‘Sith’ in the 17th century – survival of an ancient tradition.

In 1691 when he wrote his famous essay on local fairy beliefs, Robert Kirk was the minister in the Scottish village of Aberfoyle, bordering the Trossachs hills in the southern edge of the Scottish Highlands. Being the seventh son of a minister, he was young and enquiring, and seems to have been socially well-connected in both Ireland and England as well as his native home, largely on account of his involvement with translating the Bible into Irish – an effort which would have had the support of Britain’s Protestant elites. As a seventh son, local and wider Gaelic tradition would have deemed that he would be party to the ‘Second Sight’, or visions of the otherworld. Perhaps because of this, he appears to have been able to question and elicit many curious and ancient beliefs from local ‘seers’ to do with the Otherworld – one that Highlanders believed was parallel to our own and inhibited by spirits of both the living and the dead. He wrote these down in a book the year before he died (his body allegedly being found on a fairy knoll near the village), although this work appears to have remained unpublished for over 100 years after when it was rediscovered by Scottish literary romanticists, hungry for source material. It remains one of the most important and detailed early modern accounts of more ancient fairy beliefs, as well as a detailed source on ancient Atlantic paganism. The title at publication was:

“The Secret Commonwealth or An Essay of the Nature and Actions of the Subterranean and for the Most Part Invisible People Heretofor Going Under the Name of Elves, Faunes, and Fairies Or the Lyke, Among the Low Country Scots”

In those days, it was not unusual for the clergy to develop an interest in the occult, as they could always claim the purpose was to grant knowledge in order to purge people of their beliefs. Nonetheless, you can never quite shake the impression that Kirk’s interest is wavering between religious duty and a genuine credulity in regard to the traditional beliefs of his ancestors. Perhaps inspired by his visits to London where he met and talked with many intellectuals, he frequently uses references to contemporary science (particularly microscopy and the discovery that the world is teeming with invisible life) in order to attempt to justify the beliefs. In the preamble to the main text, Kirk describes his work as:

“…an Essay to suppress the impudent and growing Atheisme of this Age, and to satisfie the desire of some choice Freinds.”

Although I will post all of the relevant chapters online here for you, I will start here with a full quote of chapter 1 and some selected quotes from other chapters to illustrate the key important aspects of this work:

Chapter 1: Of the subterranean inhabitants

THESE Siths, or FAIRIES, they call Sleagh Maith, or the Good People, it would seem, to prevent the Dint of their ill Attempts, (for the Irish use to bless all they fear Harme of;) and are said to be of a midle Nature betuixt Man and Angel, as were Dæmons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidious Spirits, and light changable Bodies, (lyke those called Astral,) somewhat of the Nature of a condensed Cloud, and best seen in Twilight. Thes Bodies be so plyable thorough the Subtilty of the Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear att Pleasure. Some have Bodies or Vehicles so spungious, thin, and delecat, that they are fed by only sucking into some fine spirituous Liquors, that peirce lyke pure Air and Oyl: others feid more gross on the Foyson or substance of Corns and Liquors, or Corne it selfe that grows on the Surface of the Earth, which these Fairies steall away, partly invisible, partly preying on the Grain, as do Crowes and Mice; wherefore in this same Age, they are some times heard to bake Bread, strike Hammers, and do such lyke Services within the little Hillocks they most haunt: some whereof of old, before the Gospell dispelled Paganism, and in some barbarous Places as yet, enter Houses after all are at rest, and set the Kitchens in order, cleansing all the Vessels. Such Drags goe under the name of Brownies. When we have plenty, they have Scarcity at their Homes; and on the contrarie (for they are empow’red to catch as much Prey everywhere as they please,) there Robberies notwithstanding oft tymes occassion great Rickes of Corne not to bleed so weill, (as they call it,) or prove so copious by verie farr as wes expected by the Owner.

THERE Bodies of congealled Air are some tymes caried aloft, other whiles grovell in different Schapes, and enter into any Cranie or Clift of the Earth where Air enters, to their ordinary Dwellings; the Earth being full of Cavities and Cells, and there being no Place nor Creature but is supposed to have other Animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as Inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure Wilderness in the whole Universe.

As well as the names ‘Sith’ and ‘Sleagh Maith’, Kirk refers here to domestic fairies (Brownies) using the term ‘Drags’, which is a derivative of an Old Norse term for the undead: Draugr. He tells of the belief that – as well as human houses – they occupy subterranean or infernal places, in green ‘fairy mounds’ and in caves and rocks.

He further expounds the important tenet that the fairies occupy a parallel world to ours that seems to be an inversion of our own: When we have plenty, they have scarcity, and on the contrarie”, by which he explains their hunger for the spiritual quintessence of our world, which these spirits were believed prone to try and steal. The entry of fairies into the house at night to carry out domestic activities is also a reflection of what I will refer to as the ‘Inversion’ principle: that night is daylight for the ‘fairies’, the moon is their sun, death is their life, and so forth. Discussion of this principle is continued in subsequent chapters in the descriptions of fairies ‘aping’ or mirroring the actions of humanity , a belief found elsewhere in Atlantic Celtdom:

“There Men travell much abroad, either presaging or aping the dismall and tragicall Actions of some amongst us; and have also many disastrous Doings of their own, as Convocations, Fighting, Gashes, Wounds, and Burialls, both in the Earth and Air. They live much longer than wee; yet die at last or least vanish from that State. ” (Chapter 6)

Kirk’s authorities for most of his statements appear to be a specific group of people who are able to see into and understand the fairy world, and he refers to these as people of the ‘Second Sight’ or Seers. Speaking of them in the context of funeral wakes, he says:

Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element.

