The Daemon Prince: Some musings on Hermes-Mercury

The word ‘mercurial’, taken from the name of the Roman god Mercury and his eponymous liquid metal, generally means ‘volatile’ and ‘liable to change’. This descriptor is an apt expression of the god’s perceived nature as an ever-busy messenger between the divine and the mundane, the organising principle of trade and travel, inspiration for eloquence, dreams and communication, and a great crosser of boundaries. Known as Hermes to the Greeks (who seem to have donated him to the Romans), he was a god whose function these sage peoples also applied the term daimōn, which persisted in the Latin christian world in the word ‘demon’, coming to mean an evil angel who serves Satan in the mundane realms. Very broadly, a daimōn can be thought of as a penetrating principle of spirit entering into and acting on matter – a god-like being. In Plato’s dialogue known as The Symposium, the philosophers at a wine-drinking party discuss how, because of its great power, the principle of love (and hence, the goddess Aphrodite) is in fact a daimōn, for instance. Hermes and Aphrodite were credited in mythology with coupling to produce the androgynous god Hermaphroditus, venerated in the consumation of marriage as an expression of the combination of male and female sexuality.

Hermes: archetypal night-flying daimon, trickster-god, and herald of dreams.

Hermes: archetypal night-flying daimon, sneaky penetrator, trickster, and herald of dreams. Note the interlocking and distinctly sexual ‘love hearts’ at the bottom of this image from a 5thC BCE Attic red krater (Image courtesy,

In Greek,  ‘herma‘ means ‘pile of stones’, ‘prop’ or ‘boundary marker’, and this was the original form by which the god’s numinous presence was imagined in rural districts during and before the Greek ‘Archaic’ period, when gods were frequently depicted such by simple formless objects (such as the wooden ‘xoana’ images etc). The name ‘Hermes’ also resonates with the later Arabic word Emir, meaning ‘prince’ or ‘commander’ of a territory. From the classical period onwards (after the 7thC BCE) depictions of Greek gods increasingly became more figurative, and the word hermai came to be applied to those monuments associated with Hermes: often assuming the form of a simple square pillar surmounted with a carved head of the god, and exhibiting a phallus on the column at waist height. Greek traveller Pausanias, writing in the 2ndC CE, noted the god’s image might take the form of an erect male member mounted upon a pedestal. Such objects were popularly placed next to doorways and at boundaries in ancient Athens. In many ways they were similar to the older Egyptian depictions of the ithyphallic god Min.

To Classical and Hellenistic era Greeks, the square column represented order and stability (the god’s sacred number was four), and the phallus combined symbolism of both penetration and generation. Students of Greek paganism will recognise the phallic imagery as being shared by gods such as Dionysus, Priapus, and the Satyrs of the Dionysian retinue. Sâthe is another Greek word for ‘phallus’.

A 'Herma'

A ‘Herma’

Stela showing Egyptian god Min - an 'intact' version of Osiris in the land of the Living?

Stela showing Egyptian god Min – an ‘intact’ version of Osiris in the land of the Living?

As Greek religion evolved to incorporate eastern philosophies of essential monism, Hermes increasingly came to represent the divine aspects of the individual – an important factor in the development of christianity. An example of this is the syncretic god-concept of Hermes Trismegistos (‘Thrice-Great Hermes’) whose cult combined with that of Thoth  in Hellenistic Egypt, and who was recognised as a reputed originating author of written religious traditions in the Hellenistic Near East which seem to prefigure christianity in their content (‘Hermeticism’). Both Thoth and Hermes were patrons of written communication, and the Greeks saw the origins of many of their gods in those of ancient Egypt, and also to the converse.

In Roman culture, Hermes came to be identified with Mercury, whose name (and function) is associated with the word for trade – mercare. The god’s function as crosser of boundaries is also represented in the Indo-European languages’ use of variants of the word ‘mark‘, such as the Latin ‘margō‘, which means boundary or border. Trade is, after all, a formalised interface between individuals where both seek to benefit…

As human competitiveness knows no such boundaries, Mercury was also considered the god of magic, tricksters and thieves! In the 4thC CE, Christian writer Arnobius (Adversus Gentes 4.9.1) sneered at the Romans for worshipping their ‘Dii Lucrii’ (‘gods of profit’) of whom Mercury was an obvious case. Rome’s success came from copying the skill in trade of the Greeks and Phoenicians, who had colonised Italy before the city came to prominence. Mercury appears to have been a Greek introduction to Roman religion, with no obvious indigenous equivalent (except the original distinctly agrarian and rustic identity enjoyed by Mars/Quirinus) being known to current scholarship. Julius Caesar’s 1stC BCE comment (Comentarii de Bello Gallico) that the Gauls worshipped Mercury as their chief god was probably an off-hand comment that Gauls worshipped trade and  money – he had certainly managed to buy off the loyalties of many of them in pursuing his conquest of ‘barbarian Gaul. Likewise, the same might be said of Tacitus’ comment a hundred years later that Mercury was the chief god of the German peoples.

