairí. “Aequa, the lady of horses, was reincarnated and became the mother of Scivius. The horse part sounds like Macha. She’s a horse goddess, like Epona in Gaul or Rhiannon in Wales. Macha is the goddess who gave her name to Emain Macha. You can visit it, you know. It’s a huge earthwork in County Armagh.”
“An earthwork? I suppose it would be. In my dream, it’s a great wooden house with lots of rooms. All the wood is beautifully carved.”
Rúairí was only half listening. “Is his adoptive mother Deichtire also in your dream? How does Cúchulainn react to being adopted?”
“I don’t think he knows,” said Tabitha. “I don’t think anyone knows except the two women and the old druid.” She made a stab at pronouncing his name. “Cathvahh.”
“Is that something with personal significance for you?” asked Rúairí softly. “Not knowing a parent? Not knowing who you really are?”
She immediately looked away. “I don’t think so. I’m pretty certain I know who my parents are.” She could tell that her voice sounded strained. Does he know?
He took the hint. “Hey, I got something for you. At the British Museum.” He leaned over and drew a flat black box from his carryon beneath the seat. It was a miniature chess set, and the pieces were replicas of the twelfth-century Lewis Chessmen from the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.
“For me? Rúairí, they’re beautiful.” The folding board was small enough to sit between two tray-tables. They ordered two more glasses of wine, then set up the pieces. Tabitha was a little surprised to find that he made a worthy opponent, and quite pleased when she won.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I used to be an enthusiastic chess player, but then I didn’t play for about twenty years. The last time I played, my teenaged nephew beat me.
Yaaaah Yu Beeetcha
Hmm Sorry, a closer translation would be
” Yahhhh … Yu … Behhhhhtcha “
Haha! A variation is “Yah, sure, you betcha.” That’s how the LSH says it. It seems very Scandinavian, and has a rhythm to it.
Loving the mystery element…the comparisons between cultures, like the way early civilisations all have a Flood story. Great read!
I like the idea of chess, but I’m rubbish at planning about four moves ahead…and I remember seeing a chess set where all the figures were cats!
A feline chess set! I like that idea, since it matches the ethos of the game–predatory yet subtle. Hard to imagine a doggie equivalent 🙂 Thanks Samantha.
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Paul S said:
Even though it’s years since I’ve played chess, I still keep the pieces and board from my childhood. When I lost my white knight my mum actually made me a replacement out of wood. She’s good that way!
Wow, good for your mom. I have a travel-size chessboard which I have kept from childhood too.