Maon and the Willow
A Tale from Ireland
As retold by Fred Hageneder
Maon was the rightful heir to the throne of Ireland, which was usurped by his grand-uncle Covac. Covac had killed Maon’s father and grandfather, the king, and tortured the boy, Maon, who, in consequence, lost his speech. In exile in Gaul (modern France), Maon grew up into a noble youth, and was in love with Moriath, the princess of Ulster. In order to bring him back to Ireland, she wrote a love song for him and had her father’s harper, Craftiny, compose the music for it. Then she equipped the harper with rich gifts and sent him to Gaul where he played the love song to Maon.
So enchanting and deeply stirring was the music that Maon’s speech returned to him. He was told the truth about his origins and, with an army supplied by the Gaulish king, returned to Ireland. He challenged the murderer and usurper in a surprise battle and slew him. The druid of Covac began to suspect the true identity of this young commander who had led an army over the sea and inquired about his name. The Gaulish warriors simply called him Maon, ‘the Mariner’. ‘Does he speak?’, asked the druid, remembering the dumbness of the young prince. ‘Yes, he does speak’ (labraidh), was the answer. And henceforth Maon, Son of Ailill, was known as Maon Labraidh, the Mariner Who Speaks. He wedded his love, Moriath, and they lived happily ever after – for the ten years of his reign.
About one thing, however, he did not speak. And that was his ears. For it happened that Maon Labraidh had embarrassingly long ears. And he hid them successfully under his hair. But once a year his hair had to be cropped, and the man to do this was chosen by the lot, for he was put to death afterwards so that the secret would never be revealed.
One year, the son of a poor widow was chosen for this task, and the mother managed to convince the merciful king to let her son live. King Maon agreed, on the condition that the man would swear by Wind and Sun never to tell a man what he might see. And so it happened, and the young man returned to his mother.
But soon enough, the weight of the secret began to wear him down, and he fell more and more sick with it. Until finally a wise druid was called in and he suggested for the young man to go to a remote place in the woodlands and whisper his secret to a tree. The sick young man happened to chose a beautiful, mature willow tree, told it the secret, and swiftly recovered.
But chance had it that soon after, Craftiny, the very harper who was so instrumental in re-uniting king Maon with his country and with his love Moriath, this very harper who had since stayed with the couple, needed a new harp. He walked the Wildwood far and wide, asking and searching for the right tree to give of his body the precious wood for the sacred instrument. And the tree he found was that same willow.
Then came the day when Craftiny was to play his new instrument in the king’s hall. And when the harper first touched the strings, they – to the amazement of all the assembled guests – sounded the words “Two horse’s ears has Labra the Mariner!” The king went pale and exposed his ears. But the scandal wasn’t as bad as he had always feared. No haircutter ever again had to lose his life (and now even the haircutters could live happily ever after).
©2003 Fred Hageneder
The motif of the Harp telling the truth on its own is a common motif in Celtic folklore- For example, in the song about the ‘Two Sisters’ (or ‘Cruel Sister’) where one sister drowns the other in order to marry the king. But some of her hair is washed ashore and used to string a harp which, again at the king’s court, reveals the truth about the murder.
This, of course, refers to the Celtic appreciation of the magical powers of music, and particular the harp as the ultimate musical instrument in the ancient tradition of sacred music in northwestern Europe. But it is THIS tale that actually enlightens us that the Harp in its turn receives at least part of its magic from the powers of the trees.
This story is much aligned with the little knowledge we have about the real-existing Celtic harps of old. The famous Brian Boru harp, dating to the Middle Ages and exhibited at the Trinity College in Dublin, has a soundbody made of willow wood and the neck and pillar made of oak wood. This is interesting because of the special qualities of the trees involved.
In all ancient cultures to which they were known, willow trees represented the powers of the Great Goddess and willows were frequently found in sacred groves dedicated to goddessses, particularly those of the moon, the night, dreams, and love. The Willow was used for clairvoyance, magic, and healing.
The Oak, on the other hand, has been associated with Mars, in all its velocity, energy and vitality. The Oak is very much a ‘yang’ tree, outgoing, emanating, ‘active’. Oak was taken to battle. While the Willow is gentle, silent, introvert, ‘yin’.
On a symbolic level, the Harp made of Oak and Willow combines the cosmic principles of male and female. The strings are held up by the strong force of the pillar (Oak) and resonate through the receiving chalice of the soundbody (Willow). From this union, a third element, the ‘child’, is born: the sound of Music.
But the main message of the tale is actually about the living tree. Because we learn that trees have ears! It will make a difference to your life when you tell them something. And also, they will store this information and hold it. By revealing Maon’s petty secret the Willow actually did him a favour. It cured him of vanity and a lot of fear.
Trees are the memory archives of the biosphere, and that is a scientific fact. They receive all kinds of data in form of cosmic radiation, from within our solar system and even from far beyond. In addition, trees are sensitive to air electricity, changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, the moon cycles, solar cycles, and of course wind and weather. They store everything in their annual rings with such a precision that dendrologists have derived a climate calendar (comprising of tree ring patterns) for our planet that goes back about 7000 years!
So imagine ancient Celtic society with stories like this one going round. They make the woods not a gloomy place full of lurking criminals as in today’s media, but instead a place where you are in good care of the trees. They are alive, they listen, and they can whisper back.
©2003 Fred Hageneder
Source for story: T W Rolleston, “The Early Milesian Kings”, Celtic Myths and Legends, Senate, London 1994
Other version of this tale appears on the web at:
(“The King With Horse’s Ears”)
(p. 151, “Legends of Maon, Son of Ailill”)
In addition to being a graphic designer and visual artist, Fred Hageneder is an accomplished harper and and composer whose CD, “Spirit of Trees” features music about ten different tree species. He is also the author of two notable books about trees, The Spirit of Trees: Science, Symboisis and Inspiration and The Heritage of Trees: History Culture and Symbolism. Fred lives in the Cotswolds, West England, and is involved in an initiative to recreate sacred groves throughout Europe. To learn more about Fred and his work, please visit his website, www.spirit-of-trees.net.