The breaking of boundaries and interfaces is also a strong semantic associated with death and travelling to an afterlife, so Hermes and Mercury were ascribed the divine function of psychopomp – guiding departed souls to their allotted destination.  This resonates with the god’s mythological connection with acting as a herdsman, and Hermes was indeed venerated as a protector of flocks and herds – seemingly a more fundamental or primitive aspect of his rôle as guardian of wealth and trade. In the myth of Zeus’ love for Io, tranformed by Hera into a cow, he sends Hermes in the guise of a shepherd to slay the giant Argos Panoptes who watches over her, freeing her to wander the earth.

Throughout the whole body of the text of the ‘Homeric Hymn to Hermes‘ he is portrayed as a rustic god associated with the droving and abduction of cattle and other beasts. Indeed, when he was but a precocious babe in his mother’s arms in a cave high on rustic Mount Cyllene, his first act after birth was steal the cattle of his brother Apollo, and institute the bridge of sacrifice between man and the deathless gods by slaying them. In recompense to his brother, according to the ca. 6th/5thC BCE hymn, he creates Apollo’s mystical lyre from the shell of a tortoise and the horns of an ox.

As a drover of cattle or a drover of souls, he is a leading and conducting force, much in the way that Aphrodite is an inducing and seducing force. He was sometimes imagined and depicted as Hermes Kriophoros – ‘Hermes the Ram Carrier’ – in the manner of a shepherd, carrying the beast in his arms or on his shoulders. This imagery became popular in christianity, whose narrative of shepherding and flocks appears to borrow heavily from the mythology of Hermes. He is almost always depicted (either as Hermes or Mercury) wearing a sun-hat (petasos), this being the signifier of a rustic in Greco-Roman culture: wealth and prosperity of any society ultimately flows from the soil.

Hermes Kriophoros (late Roman copy of a Greek original)

Hermes Kriophoros (late Roman copy of a Greek original)

The Caduceus:

A statue of Hermes from (could you have guessed it?) the Vatican museum.

A statue of Hermes with his ‘Caduceus’, from (could you have guessed it?) the Vatican museum. Lots of phallic imagery, in spite of the attempts at censorship: Was Hermes eventually seen as the ‘acceptable’ face of Dionysos?

Traditional depictions of Hermes and Mercury usually show him wielding a staff or sceptre. From our understanding of his functions, it can be seen that this could easily represent the staff of the shepherd, the measuring stave or tally stick of a merchant, the wand of a magician, the rod of a scribe or the sceptre representing authority in interaction between people. Known as the ‘caduceus’, its depiction became more formalised as time progressed until it assumed the form we often associate with it: a rod around which two serpents are twined, surmounted by a ball, sometimes with wings attached. The serpents are a symbol of regeneration from the earth, of death and rebirth, and also have sexual connotations as well as being largely ‘hermaphrodite’ in appearance, at least from the point of view that they are difficult to sexually differentiate. The twined serpents imply the coupling of male and female, representing the daimonic universal motivating forces implicit with both Hermes and Aphrodite. The wings and serpents together represent the polar opposites – the cthonic earth upon which snakes are doomed to crawl, and the air or pneuma, which is the sky and home of the stars and spirit. This represents the ability of Hermes to link the divine and the mundane. He was the god of transaction in all its forms and the caduceus is a striking representation of this.

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.

The Celtic otherworld in Romanian folk belief

Although largely identifying its modern cultural ethne as ‘Slavic’, Romania’s historical and archaeological past shows that in the ‘Dacian’ Iron Age and late Classical periods its identity was definitely what we today would consider ‘Celtic’. This identity survived until the ethno-cultural engineering of Romanisation, and then the ‘migration period’ displacements of the late 3rdC CE which caused Roman withdrawal in the face of southern migration of Goths and westward migration of Scythic peoples: This introduced the cultural and linguistic foundations nowadays associated with the idea of ‘Slavic’, albeit with an enduring ‘Roman’ identity, preserved in the country’s name. These processes culminated with the early medieval hegemonies of the Caucasus tribes of Avars and Bulgars who eventually formed a stable state which, by fits and starts, had finally Christianised under Byzantine influence by the 9thC CE.

