‘Fairy Paths’ in the Gaelic world

The belief in Ireland (and elsewhere) that certain fairies were restless and compelled to wander from place to place caused a superstitious belief in ‘fairy paths’. These typically connected the various places where fairies were believed to haunt – their hills and raths, and ‘dancing grounds’ or meadows. People tended to avoid building on these perceived routes, as illustrated by the following folktale from The Fireside Stories of Ireland by Patrick Kennedy (Pub. Dublin 1870, McGlashan & Gill) pp.142-143:

THE FAIRIES’ PASS

It is known that the hill folk in their nightly excursions, and in the visits of one tribe to another, go in a straight line, gliding as it were within a short distance of the ground, and if they meet any strange obstacles in their track they bend their course above them, or at one side, but always with much displeasure. A farmer named Finglas, a stranger to the old ways of the country, took this farm and was not at all satisfied with the accommodation offered by the old farm house and yard.There was neither cow-house nor stable, except an excuse for such conveniences at the end of the yard. He would have new buildings made at the side, and dug out the foundation at once, but was warned that the Fairies Pass lay directly across the bawn, and that it would excite their sovereign displeasure to find stable or barn or cow-house in their way. Unhappily, Finglas, though married to a Roman Catholic wife, was himself a benighted Presbyterian, and as such a contemner of all reverence due to the Good People. But see, the result of pretending to be wiser than your neighbours: Scarcely were the buildings thatched and the cows and horses installed in their niches when the wisdom of the old people became evident. One animal after another without apparent cause began to refuse its food, languished, and died. In vain was recourse made to the most skilful cattle doctors. Their medicines proved naught, and fairy men or women would have nothing to do with the devoted beasts – they were on the Fairies Path. Not until three fourths of his cattle were slain by the elf bolts was Finglas overruled, and at last persuaded to construct new buildings at the end of the bawn.

The ‘lesson’ illustrated by such a typical tale of ‘fairy paths’ is not too dissimilar to those associated with fairy hills and raths/forts, and likewise of the ‘fairy grounds’ or lawns where they were supposed to hold their revels: Humans had better be careful, lest the ever-hungry Otherworld exert its frightening ‘abstracting’ influence over the offender. The great survey of Irish oral folklore organised by the Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann during the early-mid 20thC was to uncover many similar tales.

However, the paths taken by the People of Peace were not always limited to these actual or imagined routes connecting landscape features. In many ‘celtic’ regions, there is a belief that the invisible ones cannot cross running water directly, and this has apparently led to spirits being associated with certain ‘fairy bridges’ such as those found in the Isle of Man. The famous Norwegian folktale of the three ‘Billy Goats Gruff’ and the troll who lived under the bridge may have some bearing on this local tradition.

The Kewaigue (Oakhill) 'Fairy Bridge' in the Isle of Man. It was built off the main track by about 30 yards, and sits mysteriously among the trees...

The Kewaigue (Oakhill) ‘Fairy Bridge’ in the Isle of Man. It was built off the main track by about 30 yards, and sits mysteriously among the trees…

By the same logic, boundary walls (particularly those with ‘hallowed’ ground, such as burial grounds and churchyards) were considered another place where spirits were more likely to be concentrated and encountered. Likewise, certain boundary lines and walls between property gained similar attributions, sometimes depending upon the land use and ownership.

‘Fairy Holes’ and boundaries in the Isle of Man:

A ‘fairy hole’ was a hole in an earth or stone hedge where three property boundaries coalesced. Manx people who used to have a strong belief in fairies, would toss a stone (usually a quartz pebble) into one of these after spitting upon it, in the hope that the spirit world would take their illness or bad luck from them. The belief appears to have been based upon an idea that fairies travelled along walls and boundaries between land divisions.

3rd Report of the Manx Archaeological Survey – Andreas. Manx Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1911:” … At a corner formed by the boundary fences of the three Quarterlands of Keeill Tushtag, Braust and Ballaquane, was a ” Fairy-hole, ” or hollow in the top of the earthen embankment, about 12 in. diam. We were told that “any one wanting a cure would put in a stone with a spit,” the object no doubt being to identify it more particularly with his own person, so that his own malady or affliction should pass into it. That this was so, and that the malady was capable of being conveyed to another, is made clear by the fact that our informant’s father had once taken one of the stones out of the Fairy Hole and become very ill ; he did not recover till he had returned it… “

This belief that fairies travelled along walls and other boundaries (such as streams and rivers) probably arose from the fact that in former times (possibly since the establishment of christianity), such boundaries were regularly walked and the property they enclosed blessed by the clergy in a ceremony known as rogation, designed to repel evil influences (demons etc) and promote fertility. Such boundaries were liminal places, existing ‘between’ such nebulous human ideas of ownership and supposed sanctity, in which spiritual entities might find a place to manifest. This idea appears slightly different to the Irish one previously mentioned in which fairies troop between their allotted hills and forts. However, this does not mean that the Manx people had, on the whole, radically different ideas about fairies to Irish or Scots people: Fairies were believed to have habitations and places of retreat between which they travelled. They were believed more mobile and active at certain times of day (dusk and nightime), and of the year (Samhain, Beltane). Encounters with them at these places risked the health and sanity of humans and their property, and ‘apotropaic’ measures would be taken to ameliorate any potential harm or fear.

The difference in what was considered a ‘fairy path’ was influenced as much by the customs and politics of land tenure and boundary definitions as by medieval religious customs and the arrangements of ancient manmade structures. Ancient trackways could become ‘fairy paths’, and in Ireland’s flat boglands, these would inevitably be constructed in straight lines between prominent areas of high ground, which unsurprisingly were associated with mysterious and ancient human structures. Tribal boundaries within the Gaelic world at the advent of Chrisitianity were based around the needs for transhumance pastoralism with central defensive positions coupled to more elevated retreats. In the Isle of Man, which (like parts of Ireland, the Hebrides and West Highlands of Scotland) experienced Norse settlement in the middle ages, land was traditionally divided into small estates based upon an allodial system of freeholds. These were increasingly incorporated into more extensive ‘feudal’ estates following the Norman conquests and expansion of continental monasticism. The impositions of English and British expansionism from the Early Modern period onwards further upset these traditional land boundaries and usages. The combination of these different historical and cultural boundary changes all had a deep influence upon the fairy beliefs associated with liminal and marginal places…

 

Beltane – Nature and the Secret Blacksmith

The implicit spiritual idea of blacksmiths in the pagan world was an expression of the reforging of nature each year as part of the annual cycle. In the temperate regions of Atlantic Europe this was so explicit that it became a core part of the religion and was celebrated through a cycle of annual festivals personifying this process. It was also an important part of the mythos of southern Europe and was also a key part of the mysteries of Eleusis, Orphism and the Dionysiac rites of ancient Greco-Roman religion. As with the southern forms of paganism, the northern forms portrayed the year as the life-cycle of a woman – the producer/guardian of developing life and human continuity. As each year progressed, so she aged – only to born again after each final ‘death’!

