Category Archives: Change
Pronunciation: ˈjaːnʊs or jayn’-uhs
Alternate Spelling: Iānus (Latin)
Other names: Bifrons,Ianuspater (“Janus Father”), Ianus Quadrifrons (“Janus Four-faced”), Ianus Bifrons (“Two-faced Janus”), Dianus, Dionus
Other Names and Epithets: Ianitos (Keeping Track of Time), Iunonius, Consuvius (‘”The Guardian of the Beginning of Human Life”), Cozeuios, Conseuius the Sower, Patultius (the Opener), Iancus or Ianeus (the Gatekeeper), Duonus Cerus (the Good Creator), Geminus (Double), Rex King, Father of the Gods (or part of the Gods), God of Gods, Pater, Patulcius, Clusivius or Clusius (Closer of Gate), Κήνουλος (Coenulus), Κιβουλλιος (Cibullius), Curiatius
Etymology: “Arched Passage, Doorway” (Latin)
Janus is quite simply, the Roman god of Beginnings, Gates, Transitions, Time, Duality, Doorways, Frames, Portals, Passages and Endings. To the ancient Romans, Janus is one of their primordial deities who was there at the beginning of time and all existence. While Janus has an important and prominent role in the Roman Pantheon, he is not the Sovereign Deity of it.
It should be noted that there is no Greek equivalent to Janus. However, I should note, that some later Greek authors would place Janus as having been a mortal from Greece. Plutarch specifically, says that Janus was from Perrhebia.
Day of the Week: The first day of every month
Number: 300 & 65
Patron of: Transitions, Travelers
Planet: Sun, Moon
Plant: White Hawthorne, Olive Tree
Sphere of Influence: Transitions, Giving form to Chaos
Symbols: Keys, Staff, Two-Faces, Doors, Archways, Gateways, Portals
Given the many aspects that Janus presided over, many of which are abstract ideas and concepts for duality, Janus is often shown as having two faces. One looking forward to the future and the other looking back towards the past. Additionally, one face is bearded while the other is not. Later, both faces would be bearded. In Janus’ right hand, he holds a key and a staff in the other.
The double-faced head is found on many early Roman coins. In the 2nd century C.E., Janus is sometimes depicted with four faces.
During the Renaissance, the two-faces of Janus not only represented the past and future, but wisdom as well.
Janus had no flamen or specialized priests dedicated to him. However, the King of the Sacred Rites, the Rex Sanctorum, would carry out Janus’ ceremonies.
There are several rites for Janus. All prayers, regardless of which deity was to be invoked, didn’t start without Janus first being mentioned, regardless of which deity was being invoked. For that matter, every day, every week, every month began with invoking and calling on Janus. Incidentally, every prayer and rite ended with invoking the goddess Vesta.
Military Season – For the Romans, the start of their military season began with March 1st with the Rite of Arma Movere and ended on October 1st with the Right of Arma Condere. The first rite is also known as the Rites of the Salii. The aspect of Janus as Janus Quirinus would be invoked on the anniversary of the dedication to Mars on June 1st that corresponds with the festival of Carna. Another festival was held on June 29th which had been the end of the month under the Julian calendar for Quirinus.
The Military Season also marks something of a seemingly paradoxical connection between Janus and the war god Mars. The peace-loving King Numa sends out the army to ensure peace while later, it’s the warmongering King Tullus in his battle with the Sabines who sees Roman Soldiers coming home to peace.
It’s a connection that makes sense that for the Romans, having been attacked once, vowed that peace would come when everyone else around them was subdued. This creates a couple other epitaphs for Janus of belliger and pacificus, depending on which role he is in. As Janus Quirinus, the deity brings the closing of the Rites of March at the end of the month and then later in October as soldiers return victorious.
Janus doesn’t seem to have many prominent temples for worship. We do see that the covered portaculis and areas over gates to a building are called iani. There is an altar, that later becomes a temple for Janus near the Porta Carmentalis that leads to where the Veii road ended.
The gates of the Argiletum were called Ianus Geminus. This gate yard was built by Numa around 260 B.C.E. after the Battle of Mylae. Other names for this passageway are Janus Bifrons, Janus Quirinus, and Porta Belli. These gates would be open during times of war and closed during peace, something that didn’t happen often with Roman history. A statue here dedicated to Janus shows him with the symbol for 300 in the right hand and on the other hand, the number 65 for the days in the solar year. There were also twelve altars, one for each month. In the Christian religion, early Christian clerics claimed that these gates were closed when Jesus was born.
There is also the Porta Ianualis that protected the city of Rome from the Sabine that were all thought to be places where Janus was present. Janus was also seen as having a presence at the Janiculum leading out of Rome towards Etruria and the Sororium Tigillum that lead to Latium.
What’s In A Name?
In Latin, Janus’ name is spelt as Ianus as their alphabet has no letter “j.”
