The days of Kronos and Saturn

The familiar traditions associated with the celebration of ‘Christmas’ or the ‘Festival of the Nativity of Jesus Christ’ throughout northern Europe are far from Christian in their origin, and many of them are a direct continuation of the festivities of the Saturnalia of ancient Roman culture, which are in turn related to the equivalent ‘Kronia’ of ancient Greek culture. Both of these were introduced to Europe’s barbarian north with the diffusion of these cultures – a process beginning in the latter half of the 1st millennium BCE and culminating with the Roman conquests. Even well into the Christian era, ancient aspects of the seasonal celebration derived from the pagan era continued to be introduced between nations – the ‘Christmas tree’ (an ancient symbol of family) being an example. The essence of the Kronia and Saturnalia was a celebration of a supposed ‘golden age’ of humanity, ruled over by the titan god Kronos, who was known to the Romans as Saturn (probably meaning ‘Fertiliser’, after the Greek word Sathe). In this age, humans were said to have been virtuous and egalitarian – a state which degenerated once Kronos/Saturn was overthrown by Zeus/Jupiter who established the ‘pantheon’ of twelve Olympians to rule over the heavens and the earth. The Attic Greek Kronia was celebrated at ancient Athens around midsummer and was a festivity shared between freemen, slaves, servants and masters in honour of Kronos and the ideals of the Golden Age, and usually involved a ceremonial aspect of (albeit limited) social role-reversal at which the masters sometimes served their servants at a feast, and servants or employees sometimes took on the identity of masters for the celebration. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was held at midwinter – from the 17th December – and after a similar fashion. With time the festivity was extended to a week or more. It was a time of freedom from work, giving of gifts, the playing of games (dice, knucklebones, board-games etc), giving to the poor and feasting and high-living – a very public celebration enjoyed across all social strata, bringing them (for a short period at least) closer together. It seems, therefore, very similar to modern festivities such as Christmas and Hannukah where similar customs still prevail. Anyone who has sat down to a family midwinter banquet wearing a Christmas paper crown and maybe spun a Hannukah dreidel or two is continuing a European tradition over 2000 years old!

The Hannukah Dreidel is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

The Hannukah ‘Dreidel ‘is an ancient European custom. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Roland Scheicher).

Saturnalia (and Kronia) was typically a festival of reversals, the custom of masters serving their servants or slaves being a typical example of this which persisted down to the modern era. Those familiar with my discussions of the ancient ‘Otherworld’ philosophy of Atlantic European cultures (particularly the ‘Celts’) will immediately recognise this as a related theme: the Otherworld was an inversion of our own peopled by the spirits of the departed looking for reincarnation once more in our realm. Where we had plenty they had little and hungered for what we possessed. By treating these spirits with respect and gifts, we might deter their hunger for our material gains. Saturnalia was a method for ceremonially redressing the imbalance implicit in human nature and satiating the needy forces which might, through jealousy (the old ‘evil eye’ concept,) detract from well-being.

“…Meanwhile the head of the slave household, whose responsibility it was to offer sacrifice to the Penates, to manage the provisions and to direct the activities of the domestic servants, came to tell his master that the household had feasted according to the annual ritual custom. For at this festival, in houses that keep to proper religious usage, they first of all honor the slaves with a dinner prepared as if for the master; and only afterwards is the table set again for the head of the household. So, then, the chief slave came in to announce the time of dinner and to summon the masters to the table…” Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.24.22–23 (4thC CE) – trans. by Robert Kaster, Loeb Classical Library.

