The Dionysian Mirror – Concepts of the Pagan Otherworld

Dionysus was the ancient Greek divine hypostasis of eternal returning life. Like the other Greek gods and goddesses he represented a divine aspect of the originating (Arche, ἀρχή) divinity, Zeus, manifesting through the earth and nature as a tendrilled, seeking, pushing, growing, enlivening spirit responsible for the bringing forth of the divine logos into nature and humanity. His was perhaps the most important of the pan-Hellenic religious cults whose great age and far reach hints at origins in Europe and the Near East beyond the mythological horizon of the Bronze Age. His worship was part of an initiatory mystery cult which looked not to the stars and the skies for its mysteries, but into the earth. In turn, these chthonic mysteries provided the mythology by which the heavens and their constellations were to become decorated – as if reflected in an enormous transformative mirror:

“…Tis true without lying, certain & most true.
That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing
And as all things have been & arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.
Separate thou the earth from the fire, the subtle from the gross sweetly with great industry.
It ascends from the earth to the heaven & again it descends to the earth & receives the force of things superior & inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world
& thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force. For it vanquishes every subtle thing & penetrates every solid thing.
So was the world created.
From this are & do come admirable adaptations whereof the means (or process) is here in this. Hence I am called Hermes Trismegist, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world
That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished & ended… ”

(The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus trans. Isaac Newton, 17thC)

Although the passage above cannot be textually dated earlier than the 7th CE, it deals with motifs common to mystery religions much older than Hermeticism and the philosophical Alchemy of the Arab word…

The Dionysian Mirror:

The mirror held a special place in the mythology of Dionysus, who was a god of death and rebirth. Dionysus was therefore known as the ‘twice-born’ god whose first incarnation (Dionysus-Zagreus) was destroyed and who was subsequently returned to life in an act which granted him divine redeeming powers, albeit with a ministry confined largely to the ‘sublunary’ realms. In the myth as recounted at a late period by Nonnus in his 4th/5thC CE Dionysiaca, the god was born to Persephone and fathered by Zeus in the form of a dragon. At far-seeing Hera’s bequest, he was enraptured by the Titans with a mirror in which he saw his reflected countenance: so distracted, they rended his body and scattered the parts. The great epic poet of late antiquity, Nonnus of Persepolis, related the myth as follows:

“… Ah, maiden Persephoneia! You could not find how to escape your mating! No, a drakon was your mate, when Zeus changed his face and came, rolling in many a loving coil through the dark to the corner of the maiden’s chamber, and shaking his hairy chaps he lulled to sleep as he crept the eyes of those creatures of his own shape who guarded the door. He licked the girl’s form gently with wooing lips. By this marriage with the heavenly drakon, the womb of Persephone swelled with living fruit, and she bore Zagreus the horned baby, who by himself climbed upon the heavenly throne of Zeus and brandished lightning in his little hand, and newly born, lifted and carried thunderbolts in his tender fingers.

By the fierce resentment of implacable Hera, the Titanes cunningly smeared their round faces with disguising chalk, and while he contemplated his changeling countenance reflected in a mirror they destroyed him with an infernal knife. There where his limbs had been cut piecemeal by the Titan steel, the end of his life was the beginning of a new life as Dionysos. He appeared in another shape, and changed into many forms: now young like crafty Kronides [Zeus] shaking the aegis-cape, now as ancient Kronos heavy-kneed, pouring rain. Sometimes he was a curiously formed baby, sometimes like a mad youth with the flower of the first down marking his rounded chin with black. Again, a mimic lion he uttered a horrible roar in furious rage from a wild snarling throat, as he lifted a neck shadowed by a thick mane, marking his body on both sides with the self-striking whip of a tail which flickered about over his hairy back. Next, he left the shape of a lion’s looks and let out a ringing neigh, now like an unbroken horse that lifts his neck on high to shake out the imperious tooth of the bit, and rubbing, whitened his cheek with hoary foam. Sometimes he poured out a whistling hiss from his mouth, a curling horned serpent covered with scales, darting out his tongue from his gaping throat, and leaping upon the grim head of some Titan encircled his neck in snaky spiral coils. Then he left the shape of the restless crawler and became a tiger with gay stripes on his body; or again like a bull emitting a counterfeit roar from his mouth he butted the Titanes with sharp horn. So he fought for his life, until Hera with jealous throat bellowed harshly through the air–that heavy-resentful step-mother! And the gates of Olympos rattled in echo to her jealous throat from high heaven. Then the bold bull collapsed: the murderers each eager for his turn with the knife chopt piecemeal the bull-shaped Dionysos.

After the first Dionysos had been slaughtered, Father Zeus learnt the trick of the mirror with its reflected image. He attacked the mother of the Titanes [Gaia the Earth] with avenging brand, and shut up the murderers of horned Dionysos within the gate of Tartaros: the trees blazed, the hair of suffering Gaia was scorched with heat. He kindled the East: the dawnlands of Baktria blazed under blazing bolts, the Assyrian waves set afire the neighbouring Kaspion Sea and the Indian mountains, the Red Sea rolled billows of flame and warmed Arabian Nereus. The opposite West also fiery Zeus blasted with the thunderbolt in love for his child; and under the foot of Zephyros (the West Wind) the western brine half-burn spat out a shining stream; the Northern ridges–even the surface of the frozen Northern Sea bubbled and burned: under the clime of snowy Aigokeros the Southern corner boiled with hotter sparks. Now Okeanos poured rivers of tears from his watery eyes, a libation of suppliant prayer. Then Zeus clamed his wrath at the sight of the scorched earth; he pitied her, and wished to wash with water the ashes of ruin and the fiery wounds of the land. Then Rainy Zeus covered the whole sky with clouds and flooded all the earth…” (Dionysiaca, Book 6, Trans. W.H.D. Rouse)

