Wayland Revisited: A Pan-European God?

The enigmatic fairy-smith ‘Wayland‘ is famed in the legends of the pagan north Europeans, particularly among the speakers of the Scandinavian and Germanic language groups. What is less understood is that his influence is far more widespread – from Ireland in the west, to Russia in the east, and down into the Balkans, whose old regional name almost invokes the god of smithcraft, goldsmithing, weapons and armour – a skill for which these regions (for example , Thracia) and the Eurasian Caucausus were famous for from at least the 5thC BCE. In this essay, I will try and explore and unfold the nature of this ancient pan-European (and Eurasian) conceptual mythological figure who seemed to have a foot in the worlds of both gods and men, and in so-doing unified peoples’ conceptions of their gods and their land. 

You can familiarise yourself with the ‘Lay of Volund’ here.

Germanic and Scandinavian Wayland:

The fairy-smith’s name has been encountered in a number of regional spelling-variants, including Wayland or Weyland (English) and Wêland (Old English), Völundr and Velent (Icelandic/Norse Poetic Edda and sagas), Wiolant (Old High German) and Gallant or Galans (France). In the medieval Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was spelled Guielandus.

His earliest most complete surviving legend is found in the Völundarkviða (‘Poem/Lay of Volund’) of the 13thC Icelandic ‘Poetic Edda’ texts, which were derived from older oral traditions transmitted through the Atlantic archipelago (mainly Britain and Ireland) from Scandinavia and the Baltic provinces – all then part of northern Europe’s most dynamic ocean trade route, connecting via the Volga and the Black Sea to Byzantium. In this telling he is described as a ‘prince of elves’ and ‘one of the elves’ skilled in crafting jewels, weapons and armour with magical qualities.

Wayland is recognisable from the tale of Völundarkviða on the on the images depicted on the 8thC ‘Franks Casket’, currently in the British Museum.

Wayland depicted on the front panel of the 8thC 'Franks Casket'.

The ‘Franks Casket’. The scene compares the heathen vision of Wayland (on the left) creating life from death with that of the Christian nativity. The two religious ideas were probably considered ‘one and the same’ to the Frankish and Anglo-Saxon peoples of the day.

The early 10thC Anglo-Saxon poem Deor (from the Exeter Book manuscript collection) refers to the details of the Völundarkviða story of Weland, also confirming this later telling was common in earlier Anglo-Saxon England. The fairy-smith is also mentioned (as ‘Weland’) in the 10thC  Old English epic poem, Beowulf, as the creator of the hero’s chest armour.

He appears as ‘Velent’ in a side-story to a 13thC Scandinavian retelling of the popular Germanic saga of the life of the Gothic hero-king Theoderic (Dietrich) the Great (Þiðrekssaga/Thidrekssaga). This is itself another version of the story in Völundarkviða albeit different in a number of minor details. For instance, it states that Wayland learned smithcraft under the tutelage of Mimer (possibly the same as Mimir, whose well is to be found among the cthonic roots of the world tree, Yggdrasil) and the dwarves. He presents himself at the court of the King, this time called Nithung, and kills the king’s blacksmith. For this, he is crippled by Nithung and enslaved.

In fact, Wayland is mentioned briefly in all manner of medieval north European texts as a creator of special jewels, weapons and armour. There are also locations throughout northern Europe named after him.

The ‘Celtic’ connection:

Perhaps the most fascinating and generally unrecognised mythological incarnation of Weland is from the ‘Ulster Cycle’ of Irish legends which were written down in Irish and Latin from the 7thC onwards, but emanated from older oral traditions. This is the smith-king Cuillean or ‘Guillean’ – creator of magical weapons and armour for Ulster kings and heroes, and namesake for the famous Irish hero Cuchullain. 19thC Irish mythographer Nicholas O’Kearney had this to say about him in the context of Ireland’s old gods:

“… Aine, or Aighne, as the name is sometimes written, was a being of
great note in the olden times, as may be seen from the evidences
which I shall adduce, and generally supposed to have been possessed
of extraordinary or supernatural powers, having an affinity to the at-
tributes of a Pagan deity. This Aine was the sister of Milucradh of
Sliabh Guillean, better known among the peasantry as the Cailleach
Biorar (i.e. the old woman who frequents the water) of Loch Dag-
ruadh, on that mountain, and daughter of Cuillean, or Guillean, from
whom the mountain is supposed to have derived its name. But
before any further notice is given of Aine, it is necessary to give a
short sketch of Guillean himself, in order to show his connexion with
the ancient mythology of Ireland, and lead to the inference that his
daughter, too, was connected with the Pagan worship of our ancestors.
Cuillean, or Guillean, himself was a very famous being that once re-
sided in the Isle of Man, and of so long-lived or mythic a nature, as
to be found living in all ages of Pagan history ; at all events he is re-
presented to have lived at the time when Conchubar Mac Nessa, after-
wards king of Ulster, was a young man, who possessed little pros-
pects of aggrandisement, except what he might win by his sword.
Conchubar, being of an ambitious and enterprising nature, consulted
the oracle of Clochor, and was informed that he should proceed to the
Isle of Man, and get Cuillean, or Guillean, a noted ceard, or worker
in iron, to make a sword, spear, and shield for him ; and that the
buadha (supernatural power) possessed by them would be instrumental
in gaining for him the sovereignty of Ulster… ” Nicholas O’Kearney, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 2, 1855 (p.32)

Although described in Irish legends as a blacksmith who creates magical weaponry, the connection between Cuillean and the germanic ‘Weland’ is not immediately apparent until you consider the tendency for the ‘Celtic’ languages of ‘lenition‘ (softening) or ‘fortition‘ (hardening) of initial and terminal consonantal sounds. I have discussed this connection previously here. This essentially means that ‘Cuillean’ was often pronounced ‘whallin’ or ‘wellin’ as occurs in the placenames associated with Cuillean in the Isle of Man, where his smithy was supposed in some Irish stories to have been located. In fact there are many more placenames in Ireland associated with Cuillean, although a bit of digging will probably find him in Scotland, Wales and England (where he is referred to as Wayland). If you employ a lenition of the primary consonant, and a fortition of the terminal consonant of the name ‘Cuillean’ you could phonetically pronounce it ‘Wolund‘. Probatum est!

