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Last week, I discussed the Lewis Chessmen. The ancient Celts and Scandinavians had board games of their own, with some similarities to chess. The Irish version, invented by the god Lugh and oft-mentioned in the sagas, was called fidchell. We know little about how fidchell and its cousin-games were played, except that they used a grid or peg board and two sets of game tokens.

The Balinderry game board was probably made in Dublin during the 10th century. It is thought to have been made for a Viking game called Hnefatafl, which would have been closely related to fidchell.

The Waterford game board is a simpler version, also found in Ireland. Game pieces with pegs kept the arrangement secure and would have been handy at sea.

Stunning glass game pieces from the Viking town of Birka, ca. 750. I saw these in the National Museum in Stockholm. (photo from Pinterest, unattributed)

35. Undivided Love

The people of Ulster were celebrating Samhain upon the Plain of Muirthemne, a time when the Ulstermen would do nothing but feast, drink, swap favors at the fair, and perform feats of manly excellence. Occupied as always with her handloom, Emer gazed at her husband with pride. He was sweeter to look upon, and, thanks to her efforts, more magnificently arrayed than any man there. True, his foster-brother Conall Cearnach and his foster-father Amergen had not yet arrived for the Boasting, but she had few fears on that score. They might be larger men, but they were not more beautiful than her beloved.

“Let the Boasting begin!” the people cried. This was a ritual much anticipated by all, when the warriors of Ulster told over the number of men they had killed that year, and the manner of their victories. It was their custom to cut out the tongues of the fallen and keep them in a pouch, though some cheated by adding the tongues of beasts. Yet each man wore his sword at his thigh, and they believed that if a man lied in the Boasting, his very sword would squirm unhappily and cry out against him.

Sétanta, however, chided the Ulstermen, insisting that they could by no means begin the Boasting while his dear comrades were yet absent. “While we wait, let us play fidchell, the game of Lugh, and hear bardic songs, and watch the acrobats perform their feats.” 

As they waited, a flock of birds flew over the lake and landed at the water’s edge. They were beautiful, pert creatures with plump breasts and plumage of silvery grey; a white stripe gleamed over each of their bright eyes. A longing seized the women to possess a pair of these birds, that they might perch tamely on their shoulders as living ornaments. “She whose husband is the most excellent ought to be given a pair of birds,” said Conchobar’s wife Mugain, who confidently believed that as the consort of the king, she would carry off the honors.

“Surely then I ought to leave here with those birds, for my Little Hound is the most excellent of all men,” replied Emer. And the women began to quarrel among themselves, as to which of their men was superior. 

“Peace!” cried Emer at last, thinking that there was an obvious way out of the difficulty. She said to the poetess Leborchamm, “If you will, go ask my husband to catch us a great number of the birds.” 

Leborchamm found Cúchulainn nearby playing fidchell with Loeg. They used charming pieces of amber and ivory, which they moved about an inlaid board, each vying to seize the advantage over the other. “Your wife and the other women of Ulster would be well pleased,” she said, “if those birds were given to them by your hand.”

He frowned at the interruption of his game, and glancing over at Emer and the other women, said loudly, “Have the idle women of Ulster nothing better to do than pine after pet birds?”

“That is unfair of you, Cúchulainn,” Leborchamm rebuked him, “for it is on your account that so many of us have assumed a blemish.” Three of the men of Ulster were the most beloved in the land, men who drew sighs when they passed, and made the women glance at each other and giggle. Conall Cearnach was one, Cúscraid Mend the son of Conchobar was the second, and Cúchulainn himself was the third. Because Conall Cearnach had a slightly crooked gait, the women who loved him imitated his uneven steps. Because Cúscraid Mend stammered, the women who loved him spoke with halting voices. As for Cúchulainn, they said that in his battle madness, when he grew warped and monstrous, he thrust one bulging eye outward, and drew the other so deeply into his head that there was only a black hole left. Thus the women who loved him applied black soot to their right eyes.  

This was a fact that sometimes amused, and sometimes disgusted Emer, for on the one hand, she thought it only to be expected that every woman of Ulster should find her husband desirable, yet on the other hand, it seemed to her that they ought to pay attention to their own husbands, and not pine for hers. She and Cú had been happy, these past ten years. Only one sorrow lay on her heart: there were no babies. Her beloved rarely spoke of it, but she knew that more than anything except the warrior’s glory, he desired a son. 

“Emer, I was aware when I married you that this might happen. It was prophesied to me by Scáthach,” he told her once. “Yet you were my heart’s desire, and I would have no other to wife.” She had shivered at the name of Scáthach, remembering Cepp’s story of his time in Alba, and the son conceived by Aoife. Is he alive upon the earth? she asked herself. No, for Aoife was surely a fierce woman. She would not have borne his child willingly.

Sétanta interrupted these thoughts, calling to Loeg, “Harness the team!” Loeg drove him back and forth beside the lake, and he performed the feat of the soft stone, striking each bird so gently as to stun but not harm it. He leapt on and off the chariot, catching each bird as it fell and placing it in a sack. Then he returned and presented a pair of birds to each woman, but when he reached Emer, all the birds were gone.

“You are angry,” he said, looking sheepishly at her.

“No, Cú, I am not angry, for it is on my account that the birds were distributed. All of these women have received a gift from your hand, but only I have you as my husband. What is more, their love is divided, but my love is all for you.”

“As Tara is above every hill, you are above every mortal woman,” he answered, smiling, and kissed her forehead. “The next time such beautiful birds come to the Plain of Muirthemne, they shall be yours.”

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: The Irish sagas several times speak of elite women wearing birds on their shoulders as ornaments. I suppose it is possible that they actually tamed birds for this purpose, but I imagine that in real life, the birds were fibulae or pins used to secure a shawl or cloak to the main garment. This was a standard component of Viking women’s jewelry, and it may well have been fashionable for Irish ladies too.

This example from Latvia has a bird pendant attached to a pair of oval brooches which rode just below the shoulders.

I have not found any examples of bird-shaped fibulae. The most common shape was the “tortoise,” a large oval which came in pairs.

The tortoise brooches could be quite large, as in this modern reproduction with glass beads (Oliver Skrogrson).

When reading about these ancient Irish ladies, it is difficult to rid one’s mind of the image that they are walking around with living ornaments. Later in this story, Queen Medb has a little pet squirrel which rides about on her shoulder. I am sorry to have to report that Cúchulainn is very mean to it!

The Irish ladies had their “fan clubs” for three of the most admired warriors, Conall Cearnach, Cúscraid Mend, and Cúchulainn himself. As I wrote in this post, I actually softened one of the more outrageous details in the original. The ladies who loved Cúchulainn did not merely blacken one eye with soot, but partially blinded themselves. To be honest, I think this is a joke on the enthusiasms of female “fandom”, with the kind of black humor so beloved of the Irish. I added my own little joke, with Emer’s musings on her husband’s popularity.