Fairies at Beltane – friend or foe?

Continuing my Beltane theme, I aim in this post to examine the role ascribed in pre-modern folklore to fairies and witches during these festivities.

Beltane (Bealtaine, Beltain, Bealtuinn, Boaldyn etc) was another period in the annual cycle of the Atlantic peoples when the spirit world was supposed to be closer to our own (another was Samhain/Sauin), and for this reason certain rituals and customs were observed in regard to these spirits.

The power of vegetative growth and movement of animals is potently evident during this festival and many of the Beltane rituals, as well as being a celebration of this fertility, were designed to sain and protect it from antagonistic forces. The three spiritual forces defined by folklore as posing a potential threat at Beltane were fairies, witches and the Evil Eye, although the second and third may be considered similar. These might prove harmful in different ways:

Protection from Fairies?

Fairies were considered a threat in that they were deemed to be jealous of human abundance (see my commentary on Robert Kirk’s essay for a discussion of this), easy to anger/offend by the ignorant and particularly pervasive at Beltane, as at the other Gaelic (cross-)’quarter days’. Kirk, writing in the late 17thC in the Scottish highlands, expressed the reason why people might fear fairies in a time of abundance with the following succinct explanation:

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

Thomist (after medieval philosopher Thomas of Aquino) views on spirits underpinned much of the theological worldview of Christian Europe after the 13thC. These defined the sins of envy (invidia) and pride (superbia) as spiritual and therefore the only ones incorporal spirits were capable of. This neatly encapsulated the Christian bibilical narrative of the ‘fall’ of proud satan, who envied god. The agents of evil in the Christian worldview were the demons who conducted the will of higher (or lower!) spiritual agents; As ‘fallen angels’ they shared the sins of ‘Lucifer’. This concordance with fairies is obvious, and folk-narratives often reinforce it by claiming fairies and elves to be ‘fallen angels’ in line with Christian doctrine.


 

Maintaining the ‘otherworld balance’ was a core aspect of traditional Gaelic and Atlantic European culture – modesty was the watchword for a happy life: Attain too much and the otherworld will take it; You would speak with guarded modesty about things you admire, and be cautious with praise lest it invites alarm that you might ‘attract’ forces from the otherworld… Such customs persist among the Gaels to this day, and in other traditional peoples such as the Scandinavians. The Swedes and Norwegians entertain the concept of lagom, for instance, which translates roughly as ‘modest sufficiency’ or ‘just enough’. The Danes have ‘hygge‘ – a term expressing the comfort of the ‘middle way’. Similar concepts pervade other Atlantic cultures.


 

Witches’ (persons practicing magic designed to steal/transfer vital force) appear to have been a human conception of the same idea. It is often unclear in Gaelic folklore if there is any specific distinction made between the two forces. Why was this so? The strong presence of the Cailleach/Fairy Queen in Gaelic folk-myths placed the personification of the ‘magical hag’ in a context of fairytales and allegory rather than immanent threat.This was coupled with the failure of a judicial witch-panic to take hold in any degree in Gaelic heartlands between the 16th and 18th centuries. Added to this, in the Gaelic world, the process of ‘bewitching’ was more likely to be seen as a passive process anyone might be capable of, on account of the prevalent belief that a jealous eye (an droch shùil) could abstract vigour and fertility from people, animals, property and land. This seen more as a human foible, rather than as an act of service to the devil, and in areas with a stronger conservative and traditional view of religion, the social opinion was that it was a spiritual crime, deserving a spiritual punishment. ‘Witchcraft’ – either by a jealous eye or by abstracting magic – was just another method people used to try and survive: It – like fairies – was a fact of life that informed the apotropaic customs associated with the liminal festivals of the Celtic year.


 

So… more properly, it is best to see Beltane as a time when it was considered prudent to protect oneself, one’s household and one’s possessions from abstracting forces.


 

I have mentioned that yellow flowers were said to have been scattered outside houses to protect against fairies at Beltane. However, the decoration of thresholds with specific plants also has other connotations – to distract a jealous eye or as a form of welcome to spirits.

This ‘diversionary’ strategy is a widespread tactic employed in dealing with the ‘evil eye’, as anyone who has looked at fishing boats or doorways in many Mediterranean countries, where symbols are used for this purpose. Floral decorations would be equally effective in the Gaelic conception of distracting the Evil Eye and therefore witchcraft. In fact, fairies being notoriously jealous creatures, the flowers may work upon them the same way, rather than acting as garlic does to vampires…

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

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

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

Welcoming fairies:

There is, however, yet another aspect to the flower-strewing customs that mark the Beltane season, which as I have previously commented, shares a kinship and plasticity with the festivities of Easter and Midsummer/St John’s day. The traditions of strewing greenery have a distinct air of welcoming to them also, particularly where (as in the Isle of Man) rushes and Yellow Flag Irises were sometimes strewn in doorways (See: ‘Manx Reminiscences’ John Clague). One late-19thC  Manx poet, Edward Faragher of Cregneish, expressed this positive opinion of the fairies as follows (From ‘Manx Notes and Queries’ by Charles Roeder, for whom Faragher acted as collector of local folklore):

The Fairy Queen—the old folk said—
Was going round on old May-night
When all mankind was gone to bed,
And in the flowers did delight.

She kindly blessed each little cot,
Where yellow flowers did appear:
If there were none – she blessed them not
But gave bad luck through all the year.

I still remember on May-day,
Those flowers scatter’d in Cregnaish,
But since the Queen is gone away
No flowers at the door we place.

Faragher’s reference to a ‘grace and favour’ visit by the Fairy Queen on May Eve has few other direct corroborations in Manx folklore, however. Certainly, the island’s Fairy King, Manannan, was (and is still) celebrated at midsummer (the Germanic Walpurgisnacht) and welcomed with green rushes and sprigs of Artemesia vulgaris (Mugwort, Bollan Bane, Bollan-Feaill-Eoin), but as with much of the post-Christian world, the feminine seems to have been suppressed, or at least to have followed the Island’s tendency to amonarchial feudal republicanism.

Nevertheless, the association of Beltane Eve with potential visitations by potent females (human or fairy, royal or otherwise) was a consistent feature of concern in folklore, also a feature of Imbolc/Candlemass/St Brigit’s Eve and Samhain/Hallowe’en/Holllantide/Sauin/Hop-tu-naa. 