It is of course possible that the character of Cuillean was introduced to the Irish poetic traditions during the Anglo-Saxon era, but this seems unlikely given that the Irish tales have little in common with the narrative of the 13thC Icelandic version of Völundarkviða, which we have fairly good reason to believe was the same myth known in 10thC England and was probably transmitted to Iceland via the ancient sea-routes between Norway, the Isle of Man and Dublin. Of course, this does not preclude the donation of the name of Weland to the myths of a legendary Irish blacksmith during this period of cultural interaction. Obviously, the most likely native character is Gobán Saor, an artificer-architect credited with building of many fabulous architectural structures, usually ecclesiastic. The word gobban actually means ‘blacksmith’, and the euhemerist Irish christians created a number of saints out of the character, known as ‘St Gobban’ or ‘Gobbanus’. As early christian churches were made of wood and stone rather than iron, the Gobán Saor remains a curious figure chosen to erect such structures…

It has also been suggested that the legendary Tuatha Dé Danaan blacksmith-hospitaller Goibniu is the same character, and he does indeed demonstrate the legendary attributes ascribed in the Germanic language legends to Wayland. The Gauls in the Roman period worshipped a god called Gobbanos as well as a hammer-wielding god known as Sucellus, although these may both be epithets of the same deity. The Romano-Britons appear to have incorporated the worship of Vulcan into native religious cults, and Scots and Hebridean folklore makes references to ‘Bolcan Smith’. Mad king Suibne (‘Sweeney’) of Irish folklore eventually settled in ‘Glenn Bolcain’. The ancient settlement of Govan, now a part of Glasgow’s metropolitan district, appears to be named after him and the official legends of their local saint,  Mungo (Kentigern) incorporate material from the Cuillean/Weland legends, as well as aspects of Greco-Roman legends of Hephaistos and Vulcan.

Of interest, Kentigern’s famous hagiography compiled by Jocelyn of Furness also borrows details of the tale of the flying wizard Merlin, also used by his friend and contemporary, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who latinised Wayland’s name as Guielandus.  Jocelyn used the flying wizard ‘Melinus’ as St Patrick’s adversary in the Isle of Man, redolent of King Suibne of Glen Bolcain, who also flew through the air. Lenition of ‘m’ to a ‘w’ sound is common in Gaelic (samhain = ‘sa-win’) so it can be seen how easily we go from ‘Melinus’ to ‘Welinus’. That crafty wizard – it would make sense for the name of the island where Geoffrey claimed King Arthur’s sword Caliburn was forged – ‘Insula Avalonis’ – could have been derived from a corrupted form of the Gaelic ‘Hy Guiellean’ (pronounced close to ‘A Wulan’ – ‘Isle of Wayland’).

Just what Cuillean was doing in the Isle of Man was anyone’s guess. Perhaps he was sojourning with Manannan, that other great traveller between the worlds and donator of arms and armour…. The deeper you dig, the more intriguing the link becomes!

The Greco-Roman connection:

Greco-Roman culture had a very important influence upon many indigenous north European legends and traditions. Not only was this culture partially-transmitted and deliberately syncretised into the zones of Roman occupation in north Europe, but continued to be used among the literate latin scholars of the early christian church whose literary understanding of paganism was largely based upon Greek and Roman mythology. Given the persistence of much older written and artistic depictions of these gods from mediterranean Europe, it is easy to assume that the Europeans (late-comers as they were to the idea of writing and iconic imagery) borrowed from the southern traditions, but this is not necessarily the case! Many of the Greek and Roman gods and myths are equally likely to have diffused down from northern Europe during the Bronze Age.

One good example of a striking similarity between the legend of Wayland and that of Hephaistos (know to the Romans as Vulcan, and to the Etruscans as Sethlans or Velchanus) is that (apart from being blacksmiths) they are both imagined as being somehow deformed or disabled. In Weland’s case, he is hamstrung by his captors, and in the case of the Greek god, he is said variously to have been born lame, or is injured when he is thrown down from Olympos by Zeus, when he tries to defend his mother Hera (the motif which appears in the 12thC hagiography of St Kentigern). It is of note that in both cases, the crippling precludes re-admission to the world of the divine.

Both Weland and Hephaistos supply legendary heroes and gods with their weapons, armour and tools. Both are wily and cunning and trick and ensnare their adversaries. Both are exiled from their divine right, only to return in triumph. In some Greek myths, the god is liberated from his earthly exile and returned to heaven by Dionysos who places him astride an ass and leads him back to Olympos.

HephaistosAss

Attic vase painting ca. 5thC BCE. Crippled Hephaistos is led back to his mother Hera on Olympos by the god Dionysos, riding on an ass. Aficionados of Iron Age Celtic coins will recognise the ‘horse’ motif as significant. The myths of the Dioskoroi and Bellerophon also appear related. Note the similarity of the tongs to the ‘caduceus’ of Hermes…

Unlike Hephaistos however, Weland is more of an action-character and a warrior, but he also strides between the human and the spirit worlds. The Volundr Saga and the various known carvings of the Wayland legend on Anglo-Saxon and Viking age artifacts also focus upon his escape from the world of men either with a magical flying machine, upon a giant bird, or with a valkyrie. The ‘flight’ of Hephaistos, by comparison, is through the liberating agency of Dionysus, a famous loosener of the bonds between the earthly and the divine. Both represent a ‘shamanistic’ type of journey of self-discovery, implicit in the perfection of a craftsman. Freemasons take note!

The other Greek deity who travelled between the worlds and had the legendary attribution of being something of a trickster was of course Hermes, who also shared the affections of Aphrodite (and who didn’t?). Aphrodite (emotional love) herself was almost a counter-image of Athena (virgin intellect), and if Athena is the feminine principle of the uncreated idea, Hephaistos was the active principle of a creator. The complex interplay of their principles can nearly drive you mad!

Etruscan Velchans:

Also known as Sethlans, Velchans was the Etruscan progenitor of Roman Vulcan. Little is known about him, although it is likely he merged with Vulcan at some point, so what can be said of Vulcan might apply originally to Velchans. According to later Roman authors commenting upon the substratum of Etrurian religious culture important at the heart of Republican era Roman religion, he was both a god of fire (Vitruvius 1stC, BC) and lightning (Servius, 4thC CE). The Etruscan haruspices or diviners were keen observers of natural phenomena, and lightning was one of the most important and potent of these.

Bellerophon and the Dioskouroi:

Legendary ancient Greek hero, the mortal but ingenious Bellerephon (rider of Pegasus and slayer of the Chimera) is associated with a legend in which he attempts to fly to Mount Olympos on the winged horse Pegasus. Zeus sends a gadfly to bite Pegasus who unseats its rider who tumbles down into a thorn bush and lives out the rest of his earthly existence blind and crippled until Zeus decides to deify him. It will be noted that the constellation ‘Pegasus’ appears to be a falling horse, given its inverted appearance – yet another hint that many myths are star-myths related to the seasonal cycles. Yet again we see the heroic smith-god motif of a fall from grace, injury, and finally divine elevation

In the 10thC Byzantine stela on the Veroli Casket, he is apparently depicted as one of the twin equestrian heroes – the ‘Dioskoroi’, Castor and Polydeukes:

Veroli Casket - This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskuri.