Reading from Nonnus’ exegesis of Dionysian cult secrets, Zeus intended the ‘Orphic’ Younger Dionysus (‘Zagreus’) to be his successor and heir in Olympos (the high ethereal realm) but his destruction condemned him to the infernal realms, albeit with leaping ambition for the heights of the ethereal gods. Zeus burns the earth and sends a flood in his rage against the Titans – this myth is evidently part of the ‘Titanomachy’ sequence, which culminated in the overthrow of the Titans and monsters, and the incarceration of these within the Chthonic Abyss…

Nonnus appears to imply that Zeus actually used the mirror to cause  the burning of Gaia, just as with the preceding sequence of the ‘image’ of Dionysus-Zagreus undergoing transfiguration at the moment of his demise, becoming at once Zeus, Kronos, a baby, a youth, a lion, a wild stallion, a serpent, a tiger and finally a sacrificial bull. It is somewhat akin to the breaking up of the mirror’s image, and the fluidity of this suggests that the mirror might even have been (perhaps unsurprisingly) of a watery or liquid nature in the Dionysian mysteries. The young god’s act of looking into the mirror is a first taste of death, in which its transformative potential is revealed as his image and body break apart and are dispersed. This has been interpreted as a process of undoing of the self experienced by initiates of the Dionysian mysteries. In Nonnus’ telling of the myth, Zeus burns and then floods the world in revenge for this act, setting the scene for renewal under a new refreshed order after the Titanomachy. Dionysus is reassembled and cared for on high mountain tops by the Nymphs. This myth resonates strongly with the Zoroastrian creation myth of the Bundahisihn in which all natural life emerges from the body of an ancient bull killed by beings of chaos.

Fresco from the 'Villa of Mysteries' at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in 'Dionysiaca'.

Fresco from the ‘Villa of Mysteries’ at Pompeii, depicting Dionysian initiatory scenes. Here the youth appears to peer into a basin of liquid to see the reflection of the mask behind him. The image resonates strongly with the imagery later conjured by Nonnus in ‘Dionysiaca’.

Evidently, Nonnus’ account of the use of the mirror is based on an ancient myth as Clement of Alexandria (Exhortation to the Greeks – 2nd CE) commented on the use of the mirror in Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult, and it appears that the ‘Dionysian mirror’ was an important allegorical part of the cult. The appearance of numerous elaborately-decorated mirrors depicting mythological scenes in the graves of Etruscan nobles from the 6th-1stC BCE offers a fascinating yet poorly understood link to the mysterious role of the mirror in relation to the afterlife and its mysteries. Likewise, the shiny ‘Orphic’ gold tablets accompanying the dead in Romano-Greek tombs of the same period may hold a similar significance.

Dionysus, Semele and Apollo depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

Dionysus (with Thyrsus), Semele and Apollo (with Laurel branch) depicted on an Etruscan funerary mirror.

A 4thC BCE 'Orphic' gold tablet. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription....

A 4thC BCE ‘Orphic’ gold tablet, typically buried with a dead initiate of the Dionysian mysteries. The reflectivity of the tablet is broken up by the inscription….

Although the mirror as an object is infrequently depicted in relation to Dionysian imagery in ancient Greek and Greco-Roman imagery, one must remember that almost every such image depicts a dish or vessel containing the ‘blood’ of the god – wine. The reflectivity of this dark liquid cannot be understated, and it would seem quite probable that this was in fact the true ‘mirror’ of the Dionysian mysteries.

The wide shallow drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the Dionysian mysteries: a maenad and a satyr.

The wide shallow Greek drinking Kylix offered the perfect mirror-surface. The Dionysian imagery in this example shows a female and male devotee of the mysteries: a Maenad and the Satyr. The Maenads represented the destructive or conflict-inducing higher human nature (after jealous Hera), and the Satyrs the chaotic-intrusive wild cthonic/animalistic nature (after the Titans, represented by Kronus/Saturn)…

Mirrors and the Otherworld:

Mirrors offer an apparently inverted reflection of the light reflecting on them. The most basic mirror for humankind is experienced in the smooth surface of water or liquids, which was mimicked in the polishing of stones and metals to create functional mirrors. From the most ancient times until the present, mirror-surfaces have been used in the mantic/divinatory arts for ‘seeing’ beyond the mundane. The imperfections in the reflection offer re-interpretations of the source image, so divinatory mirrors are often imperfect reflective surfaces: bowls of water, tea leaves in the bottom of a cup, blood from a sacrificial animal etc being good examples.

There are a number of ancient superstitions about the dead and mirrors or reflections. The reversal of mirrors in the presence of the dead is one of these, linked to old European superstitions about the (un)dead having no reflection or shadow. Robert Kirk’s description of the beliefs about the dead and seers of spirits in 17thC Scottish Highlands (recorded in  ‘Secret Commonwealth‘) says that the dead/departed spirits occupied a world which was an inversion or reflection of our own. This belief about the Otherworld appears on cursory inspection to have no connection to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans who are usually supposed to have believed that their dead to occupied the misty dank and dark recesses under the earth, or – if lucky – some far off fields beyond a river. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated, and bound up in the pagan religious mysteries…

Death and the Chthonic realm:

“… For were it not Dionysus to whom they institute a procession and sing songs in honor of the pudenda, it would be the most shameful action. But Dionysus, in whose honor they rave in bacchic frenzy, and Hades are the same…” (Fragment of Heraclitus (5th BC), quoted by Clement of Alexandria 2nd CE)