When Herodotus commented upon the Dacians (called ‘Getae’ by the Greeks) in his 5thC BCE Histories, he noted in particular that these peoples believed in the continuity of the soul after death. They were, after all, a people related to the Thracians, among whom the poet-seer Orpheus was supposed to have arisen, providing the European classical world with one of its most important religions, believing firmly in reincarnation. This provided its adherents with a particular map of the Otherworld which modern Celticists can quite easily identify with…

In the modern popular understanding about Romanian folklore, the most influential stories and beliefs surround the dark and fearful aspects of Strigoi – the restless dead who wish to abstract the life-force of the living. These are the model for the modern conception of vampires (and werewolves), and who we nowadays like to think of as humanoids with long sharp canines used to bite and suck the physical blood from peoples’ bodies. The reality (if you can call it that) of the idea of Strigoi is somewhat more complicated, and deeply tied to the ancient beliefs of souls and the otherworld which underpinned the religion of Europe’s Iron Age peoples, possibly extending deeper into antiquity. Characteristically, Strigoi can be either human (‘witches’ – the Italic word for ‘witch’ is ‘Strega’), but they might also be the undying or resurrected dead who seek to abstract human life-force (sometimes as actual blood) and who sicken their victims before finally taking their lives. They can shape-shift into animal forms and pass normally insurmountable physical barriers, and become invisible.

Coupled to the belief in a more sinister Stregoi is the important Romanian myth of the Blajini – the meaning of which translates almost exactly to that same phrase used in Ireland for fairies: ‘Gentle People’. These were spirits supposed to occupy a parallel reflected otherworld which mirrored our own, and at there is still a tradition associated with them, celebrated at Easter, known as Paştele Blajinilor. This festival (often celebrated a week or so after Easter proper) has strong associations with the ancestral dead. Apart from visiting or tending the graves of the departed, it is attached to a custom in which dyed or decorated eggs (often red) were made and eaten in their honour and the shells dropped into rivers to take them to the Blajini (the idea being that they should then know that it was Easter)! Readers of my blog will recognise that this custom is another explicit demonstration of an ancient European belief that all rivers flow to the ‘world-river’ (Apa Sâmbetei to Romanians, Okeanos to the Greeks), which bounds the shores of both our own and the ‘other’ world. Apa Sâmbetei is usually translated or understood as ‘Saturday’s Water‘, but is actually fairly obviously ‘Saturn’s Water‘ since the realm of Saturn or Cronus was in ancient mythology upon the far shores of Okeanos. The term evidently comes through the influence of Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians. Romanian folklore held that the souls of departed travelled through streams and rivers to reach the Otherworld, and this is exactly paralleled in the remains of Celtic pagan beliefs demontrated throughout medieval Irish literature, as I have previously discussed.

More interestingly, another belief attached in traditions to the Blajini was that they continually fasted in the Otherworld in order to sanctify our own world with the divine grace this practice bestows upon christians. They therefore provided a ‘boon’ to humanity, that demanded respect. This is the same belief that Scots minister Robert Kirk described in the Scottish Highlands in his 17thC ‘Secret Commonwealth’ manuscript, concerning the otherworld ‘counterbalance’ – namely when we have plenty, ‘they’ have scarcity!

Both traditions – Strigoi and Blajini – therefore represent different aspects of the same original spirit-belief which so pervaded ‘Celtic’ Europe. They show the idea of the dead living in an inverted state in the otherworld, and whose behaviour towards us seeks to address an imbalance between a mundane and a spiritual existence. However, the ‘reincarnate’ dead who walk the earth again could have no place within the Christian cosmology and folklore except as some fearful ‘evil’ force representing death, darkness, disease and chaos – these evidently evolved to become the Stregoi, whereas the Blajini were ‘allowed’ a continued existence as they largely stayed in the ‘spiritual’ realm beyond the concerns of mundanity, and therefore could not transgress the Christian doctrines to such a degree. In fact, the two ‘archetypes’ are more of a continuity, so that Blajini are sometimes of a more fearful aspect. They are therefore both analogous to the spirits of the Gaelic world, and indeed seem to share the same ancient doctrinal heritage…