The Gaelic words ‘Caillin’ (Young Woman) and the name ‘Cuillin’ (a legendary ‘blacksmith’) have such an interesting concordance in Gaelic and Norse mythology that it is time for European pagans to start examining this in greater detail…

Who was she? I will leave this answer to a medieval Irish sage named Cormac:

BRIGIT i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit, the female sage, or woman of wisdom. i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician, woman of leechcraft. Brigit the female smith, woman of smithwork, from whose names with all Irishmen, a goddess was called Brigit.

(p.23 of 1868 Whitley Stokes edition of John O’Donovan’s translation) 

 

 

Fairy Doctors, Sluagh Sidhe and Fianna

In the 5thC a crack commando unit was sent to purgatory by St Patrick for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade into the Gaeltacht underground. Today, still wanted by the church, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem – if no one else can help – and if you can find them – maybe you can hire: The F-Team

The idea of a group of heroes who battle the monstrous, the fateful and the chaotic at the boundaries of safe everyday existence is a pervasive feature of European mythology, extending back for as long as stories have been recorded. In the Gaelic language zones, perhaps the most important representatives of this legendary theme are Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna.Through their battles (and romantic encounters) with the magical denizens of legend, and their willingness to lay down their lives and suffer to do this, they become heroes who benefit the people, and their stories are marked by an enduring fondness.

What struck me as interesting about the aforementioned story of Aleisoun Pearsoun (put to death for witchcraft in Fife in 1588) was that her ‘story’ of how she acquired her powers seems to mirror and include aspects of that of the legendary Fianna:

1. She – like Fionn – joins a fairy band who take her on a wild adventure.

2. She ‘marries’ (has a sexual initiation) with a fairy she meets in the wilds. Fionn’s paramour was a woman in the form of a deer who he catches when hunting. Their magical son (poetry) is Oisin (‘Little Deer’).

3. She is tested with great adversity by the Otherworld denizens, who make her ill, but is given magical weapons with which to combat them.

4. She overcomes and returns with knowledge of its secrets, and becomes a warrior against the perils of the Otherworld (disease).

In fact, hers is not a dissimilar story to that of traditional Gaelic folk-healer characters such as Biddy Early (Ireland 19thC) and elsewhere besides. It is a feature pertinent to stories of ‘shamans’ and ‘medicine men’ etc from around the pre-modernised world.

The Fianna and the Sluagh Sidhe:

The fact that the ‘wild band’ or ‘fairy cavalcade’ in Gaelic folk-belief would have had something to do with Fionn and the Fianna often seems implicit, but it is quite rare to see this connection made explicitly in pre-20thC folklore accounts. Aleisoun Pearsoun’s fairy-band were apparently capable of both mirth and malice, which is a possibly a fair description of the legendary antics of the warlike Fianna. Nonetheless, apart from her kindred spirits who protect her, the cavalcade seem mostly harmful, and it is in understanding how to deal with this harm that she understands how to cure diseases. For this reason, we must turn our attention to the chaotic harmful fairy cavalcade, referred to in folklore as the Sluagh Sidhe or Sluagh Sith/Slieu Shee.

‘Sluagh Sidhe’ translates literally as ‘Fairy Host’ or ‘Fairy Army’. Robert Kirk (c.1690) provided one of the earliest accounts of the belief in these fairy hosts:

“… Moreover, this Life of ours being called a Warfair, and God’s saying that at last there will be no Peace to the Wicked, our bussie and silent Companions also being called Siths, or People at Rest and Quiet, in respect of us; and withall many Ghosts appearing to Men that want this Second Sight, in the very Shapes, and speaking the same Language, they did when incorporate and alive with us; a Matter that is of ane old imprescriptible Tradition, (our Highlanders making still a Distinction betwixt Sluagh Saoghalta and Sluagh Sith, averring that the Souls goe to the Sith when dislodged;)… “

As can be seen, Kirk gave two forms supernatural ‘Sluagh’, An Sluagh Saoghalta meaning, literally, ‘The Temporal/Earthly Host’. Kirk himself offers no translation to explain what he calls ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ (‘Slooa Sheelta’) and uses the term only once. The implication from his fairy narrative is that one host is ‘spiritual’ and the other ‘of the mundane world’, probably meaning those ‘left behind’ due to sinfulness during their lives and more prone to the brutish acts that characterised a difficult existence. So far as I have been able to find out, there are few other references to ‘Sluagh Saoghalta’ from recorded folklore, it being more of a term used in Gaelic christian literature, so let us focus on the Sluagh Sidhe/Sith, a term which probably encompasses both ideas:

Source: Popular tales of the West Highlands, orally collected, Vol. 3 – John Francis Campbell, Pub: Edmonston and Douglas, 1862; pp.340-341

“….A doctor told this anecdote—

“Do you see that kind of shoulder on the hill? Well, a man told me that he was walking along there with another who used to “go with the fairies,” and he said to him—

“‘ I know that they are coming for me this night. If they come, I must go with them; and I shall see them come, and the first that come will make a bow to me, and pass on; and so I shall know that they are going to take me with them.’

“‘Well,’ said the man, ‘we had not gone far when the man called out, ‘Tha iad so air tighin.’ These are come. I see a number of ‘ sluagh’ the people; and now they are making bows to me. And now they are gone.’ And then he was quiet for a while. Then he began again; and at last he began to cry out to hold him, or that he would be off.

“Well,” said the doctor, “the man was a bold fellow, and he held on by the other, and he began to run, and leap, and at last (as the man told me) he was fairly lifted up by the ‘sluagh,’ and taken away from him, and he found him about a couple of miles further on, laid on the ground. He told him that they had carried him through the air, and dropped him there. And,” said the doctor, “that is a story that was told me as a fact, a very short time ago, by the man whom I was attending.”

Not far off I was told this in a house full of people, all of whom knew the story, and seemed to believe it implicitly.”

This account was corroborated by Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gaedelica Volume 2, pp.3301-331) – as usual, my emphases:

Sluagh – ‘Hosts’, the spirit world – the ‘hosts’ are the spirits of mortals who have died. The people have many curious stories on this subject. According to one informant, the spirits fly about “n’an sgrioslaich mhor, a sios agusa suas air uachdar an domhain mar na truidean’ – ‘In great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions’. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of God, nor can any make heaven until satisfaction is made for the sins on earth. In bad nights, the hosts shelter themselves, ‘ fo gath chuiseaga bheaga ruadha agus bhua-ghallan bheaga bhuidhe’ ‘behind little russet docken stems and little yellow ragwort stalks’. They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth. They may be heard and seen on clear frosty nights, advancing and retreating, retreating and advancing, against one another. After a battle, as I was told in Barra, their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones. ‘Fuil nan sluagh’, the blood of the hosts is the beautiful red ‘crotal’ of the rocks, melted by frost.

Crotal_Blood

These spirits used to kill cats and dogs, sheep and cattle, with their unerring venemous darts. They commanded men to follow them, and men obeyed, having no alternative.

