Midir and Etain

Early Irish Board Games
by Eoin Mac White
Quiz #452 Results
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Answer to Quiz #452 - October 26, 2014
1. What is the name of the ancient chess-like game being played in the picture?
2. Who are the players?
3. Who wins the last game and what is his prize?
Comments from Our Readers
Yes, I can certainly understand you buying these cards. I think I would have done
the same if I'd seen them.  Jim Fitzpatrick is very talented, which I came to realize
after going through "I don't know how many" of his paintings looking for the very
one you posted; but to no avail.  To his credit, he has a great facility in creating
ethereal works which seem to appeal to the masses. Wish I had a talent! Talent in
my book is truly a gift from God.  

I really enjoy these stories too and I did see where she was changed into a butterfly.
The only part that kind of left me cold was the bit about the love sick
brother-in-law. It bugged me that she was considering going with him, but then
again she didn't want to see him die and she was of another world it would seem,
so obviously of a higher calling.

Looking forward to tomorrow's quiz. :)
Cynthia Costigan
Do wild guesses count?  The game board looks like Senet.  The players are the
father and the suitor of the fair maiden sitting to the right.  If the young man wins,
he gets to marry the fair maiden.
Carol Farrant
Another interesting quiz for this week. Such a colorful depiction of this Irish legend.
Grace Hertz and Mary Turner
The Fabulous Flecthers
There are so many legends about butterflies. Where I grew up there's an annual
Feast of Lanterns and they reenact a modified version of the legend of the Blue
Willow china pattern. Originally two lovers turn into pigeons, but because of the
annual Monarch butterfly migration, they changed the story to butterflies.  See
Tynan Peterson
I found the post card you mentioned by searching Google for the image and went
from there.  The key was 'fichel'. From that I found an obscure reference to Irish
tales which mentioned Midir and Etain.
Ellen Welker

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Robert Austin                 Ellen Welker
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Tom Collins                Timmy Fitzpatrick

Grace Hertz and Mary Turner
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1.  Fidchell
2. Midir and Echu Airen, King of Tara
3. Midir won a kiss and an embrace from Etain, wife of Echu.
Clues in the Picture
Celtic braids and patterns
Chess-like game
A king
A woman awaiting the outcome
of the game
A Google search on the terms - ancient Celtic chess game -  or - ancient Irish chess
game -  would lead you to descriptions of the game of Fidchell.  Many of these
descriptions include mentions of
Tochmarc Étaíne, the story Étaíne, the most beautiful
woman in all of Ireland, and the chess match played between her husband Echu Airen,
the High King of Tara, and Midir, her suitor.
Part I

The story begins with the conception of
Aengus by the Dagda and Boand, wife of
Elcmar. Aengus is fostered by Midir, and
when he grows up takes possession of
the Brug na Boinne from Elcmar.

Midir visits Aengus, but is blinded by a
sprig of holly thrown by boys playing the
Brug, and after he has been healed by the
physician Dian Cecht, he demands
compensation for Aengus:  among other
Tochmarc Étaíne
Owing to the
meagre and vague
character of the
evidence, the
student who would
elucidate the nature
of the various board
games mentioned in
early Irish literature
must tread warily.
Not only is the
things, the hand of the most beautiful woman in Ireland. He has already identified this
woman: Étaín, daughter of Ailill, king of the Ulaid. To win her for Midir, Aengus has to
perform various tasks for Ailill, including clearing plains and diverting rivers, as well
pay her weight in gold and silver. Midir takes Étaín as his wife.

However, Midir's first wife, Fúamnach, out of jealousy, turns her into a pool of water,
out of which, as it evaporates, emerges a beautiful purple fly. Midir knows the fly is
Étaín, and she accompanies him wherever he goes. But Fúamnach conjures up a storm
which blows the fly away, and she drifts for seven years before landing on Aengus's
clothing, exhausted. Aengus makes her a crystal bower which he carries around with
him, until she returns to health. Fuamnach conjures up another storm and blows her
away from Aengus, and after another seven years she lands in a golden cup in the hand
of the wife of Étar, a warrior of the Ulaid, in the time of Conchobar mac Nessa. Étar's
wife drinks from the cup, swallows the fly, and becomes pregnant. Étaín is reborn,
1,002 years after her first birth. Meanwhile, Aengus hunts down Fúamnach and cuts
off her head.

Part II

The High King of Ireland, Eochu Airem, seeks a wife, because the provincial kings will
not submit to a king with no queen. He sends messengers to find the most beautiful
woman in Ireland, and they find Étaín. He falls in love with her and marries her, but his
brother Ailill also falls for her, and wastes away with
unrequited love. Eochu leaves Tara on a tour of Ireland,
leaving Étaín with the dying Ailill, who tells her the
cause of his sickness, which he says would be cured if
she gave the word. She tells him she wants him to be
well, and he begins to get better, but says the cure will
only be complete if she agrees to meet him on the hill
above the house, so as not to shame the king in his own
house. She agrees to do so three times, but each time
she goes to meet him, she in fact meets Midir, who has
put Ailill to sleep and taken his appearance. On the third
occasion Midir reveals his identity and tells Étaín who
she really is, but she does not know him. She finally
agrees to go with him, but only if Eochu agrees to let
her go.

Part II
Later, after Ailill has fully recovered and Eochu has returned home, Midir comes to
Tara and challenges Eochu to play fidchell, an ancient Irish board game, with him.
They play for ever increasing stakes. Eochu keeps winning, and Midir has to pay up.
One such game compels Midir to build a causeway across the bog of Móin Lámrige:
the Corlea Trackway, a wooden causeway built across a bog in County Longford,
dated by dendrochronology to 148 BC, is a real-life counterpart to this legendary road.
Finally, Midir suggests they play for a kiss and an embrace from Étaín, and this time he
wins. Eochu tells Midir to come back in a year for his winnings, and gathers his best
warriors at Tara to prepare for his return. Despite the heavy guard, Midir appears inside
the house. Eochu agrees that Midir may embrace Étaín, but when he does, the pair fly
away through the skylight, turning into swans as they do so.