A good example of the May greenery persisting as a ‘welcoming’ rather than apotropaic tradition is seen in the relaxed and joyous collecting and parading of May-crowns/May-bushes and the well-dressing and rush-bearing ceremonies that were once in evidence across the north-western counties of England – many similar to those found in the Gaelic world, it would seem. These seem distinctly redolent of the happy customs once seen at the Lughnasa/Luanys/Lammas festivity harvest-homes. The happy and optimistic nature of Beltane seems to preclude it as a time of fearful apotropaic activity, although it was certainly considered a time of vulnerability. The same can be said about the birth of a new child, when extra care is taken…

 

The meanings of Beltane

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

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

A Manx Crosh Cuirn

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

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

Irish Bealtaine customs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primrose_IMG_1803_2009_04 copy (1)

Water, trees and fertility:

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

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

Fire and continuity:

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

Confusion with Midsummer?

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

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

Fertile Bridget:

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

Etymologies of 'Beltane':

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

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

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

 

Careless lake ladies and mermaids – flood myths in Celtic folklore

“…There is a lake in Ulster of vast size, being thirty miles long and fifteen broad, from which a very beautiful river, called the Banna, flows into the Northern ocean. The fisher-men in this lake make more frequent complaints of the quantity of fish inclosed in their nets and breaking them than of the want of fish. In our time a fish was caught here which had not come up from the sea, but was taken descending the lake, and was in shape very like a salmon, but it was so large that it could neither be dragged out or conveyed whole, and therefore was carried through the province cut in pieces. It is reported that this lake had its origin in an extraordinary calamity. The land now covered by the lake was inhabited from the most ancient times by a tribe sunk in vice, and more especially incorrigibly addicted to the sin of carnal intercourse with beasts more than any other people of Ireland. Now there was a common proverb in the mouths of the tribe, that whenever the well-spring of that country was left uncovered (for out of reverence shown to it, from a barbarous superstition, the spring was kept covered and sealed), it would immediately overflow and inundate the whole province, drowning and destroying all the population. It happened, however, on some occasion that a young woman, who had come to the spring to draw water, after filling her pitcher, but before she had closed the well, ran in great haste to her little boy, whom she heard crying at a spot not far from the spring, where she had left him.

But the voice of the people is the voice of God ; and on her way back, she met such a flood of water from the spring that it swept off her and the boy, and the inundation was so violent that they both, and the whole tribe, with their cattle, were drowned in an hour in this partial and local deluge. The waters, having covered the whole surface of that fertile district, were converted into a permanent lake, as if the Author of nature judged the land which had been witness to such unnatural bestialities against the order of nature to be unfit for the habitation of men, either then or thereafter.

A not improbable confirmation of this occurrence is found in the fact, that the fishermen in that lake see distinctly under the water, in calm weather, ecclesiastical towers, which, according to the custom of the country, are slender and lofty, and moreover round ; and they frequently point them out to strangers travelling through those parts, who wonder what could have caused such a catastrophe.

…..

It must, however, be observed that the river before mentioned (the Bann), which now flows out of the lake in full stream, had its source in the aforesaid spring from the time of Bartholanus, who lived soon after the flood, when it was fed also by other rivulets, and took its course through the same district, but with a far less volume of water, and it was one of the nine principal rivers of Ireland…” (Topographia Hiberniae by Gerald of Wales (12thC) – trans. Thomas Forester; From: ‘The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis’ – Pub. George Bell & Sons, London 1905)

Gerald’s tale comes from his famous account of Ireland, produced in support of the Anglo-Norman invasion of the island, and designed to support the imposition of continental christianity on this ‘barbarous’ and ‘uncivilised’ people. His sources were the monastic annals and texts of the great abbeys of Ireland. The contemporary secular literary milieu was one enchanted with the ‘Lady of the Lake’ and ‘Morgane le Fee’ and any one of a number of similar fairy themes which defined the ‘Arthurian’ Romance litereature of the 12th and 13th centuries. The following sums up one of his likely sources – from the legends of St Comgall about his apparent conversion and sanctification of a mermaid called Liban, afterwards St. Muirgen!:

“… According to a wild legend in Lebor na h-Uidri, this Liban was the daughter of Eochaidh, from whom Loch Eathach, or Lough Neagh, was named, and who was drowned in its eruption [A. D. 90], together with all his children, except his daughter Liban, and his sons Conaing and Curnan. Liban, was preserved from the waters of Lough n-Eachach for a full year, in her grianan, [palace] under the lake. After this, at her own desire, she was changed into a salmon, and continued to traverse the seas till the time of St. Comhgall of Bangor. It happened that St. Comhgall dispatched Beoan, son of Innli, of Teach-Dabeoc, to Rome, on a message to Pope Gregory [Pope, A. D. 599-604], to receive order and rule. When the crew of Beoan’s currach were at sea, they heard the celebration of angels beneath the boat. Liban, thereupon, addressed them, and stated that she had been 300 years under the sea, adding that she would proceed westward and meet Beoan, that day twelvemonths, at Inbher-Ollarbha [Larne], whither the saints of Dalaradia, with Comhgall, were to resort. Beoan, on his return, related what had occurred, and, at the stated time, the nets were set, and Liban was caught in the net of Fergus of Miliuc; upon which she was brought to land, and crowds came to witness the sight, among whom was the Chief of Ui Conaing. The right to her being disputed by Comhgall, in whose territory,-and Fergus, in whose net,-and Beoan, in promise to whom,-she was taken, they prayed for a heavenly decision; and the next day two wild oxen came down from Carn-Airend; and on their being yoked to the chariot, on which she was placed, they bore her to Teach-Dabeoc, where she was baptized by Comhgall, with the name Muirgen i.e. Born of the sea, or Muirgeilt i.e. traverser of the sea. Another name for her was Fuinchi…” (Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, vol.1 – John O’Donovan, ed. and trans.,(Dublin, 1856), p.201.)

