Echtra Nerai – The Strange Adventure of Nera, part 2.

This is the second and final part of Echtra Nerai. When we last left our hero, he had gone into the síd of Cruachan after all the Connachtmen had been killed. The king there gave him lodgings in a house run by a lone woman on the condition that he bring a bundle of firewood to the king everyday.

Is it spooky? Less than part one. But there are more cows.

This is the only spooky, cow-related gif I could find.
This is the only spooky, cow-related gif I could find.

Nera did as he was told and went off to the house. The woman inside greeted him, as the king had said she would. “Welcome, sir,” she said. “I assume that the king has sent you”. She arranged his sleeping quarters and fed him for the night. On the next day Nera gathered his bundle of firewood and took it to the king’s palace. As he approached the palace he saw a most unusual thing  – it’s not called the strange adventure of Nera for nothing. He saw a blind man carrying a lame man on his back coming out of the palace. The pair walked past him to a well that stood outside of the fortress. Leaning over the well so that the lame man could look down inside it, the blind man asked “Is it there?”. The lame man replied, “It is, indeed. Let’s go back to the palace”. At that the blind man would carry his companion back inside. Nera saw this on the first day and every day he carried the firewood in after that.

Obligatory Game of Thrones reference.
Obligatory Game of Thrones reference.

After a while Nera couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. Before he set out with the firewood, he asked the woman about the two men. “Why does a blind man carry a lame man to the well outside the fortress everyday? Seems like a lot of effort to stare at some muddy water”. “That’s rich, coming from the man who gave a dead man an ankle bracelet”, the woman replied. “But since you ask, they go to check on the crown which is kept in the well. It’s the same diadem that the king wears from time to time”. “Why is it just a blind man and a lame man then?” asked Nera. “That’s easy enough to say, Nera. They are the only men the king trusts. The blind man cannot find the crown and lame man cannot run off with it.”
As he was getting some good answers about his strange adventures, Nera decided to ask the woman about the odd sight that brought him to this land in the first place. “What did you see, Nera?” she asked. “The strangest thing, it was: after I had replaced the dead man, I thought I saw the whole of Cruachan on fire and all the people of Connacht killed.” “What you saw wasn’t true then,” the woman said. “It was only a vision from the people of the síd of what was to come. Connacht and Cruachan will be destroyed unless you go and warn them.” “How can I go and warn them? I’m stuck here delivering firewood and I’ve no idea where they are,” complained Nera. “Leave here the way you came. Your people are still sitting around that same cauldron as when you left them on Halloween. Indeed, the log they threw on the fire as you went out hasn’t even burned down.” This was quite shocking news, as it had seemed to Nera that he had been almost half a year in the house of the mysterious woman. The woman herself continued, “Tell them to be on their guard against the síd. If Ailill and Medb come to destroy it, they will also carry off the crown in the well; the crown of Briun.”

Why has time stopped in Connacht?
Why has time stopped in Connacht?

Nera liked to complain so he didn’t go immediately. Instead he said, “How will they believe that I’ve been away in the síd all this time?”. The woman advised him to take the fruits of summer with him back to Connacht in autumn. As a final gift, she added this “Before you go, I’ll become pregnant by you and bear you a son”. Nera looked shocked. “Be sure to send us a warning when Ailill and Medb come to destroy the síd so that we can escape, along with your cattle.” This was all too much for Nera, who began the evening fulfilling a Halloween dare.
He returned the fort at Cruachan and found all the people there around the cauldron, just as he had left them. After he was seated back at the feast, he showed them the wild garlic and primrose that he brought back with him and told the assembled host the story of his adventures. He got the sword as a reward for tying the withy around the corpse’s foot (I bet you’d forgotten about that) and the people of Connacht swore to invade the síd in a year’s time. During that year Fergus mac Roich came to Connacht in exile from Ulster – a long story that and full of sadness.

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

The next Halloween Ailill and Medb told Nera to go into the síd to rescue his family and cattle before the people of Connacht began their destruction. When he returned to his house in the síd the woman bade him welcome and thrust a bundle of firewood into his hands, “Quickly take this to the palace of the king. For a whole year I’ve been taking the firewood to the palace and I told everyone there you’ve been dreadful sick. Oh, by the way, that’s your son in the corner.”