It was these men of earth who slew and maimed at the bidding of their spirit-masters, who in return ill-treated them in a most pitiless manner. ‘Bhiodh iad ’gan loireadh agus ’gan loineadh agus ’gan luidreadh anus gach lod, lud agus lon’–They would be rolling and dragging and trouncing them in mud and mire and pools. ‘There is less faith now, and people see less, for seeing is of faith. God grant to thee and to me, my dear, the faith of the great Son of the lovely Mary.’ This is the substance of a graphic account of the ‘sluagh,’ given me in Uist by a bright old woman, endowed with many natural gifts and possessed of much old lore. There are men to whom the spirits are partial, and who have been carried off by them more than once. A man in Benbecula was taken up several times. His friends assured me that night became a terror to this man, and that ultimately he would on no account cross the threshold after dusk. He died, they said, from the extreme exhaustion consequent on these excursions. When the spirits flew past his house, the man would wince as if undergoing a great mental struggle, and fighting against forces unseen of those around him. A man in Lismore suffered under precisely similar conditions. More than once he disappeared mysteriously from the midst of his companions, and as mysteriously reappeared utterly exhausted and prostrate. He was under vows not to reveal what had occurred on these aerial travels.

I took down several stories of persons who went with the ‘hosts.’ Here is one of the stories of the ‘hosts’ summarised:–The beautiful daughter of a king of France was taken up by the ‘hosts,’ and carried about in the air, over lands and seas, continents and islands, till they came to the little island of Heistamal, behind Creagorry, in Benbecula, where they laid her down in such an injured state that she died from the hard treatment; not, however, till she had told about the lands to which she had been carried, and of the great hardships she had endured while travelling through space. The people of the island buried the princess where she was found.

The ‘sluagh’ are supposed to come from the west; and therefore, when a person is dying, the door and the windows on the west side of the house are secured to keep out the malicious spirits. In Ross-shire, the door and windows of a house in which a person is dying are opened, in order that the liberated soul may escape to heaven. In Killtarlity, when children are being brought into the world, locks of chests and of doors are opened, this being supposed, according to traditional belief, to facilitate childbirth.

These Hebridean and Highland accounts concur with records of similar beliefs from Ireland and the Isle of Man. The Sluagh Sidhe were dangerous, vengeful and often angry – they were represented (as Aleisoun Pearsoun was informed) by gusts of wind which marked their passing. These fairy ‘blasts’ might burn your skin with ignis sacer or boils or other visible cutaneous conditions. They strike you with fairy darts rendering you sick, or paralysed down one side (a ‘stroke’, the name still used in medicine today). They might also carry you away in a state of delirium to a place you had no intention of being – you would be ‘taken‘ by them, sometimes into their own fairy world!

The Sluagh Sidhe/Sith were – like the Fianna of ancient Ireland – bands of souls who roamed the world outside of the laws of settled everyday life. They were dangerous and liminal, yet potentially helpful and – in the fairy faith discussed by Kirk and other commentators – could redeem themselves, sometimes by sharing the knowledge of how to ‘heal’ the harm they cause, and from there could pass to a different place – in the west, beyond the sunset.

A Fairy Doctor was a specialist who understood these modes of harm caused by these Fairy Hosts. He or she also understood the ‘principle of inversion’ which governed how we and the otherworld interacted together, and was able to intervene or advise in redressing this balance.

St Latiaran of Cullen (Cuillinn)

Cullen or Cullin is a small village about four miles south of the Kerry border, near the town of Millstreet in the old Barony of Dulhallow, Co. Cork. It is home to an old ‘holy well’ dedicated to an Irish female saint known as ‘Latiaran’ or ‘Laitiaran’ (sometimes spelled ‘Lateerin’ in older english books), also known as ‘Laserian’. This last version has an interesting concordance with another supposed early male saint, associated with smithily-named St Gobban of Leighlin (Co. Carlow): This was his brother ‘St Molaise’ (St Molashog), also known as ‘St Laserian’. Whether hearking from Cullen or the bosom of Gobban, all of these saints have a curious set of accretions to do with blacksmiths. Latiaran herself is stranger still as she (and her sisters) do not seem to have an official place in Ireland’s various historic calendars of saints, and have all the trappings of Christianised aspects of a/the feminine triple-deity. 

The popular story about Laitiaran of Cullen, recorded by travellers there in the early 19thC was that the saint once lived in the village, from where she would regularly travel across the old bog-causeways to visit her two holy sisters. Such was her piety, she refused to keep her hearth-fire burning in continuity (a pagan custom/superstition), but would instead go daily to the blacksmith’s forge in the village to get a ‘seed’ for the fire, which she carried home in her apron or cloak, and which miraculously did not burn it. However, one day, she let her sanctity slip a little when the blacksmith complemented her on her shapely legs or feet, and a lapse into vanity caused her to take a peek and see if he was indeed right. The ember burned through her apron and singed her ankle, the result being that she cursed the smith, to the effect that ‘there never was a blacksmith in Cullin thereafter’.

This is yet another striking example of the christianisation of an important part of the original Gaelic pagan mythos. The name, Cuillin, is that of the legendary blacksmith from whom Cuchullain was named, and with whom I have suggested a strong etymological and legendary link to the Germanic character Weland/Wayland. The imposition of a female saint into such a tale involving this character is also seen at Slieve Gullion in Armagh. You might recall the the pagan Brighid was associated with ‘smithcraft’. But what more about ‘Lateerin’?

She is one of three regional sister-saints : Laiser, Inghean Buidhe and Latiaran, sometimes also given as Craobh/Crobh Dearg, Latiaran, and Gobnait. Assuming craobh dearg is the original meaning, ‘red branch’ – something the local legends of Cullen would disapprove of! Gobnait’s name is redolent of gobban (blacksmith), and her feast day in the Martyrology of Oengus is 11th February (Imbolc). This is really fascinating. The mystery deepens when we realise that Latiarin’s pattern day was/is held at the well on July 25th, or the nearest Sunday (or both!) corresponding to the pagan festival of Lughnasa, as detailed in Maire MacNeil‘s amazing book, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’. The pattern of Ingean (or ‘Ineen’) Bhuidhe was (unsurprisingly) celebrated near the start of May at the local settlement at ‘Bull Ridge’ of Dromtariff, while that at the well of Cill Lasaer (who presumably is identical with Gobnait) was at the ‘start of spring’ (early February, Imbolc), and was held at Boherbue (Bóthar Buí = Yellow Road).  

The anglophone part of her name, ‘-teer-‘, appears to be from the Gaelic word saor/tsaoir, meaning ‘smith’ or ‘craftsman’, and ‘teerin’ could therefore quite conceivably signify the ‘smith’s daughter’. Laitiaran is the modern Irish orthographic spelling, which perhaps belies the name’s true origins as an attempt to obfuscate a piece of important Irish pagan lore… Astute readers might recognise that the names ‘Lasaer’ /’Lasair’ and ‘Lateer’ are pretty much the same, derived from the prefix ‘La-‘ and the Irish word for blacksmith – saor . Bui, is also a name of the Cailleach Bera in the famous ‘Lament’ poem, not to mention part of the name of Boherbue/Boherboy nearby.