The mythology and philosophy of the ancient world depicted the earth both as the source of life and decay, and the representation of elemental solidity – an antithesis of the most ethereal elements of fire and light. As the dead rotted away into the earth, leaving their stony bones as evidence, it is logical that it became associated with death, coldness and decay and thus a logical abode of the dead. Liquids poured upon the earth flowed and trickled downwards into its cavities, hence libations were the form of sacrifice appropriate to the chthonic deities and spirits. Death, entropy, chaos and disease were seen as originating or having their allotted place within the chthonic realm in Greco-Roman mythology. Indeed, the theogonies of 1st BCE Greek religion claimed that the Titans and monsters were consigned to Tartaros (in the traditions referred to as Titanomachy and Gigantomachy), which was said to be a void or boundless deep cavity below even the earth itself. As the forces of divine order occupied the heavenly position, so the forces of chaos and divine disorder occupied a similar state in a reflected state of opposition to that conceived of as ‘above’. Both states were seen as essential to create the balance of our ‘middle’ earth (i.e. – the ‘elemental’ or ‘sub-lunary’ world). In the light of this interpretation, it is better to think of the Greco-Roman conception of the dead occupying the ‘lower’ world for the initial part of their journey. The shady world of Hades can be thought of as merely an official ‘cover story’ for a more complicated belief system which involved the eternal soul’s travel to and from the extremities of the chaotic and the divine. Crossing into the chthonic/underground realm was a point of reflective transformation: where life became death, and ideas were reversed – as if in a ‘mirror’ state. The final ‘mirror’ of this state was the waters which sat in the earth’s deepest recesses into which they flowed, and from which they mysteriously returned…

Of course, we come across this mythologically in the subterranean pools, lakes and rivers which the heroes and gods who visit and return from Hades invariably encounter. These liminal waters also occur in the legends of heroes who visit far-off islands and encounter the monstrous, Tartarean creatures sired by the Titans: Medusa, the Graeae, the snake of the Garden of the Hesperides etc. This theme is common to the myths of the Celtic and German worlds of northern Europe and was in evidence at the time the Roman world encroached on these from the 4th BCE onwards….

Rebirth of Dionysus:

Some of the ‘Orphic’ myths of Dionysus have him re-assembled by Rhea after his dismemberment, after which he is fostered by the mountain nymphs – probably during the great flood sent by Zeus to cleanse the world after he took revenge upon the Titans. It is thus also very similar to the aquatic myth of Osiris and Isis from Egypt. Dionysus, like the waters and their mountain springs, streams and rivers, represented the root and branch of returning life. Like the mystery of the returning waters, he embodied the mysteries of returning nature…

The ‘underworld’ as an inversion of the ‘overworld’:

The pit of chaos or Tartaros, lying beyond the deeps of the earth and sea was the ancient Greek idea of ‘antimatter’, in opposition to the celestial light and order of the heavens. Of the sublunary world, the elements of water and earth partook of a greater part of the nature of this chaos, including the Titans, giants and monstrous beings. Likewise, air and fire partook of the more luminous properties of the higher nature of things in the heavens, including the gods. The ‘interface’ between these two aspects of perceived reality was a very liminal place in which ideas became inverted, and opposites found unity. The ‘underworld’ of Greco-Roman mythology should not be seen as a lower realm from which souls struggle up incrementally in order to return to the light, but as an exact mirror and equally valid version of the ‘celestial’ world. In other words: Zeus is Hades inverted, Poseidon is the synthesis of both. Dionysus was therefore, like Hermes and Apollon, a Daimon who unified these god-themes and manifested them in the mundane world.

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.

Bridget, Croghan Hill and the Bog of Allen

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill ('Cruachan Bri Eile') in the background

The Bog of Allen (Móin Alúine) with Croghan Hill (‘Cruachan Bri Eile’) in the background

“Then holy Patrick came to the well called Clébach, on the slopes of Cruachu to the east, before sunrise, and they sat beside the well,  and, behold, the two daughters of king Loíguire (Ed: Mac Néill), fair-haired Ethne and red-haired Fedelm, came to the well, as women are wont to do, in the morning to wash, and they found the holy assembly of bishops with Patrick beside the well. And they did not know whence they were or of what shape or from what people or from what region, but thought they were sidhe men or earth-gods or a phantom; and the maidens said to them: ‘Whence are you and whence have you come?’ and Patrick said to them: ‘It would be better for you to profess our true God than to ask questions about our race.’  The first maiden said: ‘Who is God and where is God and whose God is he and where is his dwelling-place? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Is he ever-living, is he beautiful, have many fostered his son, are his daughters dear and beautiful in the eyes of the men of the earth? Is he in the sky or in the earth or in the water, in rivers, in mountains, in valleys?’….”

The quote comes from the Book of Armagh and was originally written in the 7th/8thC by the Bishop Tírechán as part of his collected apocrypha about Patrick, collected from across Ireland in his time and before. The Hill of ‘Cruachu’ mentioned here (usually interpreted as being at Rathcrogan in Connaught) might actually have been the magnificent and significant hill of Cruachan Bri Eile/Ele (‘Hill/Rock of Bri Eile’) or Croghan Hill in Offaly in Leinster, which had distinct fairy associations:

Patrick's Well on Croghan Hill - The original Clebach?

Patrick’s Well on Croghan Hill – The original Clebach?

The hill of Bri Eile is referred to explicitly in the fairy-narratives of The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn from the manuscript Laud 610 (folio: 118Rb-121Va), believed to date from the 12thC: In this, after learning poetry through the mystical medium of the Salmon of Knowledge with the druid Finnecas (who lived on the Boyne, Fionn travels to defeat the notorious fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile…

“…. Finn went to Cethern, the son of Fintan, further to learn poetry with him. At that time there was a very beautiful maiden in Bri Ele, that is to say, in the fairy knoll of Bri Ele, and the name of that maiden was Ele. The men of Ireland were at feud about that maiden. One man after another went to woo her. Every year on Samain the wooing used to take place; for the fairy-mounds of Ireland were always open about Samain; for on Samain nothing could ever be hidden in the fairy-mounds. To each man that went to woo her this used to happen: one of his people was slain….” (Boyhood deeds of Fion mac Cumhaill – trans. Cross and Slover 1936)

'Old Croghan Man' - A self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. 'The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn' state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain... Either she or the Bord na Móna were certainly fierce to him!