In ancient Rome, the celebration coincided with the Larentalia – typically observed on December 23rd – a celebration of the Lares or familial ancestral/domestic spirits, and the elder Roman goddess Acca Larentia – the Mater Larum and supposed mother of legendary twins Romulus (Mars-Quirinus) and Remus. These were characters underpinning Rome’s famous founding myths and therefore the whole ‘dark season’ was a memorial of a distant idea of humanity’s foundation and founding sparks in the dark and distant past. The mythology of Saturn is intrinsically linked to that of the far bounds of time and space where he was supposed by the ancients to have been confined in the legendary overthrow of the Titans by the Olympians. His is the dark and misty realm at the bounds of what we now call space-time, usually depicted by the European ancients as at the furthest reaches of the encircling world-river Okeanos which bordered the heavens and Elysium, and stood above Tartarus – a perilous place full of ancient monstrous beings of legend that only the bravest mythical heroes might travel to in their sacred quests. These monsters were always portrayed as children of the offspring of Kronos/Saturn – the ‘Kronides’. The dark season was a time when the departed might be closer and should be paid respect. This darkness was – as I have discussed elsewhere in this blog – a source of refertilisation to the world, and the source for returning life to the ancient Europeans who believed expressly in reincarnation, like their cultural ancestors in Asia. The return of an ancient deposed god to engender equality and celebration among humans is an irrevocable part of these seasonal celebrations which appear to defy time itself, and the continuous shifts in human culture and religion in Europe. In itself it suggests a temporary dissatisfaction with the status quo: ‘Christmas’ remains a resolutely pagan affair.

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…

 

 

 

Fairy Doctors, Sluagh Sidhe and Fianna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fianna and the Sluagh Sidhe:

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

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

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

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

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

“….A doctor told this anecdote—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crotal_Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairies at Beltane – friend or foe?

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

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

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

Protection from Fairies?

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

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

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


 

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


 

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


 

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming fairies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Terror and Beauty from the far shores…

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the north?

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the European north?

To the ancient peoples of Europe, the realm of the dead and of heaven lay deep in the west on the path of the setting sun. This exceeded the bounds of the known world of the Mediterranean and was presumed to lie beyond the extent of the Titanic Atlantic Ocean, believed to represent the extent of the 'world river', Okeanos. Plato (Athens, 4thC BCE) describes the mysterious point where earth and heaven meet in his 'last words of Socrates' dialogue known as Phaedo (trans. Benjamin Jowett) :

“…Also I believe that the earth is very vast, and that we who dwell inthe region extending from the river Phasis to the Pillars of Heracles,along the borders of the sea, are just like ants or frogs about amarsh-pool, and inhabit a small portion only, and that many others dwell inmany like places. For I should say that in all parts of the earththere are hollows of various forms and sizes, into which the water andthe mist and the air collect; and that the true earth is pure and inthe pure heaven, in which also are the stars-that is the heavenwhich is commonly spoken of as the ether, of which this is but thesediment collecting in the hollows of the earth…”

His description of the 'frogs' and the pond is an echo of contemporary Athenian playwright Aristophanes' famous Dionysiac play of the c.405 BCE known as 'The Frogs' when the god Dionysus crosses the river Styx to visit Hades, and rather than being regaled by the shades of the departed from within the water, he is annoyed by a chorus of frogs. The connection between water, and the seemingly grotesques yet miraculous aspects of both death and rebirth was not lost in the ancient European worldview, of which the Greeks were to create the earliest written sophistication:

One of our oldest written sources on ancient Greek mythology, Hesiod ('Theogony'), says that the most archetypal race of Greek monsters, the Gorgons, lived on an island at the furthest extent of the western ocean, supposedly near the island of the Hesperides. This puts them in the realm of Cronos (Saturn) at the far shores of the world-river Okeanos, near Homer's famous island of Ogygia from the Oddyssey. Ogygia in Homer was domicile of the titan Atlas (also called Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, whose charms almost took Oddyseus away from the land of the living. The name Ogygia (Hy Gyges?) is based upon the greek word gygas, meaning 'born of Ge (Gaia/Ge – the Earth)', often interpreted as 'Giants' (Gigantes) and possibly linked with the name Gorgós (dreadful)…

Accordingly, the Titans of greek myth were viewed as primordial, earth-born giant in stature and monstrously alien. They were supposedly banished in a succession war with their children, the Olympian gods, and the various Greek theogonies suggest these marginal realms were at the farthest reaches of the 'time before memory' of oral-culture mythology – on the shores of the world river Okeanos at the edge of the heavens.

