Samhain (pronounced sow-in, to rhyme with cow-in) is a Gaelic holiday celebrated on October 31, the same day as American Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve). Like Halloween, it is a time when the “veil” between this world and the Otherworld grows permeable, making visits from the dead or the Sídhe (fairy folk) more likely. Samhain is often mentioned in the Irish sagas, as in this chapter, where it is the occasion of a visit to Cúchulainn by two Sídhe sisters. These fairy women, Fand and Lí Ban, take the form of twin birds joined with a golden chain.
The motif of birds chained together with precious metal occurs in other Irish stories, including “The Children of Lir.” In that tale, a wicked stepmother turns her stepchildren into swans joined by a silver chain and they are doomed to fly about over Lough Derravaragh and other bodies of water for hundreds of years, until the spell is broken.
53. The Birds
“New tidings this morning, Little Hound,” announced Loeg to Emer’s beloved. “They say that a pair of beautiful birds has come to the lake.” The cycle of the year had turned the heavens three times, wheeling the stars about the sky until the day of Samhain dawned again. The Ulstermen had been celebrating for three days now, and would celebrate for three days afterward. Medb’s cattle raid was a year past. The invading forces had been repelled, and although Medb had captured the Donn Cuailgne, her triumph was short-lived, for the great brown bull killed his rival Finnbennach and escaped. Meanwhile the mighty champion of Ulster, his strength fully recovered, was the subject of many a harpist’s song.
“Emer, my love,” said Sétanta. “Now I shall keep the promise I made you these three years since.” They all leapt up and hurried out of the tent and down to the water’s edge, where they spied the two small waterbirds, one a white, pearlescent color and the other a silver-grey. The twin fowls were tethered together by a fine golden chain at their necks, and they flew in tandem, circling closer and closer.
“Good Loeg, fit a stone into my sling.” Sétanta stood eyeing the birds, judging the distance. Not for the first time, Emer thought to herself: He is indeed the comeliest of the men of Éire. And she said, “Husband, if you take my advice, you will not do this thing. For Cepp says that Samhain is a day when the veil between the worlds grows thin, and it is well to tread with care, marking any unusual signs. Surely these birds are far from their true home.”
“I made you a promise,” answered Sétanta. “Do you think you and Cepp can put from me what I have a mind to do? Loeg, the sling.” He cast the stone, and missed. “My grief!” he said, shocked. He fit a second stone to the sling himself, and cast again, missing the birds once more. “I am under a doom,” he observed. “Since the day I first took up arms, I have never missed a cast.” Emer’s heart grew chill within her as he spoke these inauspicious words.
“Give me one of my javelins, Loeg.”
“Cú,” she said, trembling now. “Leave them unharmed. I need no ornaments. I was a fool ever to desire such things.”
“Am I likely to be denied?” he asked, glaring at Loeg, who had hesitated upon hearing her words. Loeg thrust the javelin into his waiting hand, and he cast it furiously at the pearly white bird. It passed cleanly through a wing, and the twin birds quickly swooped and dived together into the water, leaving no trace.
Watching her husband closely, Emer saw that he was angered and deeply troubled, though he tried to hide it. He strode off in the direction of a stone which stood like a sentinel near the lakeshore. Neither she nor Loeg followed, and they exchanged a glance of perfect understanding. When such a mood fell upon Sétanta, it was best to leave him alone. She watched him lie down with his back against the stone, and returned to the tent, her mind in turmoil. Cepp stood outside the tent; she had witnessed the incident, but Emer could not read the expression in the tiny woman’s face. She sighed and began to work on an intricate braid she was weaving for Sétanta’s new green cloak.
After a time, she began to miss him, and to think that no man’s nap ought to last so long. She rose, and Loeg suddenly met her at the door of the tent, looking grim. “You’d better come, and Cepp too,” he said. He was so anxious for them to hurry that he picked up Cepp in his arms, and they ran down to the standing stone. A circle of men had gathered about the stone, gazing in horror at the sleeping figure of her husband. As he slept, he jerked violently this way and that, grunting from time to time. His face and body appeared black and blue.
“Wake him before he dies!” someone cried. But Cepp had already made a sign to Conall Cearnach, who leaned over as she whispered urgently into his ear. “Let him be,” said Conall. “It is an aisling, a vision. We must not interrupt it or he will perish indeed.” Finally Sétanta woke and looked around at them, but he did not speak. “Take him to the estate at Dún Dealgan, where he and Emer dwell,” advised some. But others argued, “He mustn’t be moved. Care for him here until he recovers.”
“No,” said her husband suddenly to Conall Cearnach. His voice was hoarse. “Foster-brother, take me to the Speckled House at Emain Macha, where the arms are kept. Let me lie there.” Then he lapsed into unconsciousness, and spoke no more. They carried him back in a litter, all the way to Emain Macha, where Emer and Cepp nursed him for nearly a year. He seemed comforted by the presence of all the Ulstermen’s arms, and sometimes, when she stood outside the door of the Speckled House, Emer could hear the shields crooning softly to him. His bruises healed, but he had contracted a wasting sickness, and not all Cepp’s skill could restore him to his former strength and health. Nor did he speak a word of his aisling.