‘Old Croghan Man’ – A possibly self-sacrificial bog body from near Croghan Hill. ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ state that the fairy woman of Cruachan Bri Eile took the life of a man from the parties that went to her at Samhain… Either she or the Bord na Móna certainly appear to have been fierce to him!

The association of this ancient bog-island with the mystical (and aquatic) is supported in some of the medieval Dindshenchas onomastic texts. Certain of these associate Cruachan Bri Eile with the source of the River Shannon, said to arise in a magical pool there (‘Rennes’ Prose Dindshenchas trans. Whitley Stokes):

59. SINANN.

Sinend daughter of Lodan Lucharglan son of Ler, out of Tír Tairngire (“Land of Promise, Fairyland”) went to Connla’s Well which is under the sea, to behold it. That is a well at which are the hazels and inspirations (?) of wisdom, that is, the hazels of the science of poetry, and in the same hour their fruit, and their blossom and their foliage break forth, and these fall on the well in the same shower, which raises on the water a royal surge of purple. Then the salmon chew the fruit, and the juice of the nuts is apparent on their purple bellies. And seven streams of wisdom spring forth and turn there again.

Now Sinend went to seek the inspiration, for she wanted nothing save only wisdom. She went with the stream till she reached Linn Mná Feile “the Pool of the Modest Woman”, that is, Brí Ele — and she went ahead on her journey, but the well left its place, and she followed it to the banks of the river Tarr-cáin “Fair-back”. After this it overwhelmed her, so that her back (tarr) went upwards, and when she had come to the land on this side (of the Shannon) she tasted death. Whence Sinann and Linn Mná Féile and Tarr-cain.

The implication of this is a connection between the Otherworld and the hill of Bri Eile through water. Connla’s Well is the same donor of Hazlenuts to the same Salmon of Wisdom eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill in the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mentioned above. The lore of the Dindsenchas is that she fell and died after emerging from the Otherworld, becoming the River Shannon. In the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ (Book of Leinster) Sinand is also described as a ‘daughter of Mongan’ (who might be interpreted as an incarnation of Manannan in the texts appended to ‘The Voyage of Bran’) and donates a magical stone to Fionn. In another eponymous verse, the poet recounts of Sinand that:

Lind Mna Feile, (I speak truly),
is the name of the pool where she was drowned:
this is its proper title inherited from her
if that be the true tale to tell.

This suggests that, in conjunction with the other legends, Sinand and Eile and even Bridget might be one and the same, and we might also interpret ‘Feile’ to be a literary fixation of the indigenous local tribal name ‘Failghe‘. Add local traditions about Aine into the mix and things certainly get more interesting! Are these all the same?

In the Ulster Cycle tales, ‘Eile’ was the ‘other’ daughter of legendary High King Eochaid Feidlech, whose more famous offspring was the fairy Queen Medb of Connaught, who features prominently in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Medb was associated with another Cruachan – Rathcroghan in Roscommon – which has similar pagan connotations. Both Cruachans were the site of significant pre-Christian cemeteries, making their connection with the Otherworld strong.

Come to think of it, ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ seem to derive from a similar root too: In the middle-Irish tale Acallam na Senórach (‘The Colloquy of the Ancients‘), Aillen or Áillen mac Midhna of Sídh Finnachaidh (also the sídh of Lir) is the fairy whose fiery breath burns Tara each year until defeated by Fionn, confirming the link to the Cruachan Bri Eile and the name ‘Allen’. The ‘Hill of Allen’ in Kildare is also associated with Fionn, who was supposed to live there. The Slieve Bloom mountains are the other Fenian location of note – all lying on the periphery of this great midland bog or Eirenn…

Examining the etymology of ‘Eile’ and ‘Allen’ and considering the association with beautiful fairy women and St Bridget, it is fairly obvious that the derivation in álainn – ‘beautiful’. This makes ‘Cruachan Bri Eile’ mean ‘Rock of the Beautiful Brighde’.

Another place in the locality with goddess/fairy legends is ‘Cluain Aine’ (actual location uncertain), said by John O’Donovan in his edition of the ‘Four Masters’ to be near Croghan Hill. He translates ‘Cluain’ as ‘lawn, meadow or bog island’. Aine (‘Awnya’) is, of course, a name of the goddess encountered both in medieval legends and in placenames across Ireland.

'Connla's Well'

‘Connla’s Well’

The local tradition of Bridget being associated with Bri/Brig Eile is used in the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists (17thC):

“S. Maccalleus Episcopus magnus, cujus eccelesia est in Cruachan Brig Eile in regione Ifalgiae, et qui posuit velum candidum supra caput S. Brigidae

Saint MacCaille the great Bishop, whose church was at Cruachan Brig Eile in the district of the Hy Falgae (Offaly), placed the white veil on the head of Saint Bridget”

This may be based upon the following from the Bethu Brighde hagiography of the 8thC:

…On a certain day she goes with seven virgins to take the veil to a foundation on the side of Cróchán of Bri Éile, where she thought that Mel the bishop dwelt. There she greets two virgins, Tol and Etol , who dwelt there. They said: ‘The bishop is not here, but in the churches of Mag Taulach.’ While saying this they behold a youth called Mac Caille, a pupil of Mel the bishop. They asked him to lead them to the bishop. He said: ‘The way is trackless, with marshes, deserts, bogs and pools.’ The saint said: ‘Extricate us [from our difficulty].’ As they proceeded on their way, he could see afterwards a straight bridge there

The hill and its environs was once the stronghold of the powerful ruling Ua Conchobhair Failghe (“O’Connor Faly”), the most significant sept of the Leinster Uí Failghe, from which tribe modern Offaly derives its name.  This seat was at Daingean (Daingean Ua bhFáilghe – formerly Phillipstown) and was a regional capital until the start of the plantations and Flight of the Earls saw its importance decline.