The relation ship between the chthonic underworld of Hades and Tartarus is based upon the fact that the oceans are the deepest places, and the Atlantic far more so that the Mediterranean. The beings of this realm partook of the primal, cthonic 'elements' of Water and Earth. Even the Hebrew Book of Genesis (first compiled 5thC BCE) borrowed this conception…

The children of the Titans were often monstrous, for example: Python, Scylla, Medusa, Charybdis, Cereberus, Ekhidna, the Hydra, Chimera, Geryon, Cetus and the Graeae. Sometimes they were beautiful too, like the titaness Calypso, and Pegasus and Krysaor who were the children born of the neck of Medusa. The mysterious realm of the oceans, has always delivered both beauty and terror to mankind!

Although encountered in Greek mythology in various parts of the Mediterranean, it was not, however, it was not from this comparatively mild 'frogpond' that these creatures and Old Gods derived, but the mighty Atlantic, beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' or the Straights of Gilbraltar, at the extremes of Okeanos in the Atlantic west. During the era of the Roman expansion into northern Europe, the misty, cold and terrifying reaches of the British Isles, Ireland and the North Sea might well have been at the very brink of this terrifying alien realm… to the ancient world, if you wished to get to Ogygyia and the Hesperides, you went to the furthest navigable islands (Britain and Ireland), and then just went a little further!

In mythology, the monstrous is often depicted as a trial to be overcome by a hero (or 'initiate'). In northern Europe, the aquatic 'loathly lady' traditions of the Melusine, the tale of how Conn Cétchathach gained the High Kingship of Ireland, and Chaucer's 15thC 'Wife of Bath's Tale' are examples of such a tradition. In Greek myth, the story of Perseus and Medusa might be seen as a version of the same principle:

Gorgons:

The most famous monsters of the Greek and Roman world were arguably the three snake-haired Gorgons, who were said to be the daughters of Phorcys (a hypostasis subordinate to Poseidon). These were also the sisters of another divine female triad of Greek myth, the Graeae – the grey, aged and withered, one-eyed Cailleach-like Okeanid nymphs said in some myths to guard the approaches to the Hesperides, Ogygia etc and (redolent of the Norse Valkyries and the Irish Children of Lir) to have part of the form of swans. In the myth of Perseus, the hero is dispatched on an apparent suicide mission by evil King Polydectes to kill and gain the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone. Polydectes fully expected the young hero to die in the task, so that he might marry Perseus' mother, but he survives his 'initiation' and triumphs from it. The Gods Athena, Hades, Zeus and Hermes donate magical weapons and aids for the task, setting Perseus on a perilous course to success. He tricks the Graeae at the approaches, and enters the grey and misty realms to stalk his prey… Upon decapitating Medusa, the magical horse Pegasus is born from her neck – a bizarre conception, fit only for these distant and magical realms of the Titans. Perseus rides the flying horse, saves the maiden Andromeda from being devoured by the sea monster Cetus and rides off into the sunset with the girl.

The characters of the Perseus-Medusa mythology all occupy a portion of the heavens as a group of related constellations named after the characters: Pegasus, Cetus, Perseus, Andromeda, in close proximity to the other 'aquatic' constellations of the zodiac – Pisces, Aquarius and curious Capricorn. This group contains two particular stars which express the curious behaviour of having a cyclical variable intensity, namely the 'blinking' eye of Medusa: Algol (period repeats every 2 days) – seen in the constellation of Perseus, and the longer-period Mira Ceti on the neck of Cetus, whose period is 11 months. Both these stars appear to 'come and go', a feature which must have had particular implications to ancient peoples who believed a star was a perfected heavenly soul. Mythology was sometimes designed to record information about the skies!