L’Ankou – Gaelic parallels with the Breton death-spirit

‘Ankou’ is the personification of death’s assistant (a psychopomp) from Breton folklore, and a figure which reached greater prominence here than in any other of the modern ‘Celtic’ nations. It was noted by folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz in his 1911 book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, that L’Ankou and The Dead appeared to provide the equivalent role to the Aes Sidhe of Gaelic folklore – a parallel which provides us with some interesting questions as to the nature of Celtic spirit-beliefs:

“… Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors…”

(The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz; Pub. Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1911; p.218)

He goes on to note ‘Every parish in the uncorrupted parts of Brittany has its own Ankou, who is the last man to die in the parish during the year‘. Wentz’s source, the respected Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, wrote a book about Ankou, called La Légende de la Mort () and had this to say about it:

The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro) and he is also known as the grave yard watcher, they said that he protects the graveyard and the souls around it for some unknown reason and he collects the lost souls on his land. The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk. (“on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou”).

Wentz drew parallels with the Gaelic beliefs in people ‘taken’ to fairyland, but unfortunately did not establish much else by the way of concordance with this supposedly ‘Brythonic’, and in terms of surviving folklore, specifically Breton belief. It is therefore my aim here to demonstrate that Ankou did indeed have its Gaelic equivalents, whose memory became lost due to the influence of christianity and the 19thC romantic movement:

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany.

Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany. Note the ‘elf-arrow’ it appears to wield!

Ankou in the Isle of Man and Scotland:

The Manx – a nation whose linguistic and cultural roots lie firmly in the ‘Gaelic’ world – maintained an independent tradition which corresponds closely with that of L’Ankou. However, in examining this it is first necessary to go ‘back’ to Brittany and examine the word ‘Ankou’ itself:

The standard English definition or translation usually given for the Breton word ‘Ankou’ is ‘the agony’, originally proposed in a ‘pirated’ (uncredited) 1860 English translation (Breton Legends – Pub. London 1860, Burns and Lambert) of the folklore collected and published in French by Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué – a noted Breton dictionarian and philologist. ‘An-‘ is the definite article, and ‘-Kou’ is usually (in English translations) supposed to mean ‘agony’. However, this etymology is speculative at best, as the ‘kou’ suffix as a sound can have a number of meanings within the scope of the historical linguistics of the celtic languages. Indeed, the 1821 Breton-French dictionary of Jean-François-Marie-Maurice-Agatha Le Gonidec tellingly uses the word Kouer to mean ‘peasant’, of which more presently.

Fockleyr Manninagh as Baarlagh – the 1863 dictionary (based partly upon an earlier manuscript of John Kelly from the late 18thC) published by the Manx Society contains the following interesting entry:

Keimagh s. pl. -ee, A spirit which is supposed to haunt and guard the churchyard stiles.

Also, the word Cughtagh:

Cughtagh s. pl. cughteeA fairy, a sprite, a spirit of the houghs* …

*AR: Hough in this context refers to a rough, rocky place or a cliff 

Both entries are followed by the interesting usage example ‘Ny keimee as ny cughtee’ of which the authors say no more, but which appears to be a reference to a popular Manx charm for stopping blood, a version of which can be found in William Harrison’s ‘Mona Miscellany’ (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. Isle of Man, 1869).

The idea of the last deceased watching over the graveyard appears to have been common to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – Donald MacPherson called it the Faire Chloidh in his book ‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and Original Poems; with Notes on the superstitions of the Highlanders &c’ (Pub. Thomas and George Underwood, London 1824), p.202:


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.

The Manx ‘Keimagh’ and ‘Cughtagh’ spirits share a link of sorts to the grave, vagrancy, caves or shelters: This can be seen from the fact that the Manx wordcughhas connotations of dirt, filth and dung, and a link between this and the cave, mound or hole-dwelling spirit is also found in the word Cughlin, meaning a vagrant’s doss-hole or a mean filthy shelter, another Manx word for which is Kemmyrk. Recall that the Breton word Kouer, means ‘peasant’ and consider the restless vagrant properties ascribed to the spirits of the dead and a few ideas might start to form about the origins and meaning behind these archaic terms and the ‘Ankou’ itself.