This intrigued MacNeil deeply, although she did not make the linguistic association of ‘Latiaran’ with blacksmiths. She did however notice the possible connection between the triad of divine females and the passage from the Book of Leinster which describes Badb, Macha and Anand, from the last of whom it says the nearby Paps of Anu were named… She also wondered if the nearby Lughnasa hill of Taur might have been the lost ‘Tara’ of Munster, Teamhair Luachra. This theory is especially intriguing given the fire-kindling, Bealtaine associations of the other Royal Teamhair.

What are the other local links with blacksmiths and fire?

 The old Barony of Duhallow in northern Cork contains the aforementioned villages of Boherbue and Cullen, but is also notable for some of its other placenames such as Banteer, whose name contains an overt suggestion of ‘Female Smith’ (‘Bean tSaor’). In fact, County Cork itself has a fair share of legends regarding a famous hallowed Blacksmith-Builder-Craftsman, the Gobban Saor.  

 

Going with the fairies – Alesoun Peirsoun, Gaelic ‘shamanism’ and the Otherworld

In Robert Pitcairn’s ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’ is a very interesting transcription of an assizes court record for May 1588 from Byrehill, Fife, of a woman named Allison Pearson (‘Alesoun Peirsoun’) who was accused of Sorcery and Witchcraft, for which she was subsequently executed by garrotting and burning.

The trial is interesting on two counts – firstly to historians of Elizabethan/Jacobean political and religious intrigue, as there was a scandalous connection between Allison and the deposed Bishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson. Alesoun’s trial was just two years before the famous North Berwick witch trials, presided over by King James himself, who interviewed the traditional healer Agnes Sampson – a character no doubt like Aleisoun in her beliefs. James VI showed an inordinate interest in witchcraft during the 1590’s – a period of great political suspicion and instability. Of the Peirsoun case, it is interesting that a polemic poem The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe (supposed to have been written by William Sempill) appears to have been written mentioning the case and making a salubrious innuendo that Aleisoun was caught giving sexual favours to the Bishop in his chamber!

Secondly, and most relevant to us, because of the details it records about Pearson’s account of ‘going’ with the court of the fairy queen and dallying with her entourage, and how they taught her special knowledge of healing herbs. This was interpreted as ‘sorcery and witchcraft’ but the details of her confession as presented in the surviving court documents tell a tale of fairy belief, illumination from the otherworld and the frightening and terrifying regard in which these spirits were held…

The items of her conviction were detailed as follows … for those not up to reading Middle Scots and ‘yoghs'(3) etc, I provide my own translation:

Source: ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, Compiled from the original records and mss, with Historical illustrations &c Volume 1, Part 3, 1584-1596’ by Robert Pitcairn; Pub. Edinburgh 1843 The Bannatyne Club. pp.161-165

“… VERDICT: The said Alesoune, being put to the knawledge of ane Assyis of the personis aboue writtin, wes conuict be thair delyuerance of the vsing of Sorcerie and Wichcraft, with the Inuocatioun of the spreitis of the Dewill, speciallie in the visioune and forme of ane Mr William Sympsoune, hir cousing and moder-brotheris sone, quha sche affermit wes ane grit scoller and doctor of medicin, that haillit hir of hir diseis in Lowtheane within the toun of Edinburghe, quhair scho reparit to him being twell 3eiris of aige, and thair cuming and ganging be the space of sewin 3eiris, quhen scho wes helpit of hir seiknes quhilk scho had quhan hir poistee and power wes tane fra hir hand and fute, continewing thairby in familiaritie with him be the space foirsaid, dealing with charmes and abusing of the commoun people thairwith be the said airt of Wichcraft thir diuers 3eiris bypast… ”

“… VERDICT: The said Alesoune, being put to the knowledge of an assize of the persons above written, was convicted by their deliberation of the using of Sorcery and Witchcraft, with the invocations of the sprites of the Devil, especially in the apparition and form of one ‘Mr William Sympsoune’, her cousin by her mother’s brother, who she affirmed was a great scholar and doctor of medicine, that healed her of all diseases in Lothian, within the town of Edinburgh, where she repaired to him at the age of twelve, and with whom she had dealings for seven years, and was finally cured of a paralysis affecting her hand and foot, continuing in familiarity with him in that time, and afterwards dealing in charms and abusing the common people with these for many years afterwards…”

The preamble is unusual as it states that William Sympsoun was both the devil and her cousin, suggesting that he might be a living person. Also, it states that Aleisoun was only 12 years of age when she arrived in Edinburgh. Things get more interesting as the record proceeds…

” … (2.) ITEM, for hanting and repairing with the gude nychtbouris and Quene of Elfame, thir diuers 3eiris bypast as scho had confest be hir depositiounis, declaring that scho could nocht say reddelie how lang scho wes with thame; and that scho had freindis in that court quhilk wes of hir awin blude, quha had gude acquentance of the Quene of Elphane, quhilk mycht helpit hir: bot scho wes quhyles weill and quhyles ewill, and ane quhyle with thame and ane vthir quhyle away; and that scho wald be in hir bed haill and feir, and wald nocht wit quhair scho wald be or the morne: And that scho saw nocht the Quene thir sewin 3eir: And that scho had mony guid freindis in that court bot wer all away now; And that scho wes sewin 3eir ewill handlit in the Court of Elfane, and had kynd freindis their, bot had na will to vifleit thame eftir the end: And that itt wes thay3 guid nychtbouris that haillit hir vnder God; And that scho wes cuming and gangand to Sanct Androus in hailling folkis thir saxtene 3eiris bypast … “

“… (2.) ITEM, for associating and staying with the ‘good neighbours’ (fairies) and the Queen of Elfland during many years past, as she has confessed in her disposition, albeit that she cannot recall for how long she was with them; And that she had friends in the Fairy Court who were relatives of hers, who were also on good terms with the Fairy Queen, and offered her assistance. She realised that while she was with them she was well, but when away from them she was sick; Although she would retire to bed in good form, she might wake the next morning and not know where she was. During this period of seven years she did not see the Queen herself, but encountered many dead friends, although eventually grew tired of visiting with them. And, that it was these ‘good neighbours’ who healed her by God’s will, and for the past 16 years, she has been coming and going to St Andrews to heal people… “

That some of these ‘good neighbours’ were known to Aleisoun as family members, who offered her help is an important aspect to the Gaelic fairy mythology. As we shall see, Aleisoun found sympathy from these members of the Seelie Court, but those who were not her relatives were of a more sinister nature in their behaviour to her. The court deposition further details the family member she alleged to have met.

“(3.) ITEM Conuict of the said airt of Wiche craft, in sa far as be hir Depositioune, scho confest that the said Mr Sympsoun quha wes hir guidschire sone, borne in Striuiling, his fader wes Kingis smyth, lernit hir craft; quha wes tane away fra his fader be ane mann Egypt, ane gyant, being bot ane barne, quha had him away to Egypt with him, quhair he remanit to the space of tuell 3eiris, or he come haine agane and that his fader deit in the meane tyme for opining of ane preist buik and luking vponne it. And that the said Mr Williame haillit hir sone eftir his hame cumming…”

“(3.) ITEM Convicted of the said art of Witchcraft by her own deposition, she confessed that the said Mr Sympsoun, who was her godfather’s son, born in Sterling where his father was the King’s blacksmith, taught her the craft; He was taken away from his father by a man of Egypt (AR: ‘gypsy’), a giant, when he was but a child, who had him away to Egypt with him, where he remained for the space of 12 years, before coming home again after his father was killed for professing his Catholic faith. And that the said Mt William healed her after his homecoming….”