Jansus’ name translates from Latin to English as “Arched Passage” or Doorway.” In turn, there’s a root word from Proto-Italic language of “iānu” for “door” and another from Proto-Indo-European of “iehnu” for “passage.” There is also a cognate word found in Sanskrit of “yāti” meaning “to go” or “travel.” Another cognate in Lithuanian of “jóti” meaning “to go” or “ride.” And lastly found in Serbo-Croatian is the word “jàhati” meaning “to go.”
Some modern scholars reject the Indo-European etymology though others see in the word “Iānus,” an action name that expresses movement. My favorite though is how the word “Janitor” derives from “ianua” and Janus.
Among the ancients, there are a few different interpretations that all tie into the nature of Janus as a deity. The first is Paul the Deacon’s definition that connects Ianus to chaos. As seen in the phrase: “hiantem hiare” to “be open,” indicating the transitional state of this deity.
The second definition comes from Nigidius Figulus where Ianus would be Apollo and Diana. That the “D” in Diana’s name has been added as it has a better sound. It would be related to Diana’s name to the word “Dianus” with the Indo-European root of “dia” or “dey” for day. This idea is somewhat flimsy and not usually, widely accepted as being accurate. It seems to be what happens when you’re stretching and trying to connect everything back as all originating from one deity.
The last proposed etymology comes from Cicero, Ovid and Macrobius, where they explain that the Latin form of Janus for “to go” refers to Janus as the god of beginnings and transitions. That one feels a little more on the money with how many people view and interpret Janus’ name.
Parentage and Family
As a primordial deity, Janus isn’t given any parentage. If any are mentioned, it is:
Caelus (The primal god of the Sky) & Terra (The Earth)
The gods Camese, Ops and Saturn are given as Janus’ siblings.
Camese – Depending on the version of the myth (Greek in this case,) they become Janus’ sister and wife.
Jana – A Moon Goddess
Juturna – Goddess of Wells & Springs
Venilia – Goddess of the Winds & Seas
Canens – A nymph and personification of song.
Fontus – Son of Janus and Juturna
In a Greek version of the myths, where Janus is mortal and marries his sister Camese, they have the following children: Aithex, Olistene, Tiberinus
Primordial Gate Keeper
You could say that Janus is the Ultimate Gate Keeper, even possibly the Custodian of the Universe and probably the only one we should have. This connection makes Janus a Liminal Deity, guarding boundaries and passages.
Janus guarded the gates of Heaven. Doorways, Gates, any passageways, Janus presides over these as well. As a Doorway is the literal transitioning, moving from one area to another. Nothing changed, transitioned, moves, or altered it’s/their states without Janus’ presence and influence. Even the abstract ideas of going from war to peace and back, from birth to death and rebirth, to journeys, exchanges, barbarism and civilization, the start of and any ending of conflicts, their resolutions. Janus presided over all transitions.
Key – Janus is often shown holding a key that symbolized his protection over doors, gates and thresholds of many kinds. Both physical and spatial boundaries. The key symbolized that a traveler would be able to find a safe place or harbor to trade their goods in peace.
Staff – This symbolized Janus’ guiding travelers on their paths.
Order Out Of Chaos
If, in the beginning, everything is a primordial ooze and chaos, Janus is the being who brings order from it all, as everything transitions from one state to another. Modern science will have fancy technical terms and jargon for everything and how everything forms and comes into being. For the ancient Romans, this is all explained as Janus being responsible for the formation of the elements and harmony from Chaos and getting the whole shebang going.
Janus’ functions denote that he is a liminal deity who watches the borders. As rivers are frequently natural borders and boundaries, Janus presided over these along with the bridges that cross over them. Four of Janus’ altars and temples were built along rivers.
Janus is a god of dualities, representing numerous abstract and literal concepts for beginnings and endings. The very transitioning from one state to another. Janus was present at the very beginning and start of the universe before any of the gods existed.
With Janus being depicted as having two faces. One face facing towards the future and the other towards the past, Janus is said to have held the gift of prophecy. Omens and portents were very much so the domain of Janus as he could see all.
A Solar Deity & Divine Twins?
This idea comes from Macrobius who in turns cites Nigidius Figulus and Cicero. The idea is that Janus and Jana (a variation of Diana) are a pair of deities worshiped together as Apollo & Diana; the sun and the moon.
Adding to this is one A. Audin who connects the solar motif back to the Sumerian cultures. They mention two solar pillars that are located on the eastern side of temples and denote the direction of the rising and setting sun and the solstices. These two solstices would connect to the idea of the Divine Twins often seen in mythology, particularly the myth where one twin is mortal and the other is immortal.
Morning Time – The start of the day or morning is thought to be Janus’ time, when men awoke and began their daily routines and activities. Janus is called Matutine Pater, meaning “Morning Father by Horace. It is thought this association with this time of the day is what links Janus with being a solar deity.