The former power of the historic native rulers is illustrated by annalistic references to the Battle of ‘Tochar Cruacháin Brí Eile’ between the English and the men of Ua Fáilghe, and which took place in 1385 (Source: Annals of the Four Masters). The O’Connor Fáilghe were victorious, destroying and routing the English contingent. The name ‘Tochar’ (causeway) shows that there was an ancient bog trackway here (perhaps the one mentioned in Bethu Brighde), and it must have ‘come ashore’ at the hill or near O’Connor’s castle at Old Croghan village and connected outwards to other destinations. Cruachan Bri Eile was obviously once a powerful and strategic island fortress as well as a religious centre. Archaeological evidence of its importance goes back over thousands of years.

Saint Bridget was said to have come from among these peoples, so it is no surprise that hagiographers describe this as a site where she ‘received the veil’. Another site (of equal pagan importance) also lays claim to this, however: The Hill of Uisneach, visible from Croghan across the sprawling boglands of Allen:

“Mag Teloch, where holy Brigit received the veil from the hands of Mac Caille in Uisnech in Meath.” (Tírechán, Book of Armagh)

‘Teloch’ or ‘Tulach’ means a causeway – many used to criss-cross the boglands in ancient times and there was certainly one at Cruachan Bri Eile. Whatever place you believe the supposed ‘event’ may have happened (and it depends on the tribal loyalties of the writers), you can be certain that it occurred at some place associated with the goddess of the pagan past! The words Brig and Bri seem to link to St Bridget/Brighde, supposedly ‘given the veil’ at Cruachan Bri Eile by a saint whose name sounds suspiciously like a modified form of ‘Cailleach’, and who crops up later associated with the Isle of Man – the other ‘Hy Falga’.

There was once a church dedicated to Bishop MacCaille (said to be a nephew of Patrick) on the slopes of Croghan Hill, the remains of which are still visible on the eastern slopes. The Calendar of Cashel noted that his festival was celebrated there on the 25th of April – somewhat close to Beltain just as the surrounding bog and its pools were being pierced by flowers and new summer growth! The same day was celebrated in the Isle of Man at St Maughold’s Well on an elevated headland over the sea. The well once emptied into a stone coffin-shaped structure in which the ‘saint’ was said to sleep (like Sinand in the Linn Mná Feile at Bri Eile) and Maire MacNeil commented on the Manx Lhunasa celebrations once held there.

Morgan Le Fay and the enchanter Merlin. Even wizards were prone to the charms of the Goddess...

Patrick-MacCaille and Bridget-Eile-Aine?

Other interesting placenames attached to the hill in the medieval Dindsenchas are Magh Dairbhreach and Druim Dairbhreach (‘Plain of the Oaks’ and ‘Ridge of the Oaks’), also on the east side of the hill.

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

Gaelic Polytheism? (Opening a can of worms)

It has become conventional to believe that the Gaels practised a polytheistic form of religion which was partly subsumed or wholly supplanted by Christianity at the coming of St Patrick. However, there are a number of problems with such an interpretation that I would like to address.

Firstly, the contemporary sources we have about actual pagan practises in Ireland are almost non-existent, and most of what we know was written long after the establishment of the new religion. The massive efforts to convert the 4thC Roman Empire from fragmenting polytheism to ‘one-over-all’, top-down theocratic rule started with Emperor Constantine I and his immediate successors. This relied upon propaganda and arguments produced by Christian scholars and apologists operating within the polytheist Mediterranean regions of the empire over the preceding 200 years, and which functioned as a model, a ‘manual’ and a ‘road map’ for propagating Roman christianity across the reaches of its contracting Empire and – in the case of Ireland, way beyond. The spread of Christianity was achieved not by proselytizing rhetoric, but by the conversion and alliance of the church with tribal leaders and their elite inner circles. Once this was complete, the worldview of these rulers’ subjects needed to be changed by coercion, propaganda and cultural revisionism. Bearing in mind that we know that early Irish Christian missionaries travelled to the continent and to Rome to receive their instruction, we must consider how the euhemerist ‘continental’ model for replacing polytheism (operating in earnest from the time of the Emperor Theodosius onwards) influenced their reinvention of the pagan past in order to swing people to christianity. The implication that the Tuatha Dé Danann (as opposed to the síd) were believed in as gods should therefore be viewed with suspicion: The ‘Tuatha’ begin to appear in middle-medieval literature presented variously as former gods, ancestors and historic personages (albeit with a very otherworldly countenance) – much in the same way that continental Christians portrayed pagan gods as deified historic humans in order to demote them. They may well have been created as part of a ‘continental schema’ for imposing Christianity.

Secondly, the conversion of Ireland apparently occurred with surprising ease in a country that had showed little signs of being culturally Romanised. This begs the interpretation that the new religion was therefore possibly not such a titanic shift in worldview as it appeared to have been on the continent. In fact it could even have been considered a ‘paradigm-shift’ or evolution of a system to which it had certain similarities, rather than a wholesale replacement of a complicated pantheon. It certainly ‘hit the floor running’, allowing the Irish to lead with confidence in the christianisation and re-christianisation of the rest of northern Europe. If there had been a hugely ‘other’ and complex polytheistic religion in operation this might not have been so easy, especially as Ireland (so far as we know) didn’t have a religious system that – like that at the heart of the Roman empire – underwent an ‘intellectual gravitational collapse’ after absorbing too many external beliefs. Irish legends in the medieval corpus of texts frequently allude to the pagan Irish prefiguring the coming of christianity, a feature I am not aware of from other cultures.

Thirdly, there is little evidence from folk-tales and traditions supporting the theory of the Tuatha Dé Danann being the former gods. The interpretation of a passage in the presumed 5th-6thC ‘Hymn of Fiacc’ (considered to be an early primary source) may account for this:

On the land of Erin there was darkness;
The Tuatha (Peoples) adored the síd;
They believed not
In the true Deity of the true Trinity.

