Continuing my Beltane theme, I aim in this post to examine the role ascribed in pre-modern folklore to fairies and witches during these festivities.
Beltane (Bealtaine, Beltain, Bealtuinn, Boaldyn etc) was another period in the annual cycle of the Atlantic peoples when the spirit world was supposed to be closer to our own (another was Samhain/Sauin), and for this reason certain rituals and customs were observed in regard to these spirits.
The power of vegetative growth and movement of animals is potently evident during this festival and many of the Beltane rituals, as well as being a celebration of this fertility, were designed to sain and protect it from antagonistic forces. The three spiritual forces defined by folklore as posing a potential threat at Beltane were fairies, witches and the Evil Eye, although the second and third may be considered similar. These might prove harmful in different ways:
Protection from Fairies?
Fairies were considered a threat in that they were deemed to be jealous of human abundance (see my commentary on Robert Kirk’s essay for a discussion of this), easy to anger/offend by the ignorant and particularly pervasive at Beltane, as at the other Gaelic (cross-)’quarter days’. Kirk, writing in the late 17thC in the Scottish highlands, expressed the reason why people might fear fairies in a time of abundance with the following succinct explanation:
Thomist (after medieval philosopher Thomas of Aquino) views on spirits underpinned much of the theological worldview of Christian Europe after the 13thC. These defined the sins of envy (invidia) and pride (superbia) as spiritual and therefore the only ones incorporal spirits were capable of. This neatly encapsulated the Christian bibilical narrative of the ‘fall’ of proud satan, who envied god. The agents of evil in the Christian worldview were the demons who conducted the will of higher (or lower!) spiritual agents; As ‘fallen angels’ they shared the sins of ‘Lucifer’. This concordance with fairies is obvious, and folk-narratives often reinforce it by claiming fairies and elves to be ‘fallen angels’ in line with Christian doctrine.
Maintaining the ‘otherworld balance’ was a core aspect of traditional Gaelic and Atlantic European culture – modesty was the watchword for a happy life: Attain too much and the otherworld will take it; You would speak with guarded modesty about things you admire, and be cautious with praise lest it invites alarm that you might ‘attract’ forces from the otherworld… Such customs persist among the Gaels to this day, and in other traditional peoples such as the Scandinavians. The Swedes and Norwegians entertain the concept of ‘lagom‘, for instance, which translates roughly as ‘modest sufficiency’ or ‘just enough’. The Danes have ‘hygge‘ – a term expressing the comfort of the ‘middle way’. Similar concepts pervade other Atlantic cultures.
‘Witches’ (persons practicing magic designed to steal/transfer vital force) appear to have been a human conception of the same idea. It is often unclear in Gaelic folklore if there is any specific distinction made between the two forces. Why was this so? The strong presence of the Cailleach/Fairy Queen in Gaelic folk-myths placed the personification of the ‘magical hag’ in a context of fairytales and allegory rather than immanent threat.This was coupled with the failure of a judicial witch-panic to take hold in any degree in Gaelic heartlands between the 16th and 18th centuries. Added to this, in the Gaelic world, the process of ‘bewitching’ was more likely to be seen as a passive process anyone might be capable of, on account of the prevalent belief that a jealous eye (an droch shùil) could abstract vigour and fertility from people, animals, property and land. This seen more as a human foible, rather than as an act of service to the devil, and in areas with a stronger conservative and traditional view of religion, the social opinion was that it was a spiritual crime, deserving a spiritual punishment. ‘Witchcraft’ – either by a jealous eye or by abstracting magic – was just another method people used to try and survive: It – like fairies – was a fact of life that informed the apotropaic customs associated with the liminal festivals of the Celtic year.
So… more properly, it is best to see Beltane as a time when it was considered prudent to protect oneself, one’s household and one’s possessions from abstracting forces.
I have mentioned that yellow flowers were said to have been scattered outside houses to protect against fairies at Beltane. However, the decoration of thresholds with specific plants also has other connotations – to distract a jealous eye or as a form of welcome to spirits.
This ‘diversionary’ strategy is a widespread tactic employed in dealing with the ‘evil eye’, as anyone who has looked at fishing boats or doorways in many Mediterranean countries, where symbols are used for this purpose. Floral decorations would be equally effective in the Gaelic conception of distracting the Evil Eye and therefore witchcraft. In fact, fairies being notoriously jealous creatures, the flowers may work upon them the same way, rather than acting as garlic does to vampires…
Flowers have the appearance of the eye, which would allow them to function in such a manner…
There is, however, yet another aspect to the flower-strewing customs that mark the Beltane season, which as I have previously commented, shares a kinship and plasticity with the festivities of Easter and Midsummer/St John’s day. The traditions of strewing greenery have a distinct air of welcoming to them also, particularly where (as in the Isle of Man) rushes and Yellow Flag Irises were sometimes strewn in doorways (See: ‘Manx Reminiscences’ John Clague). One late-19thC Manx poet, Edward Faragher of Cregneish, expressed this positive opinion of the fairies as follows (From ‘Manx Notes and Queries’ by Charles Roeder, for whom Faragher acted as collector of local folklore):
The Fairy Queen—the old folk said—
Was going round on old May-night
When all mankind was gone to bed,
And in the flowers did delight.
She kindly blessed each little cot,
Where yellow flowers did appear:
If there were none – she blessed them not
But gave bad luck through all the year.
I still remember on May-day,
Those flowers scatter’d in Cregnaish,
But since the Queen is gone away
No flowers at the door we place.
Faragher’s reference to a ‘grace and favour’ visit by the Fairy Queen on May Eve has few other direct corroborations in Manx folklore, however. Certainly, the island’s Fairy King, Manannan, was (and is still) celebrated at midsummer (the Germanic Walpurgisnacht) and welcomed with green rushes and sprigs of Artemesia vulgaris (Mugwort, Bollan Bane, Bollan-Feaill-Eoin), but as with much of the post-Christian world, the feminine seems to have been suppressed, or at least to have followed the Island’s tendency to amonarchial feudal republicanism.
Nevertheless, the association of Beltane Eve with potential visitations by potent females (human or fairy, royal or otherwise) was a consistent feature of concern in folklore, also a feature of Imbolc/Candlemass/St Brigit’s Eve and Samhain/Hallowe’en/Holllantide/Sauin/Hop-tu-naa.
A good example of the May greenery persisting as a ‘welcoming’ rather than apotropaic tradition is seen in the relaxed and joyous collecting and parading of May-crowns/May-bushes and the well-dressing and rush-bearing ceremonies that were once in evidence across the north-western counties of England – many similar to those found in the Gaelic world, it would seem. These seem distinctly redolent of the happy customs once seen at the Lughnasa/Luanys/Lammas festivity harvest-homes. The happy and optimistic nature of Beltane seems to preclude it as a time of fearful apotropaic activity, although it was certainly considered a time of vulnerability. The same can be said about the birth of a new child, when extra care is taken…