Veroli Casket – This appears to show Bellerephon as one of the Dioskoroi. Note the cherub holding the ring or crown of divinity over the head of Bellerophon/Polydeukes

Bellerophon and Polydeukes represent the semi-divine gifted human, an assignation also common to Weland. The Dioskoroi were said to be children of the swan-maiden Leda, just as Weland was the wife of a swan-maiden (a valkyrie).

The Dioskouroi (literally ‘youth-gods’) seem to have been connected to the youthful cthonic deities of the Samothracian mysteries and those at Lemnos. These were the Kabeiroi, who share similarities with other Hellenised regional youthful groups of hero-deities, such as the Idaean DactylsKouretes and Corybantes. They all ultimately seem connected to the worship of a Great Mother Goddess. The Idaean Dactyls – like the Kabeiroi – were considered masters of smithcraft.

Although Bellerophon (whose cult originates in Corinth) is never explicitly linked to any of these youthful gods by ancient writers, it is evident that he fits their category of semi-divine culture hero. Such heroes are always (so the tales tell us) in need of a steed, weapons and armour in order to complete their quests, and the character of the smith is the enabler in all of these, and with time becomes conflated with the hero. The smith shoes the horses and forges the weapons.

Where the myths of Bellerophon and Pegasus have a striking similarity to those from the Celtic provinces whose saints’ legends (including those of St Patrick, Satan, St Maughold and St Milburga among others) sometimes have the the motif that their leaping horse creates springs of water when its hooves strike the soil. In ancient Greek myth, the hooves of Pegasus create the Hippocrene Well when they strike the rock of Mount Helikon.

Ericthonios of Athens:

Another character arising from the ancestor/hero-cult aspects of ancient Greek mythology is the Athenian progenitor Ericthonius. He was supposed to have had an autocthonous birth when smith-god Hephaistos spilled his semen upon the earth, during a failed attempt to rape Athena. This infers that Hephaistos had intercourse with Gaia and created the primary ancestor of Athenians. This appears to be why Athena (Minerva to the Romans) – a goddess of the mechanical creative arts – can be thought of as the divine reflex of Hephaistos’ earthly manifestation. Athena’s legendary creation was from the head of Zeus, indicating her (virgin) capacity of representing pure mind and technical creativity. Hephaistos represented the manifest earthly power behind that divine will – the passive spirit operating through active physical activity.

Ericthonios was also associated strongly with horses and the creative arts – he is said to have taught the yoking of horses, the smelting of silver, and to have invented the quadriga chariot, as well as teaching the art of ploughing. This makes him a local variant on the Korybantes/Kouretes/Dactyls traditions. He is represented among the constellations by the ‘charioteer’ constellation, Auriga, which (along with Perseus and Aries) lies west of Pegasus, Pisces, Cetus and Aquarius on the celestial ecliptic path. Other horse-related constellations in this vicinity of the sky include Equuleus and Saggitarius. Capricornus lies between both of these. Taurus is also near. The theme of heroes, monsters, horses and grazing horned animals among these constellations fits the ‘semantic field’ of the semi-divine ancestral hero myths very strongly: every city was built upon the achievements of rustic ancestors who wrought all of their needs from nature…

Weland, Donar and Thor – Baltic and Slavic connections:

(Note: For the most explicit descriptions of Baltic and Slavic gods, the reader might wish to study the works of Mireja Gimbutas and Algirdas Greimas)

The medieval Nordic/Icelandic ‘Eddaic’ legends of Thor (equivalent of the older Germanic god Donar or Thunor – literally ‘thunder’) are an interesting mythological combination of the European ‘lightning-wielding sky god’ archetype and the more typical European legendary heroes such as Perseus, Herakles and Cuchullain. His weapon or tool of choice is the hammer, with which he shatters his enemies and the earth itself – he never (at least in the Icelandic myths) plays the role of the blacksmith, which is interesting, and possibly a late revisioning of Thunor or Donar’s original function as a cthonic agricultural deity, much like Roman Mars.

The hammer is, of course, one of the symbolic indicators of smithcraft, the other being the tongs. Instead of tongs, of course, the medieval Nordic Thor possesses a pair of impervious gauntlets and typically achieves his mythological victories through great strength and devil-may-care bravery rather than outright cunning. Nevertheless, these attributes certainly appear to bring Thor directly into Weland’s semantic field, necessitating an examination of how they relate to the other North European air/fire and cthonic/water gods – the Prussian Occopirmus*/Perkons and Pekols/Pushkayts, the Slavic Perun, Veles and Svarog, Lithuanian Perkunas and Velnias, and the Finnish *Ukko (Perkele) and Ilmarinen.

In the middle ages until its acquisition by the Ottomans in 1453, Constantinople was a magnet of power and wealth that attracted north Europeans to its shores to trade and seek their fortune. Consequently, trade and influence networks extended from the Black Sea upwards into the ‘viking’ territories of the Slavs, Rus, Balts and Scandinavians. Looking at it another way, the ‘Viking Empire’ stretched from Iceland in the west to Byzantium in the East! Many of these peoples remained nominally pagan and only partly christian (or jewish) until a very late period: the Kievan Russ (Varangians) and their cousins the Scandinavians officially converted under their leaders in the 10th and 11th centuries, and the Baltic peoples began to convert during a later more indeterminate period leading up to and following the fall of Constantinople, when the influence of Orthodox christianity moved north and west consequent upon Islam’s accession to its seat of power. As a result, there are a number of contemporary written sources and later folklore records of the actual pagan religions of Lesser Russia, Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which were still being practised until relatively recently.

It is perhaps unsurprising to find that there are many similarities between the Nordic, Baltic and Slavic gods, and these – touching on the aforementioned tentative link between Donar/Thunor/Thor and Weland – can help us untangle the meaning behind the enigmatic legendary blacksmith god of the Europeans.

In the east, Perun and Veles (also called Volos) were two closely-linked gods in the Slavic pantheon, notably that of the Kievan Rus until the 10thC and these survived in the guise of the gods Perkunas and Velnias among the Lithuanians until a much later date. These better-attested Baltic counterparts were known by a number of regional names – as Perkele (Ukko) and Ilmarinen in Finland, as Perkele and Pekkols in Prussia, and also as Perkons (Latvia, Estonia). Perkunas and his variants represented the sky (elemental air and fire), whereas Velnias and his variants represented the earth (elemental earth and water). Their various legends point towards an interplay between the two states: the earth and the heavens, or the mundane and the divine. Reconstruction of the underlying theology of these gods, it must be noted, depends upon collecting together details recorded over a period of time spanning almost 1000 years from sources in various different regions.

