This is a picture of Labhraidh Loingseach, the mythological king/ancestor of the Leinster people (the Laighin) who’s probably most known in Ireland as the “King with Horses Ears”. The Irish version of the story (written in the 10th century) goes like this:
“Labhraidh Loingseach was said to have had horse’s ears. He kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death.
One day when a widow’s only son was chosen for the unpopular job of cutting the king’s hair, the widow begged the king not to kill him. Moved Labhraidh Loingseach agreed on the condition that the barber never tell a living person of his secret.
The burden of the secret weighed so heavily on the widow’s son that after a time he took ill. On the advice of a druid, he released himself of the secret by passing it onto to the first tree (a willow) he came to. Divested of the burden, he soon became well again.
Sometime later, Labhraidh Loingseach’s harpist broke his instrument and made a new harp out of the very willow the widow’s son had passed the secret to. One night, during a great feast at Labhraidh Loingseach’s hall, he started to play and suddenly the harp sang:
Dá chluais chapaill ar Labhraidh Loingseach
Two horse’s ears on Labhraidh Loingseach!
This version of the story is actually a mish-mash of an earlier story associated with the Welsh King March ap Meirchion. In the Welsh version of the story, March ap Meirchion also has a barber who divests himself of the terrible secret by telling it to a hole in the ground and subsequently covering it up. On that piece of ground, a crop of reeds appears and one of March ap Meirchion pipers, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe … leading to similar consequences.
Both of these versions however, are variations of another even older story based on the legendary Greek King Midas whose ears were transformed to those of a donkey by the God Apollo. Like Labhraidh Loingseach and March ap Meirchion, Midas hid his deformity but his secret was also revealed by his barber who dug a hole in the meadow and whispered the story into it to get rid of the secret and then covered the hole up again. A bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the meadow and when the wind blew them, they were heard to whisper ‘King Midas has an ass’ ears’.
Current thinking is that the original reference to the King with Donkey’s Ears (subsequently amended to “horse’s ears”) goes all the way back to King Tarkasnawa, a king of the Hittite vassal state Mira in the west of present-day Turkey (the Hittites were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC.). If that’s true, then variations of this story have possibly been doing the rounds for thousands of years.
The concept of the galar rúnach (an Irish concept of illness caused by the burden of a terrible secret) was a much later development, but it’s what first attracted me to rewriting a contemporary version of the story in the first place.
By the way, the picture above was actually something “thrown together” by Bryan Mahy (the artist who designed the cover for my Celtic Mythology Collection 2018). That cover featured Labhraidh Loingseach and Bryan, amused by the story, started a doodle, the result of which you can see here.
To be honest, I’ve always been something of a frustrated visual artist. I’ve always wanted to draw or sketch, but I simply lack the skill to do so. As a result, I’m quite jealous of someone with the talent to effortlessly throw something like this together. If you’re interested, you can find more of Bryan’s work here: Bryan Mahy