The theme of being ‘stolen away by gypsies’ (the word gypsy means ‘egyptian’) was a common motif in medieval and early-modern folklore. ‘Gypsies’ – like ‘fairies’ – were often used as an explanation for both abduction and the learning of hidden knowledge. Another ‘out-group’ with a similar reputation who might be blamed were Jews, and in Elizabethan/Jacobean England and Scotland – Clansmen and their Romish kind... Here, we see the court explaining Simpson as ‘gypsy-taught’, although his disappearance might have had as much to with the political fallout and murders around the time of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. His father was royal armourer – a high status individual. This would make Aleisoun herself of reasonably high status too, perhaps explaining why she ended up at the Bishop’s court…

In Item 4, she admits – at around the age of 12 – to having had what sounds like a possibly sexual encounter with fairies (although they might possibly have been humans). The jolly man dressed in green is a coded way of describinging a man from the fairy world in medieval and later folklore.

“…(4.) ITEM that scho being in Grange-mure with the folkis that past to the Mure, scho lay doun seik alane and thair come ane man to hir cled in grene clathis quha said to hir, ‘Gif scho wald be faithfull he wald do hir guid’; and that scho seing him cryit for help bot nane hard hir; and thane scho chargeit him, ‘In Godis name and the low he leuit one’, that if he come in Godis name and for the weill of hir saull, he sould tell; Bot he gaid away thane and apperit to hir att ane vther tyme, ane lustie mane, with mony mene and wemen with him: And that scho sanit hir and prayit, and past with thame fordir nor scho could tell; and saw with thame pypeing and mirrynes and gude scheir, and wes careit to Lowtheane, and saw wyne punchounis with tassis with thame: And quhene scho tellis of thir thingis, declarit scho wes sairlie tormentit with thame. And that scho gatt ane fair straik the fyrst tyme scho gaid with thame, fra ane of thame quhilk tuke all the poistie of hir car syde fra hir, the mark quhairof wes blae and ewill faurrit; quhilk mark scho felt nocht and that hir syd wes far war…”

“…(4.) ITEM that she being in Grangemuir with the people that held that estate, she lay down sick by herself, when a man dressed in green came to her and said that ‘if she would be with him, he would offer her boons’, and that on seeing him she cried for help, but no-one heard her; and then she confronted him, (saying) ‘In the name of God and the Law he lives under’, that if he came in God’s name and for the good of her soul, he should tell. He went away then, but appeared to her another time, a merry man in the company of many men and women. She sained herself and prayed, and accompanied them, losing track of time; They were playing pipes and tambourines and making merry, and she was swept along to Lothian, when they took out wine puncheons and began to (?)make (sexual) teases. And when she told of their actions, declared she was sorely tormented by them. And, that she was struck hard the first time she went with them, for one of them caused her to lose power down her left side, causing a bruise of ill-disposition, yet which did not hurt and it was her paralysis which concerned her more…”

The initial encounter sees Aleisoun feeling sick and then lying down, when she encounters a green-clad man who makes her feel uneasy and vulnerable. She eventually follows him and an entourage on a number of gallivants, culminating in the arrival in Lothian when a dangerous encounter follows: The phrase ‘and saw wyne punchounis with tassis with thame’seems to suggest the party plied Aleisoun with wine and began ‘teases’ (tasses) which might imply sexual molestation or interaction of some sort. Whatever happened, these ‘people’ who were subsequently violent with her and made threats, and she suffered the condition known as ‘fairy stroke’ – unilateral paralysis. A relationship of secret trust had been established, perhaps initiated with the sexual encounter, from which she was to gain some powers, albeit under the threat of harm for breaking their trust. Subsequent to these ongoing encounters and a sickness they engender, she begins to learn the healing arts from them, assuming the sequence of the indictment reflects her own confession:

(5.) ITEM, that scho saw the guid nychtbouris mak thair sawis with panis and fyris, and that thay gadderit thair herbis before the sone rising, as scho did. And that thay come verry feirfull sumtymes and fleit hir verry sair, and scho cryit quhene thay come. And that thay come quhyles anis in the aucht dayes, and quhene scho tauld last of it thay come to hir and boistit hir, saying scho sould be war handlit nor of befoir; and that thaireftir thay tuke the haill poistie of hir syde in sie soirt, that scho lay tuentie oulkis thaireftir. And that oft tymes thay wald cum and sitt besyde hir and promesit that scho sould newir want gif scho wald be faithfull and keip promeis, bot gif scho wald speik and tell of thame and thair doingis thay sould martir hir. And that Mr Williame Sympsoun is with thame quha haillit hir and teichit hir all thingis, and speikis and wairnis hir of thair cuming and saulfis hir and that he was ane 3oung man nocht sax 3eiris eldar nor hirselff, and that scho wald feir quhene scho saw him, and that he will appeir to hir selff allane before the Court cum, and that he before tauld hir how he wes careit away with thame out of middil eird. And quhene we heir the quhirll wind blaw in the sey, thay wilbe commounelie with itt or cumand sone thaireftir, than Mr Williame will cum before and tell hir and bid hir keip hir and sane hir, that scho be nocht tane away with thame agane for the teynd of thame gais ewerie 3eir to hell…”

(5.) ITEM, that she saw the ‘good neighbours’ make their salves with pans and fires, and that they gathered their herbs before sunrise, as was now her practice. At times they would appear to her in a frightening way and scare her badly, causing her to cry when they came.   And they came until once, at the Octave (?of Easter or Pentecost), she decided to tell people about it, and they then came to her and scolded her, threatening that they would handle her more roughly than before, and this time they left her completely paralysed down her side, causing her to be sick in bed for 20 weeks. Often during this period, they would come and sit beside her, telling her she would want for nothing so long as she kept their trust, but that if she would speak and tell of them and their doings, they would murder her. And that Mr William Simpson came to her during this time and was the one who healed her and taught her all things, and speaks and warns her of their coming, and makes her safe; and that he was a young man not six years older than her, and that she overcame her fear when she saw him, and that he would appear to her alone just before the (Fairy) Court appeared, and he told her that he himself had been carried away from the land of the living. And when we hear the whirlwind blowing across the sea, this is made by them, and they will be coming soon after; then William will come before and warn her, and bid her and keep her and sain her, so that she not be taken away with them again, for the tithe/tenth of them goes every year to hell…

The account of her ‘rescue’ from the tormenting fairy mob by William is at once touching, tender and romantic. Remember, she was only 12 years old when this started and claimed that she was ‘away’ 7 years suffering her fairy illness. During this time, William (who had been abducted from middle eird – middle earth – by the fairy cavalcade – by which she means dead in this world) teaches her and heals her and makes her whole again before apparently eventually tasking her with the healing of Bishop Adamson.