Perun/Perkunas is a thunder-god. Like Donar/Thor he is associated with wielding a hammer or axe akin to a thunderbolt. He also (like Thor) has been portrayed as either being accompanied by a goat, riding upon a goat, or riding in a chariot pulled by a goat or goats. Devotees of Donar/Thor wore similar hammer/axe amulets to those of Perun/Perkunas. They obviously have a common cultural root.

Thor's hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Thor’s hammer and cross-pendants were associated with worship of a heroic sky-god in pagan and early-christian Scandinavia.

Slavic 'axe amulet' c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Slavic ‘axe amulet’ c.10-11thC CE (Kievan Rus peoples)

Contemporary gold casting of 'Crosh Bollan' amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse, which bears a striking similarity to 'Thor's Hammer' and the 'Slavic Axe'.

Contemporary gold casting of ‘Crosh Bollan’ amulet from the Isle of Man (courtesy of Celtic Gold). It is cast from the palatal bone of the Bollan Wrasse fish, which bears a striking similarity to ‘Thor’s Hammer’ and the ‘Slavic Axe’. The Isle of Man was once a medieval viking kingdom and was once a principle stop-over destination on the ancient sea trade-routes from the Baltic and Scandinavia.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe.

The ancient Minoan Labrys axe. Did it originally come from the Black Sea trade routes with the north?

It should become obvious that Wayland is an intermediary partaker of the qualities of the sky god and the terrestrial-god. In his myth he is confined on earth for a period, but longs for the sky, into which he leaps at the opportunity to escape. Perkunas seemingly represents ‘Sky Wayland’.

Perkunas: why an axe and not a hammer?

Whereas the hammer is archetypally the tool of a blacksmith or stonemason, the axe is the tool of the woodsman and the builder of wooden houses – particularly in the arboreal climes of the Baltic and Russian provinces where wooden houses have predominated, being warmer in harsh winters. Such buildings were ever at the mercy of fire, particularly that occasioned by great tree-splitting bolts of lightning. For these reasons, Perkunas is associated with an axe – he creates by dividing.

Velnias/Velinas as the ‘divine smith’:

Velnias (and his Slavic equivalent), on the other hand, has a terrestrial or subterranean association. It should be fairly clear that similarity with the Scandinavian ‘Velent’ or ‘Volund’ versions of the name of Wayland. In the ancient ‘elemental’ system of thought, Velnias represented Earth and Water – the cthonic and earth-bound forces and the dead. Perkunas represented Air and Fire – they are complimentary to one another. Velnias represents ‘Terrestrial Wayland’ who creates by forging – hammering things together.

The core aspects of the european smith-god legends – be they of Wayland or Hephaistos – represent him as the higher creative fire bound on earth. In Wayland’s tale, he and his two brothers (all elves) fall in love with three valkyries (swan-maidens), and when the swans leave them (the winter migration) Wayland becomes bereft and is captured and enslaved to the human king Nithhad where he is forced to create treasures for him. Weland does as he is bidden but in revenge kills the king’s two sons and makes their bones and teeth into jewels – a gruesome fulfillment of a promise by giving a gift that while of exquisite beauty and value is at once one of utter destruction. Further to this Wayland fulfils a ‘triple-revenge’ by raping and impregnating the king’s daughter, ensuring that the king’s sole inheritor will be of Weland’s divine seed. Upon extracting his revenge, he escapes into the sky on the back of a magical bird (the returning swan?) or in the other version on a flying machine which he himself created, thus re-entering the spiritual realm of air and fire that is the province of the alfar or elves. The allegory is one of winter and the return of vegetation from rot and decay. Weland is the ‘secret smith’ reforging nature within the earth ready for it to re-emerge in springtime. He is a killer AND a giver of life – a perfect archetype of the ‘cthonic’.

Lithuanians in the post-christianised period use the word ‘Velnias’ or ‘Velinas’ to indicate the christian devil, a fact attested in some of the earliest dictionaries translating the Lithuanian language, and it is still the devil’s name in this country. The related word veles (plural) indicated the souls of the dead, who were his ward just as Slavic Volos was described as the god of terrestrial flocks. Velnias rôle in Lithuanian mythology and folklore is as an underworld god – of earth and rivers – who contested with Perkunas, god of fire and sky.

Greimas (in ‘Of Gods and Men’) relates a number of late Lithuanian folklore-tales that he believes link the Devil (‘Velnias’) with an archetypal mythological blacksmith  referred to as Kalevelis or Kalvelis  a combination of the Lithuanian word for ‘blacksmith’ and ‘-velis’. Although there are no written references to a god called ‘Kalevelis’, an insertion in a 13thC Slavic manuscript translation of the 6thC Byzantine Malala Chronicle contains an early account of the names of Lithuania’s principle pagan gods. The insertion mentions a god called Teliavelis who forged the sun (Saulė) and threw her into the sky. The 13thC Volyn chronicle also mentions Teliavelis as a god secretly worshipped by a Lithuanian king supposed to have converted to christianity. Neither chronicles name Velnias as a god, although Perkunas is mentioned in the Malala chronicle’s marginalia.

On closer analysis, Teliavelis appears to be the same god as Velnias, lord of the souls of the dead (veles): The prefix ‘Telia-‘ may be related to the latin word for ‘the earth’ – tellus. It might also be related to the Greek word telios (which linguists believe to be a metathesis from an original PIE word kʷelios – remember the Irish ‘Cuillean’?), referring to an end-point, summation, result or termination. The suffix ‘-velis’ appears to relate to the terrestrial god Velnias. Linguistically, this implies an interface where the earthy/watery lower world of Velnias meets the firey/airy upper world of Perkunas. Both prefix and suffix agree with fortive and lenitive metathesis (sound change) seen in Wayland’s various European names.

Linguistic implications of a ‘fallen’ god?

There is something of the tragic and self-sacrificial in the legend of Wayland, a theme echoed by many other mythical heroes and gods connected with his semantic field. Within the corpus of Norse mythology, the other great tragic sacrificial character is that of Baldr, who was accidentally killed by one of his kin who threw a mistletoe dart at him, believing he was impervious to it.

‘Baldr’ is associated with the ‘Phol’ and ‘Wodan’ (a version of the mysterious Eddaic god-triad Odin, Vili and Ve?) in one of the famous 9th//10thC Merseburg Incantations, discovered in a manuscript in the collection of the cathedral chapter of Meresburg in 1841.

Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it.
and Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it.
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:
Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
joints to joints, so may they be mended.

(Translation: Benjamin W. Fortson.)