What exactly the síd are or were is complicated and has no satisfactory resolution from the study of  medieval literature alone. The name was later used for burial and ceremonial mounds, fairy mansions and for the fairies themselves. The TDD were ascribed síd-mounds as homes in the later written myths.

Story traditions from Ireland, Scotland and Mann, often focus on An Cailleach, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Manannan and various other giants and spirits who take on some spectacular and god-like properties in mythological accounts. These are joined by legends of their Christian successors – the saints with their often fantastical and god-like properties. Although there is ample archaeological evidence of supra-regional worldview homogeneity since the Neolithic era, the placenames with pagan origin do not back up the theory that the Tuatha Dé Danann were the gods of the Gael. Where we do have surviving traditions of gods, the most notable is Manannán mac Lir who even today is known to Manx people as ‘their’ god. Medieval literary references to the mysterious gods or idols Crom Cruach or Cenn Croithi (both sounding like epithets rather than proper names) and later folkloric ones to Crom Dubh seem to have little relevance to the literary Tuatha Dé Danann traditions, which monks and/or Christian filidh seemed to use in their suspiciously euhemerist historical revision of paganism. These names (Crom Cruach etc) are linked to assemblies at land-loci: particular plains/fields, or hilltop locations.

SO… if there is a chance that the Gaels were not polytheists, then what were they? The resolution of this question necessarily takes us back to understanding what paganism in general was, and the following is my own personal definition:

Paganism is an allegorical system of spiritual and material philosophy informing the art of survival in a given environment, expressed and transmitted through the mnemonic and dialectic mediums of story, song, aphorism, art and dramatic performance.

If Caesar’s Gallic and British Druids were matched by the magi of the Irish, then  philosophy might be the core value at the heart of the religion, an opinion expressed by the writer on philosophers Diogenes Laertius closer to the time of Ireland’s Christian epiphany. Philosophy was to the ancient world what ‘science’ is to the modern: a technical system that described the universe in both material and allegorical/spiritual terms. Philosophy sought to delineate the indescribable, and the arts provided a non-didactic ‘fuzzy’ medium with which higher truths could be defined without the inevitable destruction that occurs with explicitness. The written word tends to ‘fix’ concepts that are otherwise plastic and ever-changing, thus limiting its conceptual usefulness in establishing doctrines. The Mediterranean approach was to assign a god or spirit to these phenomena and to make statuary images of them which expressed this nature. They also tended to write about them. Both processes produced fixed images of ‘gods’ and created the polytheistic pantheon we know so well. However, the pre-Roman Atlantic Europeans apparently shunned this approach. Their devotion was to images and wordly things (‘idola* et inmunda’) according to Patrick himself (Confessio). (*The definition of ‘idola’ being debateable, as it is a latin usage of a greek word ‘eidola’ meaning ‘image’ orapparition‘ and not necessarily meaning ‘idol’ as in ‘statue or graven image’.)

We have to somehow reconcile the folkloric remainders of what appears to be original practical aspects of Gaelic or Atlantic paganism (with its strong traditions about fairies and their leaders, second sight and the ‘evil eye’) with the literary accounts of the middle ages and evidence from archaeology, place names etc. Analysis of the propaganda techniques used to replace the traditions of the old system has revealed a veritable smorgasbord of euhemerisation, demotion, transformation, canonisation/sanctification and demonization permeating the Christian-era literature and folklore of Europe, making a recovery of the reality of the old pagan system through literature and folklore a difficult but always rewarding task.

Returning to my second point above – the apparent rapidity of conversion – it is worth lingering over the prefigurative literature which alludes to some form of continuity between the pagan and christian systems: The hagiographic legends of Patrick from the Book of Armagh and middle Irish tales such as Altrom Tige Dá Medar (from the Book of Fermoy) state that the way was laid for christianity when the druids prophesised a new order before Patrick arrived, or – in the case of ATDM, Manannán himself is the prophet! Charles MacQuarrie (‘The Waves of Manannan’) makes the case for this god as a pagan exemplar of the Bible’s Yahweh/Jehovah, albeit with a perhaps milder and more sympathetic and less judgemental disposition!

In the Isle of Man, where Manannán is still portrayed as a former king and ancestor as well as an actual current popular god we can see how this process reached its important and unfinished conclusion.

So why choose this overlord of the blessed Isles as the ‘next best’ as an exemplar to the christian god? In Altrom Tige Dá Medar he is cast as overlord of the Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) whose orders they unquestioningly follow. In spite of this, it is actually quite difficult to include him as a member of the TDD, as he seems to stand apart from them in so many ways. That he should have been chosen for such an explicit euhemerisation in Cormac’s glossary and on the Isle of Man suggests a prominence and equivalence that goes beyond that of the TDD. That a belief in him as lord of the fairy otherworld persisted in folk tradition, along with the strong otherworld ‘fairy’ and ‘second sight’ beliefs I have discussed previously, and the recurring theme of a landscape-associated ‘fairy queen’ suggests that these may well have been core parts of Gaelic paganism.

In the Isle of Man, Manannán is ascribed an immanent presence on the summit of the mountain known as South Barrule, where an ancient hilltop enclosure (‘Cashtal Manannan‘) filled with circular stone ‘beds’ or ‘hut circles’ used to be employed by trysting couples at the festival of Luanys (Lunása – 1st August) as a site for proving love, lust and fertility. The mists which frequently crown the mountain as well as shrouding the whole Island are commonly referred to by most locals as ‘Manannan’s Cloak’. It is somewhat surprising then, that there are comparatively few other places in the Isle of Man named after the god, unless you accept that the whole island itself is eponymous with him.