Winter Solstice – In keeping with the solar connection, under the Roman calendar, the Winter Solstice was held to be on December 25th, a remarkably familiar date that carries over to Christianity for when Christmas is celebrated. Where solar deities are revered, the Winter Solstice is often when these deities are said to be reborn and their power grows again.
Month – January
It is generally accepted that the month of January is named for Janus (Ianuarius) and why, with the Gregorian calendar, it is the first month and beginning of the calendar year. Under the ancient Roman calendar, their year began with March as the first month, incidentally when Rome would begin its war and campaign season.
For further, in-depth history, we can credit Numa Pompilius, the second of seven kings who ruled Rome before it became a Republic. In the 6th century B.C.E., Numa added the months of Inauarius and Februarius to ten month “Romulus” religious calendar. Under this new calendar, Inauarius would become the first month starting in 200 B.C.E. of the Roman Republican Calendar. Inauarius, pronounced as Januarius means the “Month of Janus.”
One interesting thing to note, when looking at the translations of old Roman Farmer’s Almanacs, the goddess Juno is who presided over the month of January initially, not Janus.
Since we’re on the subject of time and dates… as a god of beginnings, the very concept of time even starts with Janus. In one of the few temples dedicated to Janus there is a statue of him where the position of the hands signifies the number 355 for the number of days in a lunar year. Later, this number becomes 365 to symbolize Janus’ mastery over time.
New Year’s Day
Another calendar date that carries over from the Romans to modern day in much of Western culture, January 1st marks the start of the New Year. For the omens, the beginning of anything was an omen and would set the tone for the rest to follow. It was customary to greet people with well wishes. People would exchange gifts of dates, figs and honey. Gifts of money or coins called strenae were also exchanged.
Additionally, cakes made of spelled and salt were offered up to Janus on his altars. These offerings or libums were known as ianual. There is likely a corresponding connection to another offering of summanal on the Summer solstice for the god Summanus. However, these offerings would be made with flour, honey, and milk, making them sweeter.
This is another festival held on January 9th for Janus. A ram would be sacrificed at this time.
This is a bit of an oddball festival for me. It was held on October 1st, during the month that Rome’s War Season is ending, and soldiers are returning home.
It’s a purification rite that commemorates Marcus Horatius making atonement for the murder of his sister. The representative for Marcus has their head covered as they pass beneath an archway. The ritual seems to be used as a purification rite for soldiers returning from war to cleanse them from the taint of war as they return to civilized society.
This rite has also been connected to a pairing of Janus and Juno through the epitaphs of Janus Curiatus and Juno Sororia. Janus in his role as a god of transitions and Juno in her role as a protectress of young soldiers.
Several early Roman coins depict Janus on them. With one face being clean shaven while the other is bearded.
This connects Janus as the founder of financial commerce and trade systems as humans transitioned from an age of barbarism to civilization. Roman myth holds that Janus was the first to mint the first coins.
There is a rite or custom where a bride would oil the posts to the door of her new home with wolf fat when she arrived. While this rite does not specifically mention Janus, it is a rite of passage connected to the ianua.
King Of Latium
As old as Janus is, predating the Roman Pantheon, it is very likely that he was a real person at one time.
In a story told by Macrobius, Janus had been exiled from Thessaly and sailed to a place known as Latium with his wife Camise and their children. They settled in a place along the Tiber river that would be named after his son Tiberinus.
Where Janus and his family settled, they built a city called Janiculum. After his wife died, Janus ruled in Latium for many years. After his death, Janus became deified.
Janus’ rule in Latium is part of the Golden Age in Roman mythology that saw a lot of wealth and agriculture come to the region. This era would be what caused Janus to be associated with trade, streams, springs and a sky god.
Variations: Hyginus in his retellings, Camese is male and Janus succeeded him as ruler of the kingdom.
Greek authors place Camese as Janus’ sister and spouse and that they have a son by the name of Aithex and a daughter by the name of Olistene.
Janus & Saturn
In Ovid’s Fasti, the god Saturn welcomes Janus as a guest and eventually shares his kingdom with them in return for teaching the art of agriculture.
Another slight variation to this, is the custom of Roman to depict their gods as having been mortal and ruling the city of Latium during a Golden Age of Peace. Janus as the ruler of his own Kingdom, welcomed Saturn in after he had been expelled from the heavens by Jupiter.
Janus & Romulus
In this myth, Romulus, as in one of the legendary founders of Rome; with the help of his men, kidnapped the Sabine women. In response, the Sabine men retaliated, trying to get their daughters back. Luck was with the Sabine men as a daughter of the city guard betrayed her fellow Romans and let the Sabine men slip within the city.
When the Sabine men tried to make their way up the Capitoline Hill, Janus is credited with causing a hot spring to erupt, causing a mixture of boiling water and volcanic ash that forced the Sabine men to turn back.
It’s from this myth, that the Romans and Sabines would later form a new community and the gates being open during war and closed during peace to keep in would come from.