The relationship between Phol and Baldr is partly ambiguous, but appear to be co-identified in the charm. And who, indeed, is the mysterious ‘Volla’? The B>V>Ph lenition of the initial consonant of his name demonstrates the potential connection to Volund/Weland. He is a mythological figure embodying sacrifice. The name also appears cognate with the Old Norse word for the dead (or ‘fallen’) – val or vol, seen in the name of the otherworld destination, valhalla. In Lithuanian, the spirits of the dead are known by the similar word: veles. Also similar are the Nordic words for mountain, fjall or fjell, and the English words ‘fell’ (hill) and ‘fall’, as in ‘fall down’. This brings us back again into the semantic field of ‘celtic’ spirit and creation myths, where hills were considered to be the start of many things, and the seat of fairies or ancestors. Such hills and mountains were also believed by ancient Scandinavians to be the habitations of dwarves or dark elves whose ability in smithcraft was said to have been unparalleled. Folklore often ascribed the creation of hills and mountains to the dropping or casting of great rocks by giant mythological figures, or the trampling of mythical horses ridden by giants.

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

A coin of the Gaulish/Belgic Parisii c.1stC BCE. The horse was ubiquitous to coins of the Iron Age ‘celtic’ peoples. Baldr’s horse?   The Nikkr? The steed of Hephaistos, even?

The ancient European peoples practised mound-inhumation from the middle stone-age onwards, and there is a famous example of one such neolithic-era mound in England known to this day as ‘Wayland’s Smithy’. The idea that the dead sacrifice themselves so that their souls might be reforged to generate more life seems to have underpinned ancient European belief, and this idea is embodied wholly within the story of Volund or Wayland.

Other linguistic aspects – ‘Will to Power’?:

The suffixes of the names Weland and Volund could also be derived from a common Proto-Indo-European root of the latin verbs meaning ‘to fly‘ and ‘to strive or want‘ – namely volare and volo respectively. The latter gives us the Germanic word ‘will’ (vili in the Scandinavian languages). They are connected by a sense of longing and energy with intent – both ideas encapsulated in the germanic versions of the smith’s legend: In the first case (flying), it is illustrated by his association with swan-maidens (valkyries), and his eventual flight to escape King Niðhad. In the second case, Wayland is very much essentially a man who strives – in his desperate love for his swan-maiden consort, in his work forging vast numbers of items of great beauty and function, in his desire to punish and eventually in his will to be free. He is a transcendental figure who flies his earthly bonds in order to obtain his will of liberation from a terrestrial state. Wayland therefore expresses Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of ‘Will to Power’, and this is the essence of his potency as a legendary character not just among the Germanic peoples but of all of those indigenous peoples who have weathered the challenges of existing in northern Europe and western Eurasia over thousands of years.

 

 

 

Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

The 'Beltaine flower' Caltha Palustris (, Marsh Marigold, Lus buí Bealtaine) emerging in 'curragh' pools at Beltaine.

The ‘Beltaine flower’ Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Lus Buí Bealtaine) emerging in ‘curragh’ pools at Beltaine.

The ancient Atlantic Gaelic seasonal festival of Beltane, Beltaine or Boaldyn (usually ascribed to the 1st May/12th May) celebrates the opening of summer and the burgeoning growth and fertility of nature. Before the second half of the 19th century, it was a great cause for public and domestic celebrations and observances in many rural districts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, as well as many districts is Wales and England. Seemingly coming down from prehistory, these seasonal May celebrations were characterised by hilltop bonfire parties, cattle-saining (prior to transhumance to the summer pasturage) and the celebration of foliage, flowers, fertility and water through various customary and superstitious observances.

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

There is a popular conception that Beltane was a fire festival, not in the least reinforced by a famous early record of Beltane celebrations, found in the c.10thC Irish glossary-cum-clerical-resource-book known as Sanais Chormaic (‘Knowledge of Cormac’), which deals with Irish words, concepts and customs important to medieval religious functionaries and scholars of Irish orature and literature. Whitley Stokes’ 1868 edition of John O’Donovan’s translation contains the following two relevant entries:

“Bil from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine – May day – i.e. fire of Bel.

and

“Belltaine… May-day i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] ‘they used to drive the cattle between them’…”

The first example is very intriguing, as it states that ‘Bil’ was an ‘idol god’, and that ‘beltine’ means ‘fire of Bel’. This is slightly at odds with the definition given for ‘Belltaine’, as ‘lucky fire’. No connection is made of the bible’s Baal, however – this would come later.

The second passage states that between the two Beltaine fires, cattle were driven. The original text and its marginalia are by no means clear as to their exact meaning: it is NOT necessarily saying that druids used to build a pair of bonfires between which cattle were led or driven! Evidence from copious historical and folkloric records confirms that Irish ‘Beltaine’ fires in Ireland were held on 1st May as well as at Midsummer day, with many traditions being interchangeable. William Robert Wilde noted this in his immediate post-famine account of lost or dying Irish traditions, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) :

“… As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over it was no uncommon practice in Connaught at least at the Midsummer fire to drive the cattle through the greeshagh or warm ashes as a form of purification, and a against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie …” (p.50)

Wilde supposed, like many scholars of the 18th and 19thC, that Mayday Bealtaine was the original festival, transferred to the ‘christian’ festival of midsummer during the era of primary evangelism. That both occasions (1st May and Midsummer) were ones at which the smoke and embers from the celebratory fires were used in saining people, animals, fields and properties might support this, but it is evident that midsummer celebrations were of an equal significance in traditional paganism across Europe. The interval period between La Belteine (1st May) and midsummer was one in which cattle were typically driven to summer pastures, which would otherwise be inhospitable and sparse during the winter months.

The Old/Middle Irish term ‘druidhe’, ‘draide‘ or ‘draithe’ in the source texts of Sanas Chormaic is the genitive plural of ‘draoi’, meaning ‘magician’, but equated generally with the Latin term druides used by Caesar and Pliny etc. This was apparently a trend started by 16/17thC Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (d. 1644, hereafter, ‘Geoffrey Keating’) whose great account of Irish history, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, freely used the old Irish term ‘draoi‘ (pron. ‘dry’). He was effectively sealing a link in peoples’ minds behind the medieval Irish accounts of their religious/magical functionaries during the early medieval period and those of the continental and British Iron Age. Borrowing from sources such as Sanais Chormaic, and spicing things with a dash of invention, Keating (who wrote in Irish) continued the suggestion in Sanais Chormaic that ‘Bealltaine’ was a celebration of the god ‘Beil’ and fires. Here is a translation:

“… Now, when Tuathal had put these four parts together and made them into one territory called Meath, he built therein four chief fortresses, that is, a fortress in each of the portions. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath. On the portion he had acquired from the province of Connaught he built the second fortress, namely Uisneach, where a general meeting of the men of Ireland used to be held, which was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil; and it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year; and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given to the noble festival on which falls the day of the two Apostles, namely, Philip and James; Bealltaine, that is Beilteine, or the fire of Beil…” (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Ch.39; Translation/Edition: “The general history of Ireland … Collected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records” by Dermod O’Connor. Dublin, 1723. Sourced from CELT)

A god called ‘Beil’ and druids galore! His attitude towards fire-ceremonies and druid-savvy opinions were probably shared by a strong Irish contingent of contemporary Roman Catholic and Scots scholars exiled on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scots had been first off of the mark in the new National History stakes with Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), which made free license with the history of the druids, who Boece claimed took up residence in the Isle of Man after the fall of Anglesey to the Romans in the 1stC, and became educators of the early Scots monarchs.

