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The Fly in Your Cup: Thoughts on The Wooing of Étaín

Recently I was reading The Wooing of Étaín, and was struck so powerfully by some imagery that I had to share my thoughts on it with you all. But before I get to those thoughts I feel like I need to let you know a few things about me.


First, I’m not an academic. I don’t have an advanced degree, I don’t speak or read older forms of Irish, I’m not an expert on Irish culture, and I’m not really into literary criticism or trying to be intellectual. My engagement with the material is the direct result of my relationship with some of the Gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and I tend to read stories and lore through an emotional and religious lens, rather than an intellectual one. I have many thinky thoughts about many things, but I’m no scholar.


Second, my relationship with the material IS a devotional one, but I don’t view the lore as scripture. These stories were recorded in their surviving form by people who had their own agendas, and as I understand it, those agendas rarely had much to do with devotion to the Gods of Ireland. So I see the stories as wonderful sources of inspiration, sometimes conveying hints about who the Gods are. But the stories, for me, aren’t the last word on the Gods. The stories are more like pebbles on the paths that lead to Them.


Third, I’ve never even been to Ireland. I have the deepest respect and appreciation for Irish culture, but I’m not any kind of authority on or representative of authentic Irish practice of any kind. I just love the Gods worshipped in Ireland, and want to know Them better.


In other words, my thoughts about the stories are just that. My thoughts. The beauty of stories is the way they can reveal deeper truths to us through the language of symbols and emotions. Each of us might hear the same story and walk away with different truths, and I think that’s the point. I share my thoughts with you because they excite and inspire me in my relationship with the Gods, and maybe they’ll do the same for you. I hope, whether you think my thoughts are insightful and inspiring OR you think I’m full of crap, that you’ll approach the Gods for yourself and draw your own inspiration from the tales - and share it if you like.


A black fly with green eyes sits atop a deep green leaf on a black background with the words "The fly in your cup: thoughts on The Wooing of Étáin.

So, back to Étaín. Her tale is a wild ride, and I recommend reading it for yourself if you have the patience, but for the sake of this post I’ll sum up the essential points the best I can. Étaín becomes the second wife of the God Midir, whose first wife, Fuamnach, is immediately jealous of Étaín. Fuamnach turns Étaín into a puddle of water. Étaín then becomes first a worm, and then a purple fly, but Midir still adores her, so Fuamnach sends a mighty wind to blow the fly away. Étaín is buffeted about by this wind for years, until she finds shelter and friendship with Aengus Mac Oc. Then Fuamnach’s wind takes her again, and “The blast of wind drove her along in misery and weakness until she alit on the rooftree of a house in Ulster where folk were drinking, and she fell into the golden beaker that was before the wife of Etar, the champion from Inber Cichmaine, in the province of Conchobar, so that she swallowed her with the liquid that was in the beaker, and in this wise she was conceived in her womb and became afterwards her daughter. She was called Etain daughter of Etar. Now it was a thousand and twelve years from the first begetting of Etain by Ailill until her last begetting by Etar.” When Étaín is born a second time, she has no memory of her former life until she reaches adulthood and Midir finds her again and brings her back to herself.


Now there’s a LOT going on in this tale, but what really struck me was the idea of the bug falling into the cup, being swallowed, and leading to the second conception of a divine being. Étaín’s story isn’t the only one featuring conception by swallowing a worm or bug. For example, the two mighty bulls at the center of the Táin Bó Cúailnge were conceived in a similar way, after a pair of pig keepers enter into a magical contest featuring lots of shapeshifting, eventually become worms, fall into water, and are swallowed by cows. (Side note, the Story Archaeology podcast has a lively discussion of the two swineherds that I highly recommend.) And there are similar motifs in lore from many cultures, which to me says this is a powerful and important theme in relation to divine beings.


As I sat with my tea and thought about this story, a few things really struck me about this motif.


For one thing, I love the involvement of a “lowly” creature like an insect or worm in the conception of a God (or hero, or otherwise divinely important figure) for a number of reasons. Obviously, it’s just delightfully weird. But also, it’s beautiful to consider that the seed of divinity exists in even the smallest, most overlooked being. I’m not saying we are all God(dess) - I don't believe we are. But the stories show us time and again that the Gods take what form They will, from the stranger at your door to the fly in your cup. They can be present in the humblest thing. Which means They can make Themselves at home with us wherever we are, with what we have right now. I find it delightful to see Their fullness potentially residing in every molecule of the “mundane” world. Whatever life throws at us, however our circumstances change, whatever might be taken from us? The Gods can use it all to enter our lives. Nothing can truly separate us from Them.


Related to this, the idea of the seemingly insignificant creature or person being a God in an unexpected form is a powerful motivation to treat all beings with respect and reverence. Like the needy stranger at the door, a bug or a stone or a tree might be a God. You just never know. We like to think of our Gods in anthropomorphic forms because that fits with a culture shaped by the idea that humans are on top of some hierarchy of Earthly creatures. But the Gods needn’t be human-shaped at all, because They don’t exist just for humans. The way the Gods partake in the substance of all beings shows us the importance of all beings. It shows us we don’t only owe reciprocity and right-relationship to humans and human-shaped beings. Like our Gods, we are in relationship with all beings, those who move and those who don’t. And while the idea can sometimes be overwhelming, it’s also wondrous. The potential for connection, for love and mutually nourishing exchange, is endless.


I’ve always found the metaphor of our cup being filled by the Gods to be especially beautiful. As we move deeper into relationship with Them, and drink from that cup, we can’t know for certain what will fill us - or what will be born into our lives as a result of drinking. It requires great trust to open ourselves up in this way, to enter into relationships with mighty Ones knowing we might be changed in ways as profound and irreversible as birthing a child. It kind of gives a whole new layer of meaning to the phrase “you are what you eat” (or in this case, drink).


And speaking of eating and drinking … so much of the lore is centered around battle and heroic deeds, it’s easy to think these are the most pressing concerns of the Gods, to think the big, sweeping sagas are the most important parts of myth and human history. But the number of times a divine or heroic being is conceived from the humblest being, dropped into food or drink, points to a different truth. Whatever battles and political machinations are going on in the world around us, the Gods find their way into us through simple things. Food, drink, worms and bugs, cups and bowls. Sure, written history and mythology is largely concerned with (mostly) men fighting, killing, and getting up to outlandish shenanigans. But the domestic sphere is just as certainly the realm of the Gods, and one which is accessible to all of us, regardless of our physical prowess (or lack thereof). You needn’t be a hero, a leader, a warrior, to be a vessel for the divine, to have communion with the divine. All eaters, drinkers, breathers have this access. And service to the divine, acts of devotion, can be woven into the everyday acts of keeping the home and feeding the body. Let every cup, plate, bowl be an offering dish for Them. Let every action of care be an act of love to Them as well as to the other beings in your life. You don’t need to have a grand destiny to have a life-altering connection to the Gods. All you need is to be.


Image of a fly on a leaf by Sahil Muhammed, courtesy of Unsplash.


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Michelle Simkins

polytheist . writer . maker . witch

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