Janus & Canens
A story found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis; Janus is the father of Canens with the nymph Venilia. Canens was the personification of song and married to Picus. When Picus spurred the love of Circe, she turned him into a woodpecker.Canens searched for six days for her husband before throwing herself into the Tiber river where she sang one final song before dying.
Janus & Carna
Also known by the name of Crane.
Carna was a nymph of the sacred grove in Helernus. Whenever Carna found herself being pursued by the unwanted advances of a young man, she would call out to the young man only to slip away to hide in various crags and other places. Janus saw her hiding and of course, what ancient Roman wouldn’t, Janus rapes Carna.
By way of apology, Janus gives Carna a whitethorn branch so that she may guard all thresholds and doorways, making her a goddess of hinges and then becomes known by the name of Cardea. As a goddess, Cardea would be responsible for protecting and purifying thresholds and doorposts. Incidentally, she also protects newborn infants from stirges. That… is really interesting given the connection between Vampires and not being able to cross thresholds.
That, however, is a post for another day…
I think it is also possible, given how old this myth is, that Janus and Carna had consensual sex and not rape. It would explain giving the hawthorne as a gift between two lovers and Janus elevating Carna from a nymph to a goddess with close to the same powers and abilities as he does with guardianship over thresholds.
Janus & Juturna
A minor myth is that Janus and Juturna, a goddess of wells give birth to Fontus, the god of wells and springs. Comment has been made that Fontus or Fons is another name for Janus. This myth is more likely used to explain why two festivals, Juturna on January 11th and Agonium of Janus on January 9th were so close together. Plus, further explaining why there is an alter for Fontus or Fons near the Janiculum and the connection to spring and beginnings.
Janus & Vesta
Janus presides over the beginnings and guards the doors and entries. Janus would be invoked first in rites and Vesta would be invoked last. It has brought some curious observations. The presence of Vesta shows that there was importance for the hearth, its life-giving fire and thus the home. A community couldn’t survive or thrive without the safety of the household. To be able to exit the untamed and unknown wilds to the safety of the community and civilization.
As has been the case with many deities, Janus was made a martyr and then later the Saint Januarius by the Roman Catholic Church.
Janus was also made a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church and later became known Saint Januarius.
During the Medieval or Middle Ages, the Italian city of Genoa used the symbol of Janus or Ianua. Many other European communes also used the symbol of Ianua.
For those interested in tracing an Indo-European religion and pantheon of gods that links the European deities with those of Vedic origins. There’s been a lot of study into it. As a god of beginnings and transitions, a primordial deity, Janus has been connected to the Vedic Vâyu. Most notably in the works of G. Dumézil. There certainly was a cross-pollination of ideas and religion when you see how much further east Greek culture was at one point and trade routes.
Portunus – Syno-Deity
Portunus is a similar deity to Janus. The difference is that Portunus presided over harbors and gateways in regard to traveling, commerce, trade and shipping. Like Janus, the key and staff are also one of Portunus’ symbols. Portunus’s festival day was held on August 17th.
Janus the Sailor – Because of how similar Janus and Portunus are, there is a hypothesis put forward that Janus may have originated as a god of winds and sailing, brought to the communities by the Tiber river. The connection has more to do with when Saturn sailed to ancient Latium and was welcomed by Janus.
Aditi – Hindu Goddess
The Vedic goddess of Infinity, Aditi is depicted as having two faces. She is seen as the feminine form of Brahma. Like Janus, Aditi is invoked at the beginning of ceremonies and she concludes them as well.
Ani – Etruscan God
In the little-known Etruscan mythology, Ani is the god of the sky and sometimes shown as having two faces. This has led some to conclude a possible connection between Ani and Janus.
Belinus – Chaldean God
Also called Baal-Ianus, a William Betham has made arguments that Janus’ cult would originate from the Middle East with the Chaldean culture.
Brahma – Hindu God
The imagery of double or four-faced deities in Hinduism is common. Brahma is the god who created the universe.
Culśanś – Etruscan God
In the little-known Etruscan mythology, Culśanś has been identified as being the counterpart to the Roman Janus. This connection seems more likely given Culśanś’ role as a god and protector of doorways and his depiction of having two faces.
Heimdallr – Nordic God
As guardian of the Bifrost bridge, the functions that Heimdallr has for standing in a place between time and space have been noted to be similar to Janus.
Isimud – Sumerian God
Also known as Usimu in Babylonian. A deity featuring two faces appears several times in Babylonian art. Isimud is the messenger of Enki.
Greek Connection – Which brings us to another point. However much the ancient Greeks and Romans tried to claim that Janus had no Middle Eastern connection, and that Janus is solely a Roman deity, there are some much later writers who would equate Hermes with Janus, especially so during the Hellenistic era of Greek culture.
Svetovid – Slavic God
Depicted as having four heads or faces, Svetovid is the Slavic god of war, fertility, and abundance.