These ideas would certainly have been known to the continental expatriate Jesuit historian Michael Alford (Michael Griffiths d.1652) who appears to have been the first to have commented on the possible connection between the names Belinus and Baal in his Latin book Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae (finished in the 1650s, but published posthumously at Liege in 1663). Alford and Keating were both influenced by William Camden’s former use of formal history to assert national identity in a style less conjectural that Boece and his English counterpart and plagiarist, Raphael Hollinshead. Camden used numismatic evidence from old British Celtic coins to glean the names of Britain’s earliest known kings in his famous works of British history published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Alford commented upon the names of these rulers depicted on Camden’s coins (which on bookplates in printed versions of Britannia). In particular he enlarges upon the name Belinus and equates it with the Canaanite Baal of the bible:

“… Effigies illa foemine, quae in eidem nummi facie prostat, Britanniae symbolum est, factae sub tributo. Obscurior vox illa NOVANE: nisi sorte Novantum, vel Trinobantum Urbem, Britanniae Principem, velis accipere. Quod in adversa parte visitur, Apollo cytharum pulsans, & Cunobelini nomen: devotum Regem significat illi numini, unde & nome ceperat. Enimvero quod Hebraeis, Chaldaeis, Suris & toti ferme Orienti, Baal, Bel, Belus erat : hoc idem Occidenti nostro Belinus…

Scholars of the early modern era onwards were generally fascinated by the references to ‘druids’ in Caesar, Pliny etc, and could be guaranteed to find traces of them in the medieval manuscript texts of the Irish. For Keating (himself a Catholic priest), druids could provide further prestige to Irish history, which could already unarguably lay claim to being a leading light in christianising northern Europe. Had not the Irish converted almost seamlessly from paganism to christianity? During the 16th and 17thC English literature had sought to attack and demean the Irish, and Keating provided a positive (and  Roman Catholic) narrative which he hoped would equal that of Camden.  He was writing in an era noted as much for its ahistoric ‘druid craze’ as its efforts to establish some kind of stable orthodox history which promoted a notion of continuous progress from a barbaric unchristian past into an enlightened christian present. As a Roman Catholic he was all too aware that Protestantism frequently derided Catholicism as backward and superstitious. Druids appeared to early modern man’s mind as the ideal bridge from savagery into ‘enlightened’ christianity, and the Irish manuscript narratives (in particular the traditions of Patrick and the early Irish saints portrayed as ‘taking over’ from the ‘druids’) were the ultimate form by which this might be expressed.

This association of the indigenous god (‘Bel’ or ‘Belinus’) with the Assyrian or Canaanite god continued to exert increasing influence as time went on. In 1707, Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ detailed his c.1695 tour of his native Hebrides. In it, he says the following:

“… Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, “He is between two fires of Bel,” which in their language they express thus, “Edir da din Veaul or Bel.” Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere… “

Martin was steadily enlarging the prevalent theme linking Beltaine with fire and fire-gods. The druid-concept came to its fuller popular fruition in the writings of another Irish author, John Toland, whose ‘A specimen of the critical history of the Celtic religion and learning, containing an account of the Druids &c’ was published shortly after his death in 1722, to much acclaim in certain circles.

Many 18thC scholars and gentry, perhaps egged on by John Toland’s writings increasingly enjoyed identifying themselves with the ‘noble’ vision of ancient druids, who offered a closer-to-home vision of their ancient elite forebears, favoured over the previous desire to show sympathy with the great classical era Greek and Roman or biblical characters. After the custom of the day, they began to create the ‘neo-druidic’ fraternal orders which sought to establish some kind of continuity with the ancient mystical past of non-Roman, pre-christian Europe. Unfortunately, in so doing, they were also effectively censoring themselves from deviating from group-held opinions on what had really been going on among the ancient ‘Celts’…. These scholars with a love of all things ‘druidic’, were often (like Keating) of a religious background – literacy being greatest among the clergy. If not, they were steeped in the religious cultures of Protestant and Roman Catholic christianity. For this reason, they tended to attempt to fuse the contending interests in the history of ancient paganism with the biblical narratives. There thus developed in the 17th and 18thC a popular theory that Beltane was a remnant of a festival worshipping the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal or Bel somehow transplanted to Britain by (presumably) Phoenicians in dim and dusty unknowable antiquity. 

When the Scottish laird James MacPherson published (in perfect English hexameter verse) his version of a supposedly lost ancient epic poem by the legendary Irish poet ‘Ossian’ (and son of Fionn Mac Cumhail), suddenly new visions of a hallowed ancient past to match those of Homer startled and galvanised the scholars and educated gentry of the European world. Anything seemed possible in an era already heady with the almost daily discoveries of science and exploration, and this led to a certain excessive credulity. The idea of Baal being worshipped at Beltane was given increasing force in the mid to late 18thC by antiquarians in Ireland, such as Charles Vallancey, who expounded a linguistic theory trying to prove that the Irish were descendents of tribes from the biblical Holy Land, who had bought Baal worship with them. Religiously, the Christian churches historically liked to portray ‘light’ coming from the East to the gloomy heathen West – part of a misguided popular narrative which believed humanity was continually bettering itself.

The exploratory and empire-building Europeans of the 16th-19th centuries frequently came across and subjugated populations whose level of technical and social development they equated with their own ‘savage’ pre-christian past. The new awareness of examples in the east of immolatory human sacrifice (Suttee), along with the fire-ceremonies and corpse-exposure practises of the Zoroastrians reminded druid-crazed Europeans of the Greco-Roman propaganda about Celtic immolatory practices. This reinforced the notion of a primitive religion being about fire-worship, and the Beltane activities seemed to prove this link to ‘barbarism’, extending also into a Protestant polemic narrative against ‘primitive’ and ‘ungodly’ Roman Catholicism.

In reality, the bonfires were not particular to Beltane in its various regional variants, and the practice of using smoke and fire to cleanse and bless is by no means specific to any one festival or religious/superstitous practice, being common across all religions throughout history. Bonfires were also special features of the other ‘quarter day’ and ‘cross-quarter day’ festivities in the traditonal and ancient Gaelic ‘wheel of the year’ celebrations. Samhain, Lammas/Lughnasadh, Imbolc and the celebrations of the Solstices and Equinoxes were also typified by fires.