The Manx word Keim or Keym (from which Keimagh is derived) is the same as the Irish céim, meaning ‘step’ in the same sense as it occurs in English – as a verb and a noun. The stile at old churchyard gates was often a slab of stone which those entering the church precinct would be required step over (and scrape your shoes on) in order to enter hallowed ground. It is common for the ‘m’ sound in Celtic languages to transform into a ‘w’ in pronunciation meaning that a ‘keimagh’ might easily become a ‘keiwagh’. By the same laws of linguistics, -gh-, -ch-, and -th- will lose any pretensions to consonantal pronunciation when occuring inside words.

This puts us in the interesting position of being forced to examine another similarly named spirit from the Gaelic world – Scotland’s An Ciuthach (pronounced ‘Kewach’), a being mentioned as a hairy spirit haunting caves in Volume 3 of John F. Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ (p.55), in a folk-tale based on the story of the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Graine by Fionn Mac Cumhaill.

The Gaelic word ‘cuthach’, means ‘mad’ or ‘raging’ and fits with the portrayal of a marginal ‘wild-man’ who lives underground, and also with the Manx words ‘cugh’ and ‘cughlin’, associated with the filthy ‘Merlinesque’ state of the wild divine, a familiar sight in medieval Ireland, Britain and France where holy men often lived in a state of wild squalor. It should be obvious by now that the Breton word ‘Ankou’ had distinct similarities with the Gaelic ‘An Ciuth’ or ‘An Cuth’, ‘kou’ meaning a state of frantic restlessness, rather than ‘agony’. This fits the etymology of the Breton word for peasant: Kouer – a class of person living in mean conditions and continually working to survive.

The Irish Dullahán and the Gruagachs:

The ‘Dullahán’is the Irish legendary personification of death, usually represented as a skeletal headless horseman. The name possibly signifies ‘black one’ or ‘gloomy one’ (Dubhlachán?), probably on account of the lividity of the dead, and his appearance in popular tradition was to foretoken death. His earliest literary mention is in the writings of Charles Vallancey (‘Prospectus of a Dictionary of the language of the Aire Coti, or Ancient Irish’, Pub. Graisberry & Campbell, Dublin, 1802), who recounts that the Irish peasantry would be in fear of hearing the Dullahan or ‘Wullahan’ dragging his chains through the streets at night. Like the Ankou, it was often associated with a horse or coach and horses.

The Ankou is therefore quite possibly the ‘Wild Hunter’ who leads the Sluagh Sidhe! Was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, really originally Finn-Mac-‘Kou’-al? 

The ‘wild man’ archetype has much to say about where we developed from, and about the processes by which nature is regenerated from its own ‘putrefaction’.

There are important relationships in empirical human culture between dirt, ordure and decayed matter and the regeneration of new life. To live ‘wild’ is to live in comfort with this kind of state. Such symbolism no doubt informs the apparent associations between death, the spirit world and reincarnation that underpin the ancient European beliefs. The idea anciently used to express this was termed putrefaction, and important doctrine of the natural philosophy of Europeans until the scientific age introduced new paradigms.

The British and Irish age of Romanticism started in earnest during the ‘Enlightenment’ era of the late 17th and 18thC with the researches and writings of Roderick O’Flaherty, John Toland, Edward Llhuyd, and James MacPherson, and it continued with the emergence of renewed interest in the pagan past seen in the writings of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), and in the fading customs, beliefs and lifestyles of the defeated Highland peoples documented for popular consumption by authors such as Walter Scott. Romanticism provided a vision of indigenous pagan beliefs still remaining among the peasantry, albeit in a form designed for the tastes and prejudices of educated and wealthy elites. Wavering paradoxically between apparent veneration of quaint rustic traditions and a visceral disgust of its ‘gloomy’ and ‘unenlightened’ superstitions, Romanticism would unfortunately often prove the undoing of much of what it fawned over: by swelling interest in ‘old-fashioned’ customs it ultimately encouraged the aspirational rural poor to resent becoming ‘quaint’ objects of fascination for the middle classes seeking relief from industrialised realities. By the late 1800s many Gaelic speakers had consequently rejected their traditional culture and sought to emulate modernity.

A romanticised view of what the rural poor ought to believe therefore eventually trickled down to influence their ideas: The traditions characterised as ‘gloomy’, ‘dismal’ and ‘unseemly’ – usually dealing with aspects of death, sex and disease – would become increasingly displaced. 

Putrefaction as an essential cultural idea behind abundance and regeneration among rural peoples was probably finally defeated when people stopped putting shit on their crops and used chemicals in its place… This was the era of mass-slaughter and industrial warfare, which reached its first full and horrific manifestation in the First World War.

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.