Janus In Astronomy
On December 15th of 1966, the astronomer Audouin Dollfus discovered and identified, orbiting around Saturn, a moon that would later be called Janus. This moon is also known as Saturn X. It would take a little over a decade before it was recognized that Janus was one of two satellites or moons occupying close to the same orbit. The other is called Epimetheus. These names would become official in 1983. Janus also has two craters on it named for the characters of Castor and Pollux in mythology.
Etymology: “Jealously” or “Passion”
Also known as: Adaon, Aedín, Aideen, Echraidhe (“Horse Rider”), Éadaoin (modern Irish), Edain, Etaoin, Éadaoin
Epithets: Bé Find (“Fair Woman”), Shining-One
Etain is a figure from Irish mythology, her story involves a lot of unwanted transformations from a jealous Fuamnach and different suitors trying to win her. Etain is noted for her extreme beauty among the fae or sidhe. She is best known as the heroine found in the “Tochmarc Étaíne” or “The Wooing of Etain.”
Animal: Butterfly, Dragonfly, Fly, Horse, Swan, Worm
Sphere of Influence: Beauty, Healing, Irish Sovereignty, Music, Rebirth, Transformation, Transmigration of Souls
Parentage and Family
The lineage for Etain can get confusing. When seeing that Etain and the name’s many variant spellings could be the names of other characters, then it could be a matter of which Etain are we talking about?
Ailill – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Ailil, king of Ulaid is Etain’s father.
Etar – In the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (“The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel), Etar is Etain’s father.
Eochaid Feidlech – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Eochaid is the High King, he is Etain’s mortal husband whom she marries after being reincarnated. In the Dindsenchas poem, Rath Eas, Eochaid’s last name is given as Airem.
Midir – In the Wooing of Etain, this is Etain’s husband when she was in Tir na Nog.
Ailill Angubae – By some accounts of Etain’s story, she was really in love with Ailill, Eochaid’s brother. Not to be confused with the Ailill, King of Ulaid, who is her father.
Dian Ceacht – Etain’s daughter when she is married to Oghma.
Étaín Óg – Etain the Younger, she is Etain’s daughter when married to Eochaid Feidlech. Etain Og will go on to marry Cormac, the King of Ulster and have a daughter by the name of Mess Buachalla. Mess Buachalla will go on to marry High King Eterscel and be the mother of Conaire Mor.
Oghma – The Irish god of Writing, in some version, he is Etain’s husband.
Tochmarc Étaíne – The Wooing Of Etain
This is one of the oldest stories found in Irish mythology. There is another story that mentions Etain, the “Togail Bruidne Dá Derga” or “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.”
For now, we’re going to cover: “The Wooing of Etain.” It begins not with Etain, but with Midir and his first wife, Fuamnach. They were happily married and raised among their own children, Oengus or Aengus Óg (a Love god, some sources try to say he’s a sun god too) as a foster son.
For a little further context and background, Oengus is the son of Dagda, Midir’s brother. So really, Midir and Fuamnach are raising their nephew.
Like all children, Oengus grew up and moved out on his own. Midir decided one day that he would go visit his nephew. While visiting, an incident happened, involving some holly and Midir was blinded in one eye.
Even though Oengus heal’s Midir’s eye, Midir still seeks compensation for the injury that occured while visiting as a guest. As Oengus is the God of Love, he gets his Uncle the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland and Fairy, Etain. On seeing her, Midir is instantly in love and he takes her home with him.
It should come as no surprise, that once the two are home, that Midir’s wife, Fuamnach is angry, jealous even. How dare her husband bring home another woman, even if said woman is either a mistress or second bride and this is allowable, it’s the jealously and anger of a far more beautiful woman getting her husband’s attention.
Rather than take out her ire on Midir for this insult, Fuamnach takes it out on Etain. Fuamnach is a powerful sorceress in her own right. An enraged, Fuamnach conspired to cast a series of dark spells on Etain. The first one turns Etain into a pool of water. Another spell turns Etain into a worm or snake. Then finally into either a butterfly or dragonfly.
Changed to this new form, Etain’s wings hold the power that water that dropped from her wings would cure disease and the humming of her wings was soothing to those who heard it. Even in this strange new form,
Depending on the story told, Midir either does or doesn’t recognizes Etain. Regardless of which way the story goes, Midir spends all of his time with his butterfly companion and eschews the company of other women.
This only further enrages Fuamnach who sees that the two lovers are still together. This time, she conjured up a great gale of wind that drove Etain out of Midir’s house and to be lost at sea.
Etain is lost for seven years being buffeted about by the sea winds before at long last finding her way back to shore where she lands on Óengus’ clothing. Óengus does recognize that the butterfly is Etain. As he and Midir are currently feuding with each other, Instead of returning Etain, Óengus makes a small portable butterfly house that he carries around with him.
Eventually Fuamnach learns that Etain is with Óengus and she sends another wind that once more blows Etain out to sea to be lost for another seven years.
That is a long time to be lost at sea, not just once, but twice. Exhausted by her ordeal, Etain finds herself coming to rest on the roof of a house where people were gathered, enjoying a feast.