Beltane is not just about fire: Forgetting the theories of Canaanite fire gods and druidic immolations, we are left with a pretty large and diverse collection of folkloric accounts of Beltane and Mayday practices from Britain, Mann and Ireland, which demonstrate it was a celebration of a complex set of natural forces. Fires were certainly an important element (as they are for any good communal feast or activity), but there is absolutely no reason from evidence to suggest that they were the core defining aspect. The collecting, carrying and displaying of foliage and flowers was a particularly important and widespread aspect of customs, which is unsurprising given that the beauty of surging vegetation is characteristic of the season. Water was also important, as was the ascending of mountains and hills, where it is likely to be found.

In late spring and early summer of Atlantic Europe, the combination of sunshine and rain in equal measures ensures that greenery is a potent and visible feature of the landscape, typified by the acceleration of vigourous vegetative growth in herbaceous plants, and the explosion of blossom and leaves on trees. This offered ancient peoples with a significant reliance on animal-herding in their rural economies (such as the Irish and Britons) opportunites to exploit burgeoning upland pasturage once the threat of harsh weather had receded. This coincided with better access to turbary (cutting turf/peat for fuel) and the hunting opportunities offered by movement of herds of wild deer and birds etc to the same upland pastures, as well as the movement of fish up rivers to spawn. It is perhaps no surprise that many records of older Beltane festivities involve the ascending of hills and creating of fires upon them. Of course, hills or mountains are not just good summer sources of food for man and beast, but are also often the sources of streams and rivers which proceed downwards from them and across the land and to the sea. Often saturated with rain and cloud they are great sources for the rivers which nourish the lowlands, and – excepting the morning dew – there is nothing clearer and purer than a mountain spring, just as there is nothing muddier than estuarine waters. To the ancients, mountain springs were therefore a special source of water, just as the mountains themselves attracted a special accretal of mythology, legend and spiritual importance. It is unsurprising that both dew and spring wells enjoyed a special prominence in ancient May traditions.

Wilde (Irish Popular Superstitions, 1852) noted the importance of springs, wells and water to the Irish Beltaine festivities:

“… Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim’s rounds, or merely furnishing the healthful spring are objects of especial care and attention at May time, and in former years were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being skimmed with a wooden dish or cuppaun by some butter abducting hag as the sun rose on May morning. This was called ‘taking the flower of the well’ and the words “Come butter come” were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant girls and milkmaids as to who should first draw water from the spring well upon May morning… ” (p.54)

The idea of ‘taking the flower of the well’ echoes the English Mayday-tradition of well-dressing or ‘well-flowering’ in which wells were anciently decorated with flowers. Such collective efforts at beautifying wells and springs are believed to have an ancient pagan provenance, and removing items from such religious sites would have been associated with bad luck or an attack on the common good, as suggested by the well-skimming ‘witch’ stories common across the Gaelic world. In the same way, the removal of rags and ribbons left at ‘clootie wells’ has long been considered unlucky.

Wells and springs represent the returning of waters to the land, and waters flow in a branching manner (from branch to trunk to roots) redolent of the form of trees and vegetation whose growth is celebrated at Beltane, represented in Ireland and Britain by ‘May bushes’ and ‘May poles’. The heat of the sun is only fertile when combined with the moisture of water spouting forth from the sky and earth.

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.

501px-Cybele_Getty_Villa_57_AA_19

The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.

Mountain Mothers: Cybele, the Sybils and the Cailleach

Another great ‘oriental’ influence upon the development of Roman state religion (apart from the Etruscan contribution) during the 1st millennium BCE was the ‘importation’ of the cultic oracular ‘Sybilline Books’ which were consulted in order to assist the state with important decisions. The acquisition of these works was originally ascribed to the legendary (Etruscan) last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, some time in the 6thC BCE, and after the development of the Republic they were kept in the possession of the Senate, and were used to assist decisions and determine possible outcomes. The collection was undoubtedly curated, researched and added to with reference to the various important Apollonian oracles across the eastern mediterranean region, including those at Cumae, Dodona, Delphi, and the Anatolian sites near to the supposed site of Troy* on the Hellespont, from which the original books were supposed to have originated. Although now lost (and at various times in their history, destroyed and recovered) we know that these books contained details of prophetic visions and utterances originating in the cultic goddess-oracles of the archaic world whose female seers were known as the Sybils.

The originating Sybil was supposed, as mentioned, to have been the Hellespontine Sybil who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Gergis in the NW Anatolian *Troad region, and were supposedly received upon Mount Ida nearby. From here, the works were copied and passed to other sibylline oracles, first Erythraea and then eventually to the Greek colony at Cumae, near Naples and from here, apparently to Rome at the advent of the founding of the Republic. The Cumaean Sibyl was an important character in Virgil’s Aeneiad, establishing an oriental Trojan provenance for the Romans’ ancestors, allowing them to incorporate the trappings of Greek civilisation and religion. In the story, she guides the Trojan Aeneas to Hades to meet with his father who blesses his future endeavours as founder of the Roman peoples. The Sibylline Books were therefore possibly a bolster to Roman pseudo-history, providing a religio-political bridge to the intellectual power and influence of the Greek near east. The Etruscan religious books were probably of a more nativist slant, and therefore less capable of such a trans-national religious vision fitting Rome’s future ambitions…

The books were consulted in times of great need, and from deductions made from these ritual interpretative readings, further developments to Rome’s increasingly complicated religious scene often resulted. Of particular interest was the suggestion during the Second Punic wars (205-204BCE) that the Roman state adopt the worship of the Greco-Phrygian goddess Cybele (Kubilya) from the ancient mid-Anatolian highland town of Pessinus (an area settled by Gaulish tribes in the 3rdC BCE) where she had a principle cult-centre, possibly since the 2nd millenium BCE. A small black stone idol (possibly the remains of a meteorite) was removed and taken to Rome where it was introduced as the goddess with much ceremony, and – bizarrely – it appears that the stone was displayed in a cavity in her new statue where the face should have been!… Cybele was linked to the Troad ‘Mount Ida’ by the Roman epithet Magna Mater Idaea, linking to the old Greek myths of the hiding of infant Zeus from Cronus in a mountain cave, either by Gaia or Rhea (both aspects of the ancient European female divine force), although the ‘mute-faced’ Roman depiction evokes an apparent reference to the mute Mater Larum. The names ‘Sybil’ and ‘Cybele’ also share a distinct similarity, and were used interchangeably, identifying chthonic priestesses with the great goddess…

The 1stC BCE Roman Epicurean poet-philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus described a procession of the goddess and her priesthood in book 2 of his De rerum natura in which he refers to the ‘silent blessing’ of the goddess as well as certain ceremonials related to it and the Greek myth of the hiding of the god-child Zeus. In this he makes a profound statement regarding the place of Magna Mater in pagan religion (translation John Selby Watson, 1890):

