So I’ll take up my knife in my right hand
better than tears on my face
I’ll call all my sisters1 to fight for my man
No matter the time or the place
I’ll chase you across the wide ocean’s way
to any isle that you may be2
I’ll make you remember your promises made
to all Ulstermen and to me3
Salmon-leap lover, my killer of men4
did you forget now those words you said then?
I’ve borne all the whispers, a thousand-pecked hen
but this time you go too far.
I nursed you in sickness, I begged for your life5
and now you have taken a fairy to wife
this feeling inside me, it twists like a knife
and now I know who you are
Is it that I haven’t birthed you a son?
Or is it a goddess’s war to be won?
I do not shine so much as when I was young
Though my wits will never fade6
I see now the island where you and she lie
though I am not ready to make someone die
instead I will steal back your leash and we’ll fly7
away from that temptress’s glade
I see you now holding her heart in your palm
likewise I see how she makes you stand tall8
the fire that made my father’s house fall
burns for another now9
She too has a husband of horses and seas
a god says he’s sorry for what we have seen
his draught is the ocean, his cloak is the breeze
somehow we are homeward bound10
But I still have my knife in my right hand
Bitter salt tears on my face
My sisters and I sail back with my man
To our own warm fireplace
I loved you and lost you to Fand’s bright eyes
Although I cannot recall how
Your geas noose tightens, the sun will still rise
But you are still mine for now.11
=== a few notes on this piece ===
I always really like stories and songs that are written from the point of view of a woman who is absolutely fed up with the bullshit she’s been fed. I called this “Emer’s Sick-Bed” because the original story “Cuchulainn’s Sick-Bed” is about how he gets sick and then gets to bang a goddess while the most beautiful woman in Ireland wonders where the hell he’s gone. The sick-bed in this case is Emer being entirely sick of Cuchulainn’s brand of nonsense.
Okay, hyperbole is a thing here, but read on for some notes that support my argument here:
- Emer literally summons her ladies-in-waiting to roll up on Fand’s island after she finds out where Cuchulainn is. I imagined this to be a call to them to support her, and I love the idea of a bunch of ladies with knives going to a place for the sole reason of fucking shit up.
- Irish mythology has a metric ton of otherworlds that are often depicted as islands. Places like the Land of Joy or the Land of Youth are places you can sail to if you’re lucky and you have a boat! Emer knows this.
- Of course, Cuchulainn is the defender of Ulster after their men collectively pissed off Macha. Cuchulainn is also married to Emer after a whoooole lot of shenanigans (which are covered later in this song).
- I think it’s important to mention that this is Cuchulainn, because I made it a point to not actually name him in the song. Emer is singing to him, but it’s her story this time.
- Emer and Cuchulainn have had a lot of adventures together! Many of his stories feature her getting him out of trouble or supporting him in one way or another.
- Emer is considered to be ‘the perfect woman’ in that she has all of the ideal virtues: beauty, voice, sweet speech, needlework, wisdom, and chastity. Several of these things are evergreen but a few fade with time, so I referenced that here.
- It’s a pun – Cuchulainn is the Hound of Cullan.
- The story goes that Emer was ready to ruin Cuchulainn’s life, but when she saw how much he loved Fand and vice versa, she was prepared to let him live with Fand instead of herself. Fand sees this as well and is ashamed of having stolen a man from ‘this fine mortal woman’ and thus the dumbest argument of all time briefly ensues.
- In the wooing of Emer, her father Forgall was against it entirely. In the face of this, Cuchulain went off, learned how to murder, got another lady pregnant, and then came back to murder Emer’s father’s men until he acquiesed. Forgall was terrified of Cuchulainn’s fury and the salmon-leap he did to get Emer from her tower and himself died trying to leap over a rampart to escape.
- This was a really tough verse to write because I wanted to end the song without dragging it on! Fand is married too, to the god of the sea Mannanan. He has a cloak that if shaken between two people guarantees they will never meet again. He does this because of all of the sorrow this whole story has given every person in it. Translations disagree on where the draught of forgetfulness comes from, but I gave it to Mannanan here for song’s sake. (Although as a funny note, some translations say the Druids give the draught to Cuchulainn – the Irish myth equivalent of ‘a wizard did it’?)
- Last note – of course things are different after everything that happens in the story! The last chorus reflects this. In some of the stories in the mythological cycles, you sometimes see different folks get premonitions or visions of the future. I put a touch of that in here at the end. As far as I’ve been able to tell, this story happens after Cuchulainn has done some buckwild shit, including killing his only son – Emer knows that this isn’t going to be forever. She would know about his different curses, but is willing to enjoy the time she has left with him.
This is an addition to the post that I forgot to mention: I forgot to speak on the rhyme scheme! I mentioned a while ago Barbara Hughes Fowler’s translations in Medieval Irish Lyrics – in her introduction to the poems, she briefly discusses early Irish meters. The actual system of internal and external rhymes, alliteration, consonance, and assonance were a bit difficult for me to understand, but she referenced Ruth Lehmann’s translations and how she attempted to imitate the rules in her work. The example that Fowler provides is a two-part verse. The first and second halves have four lines, the first three of which rhyme internally. The last line of each half rhymes with each other. That’s the rhyme scheme I used in this song for my verses as well. /end edit
Originally I called this “Etain’s Sick-Bed” because that name ended up in my head instead of Emer, but future recordings will reflect her name for real. I was just excited to finish it!
As I mentioned earlier, you can find a recording on the Knowne World Bardcast – here’s a link to the episode, curated by Ollam Lanea (who is a lovely and enabling person!).
There is so much text here, but thank you for reading through it. See you soon! (Much sooner than last time, I promise!)