The Vanishing of Cormac
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle
The Vanishing of Cormac, when the king goes missing
Tierna the Historian was one of the many chroniclers and monks who wrote the tales of ancient Irish legends, telling us of strange and notable events in the almost forgotten past, the deeds of heroes and kings, and in one case, the disappearance of the High king himself! For it was by Tierna's hand we know that High King Cormac went missing for a full seven months, and none knew where he'd gone until his return.
It happened that one day Cormac was leaning over the walls of Tara when he spotted a twinkling light in the distance coming towards him across the plains. He squinted to see clearly and a young man came into view, dressed in splendid robes and finely costumed. Over his shoulder he carried a long stick from which hung nine golden bells in the shape of apples.
When he shook the branch the nine apples beat against each other and made music so sweet that there was no pain or sorrow in the world that a man would not forget while he listened to it.
Running out to the youth, Cormac asked him whose stick it was that he carried.
“It is my own and no others,” said the young man.
“Fine it is and easy on my ears,” said Cormac, “will you sell it to me?”
“I own nothing I wouldn't sell for the right price,” replied the youth.
“And what price is that?” asked Cormac.
“Whatever price I ask!” said the fair young lad, and so Cormac agreed to give him whatever he'd like, for the enchantment of the nine-belled stick was heavy on him. So he was given the stick and then the young man said:
“My price is no less than your wife, your son, and your daughter!”
They went into Tara and Cormac came upon his wife and children. “That's a mighty fine treasure you have in your hand there Cormac!” exclaimed Ethne.
“So it is,” said Cormac, “and steep is the price by which it was bought.”
“What price is that?” asked Ethne curiously.
“Yourself and the two kids,” said Cormac.
“Are you joking!” she cried in dismay, and the three of them wept and begged, but Cormac shook the bells and the soft lilting tones calmed them and made them forget, so the young man led them across the plain of Bregia and into the mists from which he'd come.
The people of Ireland were sore upset at this turn of events for Ethne was popular and the children much beloved, so they grumbled and muttered against the High King, until he shook the stick and their grievous sorrow turned to joy.
A year went by after this, and Cormac missed his wife and children, and the bell-branch couldn't bring him forgetfulness of them. So one morning he took the branch and went out alone from Tara over the plain, taking the direction in which they had passed away a year before, and soon little fingers of mist began to curl about his feet, and then to flit by him like long trailing scarves, and he was lost.
Soon though he came out again into sunshine and clear sky, and found himself in a country of beautiful meadows and of woods filled with singing-birds and flowers he'd never seen before, although he was the High King of all Ireland.
On he walked until at last he came to a great and stately mansion with a crowd of men trying to roof it with a thatch made of the wings of strange birds. But when they had half covered the house, their supply of feathers ran short, and they rode off in haste to look for more.
While they were gone a wind arose and whipped away the feathers that were already in place, so the rafters were left bare as before. This happened again and again, as Cormac watched for who knows how long. At last his patience left him and he said, "I see with that you've have been doing this since the beginning of the world, and that you will still be doing it in the end," and with that he went on his way.
Many other strange things he saw, but we'll say nothing about them, till he came to the gateway of a great and lofty Dún, where he entered in and asked hospitality. Out came a tall man dressed in a cloak of blue that changed into silver or to purple as its folds waved in the light, and with him was a woman more beautiful than the daughters of men, her beauty was as that of a tear when it drops from the eyelid, so crystal-pure it was and bright. They greeted Cormac courteously and asked him to stay with them for the night.
Cormac then entered a great hall with pillars of cedar and colourful silken hangings on the walls. In the middle of it was a fireplace onto which was thrown a huge log, and shortly afterwards brought in a young pig which Cormac cut up to roast before the fire. He first put one quarter of the pig to roasting, and then his host said to him,
"Tell us a tale, stranger, and if it's true the quarter will be done as soon as the tale is told."
"You first," said Cormac, "and then your wife, and after that my turn will come."
"Very well," said the host. "This is my tale. I have seven of these swine, and with their flesh the whole world could be fed. When one of them is killed and eaten, I only have to put its bones into the trough and the next morning it is alive and well again." They looked at the fireplace, and sure enough the first quarter of the pig was done and ready to be served.
Then Cormac put on the second quarter, and the woman began her story. "I have seven white cows," she said, "and seven pails are filled with the milk of them each day. Though all the folk in the world were gathered together to drink of this milk, there would be enough and to spare for all." As soon as she had said that, the second quarter of the pig was roasted.
Then Cormac said "I know you now, who you are, for it is Manannan that owns the seven swine of Faery, and it is out of the Land of Promise that he fetched Fand his wife and her seven cows." And with that the third quarter of the pig was done.
"Tell us now," said Manannan, "who you are and why you came here."
Cormac then told his story, of the branch with its nine golden apples and how he had bartered for it his wife and his children, and he was now seeking them through the world. And when he had made an end, the last quarter of the pig was done.
"Come, lets sit and eat," said Manannan, but Cormac said, "Never have I sat down to meat with only two for company."
"Don't worry," said Manannan, "there are more to come!" With that he opened a door in the hall and through it walked Queen Ethne and her two children. And when they had embraced and rejoiced in each other Manannan said, "It was I who took them from you, Cormac, and who gave you the bell-branch, for I wished to bring you here to be my guest for the sake of your wisdom."
Then they all sat down and feasted and made merry, and when they had satisfied themselves with meat and drink, Manannan showed the wonders of his household to King Cormac. He took up a golden cup which stood on the table, and said: "This cup has a magical way about it, for if a lie is spoken over it, it will break into pieces, and if a truth be spoken it will be made whole again."
"Prove this to me," said Cormac. "That is easily done," said Manannan. "Your wife has had a new husband since I carried her off from you." Straightaway the cup fell apart into four pieces. "My husband has lied to thee, Cormac," said Fand, and immediately the cup became whole again.
Cormac then began to question Manannan as to the things he had seen on his travels, and he told him of the house that was being thatched with the wings of birds, and of the men that kept returning ever and again to their work as the wind destroyed it.
And Manannan said, "These, O Cormac, are the men of druids, who seek to save money and treasure of all kinds by their craft, but as fast as they get it, so they spend it, or faster and the result is that they will never be rich."
But when he had said this the golden cup broke into pieces where it stood. Then Cormac said, "The explanation you've given is not true." Manannan smiled, and said, "Nevertheless it will do you, O King, for the truth of this matter may not be known, in case the men of the druids stop roofing the house and it will be covered with common thatch!"
So when they had talked their fill, Cormac and his wife and children were brought to a chamber where they lay down to sleep. But when they woke up on the morrow, they found themselves in the Queen's chamber in the royal palace of Tara, and by Cormac's side were found the bell-branch and the magical cup and the cloth of gold that had covered the table where they sat in the palace of Manannan.
Seven months it was since Cormac had gone out from Tara to search for his wife and children, but it seemed to him that he had been absent but for the space of a single day and night.
On the map below is marked the hill of Tara should you wish to visit!
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