by Joseph Jacobs
How Cormac Mac Art Went to Faery
CORMAC, son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, was high King of Ireland, and held his Court at Tara. One day he saw a youth upon the green having in his hand a glittering fairy branch with nine apples of red. And whensoever the branch was shaken, wounded men and women enfeebled by illness would be lulled to sleep by the sound of the very sweet fairy music which those apples uttered, nor could any one upon earth bear in mind any want, woe, or weariness of soul when that branch was shaken for him.
"Is that branch thy own ?" said Cormac. It is indeed mine."
"Wouldst thou sell it? and what wouldst thou require for it ?"
"Will you give me what I ask ? " said the youth.
The king promised, and the youth then claimed his wife, his daughter, and his son. Sorrowful of heart was the king, heaviness of heart filled his wife and children when they learned that they must part from him. But Cormac shook the branch amongst them, and when they heard the soft sweet music of the branch they forgot all care and sorrow and went forth to meet the youth, and he and they took their departure and were seen no more. Loud cries of weeping and mourning were made throughout Erin when this was known but Cormac shook the branch so that there was no longer any grief or heaviness of heart upon any one.
After a year Cormac said " It is a year tu day since my wife, my son, and my daughter were taken from me. I will follow them by the same path that they took."
Cormac went off, and a dark magical mist rose about him, and he chanced to come upon a wonderful marvellous plain. Many horsemen were there, busy thatching a house with the feathers of foreign birds ; when one side was thatched they would go and seek more, and when they returned not a feather was on the roof. Cormac gazed at them for a while and then went forward.
Again, he saw a youth dragging up trees to make a fire but before he could find a second tree the first one would be burnt, and it seemed to Cormac that his labour would never end.
Cormac journeyed onwards until he saw three immense wells on the border of the plain, and on each well was a head. From out the mouth of the first head there flowed two streams, into it there flowed one; the second head had a stream flowing out of and another stream into its mouth, whilst three streams were flowing from the mouth of the third head. Great wonder seized Cormac, and he said "I will stay and gaze upon these wells, for I should find no man to tell me your story." With that he set onwards till he came to a house in the middle of a field. He entered and greeted the inmates. There sat within a tall couple clad in many-hued garments, and they greeted the king, and bade him welcome for the night.
Then the wife bade her husband seek food, and he arose and returned with a huge wild boar upon his hack and a log in his hand. He cast down the swine and the log upon the floor, and said "There is meat ; cook it for yourselves."
"How can I do that? " said Cormac.
"I will teach you," said the youth. "Split this great log, make four pieces of it, and make four quarters of the hog; put a log under each quarter; tell a true story. and the meat will be cooked."
"Tell the first story yourself" said Cormac.
"Seven pigs I have of the same kind as the one I brought, and I could feed the world with them. For if a pig is killed I have but to put its bones into the stye again, and it will be found alive the next morning."
The story was true, and a quarter of the pig was cooked.
Then Cormac begged the woman of the house to tell a story.
"I have seven white cows, and they fill seven cauldrons with milk every day, and I give my word that they yield as much milk as would satisfy the men of the whole world if they were out on yonder plain drinking it."
That story was true, and a second quarter of the pig was cooked.
Cormac was bidden now to tell a story for his quarter, and he told how he was upon a search for his wife, his son and his daughter that had been borne away from him a year before by a youth with a fairy branch.
"If what thou sayest be true," said the man of the house, "thou art indeed Cormac, son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles."
"Truly I am," quoth Cormac.
That story was true, and a quarter of the pig was cooked.
"Eat thy meal now," said the man of the house.
"I never ate before," said Cormac, "having only two people in my company."
"Wouldst thou eat it with three others ?"
"If they were dear to me, I would," said Cormac.
Then the door opened, and there entered the wife and children of Cormac : great was his joy and his exultation.
Then Manannan mac Lir, lord of the fairy Cavalcade, appeared before him in his own true form, and said thus :
"I it was, Cormac; who bore away these three from thee. I it was who gave thee this branch, all that I might bring thee here. Eat now and drink."
"I would do so," said Cormac, "could I learn the meaning of the wonders I saw to-day."
"Thou shalt learn them," said Manannan. "The horsemen thatching the roof with feathers are a likeness of people who go forth into the world to seek riches and fortune when they return their houses are bare, and so they go on for ever. The young man dragging up the trees to make a fire is a likeness of those who labour for others much trouble they have, but they never warm themselves at the fire. The three heads in the wells are three kinds of men. Some there are who give freely when they get freely; some who give freely though they get little; some who get much and give little, and they are the worst of the three, Cormac," said Manannan.
After that Cormac and his wife and his children sat down, and a table-cloth was spread before them.
"That is a very precious thing before thee," said Manannan, "there is no food however delicate that shall be asked of it but it shall be had without doubt."
"That is well," quoth Cormac.
After that Manannan thrust his hand into his girdle and brought out a goblet and set it upon his palm. "This cup has this virtue, said he, "that when a false story is told before it, it makes four pieces of it, and when a true story is related it is made whole again."
"Those are very precious things you have, Manannan," said the king.
"They shall all be thine," said Manannan, "the goblet, the branch and the tablecloth."
Then they ate their meal, and that meal was good, for they could not think of any meat but they got it upon the tablecloth, nor of any drink but they got it in the cup. Great thanks did they give to Manannan.
When they had eaten their meal a couch was prepared for them and they laid down to slumber and sweet sleep.
Where they rose on the morrow morn was in Tara of the kings, and by their side were tablecloth, cup, and branch.
Thus did Cormac fare at the Court of Manannan, and this is how he got the fairy branch.
Jacobs, Joseph. More Celtic Fairy
Tales. London: David Nutt, 1894.
Jacobs' Notes and References
Source - Kindly condensed by Mr. Alfred Nutt from an English version by Mr. S. H. O'Grady in Ossianic Society's Publicahons, vol. iii. The oldest known version has been printed from fourteenth century MSS., by Mr. Whitley Stokes, Irische Texte, iii. i. The story existed in some form in the early eleventh cent u y, as it is cited in the epic catalogue contained in the Book of Leinster.
Parallels - Mr. Nutt in his Studies on the Legend of the Holy Grail, p. 193, connects this visit of Cormac to the Otherworld with the bespelled Castle incident in the Grail Legend. and gives other instances of visits to the Brug of Manannan. Manannan Mac Lir is the Celtic sea-god.