By 'killing' Medusa on the far western shores of Okeanos, Perseus immediately helps her 'give birth' to his conveyor back from the Otherworld (Pegasus – whose feet create springs of water on land), and mysterious Chrysaor – the 'golden blade' suggesting agriculture: both aspects of continuity in a culture which believed in reincarnation. By 'kissing' the 'loathly lady', the beauty of regeneration might occur…

Chrysaor, Kallirhoe and Geryon:

Two miraculous children were born at the moment of Medusa's beheading: The winged horse Pegasus ('Creator of Pegai (springs)'?), and the golden boy Chrysaor ('Golden Blade'). Pegasus became the companion and steed of the warrior-hero Perseus, but the mysterious Chrysaor was credited only (so far as we know) with the paternity of another monstrous being: the giant three-bodied cowherd Geryon on whom the legendary strongman-warrior Heracles/Hercules was supposed to have conducted his Tain or cattle-raid. Pegasus and Chrysaor have distinct echoes of the Atlantic Europe's 'fairy helpers' – the 'fairy horse' and the 'brownie'.

Geryon was supposedly born to his father of the Okeanid nymph Kallirhoe who occupied the island of Erytheia, and was said by some later classical authors (Diodorus) have also lived on the mountainous slopes of Atlantic Iberia. Like the tripliform Celtic deities, he was supposed to have been a giant with three bodies.

“From Medusa, daughter of Gorgon, and Neptunus [Poseidon], were born Chrysaor and horse Pegasus; from Chrysaor and Callirhoe, three-formed Geryon.”Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 151 (2ndC CE) – Trans. Grant.

His home was the far-west 'red island' of Erytheia in the mystical Hesperides (equivalent by name and association with the 'Arthurian' Avalon, and Irish Emain Abhlach), no doubt the reason his cattle also had coats the colour of the setting sun – the predominant colour of the flowers in Atlantic Europe after the Summer Equinox and also, notably, the colour of the running blood of the dead… He was once allegedly defeated by Hercules, who stole his cows. The constellations Orion (the 'stick-waver') and Boötes (the 'cowherd') might even be considered cosmic aspects of the legend behind Geryon, on account of the location of his myth – at the boundary of the Otherworld… the heavens near to that great nourishing sky-river, the Milky Way. The 'cattle' of Geryon are a motif for the spirits of the dead, like Aristophanes 'Frogs' and 'Birds' and Hercules taking of them is an expression of the role of the psychopompic gods: Manannan, Dionysus, Hermes/Mercury etc.

The Hesperides:

The mythical garden of the Hesperides lay somewhere in the mythological west – either beyond the Atlas mountains and Libya (home of the setting winter sun) or further out beyond the Atlantic ocean at 'Okeanos' far shore' (summer sunset), depending on the accounts. It was the site of goddess Hera's magical apple tree, whose golden fruit imparted divine knowledge (or chaos and warfare when placed in the hands of Eris!), and the three nymphs known as the 'Hesperides' were its guardians. It features in the myths of Perseus (the nymphs tell him where to find Medusa) and of Heracles (who steals the apples). These nymphs were supposed by some sources to be the daughters of Hesperus – personification of the 'evening star' (Venus) known as 'Hesperus' to the Greeks ('Vesper' to the Romans). Venus, being close to the sun, and relatively close to Earth often appears in the sun's train ('evening star') or vanguard ('morning star') as it traverses the ecliptic path. The Greeks, of course, named the planet Venus after Plato's muse Aphrodite.

Not trusting the Hesperides with her precious apples, Hera (a notoriously jealous sort of person) is supposed to have set the dragon Ladon to guard it, and he coils around the base of the apple tree's trunk. This is somewhat redolent of the Norse myth of the Midgard serpent coiled around the world tree, and the constellation Draco was said by Hyginus ancient account of the constellations to represent Ladon.

The exact 'identity' of the 'Island of the Hesperides' itself is somewhat mysterious – is it Ogygia or Erytheia? Or somewhere else, even? Erytheia is sometimes given as the name of one of the Hesperides, so this may link to Geryon and his herd of red cows. Conceptually, of course, this does not matter – the 'island' has no corporal existence, but an important spiritual one. The apples were a bridal gift of Gaia (the Earth) to Hera. The Irish and British also had a legend of an 'Isle of Apples' – Avalon and Emain Abhlach.

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?...

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?... The imagery is somewhat phallic!