The old and learned poets of the Greeks sung that she, in
her seat on her chariot, drives two lions yoked together ; sig-
nifying that the vast earth hangs in the open space of the air,
and that one earth cannot stand upon another earth. They
added the lions, because any offspring, however wild, ought to
be softened, when influenced by the good offices of parents.
And they surrounded the top of her head with a mural crown,
because the earth, fortified in lofty places, sustains cities ; dis-
tinguished with which decoration the image of the divine
mother is borne, spreading terror, through the wide world.
Her various nations, according to the ancient practice of their
worship, call the Idaean mother, and assign her bands of
Phrygians as attendants, because they say that from those
parts corn first began to be produced, and thence was diffused
over the globe of the earth. They assign to her also the
Galli ; because they wish to intimate that those, who have
violated the sacred-respect due to their mother, and have been
found ungrateful to their fathers, are to be thought unworthy
to bring living offspring into the realms of light. Distended
drums, and hollow cymbals, resound in their hands around the
goddess ; and their horns threaten with a hoarse noise, while
the hollow pipe excites their minds with Phrygian notes.
And they carry weapons outstretched before them, as signs
of violent rage, which may alarm with terror the undutiful
minds and impious hearts of the crowd, struck with the power
of the goddess.

As soon, therefore, as, riding through great cities, she,
being dumb, bestows a silent blessing on mortals, they strew
the whole course of the road with brass and silver, enriching
her with munificent contributions ; while they diffuse a shower
of roses, overshadowing the mother and her troop of attend-
ants. Here the armed band, whom the Greeks call by the
name of Phrygian Curetes, dance round vigorously with ropes,
and leap about to their tune, streaming with blood. Shaking
the terrible crests on their heads as they nod, they represent
the Dictaean Curetes, who are formerly said, in Crete, to have
concealed that famous infant-cry of Jupiter, when the armed
youths, in a swift dance around the child, struck, in tune,
their brazen shields with their brazen spears, lest Saturn,
having got possession of him, should devour him, and cause
an eternal wound in the heart of his mother. Either for this
reason, therefore, armed men accompany the great mother ;
or else because the priests thus signify that the goddess ad-
monishes men to be willing to defend the land of their country
with arms and valour, and to prepare themselves to be a pro-
tection and honour to their parents.

These parents, though celebrated as being fitly and excel-
lently contrived, are yet far removed from sound reason. For
the whole race of the gods must necessarily, of itself, enjoy
its immortal existence in the most profound tranquillity, far
removed and separated from our affairs; since, being free from
all pain, exempt from all dangers, powerful itself in its own
resources, and wanting nothing of us, it is neither propitiated
by services from the good, nor affected with anger against
the bad.

The earth, indeed, is at all times void of sense, but, because
it contains the primary elements of many things, it brings
forth many productions, in many ways, into the light of the
sun. If any one, then, shall resolve to call the sea Neptune,
and corn Ceres, and chooses rather to abuse the name of Bac-
chus, than to utter the proper appellation of wine ; let us
concede that such a one may pronounce the orb of the earth
to be the mother of the gods, provided that it still be allowed
to remain its real self…

The ‘silent’ aspect of Cybele’s public face may well have been because the sibylline priestesses ‘spoke’ with the voice of Apollo. The divine music of the Kuretes was supposed to be an ‘analogy’ to the voice of the crying god Zeus/Jupiter, masking its sound from Cronus/Saturn in the ancient creation myths. Ovid’s description of Jupiter cutting out the tongue of the Mater Larum evokes this too… a curious syncresis of ideas and traditions.

The introduction of the cult of Magna Mater was hardly a novelty to the wider Roman and Greek world, the Greeks having celebrated Phrygian Cybele for a number of centuries before her official adoption in Rome. In fact, the Phrygians were not even the originators of this particular Aegaean goddess-hypostasis, as the cult of Rhea at Mount Ida on Crete undoubtedly had origins back in the Minoan era. Furthermore, the important temple complex and mystery cult on the Thracian island of Samothrace in the northern Aegaean carried on its own veneration of a similar goddess with similar iconography and mythology, but known originally as Axiérosand apparently associated with a male consort and a pair of divine  sons. It absorbed aspects of the worship of Demeter and Dionysus and the chthonic mysteries of the Greeks. The Roman cult acted to reinforce an older indigenous mythical religious tradition as well as establish a ‘spiritual corridor’ to the supposed ancestral Trojan homelands of the Greeks and Romans in the Hellespont.

So, what of the Cailleach?

Surviving thousands of miles away and thousands of years in time from the homelands and heartlands of the Anatolian mother-goddess, the tradition of the prophetic ‘Great Mother’ appears to have continued in the ‘Gaelic fringe’ of northwest Britain and Ireland – an area never conquered or settled by the pagan Roman empire. She does this in the form of an aged female character known as the ‘Cailleach’, ‘Calliagh’ or ‘Caillagh’, who is associated from the southwest tip of Ireland up into the far highlands of Scotland with mountains, nature, the weather and the power of prophecy. There are so many fragmentary myths and landscape features associated with her in these regions that it is apparent that she held a supra-regional importance from ancient times, well before the coming of christianity. These legends often associate her with the seasonal cycles, and the creation of features of the landscape, as well as guardianship over the flocks of beasts, natural springs and rivers. She is sometimes described as the ‘Queen of the Fairies’, sometimes portrayed as an ultimate ancestress, ruling the world since the ‘time before memory’. Like the black rock representing the face of the statue of Magna Mater in Rome, she is even occasionally described as having a black or blue face (even the ‘Black Annis’ legend from Leicestershire in England has this feature). One of her names in the Isle of Man – ‘Caillagh y Groamagh‘ – even implies a state of mute silence, ‘Groamagh translating as the English word ‘sullen’, which itself is related to ‘silent’ (Kelly’s Manx Dictionary).  The Manx ‘Caillagh’ was a traditional utterer of prophecies, the substance of which were kept as oral traditions, as they were in the Ireland and Scotland. Further connection to the ancient Cybele cult of Rome and the Aegean might also be found in the curious Manx folksong which talked about a bull-stealing witch who is sought among the mountains, where she hides behind stone doors, As y lhiack er e kione –  ‘with a stone on her head’… (if you follow the link, you will note I have corrected WW Gill’s translation.)

It is not my intention to digress on the totality of Cailleach legends in order to prove a link, but needless to say, the evidence of an ancient Earth-Goddess in the British and Irish Isles is compelling, and shows more than a few similarities with Lucretius’ fearsome mute Earth divinity…

 

tbc!

‘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…

 

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.

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.