   Perhaps more interesting are the sneaky profusion of ancient place-names here in this special place that allude to a character of Gaelic folklore with a much more typically immanent presence and connection with the creation and husbandry of the landscape – the Cailleach (Manx: Caillagh) and her various incarnations and epithets as the Fairy Queen. From the hill of ‘Cronk y Berry’ (Eng: Hillberry, Ir: Cnoc Bheara) to the promontory of Gob ny Cally in Maughold and the ancient farm estate of Ballacallin in German the island is peppered with places whose names evoke the giant magical female characters also found in Irish and Scots as well as Welsh mythology, albeit often in ancient and corrupted forms: ‘Chibbyr Unya’ (Aine’s Well), the parish of Santan (‘Saint Anne’ = ‘Seatainne’), ‘Lhing Berrey Dhone’ (‘Pool of Ox-Bheara’, Maughold – there is an ancient Manx folksong about an Ox-stealing ‘witch’, in which it appears that the word Donn has been corrupted. She butchered the Ox in this pool by tradition). There is a ‘Caillagh’s (‘Nun’s’) Chair’ coastal feature on the MArine Drive side of Douglas Head, quite close to a mysterious cliff-cave (now bricked up). The ancient originally Brigitine nunnery of Douglas Priory lies in the shadow of the hill – a continuation of the goddess worship in a pagan guise… Another cave known as ‘Lag Eevl’ (after the Irish Fairy Queen, Aoibheal) in Kirk German, and the hill facing Cronk y Berry known as ‘Cronk y Vill’ or ‘Honey Hill’ have a similar provenance. Add to this the similarly-named hills of ‘Ardwhallin’ (pron. ‘Ardcwhullin’) and the mount of Slieu Whallian (‘Slieve Chullain’) which sits above the Tynwald assembly site and you soon get the idea that Manannan’s presence as an immanent former deity of the island might need to be challenged! The Caillagh was believed to be the Sibyl of the Island and was remembered in recorded folk traditions as late of the 20thC as the source of many prophecies, including one prefiguring the TT Races (which charge deosil around the Island’s central spine of hills). Manannan’s Cloak may once (from the profusion of places named after her) have been the ‘Veil of the Cailleach’…

All this has left me considering if the Gaelic pagan religion was in fact effectively dualistic and ancestor-based? My conclusion is that Manannán was the masculine (solar) polarity who presided over the spiritual Otherworld and the future, terminally and cyclically estranged from the Cailleach who was the elemental ancestress-Creatrix whose body is the earth/elements itself, renewed in the annual cycle. Manannán is a Sun god, NOT a Sea god! There is much circumstantial evidence to support this proposition – in fact, so much more than supports a polytheist interpretation that I find it hard to place a pantheon, except as a philosophical ‘exploding’ of the interactions of these two fundamental characters of Gaelic (and Brythonic) traditions (after the model of Plato’s Timaeus, which I will post on soon). From the Second Sight and Otherworld traditions explained by Robert Kirk, Martin Martin etc to the ancestral-creation myths involving the Cailleach and fairy queen(s) of Ireland and the various half-human wild spirits such as Brownie, Fionn, Phynodderee and Cuchullain, all point towards a binary interpretative system that does not in any way efface with a Tuatha Dé Danann ‘pantheon’.

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…

Otherworld themes in “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne”

The Middle-Irish prose tale Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (‘The Dream-vision of MacConglinne’) is supposed – by the style of its language and themes – to have been composed and written in the late 11th or early 12th century. Two versions of it have survived to the modern day – one (‘B’ recenscion) in the 15thC manuscript collection known as An Leabhar Breac (‘The Speckled Book’ – RIA MS 1230) and the other in the manuscript TCD MS 1337 (‘H’ recescion).

You can read a translation of it here.

Set during the 8th century, it is styled in the form of a somewhat satirical prose-tale interspersed with poetic verses, and revolves around the power of a ‘dream vision’ (Aislinge) to sway the fate of the hero of the plot – a scholastic Armagh monk by the name of Aniér Mac Conglinne, saving his life and saving the kingdoms of the South of Ireland by exorcising their High King, Cathal mac Finguine of a ‘Lon Cráis’ (sometimes translated perhaps erroneously as ‘demon of gluttony’) that had taken up residence in him.

The story contains a number of highly amusing and incisive aspects to its narrative. The first introduces the humourous, energetic, ever-fasting and hungry monastic hero-adventurer whose destiny is to save King Cathal and his subjects from their greedy and sinful ways. So eager and restless is he in his mission that he runs from Armagh to Cork in the space of a day or so. Upon arriving at the monastic hostel in Cork he finds their Benedictine christian values of hospitality severely wanting and sets about causing an annoyance to advertise this fact. This mortally upsets the monks who report his activities and (worse) his biting satires to Abbott Manchín who demands his arrest and has him tortured and prepared for execution. MacConglinne goes willingly to his fate, seeking to demonstrate his piety to the monks by way of example. This part of the tale is obviously an exemplar of the popular spirit of the late 11th and early 12th century ‘Gregorian Reforms’ of church probity and the monastic orders. which led to the explosion of new and disciplined monastic institutions. The character of MacConglinne – being a monk from Armagh who wears a white habit – is obviously designed to represent a forerunner of Malachy of Armagh who promoted the reformed Cistercian Order during the era of the tale’s apparent authorship. This allows him to hold no punches in castigating the lazy, fat, greedy and cruel monks of Cork and refer to them as ‘shit-hounds’ among other choice and amusing epithets!

The most amazing and amusing aspect of the tale comes when the starved MacConglinne is tied to a pillar-stone to await his execution and in delirious depths of his abject suffering and hunger, he is visited by an angel or spirit who grants him a vision of a land made of and peopled by food!

The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards thick,
Beyond the loch.
New butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was wheaten white,
Bacon the palisade.

Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was dry meat,
The threshold was bare bread,
cheese-curds the sides.

