Illustration of Scathach turning from boar to maiden


ONE day, when the heat of summer lay like a golden shimmering mist over the land, Fionn, with a few Fians, slowly mounted the slopes of Bearnas Mor, and when they reached the top sat down to rest in the shade of a big rock, while their hounds ranged over the hillside as they chose. They had left the Hill of Allen a few days before, thinking how much pleasanter the sea and mountains of Donegal would be than the sun-baked bog-country of the midlands.
      They had been resting only a short time when they heard a furious barking from the hounds, mingled with the shrill squeals of some animal. The Fians rose and looked round them, then saw that the hounds had started from its lair an immense wild boar, which, instead of running from the dogs, turned round and attacked them. The Fians cheered their hounds on, thinking they would soon conquer the boar, but, to their grief and anger, it killed one after another of the hounds, until there was left only Bran, the wise and beautiful hound that was Fionn's joy and delight, and one of the greatest treasures he ever possessed.
      Bran circled round and round the boar, waiting for an opportunity to spring on it. At last she made a leap, and fastened her teeth in the boar's shoulder, and though the boar shook himself and ran to and fro, he could not free himself from Bran. Then he screamed horribly with rage and pain, and at that moment a man, grotesquely ugly and gigantic, appeared suddenly on the hillside. Where he came from the Fians did not know, and they looked at him in astonishment.
      "Call your hound from my boar at once, Fionn," he said, "or I will kill her."
      Hearing him speak like that the Fians grew very angry. A number of their best dogs had been slain by this fierce boar; now the strange man spoke of killing Bran, who was the very best hound the Fians ever had, or ever would have. So they rushed at the man, intending to capture him; afterwards they would kill his wild beast, and cook it for their supper. But no sooner did the Fians lay their hands upon him than all the strength ebbed from their bodies. They could neither speak nor move. Fionn alone, who had not touched him, was free from the enchantment. The man spoke again:
      "Call off your hound, Fionn. Do you not see she has conquered the boar, and it has not strength to escape?"
      Fionn called Bran to him, and the man walked over to where the boar lay panting on the ground. He struck it lightly with a hazel wand, and to the wonder of the Fians the fierce, ungainly beast changed instantly into a beautiful girl. He then touched himself, and from an ugly giant he became a tall, handsome man.
      On seeing this Fionn drew back a step or two. He thought that perhaps the man might touch him with his magic stick, and he had no mind to be transformed into a pig, or a fly, or whatever else the enchanter might choose to make him. The man seemed to know what Fionn was thinking, and laughed as he said:
      "I shall do you no harm. On the contrary, if I can serve you at any time I will gladly do so, in return for the service you have unknowingly rendered me."
      "Indeed, then," said Fionn, "it would please me if you would take that enchantment from my men. They are of no use to me as they are. Afterwards, perhaps, you will tell me who you and that young girl are, and why you appeared in forms not your own."
      He glanced at his men, and laughed out loud as he saw them standing stiffly there, unable to put one foot before the other or even raise a finger. The enchanter laughed also, then he waved his hand upward, and power returned to the Fians.
      "Now," said the man to Fionn, "it will give me much pleasure if you and your comrades will take supper with me; afterwards I will relate to you our story. It will not take us long to reach my dún, which is just on the other side of the hill."
      Fionn and his men walked over the hill with the strangers, and soon they came to a house which the Fians thought even more beautiful than the kingly dún at Tara. The roof and door-posts were fashioned of silver, and glittered in the sunset; the door was made of bronze, inset with crystals and amethysts. But the interior was still more beautiful, the walls were hung with silks of many colours, and couches of carved red yew and gold were placed on every side. In the middle of the dún a glimmering pool of water shone like silver in the dusk; not a ripple disturbed its quietness, and as the Fians looked they imagined that pictures came and went in it. Before they had time to observe more their host struck a bronze gong, and men came in bearing great bowls of ale, and dishes of meat and fruit.
      When supper was ended Fionn said:
      "Perhaps you will tell us your story now, for with the rising of the moon we must go on our way."
      "I am a son of Bove Derg, king of the southern Sidhe," began the man, "and the maiden here is my daughter, Scathach of the Shadows. When the Tuatha de Danann first became invisible to men, the Dagda gave me this pleasant hillside to dwell in, and many years we lived here in peace. But one day when I was away from home, there came a giant Fomorian from the Island of Torach, who seized my daughter, and would have carried her away with him to his island of rocks. When I returned I sought for her, but could find her nowhere. I looked then in the quiet pool of water there, which holds pictures of all that has been or will be, and saw what had happened. Quickly I followed in their footsteps, and on the seashore came up to them. Before the Fomorian could speak a word I cast my spear, which passed through him from one side to the other; but as he fell to the ground he placed a spell on my daughter, and she changed instantly to the fierce boar your dogs hunted. Not for myself would I ask a favour from an enemy, but for the sake of my beautiful daughter I implored him to remove the spell from her before he died. Though he lay dying on the ground he laughed at me, and said that he had doomed her to roam the earth in that shape for hundreds of years, until she was conquered by an enchanted hound. Many, many times she has been hunted, and a great number of hounds she has killed, but never until to-day was she conquered." He paused for a moment, then continued: "Whatever you ask of me, O Fionn, that I will do, for you have been the means by which the wicked spell is taken from my daughter."
      "It is a grief to me that I did not meet that Fomorian," said Fionn, and his blue eyes gleamed with the battle-light. "It would have pleased me greatly to kill him myself. Now I see the moonbeams shining over the bog below, and before I leave you I would ask one other question. Why do you call your daughter 'Scathach of the Shadows'?"
      "Through her men see the shadows of many things," said the son of Derg. "If you will stay with us a little longer she shall play to you, and you will understand."
      Scathach took her harp, which had a golden frame carved with birds and beasts and serpents, that moved as she played. Only three strings were on that harp, one of silver, one of bronze, and one of iron, but in the music of those strings all the peace and joy and sorrow of the world seemed to lie. She played on the thin iron string, and tears came into the Fians' eyes; they felt that sorrow and pain and unnumbered shadows of woe pressed round them on every side, till at last Fionn cried: "Oh, Scathach, cease, or our hearts will break with grief."
      She played then on the fine bronze wire, and in a moment the Fians were filled with joy. Beautiful shadowy forms danced round them and sang glad songs, the laughter of little children and grey old people echoed in their ears, and in all the world there was no grief or pain. Then, out of boundless joy, Fionn implored Scathach to stop, for he said such gladness mortals could not bear.
      Now Scathach touched the silver wire, and a gentle melody floated over the moonlit hills and bogland. So soft, so gentle it was, that the Fians felt neither sorrow nor joy, only an infinite peace wrapped them round. Forms of the ancient gods appeared to them then: Manannan mac Lir, the friend of ocean-wanderers; Angus Oge, guardian of little children and lord of all that is beautiful; Lu Lam-Fada, knower of all knowledge; the Mor Riga, divine mother of wisdom and unfolder of mysteries, these and many others of the undying gods came in that hour of peace. Still Scathach played, until a deep slumber fell on the heroes, and they knew no more.
      A fair and sun-bright morning dawned over the high hills of Donegal, and Fionn and his men woke from their sleep to find themselves lying on the side of Bearnas Mor. There was no trace of the house, or of Mac Derg and his daughter Scathach, nor do I think Fionn ever saw them again, though the memory of that night, when he had known unbounded sorrow and joy and peace, remained with him ever after.

Text Source:
Russell, Violet. Heroes of the Dawn.
New York: The Macmillan Co., 1914. 63-71.

Background courtesy of Windhaven Web Art.

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