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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.