“…(6.) ITEM of hir confeffioune maid: That the said Mr Williame tauld hir of ewerie seiknes and quhat herbis scho sould tak to haill thame, and how scho sould vse thame, and gewis hir his directioune att all tymes. And in speciall scho said that he tauld hir that the Bischopof Sanct Androus had mony seikneffis, as the trimbling fewer, the palp, the rippillis and the flexus, and baid hir mak ane saw, and rub it on his cheikis, his craig, his breast, stommak and sydis. And siclyke gaif her directiounis to vse the 3ow mylk, or waidraue, with the herbis, claret wyne and with sume vther thingis; scho gaif him ane sottin fowll and that scho maid ane quart att anis quhilk he drank att twa drachtis twa sindrie dyetis…”

“… (6.) ITEM of her confession made: That the said Mr William told her of every sickness and what herbs she should use to heal them, and how she should use them, and gives her his direction at all times. And escpecially, that he told her that the Bishop of St Andrews had many sicknesses, such as the trembling-fever, palpitations, rigors and gastroenteritis, and bade her make a salve and to rub it on his cheeks, chin, chest, abdomen and loins. And suchlike gave her directions to use the milk of a ewe and Woodruff, to give him claret wine with the herbs and some other things; she ?made a drunken fool of him, giving him a quart to drink in two draughts, between each of his assembly sessions…”

 

The story of what we know of her life appears to end sadly, mired in the vicious intrigues and politics of late 16thC Scotland and England, when she apparently provides a cure for a malady (?an ague) suffered by the controversial Bishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson, for whom she was presumably in service by the time of her prosecution. The fact that the bishop had many enemies (for reasons tied up in the battles for episcopal conformity and regnal politics) was probably a factor in selecting Allesoun for prosecution.

Allison’s own culture-normative accounts of how she acquired healing abilities (as well as her sexuality) were ultimately to damn her to death, convincing the court she had indeed consorted with devils (sorcery) and therefore committed witchcraft. Unfortunately, the court had no insight into her fairy beliefs, and her claim that the fairies taught her because God allowed it fell on unsympathetic ears. They had secured ‘evidence’ that she had made a pact with the devil (with requisite quasi-sexual aspects) and was carrying out magic taught her by devils, even though a ‘rational’ modern reading might suggest evidence of a bout of mental illness, perhaps bought about through rape and abuse. A multitude of factors might have informed her interpretation of events in her life:

Firstly, hers is a typical origin story common to many forms of exceptional or occult knowledge in the ‘Gaelic’ world. The abduction followed by a return after seven years bearing wealth or knowledge is a standard motif of fairy-encounters, and occurs frequently in the folklore and medieval mythological literature of Atlantic Europe. Her physical (and possibly sexual) maltreatment is another feature of Gaelic fairy lore, explaining both bodily marks and disease itself – pinches, strikes and blasts. Nonetheless, she gains from her disquieting association with the Otherworld denizens a higher form of knowledge. Exceptional poets, musicians and craftsmen might have a similar tale ascribed to the acquisition of their skill, and in Allison’s case the supernatural acquisition of powers would have been a useful ‘marketing tool’ to confirm her legitimacy as a traditional fairy doctor by the time of her arrest.

Her ‘illness’ appears to have been a combination of paralysis and delirium which, in the case of a young girl of 12 years of age, could be explained by the possibility of either psychological and emotional disturbances precipitated by an act of rape, or the deleterious effects upon the nervous system of Syphilis contracted from her possible attackers. Other possibilities include transverse myelitis and polio, TB abscesses of the spine etc.

The aspects of possible rape may be overplayed, and her tales to the court of fairy abuse, followed by ‘rescue’ by a young and handsome daoine sith lover who teaches her secrets might just represent aspects of a budding and romantic teenage sexuality frustrated by illness.  Allison was, according to the indictment, only 12 at the time of the start of her formative ‘otherworld’ experiences and illnesses, and these supposedly continued for 7 more years.

The fact that Aleisoun could have been mentally ill is another factor that needs to be examined. She could well have been experienced a transient delusional mental illness (with beliefs congruent on normative ideas in late 16thC Scotland) during a period of physical, psychological and emotional recovery following a traumatic experience of rape or even possibly being orphaned. Indeed, by her own confession she was ill during her seven years stay in Elfhame, and claimed that the fairies (her relative William in particular) made her better, just as they had made her sick in the first place. However, this story may just be her justificatory narrative to explain her supposed curative powers that she was using at the time of her arrest, some time in early adulthood by which time she was apparently confident enough following her childhood traumas, to find time to massage healing oils into the chest and abdomen of one of Scotland’s most prominent clergymen while plying him with wine!

To quote the words of the poem The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe:

Scho being in the bischopis cure,

And kepit in his castell sure,

Without respect of warldlie glamer,

He past into the witchis chalmer,

Closing the dure behind his bak,

And quyetlie to hir he spak,

And said, his work lome was not worthe,

Lowsing his poyntis, he laid it furth.

Scho sayned it with hir halie hand ;

The pure pith of the pryoris wand :

To help that raipfull scho hes rest him,

Whairfore, ye say, my ladie left him.

For scho had sayned it tuyss or thrise,

His rubigo began to ryiss :

Then said the bischop to Jhone Bell,

Goe, tak the first seye of hir yor sell.

The witche to him her weschell gave,

The Bischops blissing to resave.

What dayis of pardone then scho want

The relicques of that holie man

Micht save her saule from purgatorie.

His wyfe, coceiving jelowsie,

Cryed out his deid, when it was done,

Ran through the tovn, and tauld it sone.

I will leave the Scots translation to you, but needless to say it contains an indicator of why Aleisoun was probably bought to trial. The Bishop’s enemies would not fail to see the simile between the ‘adoration’ by this young woman of the Bishop’s body and draw a parallel with the body of Satan, with whom witches were supposed by the Christian doctrines of the day to have sexual relations… Aleisoun appears to be the confident aggressor in this matter (at least in the poem) and both the poem and the court transcript seem to suggest she was a well-established local traditional healer, so she cannot be portrayed as a weak and feeble-minded victim. She was a strong character!

Perhaps the most interesting part of Allison’s confession, apart from the suggestion of sexual initiation with fairies, is that she met her dead ancestors while in fairy land! This feature of fairies as departed ancestors was later hinted at in Robert Kirk’s ‘Secret Commonwealth’, although he evades expressing it as a creed directly, not in the least because he was a ‘bright young thing’ on the evangelical clerical scene of his day. Kirk mentions the ‘spirit-doubles’ and ‘ghosts’ of the living and dead (seen by those with second sight) as if in continuity with descriptions of otherworld experiences with the ‘Sith’, and further discusses fairies as fore-runners who once farmed the hilltops where men no longer can, but he stops short of equating them with ancestors. I refer you to read this document yourself (follow the links!).

