Nera’s Quest: Samhain Knowledge

“The Adventure of Nera” is a wonderful tale to tell or read on Samhain, and is one of my favorites. A few thoughts on it follow.

The echtrae are the class of tales translated as `adventures’. They usually involve a trip into the Otherworld. These tales show some of the things, abilities and knowledge to be sought in the otherworld. They tend to be full of cups, cauldrons, glasses, wells, fountains and springs: containers for knowledge and wisdom. In Nera’s case the knowledge gained was life saving for his community.

 While often enough in the tales the otherworld comes knocking, in Nera’s case he went after it. At the Samhain feast of Medb and Ailill long long ago in Cruachan, Ailill the king promised great reward to any who would go out to the gallows and tie a willow withie (tie) onto the corpses of two executed criminals, dangling there on the night of dissolution of boundaries between worlds.. Only Nera was brave enough, or seemingly foolish enough.

 Through a long series of weird events, including giving one of the corpses a ride on his back in search of a drink and seeing a horrifying vision of his people’s hall lying ruined, and filled with corpses, due to an attack from a nearby fairy mound, Nera ended up inside said fairy mound. Once therein, he was accepted by the aes sid king who set him up with a woman whom would become his wife. The king also assigned him a daily task of bringing to the King’s house a bundle of firewood. As Nera brought the firewood to the court, he’d pass a spring where he was fascinated to see a blind man carrying a lame man coming out of the nearby court each morning and walking to the well. There the blind man would ask the lame man, “Is it there?” and the lame man would reply affirmatively. Nera, overcome with curiosity, rushed to his new home and wife. His wife was able to tell him that a gold diadem, the crown of Brion, was kept in the well—and that it was one of the three treasures of the island of Ireland. So often it is an otherworld woman who gives hidden knowledge to the journeyer.

 Nera then asked her about his ravaged household that he had seen that night he first came to the mound, and she told him what he saw had not yet happened, it was a vision of the future, of the Samhain a year hence, and that he could avert this from happening if he were to go and forewarn his comrades. How would they ever believe him, he mused but she said to take the fruits of summer with him as proof, namely, wild garlic, primroses and buttercups. She also confided that she was pregnant by him, and would bear a son. He must come and warn her before the following year’s raid, as she knew Ailill and Medb would raid the mound. So he went back and warned his people that Cruachan would be attacked the following Samhain. Ailill gave him a gold-hilted sword as a reward. And Nera told them about the diadem immersed in the waters of the spring. The king and queen began planning their raid. As the next Samhain approached, Nera went back to the sid and his otherworld wife. He was even indirectly connected to the events that trigger the Tain, as the Morrigan decided to take a cow that he gave to his young son, but that’s a tale for another time.

Wells and springs are like cups and other vessels; they are containers, containers of knowledge, wisdom and healing. In this case, one of the three treasures of Ireland, a crown with associations of sovereignty is raided and delivered to this world. Nera proves to be an important intermediary, and a player in key events of his people due to his courageous echtra, but he joins those mortals who settle in the Otherworld and don’t return. We can imagine he is still happily there with his Otherworld wife. It’s said he will not come out until the end of the world. The “Echtrae Nera” is an excellent tale to read or tell during the Samhain season. The best translation is by John Carey and can be found in The Celtic Heroic Age, edited by John T. Koch. Or you can go to the Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective site for it.

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