Drawn by the warmth from within, Etain flew closer to the sounds of merriment. However, in her state of exhaustion, she flew into goblet of wine and was promptly drunk up by Etar, the wife of a wealthy Ulster chieftain.
This is how Etar becomes pregnant with a reborn or reincarnated Etain. The catch being, that as with all reincarnations, a person doesn’t remember who they had been in a previous life. So, a newly reborn Etain grows up as the daughter of a wealthy chieftain.
The Tochmarc Étaine notes that some one thousand and twelve years have passed since Etain’s first birth back in Tir Na Nog, Fairy Land. Just as she had been before, Etain was once again the most lovely and beautiful woman in all of Ireland. The gifts of love, generosity and kindness were all held to be hers.
One day, Etain is out with her handmaidens at a well when they spot a man on horseback coming their way. This man is Eochaid, the king of Ireland. As soon as Eochaid lays eyes on Etain, he is immediately taken with her and asks Etain to be his Queen.
Naturally Etain is flattered and this is an opportunity. Love or not. Power or not. Etain agrees to marry Eochaid and a wedding follows soon after.
Complicating matters, Eochaid’s brother, Ailill Angubae has also in love with Etain and he pins away for her. As he is dying, Ailill confesses his love to Etain. To save him, Etain agrees to sleep with Ailill.
Enter Midir back into the story, who casts a spell on Ailill so that he falls asleep and misses his tryst with Etain. When Etain does go to meet up with Ailill, she does find a man who looks like Ailill, but it’s not, it’s Midir in disguise. Thrice Etain tries to meet up with Ailill and keeps meeting up with the imposter, Midir who finally reveals himself to her on the last time.
Midir tells Etain of her previous life in Fairy as his wife, trying to get Etain to return with him. For Etain, this is a problem, she’s been reborn as a mortal and is married to Eochaid. She won’t leave her current husband unless Eochaid allows her to.
The good thing that comes out of this encounter is that Ailill is no longer pinning away and dying for lack of love over Etain.
A goal and mission in mind, Midir sets out to meet Eochaid. Coming as himself, Midir offers to play a boardgame called fidchell. As other versions of this story say that it’s chess that the two play.
For the first game, Midir makes an offer of fifty horses as the stakes. Eochaid accepts and wins with Midir graciously offered prize. Midir now challenges Eochaid to another game, with higher stakes and wins again.
At some point in the game playing, Eochaid’s foster-father warns him that Midir is a being of great power and to be careful. As Midir is letting Eochaid win, the two keep on playing and with each win, Eochaid has Midir perform another task, ranging from clearing forests, reclaiming land from bogs, building causeways over said bogs.
These series of tasks are said to fit with the idea of the Tuatha De Danann that Midir belongs to as earth deities. Eventually, Midir grows tired of letting Eochaid win and challenges him to a last game of fidchell with the stakes to be named by the winner. This time, Midir wins and he claims an embrace and kiss from Etain.
This is more than what Eochaid is willing to allow. Eochaid agrees to Midir’s claim, that in a month’s time he can come claim Etain. As these stories go, Eochaid didn’t have any intention of letting Etain return to her former husband. Etain was his. On the day that Eochaid was to honor the agreement, he had all of his warriors waiting at his castle. These warriors formed circles around the castle with the intent to keep Midir from reclaiming his wife.
As if he were air or invisible, Midir passed through all the encircling warriors without slaying a one or shedding blood. Soon, Midir comes to the room where Eochaid and Etain await within. Midir proclaims that he is there for that which is his.
Seeing that he can’t renege on the deal after all and must agree, Eochaid says that Midir may have a kiss from Etain’s lips. Eochaid reluctantly allows Etain to go to Midir and the two kiss, transforming into a pair of swans and they fly out, away from the castle and back towards their fairy home of Tir na Nog.
Not wanting to lose Etain, Eochaid and his men set off for the fairy mound of Bri Leith where Midir is said to dwell. The men begin digging and Midir appears before Eochaid, telling him that his wife will be returned to him the next day.
On the morrow, Eochaid returns and there are fifty women, all appearing as Etain. An old hag tells Eochaid to pick out his wife. Eochaid does so and Midir later reveals that Etain had been pregnant when he took her. That the woman he took was in fact their daughter. Eochaid is horrified by the fact that he’s slept with his daughter who is no pregnant. This baby, who is also a girl is laid out in the woods to be exposed. Before death can claim the infant, a herdsman finds the baby and raises her to become the mother of the High King Conaire Mor.
Variations – There are a few different versions to Etain’s story. Some that focus solely on just Etain and what happened to her exclusively. Other versions will explain the whole set up of what led up Midir marrying Etain and thus, better explain why Fuamnach is jealous and maybe not so much jealous, but angry.