So Nera went off to palace carrying the firewood. The king was excessively pleased to see him. “I’m glad you’ve come back alive from your sickness!” he said, “Although I’m not too happy that you’ve fathered a son while staying at my hospitality.” “I’m terribly sorry,” said Nera, “I will, of course, bow to your wishes on that matter.” The king told him not worry, that what was done was done and sent him back to his house.

Nera doesn't give a shit.
Nera doesn’t give a shit.

During the time Nera had been away the mysterious woman had given her new-born son a gift: one of the cows from Nera’s herd. Perfectly fair, if you ask me. That night, before he escaped back to Connacht, the Morrigan took this cow east to Ulster and had the Donn Cuailgne, that famous Ulster bull cover it. On her way back, she had a brief run in with Cú Chulainn but this story already has too many characters, so we’ll just move on.
Nera returned to his house and noticed that his son’s cow was missing. He was greatly berated by his wife because of this – in another example of the hen-pecked husband trope. When the cow finally returned his new wife, perspicacious as ever, recognised that it had been with the Bull of Cuailgne. They were going to have to wait another year, for the cow to calf, before they could leave the síd. Nera returned to Connacht empty handed.When he arrived Ailill and Medb asked him where he had been. “I have been in fair lands”, replied Nera, “where there are great treasures and precious things; many fabulous clothes and food and wonderful artifacts. Those who own these things will come to destroy you in a year’s time, unless you do something about it.” “You told us that last year, Nera.”

Rulers of Connacht and dogs have a lot in common.
Rulers of Connacht and dogs have a lot in common.

Next Halloween it all goes down. The army of Ailill and Medb is drawn up in front of the síd. “Be sure to go now and get whatever you’ve left in the síd, Nera. We’re not waiting another year.” Nera went into the síd then, to get his family and, arguably more importantly, his cattle. While he was away his son’s cow had had a bull calf. As it was being driven out of the síd to Connacht, it gave three loud bellows. They were so loud that they were heard throughout the province. Ailill and the exile Fergus mac Roích heard them as they were playing fidchell. Fergus’s usually morose countenance looked even more dark then. He knew that bull calf meant trouble.
When the calf came to Connacht he immediately sought out Aillil’s prize bull, the Finnbennach. They fought in the plain before the fort for a day and a night, until finally the calf was beaten. No real surprise there. As the calf was dying it let out a final, piteous bellow. “Why did the calf bellow like that?” Medb asked her cowherd. Before he could answer Bricriu, famous dick, turned to his Ulster compatriot Fergus: “You let out a cry like that this morning, didn’t you, mate?” Fergus was so enraged by this jibe that he didn’t even put down the fidchell pieces that were in his hand before he hit Bricriu right upside his head. For this reason Bricriu has five fidchell pieces still lodged in his skull. When this commotion had died down, the cow herd replied to his queen, “It gave a cry because it knew it was beaten. If only that calf’s father, the Donn Cuailgne, were here. You’d have a real fight for Finnbennach then.” With that Medb resolved to see Finnbennach and Donn Cuailgne fight if it was the last thing she did. It nearly was.

This is good advice for Bricriu. I don't know why no one told him.
This is good advice for Bricriu. I don’t know why no one told him.

With the excitement over the army could finally invade the síd. This they did and destroyed everything they found. Everything except the crown in the well, the Crown of Briun. It is now one of the three wonderful gifts in Ireland and this is the end of Nera’s strange adventure.

I’m sorry that I haven’t much time for analysis. But I still have time for links.


Echtra Nerai – The Strange Adventure of Nera.

It’s Halloween later this month so I’m doing a bit of pandering with a spooky-scary story set at Halloween. This is Echtra Nerai or The Strange Adventure of Nera. Probably a two parter. Enjoy.

This is my translation dance.
This is my translation dance.

One Halloween Ailill and Medb (you remember them, right? King and queen of Connacht) were in their fort, Rath Cruachan, along with their whole household having a feast. When the meal was winding down, Ailill remembered that they had hanged two prisoners the day before and he got a notion. “Whoever manages to go out to the gallows, right now, and tie a withy round the foot of either of the bodies hanging there, will get a prize from me … You know what a withy is … Yes, it’s a bendy twig … With warriors like this it’s no wonder we lost the Táin.”

Tying things can be a challenge.
Tying things can be a challenge.
The only problem was that it was Halloween and the night was dark and full of terrors. You could always rely on a few demons or spirits lurking the dark places. So as each man went out with a withy in his hand, he wouldn’t get halfway before running back to the fort in terror. Then Nera stepped up and said, “I’ll go out and tie the withy, Ailill.” “If you do”, replied the king, “you’ll get my very own gold-hilted sword.”