Smooth pillars of old cheese,
And sappy bacon props
Alternate ranged;
Fine beams of mellow cream,
White rafters – real curds,
Kept up the house. (Trans. Kuno Meyer, 1892)

When the abbott arrives to see him executed the next day, MacConglinne relates his vision and the abbott and monks have second thoughts and refer him to King Cathal, believing that he may be tasked by god into casting out the King’s Lon Cráis. This ‘demon’ has made the King into a man who only takes food from his vassals and never distributes it, giving him an insatiable hunger.

MacConglinne dons the garb of a poet-juggler and arrives at the court of a local petty-king whom Cathal is visiting. He impresses his way in with his antics and satires and gains an audience with the king and promises to cure him, after relating his vision of a land of food. The king is so impressed by his abilities and religious piety that he begins tossing him apples (having given food to no man for many years) which the hero gladly eats, and this obviously causes MacConglinne’s powers to sally forth even further! He convinces the whole court (including Cathal) to fast overnight, and in the morning has Cathal bound with ropes and orders the most sumptuous foods be prepared which he then taunts him with while reciting a tale he himself has composed which embellishes upon the themes of his vision.

His new tale involves him being approached by a Scál (usually interpreted as a ‘phantom’, but in Irish tales always referring to an otherworld being who tests and/or instructs a hero). The scál sees he is sick with hunger and disease (or ‘original sin’) and instructs him to find (in the land of food) a magical healer or ‘fairy doctor’, known in Middle Irish as a fáthliaig (an archaic term meaning ‘vision-healer’ which survived into 19thC Manx Gaelic in the word fallog’). In MacConglinne’s telling, the fáthliaig advises him that he is sick, evoking a description of him suffering from a spiritual (and physical) inversion of King Cathal’s own predicament (which also reflected the poor traditional values of hospitatlity the monk had found in the South). This is typical of shamanic practice – the figurative/spiritual assumption of the sufferer’s disease by the healer in a dream-vision in order to combat it:

‘‘Pray for me!’ said I to him.’

‘‘In the name of cheese!’ said he to me. ‘Evil is the limp look of thy face,’ said the Wizard Doctor. ‘Alas! it is the look of disease. Thy hands are yellow, thy lips are spotted, thine eyes are grey. Thy sinews have relaxed, they have risen over thy eyes and over thy flesh, and over thy joints and nails. The three women have attacked thee, scarcity and death and famine, with sharp beaks of hunger. An eye that sains not has regarded thee.

The fáthliaig‘s prescription is, again, humorous – MacConGlinne must eat the finest foods, and be tended to by a beautiful woman while reclining upon soft animal skins in front of a roaring fire!  There follows a recitation of the delightful foods he must be fed which so inflames the ‘Lon Cráis’ in Cathal’s throat that it jumps out and hides under a cauldron in the fireplace, at which point after MacConglinne offers thanks to God and Brigit!

So… what is a Lon Cráis? There are repeated references in Gaelic folklore to a creature – often a type of lizard or newt – which can enter the mouths and throats of the unwary and cause a great unsatiated hunger or thirst. In Gaelic Scotland, Robert Kirk (17thC) spoke of possession by the spirit of a ‘great eater’. This was explicitly called the Lon Craois during the 19th century (see JG Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.2 p.366), and in Ulster and the Isle of Man the English term for it was ‘Man-Creeper’. In both cases the cure was to tempt it out with delicious food (as with Cathal) or to eat salt and lie near a well with your mouth open (Isle of Man). In both cases it appears that the condition refers to Diabetes Mellitus, where the blood is rick with sugar but the body’s cells cannot take it in. This results in dehydration, great hunger and thirst. Kuno Meyer (1892) preferred to translate the Lon as a ‘demon’, which in the context of the characters of the narrative and their beliefs seems a correct choice, even though he knew of the Scots Gaelic term. The term does not translate literally as ‘demon’ –Lon may be the otherwise attested word Lionn, which is the Irish word for ‘humor’, meaning one of the four classical/medieval humors of the body, and an imbalance of these was believed to be the mode through which disease (and moral failings) was supposed to operate. The OI/MI word Cráes means gluttony or hunger – the latter being invoked as ‘three women’ (an implicit Cailleach reference) by the vision’s seer-leech.

SO…

The ideas of food and gluttony are explicit themes around which this whole tale revolves. The implication is that the Monk of Armagh (MacConglinne, representing both Patrick and the hegemony of Continental christianity under Malachy and the Gregorian reforms) is spiritually proper in his fasting and starvation and that having plenty of physical food and not sharing it with the poor is a form of spiritual starvation. This is another ‘Otherworld Inversion’ similar to many pervading the spirituality of the Gaels or Atlantic peoples and which were deeply influential upon early European Christians. The Lon Cráis was an ‘otherworld’ force which transformed gluttony into hunger, and MacConglinne evokes an ‘otherworld’ vision of the world of this ‘creature’ (a world of food) in which he meets a ‘fairy doctor’ or ‘seer-leech’ who details his cure by having the hero invoke an inversion of Cathals’s disease upon himself so as to defeat the spirit by evocation and provocation. By causing the spirit to escape under the pressure of his bardic or poetic genius, he fulfils his original ambition to exceed his monastic limitations, and the cure is ultimately based in Atlantic otherworld doctrines, and not purely Christian:

It is clear from this text that the hero’s poetic creation of a world and narrative made of food is the force which expels the hungry spirit, not the Christian god who (along with Brigit) gets the credit at the conclusion.

As with all Middle Irish texts and stories, this tale is beset with contradictions between a pagan and a Christian narrative. The explicit connection between fasting and spiritual purity is made in the ancient Hebrew stories collected in the 5th and 4th centuries BC into the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam eventually grew, and is common to many other ancient faiths. What is interesting is how the Atlantic/Gaelic view of the Otherworld and its interaction ‘through a mirror’ with ours influenced the Christian aspects of this narrative by providing a more rational idea of spiritual balance, largely lost from continental christianity in the cultural confusion of the post-Roman period….