Version 1 – This story focuses on Etain being the second wife to Midir with Fuamnach being jealous. Here, Fuamnach enlists the aid of her friends to turn Etain into a pool of water. This causes Midir to becomes worried and he goes searching for his missing wife. To stay one step ahead of him, Fuamnach then turns Etain into a worm and then a fly.
As a fly, Etain flies down Fuamnach’s throat, causing her to become pregnant. Etain is reborn, this time, she’s mortal and doesn’t remember her previous life. Once she grows up, Etain marries the king Eochaid. Only it’s not Eochaid that Etain loves, it’s his brother Ailill, as if that wouldn’t cause more than a few problems.
To make it more complicated, Etain eventually meets Midir again and suddenly remembers who she had been. Just like before Midir wins Etain in a game of chess with Eodaid.
I rather find this version extremely problematic as it’s suggesting Etain wouldn’t know her own father? Assuming Midir still remained married to Fuamnach. Further, if Midir and Fuamnach are fairies and Etain is reborn as their daughter, shouldn’t she be a fairy too? Not mortal? Not to mention the extreme ewww with Midir now wanting someone who’s his daughter.
Just no. No.
It’s this version of the story with Fuamnach becoming Etain’s mother and seeing that Etain’s name means jealously; it makes me think that there may be an allegory or symbolism for the stages of jealousy or passion that Fuamnach is working through with her husband Midir.
Other Versions: There’s numerous versions to Etain’s story, some have her remembering her life in fairy when she meets Midir. Others have her not remembering her life at all and agreeing to leave with Midir if her mortal husband agrees as she thinks this is something that won’t happen.
A lot of these other versions for Etain’s story often simplify their retellings in that they often leave out how Midir and Etain meet, just that they do, the who episode of Alill pinning away for Etain is left off and the final episode where Eochaid tries to get Etain back and unknowingly, is given his daughter.
A couple episodes from the Tochmarc Etaine are repeated in this poem. Eochaid Airenn’s winning Etain back from Midir is in the Rath Esa poem. Midir’s abduction of Etain is referenced in the Rath Cruachan.
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga – The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel
In the main story for the Wooing of Etain, the Tochmarc Etaine, she is described as being very beautiful. However, no description is given anywhere of her. That changes in the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga where Etain encounters King Echu in Bri Leith.
In this text, she is described in a lot of lengthy detail from the comb she’s using to her clothing in lot of green, silver and golds. Her hair is described as being a red gold, skin white as snow, rosy cheeks, unnaturally blue eyes and curved body like the waves of sea foam. The narrator goes to great lengths to try describing what Etain looks like as the fairest of them all, there is a final quote that goes: “Lovely anyone until Étain. Beautiful anyone until Étain.” That such beauty could only mean that Etain was clearly of the sidhe.
Grecian Comparison – Hellen of Troy
The first story of Etain, the Wooing of Etain says that she’s very beautiful, comparable even to Helen of Troy. Where whole cities of Greece go to war with each other her. Etain has a jealous first wife takes out their wrath on her, a former spouse waiting for over a thousand years to reclaim her, and when she’s reborn, her mortal husband trying to keep her from the fairy husband to take her back.
The entire story for Etain reflects an older time when these older stories were likely passed on orally before getting written. So Etain’s story has had plenty of time to be altered and change and the role of the Goddess or Queen who gets to choose is altered and she is no longer in control of her destiny and is just a prize to be won.
An important note brought up about this story, while it doesn’t feature Etain in the first part of it, is to bear in mind that this story is an allegory for Ireland’s history. Etain’s role in the narrative becomes clearer when seeing her as the Goddess of the Land who gets to choose her consort to ensure the prosperity of the land.
A similar motif for this Celtic belief that the Goddess gets to choose her consort is seen in Arthurian Legend for the story of Guinevere, Lancelot and King Arthur with the whole love triangle happening there. Granted that story is a much later addition to Arthurian Legend, it’s an inserted story to narrative to explain the Goddess or Woman’s right to choose whom she loves and marries.
All the figures featured in the story likely represent different clans and geographical localities. Seeing Etain as a Sovereign Goddess of the Land, who she chooses to couple with are whom she deemed as the best ruling clans for the welfare of Ireland.
Lack Of Agency – At a knee-jerk first glance response, I don’t like the story of the Wooing of Etain. Why is Etain punished by Fuamnach for marrying Midir? For that matter, why does Midir get to be the one rewarded for cheating on his wife and marrying a younger woman, loose her and then get her back after waiting patiently for Etain to be reborn?
That here, we have Etain a woman who is just passed around as a prize to be won with barely any say in the matter of what happens to her. If the focus is given soley to Midir as the hero, of course, the entire story makes sense for his journey of loss and recovering his love and wife. Then poor Eochaid who gets to pick his wife and loses her to Midir, who takes back the woman who is rightfully his.
Without the Historical Allegory angle, the entire story feels maddening. No wonder there are later rewritings of the story that want give an image of two lovers who loose and find each other again. To give more agency to Etain’s actions and the series of unfortunate circumstances that befall her.
