This week, I have had to rescue
four five six butterflies from becoming entrapped in my home. Although I have lived in this house seven years now, and keep my doors and windows open all day during summer, I have never had to do this before… moths, yes, plenty of times, and various other flying insects, but butterflies have never previously ventured into my space.
It felt strangely significant to me; what could this gentle invasion mean?
Although the Irish word for butterfly is féilearcán (pronounced fell-er-kun), dealan-dé is a more ancient term for these delightful creatures in the ancient Irish language. It’s precise meaning, however, is somewhat elusive, for as well as meaning butterfly, it also refers to the brightness or lightning of the Gods, and to the magical flame of the Beal-fire, or the need-fire. That the butterfly shares the same name as the fire of the Gods must somehow indicate great magnitude, but if it does, that knowledge seems lost to us now.
What is known, is that in Irish folklore, it was believed that butterflies could readily pass through the veil between this world and the magical realm. In the 1600′s, it was considered very bad luck indeed to kill a white butterfly, for it was thought to be the bearer of the soul of a dead child.
There is a lovely story about a butterfly in Irish mythology, called the Tochmarc Étaín, or The Wooing of Étaín. Although some versions tell of a ‘purple fly’; the description however, is more suited to that of a butterfly, in my opinion. The name Étaín means, appropriately enough, ‘passion’ or jealousy’, but she was also known by the epithet Echraide, or ‘Horse-rider’.
As Irish sagas go, it is rather long and convoluted, and I get the distinct impression that two individual stories may have been melded together at some point in history, whether accidentally or purposefully I don’t know, but I shall attempt to tell the bones of it here. Please note, there is much more to this story than I can relate here, so if you’d like to read the original version (translated, of course!), this is as good a place as any.
The Wooing of Étaín
Étaín was the beautiful daughter of mortal King of Ulster, Aillil. Midir, a chieftain of the Denann fell in love with her, and she became his lover. Unfortunately, Midir was already married, and when his wife, Fumnach heard of this she grew extremely jealous. Using her magic, she transformed Étain into a gorgeous butterfly, and cast her adrift on a storm for seven years.
Eventually, the poor butterfly found sanctuary with Aengus, son of the Dagda, at Brug na Boynne. He was quite fascinated by her, and built her a tiny crystal chamber to keep her safe.
When Fumnach discovered this, her jealousy and rage knew no bounds, because Aengus had been her and Midir’s foster son. Furious at his lack of loyalty, she blasted the butterfly with another wild wind for seven further years, blowing her all the way to Ulster, where she fell into a cup of wine and was consumed by the wife of warrior, Etar. So it was that one thousand and twelve years after she was first conceived by Aillil and his wife, Étaín was reborn, even though she had only been in exile for fourteen years… (are you still with me so far?)
Meanwhile, when Aengus discovered what Fumnach had done, he hunted her down and killed her by ripping off her head, although some say it was Manannán who did this, and that he burned both parts.
Étaín grew up lovely to behold and completely unaware of her past life. She married High King Eochu, and went to live with him and his brother, Aillil ( yes, but this one is not her father). Aillil had also fallen in love with her, and sickened with unrequited love. When Eochu went away on Kingly business, Aillil confessed his desire and the two agreed to a tryst out under the stars.
However, unbeknown to Étaín, Midir cast a sleeping spell on Aillil, and assuming his appearance, took the prince’s place. On the occasion of their third meeting, he confessed, begging her to return to him. She agreed, but only if he persuaded her husband to give his permission.
Some time later, Midir came to the court of Eochu and challenged him to a game of Fidchell. He lost game after game, Eochu setting him more and more outlandish forfeits to complete. Eventually, Midir suggested they play for a kiss from Étaín. Unaware of Midir’s past relationship with his wife, Eochu agreed, flush with the success of his winning streak. This time, Midir won the game, and as he and Étaín embraced, they turned into swans and flew away.