May Flower Moon: Etain, Willow and Crane

The May Flower full moon is the time when the Celtic goddess Etain brings beauty, grace and fertility into our lives. Known as the Shining One and as a White Lady of the Fae, Etain is a goddess of transformation and rebirth, associated with water, the sun, apple blossom and horses, to name but a few. She is also associated with butterflies, swans and other beings that symbolise the transmigration of the soul. Her story is complex and warrants a deeper analysis than is possible here, but her message of grace, rebirth, and maturation of the soul is deeply resonant for our times.

In ‘The Wooing of Etain,’ her story is told largely through the lens of a series of male protagonists, all of which seek to court her (indeed possess her) in some way. It revolves primarily around the character of Midhir, a king of the Tuatha de Danann, who lived among the sidhe. We are told that he loses an eye whilst visiting his foster son, Aengus Mac Og, and asks compensation for his loss which includes ‘the fairest maiden in Ireland.’ This is Etain, the daughter of king Ailill of Ulster and she is said to have ‘shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves.’

Aengus duly goes to the king and asks for his daughter, as bidden by his step father. In return, he must perform a series of tasks which he successfully does, but before he is permitted to take her, he must also provide the maiden’s weight in gold and silver. Finally, she is brought to Midhir, and stays together with him at the home of Aengus for another year. When the pair eventually return to his castle, his first wife, the queen, becomes jealous and ‘strikes Etain with a rod of scarlet rowan, turning her into a pool of water.’ In time the water congeals and forms a hard chrysalis, or a worm, out of which a beautiful purple fly, or butterfly, emerges. [1]

Midhir takes the butterfly and cherishes it, but the queen now conjures a strong wind that blows the butterfly around for seven years without rest until she finally alights on the breast of Aegnus, who feeds her pollen and nectar for nourishment. Alas, the queen intervenes again and sends such a wind that the butterfly is now tossed around for 1000 years in misery, without respite, until finally, she lands in the goblet of another queen of Ulster. This queen swallows her down with her wine, then gives birth nine months later to a beautiful daughter who she calls Etain.

Her beauty once more becomes legendary in this new life, she is coveted by the High King in Ireland, and they duly marry at Tara. Over the course of time, however, his brother also falls in love with her and starts pining, much to the concern of the king, who asks Etain to do everything in her power to heal him. At this point, her former lover and husband Midhir, in a desperate bid to get her back, uses spells and enchantment to get her to sleep with him instead. In an echo of their former existence, he carries out a series of task designed to make her current husband let go of her, demanding a kiss from Etain as his prize. In this way he ‘reminds’ her of the love they once had for each other and reunited in ‘the dining hall,’ he takes her into his arms and they change into swans, linked together by a golden chain, and fly off into the distance. [2]

The story of Etain functions on many levels. On one hand it is the story of the soul, of hope and maturity in adversity, of love, jealousy, possession and the belief that through all the trials of life, our inner essence remains pure and unsoiled, shining like Etain. There are also specific number references throughout the story, showing clear calendrical or symbolic connections, maybe even links to astronomical cycles. The time frames and frequent use of shapeshifting into different animal forms is a powerful way to depict the cycling of the soul through space and time, and the experiences it gathers along the way. The butterfly is a potent and beautiful symbol of rebirth, and the swan a psychopomp, or accompanier of souls into the afterlife.

Though swans are named in this story, another bird is also linked to the flight of the soul in Celtic mythology. The crane, or heron, is one of the four sacred birds in both Irish and British tradition, and in one version of this tale it is said that three cranes guard the entrance of Midhir’s castle.  Cranes were linked to the Cailleach, to longevity and wisdom, and a crane bag was a key part of the druid or medicine woman’s equipment. They were also famous for their dances, which they performed in circles. This has led to their association with birth, in the form of storks, and then death, when they perform the function of psychopomp as the swan does in this story. [3] Both are large migratory birds, that mysteriously appear and disappear with the seasons and seem to take pre-destined flight paths across the heavens.

The crane is also linked to the flight of the soul not just in death, but also in the quest for otherworldly knowledge. The story of Etain has this aspect to it in that the soul experiences and gains wisdom and deep knowledge through not just love and loss, but through the wisdom of nature in the form of water, worms, butterflies, even wind. Cranes are also sometimes associated with the willow tree, the tree that along with the hawthorn, governs this time of year.

Like Etain the willow is beautiful and full of grace. They are also one of the oldest trees in Europe, embodying deep wisdom, and they are frequently found close to rivers and streams due to their love of water. Etain was changed into a pool of water, symbolising a deeply transformative potential, the ocean of possibility, or waters of rebirth. In Celtic mythology journeys are often taken by boat to the Otherworld in search of inspiration and wisdom, crossing over water as part of the process. The willow stands guard to this entrance, showing us that when we are in the flow of grace we can attain both of these prizes. [4]

Perhaps most of all, Etain’s story reminds us of the deeply healing and transformational power of beauty, in herself but also in the Nature around her. She loves to make people around her happy through kind words and smiles, and with her music she breaks through sadness and dissolves it gently into tears. Flowers bloom when she is near, and mankind falls in love with her. In all the trails and tribulations of the souls journeying, she reminds us of the beauty and nourishing power of Earth’s abundance through water, butterflies, swans and cranes. Each of them wondrous in themselves to be sure, and also holding up the mirror to us so that we can see the beauty of our own soul in them.


[1] Sharon Blackie, ‘The Wooing of Etain.’

[2] www.orderwhitemoon.org, ‘Etain the Sining One’

[3] The Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[4] The Green Man Tree Oracle, John Matthews and Will Worthington

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