If you’ve already read Part One of our Legends of Samhain series, then by now you’re brushed up on the background regarding the ancient Gaelic festival that marked the end of the harvest season and ushered in the darker half of the year.
Rife with bonfires, divination, feasts, and guising, it was a time when the spirits of the departed might once again roam the mortal world. Naturally, there were plenty of superstitions, rites of passage, and mischievous ghouls involved with the celebrations.
But that wasn’t all the holiday was about. We like to think of ancient Celtic people dancing around flames, drinking booze, and donning masks as we revel on Halloween, but the Celts also had heroes in mind when they observed Samhain.
One such one was Nera.
The Strange Adventure of Nera
One ancient Samhain night, King Ailill and Queen Medb of Connacht gathered their entire household, including warriors aplenty, at their fort Rath Cruachan. As the men were feasting, Ailill made a strange request —one that sounded like a dare.
The men had captured and executed two prisoners the day prior. Ailill declared that whoever went and placed a willow branch around the foot of one of the corpses that hung fresh from the gallows would get a fantastic prize.
No one wanted to take the bait. It was Samhain, after all, which meant the dead had power. A corpse could inflict untold damage on the living should it wish to. Eventually, a few volunteers rose to the challenge, heading off into the dark one by one. Each one made it only so far before scampering back, because “great was the darkness of that night and its horror”.
Finally, Nera offered to go. Ailill promised his gold-hilt sword should Nera succeed.
But Nera didn’t just barge out of the fort toward the dead men. He took precautions. He donned a heavy suit of armor before heading out to the aptly-named house of tortures where the corpses were strung up.
When Nera entered, his armor mysteriously fell off three times in a row. After putting it back on for the third time, he heard one of the dead men cackle. He was doing it all wrong, the prisoner said. The armor needed a proper nail to hold it together. So Nera fastened a nail to his armor and his flesh to hold everything together. The prisoner congratulated him, saying how brave he was. Arrogantly, Nera agreed.
(Side note: some accounts of this story have the willow branch spring off the prisoner’s ankle three times, rather than Nera’s armor falling off. The warrior uses a peg to fasten the branch at the dead man’s urging. Lo and behold, it works.)
After congratulating him, the prisoner egged Nera on.
“By the truth of thy valour, take me on thy neck, that I may get a drink with thee. I was very thirsty when I was hanged.” Not one to be easily grossed out, Nera said, “Come on my neck then! Whither shall I carry thee?”
“The nearest house.” Replied the captive.
So the two men, living and dead, went to the nearest house. Upon arrival, they saw that it was surrounded by a lake of fire. Realizing the people inside likely needed to use all their water to damp down the flames before bed, the prisoner decided they ought to try the next one.
They crept toward another home, this one surrounded by a lake of water. “Do not go to that house!” cried the captive. “There is never a washing nor bathing-tub, nor a slop-pail in it at night after sleeping.”
They continued to the third house. All seemed normal, and so they went inside. The occupants had left out vats for bathing and washing without dumping them. While the family slept, the dead man drank deeply from the vats. He then took his last mouthful and sprayed it over the sleeping people, killing them all instantly.
Still Stranger Times Ahead
Apparently unfazed, Nera took the prisoner back to the gallows and returned to the royal fort. What he saw when he got there shocked him. The entire hill on which the fort sat was aflame, and resting in the foreground was a giant pile of heads belonging to his fellow soldiers. Dumbstruck, Nera noticed another army moving away and followed them as they sank deeper into the mound, or sidh, they were marching on.
Suddenly, everything changed. In that moment, Nera realized he had left the Earth and entered a strange Other World — one that bordered the realm of the living.
The sidh warriors had brought the heads along and displayed their trophies to their king upon arrival. The king was pleased. “What shall be done to the man that came with?” A warrior asked, gesturing towards Nera. “Let him come hither, that I might speak with him ” The mighty ruler replied.
The king gave Nera explicit instructions. He was to go to a woman’s house, where he would be allowed to live as long as he brought a piece of firewood to the king every day. When he arrived the woman received him cordially, and Nera faithfully brought the king a burden of firewood each day.
One day, Nera noticed a blind man with a lame man on his back leaving the palace and climbing over a wall. Bemused, he asked the woman what it meant.
“They are going over to the crown that’s in the wall”, the woman explained. “It is a gold diadem that the king wears on his head, and that is where it is hidden”. Puzzled, Nera asked why they went in twos. “That’s easy.” Replied the woman, who explained that the king would only trust a man who can’t see and one who can’t walk to visit his cherished possession. Neither could ever betray him.
Nera then wondered aloud about his own destiny. The woman, by this time keen on the noble warrior, decided to divulge a secret. She revealed that the fire and the mountain of severed heads was a prophetic vision that hadn’t yet happened. You see, time passed differently down in the sidh. If only Nera could warn his people, they would be saved. And by the way, she was also pregnant.
“Rise and go to them.” Said she, as though she didn’t just drop a bomb. “They are still around the same cauldron and the charge has not yet been removed from the fire. Tell them to be on their guard on the evening of Samhain coming and to destroy the sidh.” She added that he must send her a message before his people destroyed it so that she could escape with his future son and their livestock.
And so Nera returned to the fortress to find everything as it was, with his fellow soldiers gathered round the cauldron and the King and Queen holding court. He received Ailill’s golden sword and proceeded to regale them all with his adventures, finishing off with a dire warning.
A year passed, and when the time came, Ailill urged Nera to return to the sidh and remove his family so that the rest could be destroyed. He returned to find his wife, son, and a massive amount of cattle waiting for him. She had been carrying firewood to the king every day in his stead.
(At this point in the story, a lot of other characters and plotlines come into play, but for the sake of expediency, we’re going to focus on Nera).
The tale ends with the men of Connacht destroying the sidh people and taking what they pleased from it, including the crown of Briun, a very powerful item. Meanwhile, Nera returned with his wife and son to the unoccupied sidh.
From then on they lived together in the fairy world, surrounded by great treasures and precious things, with garments and food aplenty. And Nera stayed there until forever, and would not come out until Doomsday.
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