Midwinter Moon

The second moon cycle in my lunar year is the Midwinter Moon. It is new between 30 November and 27 December; it’s full between 14 December and 10 January. The winter solstice will usually fall in this month, and this moon will be full during the longest nights of the year. It is, therefore, the longest full moon. It is also frequently the full moon that occurs when the moon is closest to earth. (And you thought you were just imagining those huge winter moonrises.) This month is the deep dark time. It is unfortunate that it is also a time of nearly continuous celebration and frenetic cultural activity. Sometimes it’s good to recognize our bodily needs and just sit out a party or two (or ten). Let your animal instincts send you to sleep when the sun sets in the early evening and don’t get up until it rises again.

A few years ago, I put together a collection of stories that were set around Midwinter. This month I will share one of my favorites from that collection — my version of the tale of the birth of the Irish hero, Cuchulainn. It is best told in the dark on a long, cold night. I like to imagine Seamus Heaney reading it aloud to a group of wide-eyed children by a blazing fire, all clutching steaming mugs of hot cocoa.

I can have my pipe-dreams…


The Birth of Cuchulainn

Conchobor was king at Emain Macha in Ulster. He had no wife for he was still young, so he had no heir. He did have a lovely sister who was also yet unwed. Her name was Deichtine.

Cranes from Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica
(Salisbury, late 12th century–early 13th century)

Now on a time as early winter laid over the land, a flock of cranes came to Emain Plain and devoured every last shred of hoarded fodder in the land. They then destroyed every plant, dormant or evergreen, down to the very roots. The men of Ulster were frightened and angry, and they set out in nine chariots to pursue the birds. King Conchobor led his men in the chase with his sister driving his chariot as was her wont.

They hunted the cranes over all the lands and became entranced by their beauty. Their flight was graceful; their song ethereal. Each twenty birds, and there were quite nine score of them, flew in aerial dances together so that there were nine flights of birds all together. Each flight was led by two cranes yoked by a fine chain of silver. Three birds, bound by links of gold, led the whole flock.

The men of Ulster pursued the birds until they reached Brug na Boann at a time of nightfall. It began to snow heavily as they set up camp by the icy river. Conchobor sent men to find better shelter, for the snow threatened to bury them alive in their thin tents. The messengers soon returned, reporting to the king that there was nothing nearby save a small house on a hill — no more than a rough hovel — a league or so upstream.

Seeing that there was no choice, Conchobor led the company to the house, thinking that at least shelter might be contrived for his dear sister. But when they came to the hut, the man of the house welcomed in the whole company — chariots, horses and every last man. Miraculously they all found the house to be shelter enough, indeed more than enough. The man offered them all food and drink and soon a merry party ensued. The birds were quite forgotten.

While the men of Ulster were making merry, the man of the house took aside Dechtine, begging her to assist his wife who was suffering birth pangs. So all night Dechtine administered to the man’s wife skillfully while the men of Ulster made merry until they dropped into sleep where they sat.

Just ere dawn, the man’s wife brought a son into the world. And then many strange things happened in quick succession. A mare cried out and dropped twin foals into the deep snow just outside the window Dechtine stood by while cleaning the newborn child. Then the mare vanished. Dechtine turned to the child’s mother in surprise and found that she, too, was gone. Then she found herself standing cold in the deep snow outside her tent with not a trace of the house to be seen anywhere under the morning sun except for the tiny babe and the two foals, still damp but already restive.

The men of Ulster woke with the dawn and stumbled out of tents they did not remember pitching, seeking in vain for their generous host. Conchobor, though himself wondering what evil had been worked upon them, tried to convince his men that they but dreamt of the hut, that nothing was amazing in waking in their own tents. But then Dechtine brought to him the child and the newborn colts. And Conchobor knew that this was his fosterling given to him in wondrous fashion. So they forsook the chase of the birds and returned to Emain Macha with the boy and his horses. 

Dechtine cared for the child as if he were her own. But the boy was weak and sickly without his mother, and he soon died after their return home. Dechtine was distraught. She would neither eat nor dirnk for days on end, and Conchobor feared that she too would die. So he brought food and drink to her bedside himself, ordering her to sip from the cup that he held to her lips.

As Dechtine took a drink, a tiny thing like a worm slipped into her belly. Immediately, her good cheer returned and she sprang from her bed. Conchobor saw that she was now heavy with child, though but moments before she had been as thin as a reed from her long fasting. 

Well, there was nothing to be done about it. However, to try and quell malicious gossip — for Dechtine was a maid after all — Conchobor persuaded her to marry her beloved Sualdom quickly. So marry they did, and before Dechtine gave birth so that her child might have a father. Dechtine went to live with her new husband and said farewell to her childhood home of Emain Macha. She bid farewell also to the colts born by the Boann.

“Setanta Slays the Hound of Culain”, illustration by Stephen Reid from Eleanor Hull, The Boys’ Cuchulain, 1904

Dechtine began her labor on the longest night of that year and delivered a boy-child just before the dawn. They named him Setanta, son of Sualdom. But he was no son of Sualdom. For in the feverish dreams of birth-pangs, Lugh came to her surrounded by golden light and gently took her hand. He said, “The child you carry is my son; and he will always in life choose greatness, though he buy it at great price. So care well for him, my dearest Dechtine.” Then Lugh vanished, but Dechtine knew how it was that she came to be with child, though she was even yet a maid.

And they called him Setanta. And he was great, the greatest of warriors, foster-son and heir to Conchobor the King and the champion of Ulster. We remember him now as Cuchulainn — the Hound of Culainn. But how he came by that name is another tale for another night.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021