The virtues of a story

The anonymous 14th century Irish saga Altram Tige Dá Medar, “The nurturing of the house of two milk-vessels” tells the moving story of Ethne, a young woman of the sidhe, beings similar to humans who are immortal and live inside the barrows and tumuli or Ireland. After being shamed by Finbarr, the brother of his foster-father, Aengus, Ethne can only feed from the milk of two cows brought from India which she herself has to milk. Centuries later, Ethne, who has reached humanity, and hence mortality, by means of her conversion to Christianity, dies in the arms of Saint Patrick. The conclusion of the saga is this as follows:

And Patrick ordered that there should not be sleep or conversation during this story, and not to tell it except to a few good people so that it might be better listened to, many other virtues for it, as is said in this elegy:

Let the grave of generous Ethne be dug by you

in the churchyard over the green-watered Boyne.

After the maiden of the sunny knowledge

Aengus’s host will not be joyous.

I and Aengus skillful in weapons,

two whose secret intention is not the same,

we had not on the surface of this earth

any beloved like Ethne.

I shall leave these virtues

for the story of Ethne from the fair Maigue.

Success in children, success in foster-sister or brother,

to those it may find sleeping with fair women.

If you tell of the fosterage

before going in a ship or vessel,

you will come safe and prosperous

without danger from waves and billows.

If you tell of the fosterage

(before going to a) judgement or a hunting,

your case will be (prosperous)

all will be submissive before you.

To tell the story of Ethne

when bringing home a stately wife,

good the step you have decided on,

it will be a success of spouse and children.

Tell the story of noble Ethne

before going into a new banqueting house,

(you will be) without bitter fight or folly,

without the drawing of valiant, pointed weapons.

Tell to a king of many followers

the story of Ethne to a musical instrument,

he gets not cause to repent it,

provided he listen without conversation.

If you tell this story

to the captives of Ireland,

it will be the same as if were opened

their locks and their bonds.

A blessing on this soul

that was in beautiful Ethne’s body;

everyone who has this elegy

he shall win the goal.

[…]

Let them be written in our schools,

her generous miracles, and let them be seen.

Her body let it be laid out in this world of ours,

in the churchyard let it be buried.

Lilian Duncan, “Altram Tige Dá Medar”, Ériu, vol. 11, 1932, pp. 224-225

Illustration inspired by the image of a Japanese kamon

An intricate business is storytelling

[Saint] Patrick then said, “This is an intricate tale. The sister of Aillén, son of Eogabál, has fallen in love with Manannán, and the wife of Manannán has fallen in love with Aillén.”

“What word other than ‘intricate’ could describe such a tale,” said Benén, given its plot?”

Thus the old saying “an intricate business is storytelling” comes from this.

“Manannán gave his own wife to Aillén, and Áine seduced Manannán,” said Cailte.

Anonymous Irish writer, c. 1200, from A. Dooley and H. Roe (trans.),Tales of the Elders of Ireland: A new Translation of the Acallamna Senórach, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 111.

Illustration inspired by the ceramic bowls of the Hausa people (Nigeria)

The most enduring

maripojapo

Is buaine port ná glór na-éan,

Is buaine focal ná toice an tsaoil.

A tune is more enduring than the song of birds,

and a tale (or word) is more enduring than the wealth of the world.

(Irish proverb)

(Irish proverb, in Robin Gwyndaf, “A Welsh Lake Legends and the Famous Physicians of Myddfai”, Bealoideas, vol. 60-61, 1992-1993, p. 245)

Illustration inspired by a Japanese drawing