The ‘Sith’ – Fairies in the medieval Celtic world

We have heard from Caesar and other Roman writers that the Druids of Atlantic Europe used to teach that the soul was recycled into another body after death (metempsychosis), and that this was one of the core doctrines of the Atlantic Religion. Rome swept up through Gaul and Britannia during the 1stC BCE and the 1stC CE actively purging the religion and replacing it with its own new ‘Gallo-Roman’ and ‘Romano-British’ interpretations of religion, the evidence for which we have from multiple epigraphic (inscriptional) sources.

Following the collapse of paganism within the Roman Empire caused by its over-extension and loss of contact with original precepts, Rome’s leaders chose a monotheistic middle-eastern religion to prop up the apical nature of the Imperium. This system could not sustain its grip upon the western parts of its territories, and it subsequently withdrew from these and moved its centre of power to Constantinople. This left the western religious landscape in a state of flux, which Christian religious leaders were keen to exploit.

Britannia – nominally Christian in the 5thC CE – was, following a re-expansion of the peoples and ideas suppressed by the Romans, invaded and dominated by potent pagan cultures (themselves Romanised pagans) from the Atlantic coasts of what is now Germany and Denmark, invited by Romanised christian Britons to restore order. As it appeared that Britannia had reverted to paganism, there was a shift of focus in the Christian evangelical mission to the non-Romanised districts of the East Atlantic Archipelago: Ireland, the Hebrides and Scotland. One of the most famous missionaries during this period was a (Romano-) British man known as ‘Patricius’ or ‘Patrick’ (‘Father’).

Ireland and much of Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man were largely untouched by the Roman re-invention of paganism during the Imperial era. For this reason, when Christianity arrived it had more flexibility in determining how it was to replace the old religious ways of Druidism. Even though it was written a couple of centuries after Patrick’s arrival in Eirenn, Tírechán’s 7th/8thC account of his conquest (recorded in the Book of Armagh) suggests that the native Irish believed in ‘Side’ and ‘Gods of the Earth’, based upon the his description of the reaction of some native princesses worshipping at a pagan holy well when Patrick and his followers suddenly arrive:

Et quo cumque essent

aut qua cumque forma

aut qua cumque plebe

aut qua cumque regione non cognouerunt

sed illos uiros side

aut deorum terrenorum

aut fantassium estimauerunt

“..and they did not know from what place or of what shape or from which people or from what region they were, but they thought they were men of the Sid or gods of the earth or apparitions…”

The standard explanations of the term ‘Side’/’Sid’ or ‘Sidhe’ (pronounced both as ‘Sith’ and ‘Shee’ and somewhere in between) is ‘Peace’, suggesting a state cognate with death. The term was also used in relation to the ancient man-made mounds that pepper the landscape of Ireland. In fact, as we shall see, the Atlantic belief was one where the Sid were a race whose existence was an opposite state to that of the living. Tírechán in fact draws a distinction between the ‘Side’ and gods when describing the women’s attempts to rationalise the appearance of the strangely attired men.

   That Patrick spent a considerable amount of time lurking at pagan sites and preaching to surprised potential converts is attested elsewhere in the fragmentary early medieval literature and accounts of him. The oldest Patrician text (other than the supposedly autobiographical Confessions) is known as the Hymn of Fiacc, which probably dates from the 7th or 8thC CE albeit citing a tradition and author contemporary to Patrick (a Christianised Bard called Fiacc). It describes the saint spending his time at pagan sites, spending the nights in ponds and the days on mountains, and sleeping on rocks in order to achieve his goals. This suggests such places to be the key pagan holy sites. The Old Irish Hymn (originally copied into mss hymnbooks) also refers to the Side or ‘fairies’:

for tūaith Hérenn bái temel

tūatha adortais síde

On the people of Erin there was darkness;

    The Tuatha adored the Side;

The terms ‘Sid’ and ‘Side’ have been glossed or explained in various copies of these ancient medieval texts as idla (from the Greek: Eidola = Apparitions) . Between the 16th and early 18th centuries, English, Scots and Irish author-observers (eg – Edmund Spenser, WIlliam Camden, Rory O’Flaherty, Robert Kirk, Martin Martin and George Waldron) were commenting on the popular belief in the fairies (or Sidhe/Sith) and visions of apparitions in the old ‘Celtic’ (Atlantic) provinces: Ireland, Scotland, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Theirs were a valuable look into the beliefs of a pre-industrial world, essentially unchanged in many of its traditional mannerisms, lifestyles and beliefs since the era of Patrick, Fiacc and Tírechán…

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