Hell Hath No Fury Like a Fairy Scorned


Picture by Sara McMurray-Day
How about some Irish mythology on this Saturday night? This time, our main subject is Etain, a fairy woman whose main trait seems to have been sex appeal. She was physically described as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and regal in her movements.

Picture by Christina Davis
When the love god Oengus owed a debt to his foster father Midir, the latter said he wanted the most beautiful woman in Ireland. Determining that this was Etain, he performed several tasks to win her for his dad. The only problem is that Midir is already married to a woman named Fuamnach, and she has magical powers.

Picture by Amy Brown
When Midir takes Etain home to be his second wife, Fuamnach turns her into water, which somehow forms into a butterfly. Midir then falls in love with the butterfly, with whether or not he realizes that she’s the same as the woman he married not being entirely clear. So Fuamnach blows her away with a wind, but she’s rescued by Oengus, who keeps her safe in his home. Fuamnach eventually finds Etain there as well, and blows her away to Ulster, where she lands in the glass of a chieftain’s wife named Etar. After being drunk, she is reborn in mortal form to Etar, and grows up to have the same good looks she did before.

Source: Rejected Princesses
She marries Eochaid Airem, the High King of Ireland, but the king’s brother Ailill Angubae also has his eye on her. As it turns out, however, this love on Ailill’s part is actually part of a plot by Midir to win back his wife. When Midir finally gets to talk to Etain (I’m not sure why he couldn’t do this without tormenting Ailill in the process), she is faithful to her current husband. So Midir plays several games of fidchell with the High King, initially letting him win.

Once he builds up Eochaid’s trust, however, he wins and is allowed to embrace and kiss Etain.

While doing this, he turns both of them into swans and flies back to fairyland. Eochaid, who is understandably upset by this, begins a policy of destruction of fairy mounds. This gets Midir’s attention, and he says Eochaid can have Etain back if he can pick her out of a crowd of women who look alike. The woman the High King chooses turns out to be his own daughter with Etain, who was pregnant when Midir took her back. What’s worse, he’d already fathered a daughter with her. As this girl was the product of incest, Eochaid wanted to have her killed by wild animals, but in true fairy tale fashion she is raised by peasants and comes to be the mother of another High King.

As usual, there are different versions of the myth. Some have Etain willingly leaving Midir for Eochaid after the fairy wins her back, then Midir getting his revenge by tricking Eochaid and Etain’s descendant Conaire Mor into breaking his geas. I guess this could have happened even if Etain stayed with Midir, but then I’m not sure why he would have desired revenge.

Regardless, taking out your frustration on someone by messing with their great-grandson is never a very good plan. It’s obviously quite common, though, because otherwise why would Israel and Palestine still be having so many problems? What happened to Fuamnach isn’t entirely clear, but according to her Wikipedia entry she was killed by Oengus, who was tired of her tricks. I’m not sure fairies ever stay dead for long, though.

Picture by Judith Shaw

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