This version of the Lough Neagh tale is slightly different as it tells that the father (Eochaid – possibly a reference to the literary figure known as ‘An Dagda’) and tribe of the magical woman are drowned, but that she remained in the form of a salmon in the sea until the coming of St. Comhgall some 300 years later. . There is good evidence from the variety of traditions encountered in Ireland that much hagiography was a deliberate revision of core pagan myths and doctrines. As with many conversion-era themes from Ireland, Liban (like Eithne/Aine in Altram Tigh da Medar) becomes a Christian and is not demonised and defeated, in distinction to the Breton legend of Gradlon and his daughter Ahes (the ‘Groac’h’ or ‘Mari Morgane’). Interestingly, Liban appears as the whip-frenzied companion/double of Manannan’s wife Fand in the ‘Wasting Sickness of Cuchullain’ from the Ulster Cycle. The same legends interested noted Celticist Professor John Rhys at the turn of the 20thC, who recorded some interesting parallel tales which showed the lake-lady/mermaid legend was not just local to Lough Neagh, or for that matter, Ireland or Brittany:

“…David Jones, of Trefriw, in the Conway Valley, was a publisher and poet who wrote between 1750 and 1780. This is his story: ‘In 1735 I had a conversation with a man concerning Tegid Lake. He had heard from old people that near the middle of it there was a well opposite Llangower, and the well was called Tfynnon Gywer, ” Gower’s Well,” and at that time the town was round about the well. It was obligatory to place a lid on the well every night. (It seems that in those days somebody was aware that unless this was done it would prove the destruction of the town.) But one night it was forgotten, and by the morning, behold the town had subsided and the lake became three miles long and one mile wide. They say, moreover, that on clear days some people see the chimneys of the houses.’…”

“…Before I have done with the Irish instances I must append one in the form it was told me in the summer of 1894: I was in Meath and went to see the remarkable chambered cairns on the hill known as Sliabh na Caillighe, ‘the Hag’s Mountain,’ near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. I had as my guide a young shepherd whom I picked up on the way. He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns. As to the cairn on the hill point known as Belrath, that is called the Chair Cairn from a big stone placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round. But usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed. The hag appears to have been Cailleach Bhéara, or Caillech Bérre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare,’ that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork. Now the view from the Hag’s Mountain is very extensive, and I asked the shepherd to point out some places in the distance. Among other things we could see Lough Ramor, which he called the Virginia Water, and more to the west he identified Lough Sheelin, about which he had the following legend to tell:–A long, long time ago there was no lake there, but only a well with a flagstone kept over it, and everybody would put the flag back after taking water out of the well. But one day a woman who fetched water from it forgot to replace the stone, and the water burst forth in pursuit of the luckless woman, who fled as hard as she could before the angry flood. She continued until she had run about seven miles-the estimated length of the lake at the present day. Now at this point a man, who was busily mowing hay in the field through which she was running, saw what was happening and mowed the woman down with his scythe, whereupon the water advanced no further…” (John Rhys – Celtic Folklore – Welsh and Manx Volume 2; Ch.6; Pub. Oxford University Press 1901)

As well as Wales and Ireland, this story involving the Cailleach was widespread in the west of Scotland too, as the following account from the late 18thC shows:

“…On a high part of that ridge of hills which seperates Stralachlan from Glendarnel, there is a very large stone, remarkable for its situation. There is a descent from it on every fide. The prospect from it is very extensive. It is called Cailleach-Vear or Vera. In the dark ages of superstition, it was personified, and said to have a considerable property in cattle. Cailleach Vear makes a conspicuous figure in the marvellous tales of the country people, over great part of the West Highlands. Her residence was said to be on the highest mountains; that she could step with ease, and in a moment, from one district to another; when offended, that she caused a flood to come from the mountains, which destroyed the corns, and laid the low grounds under water; that one of these floods was the origin of Lochow, in Lorn, of Locheck, in this parish, and of many other lakes; that the people paid her a superstitious veneration, and were under dreadful apprehensions of her anger…” (The Statistical Account of Scotland: Drawn Up from the Communications of the Ministers of the Different Parishes; Ed. John Sinclair; Pub. W. Creech, 1792; pp. 559-560)

The same story is borrowed and elaborated on by a later author in the following account of Loch Awe from the 19thC following on from the surge in interest in Highland legends generated by Walter Scott:

“…The Highlanders of Argyleshire possess a curious tradition regarding the origin of Lochawe, which has furnished a topic in one of the wild songs of Ossian. The circumstance is connected with the existence and death of a supernatural being, called by the country people Calliach Bhere, ” the old woman.” She is represented as having been a kind of female genie whose residence was on the highest mountains. It is said that she could step with ease and in a moment from one district to another; when offended, that she could cause the floods to descend from the mountains, and lay the whole of the low ground perpetually under water. Her race is described as having lived for an immemorial period near the summit of the vast mountain of Cruachan, and to have possessed a multitude of herds in the vale at its foot. Calliach Bhere was the last of her line, and, like that of her ancestors, her existence was blended with a fatal fountain which lay in the side of her native mountain, and had been committed to the charge of her family since its first existence. It was their duty at evening to cover the well with a large flat stone, and at morning to remove it again. This ceremony was to be performed before the setting and rising of the sun, that his last beam might not die upon the waters, and that his first ray should illuminate their bosom. If this care was neglected a fearful and untold doom was denounced to be the punishment of the omission. When the father of Calliach Bhere died, he committed the office to his daughter, and declared to her, in a solemn charge, the duty and the fatality of the sacred spring. For many years the Military woman attended it without intermission;

But on one unlucky evening, spent with the fatigues of the chase and the ascent of the mountain, she sat down to rest beside the fountain, and wait for the setting of the sun, and falling asleep did not awake until next morning. When she arose she looked abroad from the hill; the vale had vanished beneath her, and a wide and immeasurable sheet of water was all which met her sight. The neglected well had overflowed while she slept; the glen was changed into a lake; the hills into islets; and her people and her cattle had perished in the deluge. The Calliach took but one look over the ruin which she had caused: the spell which bound her existence was loosened with the waters, and she sunk and expired beside the spring. From that day the waters remained upon the vale, and formed the lake which was afterwards called Loch Awe…” (The Gazetteer of Scotland, Volume 1 By Robert Chambers, William Chambers ; Pub: Andrew Jack, Edinburgh, 1844; p.63)

The legend tells that the Cailleach disappeared into the spring – a figurative form of death shared with the Dindshenchas legends of Sinand and Boann as well as many of the others. The theme of the Cailleach and the flood was discovered in the Isle of Mull:

“…In the olden times, on the Headland of Mull, there lived a woman whom the people called Cailleach Bheur. She didn’t hail from the people of this world, since we are told that Cailleach Bheur was a yound girl when Adam and Eve were still enjoying the pleasures of the Garden of Eden. She tells us, in her own words, ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass.’ Let that be, as it may, and far be from us to doubt it, but it seems that Cailleach Bheurr evaded death in a way that no one was ever able to do, before or since…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:AM/35.8 Mull)

