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…

The ancient philosophical model of existence

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

The ancients had a very practical, empirically deductive and reductive system of describing how the universe worked. This was based on a synthesis of observations of natural cycles, the rotation of the stars and planets, and the physical properties of things, and it produced an intellectual ‘map’ which included both the earth and the heavens, people, animals, spirits and gods and described how they interacted – quite some achievement!

This system divided the universe into the mundane world and the spheres of the heavens. The mundane world and everything in it was deemed to be made of four ‘Elements’: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These were under the control of a fifth element called Spirit or Aether, which was the substance from which the stars, heavens, gods, souls and spirits were formed. Aether was the ‘divine substance’ and was the driving ‘spirit’ of nature.

The elements were in a state of continuity and flux with one another. The theory arose from observations of how natural things change their qualities, through inductive reasoning. Solid stone becomes liquid under the influence of heat, water becomes solid ice when heat is taken away. Water and solids (‘earth’) becomes gaseous (air) when evaporated by heat (fire). Water lies on top of earth in the oceans, fire rises up above air towards the heavens, which are made of spirit. Rain falling from the heavens brings life back to the land, so it must have partaken of the animating spirit of Aether. Different animals were classified by their affinity to elements: snakes to the earth, birds to the air, fish to water etc. The system even made up animals that associated with fire (the phoenix)! Even the human body was deemed to made of four ‘humors’ which represented the elements. It seemed the most logical way to view things.

EARTH <> WATER <> AIR <> FIRE <> AETHER/SPIRIT

The ancient Greek word for an element was Stoicheon, meaning ‘to line up’, probably after the elements’ dynamic relationships as just mentioned. The system was first described in Mediterranean European literature by Greeks including Empedocles of Sicily (who described them as ‘roots of nature’ under the influence of the twin forces of love and hate), and later fleshed out in discourse by Plato and Aristotle at Athens. Plato frequently ascribes such learning to his favourite ancient scholars – the Egyptians, especially so in his book known as The Dialogue of Timaeus or just Timaeus, from the 4thC BCE.  However, we know that these divisions were obvious to all in the ancient world – why else would people everywhere offer burnt sacrifices to their spiritual gods during the Bronze Age, why were bodies cremated if not to release their souls back into the sphere of spirit?  The Greeks just wanted to appear first with a ‘published’ system in literature – something that Julius Caesar said the Druids of Atlantic Europe in the 1stC BCE apparently abhorred, even though they used Greek writing for secular matters!

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

Above the elemental world in this ancient map lay the heavens, comprising of the moving stars (planets and constellations) and above these the fixed stars of the Empyrean, representing the universal spiritual godhead! Yes – even before Hebrew monotheistic religion came to dominate Europe in the form of Christianity, Islam and Rabbinic Judaism, those polytheistic pagans had a concept of a unified central spirit! This may come as something of a surprise…

The spiritual ‘Gods’ were represented by the moving stars of the visible planets, the sun and the moon, who could be seen moving most rapidly across the sky and interacting with the constellations. The constellations appeared at different points in the sky, marking different times of the year. The interactions between the planets and constellations provided an ‘astral story’ narrative that linked their appearance and activity to natural phenomena in the elemental realm of existence. Many ancient religious stories offer explanations for how the constellations came to be. Astrology was the science of interpreting the conjunctions of planets and constellations with their influence upon the elemental world

The fact is that paganism itself was not in its origins so much an adorative suppliant religion as a Philosophy or Science describing existence through the relation of allegory and archetypes in the form of gods. This system was most successfully illustrated in a dialectic fashion through the arts: Story, poetry, illustration, dance and drama. Given the complex and plastic nature of reality, a literary representation would be too limited and didactic to hold true.

The problem with Europe during the period known as the ‘Iron Age’, was that there was a pressure, particularly within powerful centralised cultures, to represent the figurative in an increasingly concrete or literal manner. this caused the philosophical ‘gods’ to become physical manifestations, commodities and properties under the control of worldy human power.  If Caesar was correct about the Druids refusing to commit their religious doctrines to writing, then he was describing a political religious movement which recognised and rebelled against this change which characterised their era.

Primitive Roman Religion

The core of Roman religion traditionally involved the veneration of ancestral and domestic/territorial spirits: The Lares, Lemures, and Manes, collectively referred to as di inferi (‘gods of the lower world’). This was Rome’s ancestral cult, and has no parallel in Greek religion. It also seems to have had little narrative relationship with the world of the higher (eg – Olympian style) gods and demigods which borrowed/merged with the Greek system: Mars (Ares), Jupiter (Zeus), Minerva (Athena), Juno (Hera), Mercury (Hermes), Hercules (Herakles), Pluto (Hades), Vulcan (Hephaestos), Diana (Artemis) etc.

The worship of di inferi was perhaps the most conservative part of their religion, and contemporary educated high-class Romans (Ovid, Varro, Cicero, etc) often wrote of them in connection with country people and the plebeian classes, much in the way that later Christian writers would identify ‘common’ opinion with recidivist paganism. It is therefore highly likely that this form of religion preceded the introduction and worship of the Hellenic, Pontic, Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities that characterised our popular concepts of Roman religious life between the 5thC BCE – 4thC CE.

Lares were typically venerated as the worthy ancestral spirits who watched over the hearth and home. Lemures and Larvae represented the restless and turbulent spirits who inhabited liminal places in the physical and temporal world; They might be thought of as Lares ‘gone bad’ either due to their own unworthy lives or through improper treatment (such as incorrect veneration, or the displacement/destruction of their own proper familia) and required appeasement to prevent them causing harm.

Manes on the other hand appear to be a name for the whole class, of which Lares and Lemures are the subsets. They are akin to what we would nowadays consider ‘fairies’ or ‘ghosts’, and are therefore of a more morally ambivalent nature, perhaps unattached to individuals and arising from an undifferentiated impersonal and more historic provenance – the world of the dead in general. As these were cthonic deities, they were typically worshipped in underground temples or caves.

Despite their apparent disgust for the core Druid doctrine of metempsychosis, the Romans (like the Greeks) also associated the world of the dead with regeneration and fertility, as the worship and legends regarding Dis/Pluto/Hades/Orcus and Prosperina/Persephone/Ana Perenna clearly show. These cults were tied in to the worship of Ceres/Demeter and Liber/Bacchus/Dionysus, and by association with the most significant and influential ancient mystery cults of the Mediterranean: Orphism and the Rites of Eleusis. These earth and ancestor-based beliefs were, it would appear, the historic basis for most of Europe’s popular ancient religions, yet were to mutate under the influence of hierarchical city-based cultures and the philosophies stemming from these.
Where the Romans claimed they differed from the Druids (and the Orphics and Eleusians) was that they held that human souls were treated exceptionally in death and went to a gloomy ‘underworld’ existence rather than taking part in the cycles of regeneration so apparent in the empirical observations of nature. The druids (representing ancient Atlantic European spirituality) taught that human souls were included in the natural cycles of regeneration, an opinion which appears to be based on the same natural observations as the Mediterranean mystery cults. Why Rome chose to be different is perhaps illustrated by their attitudes to the effect the belief in metempsychosis had on their enemies: Rome was about top-down power, with the living at the apex and the dead (usually representing their enemies) thus consigned downwards… In this manner, they were again treading on the toga tails of the Greeks who had first introduced Europe to the notion of the human God-Emperor in the form of Alexander during the 4thC BCE! The foundations for the introduction of a tyrannical monotheism were set far earlier than most realise…