The Wooing of Etain: An Irish Tale of Love, Loss, and Jealousy
A young woman of immense physical and spiritual beauty, Étaín is a character from Irish mythology with an extraordinary life and story. Daughter of King Ailill of the Ulaid, later of Ulster chieftain King Etar, and future wife of both Midir of the elfmounds and the mortal Eochaid Feidlech,, she is often described in literature, particularly the Middle Irish text Togail Bruidna Da Derga, as having shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves. Her eyes are recorded to be a vibrant, unnatural blue, and her shape is considered as wavy as sea foam. She is, quite literally, the standard of beauty to which all Irish women are held. Because of this beauty, she finds herself in a difficult way—loved by two men, a thousand years apart. The chronological tale of Étaín is as follows, beginning with her otherworldly life with Midir of the Tuatha de Danann (‘tribes of the goddess Danu’), and ending with her mortal life with Eochaid.
One of the Tuatha de Danann, the fair-haired warrior Midir lived among the sídhe of Ireland, the fairy race who made their homes in the mounds of the earth. He was wed first to a woman called Fúamnach, but found himself smitten soon after by the beautiful Étaín, who he chose to wed as his second wife. With the aid of his foster son, Oengus—who owed him a great compensation for being blinded by holly during a visit to him—Midir weds Étaín with the permission of her father.
The warrior Midir lived among the sídhe, the fairy-race of Ireland. ‘Fairies’ by Francis Danby, 1840 ( Wikimedia Commons )
Étaín quickly became the favorite of Midir and, as a jealous, scorned woman, Fúamnach did everything in her power to rid her husband of the mortal Étaín, at this time the daughter of Ailill of the Ulaid. Fúamnach casts numerous spells on the unsuspecting mortal, transforming Étaín first into a pool of water, then a worm, and finally into a butterfly. As a butterfly, however, Étaín remains close to her husband who loves her dearly, though has no idea that this creature is his second wife's new form. Nonetheless, he takes the butterfly with him everywhere he goes and soon loses all desire for womanly company. Further angered, Fúamnach forces Étaín away from Midir by creating a wind to blow her away for seven years.
Statue of Midir and Etain in Ardagh, Ireland (Dan Finnan / Flickr)
Unfortunately, the world of the Tuatha de Danann is littered with other relatives and the butterfly Étaín finds herself in the company of Oengus, in some variations Aengus, Midir's foster son. Though Oengus recognizes her as Midir's wife, he does not return her and instead makes her a small windowed chamber from which she can come and go as she pleases, and light enough that he can carry it with him when he goes on his travels. But when news of Oengus' care of Étaín reaches Fúamnach, she creates yet another wind to blow Étaín away for another seven years, this time forcing the butterfly to land in the goblet of the wife of Etar, Ulster chieftain. Etar's queen unknowingly swallows the butterfly with her wine and becomes pregnant, famously giving birth to Étaín a second time, over a thousand years after Étaín's first birth.
A Victorian era painting of Oengus / Aengus ( Wikimedia Commons )
When she grows up in her new life, Étaín has no recollection of her past, and weds Eochaid Airem, High King of Ireland. Interestingly, his brother also falls in love with her and wastes away from his unrequited passion. It is only because Étaín promised her husband to do everything in her power to heal the brother, also named Ailill, that allows Étaín to finally agree to sleep with him in the hopes that it will cure him. Ironically, Ailill misses the meeting due to a sleeping spell cast upon him by Midir who, in truth, attempts to use a physical glamour so Étaín will sleep with him and remember her former life instead. She is too clever for her former sídhe husband, however, and recognizes that something is amiss. Three times she refuses to sleep with "Ailill" until Midir finally reveals himself as the true man she is meeting. He tells her of her past with him but refuses to leave her new husband Eochaid and the life she grew to love. However, she does confess that if Eochaid gave her permission to go with Midir, she would not object.