Thursday 16 November 2023

Spells of Sleep, Enchanted Apple Boughs


Following my series of posts on 'Enchanted Sleep and Sleepers' (see links: #1, #2 and #3), here is a sort of appendix: three tales from Irish mythology. The Fenian Cycle tells how Finn son of Cumhail once tried to wed a woman of the Sidhe. He was hunting on the mountain Bearnas Mor with his companions of the Fianna, when a great wild pig turned on their hounds and killed most of them. Then Finn’s hound Bran got a grip on it. It began to scream, and at the noise a tall man came out of the hill. He asked Finn to let the pig go. Finn agreed, and the man led them into the hill of the Sidhe and struck the pig with his Druid rod. At once, it changed into a beautiful young woman whom he called Scathach, the Shadowy One. Whether this is the same Scathach who in the Ulster Cycle teaches warrior-craft to Cuchulain on the Isle of Skye, I do not know. Maybe! The extracts that follow are from Lady Augusta Gregory’s translations in Gods and Fighting Men, 1904.)

And the tall man made a great feast for the Fianna, and then Finn asked the young girl in marriage, and the tall man, her father, said he would give her to him that very night.

            But when night came on, Scathach asked for a harp to be brought to her. One string it had of iron, and one of bronze, and one of silver. And when the iron string would be played, it would set all the hosts of the world crying and ever crying; and when the bright bronze string would be played, it would set them all laughing from the one day to the same hour on the morrow; and when the silver string would be played, all the men of the whole world would fall into a long sleep.

            And it is the sleepy silver string the Shadowy One played upon, till Finn and Bran and all his people were in their heavy sleep.

            And when they awoke at the rising of the sun on the morrow, it is outside on the mountain of Bearnas they were, where they first saw the wild pig. 

In another legend, Bran son of Febal also falls asleep to Otherworldly music: 

One day, in the neighbourhood of his stronghold, Bran went about alone, when he heard music behind him. As often as he looked back, ‘twas still behind him the music was. At last he fell asleep at the music, such was its sweetness. When he awoke from his sleep, he saw close by him a branch of silver with white blossoms, nor was it easy to distinguish the bloom from that branch. 

Bran takes the branch into his royal hall, where a strange woman appears and sings: 

A branch of the apple-tree from Emain

I bring, like those one knows:

Twigs of white silver are on it,

Crystal brows with blossoms. 

After many verses praising the beauty of her home, Emain, the Land of Women, she takes the branch from Bran and vanishes, commanding him to follow her across the sea. Bran sets out with three coracles of nine men each. On the voyage they meet the sea-god Manannan mac Lir driving his chariot over the waves; the god explains that what to Bran and his men seems to be the wild ocean, for him is a fresh plain full of flowers. Arriving at the Land of Women, Bran and his men each take a lover and stay for what feels to be only a year, until his comrade Nechtán mac Colbrain begins to long for Ireland. The woman of the silver branch allows Bran to leave with his companions, but warns them not to set foot on Ireland’s shore. On nearing land, Bran calls out his name to the folk on shore – to discover that centuries have passed and he is now a figure of legend. Nechtán leaps from the boat and crumbles into ashes, and after recounting his story from the boat, Bran sails away, never to be seen again. 

A visitation similar to this Otherworld woman with her sleep-bringing silver branch comes to Cormac, grandson of Conn, King of Teamhair: 

And this is the way it happened. He was by himself in Teamhair one time, and he saw an armed man coming towards him, quiet, with high looks, and having grey hair; a shirt ribbed with gold thread next his skin, broad shoes of white bronze between his feet and the ground, a shining branch having nine apples of red gold on his shoulder. And it is delightful the sound of that branch was, and no one on earth would keep in mind any want or trouble or tiredness when that branch was shaken for him, and whatever trouble there might be on him, he would forget it. 

A complicated story follows. The stranger – who in fact is Manannan mac Lir – gives the branch to Cormac on the condition that he shall receive three gifts in return, whenever he shall ask for them. Perhaps foolishly Cormac agrees to this carte blanche and accepts the branch. 

He went back then into the royal house, and there was wonder on all the people when they saw the branch. And he shook it at them, and it put them all to sleep from that day to the same time on the morrow. 

Wondrous though it is, this sounds most inconvenient... Then things get trickier. The stranger asks first for Cormac’s daughter, then his son, and spirits them both away. Everyone grieves, but when Cormac shakes the branch they forget all their sorrow. For the third gift, the stranger Cormac for his wife. This is granted, but then Cormac sets out to find and rescue his family. He enters a land where Riders of the Sidhe are thatching a hall with the white wings of birds. After more wonders, he comes to a great king’s house and is welcomed as a guest by a tall man and lovely woman. The man is Manannan himself, who after showing him many marvels, sings him to sleep. When Cormac wakes his wife and children are standing before him: and because Cormac kept his word, Manannan swears friendship with him and gives him a magical gold cup which can judge between truth and lies. Next day, Cormac wakes in his own house, his family restored. 

There is no real lapse of time in Cormac’s tale or in Finn’s. An enchanted sleep of a night or twenty-four hours can hardly compare with the lost centuries experienced by characters like King Herla, Rip van Winkle or the Sleeping Beauty. Nevertheless, all three of these tales involve a visit to the Otherworld: the under-hill dwelling of the Sidhe in the adventure of Finn, reminiscent of the caves visited by many characters in my first two posts; and the Land of Women and the Land of Promise - alternative names for the same Otherworld island, the home of Manannan mac Lir. In each tale the heroes cross a boundary between this world and another: they go under the earth or pass over water. In all three tales, a musical instrument figures: the three-stringed harp played by Scathach, the branch of silver apple-blossom which enchants Bran and the branch of golden apples which Cormac desires. These produce enchanting music which sends the hearers into a deep sleep. And the fact that the magical branches are apple-branches is suggestive. 

Miranda Aldhouse-Green, commenting on the story of Bran in her 2015 book The Celtic Myths, says of the Land of Women: 

This Otherworld was the Land of Forever Young (Tir na n’Og) but the enchantment ceased to work if humans returned to their own world of time. The name Avalon, the legendary island burial-place of King Arthur, means ‘Apple-Tree Island’. According to medieval French Arthurian romances, such as the story of the Holy Grail, Avalon was situated at Glastonbury, an ‘island’ in the middle of the marshy, low-lying and apple-rich Somerset Levels. 

Another name for Manannan’s Otherworld island is ‘Emain Ablach’ or ‘Emain of the Apples’, and according to James Mackillup’s wonderful Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (1998), ‘Emain Ablach appears to be one of several Celtic contributions to the Arthurian concept of Avalon’. The apple, he says, was ‘celebrated in numerous functions in Celtic mythology, legend and folklore; it is an emblem of fruitfulness and sometimes a means to immortality.’ I suspect that this immortality is equivalent to death: those given it possess it only for so long as they remain in the Otherworld. To make the return journey, to set foot on mortal soil – is to re-enter time and crumble into dust. 

There is doubtless much more to be said about the enchantments that cause sleep in folklore and fairy tales (think of the Hand of Glory!), but I will revisit the theme another time. 

Picture credits:

The Voyage of Bran: Bran meets Manannan mac Lir.  Tapestry by Terry the Weaver, 1996

1 comment:

  1. To Sharron, I read your very interesting comment, replied to it and then accidentally deleted both as I got rid of some spam. My apologies, and thankyou for leaving it.