After the Jacobite rebellions and subsequent land-clearances of the 18thC, the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders’ rapidly-disappearing traditional lifestyles and beliefs became a thing of interest to scholars and authors seeking to capitalise on the popularity of James MacPherson and Walter Scott. James Browne had this to say about their fairy beliefs in the early part of the 19thC:

“…According to the traditionary legends of the Highlanders, the Shi’ichs (AR: Sheogues) are believed to be of both sexes, and it is the general opinion among the Highlanders that men have sometimes cohabited with females of the Shi’ich race, who are in consequence called Leannan-Shi. These mistresses are believed to be very kind to their mortal paramours, by revealing to them the knowledge of many things both present and future which were concealed from the rest of mankind. The knowledge of the medicinal virtues of many herbs it is related has been obtained in this way from the Leannan-Shi. The Daoine Shi of the other sex are said in their turn to have sometimes held intercourse with mistresses of mortal race…”

From: p.112 “History of the Highlands & of the Highland Clans, Volume 1, Part 1” By James Browne (Pub. Glasgow, A. Fullarton & Co 1834)

This opinion seems to concur with the court account of Allison Pearson who apparently gained magical healing powers after a sexual encounter with men of the Otherworld. The contra-sexual aspect of tutelary human-fairy relationships is another example of the otherworld-inversion principle. It might also be noted that in the Gaelic world, a healing charm/piseog/pishag/ortha was often supposed to inherited from woman to man and vice versa.

That Pearson believed she had met dead ancestors in the Seelie Court may be an aspect of a phenomenon commented on by James Browne’s contemporary, Donald MacPherson (of the (in)famous Gaelicist MacPhersons), who discussed the Highland beliefs in the migration of souls into hills after death:

‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and original poems: with notes on the superstitions of the highlanders &c’ By Donald Macpherson. Pub. London 1824, Tomas and George Underwood)

pp. 200-202

OPINIONS RESPECTING THE STATE OF DEPARTED SPIRITS

…The admixture of Christianity with the ancient religion of the Gael created infinite confusion of ideas with respect to the state of departed souls. Heaven and Hell were sometimes mentioned from the pulpit, but the nurse spoke daily of Flath inis, and the Hills of their departed kindred to the children at her knee, and ancient tales of those who had been favoured with visions of the state of the dead prevented the Christian idea of heaven and hell from ever being properly established. It was supposed that only the souls of the supremely good and brave were received into Flath inis and those only of the very base and wicked were condemned to the torments of Ifrin. The Hills of their fathers were in an intermediate state, into which the common run of mankind were received after death. They had no notion of an immaterial being, but supposed that each spirit on departing from this mortal habitation received a body subject to no decay, and that men in a future state enjoyed such pleasures as had been most congenial to their minds in this, without being subject to any of the evils that flesh is heir to. The belief in the Hills of Spirits began in general to give way soon after the reformation and in some parts of the Highlands it soon disappeared altogether. Others however proved more tenacious of it, and among some clans and branches of clans it lingered until very lately. The Orc, a high conical hill in Inverness-shire, was regarded by the House of Crubin, of the clan Macpherson, as their future inheritance, and the House of Garva of the same race believed that their spirits should inhabit Tom mor. On the entrance of every new inhabitant, those hills were seen by persons at a certain distance in a state of illumination. Tom mor was seen on fire for the last time, I believe, about thirty years ago and it was confidently asserted that some member of the house of Garva was passing from this into a better state of existence. But no death being heard of in the neighbourhood for some days an opinion already on the decline was on the eve of being consigned to utter contempt when to the confusion of the sceptics news arrived that the daughter of a gentleman of the house of Garva had expired at Glasgow at the very moment Tom mor had been seen on a blaze. But into whatever state the departed spirit passed it had for a time to return to perform a sacred duty on earth. This was – FAIRE CHLOIDH – the grave watch It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred to stand sentry at the grave yard gate, from sun set until the crowing of the cock every night, until regularly relieved. This sometimes in thinly inhabited parts of the country happened to be a tedious and severe duty and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends sometimes much uneasiness…

 

Both MacPherson and Browne would have been well aware of Robert Kirk’s recovered manuscript (first published in 1815 by Walter Scott and friends), and were influenced by the writings of (and Donald’s case, family connection to) James MacPherson (he of ‘Ossian’ fame). MacPherson’s description appears to be saying that ‘fairy hills’ might be the ancestral hill of a highland clan. Although unsaid, Peirsoun’s account of the boon given her by her departed relative seems akin to MacPherson’s ‘Faire Chloidh’, which was also known in the Isle of Man as the Keymagh (‘stile guardian’).

Even though Pearson’s account of herself retold at her trial is from a lowland source, it appears to have been bathed in the same legendary lore as the accounts of Kirk, Martin, Browne, MacPherson and from records of more ancient provenance elsewhere in the Gaelic-Atlantic world. That her reports of going with fairies to learn secret knowledge were repeated by others both before and after her are testament to a tradition shared by those persons who would become known as Fairy Doctors.

Fairies at Beltane – friend or foe?

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:

“…When we have plenty, they have scarcity, and on the contrarie…”

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…

Roman era mosaic of a happy Lare protected from sharp and venomous things by the apotropaic Eye symbol

Roman era mosaic of a happy household spirit (Lare) protected from sharp and venomous things by the apotropaic Eye symbol

Flowers have the appearance of the eye, which would allow them to function in such a manner…

Welcoming fairies:

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…

 

The meanings of Beltane

Following on from my last thematic post, I wish to discuss some of the deeper meanings behind the festival of Beltane, known in Irish as Bealtaine, and Manx as Boaldyn. I have employed the English spelling 'Beltane' when talking in the general sense, simply because this is the language I use.

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

It really is an old festival, proceeding from times when religion was generated from the landscape, seasons, survival and memories – not from books. The empirical observations of nature's great mechanism assigned particular periods where change was apparent a specific importance, and Beltane was one of these.

It represents the surge of trees into full leaf, the arching and dividing of shoots to form branched plants, and the appearance of swarms of insects. Climatically it is warm and wet – the ideal generative conditions for nature to surge into full life. The response to this growth is visible in the behaviour and migrations of wild animals, and reflected in the procedures of transhumance when it is safe to move animals to upland pastures. It is perhaps not surprising that the groups of stars or constellations in which the sun is noted to travel during this period have ancient names which correspond closely to agricultural animals – Aries (the ram), Taurus (the bull), the Pleiades (plovers) and mysterious Cetus (see my earlier post about Iron Age coins). None of these will be visible in daytime in the sun's glare (except perhaps Taurus and the Pleiades just after sunset), and are hidden below the horizon at night! Boötes ('The Herdsman' -home of the bright star Arcturus) and Virgo ('The Young Woman' whose brightest star is Spica which represents a fertilised ear of corn) are visible rising on the ecliptic path to the southeast as the sun sets on Beltane eve, however… The 'meaning' of these constellations appears to have been assigned on the basis of the seasonal events they attend.

Irish Bealtaine customs:

According to William Robert Wilde, (Irish Popular Superstitions, Pub. McGlashan, Dublin 1852) the pre-famine celebration and customs of the Lá Buidhe Bealtaine included the following:

1. Bealtaine bonfires: Usually lit on May eve. He says that the embers would sometimes be taken away to peoples homes to light their own fires, and the ashes considered lucky and curative. Wilde records the burning of horse skulls and animal bones on the fires, as well as the May bush.