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


…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.

Similarities in Greco-Roman and Gaelic myth

Although the mythology of the material and intellectual cultures we know as 'Greco-Roman' is Europe's oldest inscribed tradition, that of Ireland and the 'insular Celts' must come next, albeit the written form of it is from a much later date. In particular, it often excels and exceeds the Greek material by its apparent strangeness and stylised 'otherness', yet as a source of pagan myth it needs – like the Norse sagas and Edda texts – to be treated very carefully as it is told by christians, unlike the Greek and Roman material which comes from pagans.

Nonetheless, the Christians did not have much in the way of myth to call their own, except for the 'Old Testament' materials and the early saints' lives, many of which were based on pagan tales, in their style and often in their narrative content: These were essential to pad out its own religious narratives and replace (or at least displace) the contents of the potent oral-transmission culture with a literature-based alternative.

It is worth noting a number of things about southern-European pagan religious culture, however, before framing a debate of paganism vs christianity in terms of oral transmission culture vs. literary culture: Firstly, it is worth remembering that – since the advent of the Hellenistic era in the 5thC BCE – that literary culture became an important stalwart of Greco-Roman societies, and seems to have become a primary mode by which people came to understand their religion. There were certainly traditional aspects to the culture to a late period, but by the advent of christianity, this was being displaced. The role of the priesthood and attendants in many of the most important temples was generally fulfilled as a fixed term civil office by the worthies of Greek and Roman society, so – unlike the traditional and esoteric forms of learning that Gaul (and Britain's) professional priesthood had to undergo, these offices were losing their mystery. Mystery remained the province of cult-centres such as Eleusis, Delphi and the island of Samothrace, and the discourse-communities of the Philosophers – the Neo-Platonists, Hermeticists and Gnostics who thrived in the late-classical world after the advent of Christianity and who pre-figured its rise. It is telling that classical paganism's most complete and (in scope) extensive theogonic text – the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Persepolis in Egypt – was written by an author whose output later included a commentary on the christian Gospel of John. To understand this is to understand where the impetus for Christianisation was focussed in the less-literate climes of northwest Europe, such as Ireland, in the 5th/6thC CE.

Whereas some of our oldest surviving literature from the pagan world is religious, this aspect of the genre was in mortal decline in parallel to the rise in interest in philosophy and the 'mysteries' from the advent of the Hellenic period. By placing literacy in the hands of a few – a trained elite (after the model perhaps of the barbarian, Egyptian and Eastern peoples) – christianity would place itself at the heart of the new models of kingship appearing in the 'barbarian' world following the collapse of the Roman franchise in the west.

There are many similarities between the written medieval Irish myths and Greek legends. The reasons for this might be fourfold:

1. That the Irish believed in a shared widely-known and ancient cosmic worldview, populated with similar characters and themes to those of ancient Greece and southern Europe, and the Christian authors recorded this from traditional orally-transmitted narratives.

2. That literate monks used Greek and Roman (or Romano-British) myths to flesh out a written Irish narrative which did not otherwise exist – a kind of 'new age' eclecticism.

3. That Irish and Greek myths developed separately, yet shared similarities determined by (a) the culture and traditions/techniques of storytelling and (b) empirical reactions to natural phenomena.

4. A synthesis of points 1-3.

Obviously, the most likely answer is point 4 – we simply do not have enough evidence to support points 1-3 independently, but we have good evidence that all of them have been contributing explanations. I shall now present a number of Irish myths/mythic characters and their apparent Greco-Roman counterparts and let you decide for yourselves:

Cú Chulainn:

The archetypal indefatigable warrior super-hero of the 'Ulster Cycle' stories – Cú Chulainn – seems to have a particular similarity to Herakles or Hercules: He is the son of a god, associated with blacksmith-craftsmen (Cullain). Cullain seems to relate to the Greek 'earth-born' proto-blacksmiths known as the (Idaean) Dactyls, of whom Herakles was sometimes considered one. was a supreme warrior, a lover of goddesses (Fand, wife of Manannán mac Lir) and his nemesis is a goddess (the Morrigan). He is a performer of fantastic tricks and sporting feats, yet forever tied to the whims of his king and his gods. He lives fast and dies young – a true aspect of the Celtic warrior ideal. is also a 'king's champion' warrior archetype – a dog on a leash, as befits his name. He sometimes comes across as bombastic, brash, sometimes clumsy and insensitive – a bit of a lummox at times, and then at others, clever and dextrous, and light on his feet. Like Herakles, he travels to far-off islands and does battle with the weird as well as the mundane, performing 'feats' along the way.