The location of the Titans and their monstrous offspring at the far reach of Okeanos in ancient European mythology made them occupy the liminal 'crossing place' between the mundane world and the heavens. It is a place simultaneously distant in both space and time, ruled over by its Titan king, Cronus, whose 'star' (the planet Saturn) takes so long to traverse its ponderous path (as if an old Boddagh of a man) when compared to our nearer planets. If this 'crossing place' seemed distant and somehow unobtainable except through an extreme journey and a trial of nerve, the spiritual realm of the heavens on the other side was paradoxically immanent and of the 'here and now'. The meaning of this 'crossing over' point and a belief that the traffic here was bidirectional became a feature of the ancient initiatory mystery cults of Eleusis and the 'Orphic' mysteries and was a key part of the mythology of the barbarians of Atlantic Europe, preserved in their own rich traditions…

 

The Evil Eye in ancient Atlantic Europe, ‘101’.

The eye was once considered the one organ which could express the divine light of the soul. In the ancient world a perfected soul was believed to reside in the heavens as a star...

The eye was once considered the one organ which could express the divine light of the soul. In the ancient world a perfected soul was believed to reside in the heavens as a star…

The eye is a curious organ.

As well as receiving light, it appears at times to emit it also. This can be illustrated by the way that nocturnal predators’ eyes appear to glow (actually from reflected light), but there is another ‘light’ of the eye: that which, curiously, seems to disappear from it at the moment of death. This is the ‘spark’ or ‘twinkle’ of the eye whose intensity and quality we perceive to enhance and alter when we laugh, flirt or are excited to enthusiasm or anger. This phenomenon perhaps explained the theory of vision common to the ancient world – that known as the theory of ‘extromission’.

Extromission theory believed that the eye emitted light. Light itself was believed in ancient times to be a higher emanation of the philosopical element of fire, and to the ancient peoples it took two forms for which the Latin words ‘Lumen’ and ‘Lux/Lucis’ came into use. Lumen was mundane light – that emitted by candles, or the sunlight coming through windows and was closest to ‘elemental’ Fire. Lux however represented light in its higher spiritual or intellectual form – the divine light, the light of spiritual and philosophical illumination. Plato explains this in his account of the creation of human bodies from the Dialogue of Timaeus:

“…And so in the vessel of the head, they first of all put a face in which they inserted organs to minister in all things to the providence of the soul, and they appointed this part, which has authority, to be by nature the part which is in front. And of the organs they first contrived the eyes to give light, and the principle according to which they were inserted was as follows: So much of fire as would not burn, but gave a gentle light, they formed into a substance akin to the light of every-day life; and the pure fire which is within us and related thereto they made to flow through the eyes in a stream smooth and dense, compressing the whole eye, and especially the centre part, so that it kept out everything of a coarser nature, and allowed to pass only this pure element. When the light of day surrounds the stream of vision, then like falls upon like, and they coalesce, and one body is formed by natural affinity in the line of vision, wherever the light that falls from within meets with an external object. And the whole stream of vision, being similarly affected in virtue of similarity, diffuses the motions of what it touches or what touches it over the whole body, until they reach the soul, causing that perception which we call sight. But when night comes on and the external and kindred fire departs, then the stream of vision is cut off; for going forth to an unlike element it is changed and extinguished, being no longer of one nature with the surrounding atmosphere which is now deprived of fire: and so the eye no longer sees, and we feel disposed to sleep. For when the eyelids, which the gods invented for the preservation of sight, are closed, they keep in the internal fire; and the power of the fire diffuses and equalises the inward motions; when they are equalised, there is rest, and when the rest is profound, sleep comes over us scarce disturbed by dreams; but where the greater motions still remain, of whatever nature and in whatever locality, they engender corresponding visions in dreams, which are remembered by us when we are awake and in the external world. And now there is no longer any difficulty in understanding the creation of images in mirrors and all smooth and bright surfaces. For from the communion of the internal and external fires, and again from the union of them and their numerous transformations when they meet in the mirror, all these appearances of necessity arise, when the fire from the face coalesces with the fire from the eye on the bright and smooth surface. And right appears left and left right, because the visual rays come into contact with the rays emitted by the object in a manner contrary to the usual mode of meeting; but the right appears right, and the left left, when the position of one of the two concurring lights is reversed; and this happens when the mirror is concave and its smooth surface repels the right stream of vision to the left side, and the left to the right. Or if the mirror be turned vertically, then the concavity makes the countenance appear to be all upside down, and the lower rays are driven upwards and the upper downwards…” Plato – Timaeus 4thC BCE