2. The May Bush: A decorated uprooted bush or small tree which was carried around ceremonially by youthful celebrants. It was burned on the bonfire.

3. He describes stories of parties of young character-actors similar to those of the Manx 'Summer Queen' and her troop.

4. May Flowers: Like in the Isle of Man, the Bearnan Bealtaine or Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) was a principle apotropaic Mayflower. Any other yellow wildflowers would be used to decorate houses and doorways etc.

5. Household superstitions: Wilde describes a superstition that it was unlucky to give fire or milk from the house at Bealtaine. He associates this with making the household vulnerable to fairies. Curiously, this superstition applies to Easter in the Isle of Man.

6. Spring wells and dew: A number of superstitions existed about the power held in the dew of May morning. Going to a person's land and skimming the dew was considered an attempt to transfer/steal its productivity. The same applies to skimming someone's well or spring. Conversely, wells were resorted to for ablutions and drinking first thing on May morning, and girls would also try and wash themselves in the dew of May morning.

7. May balls: Aside from dances and frolics, Bealtaine was also sometimes associated with spherical balls: One of these was a large football, kicked about as part of a May 'wide-game', and another was a custom of carrying a decorated ball suspended from a pole.

The book was a misty-eyed look back at pre-famine Ireland, and it is evident from its tone that Wilde perceived the famine to have caused a cultural collapse of traditional customs. He was correct, of course, and the latter half of the 19thC was marked by a rise in the power and influence of the Roman Catholic church which sought to fill the void of the decimated culture with its own cultural 'produce'.

Apart from the aspects of fun attached to former Bealtaine celebrations, it is worth examining in more detail the meanings of the customs Wilde and others have described.

Primrose_IMG_1803_2009_04 copy (1)

Water, trees and fertility:

The similitude between water and the plant life that relies upon it to survive permeated the empirical (i.e. – pagan) philosophies of Atlantic Europe. The physical patterns traced by the branches, stems and roots plants are similar to the shapes of river deltas. Plants 'spring' up from the ground in the season named in honour of this – just like water has a similar tendency to gush forth. The 'flood' of greenery at Beltane is analogous to the floods of rivers and the ocean tides. It was anciently believed that dew was created by the moon whose cold light was supposed to create moisture. Furthermore it was believed that its disappearance from the leaves of plants as the morning progressed constituted a 'drinking in' of its goodness. Grass and its dew, spring-wells, and the flow of milk from cattle were considered analogous parts of the same systematic (spiritual) process of conveying life and goodness.

Moisture along with heat were considered the pre-requisites for generating life.

Fire and continuity:

The May fires and hearth-customs were another important part of the fertility/continuity philosophy of Beltane. The custom of creating frictional fires such as the Tein-eigin, particularly when the sun is transiting across the virile spring constellations of Taurus and Aries is an interesting evocation of sexual intercourse. The 'eternal flame' once apparently common to early Celtic Christian monasteries was an aspect of something pagan, and the hearth-kindling traditions and beliefs about ancestors (fairies) and their relation to the hearth are important features of the Atlantic Religion. The hearth is the heart of a household, and a witness to generations of occupants. Open air hearths (e.g. – the Fulachtai Fiadh) were a feature of pagan ceremonials, there being good evidence for this from archaeology and literature. These represented the 'tribal hearth' and had significance to Bealtaine in Ireland, in particular at places like Tara (where Muirchu says Patrick extinguished the sacred fire at 'Easter' time) and at Uisneach. These fires, used to rekindle the fires of the tribe were a powerful unifying force in ancient Gaelic culture, and the ability to host them was the province of kings or high-kings whose 'spark' (married to the 'wood' of the feminine earth) was the inspiration and generation of the Tuatha. Perhaps the 'May Bush' was figurative for the sovereignty goddess, and its burning a form of heiros gamos?

Confusion with Midsummer?

There are a number of independent written accounts from the 19thC which suggest that Midsummer fires in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man were also called 'Beltane' or 'Beltein' fires. The original entry in Sanas Chormaic describes two fires, usually interpreted to mean twin fires, between which cattle were driven. This was said to have been the case in the Isle of Man by William Harrison in his 'Mona Miscellany' (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. 1869), althougn he could have been quoting the authority of O'Flaherty. However, the entry may be a reference to two early summer fires, held individually on 31st April and at midsummer.

The original texts in the various copies of Sanas Chormaic do not give a date for the festivity, which was glossed in by O'Donovan on the basis of an apparently continuous tradition centred on the 1st of May. It might be that midsummer fires were a christianised form of Beltane which became conflated later on, but midsummer bonfires were a pretty certain pagan activity as well.

Fertile Bridget:

The astronomical event of sunset at Beltane eve sees the constellation Virgo rising in the southeastern horizon. She is preceded by the roaring fiery Lion that is Leo who is bathed in the warmth of the setting sun (assuming you don't live in the Isle of Man where it is probably raining!). Those familiar with the Norse and Germanic mythologies will know that Freyja was the goddess of love among the Scandinavians, and was depicted in Icelandic mythology as having a chariot drawn by cats (Snorra Edda, 'Gylfaginning').This is evidently a reference to these two constellations, and the association of Beltain with love and fertility must somehow be related to Freyja. St Bridget is associated not with Beltane, but with Imbolc (1st February), but the year is young in February and 'Saint' Bridget was a virgin according to the myths of her desexualised religion. So what is the relationship between the Norse Freyja and the Gaelic conception of the year as a woman? Those familiar with my writings might recall I have previously commented upon the similarity between the names of Bridget and Freyja: This is most evident in the Manx versions of Bride's name: Breeshey and Vreeshey, pronounced 'Breesha' or 'Vreesha', even 'Braysha' or 'Vraysha'….

Etymologies of 'Beltane':

Conventional interpretation divides the wordsound into two parts: 'Bel-' and '-tane'. The oldest written forms were beiltine and biltine (Sanas Chormaic).

The prefix has been variously described as a reference to a god called 'Bel' (a popular idea in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries), the word for 'mouth' or 'opening' (bealach), 'health' (beatha), prosperity (bail), food (bia/bea), fold/enclosure (baile/balla) and tree (bile). The Manx version 'Boal' has aspects of bovine animals (boa) and bowls (bol-). The suffix '-tane' is usually related to fire (teine) but might also relate to territory or a district (tain – derivation being 'tanistry' and the Germanic word 'thegn' or 'thane'), a cattle-herd or drove or war spoils (táin)or even water (tain). The Manx pronounce the suffix '-thane', but other regional pronunciations vary the 't' sound from hard 't' to 'tch'. As all have accrued meaning that can be freely related to folklore about Beltane it is hard to come to a firm conclusion.

'Fires of Bel' and 'Cattle Fires' are both etymologies that have been suggested in the past, as is 'opening to fire' (from 'bealach' and 'teine' – meaning the hot months of summer). It might also mean 'Cattle-drove of Bel', 'Enclosure of Land' or perhaps more likely: 'Health/Prosperity of Land', or 'Tree Fire' both of which seem to fit the more fundamental aspects of the celebration.