The Aes Sídhe (Aos Sí) are the group that in Gaelic folkore are known as fairies. Their name translates to English as ‘People of Peace’ or ‘People of the Sid-Mounds’ depending upon our interpretation of Sídhe, for the word ‘Síd‘ and its variants are used in a number of ways in Gaelic literature and tradition:
The Tuatha Dé Danann live in the ‘Síd‘ mounds in Ireland’s legendary fairy bardic romance literature, for example at ‘Síd Nechtain’. The Hymn of Fiacc (6thC?) claimed that the Irish worshipped Sid, possibly suggesting a race of ?gods called ‘Sid’ or that the Irish worshipped actual mounds. Another hagiographic work from the Book of Armagh (Tírechán‘s Collecteana) describes the reaction of some aristocratic women visiting a holy well at Cruachan, where they meet Patrick and his party, and initially believe them to be
‘viros side aut deorum terrenorum aut fantasiam‘
This can read ‘Sídhe-men or gods of the earth or apparitions’ or ”Sídhe-men: either gods of the earth or apparitions” depending on how you interpret the Latin (aut … aut …). It is possible that the author was unsure of the definition of the terms…
17thC Irish Historian Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Roderic O’Flaherty) made this appraisal of the ‘fair folk’:
“The Irish called aerial spirits or phantoms sidhe, because they are seen to come out of pleasant hills, where the common people imagine they reside, which fictitious habitations are called by us Sidhe or Síodha. ” (Trans. John O’Donovan)
His summation pretty much expresses the continuing Irish belief. However in the other Gaelic cultural and linguistic territories – the Isle of Man and Scotland – the usage of the term is often open to wider interpretation:
The Manx term ‘Shee’ is less commonly found in relation to geographical locations, although Manx fairy tales often involve visits to subterranean places just as in the Irish traditions. Manx fairies are more often found in wild, peaceful and out-of-the-way locations, suggesting the other Manx etymology of ‘Shee’ – peace – which also corresponds to the inverted state of active daily living. The same goes for Scottish fairy places called Sithean, which can just as well be secluded places as they can be hillocks or ruins of prehistoric buildings. What the Irish would have called ‘Gentle’ places during the 19thC, frequented by ‘Gentry’ – all Anglo-Irish derivations of the Latin words Gens and Gentes, meaning ‘(a) people’ – generations.
A root-analysis of the words sharing the ‘sith-‘ or ‘sid-‘ prefix in the Irish language can be made by taking a quick look at the online version of the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (‘eDiL’), and is quite revealing. For example:
síd (síodh/sídh/sídhe) – a fairy hill or mound:; wondrous, enchanting, charm- ing, delightful; In pl. = áes síde supernatural beings, fairies:;
síd/sidi – peace, goodwill, peaceableness; a state of peace; a period of peace, a truce;
sith- (prefix) – long;
síthcháin – peace, a state of peace, a compact of peace; atonement
sithe/sithi; – permanence (?), lastingness (?);
sithithir/sithir – ‘as long as’;
Of further interest is how eDiL deals with the term ‘Side’ and its variants:
side (sided/sith/sidi)– a blast or gust (of wind); rush, violent onset, swoop (of a bird), spring (of an animal); Examples given include the usage: sidhe gaoíthe which folklorists believe means ‘fairy wind’.
The intuitive meaning here for me is that all of these words are related to a common root – one of ‘onset’ or ‘springing up’ and ‘persistence’ which fit with the idea of fairies as the ANCESTORS.
Tírechán, in his collected accounts of Patrick, uses the term ‘Viros side’ to describe what some women think the saint and his companions are when they see them at the spring (fontem) known as Clebach. He does not use ‘Gens side’ or similar but explicitly comments upon their masculine sex. Why?
The first clue lies in the location: Cruachan Hill (‘Cruachan Bri Eile’), probably the Hill of Croghan in Co.Offaly, bordering the Bog of Allen – a location with some interesting legends and archaeology suggesting it was once a significant place in the pagan Otherworld belief system. The second clue lies in what the women are doing – visiting a spring well. Water was seen as a ‘bridge’ to the fairy world – its reflective qualities suggesting the inverted ‘other’ state. Just as in all of the traditional fairy tales of boy-meets-girl – a woman would expect the síd people she met to be masculine in form, hence ‘Viros Side’…
The connection with water and the otherworld is a very strong one in ancient Atlantic European mythology. To the Gaels, the otherworld was sometimes conceived as an island west of the great sea. It might seem frivolous at this point to mention the allusion in the title of this post to a similarity between the Gaelic word síd and the English ‘Sea‘ (from Old English sæ). However, this equation may not be as fanciful as it at first sounds…
The Germanic word ‘see‘ and its variants is very old, and in its original sense it appears to have referred to any standing body of water. The holy lake in which Tacitus (Germania) tells us ‘Nerthus‘ was bathed in her/his chariot before its attendant slaves were drowned there would represent a ‘sea’ by the old definition. Drowning in pools was almost certainly the fate of the high status Iron Age male bog-body retrieved in 2003 from the Bog of Allen, near to where the girls met those reluctant christian ‘viros side’. Given the importance of raths (often with moats) and crannogs in fairy mythology, it is perhaps worth considering if there is a connection between sí, síd and ‘sea’…