It is evident from this that Plato considered the pupil of the eye a ‘filter’ to remove the Lumen element of light so that the meaning (information) conveyed in the Lux could be made available for the soul to consider! He considered vision and sensation an interaction between emanations of the soul and emanations of the universe. The Greek word for soul, mind, spirit and consciousness is  ψυχή – ‘psyche‘. The 5thC BCE playwright-‘philosopher’, Epicharmus of Kos, is quoted as saying “It is the psyche that sees, it is the psyche that hears, all the rest is deaf and blind”.

As an organ believed capable of emanation, not just reception, it is of no surprise that beliefs developed suggesting that the gaze of the eye can cause harm. Humans are acutely adjusted to the significance of the manner in which others look at them – a look can convey love, contempt, and any one of a number of other emotions or communications. Aside from the reaction of the perceiver of a gaze, the active principle of light extromission believed in by the ancient Greeks and others allowed that the eye emitted a spiritual force, and if this was evilly intended it would interact with that which it perceived in a harmful way. The most famous mythological account of a harmful gaze was that of the Gorgon – Medusa – whose gaze turned men to stone…

Perseus presents the head of Medousa to an obviously jealous Athena (Aine). Note there are only two snakes protruding from the Gorgon's head...

Perseus presents the head of Medousa to pleased-looking (jealous?) Athena. Note there are only four snakes protruding from the Gorgon’s head – the topmost two resemble horns…

That the gaze of Medusa could turn men to stone was a paradoxical inversion of the eye’s connection to light and thus the philosophical ‘element’ of fire. As Plato expressed it, fire and earth (of which stone was an expression) were the principle diametrically opposed elements of creation, and air and water were those which linked the two fundamental elements in a fourfold system. In Empedocles’ reckoning, the root-element Earth would correspond closest to the consolidating principle of ‘Love’ and Fire to the dissipating principle he called ‘Strife’ – the two contesting forces ascribed to the universe. Medusa’s gaze of stone, rather than light was perhaps a feminine idea of ancient established solidity. The flashing fiery gaze of love was the daimon that inspired the Trojan War, at the advent of Greek (and Roman) oral history’s ‘time of memory’. Being in love might be more dangerous than the stare of Medusa! Plato’s dialogue ‘Symposium‘ examines this theme in more detail.  Lizards and snakes, being considered ‘cold and dry’ by the ancient elemental reckoning, were  linked to the element of Earth and the cold distant chthonic and oceanic realms – the legendary Basilisk, like the snake, could seemingly transfix its prey (‘turn to stone’) with its unblinking stare. Legends are circumlocutive expressions of higher truths and maps of the heavens, as well as good stories…

Yet another European mythological figure with a ‘dangerous eye’ is from the Irish ‘Mythological Cycle’ medieval texts: Balor of the Fomorians, the probable inspiration for Tolkein’s Sauron, whose name also elicits something of the scaly-haired Medusa, or perhaps the legendary Basilisk. The legendary Irish ‘Fomorians‘ were – akin to the Greek Titanes (of whom Medusa was one) – considered a race of giants associated with the sea. They, like the Titans, probably haunted the ancient shores of furthest Okeanos (perhaps even as far as Tory Island!): far away in time and space in the ‘time before memory’…

From the 6thC CE, the western Christian church increasingly began to classify for its adherents the ‘sins’ which it believed were the spiritual errors that led its followers away from God: These were “superbia, avaritia, invidia, ira, luxuria, gula & pigritia” – the ‘seven deadly sins’ of pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Of these, the majority were deemed ‘sins of the flesh’ or ‘material sins’. However, two were ‘sins of the soul’, namely envy and pride.