What is really interesting is how these accounts blur the boundary separating fairies from the spirits of the dead AND of the living, and as you read the whole essay you become aware that Kirk struggles to conceptualise and organise the information of his sources. In Chapter 7 he says that one seer averred the fairies

“..to be departed Souls, attending awhile in this inferior State, and clothed with Bodies procured throwgh their Almsdeeds in this Lyfe..”

and elsewhere says:

“…There be many Places called Fairie-hills, which the Mountain People think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking Earth or Wood from them; superstitiously beleiving the Souls of their Predicessors to dwell there. And for that End (say they) a Mote or Mount was dedicate beside every Church-yard, to receive the Souls till their adjacent Bodies arise, and so become as a Fairie-hill…”

Perhaps the most amazing assertion he makes about Fairies brings us immediately back to the Roman accounts of the core tenet of the Druids of Gaul and Britain some 1700 years before:

“‘Tis ane of their Tenets, that nothing perisheth, but (as the Sun and Year) every Thing goes in a Circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its Revolutions; as ’tis another, that every Bodie in the Creation moves, (which is a sort of Life;) and that nothing moves, but as another Animal moving on it; and so on, to the utmost minutest corpuscle that’s capable to be a Receptacle of Life.”

He is speaking of a supposed tenet of the ‘Sith’ or fairies, not that of the ‘illiterate’ seers he discussed them with! The implication is one of continual rebirth or metempsychosis, and comes straight from the core of what Caesar left for posterity about the ancient religion of Atlantic Europe. Kirk makes another (unwitting) reference to part of this tenet in chapter 2 where he describes the fairies moving their habitations en masse at four particular times of the year: the Celtic ‘quarter day’ festivals of Beltain, Lughnasa, Samhain and Imbolc. These spirits and their movements are tied to the regenerative cycle of the year, the evidence for which I will discuss in due course, gathered from evidence from across Atlantic Europe.

Kirk was writing at a juncture in history that was critical in that it marked a watershed in the continuity of pre-Christian traditions, the reasons for which can be summarised as follows:

1. The collapse of the Gaelic cultural world after the protestant Reformation: Following the Roman legal codes, Christianity was established within the Empire through a process of assimilation of paganism and utilisation of its fundamental festivals, myths and geographical sites as the framework for the new religion. Thus, Roman Catholicism was a culture that maintained links with the pagan past and Roman Catholic culture was strong in the Gaelic speaking world of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands and Islands at the inception of the Protestant Reformation. Tudor expansionism and the wavering religious sympathies of the Stuart dynasty that succeeded it was to set the scene for the final collapse of this world: The invasion of Ireland, the plantations, the Statutes of Iona, and the Flight of The Earls were to start what the Hanoverian succession, the Battle of the Boyne, the Jacobite Wars and finally the Highland clearances, mass emigration and famine were to all but finish.

2. The explosion of Rationalism and Sciences and the final collapse of the classical scientific and spiritual system. New models were replacing the old everywhere, and there was a general tendency to denigrate the old as barbaric and superstitious. Literal Protestantism marched more or less conveniently on the coat tails of this, attacking the last vestiges of ‘superstition’ with destructive abandon.

3. Imperial expansion and conquest of the ‘New World’ bought immense wealth as well as exposure to ‘primitive’ cultures that were to be used as a yardstick by which to view what the European should not be: a heathen savage. Ancient marginal lifestyles in Britain and Ireland that were once ignored as existing in the shadows became exposed to the glare of ‘enlightened’ observation and their existence increasingly questioned.

4. This wealth led to unparalleled economic growth and the subsequent Industrial and Commercial Revolution. Society began to urbanise around commercial centres and traditional models of ‘feudal’ rural economic organisation supporting ancient traditional lifestyles began to collapse as a new mercantile aristocracy redefined the world to meet their own ends. Common lands became enclosed, agriculture intensivised and communities dissipated. The burgeoning urban ‘poor’ became defined as a class of the technically and traditionally disenfranchised – consumers of the produce of the wealthy, including religion.

Although none of these got rid of the idea of fairies, they appear collectively to have decimated any coherent vestiges of the paganism underpinning the beliefs described by Kirk – tenets that might in former times have been dismissed as harmless and ignorant (due to their marginal and unthreatening nature), or otherwise persecuted by murder and intimidation by the state and the church for political ends…

One thought on “‘Sith’ in the 17th century – survival of an ancient tradition.

  1. Pingback: Fairies at Beltane – friend or foe? | The Atlantic Religion

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