James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.
On Samhain night, the troops and household of Ailill and Medb1 were in Rath Cruachan2, sitting around their fires and cauldrons, feasting in celebration of the festival. There was much drinking of mead and all were in a good mood. With it being Samhain, Ailill offered a reward for any who completed a spooky quest. Two captives had been hung early in the day, and any man who could tie a withe (willow branch) around the ankle of either corpse would receive a gold hilted sword.
While several of the men made the attempt, all came back early, saying the night was full of ghosts3 and giant cats4. After all, on Samhain night the doors between this world and the next open. There was still one last participant to make the attempt, though: Nera was determined to win the sword no matter the monsters in the way.
Nera braved the dark night and came to the gallows, where he made multiple attempts at tying the withe around the first corpse’s ankle. The withe, while being pliable, was also very springy, and so kept snapping back and would not stay attached to the ankle. The longer the task was taking, the more Nera started to worry about the creatures around him and was getting more terrified by the moment when he heard a voice above him.
“Peg it into my ankle.” The corpse said, looking down at him with a grim rictus upon its face. Nera, obviously not overly shocked – this was Samhain night after all – followed the thing’s advice and managed to secure the withe to the ankle, completing the task Ailill had laid out. “Thank you,” Nera said to the corpse. The corpse, still looking down, made a request. “I was very thirsty when I was hanged. If you would like to repay me, take me to get a drink.”
Nera assented and, as soon as he had nodded, the corpse dropped down from the gallows and attached its arms around Nera’s neck and its legs firmly around Nera’s waist, making it clear it would not be shaken off. And so Nera ended up giving one of the creepiest piggyback rides in history.
The walked a short while and came upon a cottage that was surrounded by a lake of flames. “They must have dampened the fire as they were supposed to.” The corpse groaned. “We cannot enter.”5
The second household they happened upon was surrounded by a lake of water. “They must have thrown out the feet water.” The corpse rasped. “We must pass it by.”
The third dwelling, however, had no such barriers and the duo were able to enter, discovering a sleeping family as they ducked down through the portal. For the drink, they found three buckets of water. The corpse drank from the first two, getting its fill. From the third, it took a large swig and spit the water into the faces of the sleeping family. As Nera watched, a sickness spread quickly over the recumbent bodies, first giving them purple veins across their skin, which turned into a full covering of miasmatic green, finished by a putrid black and death.
Satisfied with its drink, the corpse was taken back to the gallows by Nera, where it clambered up and off Nera’s back, reattaching the noose, where it hung still and lifeless once again.
As Nera made his way back to the festival, he saw a great light in front of him. He ran towards it and beheld a large host attacking his people, killing them all. From a short distance, he followed the invading army as they returned to their abode, the Mound of Cruachan, where the army was going in to the mound’s cave one by one. Overhearing the pass phrase “there is a human on the path” and the response “the road is surely heavier for it,” Nera was able to get in to the mound and followed the steps down into its interior.6
Realizing he had followed a Sidhe army down into the Otherworld, Nera attempted to sneak around, wondering how he would escape, when he was noticed by the mound’s inhabitants and was soon surrounded by guards and their king. Perhaps he was not as stealthy as he should have been; perhaps he had his warning that the Sidhe already knew he was there when they used the password of a human on their trail so explicitly.
Rather than wrathful, the king of the Sidhe was polite and impressed with Nera’s bravery. Nera’s punishment was to carry firewood for a specific Sidhe woman every day and to be her consort, as well. Realizing there are much worse punishments, Nera worked hard at his task and grew to love the fairy woman, who in turn fell in love with him.
Every day as he was getting the firewood, he noticed a blind man and a lame man, one being carried on the back of the other, going to the well in the center of the king’s realm. Here, they would always comment “is it there?” and “yes, it’s there.” On one of these trips, Nera finally asked of what they spoke and they stated the King’s golden crown was in the well and it was their duty to check it every day.