“…Now there was only one place where Cailleach Bheurr watered her cattle-herd when she was away from Mull itself. This was a well halfway along the road she took to the headland of Kintyre. I don’t remember what its name was but, indeed, there was such a well there. And there was a great stone lid on the well and as soon as she arrived there in the morning, she would lift off the great stone so that the herd could get a drink at a time when they were thirsty. But if she didn’t place the great stone lid back on the well before the sun went down, the water would flow out of it and flood the whole world. It would pour out of this well and cover the whole world with a flood…” (School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh Royal Celtic Society, MSS:SA 1953/49/B5)

These accounts also add a tradition that the Cailleach would evade death by bathing in a magic Loch every 100 years. Of particular interest is that the quote ‘When the ocean was a forest with its firewood, I was then a young lass’ is mirrored in a folktale quoted in the following 18thC Irish account, discussing regional geology and geography around Lough Foyle:

“….There is a Rock on the side of the Mountain called the Poor Woman (in Irish, Calliagh Veerboght) who tells us when she was a Maid the Place where she stands was once Corn ground and Lough Foyl so narrow that a Lamb could skip from Magilligan Point to Green Castle which is now two Sea Miles distant and the Fairy that lived on the Tuns Banks (AR: Tonn Banks – The fairy referred to is revealed in other stories to be no less than Manannan!) that lye at the Mouth of Logh foyle (mostly formed I believe by what was worn away of this Shore) having a Carpet stole from him by one of this Parish, cursed it and threaten’d that every Year the Breadth of the Carpet should be swept away from the Land till all should be swept away. We may at least gather from such as these that in antient times this Place was losing and not gaining…” (“Miscellaneous letters on several subjects in philosophy and astronomy” – By Robert Innes to the Bishop of Cashel – William Nicolson; Pub.S. Birt, London 1732;p.5 – Letter 1)

The legends of the Cailleach and her relationship to water and herds of cows or deer seem to have been very consistent between Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Even in the 12thC Breton Lai de Graelent where she appears as a fountain-fairy in the woods, there are similar associations – the knight (like Fionn in the Irish ‘Pursuit of Slieve Gullion’) chases the white deer and finds her waiting at a spring in the woods. The lore is perhaps best summed up in this  excerpted 19thC translation of the Scottish highland ballad – Cailleach Bein y Vreich:

“Weird, weird, wife! with the long grey locks, she follows her fleet-foot stags, Noisily moving through splintered rocks, And crashing the grisly crags.

Tall wife! with the long grey hose, in haste the rough stony beach she walks; But dulse or seaweed she will not taste, nor yet the green kail stalks.

“And I will not let my herds of deer, my bonny red deer go down; I will not let them down to the shore, to feed on the sea-shells brown.

O better they live in the corrie’s recess, Or on mountain top to dwell, And feed by my side on the green green cress, That grows by the lofty well.”

“Broad Bein-y-Vreich is grisly and drear, but wherever my feet have been, the well-springs start for my darling deer, And the grass grows tender and green.

“And there high up on the calm nights clear, Beside the lofty spring, They come to my call, and I milk them there, And a weird wild song I sing.”

(Excerpt from translation of the old highland song Cailleach Bein a Vreich by John Campbell Shairp, from ‘Kilmahoe: a Highland pastoral with other poems’; Pub. Macmillan & Co, London 1864; pp.138-139)

The middle irish tale Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedón (Yellow Book of Lecan – late 14thC) recounts the legend of the boyhood of Niall (of the Nine Hostages) – son of Eochaid Mugmedon by Cairenn. It explains the origin of Ui Neill kingship. The theme is of how Niall came to be bestowed with the sovereignty of Ireland by a fairy queen at a well.  The five sons of Eochaid are sent to fosterage and then (at their appointed time) join their Fianna to gain life experience in adventure. While hunting in the woods, they realise they must find water and each in turn goes to a well to draw water, where they encounter a loathsome hag who guards it. Her condition for allowing them to draw water is that they bestow a ‘kiss’ upon her (i.e. – that they have sex with her). The first four sons (whose mother is Mongfind) refuse her, but Niall – last to go – accepts eagerly, else they all die of thirst. The hag immediately transforms into the most gorgeous young woman and announces that she is the Sovereignty of Ireland, which she bestows upon him in an act of Heiros Gamos. He returns to his father who recognizes him as the new High King.

Those familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will know that his ‘Tale of the Wife of Bath’ is a facsimile of this same tale, which also occurs in various other forms in the ‘Romance’ fairy tales of the ‘Arthurian’ corpus between the 12th and 15th centuries.

When we consider the ‘Moura’ fairytales from the Iberian Peninsula, the fairytales of Brittany and France, and those of the rest of northern Europe (which I have not discussed), these all point towards an important, pervasive and powerful pagan mythology which was possibly common to all of these regions and was tied to water and the great ocean.

 

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.

 

 

 

The Celtic Dioskoroi

As the vernal equinox and green Patrick’s day approaches, I thought it appropriate to comment on the spiritual connotations of one of the season’s visible zodiac constellations: Gemini is visible at the zenith of the ecliptic path directly above Sirius as the sun sets on that day… This is, in mythology, a celestial symbol of the legendary ‘twins’ whose bright stars ‘Castor’ and ‘Pollux’ (Greek: Polydeukes) define the asterism, otherwise known as the ‘Dioscuri’/’Dioskouroi’. These ‘lucky’ brother were usually depicted throughout the Greek and Roman world as horsemen, and were strongly associated in tradition with the protection of mariners.

1stC BCE Greek author Diodorus, writing in the Hellenic province of Sicily made the following comment about the Atlantic Celts (presumably those in the Iberian and Gaulish coasts about whom he knew a fair amount): (‘Library of History’ 4. 56. 4  trans. Oldfather)

“The Keltoi who dwell along the ocean venerate the Dioskoroi above any of the gods, since they have a tradition handed down from ancient times that these gods appeared among them coming from the ocean.”

Of course, we must treat this as we would Caesar’s comment on the worship of ‘Dis Pater’ and ‘Mercury’ – a case of interpretation over that ‘barbarian event-horizon’ which Greeks and Romans (perhaps wilfully) were unable to reconcile with their own worldview. The Celts did not actually venerate ‘Castor and Pollux’ as the same twin demi-gods from Diodorus’ classical world, yet there appears to be a similarity of tradition. The famous ‘twins’ were seen as protecting patrons for Greek and Roman seafarers, as illustrated by their role in the Greek epic tale, Argonautica. However, Diodorus is clearly referring to an ancient indigenous tradition of the Celts involving this constellation.

