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Irish Myths and Legends - The Wooing of Etain

Updated on March 27, 2019
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I am interested in summarizing and making accessible some of these lesser known, and sometimes inaccessible legends for people to enjoy.

The Wooing of Etain

This epic, fragmented Irish legend may date to 1,200 years ago and begins with the god Dagda, who falls in love with and seduces the goddess Boand, from which the river Boyne today takes its name.

This union produces a child, Oengus, the god of love and poetry, but as Boand is already married, it is essential to conceal the existence of Oengus.

The Dagda wields his magic to make the passage of nine months seem like only a day, and this is why Oengus is often referred to as the Mac Óg or young son, as he was conceived and born within a single day.

To keep him hidden, he is given in foster care to Midir, the Lord of Brí Léith, who loves Oengus deeply and raises him like his own son.

Oengus grows and prospers to become a Lord in his own right, but disaster strikes when on a visit to his foster sons home, Midir accidentally loses an eye. To atone for this blemish, Oengus brings the physician of the gods, Dian Cecht to heal him, but Midir also asks for another reward;

‘Etain is her name, and she is the fairest and gentlest and most beautiful woman in Ireland’

To win her hand for Midir, Oengus completes many Herculean like tasks set for him by her father, and overcome with joy and love, Midir proudly brings his new bride home to Brí Léith.

However there is a catch. Midir already has a wife, Fuamnach, and when Etain arrives in her home her fury knows no bounds.

Fumanach is trained in the magical arts and in her anger she turns Etain into a pool of water, which evaporates and leaves Etain in the form of a butterfly. She then conjures a storm and drives her away on the wind. For a time Etain finds shelter with Oengus, but Fuamnach discovers her and once again puts her astray in a tempest.

After many years and perilous adventures, Etain falls into the drinking cup of a king named Etar. She is then unknowingly swallowed by his wife and reborn as the daughter of the king. Although this Etain has no memory of previous events, one thousand years have passed, the gods have retired to the realm of the Otherworld and Ireland is ruled by the Milesians (who still inhabit it today).
The High King at this time was Eochaidh and as he had no bride, the provincial kings refused to pay tribute to him. To rectify this situation he seeks the hand of the most beautiful woman in Ireland;

‘Etain, daughter of Etar, for she was his equal in beauty and form and race, in magnificence and youth and high repute’

The two are married and live happily for a time, but once again Etain’s beauty is her undoing, as the king’s own brother, Ailill falls hopelessly in love with her. As his loyalty to the king forbids him to act on his passion, he begins to fade away and die. Despite his brothers plight, Eochaidh is forced to go on a circuit of his kingdom to collect his tributes and so he leaves Etain behind to nurse his dying brother.
From his sickbed, Ailill confesses his love to Etain, and out of her compassion and wish to save his life, she agrees to lie with him. Her only condition is that she will not betray her husband in his own house, so she arranges to meet with Ailill at a nearby hilltop at nightfall.
However, when night arrives, an imposter places Ailill in a magical sleep, assumes his likeness and takes his place to tryst with Etain.
On the third night of the affair, Etain senses something is amiss and when she questions her lover he finally reveals himself as Midir. He explains to Etain that it was he who caused Ailill to become enchanted with her and that even though she has no memory of him, he has loved her for a thousand years.
Midir implores Etain to come away with him to the Otherworld, but even though Ailill is now cured, she refuses to go without the permission of her husband.

Image by Stephen Reid
Image by Stephen Reid

After a millenium of unrequited love, Midir will not be thwarted, and so arrives to Eochaidh Airem’s palace in the form of a finely dressed stranger, where he challenges the king to a game of chess.

Midir loses three times and has to pay heavy wagers in forfeit for his losses.

Lulled into confidence, Eochaidh does not see the trap when Midir requests the wager for the fourth game;

‘I will take a kiss from your beautiful wife Etain’

When Midir is victorious, the king is furious, but tells him to return in one month’s time to collect on his bet.

In the meantime Eochaidh gathered all his armies and guards together and when the appointed day arrived he had the palace completely surrounded with soldiers to prevent any possibility of escape.

Midir appears and is granted admittance. He grasps Etain and embraces her, and then in plain view of the helpless king, he clasps her to his breast and the couple rise through the smoke hole in the roof. Eochaidh and his guards race outside but all that is visible in the sky are two swans that fly away into to West.

A thousand years of pursuit is over.

Irish Name Pronunciation Guide

Ailill - Al - ill

Boand - Boh - an

Dian Cecht - Dee - an - kek -t

Eochaidh - Uch - ee

Etain - Ay - tawn

Etar - Ay - tar

Fuamnach - Foo - am - nack

Midir - Me - er

Oengus - A- on - gus

For more detail

A full and detailed account of this legend is contained in

‘Early Irish Myths and Sagas’

by Jeffrey Gantz,

available at the link below;

More tales like these?

Would you be interested in more short versions of Irish legends?

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