The Two Wives of Cuchulainn
In the age of heroes, forgotten by all but the storytellers and the legend-weavers, when champions strode the land of Ireland, their halls and Duns now covered in moss, echoing to no songs but those of the blackbird and the red-breasted robin, the people of Ulster were gathered together for a great celebration at Emain Macha, the capital of Ulster.
Samhain it was, when the bonefires burned bright and uncanny shades were given permission to walk between their world and our own, and by tradition should any speak a lie on that day, their own sword would cry out against them.
As the sun was rising Cúchulainn and Sencha the poet were playing chess and waiting for the last guests to arrive, when a flock of beautiful white birds landed on the lake nearby. The women of Ulster cried out with joy to see such glorious creatures, and nothing would do but they had to have a bird to perch on each of their shoulders!
Grumbling, the menfolk got up and tried to catch the birds, but they failed to snare even a single one. Emer, the wife of Cúchulainn, then stood on an oaken stump so all would hear her, and declared that her husband could catch them handily enough.
With that, Cúchulainn threw out his sword in a great arc and knocked down every bird in the flock, killing not a single one, before giving two to each woman present. For all of his skill and generosity though, they were two birds short, and his wife Emer was left with none!
Now Emer was a good and patient woman, not given to vanity, and she told Cúchulainn that it was no bother at all to go without a bird perched on each shoulder, but he'd hear none of it, and searched the skies above for her as well. Before two long, what should he spy but a brace of birds flying towards the company, linked by a chain of red gold, and he let fly with a stone from his sling.
To his shock and bemusement, for the first time in his life, he missed! And a second time he missed with a stone, until in frustration he threw his spear at them and clipped one on the wing, although Sencha told him the birds were magical and to leave them alone.
Well a sour and sorrowful mood took Cúchulainn then, and he stalked off moodily to lay himself down beside a dolmen that was nearby. As he slept, he dreamed, and in his dreams two graceful women came to him, one smiling and one weeping. The smiling lady approached him and took out a whip, lashing him soundly. Then the other woman stopped crying and joined in beating him. One after the other they put stripes on him until he was half dead, and then they left.
Coming to his senses, Cúchulainn found himself beaten black and blue, and he could hardly even stand. For a full year he lay in his bed, tossing and turning and his injuries didn't heal. All throughout the year his wife Emer was slowly growing angrier and angrier, until by the end of it she came to King Conchobar in a fury and shamed himself and the rest of the Red Branch warriors.
Had any of them been so stricken, she said, Cúchulainn would have turned the world upside-down looking for a way to help them! Although they were tongue lashed, they could do nothing to help, for they knew not what ailed him.
Then Emer went to Cúchulainn and sang a song of healing, and slowly some of his great strength returned to him as he remembered his deeds and his fortune. He managed to climb out of bed enough to tell everyone what had happened to him in his dream.
Cathbad the druid nodded at this, recognising the handywork of the Sidhe or fairy folk, and set out back to the standing stone with Cúchulainn to bargain with them for his restoration. Cúchulainn slept again on Samhain's eve, but this time Cathbad also walked in his dreams, whispering in his ear as he slept, and so in this way speaking to the Good People.
He learned that a fairy woman called Liban and her friend Fand had travelled to meet Cúchulainn in the shape of birds and had hoped to offer Fand to him as a wife, for she had been abandoned by her husband Manannán Mac Lir after he discovered her love for Cúchulainn. Since they were met with slung stones and spears though, they were greatly offended and put a curse on him instead!
Liban said she'd heal his sickness and give him Fand as a wife if he'd help her husband, Labraid the Quicksword, in a coming battle against impossible odds on the fairy Plain of Light. Cúchulainn was rightly cautious of dealing with the Sidhe so he sent his charioteer first to take a look, following the birds after he awoke.
He travelled with them over moor and fen, up hill and down hole, through many strange and winding ways, and returned at last to tell Cúchulainn both that the Plain was real and that Fand was enchantingly beautiful. With that, Cúchuainn lifted his spear and agreed to go to the battle.
As he approached, the fairy champions, who clearly hadn't heard of him, laughed aloud, but that was before he slew their king and dozens of their champions. Standing above the mound of defeated enemies on the Plain of Light, he took Fand for his wife and stayed with her for a full month. He had to return then, but promised to meet her by a yew tree which grew on Baile beach.
Well poor Emer was a little put out by all this, as you can well imagine, after going to such great lengths to restore her husband only to find him stolen away by a fairy! She gathered up all the women of Emain Macha and they armed themselves with glittering knives, and set out to cut this budding romance short.
Seeing this vengeful host descending upon them, Fand began screaming and threw herself behind Cúchulainn, but the two women began shrieking at one another. Even the crab scuttled away under their rocks and would have covered their ears if they had any, such was the abuse that was hurled.
After much more of this exchange, Cúchulainn reluctantly agreed to go back with Emer, and Fand started her wailing again. But as her tears touched the salt of the sea, her husband Manannán Mac Lir heard her and realised he still loved her. Overcoming his jealousy, he went to Fand and asked her to pick between the two of them. Fand said there was little difference, the strap, but since Cúchulainn already had a wife she'd go with him. And so with poor grace the unhappy couple descended into the ocean deeps.
But of course neither were things well between Cúchulainn and Emer, for he still pined after the lissome Fand and she was still angry at his betrayal. Constant mutterings and bitter rows they had, spreading bad feeling among all the people of Ulster, until Cathbad for the sake of peace dosed the pair of them with a potion of forgetting, and they rejoined one another as happy man and wife.
These events took place not far from the spot marked on the map below.
Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle
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