“Coming from the ocean”

Examining Atlantic Celtic mythology, we can see that there are a good number of traditions of spiritual beings (apart from the obvious figure of Manannan) or saints emerging from the sea, and which could possibly associated with the significance of the Dioskouroi constellation.

In Gallicia we have the christian-era legends associated with Finesterre and Santiago de Compostela (an area strongly associated with local Moura legends) – those of St James or a another character – a horseman – emerging from the sea covered in scallop shells (which have since been the symbol of this pilgrimage).

In Brittany there are the legends of King Gradlon whose horse can gallop on the sea, not to mention his oceanic daughter known as Dahut or Ahes who goes into the sea. The medieval Breton Lais of Graedlent (anon) and Lanval (Marie de France) is also about Gradlon – after falling in love with a fairy the hero is carried into a deep river to fairyland where he lives awaiting a return.

In the Isle of Man, it is a magical female Cailleach – the Caillagh y Groamagh who emerges from the sea at Imbolc (or around the vernal equinox), and back in Brittany she was known as the Groac’h Ahes. Her other Manx incarnation was as ‘Tegi-Tegi’ the beautiful sorceress with the white horse who carries men down into the watery realm to death before transforming into a wren or bat and flying to the heavens. Her horse transforms into a dolphin and swims away.

Celtic saints such as Colmán mac Luacháin, Malo, Brendan, Kentigern, Patrick and Maughold to name a few have similar features appended to their individual legends. That of Colmán mac Luacháin is interesting as the Anglo-Norman era ‘discovery’ of his relics at Lann was dated as March 22 (the spring equinox) in the Annals of Ulster.

Diodorus’ asseertion that the Atlantic Keltoi believed in the ‘Dioskoroi’ as gods, is a statement of equivalency. He is almost certainly referring to the legends of aquatic horsemen involved in Celtic otherworld beliefs.

If we re-examine the original Greek myths of Castor and Polydeukes we can see that they were a ‘split pair’ – one with a celestial provenance (Polydeukes was a son of Zeus) and the other (Castor) merely human. Polydeukes demanded of Zeus that he could be reunited with his mortal brother in death, and Zeus arranged for them to share themselves between Hades and Olympus. This raises the distinct possibility that Gemini was a symbol of the mirrored otherworld co-existence of people, gods and spirits which I have discussed elsewhere.

Their significance at an equinoctial point in the year would be an expression of the balance they represent – hence spending alternating days in Hades and Olympus. The Twins were honoured with a ritual known as the Theoxenios – the setting of a feast for them as guests: much like the former Celtic folk-traditions of leaving food and drink for the ‘fairies’ at night.

The half-human, half-divine equation is also a regular feature of Gaelic legendary lore, explaining man’s relationship to skill and knowledge and with the Otherworld: Characters such as ‘Brownie’ and ‘Gruagach’ (Scotland), ‘Phynnodderee’ (Isle of Man) are portrayed as partaking equally of the human and fairy worlds, as do the semi-divine legendary heroes Cuchaullain and Fionn mac Cumhail of medieval romances. Irish kingship was believed bestowed by a figurative ‘heiros-gamos’ with the fairy world, and the Leanán Sidhe figure was a divine muse of poets. The ‘twins’ are also figurative of tradition – the passage of knowledge from one person (or one world) to the next… For instance, the first codified written law tracts of Ireland came with the advent of Christianity in Ireland:

The Senchus of the men of Erin: What has preserved it? The joint memory of two seniors – the tradition from one ear to another, the composition of poets, the addition from the law of the letter (and) strength from the law of nature, for these are the three rocks by which the judgments of the world are supported. (From: Ancient Laws of Ireland (Senchus Mor) trans. John O’Donovan)

The twin stars in Gemini are exalted in the sky at sunset on the vernal equinox… Winter – the season for storytelling and passing of survival knowledge – is over and the land is again pierced with new life…

Fionnysus?

Scholars seemed to have remained intrigued by similarities between Irish and ancient Greek mythology since the advent of Irish literature in the early medieval period, down to the modern day: The monastic writers of the medieval periods, the brilliant Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh (who titled his 17thC history of Ireland Ogygia after Homer and Plutarch’s mystic isle) to the eccentric Charles Vallancey in the 18thC, and the eccentric and brilliant James Joyce of the 20th – all have been able to draw parallels.

Care needs to be taken in approaching the subject as it was, after all,  a hallmark of medieval and early modern Renaissance learning to draw parallels with Europe’s classical ‘golden age’.  National histories and mythologies from across Europe have therefore attracted similar comparisons at one time or another. Nevertheless, the Irish mythological landscape bears perhaps the closest resemblance in its content and complexity to that of ancient Greece. The Greek mythology served to illustrate an understanding of the universe by assigning spiritual entities to all of its functions, and in this regard is similar to every other ‘pagan’ system of learning which coded knowledge into an elaborate prosaic, artistic, poetic, dramatic repository of tradition, supported by dialectic traditions.

Fionn mac Cumhaill recurs as one of the key popular figures and vehicles of the ancient Irish traditions. I would like to discuss similarities in function shared by Fionn and his legendary Greek counterpart, Dionysus.

Dionysus (Bacchus) was revered in Europe’s Eastern Mediterranean provinces since the Bronze Age. Although most often characterised as a god of wine and intoxication, a wider reading of his cultural function reveals that he was equally associated with the convocations and group-efforts of human beings. Whether it be feasting or revels, hunting or adventure expeditions, war-bands, public theatre or the large-scale religious rituals and the mystery cults – Dionysus was often the key spiritual figure. His position as an ‘outsider’ to the Olympian tradition (which possibly post-dated him) was incorporated easily into the diversifying and expanding world of the Greek archaic and Hellenic ages. Many of his traditions were supposed to have been related by the poet Orpheus, and it is apparent that we have a number of links here to Ireland’s Fionn legends.

Fionn, like Dionysus, was a troop-leader whose tales are usually related in traditions by his poet-son Oisín or another of his followers. In his legends he feasts, hunts, fights and travels, and – like his counterpart Cuchullain – is often fractious, destructive, sometimes somewhat simple and erratic. Some of the traditions about him (e.g. – ‘Compert Mongan’) deal with his death and reincarnation – similar to Dionysus in the Orphic mysteries. Fionn is also ascribed a semi-divine parentage in some traditions. Dionysus’ Orphic name, Zagreus,  is interpreted as meaning ‘hunter’ or ‘capturer’ – perhaps alluding to his underworld/psychopomp functions in the Dionysiac mysteries.