Somethings are too spooky
Somethings are too spooky
So Nera went out towards the gallows where two bodies were hanging. Before he went out he put his best armour on, just in case anything nasty appeared (by the way, is this foreshadowing doing anything for you?). He came to the two hanged men and put a withy round the foot of the one nearest him. As he turned to leave, it sprang off. He tied it again. Again it sprang off. Whispering “Third time’s a charm”, he tied it on. For a third time it sprang off.
“You’re doing it all wrong”, said a voice. Nera looked up and the dead man, whose foot he was holding, was looking down at him. “It’ll never stay on like that,” said the dead man. “You need to put a proper peg through it. If you don’t put a proper peg through it, you’ll be tying and retying that withy until morning.” Nera used a peg and the withy stayed on the dead man’s foot.
“See, now I’ve done you a favour, I think it’s only polite that you do the same for me,” continued the dead man. “Could you take me on your back to go and get a drink. I was powerful thirsty the other day when they hanged me.” Nera thought he couldn’t well refuse a talking corpse. Not on Halloween. “Get on my back then. Where do you want to go for a drink?” The dead man said that they should just go to the nearest house.

Even when you're dead all you want is a drink and a shmoke.
Even when you’re dead all you want is a drink and a shmoke.
When they arrived at the house they saw a lake of fire around it. “We’ll never get a drink in that house,” said the dead man. “They always damp down their fires at night. That’s a terrible sign. We should try the next house.” Nera carried the dead man to the next nearest house. As they approached the house they realised that it was surrounded by a lake of water. “Don’t go to that house!” said the dead man. “They never have a wash-tub, bath-tub or even slop pail in that house at night. No good.” So they ended up in the third house. That was fine. Nera put the dead body on the floor. In that house were tubs for washing and bathing and lovely fire. The dead body takes a drink from one of the washing tubs. Before he finally swallows it, he spits the last of the drink over the people who were in the house and they all died. Dead man spit. Stay away, kids. From then on it is a bad thing to keep a wash-tub, bath-tub, fire, or slop-pail in the house after going to sleep. So now you know.

He's dead now.
He’s dead now.
After that Nera returned the man to his gallows and turned back to Cruachan. But when he turned for home a strange site greeted him. The whole fort was burned to the ground and there was great pile made of the warriors’ head in front of the burned husk. A host of other warriors were marching away, taking the heads of the Irishmen with them. Sensing there was little left for him here, Nera followed in the path of the mysterious people. “There’s a man on our trail!” said the last man in the column of warriors. “The trail’s the heavier for it,” replied the man walking next to him. In this way word was passed to all the warriors about Nera. Eventually the men came to the sid of Cruachan and they went in.

Nera is pretty good at blending in.
Nera is pretty good at blending in.
As an editorial aside, convention says that we translate sid as fairy mound. But I hate that phrase and don’t even think it quite works. For the visual we are probably talking about a mound. But you’ve got to stop thinking about space as actually existing in it and around it. For these reasons I am leaving sid as sid.

Anyway, back to the story: the returning warriors piled all the heads they had taken before their king as he sat on his throne. When the last head was thrown onto the pile one of the warriors asked the king what they should do with the man who had followed them. “Bring him here,” said the king, “so that I can speak to him”. Nera was brought out of the mass of warriors to stand in front of the throne. “Why have you come to my fort with my warriors?” “I was caught up with the host,” said Nera. “Go to a house outside the fort,” said the king. “There is a woman there who will make you welcome. Be sure to tell her that I sent you, though. All I want is for you to come to my court everyday with a bundle of firewood.”

"I said FIRE wood not Elijah wood. Idiot".
“I said FIRE wood not Elijah wood. Idiot”.
Will Nera serve the mystery king? Why does he need firewood? What happened to the talking corpse? Is everyone in Connacht dead? All these questions and less answered next week (or there abouts).

This is the first story that I have done with explicit references to the sid or fairy mounds. While they are a common feature of medieval Irish literature, they are an aspect of it that has possibly been most misrepresented in the modern era. The difficulty comes, I suppose, in separating the medieval literature’s view of the aes side, the people of the sid, and the more folkloric versions of them. Maybe one day I’ll try and write something about this. However for now, this has talking dead bodies in so pretty suitable for Halloween. I’m not above being driven by the seasons.

As always an edition of the Irish and another translation can be found here.