Étaín (Éadaoin, Aideen) , mythological figure, a beautiful woman, both human and otherworldly, is the protagonist of one of the most famous of all Old Irish sagas, ‘Tochmarc Étaíne’ (‘The wooing of Étaín’). She was simultaneously feared and revered – revered as a dispenser of sovereignty, but feared as a force that incarnated its dangers. The early medieval Irish believed that kingship was defined by the balance of masculinity and femininity. Sovereignty was always possessed by men; sovereignty was always represented by women. Kingship was gained through a symbolic sexual transaction that ensured societal harmony. Étaín, beautiful and amoral, fatal and desired, is a powerful representative of this double-edged sovereignty.
Her ‘biography’ is the subject of ‘Tochmarc Étaíne’, a roughly eighth-century text which is pivotal to the mythological cycle, a series of loosely related tales that describe the interactions of humans and the otherworldly Tuatha Dé Danann. The tale is complex, falling into two parts. The first section tells of the wooing of the human Étaín by the divine Midir, the subsequent jealousy of his wife Fuamnach, and Étaín's transformation into a fly through her rival's sorcery. Eventually, she is miraculously conceived and reborn, over a millennium later, after the fly is swallowed by an unnamed woman.
The new Étaín is more than human, and this drives the second part of the tale, focused on kingship, which tells how Echu Airem, king of Ireland, cannot be inaugurated till he is united with the perfect woman. Étaín alone is suitable, and Echu takes her as his wife. Yet, from the beginning the king's power is undermined. Ailill, Echu's brother, falls in love with Étaín and, more importantly, Midir reappears, determined to win back Étaín forever. He succeeds through stratagem, challenging Echu to three games of fidchell, a medieval Irish board game often compared to chess or draughts. Midir initially loses but wins the final contest. His prize, an embrace from Étaín, finally reunites the lovers and leaves Echu without his queen. This has terrible consequences for the king. He goes to war against the Tuatha Dé Danann but is tricked once again for, unknown to him, Étaín has borne him a daughter, identical in appearance to her. Echu sleeps with his daughter and makes her pregnant, only then learning his awful mistake. The king's inability to hold on to sovereignty results in mayhem and incest.
The consequences of this mistake travel down the generations and are the subject of other tales. The greatest of them is a masterpiece of Old Irish literature, ‘Togail bruidne Da Derga’ (‘The destruction of Da Derga's hostel’). In ‘Togail bruidne’ Conaire Már, son of Mess Buachalla, the incestuous offspring of Echu and his daughter, is haunted by Étaín's otherworldly legacy. Although Conaire becomes king of Ireland like his grandfather, his reign ends in death and social collapse. Both tales, ‘Tochmarc Étaíne’ and ‘Togail bruidne Da Derga’, are deeply pessimistic accounts of the responsibilities and dangers of kingship. They suggest that even good men, such as Echu and Conaire, are ultimately the playthings of greater otherworldly forces. For them, Étaín is always a prize to be lost.