One way in which Cú Chullain differs from Herakles is that Herakles was a folk-hero responsible for taming and conquering the wild and chaotic forces for the good of humanity. In the 'Ulster Cycle', Cú Chullain typically acts on behalf of the interests of his liege lord – like the other famous Greek warrior-strongman Achilles. This perhaps reflects the fact that these Irish legends (like their later French and British 'Arthurian' traditions) were often designed for telling at the courts of elite rulers, and therefore suited the value-system of this milieu. In folk-myths, Fionn and Cú Chullain often take on much more gigantic proportions and attributes.

The Battle of Maige Tuired:

This is the 'showdown' scene of the Irish mythological cycle stories in which the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fir Bolg and the Fomorians are pitted against one another for supremacy of Ireland. The Fomoire are usually described as a race of sea giants in Irish mythology, and the Manx word Foawr (from 'Fomor') means 'Giant'. They seem similar to the aquatic Titans of Greek myth and the Cath Maige Tuired is like an Irish version of the Greek Titanomachy – the battle and overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian Gods, with whom the TDD share a certain similarity. Similar legends exist from Norse myth – the primal giants here are the Frost Giants: Titans at -40 Celsius! Of course, the bizarre cannibalistic and incestuous Greek narratives of the Titans are absent from the CMT and the 'Book of Invasions' stories which present more of a heroic pseudo-historical dynastic struggle. Tolkein borrowed heavily from the imagery of the battles of Maige Tuired in constructing his battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

Giants and primordial helpers:

The landscape of Atlantic Europe – particularly those regions where Greco-Roman and later christian culture was slow to assert itself – is riddled with ancient mythology of primordial giants who supposedly played some important roles in determining the shape of the landscape – mountains, fjords, rivers, lakes, plains and great rocks. The same was true of the mythology of the Archaic period and Bronze Age of southern Europe – in particular the mythologies of ancient Greece, but we can discount these as playing a late originating role in the folklore of northern and northwestern legends due to the lack of impact of these material and cultural civilisations in these zones.

The Greek giants and Titans were 'Earth-Born' (Gygas – after Ge/Gaia, the personified Earth). The pagan Norse word used for giants in the middle ages was Gygr – existing into the more modern periods in the Scots Gyre and Faroese Gyro. The Manx equivalent of the Scots Brownie, Uirisk and Grogach legend was the Phynnodderee, 'Dooiney Oie' ('Night Man') or Glashtin – a being considered gigantic, primitive, coarse and animalistic in appearance who helped householders and warmed himself by the hearth at night when humans slept. His local legends seem, curiously, to conflate him with both Fionn mac Cumhaill and even Cú Chullain and, when not explicitly named, with the activities ascribed elsewhere in the Atlantic world to other giants – specified or unspecified. This is a representation of the archetypal earth-born ancestor, and is a particularly important and wide-ranging link between northern and southern pagan mythology which appears to have a commonality stretching way back into the Bronze Age. Herakles was also an aspect of this.

The Otherworld:

Both Greek and Irish myths portray the Otherworld as a location reachable by a westward journey over the great ocean. The legendary Greek islands of Elysium, the Hesperides/Erytheia and Ogygia, and the 'Islands of the Blessed' or 'Fortunate Isles' have their Irish equivalents in the many names of Gaelic mythology's magical western islands which were also considered the resort of departed souls: Mag Mell, Tír na nÓg, Tír na mBeo, Tír Tairngire, Tír fo Thuinn, Ildathach , Hy Brasil, Tech Duinn and Emain Ablach. These places are sometimes explicitly islands, sometimes under the sea, sometimes of a hybrid type that emerges (and just as soon disappears) from the sea.

Like in the Greek legends, the otherworld is also represented as a chthonic realm – beneath the earth. Like the Greeks, the Irish seem to have believed that the rivers of the world joined a 'world river', and that it re-manifested from the otherworld by piercing back though the earth as springs of water. Like the Greeks and Latins of southern Europe, and their fellow Bronze Age and Iron Age era 'Celtic' peoples further north and west they considered springs of water to be important and holy – no doubt for this reason. Sidhe mounds or Fairy Hills were the traditional 'home' of Irish (and to a lesser extent, Manx and Scottish fairies). They were sometimes considered to be the sources of rivers returning from the otherworld. Mountains and artificial mounds had similar associations in Ireland. In a flat landscape, a mound is something akin to an island – a consideration when addressing the 'otherworld inversion' belief that permeates Atlantic European folklore.

