The sun was low on the horizon as Diarmuid gazed out across the fields surrounding their newest hiding place. He listened intently to the rasping caw of a crow from somewhere to the north of the small copse of blooming cherry where they would spend the night. He knew from his years in their company that the men of the Fianna sometimes used birdcalls to signal their positions prior to an attack. The cry came again and he relaxed. It was only a lonely creature of the wild, calling out its fellows at the end of the day.
He had turned his gaze northward as he listened to the distant cawing and now he scanned slowly back toward the south looking for any sign of pursuit.
He almost missed it. A small trail of smoke, as from a cook-fire, drifting up from the forest several miles to their west. Nearly hidden in the red glare of the setting sun, it was difficult to gauge its distance, but Fionn and his men were close. An hour or two of hard riding in the morning would bring them here, Diarmuid thought with a smile. Let them come! By the time they arrived and followed the winding trail he’d left them through the trees, he and Gráinne would be long gone.
He dropped now to one knee and pulled a small bundle from the bag which had lain at his feet. Pulling at the edges of the cloth wrapping, he uncovered a small cake, no larger than a woman’s fist, and placed it on a stone. He spoke in a low voice now, calling upon the creatures of the wild to leave this morsel whole and unblemished until Fionn himself came and found it waiting for him.
The unbroken bread was a sign.
Diarmuid Ua Duibhne would not touch what did not belong to him.
We are just a few days now from St. Valentine’s Day and so I thought it only fitting to visit one of the most famous love stories of Irish mythology: The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne.
Valentine’s Day is not a holiday that I normally celebrate. Being one-part Catholic holy day venerating not less than two supposed saints of the same name and two-parts Hallmark holiday disposed toward a marketing frenzy for florists, candy manufactures, and of course, greeting-card companies, I find it somewhat distasteful.
We are told that February 14th is a day to celebrate romantic love, but I have always felt that if you are in a truly romantic relationship, you don’t need any outside stimulus to celebrate, and if not, you don’t really need the reminder.
Turning away from the sunset and back toward their hiding place, he could hear her singing in the distance. The last light of the setting sun turned the white cherry blossoms at the edge of the wood into glowing pink clouds which swayed in the softening breeze of early evening. Wafting through these clouds, as if from the otherworld itself, the lilting voice of his companion wound its way through the trees to him from their nearby camp on the bank of a small stream.
She had sung on that fateful night in the court of her father, the High King, her voice captivating all who listened even as her beauty stirred their blood. No man who looked upon Gráinne, and listened to her voice, could do so without feeling a stab of envy for the man to whom she had been promised, Fionn Mac Cumhail, chieftain of the Fianna and Diarmuid’s own master.
Moving slowly through the trees now, he could hear her voice again in his memory. The feasting hall of the High King had grown suddenly silent and all around him men slumped unmoving, where they had been feasting only moments before.
Her voice at his ear, “take me away with you this night.”
He could not. His honor and duty to his lord would not allow it.
The puff of her sweet smelling breath against his cheek, belying the power of her words, “I would have you as my love and not the old man to whom I have been promised, therefore I place upon you a geis of power which shall see your undoing unless you take me away with you before your lord and his company should awake.”
It is easy to see Gráinne as the villain in this story. After all, she puts a sleeping potion into a cup of wine and passes it around the room, putting most of her wedding party into a deep slumber. She then forces Diarmuid to elope with her through the use of a kind of magical spell that would otherwise bring him to an early death.
Diarmuid, it would seem, is a dupe, forced by cruel fate and a willful woman to betray his leader by stealing away with his bride to be. What I’ve neglected to mention is that Gráinne herself is a victim of forces beyond her control.
Diarmuid, you see, was blessed (cursed?) by a goddess of youth with a single blemish upon the skin of his brow which would make any woman who should gaze upon it swoon with love for him. The young man was good enough to wear a cap over this “love spot”, hiding it from view, but during the wedding feast, Gráinne accidentally got a look at it and found herself enamored with the young warrior.
Standing among the trees at the edge of their small clearing, he could see her moving about as she prepared their nightly meal. She had placed their blankets together near the fire, as she did every night, knowing that he would move his to the other side of the small blaze as soon as their meal was done. It was another of their little rituals, like the unbroken bread, which had been repeated night after night since they had fled the court of the High King.
Diarmuid knew that when he moved his blankets away from hers, she would smile ruefully but offer no protest. Instead, she would gaze at him as she did each night, with a hunger he could feel long after he had turned away from her, putting his back to the dying embers of the fire, which along with his honor, was all that could keep them apart.
Suddenly, her song faltered and he was startled to find himself looking into her eyes from the deepening shadows of their wooded shelter.
While they gazed upon one another, it seemed that there was not a sound in the entire world. No breeze stirred the leaves of the surrounding trees. The waters of the stream, which had been trickling noisily along only moments before, seemed to have been stilled as if by magic.
For a moment in all the world, there was only Diarmuid and Gráinne.
And then he thought of that small loaf of unbroken bread. He thought of the loyalty he still felt to a man who had once been like a father to him, and was now hunting him across field and mountain. He took a breath, and stepping into their small camp, he dropped a bundle of wood onto the fire so that it blazed more brightly between them.
Most people think of Mythology as little more than a collection of stories told by primitive peoples to explain the world around them. My own belief is that the stories of myth represent a cultural connection to certain universal truths which elude “rational” understanding. In either case, the place of “love” in mythology is a troubling one indeed.
I know thousands of stories from a number of cultures and traditions, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a single one where love brings anything but tragedy to those who pursue it (or have it thrust upon them). What does that say about our belief in the power of love, that it is more often a foil used to crush cities and drive great heroes to their doom rather than as a reward for those who persevere against life’s difficulties.
Diarmuid makes it through that night with his sense of honor in tact. With Fionn hot on their heels they may make it a few nights longer before the trail of unbroken bread comes to an end. The chase goes on for months or years, until the pursuers eventually tire and their prey escapes across the sea.
For a time, the young lovers are allowed to live in that state of bliss which we are all told to hope for.
No doubt, you can guess how the story ends.
“Happily ever after,” is a line we feed the kids. Adults know better.
Yet maybe love, like a good story, should be less concerned with the bits at the beginning and the end and more about all the crazy stuff that happens in the middle.
So here’s hoping you find your share of the crazy stuff. And if you are so inclined, have a happy Valentine’s Day.