Fionn, as leader of the Fianna can therefore be seen to serve a similar narrative function to Dionysus. His connection to the Sluagh of disincarnate souls has never been made explicit in Gaelic (Atlantic) literature, but a connection between the Fianna and the ‘Fairy Host’ is implicit in regional folklore. Finally, the Isle of Man’s Phynnodderee – a mythological half-man, half-beast who helps householders – shares Fionn’s name and attributes in many Manx folk traditions, which otherwise reference a giant called ‘Finn MacCool’.

The last (but by no means the least) connection to Dionysus/Bacchus is that ‘Fion’ is the Irish word for wine!

Slainte!

Moral philosophy and the Atlantic European ‘Otherworld’

The ‘otherworld’ of the Atlantic Europeans appears to have been the keystone of a system of moral philosophy that existed as a dominant cultural force until the 19th century CE. This moral philosophy was founded firmly in an ancient supra-regional (northern and western European) pagan religion – one that the orientalist Greco-Roman state religions and subsequently their religious inheritor – christianity – had systematically  attempted to displace and replace from the 4th century BC onwards. This religion and culture almost certainly pre-dated the cultural or ethnic impact of the Halstatt and La Teine ‘celtic’ material cultures, but it has subsequently become attached to them and their ‘celtic’ afterglow in the minds of the modern European kindred across the globe.

What was this ‘Otherworld’?

It had many identities expressed in Atlantic popular across a broad swathe of time: In once sense it functioned as a location in which the dramatic and instructional narratives of mythology were played out. In another it was a place where a soul or spirit of a dead or living person might travel to visit or to reside. It might be a place that was distant – the endpoint of a journey – or a place intrusively near to us yet still alien and strange. Its denizens could be at once both very similar to us and yet somehow very different. If one word could sum it up, it would be this: contradiction. At the heart of this contradiction was a fundamental belief that the otherworld somehow mirrored our own. It was a reflection – as if in water or a mirror – that existed in a spiritual form and acted as a counterbalance to the material forces of the world. This belief is in fact traceable in all cultures across the planet, and is a part of empirical (ie – pagan) spirituality.

The confusing, contradictory nature of the otherworld might make it difficult to understand and easy to dismiss, yet the essential paradoxes of these beliefs are in fact their strength and key to the otherworld doctrine. Just as an understanding of indeterminacy and multiple parallel possibilities is the glue that holds together our modern understanding of the subatomic world (and increasingly of the macrocosm), so the otherworld functioned in a similar fashion for the pre-literate, anti-literate and illiterate cultures of the ancient European world down into modern times.

Who was in the otherworld?

When we had plenty in our world, the poor and hungry otherworld denizens were considered jealous of our material wealth (our cattle and kine), and we were poor and needy they might offer us stupendous wealth. and fabulous treasures. They might interrupt our peace and harmony with chaotic acts of cruelty. They could appear as splendidly as they could grotesquely. The people of the otherworld offered a reflection of humanity in all its states, and therefore functioned as a moral anchor that helped us tread the middle path between this world and the next.

As such, it appears that it was believed that each human had a reflection in the ‘other place’ (read Robert Kirk, Martin Martin et al for a 17thC account of how prevalent the beliefs were in the highlands and islands of Scotland). In times of impending peril, this reflection might manifest visibly to people with the ability of  ‘second sight’, and act or appear in a manner which presaged an event that would befall the earthly counterpart. It was called a ‘fetch’ or ‘living ghost’, and a striking account is given by the 14thC monk Ranulph Higden (in ‘Polychronicon’) of the belief in the Isle of Man.

Similar attributes are given to ‘fairies’ in folktales who often presage events in this world through their actions and behaviours. The implication from Robert Kirk’s accounts of highland fairy beliefs is that fairies and fetches are somehow the same, although he himself did not pretend to understand how this was so, except to imply and comment upon a belief that spirits – like the world and its seasons – were continually reincarnated, and lived a long time moving between different places and forms as they went. Ghosts, scal phantoms, fairies, Tuatha de Danann etc may all refer to different statuses occupied by eternal souls in their life cycles.

Spirits were believed to be constituted by that classical ‘fifth element’ – ether, ‘lux’, ‘spirit’ or subtle light. The mundane world was believed to founded, composed and constituted by four philosophical ‘elements’: earth, water, air and fire. Fire was closest in nature to this ‘ether’ which was itself believed to be a form of light, and the substance which all gods and spirits were supposed to be made from.  ‘Spirit’ or ‘ether’ was supposed to be able to represent all of the four mundane worldly qualities – this is why the ancients believed it to be the substance of the ‘otherworld’. This worldview dominated ancient European cultures as late as the 17th century CE after which the anti-pagan paradigms of monotheism couched in Enlightenment era science did away with it as a main force.

Where was the otherworld?

To answer this depends upon reconciling a number of apparent contradictions about location. In medieval Irish prose-tales, ‘otherwordl’ locations such as Mag Mell, Tir Taingaire or Tir nan Og etc are typified as existing in the west, often as distant islands full of magical folk. In the case of Tech Duin and the Isle of Man, these are very real and visible islands, for which ‘west’ is relative. At the same time, the otherworld might also be encountered underground in the Sid mounds, or at liminal points in the landscape, the seasons or the day. Our night-time appears to represent the working daytime of those denizens we call spirits, elves and fairies. People took care never to speak ill of fairies as they were frequently belieed to be very much nearby. The otherworld is therefore both near and distant. Recalling the description I just gave of the ancient ‘elemental’ philosophy, one might say that the world was perfused and pervaded by ‘spirit’ which was the framework around which the mundane elements worked.

The otherworld’s moral philosophy:

How did ‘fairies’ influence behaviour and maintain a moral code without recourse to written statutes? By acting as a counter-ballast to actions in the mundane world. It was ‘Newton’s laws of motion’ and the ‘first law of thermodynamics’ expressed in the timeless empiricism of European pagan spirituality:

Take too much from this world, and the otherworld will come for its portion.

Tread a middle path and the otherworld will treat you the same.

The poor and humble are wealthy and great in the next life.

From decay comes generation.

All of these ideas hinged upon the otherworld/afterlife doctrine of cyclical continuity. We know that ancient Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and others were influenced by the ‘philosophers’ of the Atlantic Europeans, otherwise known as druids. They later wrote about this and admitted it (eg – Diogenes Laertius).

