Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Friday, January 07, 2005

Whence the singer and her song

Some of the oral legends have it that the mother of ((the Irish Orpheus)) Oisin was a mortal, bewitched by a woman of the Sidhe: others, that she was herself Fionn's leannan-shee, or fairy-love . . . and I have heard her called Niamh, Moän, Liban, and other sweet perilous names.

But the common legend* is that Fionn, wearied of his white love, and wedded a daughter of a great lord of the Ultonians. Then "the other" put the spell of the Fathfith on her, so that she was changed to a hind of the hill.

When her hour was come, she swam the deep water of Loch-nan-'ceall that is near Arisaig in West Argyll, to the little isle in it that is called Sanndraigh.

And there her child and Fionn's child was born. When the swoon of the birthing was past, she forgot, and that of her which was a hind licked the brow of her young. Then she remembered, and licked no more; but, looking, saw that though the enchantment lay upon her still, the spell was broken for her little son. But hair like a fawn's hair grew upon the brow she had licked: and that is why the youngest and fairest of Fionn's sons was given the name of Oisin, the Fawn.

The child was taken to his father's Dûn, and the hind leapt away through the bracken, and swam the loch, and took to the hills--for the fear of Bran and Luath and Breacleit, Fionn's great hounds, was upon her.

Oisin and his mother did not meet again for years upon years. One day, when passing from boyhood to youth, he went with the hunters to the hill of the mountain-deer, but because of a mist he strayed and found himself at last alone and in a solitary place, a green glen set among leaning blue hills, with water running from a place of high piled rocks. He saw a hind pasturing there, more graceful and beautiful than any deer he had ever seen: so great was its beauty that he looked at it as a girl who had never seen an image in water might look at her mirrored face in a pool. Then the spirit of the huntsman stirred within him, and he lifted his spear. The hind looked at him, with sad wistful eyes, brown as hill-water, and slowly he lowered the spear.

"Thrust me not with thy spear, Oisin,"said the hind, "for I am thy mother that bore thee on the isle Sanndraigh in Loch-nan-'ceall. Alone I see thee, and hungry and weary. Come back with me now to my home, fawn of my heart."

They went slowly, side by side, across the green grass to a great rock that in slope was the height of nine men, and was smooth as the blade of a sword. The wife of Fionn breathed upon it, and a hollow was come, and when they had gone in there was no hollow but only a great rock with a slope that was in size the height of nine men and was as smooth as the blade of a sword.

Then, to his exceeding joy, Oisin saw that his mother was spellbound no more, but was a woman, and lovely and young. When they had kissed long with great love, shegave him food to eat and sweet heather-ale to drink, and then sang songs of a music sweeter than any he had ever heard.

For three days it was thus with them, with the sleep of peace at night, where was no night, and the waking of joy at morn, where was no morn, but where Time lay asleep, as the murmur of the unresting sea in the curved hollows of a shell.

Then Oisin remembered Fionn and the hunters, and said he would go out to see them, and set their sorrow at rest. But before he went out of that spellbound place he made a song for his mother, the first of the songs of Oisin, that would be a sian to guard her from the hounds and spears of Fionn and his hunters. Then once more the hollow opened in the smooth cliff of the great rock, and he was in the glen again among the blue hills, and saw a kestrel flying at a great height as though scorning the spread greenness of the land and the spread greyness of the wrinkled sea. And when Oisin was come again to the Dûn of Fionn, there was great wonder as well as great joy, for it was not three hours as it seemed, nor yet three days, as he thought, but three years, that he had been in the secret place of the rocks, and known the food and drink and music of enchantment.


These old myth-covering tales--whether we call them Greek or Aryan or what else--are as the grass that will grow in any land: and the grass of the Vale of Tempe or on the slope of Helicon does not differ from the grass in green Aghadoe or that on the scarps of Hecla by the Hebrid seas. It was but the other day I told an eager listener a tale of one Faruane (Fear-uaine, a "green man") who lived, "in the old ancient days" in a great oak, and had so lived for generationsfor a honeycomb of ages, as the phrase runs and did nothing but watch the clouds sail above the branches and the shadows glide between the tree-boles, and live on sunlight and dew. Then one day, as he was walking lightly on the moss, he saw another world come into the old untroubled wood, and that "world" was a woman. She was young as Niamh the undying, and beautiful as Emer the fair, and bewitching as Liban of the spells; and Faruane grew weary of his calm immortal dream, and longed unwittingly for sorrow and death, for he did not know these companions of the soul, nor even that he longed, nor could he know that a soul was other than a perishable thing of the earth as he himself was. So he moved softly in the sun-warmed dusk of the branches, and came upon the girl (whose name was Moän) among the fern where she stood like a fawn with wide eyes. He was too beautiful for her to fear, and too beautiful for her not to love, and though Moän knew that to give herself in love to a wood-spirit was to live three years in a dream and then die in body and to go away in soul, she put from her all desire of the things she knew and let Faruane kiss her on the lips and take her hand and lead her into the green glades, to be forgotten, beyond the murmuring forest, save in a song that lived like a breath of remembered passion in the gloamings of a thousand years.

But for three years Faruane and Moän knew the Spring rapture and the Summer joy and the Autumn peace and the Winter sleep of the children of earth. She remembered nothing, for her soul was filled with beauty; and she desired nothing, for her mind was hushed with dreams and honied with content.

But when she died, which was as a child falling asleep in a shadowy place of moss and rustling leaves, Faruane faded from the light, and his death was as a sunbeam passing from a green branch; for he had seen her soul stoop and kiss him and go away to its own place, where he could not follow. But they had daughters, and these lived to the fulness of the green hour, which is calm and unaging through many generations of our fevered mortal day. They in turn bore children to other sons of the greenness, the semblance of Moän but in all else of the seed of Faruane; so that they are like the offspring of the clan of men, but fear them and love them not, and may not dwell with them nor near them, nor wed with them. But they love the shadows of leaves, and the sun ripens them as fruit, And they are forgotten, and have no dreams but the dream that is their life.

-- Fiona Macleod, The Works of Fiona Macleod, Vol. V, The Sunset of Old Tales


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