An interesting aspect of the Greco-Roman myth is how there seems to be a plasticity in portraying the otherworld 'places' (Elysium, for example) as both meadows or gardens and simultaneously as islands bordering Okeanos. This same conflation appears to represented quite strongly in the old Irish story 'The Voyage of Bran mac Febail' where he is conveyed to the otherworld islands over a sea which gradually appears to become a meadow.

Mermaids and Sirens:

The idea of female (and male) entities who lured men to stay with them in the watery or otherworld realms are common to both Greek and Gaelic myths. The 'Sirens' occur in Greek myths such as Homer's Odyssey and the Argonautica ('Jason/Iason and the Argonauts'). They were sometimes depicted as half-bird, half-female inhabiting islands surrounded by huge rocks and high cliffs, luring sailors to their deaths on the treacherous shores with their beautiful songs. Calypso, the daughter of Atlas on Ogygia also fits the enchanting-island maiden archetype, and although was not considered one of the Sirenai, seems part of the same mythos. Even the Gorgons tempted brave Perseus to their realm, and from his 'killing' of Medusa there was a magical birth (of Pegasus and Chrysaor).

In Atlantic Celtic mythology, this function was the province of alluring beautiful mermaids – usually half-human, half-fish in their conception but sometimes 'seal people' (e.g. – Selkies). The Isle of Man's version of the Cailleach – Caillagh y Groamagh was supposed to fly in from the sea in the form of a bird at Imbolc/La'a Bride, and she may be another aspect of the beautiful fairy maiden called 'Tehi-Tegi' who in Manx legends lures men into the sea or a river to drown them, before flying away in the form of a wren (sometimes a bat!). The Gaelic (Irish/Gallovidian) Merrow was sometimes known as Suire which sounds very much like a version of 'Siren' although this may be in reference to known Greek myths, and this type of mermaid was associated with a feather hat or cape. Crofton Croker's 'Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland' is worth reading for a summary on the Merrows.

Harpies and Sidhe Gaoithe:

There was an explicit belief in former times in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man that sudden gusts of wind were caused by the actions of spirits and fairies. Indeed, this was a feature of the demonology of medieval Christian Europe, and may well link back to the ancient Greek beliefs that the Harpies were responsible for the same. They were depicted (again) as half-woman, half bird or as winged female entities and were personifications of storm-winds. The Cailleach Bheara of the Scottish Highlands and Islands had a similar association, and was sometimes considered a female-avian who flapped her wings to make the winter storms. In the Isle of Man, the (not uncommon) tornados were sometimes supposed to be caused by a fairy known as Yn Gilley Vooar ny Gheay – 'Big Boy O' the Wind'.

River Nymphs and Sea Nymphs:

Perhaps subjoined to the mermaid legends, it is notable that the Greeks and the Irish personified their rivers with female spirits or entities. Evidence of this comes from the Dindseanchas legends and those of the so-called 'landscape-sovereignty' goddesses, otherwise referred to as Bean Sidhe, no doubt because river-drainage areas in mountainous landscapes tend to map and define territories. Greco-Roman mythology venerated such female water deities, and this tendency was also found in the European celtic world in the late Iron Age (although much of our evidence here comes after the period of Romanisation). Again, the 'Cailleach' personification from folklore seems to combine many of these functions (Harpies, Sirens, Nymphs etc) into the form of this single protean Titaness. Likewise, the Moura Encantada of the Iberian peninsula and the Marie Morgane of Brittany as well as the 'Lady of the Fountain' (or lake) of Arthurian lays and romances.


It is apparent that ancient European paganism was a universal system of philosophy and 'science' illustrated through traditions of the arts: story, poetry, song, pictures, dances and drama. Every possible phenomenon seems to have been addressed by assigning mythology to it, and the boundary between the spiritual and the secular did not really exist – instead there was a continuum. The southern European civilisations emerging from the Bronze Age with a more oriental perspective, eventually coming to consider themselves 'better' and more 'enlightened' than their 'barbarian' cousins (and ancestors) in northeastern and northwest Europe, and due to warfare and incursions of these 'barbarians' between the 5thc BCE and the 1stC CE (and beyond), and due also to the dependence on written knowledge, a perception derived that their religious and spiritual beliefs were 'different', when in fact they had a shared root.