We have to ask ourselves to what degree these ideas were pervading contemporary philosophers among the Hellenized peoples of the Mediterranean, middle east and asia minor during the early Roman Empire: Jesus of Nazareth in particular, whose own story and philosophies and eventual act of self-sacrifice appear to mimic the practices the Romans were busy trying to stamp out in Gaul, Britannia etc.

I shall finish with the words of Pliny (1stC AD) who had this to say about the druids:

…we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial.

He could just as likely have been referring to another religion that was  just starting out among a group of philosophical Hellenic Jews in the middle east…

‘Sluagh Sidhe’ and ‘Hidden Folk’ – the Host of Souls

The belief in souls having an aerial or avian aspect is based upon the ancients’ elemental system of belief which put things of Air above the mundane world of Earth and Water in their scheme of the Universe – closer to the ‘upper’ stations occupied by Fire (which was believed to ascend above air) and Spirit (which was the ‘Ethereal’ aspect of Fire). Christian iconography today still uses the figurative portrayal of their ‘Holy Spirit’ as a dove coming down from the spiritual realms of heaven, but this idea has its roots deep in pagan ideaology (ie – natural philosophy).

Writing in Ireland during the 7thC CE, a monk known to scholars as ‘Augustine Hibernicus’ made a reference (in his exegetic writing known as De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae) ridiculing historic ‘magi’ (pagan priests) who once taught that the ancestral soul took the form of a bird. He argued that to give literal credence to the biblical miracle story of Moses and Aaron in Egypt which states that the wands of the Hebrew magicians were turned into actual serpents was:

`… et ridiculosis magorum fabulationibus dicentium in avium substantia majores suos saecula pervolasse, assensum praestare videbimur…’

`…to show assent to the ridiculous myths of the magi who say that their ancestors flew through the ages in the form of birds…’

The context of this comment was against a political background where Christian authors and proselytes in Ireland (mostly monks related closely to clan chiefs) were still promoting stories about local saints such as Patrick, Brighid, Columba, Kevin, Senan etc. defeating ‘magical’ pagan adversaries in the early days of christianising Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man etc. For example, one of the adversaries of St Patrick in Tírechán’s 8thC account of his life was a flock of magical birds on Cruachán Aigli. Contemporary christianity was still struggling to come to terms with the fact that the biblical miracles it was trying to promote could not be reproduced to the sceptical (pagan-thinkers) who still transmitted fabulous magical tales of their own as part of the stylised traditional oral narrative about how the world was, and which undoubtedly formed an unassailable part of clan and community life.  There was therefore an atmosphere of ‘anti-magic’ in the contemporary monkish discourse, but allowances made for magic in historical tales involving saints to show that for every action by a pagan character the Christian god would allow a greater and opposite reaction in order to destroy paganism once and for all.

This Irish theme of birds representing fairies or souls of ancestors (as ‘fallen angels’) appears later in a modified form in one of the most popular European books of the high middle ages – the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) of James/Jacob of Voraigne (c.1260). This collection of stories in Latin about saints was drawn from traditions across Europe and of particular interest is the popular Irish hagiography of St Brendan, postulated to be a christianisation of the apparently pagan tale of the voyage of Bran mac Febal to the otherworld. In the Brendan tale, the saint is addressed by a flock of birds (here translated from the Latin):

“…And then anon one of the birds fled from the tree to Saint Brandon, and he with flickering of his wings made a full merry noise like a fiddle, that him seemed he heard never so joyful a melody. And then Saint Brendon commanded the bird to tell him the cause why they sat so thick on the tree and sang so merrily ; and then the bird said: Sometime we were angels in heaven, but when our master Lucifer fell down into hell for his high pride, we fell with him for our offences, some higher and some lower after the quality of the trespass, and because our trespass is but little, therefore our Lord hath set us here out of all pain, in full great joy and mirth after his pleasing, here to serve him on this tree in the best manner we can…”

The birds are recounting to Brendan a version of a belief that became common across Europe after the spread of christianity, and that was applied in dealing with pagan indigenous spirits from Iceland and Orkney (Hulderfolk) through to Slavic Russia (Domovoi etc): This was that these spirits, beloved of the people, were really fallen angels from that (confused) Christian interpretation of the biblical narrative (Isaiah 14:12) about a character called ‘Morning Star’ (‘Lucifer’) and his ‘fall’ from grace. This sole reference in the Jewish religious books is used by christians to suppose that the angel Satan (God’s right-hand man in the Book of Job) was ‘Lucifer’ who fell from heaven with his rebel angels after challenging the monotheistic god. Jews don’t believe this, saying that the passage is about a human ruler punished for his pride. The Christian interpretation was designed to incorporate and find a place for recidivist (probably ‘pre-Olympian’) indigenous European beliefs: of genii and daemones, and in ancestral domestic spirits in the new Christian order. It paints them as evil representatives of an adversarial christian anti-god called ‘Satan’, who appears as god’s most important angel-servant in the semitic Old Testament stories, and arguably in the same context in the Gospel of Matthew (4:9).

‘Augustine Hibernicus’ and James/Jacob of Voraigne both appear to be quoting from or referring to the same tradition of folkore that remembered the old beliefs. This legend existed in Ireland and the Isle of Man in the late 19thC. Manx folklorist William Cashen wrote the following of it (‘William Cashen’s Manx Folk-Lore’, Pub. Johnson, Douglas 1912):

“…The Manx people believed that the fairies were the fallen angels, and that they were driven out of heaven with Satan. They called them “Cloan ny moyrn”: The Children of the pride (or ambition) (Ed: May be a corruption of Cloan ny Moiraghyn – see later). They also believed that when they were driven out of heaven they fell in equal proportions on the earth and the sea and the air, and that they are to remain there until the judgment…”

And Lady Wilde said ( ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland’, p.89 1888):

“…all the Irish, believe that the fairies are the fallen angels who were cast down by the Lord God out of heaven for their sinful pride. And some fell into the sea, and some on the dry land, and some fell deep down into hell, and the devil gives to these knowledge and power, and sends them on earth where they work much evil. But the fairies of the earth and the sea are mostly gentle and beautiful creatures, who will do no harm if they are let alone, and allowed to dance on the fairy raths in the moonlight to their own sweet music, undisturbed by the presence of mortals…”

This belief was common to many other countries besides, from the Atlantic to the Baltic. The fairy multitude was the ‘Sluagh Sidhe’ or ‘Fairy Host’ – represented in Irish, Manx, Welsh and Scots folklore as a tumultuous aerial flock who might carry people aloft on wild rides, and that caused whirlwinds and bad weather through their aerial battles. They also caused sickness and disease.