Eochu instructs his men to dig up every síd (fairy-mound) in Ireland until his wife is
returned to him. Finally, when they set to digging at Midir's síd at Brí Léith, Midir
appears and promises to give Étaín back. But at the appointed time, Midir brings fifty
women, who all look alike, and tells Eochu to pick which one is Étaín. He chooses the
woman he thinks is his wife, takes her home and
sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant and bears
him a daughter. Later, Midir appears and tells him
that Étaín had been pregnant when he took her, and
the woman Eochu had chosen was his own
daughter, who had been born in Midir's síd. Out of
shame, Eochu, orders the daughter of their
incestuous union to be exposed, but she is found
and brought up by a herdsman and his wife, and
later marries Eochu's successor Eterscél and
becomes the mother of the High King Conaire Mór
(in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga she is named as Mess
Búachalla and is the daughter of Étaín and Eochu
Feidlech). The story ends with Eochu's death at the
hands of Sigmall Cael, Midir's grandson.
So Close and Yet So Far...
Ok! I am stumped.

My observations:

Picture of an old(er) man wearing a gold crown dressed in voluminous
robes sitting on a chair/throne. Beside the throne are boxes containing
objects that could be treasures/property.

A younger man is seated across from the older man with a board game
using three columns and six rows, the younger man is dressed more
lightly, is well built and has a light beard. He is holding a game piece and
showing it to the older man.

Both men have a cup on the floor with a vessel that may hold a beverage.
A young woman with long blond hair is watching the men. She is dressed
in robes, wearing sandals, and sitting on a rug or fur skin.

On the wall is a tapestry with a circle enclosing eight circles.

There are blue draperies pulled back framing the tapestry.

On the floor in front of the woman is a brazier with fire. Behind the older
man is an elevated brazier with fire.

1. the room is cold.
2. The younger man is of a lower status than the older man.
3. The woman is the daughter of the older man.
4. The older man is a king.
5. The woman is a princess.
6. The princess has a vital interest in the outcome of the game.
7. The younger man is playing a game with the king, if he wins, he will
 marry the princess.
8. The younger man is either explaining the game to the king, not very
 likely since it is most likely that the game board belongs to the king.
 Most likely the younger man is claiming the game by capturing the
 critical piece ( The king in chess. )
9. The tableau presented in this picture could be from a fantasy story, or,
 an illustration of a long ago moment in history.

Problems in solving this quiz.

1. I could not find the picture, so I have no context to work from.
2. In the history of chess I could not find an example of a 6 by 3 board

So, maybe a clue from you would help!

Tom Collins


G'job Tom!  You've figured out everything except the answers to the
three questions.  Hint:  What is the ethnic background of these people?

- Q. Gen.
evidence slight and ambiguous but it is sometimes contradictory.
However some possibilities and probabilities can be shown, and a
few impossibilities likewise. One of the latter is the popular fallacy
that fidchell and brandub were chess or draughts.

Both fidchell and brandub are frequently mentioned in the saga
literature of the Ulster cycle, and fidchell is mentioned in the
Laws, which would bring us back to the seventh century at least.
The etymological identity of Old Irish fidchell with Old Welsh
gwyddbwyll might well bring us into prehistoric times. H.J.R.
Murray in his monumental History of Chess has demonstrated that
"European chess is a direct descendant of an Indian game played
in the seventh century with substantially the same arrangements
and methods as in Europe five centuries later, the game having
been adopted first by the Persians, then handed on by the Persians
to the Muslim world, and finally borrowed from Islam by
Christian Europe."

Draughts, whatever its exact origin was, cannot be traced back
beyond the thirteenth century, and some of its characteristics (viz.
the board and the idea of promotion) seem to have been borrowed
from chess. Thus both brandub and fidchell were current in
Ireland some five centuries before the introduction of chess into
Europe, and for a longer period before the invention of draughts.

What is probably the most valuable reference to the game [of
fidchell], is to be found in the tale of Mac da Cherda and
Cummaine Fota.

"Good," says Guaire, "Let's play fidchell." "How are the men
slain?" says Cummaine. "Not hard, a black pair of mine about one
white man of yours on the same line, disputing the approach on
the far side (?)" "My conscience, indeed!" said Cummaine, "I
cannot do the other thing (?), but I shall not slay (your men), you
will not slay my men." For a whole day Guaire was pursuing him
and he could not slay one of his men. "That is champion-like, o
cleric," said Guaire.


1.  The identification of fidchell with chess goes back to the 15th
century in Ireland, as is shown by a gloss incorporated in the text
of a 15th century MS. of the Battle of Moyturra (Rev. Celt., xii, p.
79,#69). "But if chess (fidcheall) was invented at the epoch (?) of
the Trojan war, it had not reached Ireland then, for the Battle of
Moyturra and the destruction of Troy occurred at the same time."
The idea of chess as a Trojan invention gained currency from
Guido de Columna's Historia Troiana, a 13th century work which
was twice translated into English, once by John Lydgate (c.

2.  The Cennchaom Conchobair ("the Fair-head of Connor") is not
a distinct board game but merely the proper name of Conchobar's
own fidchell.
Note that this week's quiz image is the creation of noted Irish artist Jim Fitzpatirck.
(No known relation of the Quizmaster General).