Etain is forced to a series of unwanted transformations by a jealous lover, ranging from worm to butterfly, to swan and even a pool of water. Including the worm and then changing to a fly, sounds like the larval state of an insect, either as a nymph, meaning the larval form of a dragonfly or caterpillar to a butterfly.
Looking at these stories symbolically, Etain’s transformations from a worm to a fly, only to be swallowed later by a woman and reborn as a child can all be seen as the different stages of life.
Soul or Spirit – In a lot of Celtic folklore, flies or butterflies are often seen as being the souls of the deceased, even if it’s just a metaphor. It makes sense if Etain’s changing to a worm, than a fly or butterfly is merely a symbolic way of describing the spirit’s transformation and more easily explaining the transition from one life to another. Or maybe Fuamnach actually killed Etain, tossing her body into a pool of water?
Celtic Numerology – More of a minor note, the number seven is used for the number of years that Etain is lost at sea a mystical number. In this case, it is a number meaning a spiritual awakening.
That’s undeniable with all the transformations that Etain undergoes once she falls afoul of Fuamnach’s magic, going from a pool of water, to a worm, to a fly or butterfly, swallowed and reborn as a mortal woman.
What’s In A Name
Given the nature of Etain’s story and the meaning of her name: “Jealousy” or “Passion.” I think it sheds an important light to the significance of Etain’s story and the proper framework to look at it in.
Bé Find – Meaning “Fair Woman,” this is a name that Midir gives to Etain in Tochmarc Etaine. It comes from a poem found within the larger saga called: “A Bé Find In Ragha Lium” is likely from a much older, unrelated source and was just stuck in the saga at a later time.
Eadaoin – As Eadaoin, she is noted as being a sidhe and one of the Tuatha De Dannan who is associated with poetry and inspiration. With this spelling, Etain is noted as having a different husband, either Midir or Oghma depending on the source used. This could just merely mean Etain or Eadaoin was a common enough name that there is more than one person in the Irish Mythological Cycles who has this name. As they’re all sidhe, that makes it even more difficult to keep them all straight.
Echraide – Meaning “Horse Rider,” this is a name that has been attached to Etain and is meant to link her with horse deities such as the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Shining-One – An epitaph of “Shining-One” or claiming that’s what Etain’s name means, tend to come from more modern sources that want to connect her to be a Sun Goddess or a fairy. As far as a strong, scholarly bent goes, it doesn’t really work.
Some sources, often the more modern Pagan paths will place Etain as a goddess. Depending on the lineage you follow, if Oghma for example, she is a goddess of poetry and inspiration. Yet another source will list her as a Love or War goddess?
Some of the sources that link Etain to different deific roles seem tentative.
Horse Goddess – One of Etain’s epitaphs is Echraide, meaning “Horse Rider,” which would mean she’s a Horse Goddess, much like the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Sun Goddess – T. F. O’Rahilly is who identified Etain as a Sun Goddess. Several New Age and modern Pagan groups have adopted her as such. When Oengus is identified as a Sun God, this connection makes sense if Etain is seen as his daughter.
Goddess of the Land – This I would readily accept given the nature of Etain’s story as an allegory for Ireland’s history and a Goddess marrying whom she wants that will bring prosperity to the land.
Love Goddess – This really works best for more modern interpretations of Etain’s story; especially when keeping in mind her story as an allegory and for those seeking to reclaim her role as a deity with her own agency who chooses her lovers. Plus, the connection seems to come more strongly with Midir’s fostering of Aengus Óg who is a Love God.
Sovereign Goddess – This is an important aspect of Etain, especially if you want her story to make sense as a deity who choose her consort for the prosperity and welfare of the land.
Triple Goddess – In New Age and Wiccan practices, Etain is often seen as a Triple Goddess
Other Aspects – Furthering this, due to the forced transformations, some will claim Etain as a Goddess of Transformation and Rebirth, a Moon Goddess.
Well yes, most versions of Etain’s story acknowledge her as a fairy, specially one of the Sidhe and certainly of the Tuatha de Danann. An imagery not at all unlike the Tolkien Elves in his Middle Earth series.
The account that has some men coming across an extremely beautiful woman beside a spring see them agreeing that such beauty was only possible of the sidhe.
That seems to be the sentiment of some authors, scholars and modern Pagans.
Wiccan, New Age & Modern Paganism
I think it’s important to note, that myths and stories do change with time. Much of the story that so many know with Etain has been colored through the lens of Christianity and with some regards, a patriarchy, resulting in a story about a woman who appears to have little agency and control over her own fate and destiny.
In the pursuit of adjusting Etain back to her perceived mythological roots and giving her significance and relevance, to better be the actor in her own story, some modern Pagan traditions will claim that Etain’s name means “Shining One” and place her as a Triple Goddess who represents the Sun, Water and Horses.
Understanding Etain’s story will certainly make it easier to interpret her as needed. I think sticking to what’s known and concrete from her legends is the most useful.