Walter Evans-Wentz’s ‘The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries’ was a compendium of fairy lore collected around the turn of the 20th century collected with the assistance of a group of prominent folklorists from throughout the Celtic provinces. He collected the following account of the Sluagh Sidhe from a woman named Marian MacLean (nee MacNeil) of Barra (pp.108-110):

‘…Generally, the fairies are to be seen after or about sunset, and walk on the ground as we do, whereas the hosts travel in the air above places inhabited by people. The hosts used to go after the fall of night, and more particularly about midnight. You’d hear them going in fine. weather against a wind like a covey of birds. And they were in the habit of lifting men in South Uist, for the hosts need men to help in shooting their javelins from their bows against women in the action of milking cows, or against any person working at night in a house over which they pass. And I have heard of good sensible men whom the hosts took, shooting a horse or cow in place of the person ordered to be shot…

… My father and grandfather knew a man who was carried by the hosts from South Uist here to Barra. I understand when the hosts take away earthly men they require another man to help them. But the hosts must be spirits, My opinion is that they are both spirits of the dead and other spirits not the dead.’

Wentz then goes on to comment:

The question was now asked whether the fairies were anything like the dead, and Marian hesitated about answering. She thought they were like the dead, but not to be identified with them. The fallen angel idea concerning fairies was an obstacle she could not pass, for she said, ‘When the fallen angels were cast out of Heaven God commanded them thus:–“You will go to take up your abodes in crevices under the earth in mounds, or soil, or rocks.” And according to this command they have been condemned to inhabit the places named for a certain period of time, and when it is expired before the consummation of the world, they will be seen as numerous as ever.’

Again, we can see a tantalising expression of ancient traditions that Wentz found his modern narrator having difficulty fully reconciling in her own mind, although she quotes the catechism about fairies as fallen angels as if it were a passage from the bible!

Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gaedelica 2 pp.330-331) was more explicit than Wentz when speaking through his Hebridean sources, some of whom he no doubt introduced to Wentz: (Ed note: my emphasis added)

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. 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…

… 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.

The West is, of course, the direction of the setting sun and supposed location of the ‘Blessed Isles’ (which go under a variety of euphemistic names) where the dead live in ancient Atlantic/Celtic folklore and legend. Carmichael’s account of the Hebridean idea of the Sluagh draws together the widespread references from throughout the Celtic world of fairies in an aerial state: Riding plant stalks through the air, causing illness by darts and diseased blasts of wind and carrying the living spirits of humans aloft, enslaving them to their bidding.

The connection between birds and spirits also occurs in the Irish and Manx wren legends and wren-hunts, also as the Morrigan-Badbh of Irish folklore and legend, and in the form of the Manx Caillagh ny Groamagh (a personification of winter and storms just like the highland Cailleach) who supposedly comes ashore from the oceans on St Bridget’s day in the form of a great bird before transforming into an old woman (Caillagh/Cailleach) who looks to kindle a fire. In southern Scotland during the 16thC this fearsome legendary female was referred to as the ‘Gyre Carline’ – the bird-form of the ‘Cailleach Vear’ legendary female figure of the Highlands, and once at the centre of the Celtic/Atlantic religious mythos as I shall later attempt to prove. In fact, the association between the Cailleach Vear/Bhear/Beara (and the multiplicity of other names she appears under) and flocks or hosts of animals is explicit in ancient Scottish traditions. In the Isle of Man she was sometimes also known as ‘Caillagh ny Fedjag’ (‘Old Woman of the Feathered Ones’ or ‘Old Woman of the Whistlers’) and was sometimes imagined as a giant whose presence could be witnessed in swirling flocks of birds, such as crows, starlings and plovers. Her name (and gender) became corrupted to Caillagh ny Faashagh in Sophia Morrison’s book of Manx Fairy Tales. Another Manx folklorist – W.W.Gill – said (A Manx Scrapbook, Arrowsmith, 1929) that fairies were known by the term Feathag. All seemingly related to a core idea – first referred to by ‘Augustine Hibernicus’ – that ancestral spirits have an aerial presence…

Going back much further in time to Iron Age Europe, we must remember that the Augurs and Haruspices of ancient Rome (originally Etruscan in their foundation) were priests and officials whose job it was to watch the behaviour and flight of birds in order to determine the will of the divine, so we can see that there is an entrenched ancient belief about spiritual forces being represented by birds in ancient Europe. Medieval Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians applied similar superstitious import to the calls, flight and behaviour of members of the crow family…

The ‘Hidden Folk’:

The other theme in Atlantic fairy belief is the idea of them as (ancestral) spirits hidden away after the coming of christianity. The Icelandic Huldufólk, Orcadian Hulder-folk, and the fairy children of Germanic folklore’s Huldra/Holde/Hylde female personages have their equivalent versions in the legends of the Atlantic celts: A prime example of this, and one that also ties in to the souls-as-birds theme, is the great medieval Irish story of ‘The Children of Lir’ which occurs in a modified form in the writings of the christianised pseudo-history of Ireland: the ‘Book of Invasions’ or Lebor Gabála Érenn as well as in the text called Acallam na Senórach. These tell of a group of children (adopted or otherwise) of an ancestral heroic figure, sometimes turned into swans (or fish), and destined to wonder or hide in this form for many ages until released by a christian agency, depending on the telling.

Interestingly, the Valkyries of Norse folklore (conductors of the souls of the battle-dead) appear as swan-maidens in some tellings… Even in Wales, a form of the legend exists, and author William Wirt-Sikes reported the following one from Anglesey in the late 1800’s (‘British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy-mythology, Legends and Traditions’, Pub: London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1880):

“…In our Savior’s time there lived a woman whose fortune it was to be  possessed of nearly a score of children, and as she saw our blessed Lord  approach her dwelling, being ashamed of being so prolific, and that he  might not see them all, she concealed about half of them closely, and  after his departure, when she went in search of them, to her great  surprise found they were all gone. They never afterwards could be  discovered, for it was supposed that as a punishment from heaven for  hiding what God had given her, she was deprived of them; and it is said  these her offspring have generated the race called fairies…”

All of these types of legend or folktale (Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 758) often refer back to the ‘hidden’ elves/fairies/subterraneans (the souls of the dead) as children of a particular impoverished female, in order to suit a euhemerised christian narrative.