   Sins of the Soul were therefore deemed to be those which occupied a spiritual dimension and affected the world in spiritual ways. Envy (Latin: Invidia – ‘in vision’) corresponds exactly to the power known as the Evil Eye. By the ancient extromsission theory of vision the light of the soul illuminated what it perceived as a ‘ray’, and an evil soul would therefore have a negative invidious influence upon what it perceived. Likewise, the common belief that spiritual beings operated in spiritual ways is the foundation for the belief in old Atlantic Europe that ‘fairies’ envied the goods and children of people and wished to spirit them away… The supposed sin of the adversarial Christian spirit called ‘Satan’ or ‘Lucifer’ and his troop of rebel angels was that of pride.

The ‘Evil Eye’ belief in the Gaelic provinces of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man remained important until the late 19th century. It evolved (perhaps as a result of widespread ‘witchcraft’ paranoias of the 16th-18th centuries) to engender two forms: The first (and oldest) belief was that it was a passive force derived from latent human foibles of jealousy (innate sinfulness). The more sinister form of the belief was that which believed the ‘Bad Eye’ to be the actual mode of witchcraft by which magical/spiritual harm could be done by a marginal and jealous socially-disempowered person. In Gaelic areas, there are as many records of belief in the possible abduction of vital forces by fairies as there were by supposed ‘witches’ or even by jealous neighbours. This may be a main reason why there were so few reports of judicial or popular murder of people for ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorcery’: The alleged ‘perpetrators’ were generally not believed prosecutable in court on account of their lack of corporeality, and/or could not be ascribed the criminal concept of mens rea.

The Gaelic ‘Evil Eye’ belief manifested to observers between the 16th and 20th centuries as the apparent desire by people to offer a blessing on any thing which they had expressed admiration of. People feared that they might passively or unintentionally cause harm. They also obviously feared that their admiration might invite blame if something went wrong. The fact that people who own something that invites envy are prone to that other ‘spiritual sin’ of pride compounds the social aspects of the belief. Ontologically, the message is ‘pride comes before a fall’, or before a loss. The proud are envied, and the envy is ultimately a force which opposes them. Morally, this suggests that modest-living and modest-speaking is the ideal which invites the least trouble in life… This ideal was to become an important cultural shibboleth of many old Atlantic European subsistence cultures, now fallen victim to certain malign aspects of modernity.

 

The ‘Evil Eye’ and the Atlantic world

In earlier posts I commented on how the ‘Evil Eye’ beliefs of the ancient Gaelic world were linked to belief in a poisonous force that could affect health, wealth and the outcomes of situations.

The English word ‘Envy’ comes from the introduced Norman-French term ‘En Vie’ which has the literal English meaning ‘In View’. It therefore is a term loaded with the feelings and consequences derived from looking upon things, particularly those that are outside of our possession or influence. The Latin original of ‘En Vie’ – ‘In Vidia’ – gives us the word ‘invidious‘, generally agreed to mean ‘malign jealousy’. These terms represent the main idea underpinning the principle of both ‘witchcraft’ and ‘fairies’ in the folklore of Atlantic northwest Europe:

Fairies were ‘jealous’ of our world and sought to strike a balance with their ‘inverted’ otherworld by stealing away the spiritual substance of what they envied for themselves. ‘Witches’ were jealous humans who sought to do the same – both were seen as active forces taking part in a balancing interplay of force between the mundane world and the otherworld. To the Gael, the ‘Evil Eye’ was more than just a criminal act – it was a fact of nature and part of a scientific worldview that described the apportioning of forces in the universe. In the non-Gaelic Christian world, people were consequently treated in criminal courts and (between the late-medieval and early modern periods) routinely judicially-murdered for being ‘witches’. In the Gaelic/Atlantic world – except in zones of frictional interface (particularly lowland Scotland and the Basque country) – there were comparatively few, if any, ‘witch hunts’.