The time in the mound was always confusing tonight as hours seemed days and days and hours, and Nera felt he had been in the Otherworld for months. During this time, Nera’s wife asked him about his previous life and how he ended up with her. Upon the final ending of his tale, she told him that the invasion had not happened yet, but rather would on the following Samhain night. Revealing that she was pregnant with his child, she gave him instructions on how to escape and how he could convince his people to prepare so they would be able to repel the Sidhe warriors when they did arrive, as long as he promised to come back and keep her and their child safe.
Thinking he had been gone for months, his wife told him that in his world he had only been gone a few hours.7 All he needed to do was take the blooms of plants in the Otherworld to show his king and queen that he had been somewhere where spring had come, very different from the autumn time that was occurring in the human world.
He followed his wife's advice and stole out of the mound a golden primrose flower. He returned to the campfires and spoke to Ailill and Medb, who were suitably convinced of his story. They not only prepared for the attack, but decided the best option was to attack the Sidhe realm itself. The following Samhain, they entered the mound and defeated their enemies, and took the golden crown. Ailill had given Nera a little extra time, which he used to take his wife and son to safety. Along with his family, he also took a magnificent bull calf, whose role in Irish myth becomes very important later.
The moral of the story is: if you follow strangers into a creepy underground city on Halloween night, you’ll be rewarded with fame and the love of a beautiful fairy woman.
1This tail, in Irish called “Echtra Nerai,” has been extent from at least the 10th century, and possibly the 8th, making it quite ancient. Some versions will tell of how it occurs on Samhain-eve, but the ancient Irish started their days at sundown, so what we consider the previous evening really was the start of Samhain.
2Cruachan is not only associated with Halloween through this tale but also it is a location where the Morrigan comes out every Halloween on her chariot, pulled by a red one-legged horse. If you think the one leg makes it odd (giving it something in common with the Wild Hunt of mainland Europe), you should hear how the horse is attached to the chariot.
3Halloween/Samhain is a liminal time where the gates to the other world are thin. Ghosts and fairies and other beings can cross the threshold into the human world. This occurs twice a year, at Samhain and six months later at Beltane, each being the marker of summer and winter.
4The Irish did not have legends of fierce dragons as did other Celtic countries (notably Wales), but rather had huge vicious cat creatures that would have made Smaug think twice before messing around with.
5The prohibition from the corpse entering the first and second houses come from good housekeeping advice handed down throughout the centuries. A fire should be dampened at the end of the day so the house would not catch on fire, although it would never become put completely out so it could be more easily brought back up in the morning. The only time it was ever completely put out is during the other liminal time of the year, Beltane, where a communal bonfire was ignited and every family lit a stick from it, in order to light their own hearth fire for the following year. The waste water, or slop water, also called the feet water, needed to be thrown out every day to avoid sickness in the household. The third house that did not do this is shown through the family’s death after the corpse spit in their faces.
6The invading army is an instance of what Yates called the Fairy Host, and is related to the Wild Hunt. Long before fairies were considered small creatures with diaphanous gowns and wings, they were the old gods of Ireland and human sized or larger. They were not all gentle creatures and an invading host of them would be a terrifying sight to behold.
7There is a difference in how time and space is perceived between the human world and the Celtic Otherworld. What you would think is a small space from the outside, becomes a large realm once Nera enters. His perception of time is also skewed, with hours occurring in the human world while he thought he had been underground for months. Although some versions say it was only three days, this duration seems too short for the Sidhe woman to realize she is pregnant, and so I agree with those tales that give a longer time period. This is the reverse of the usual tale, where those taken into the mounds think they've only been away for short time and then when they come home to the human world, everyone they have ever known has passed away decades or centuries before.
The Hosting of the Sidhe (William Butler Yeats, 1899)
THE HOST is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-bare;
Caolte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are a-gleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caolte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.
© 2016 James Slaven