Conall Cearnach came from time to time to bear him company on his sickbed, singing songs and telling tales. He told of the quarrel between the two swineherds Bristle and Grunt, who belonged to the Sídhe Kings of Munster and Connacht. These were no ordinary swineherds, but clever shapeshifters and fast friends. When there was a rich mast of acorns in Munster, Grunt would drive his pigs south to share it, and Bristle did the same when the beech nuts in Connacht were plentiful. But at last they fell to arguing over which of them had the greater magic, and after that, the pigs of each came home thin and wasted, no matter how much they feasted on the other’s nuts. The two spent a year quarreling in the shape of birds, a year as river fish, a year as stags, raiding each other’s herds of does. They even became shadowy wraiths, and dragons belching out snow. Finally, they became two maggots named Cruinniuc and Tuinniuc. Cruinniuc fell into a spring in Connacht, where a cow belonging to Medb swallowed him down and bore Finnbennach, the great White-Horned Bull of Connacht. For his part, Tuinniuc fell into a spring at Cuailnge, where a cow swallowed him down and bore the Donn Cuailnge, the great Brown Bull who had been the pride of Ulster.
“And in the end,” finished Conall of the Victories, “Finnbennach battled the Donn, and our great Brown Bull snorted as loud as Lugh’s thunder, and pawed the earth, and performed his feats against the enemy. He bathed the White-Horned in blood, and bellowing in victory, scattered his enemy’s mangled remains over the hills and glens of Ulster.”
Sétanta smiled, the skin wrinkling a little around the corners of his mouth, where his cheeks were wasted. “Foster-brother,” he said in a croaking voice. “This is true, but you forget that the Donn himself died then, once his great battle was ended and his time was over. Now I shall tell you the vision I had after I cast my javelin at the chained birds.” When Emer heard this, she took the cup of strengthening mead from Cepp, and put it to her beloved’s lips before he continued the story.
“I lay with my back against the stone,” he said, “and a woman in a green cloak came smiling to me. She carried a whip. Then another woman joined her, in a five-fold red cloak. She too held a whip, and the two began to strike me with great force. First one of them hit me, and then the other, smiling all the time. After that they went away, leaving me more dead than alive.” He turned to Cepp. “Wee wisewoman, what think you? Were they ladies of the Sídhe, come to punish me for striking the fowl?”
Cepp nodded. “Very likely. I no longer wonder that we have had such a trouble to cure you. Only they who caused your illness can remove it.”
At that moment, a harper entered the room, and they stared at him in astonishment. He was tall and well-made, dressed in kingly garments, and his face was handsome and full of youthful charm.
“Who are you?” asked Emer and Conall Cearnach at the same time.
“I have no thought for you; it is to him I have come to sing,” answered the man. “For I know what it is to be sick and wasting.” Then he began to play, and he sang:
A Hound who wishes to be healed
Must seek the daughters of Áed Abrat,
Lí Ban and Fand of the Silver Hair.
For Labraid Swifthand needs his aid,
The spouse of Lí Ban the Beauteous.
And Fand, the Rarest Pearl of all
Wishes to heal a wasting Hound.
“I am Óengus Óg. Rise now and go to the place of your aisling,” he said to Sétanta. Then he vanished.
Emer’s heart was torn between joy, that her beloved had a chance to be healed, and fear of allowing him to fall into the hands of the Sídhe women. For those who entered the mounds of the Sídhe rarely returned. It was said that those who did came back unchanged after thirty years, while their kinsmen had grown old and grizzled. She shuddered at the thought of her Cú returning healed to find her a wrinkled old woman, and he still in the bloom of his youth.
“Shame on the men of Ulster,” she said bitterly. “They should have scoured the whole world to find a cure for their friend Cúchulainn. If Fergus had fallen into an unwavering sleep, the son of Deichtire would not have rested until he brought him the herb of healing. If it were Celthair the Handsome who lay wasting, Sétanta would journey day and night to bring him aid. Were it you, Conall of the Victories, my Little Hound would have braved all the Sídhe in all the mounds of Éire to save you.”
When Conall was silent and offered no answer to this, she said to her beloved, “Go, blood of my heart. Healed you must be, and it is beyond all the power of the wisewoman, and beyond all the power of my love to restore you. Therefore, rise up, warrior of Ulster. Go to the standing stone; go to the mounds. But if you can, return again to the bed of your bride.”
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The advent of the Sídhe women to Cúchulainn’s life is not very auspicious for him. Despite their great beauty and charm, fairy women (and men) were dangerous, and encounters with them usually ended in disaster. Cúchulainn is only half-human, of course, so his experience will be slightly different. But as I envision it, the great standing stone by the lake, where the fairy women whip him as punishment for striking Fand, is the very same stone to which he will bind himself in the last moments of his life.
The story of the two swineherds, Bristle and Grunt, comes from the Book of Leinster and is part of the Ulster Cycle. You can read a more detailed version here in Patrick Brown’s translation.