Does Greth Eat Curds?
There was a famous smith in Ulster, Eccet Salach his name, a master of every craft, such that before or after there has been no better smith. Another name for him was Echen. A son was born to him, Amergin his name. The boy went fourteen years of his childhood without speaking.
His belly grew to the size of a huge house, and it was sinewy, grey and thick. The snot from his nostrils ran into his mouth. His hide was black, his teeth were white, and his face was pale and grey. Like the two handles of a smith’s bellows his shins and his thighs. His feet were bent and crooked. His ankles were enormous. His cheeks were high and long. His eyes were sunken and dark red. His eyebrows grew down thickly. His hair was rough and prickly. His back was nobbly, bony and scab-rough.
So he wasn’t a pretty sight. Due to neglect at his sitting to clean up underneath, his shit would pile up as far as his hips.
His favourite foods were boiled curds, sea salt, red blackberries, green berries, burnt ears of corn, cloves of wild garlic, and empty nutshells, which he used to play with on the table.
One day Athirne sent his servant, Greth his name, to Echet Salach to have him make an axe. Greth saw that lowly, ugly creature on the floor of the house, who scowled at him. Greth gave a start.
Echet’s daughter was in the building near the boy. What was heard was the boy speaking to Athirne’s servant. ‘Does Greth eat curds?’ he said, three times. Greth gave a great start. The boy spoke to him again:
Cloves of wild garlic;
Does Greth eat curds?
Greth ran out of the house, out of the stronghold and across the causeway, and fell in the mud. Then he returned to Athirne.
‘You’ve been in the wars,’ said Athirne when he saw him. ‘You look terrible.’
‘And well I might,’ said Greth. ‘A boy who hasn’t said a word for fourteen years spoke to me today, and unless he’s done away with that boy will take your job.’
‘What did he say to you?’
‘Not hard to tell,’ said Greth, and repeated Amergin’s words.
Shortly after, Eccet returned to his house. ‘Amergin spoke to Athirne’s servant today, who came here to ask you to make an axe,’ his daughter told him.
‘What did he say to him?’ said Eccet. His daughter told him.
‘I know what will come of this,’ said Eccet. ‘Athirne will come and kill the boy, so he won’t get the better of him, for the boy who said that has great wisdom.’
The maiden left the fort, taking the boy with her, and they went south to tend their cattle on Sliab Mis. Eccet made a clay image of the boy, and put it to his left, between himself and the bellows. He dressed it in fine clothes, and set it lying down, as if the boy were asleep.
Athirne and Greth arrived, and saw the boy asleep. Their axe was ready, and they were pleased with it. Athirne took it by the handle and brought it down on the head of the image, thinking it was the boy. Then he and his servant fled, and an outcry was raised behind them.
The armies gave chase. Athirne gathered all his property inside his stronghold. The Ulstermen arrived and besieged him, and a treaty was made between them. Eccet was given the price of seven slave-women, and his own honour-price, and he and Athirne came to an agreement. Athirne took the boy as his foster-son, and taught him the skills of the poet. And that is how Athirne lost his position as chief poet of Ulster, and Amergin took his place.
Notes and manuscript sources
- This is my own translation of a short story from the Book of Leinster (c.1160). Thanks to Dennis King and the Old-Irish-L listserv. It introduces Amergin, Athirne’s protegé and father of Conall Cernach. © Patrick Brown 2003.
- R I Best et al (1954-1983), The Book of Leinster pp. 435-436
- John Carey (1997), “Tales from the Ulster Cycle”, The Celtic Heroic Age (eds John T Koch & John Carey), pp. 48-133