Fairies at Beltane – friend or foe?

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

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

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

Protection from Fairies?

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

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

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


 

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


 

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


 

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming fairies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘The Hairy Helper’ – folklore of the Brownies.

The belief that there are omnipresent providential spirits that can help or hinder humans is one that pervades cultures across the globe. To some, these represent the spirits of ancestors, to others the spirits of places and land features, to others the frightening forces of chaos seeking to test our resolve. In European cultures, these are represented as a sometimes confused and conflated set of beliefs and traditions in ‘fairies’, ‘elves’, ‘goblins’ and so forth, that handed down to modern times have become contradictory and perhaps meaningless, but in former times were of great importance in navigating the perils of this life and the next.

Fairy traditions come in two main flavours – those about beings encountered in mysterious, marginal, frightening and liminal places far from the comforts and sureties of home – the stuff of good stories. The other comprise of a set of beliefs about fairies or elves interact with us right at the heart of our households and in our daily lives – the stuff of aphorism and custom. In the latter category we place the ‘hobgoblins’ – domestic spirits akin to the Lares once venerated in Roman households, who go under many regional names, but generally follow the same pattern: Brownie, Lubber, Kobold and Goblin, Urisk, Gruagachs, Robin Goodfellows, Hobs, Domovoi, Phooka, Phynnodderee, Glashtin, Dooiney Oie, Tylwth Teg, Mooinjer Veggey, Tomte, Nisse – the list goes on. It is about this class of beliefs that I am going to discuss.

The most primitivist form of the house-fairy myth comes from its expression in Scotland, Northern England and the Isle of Man, where they were portrayed as hairy, semi-wild, slightly stupid and powerful beasts who would help householders with the work of day-to-day survival in return for a bowl of milk or some similar simple form of sustenance which would customarily be left for them at night. Peasants living a subsistence lifestyle would be certain to leave offerings  to these beings in order to gain the favours of the Otherworld in their efforts. Just why such beings had an animalistic aspect is interesting:

Certainly, most of man’s helpers – if not other men – were the beasts whom they had domesticated to their cause, so it is logical from this respect that a Brownie, Gruagach, Phynnodderee or Urisk had a similar half-animal appearance. However, the significance of hairiness went way beyond the primitive and animalistic … The hairy ‘wild man’ had aspects of fecundity and fertility to him that represented the sprouting of nature from the body of the earth. It was also a more ancient allegory for the rays of the sun and tongues of flame from fire…

The worship of solar deities such as Apollo, Dionysus/Bacchus, Hercules, Ammon-Ra and the Celtic Belenos was as much about veneration of the seasonal cycle driven by the sun and the earth’s proximity to its heat as it was about a big fiery glowing orbs in the sky.  Sun-worship was ultimately about transience, changeability and -ultimately – reincarnation. The flowing ‘hair’ of animals such as lions, horses, the bristles of the boar and the flowing locks of a barbarian warrior were a popular representation of this force – the planet’s great fertilising power, represented by the ancient Celtic ‘Grannus Apollo’ figures.

Each winter in Europe, the Earth – like a person as their life progressed – grew old and sparse. As humans were an intimate part of the Earth, they followed her patterns, and they used their own experience to relate to that of the Earth. The baldness and coldness of winter was contrasted to the sprouting youth and vigour of spring and summer when the Earth regrew its ‘hair’ – the foliage and vegetation that re-sprouted from the body of the ground. Hairiness was therefore also an important and naturalistic metaphor for this growth.

The ‘help’ offered by the Brownies and their kin was also a metaphor for the learned experiences passed on between generations in a cultural based upon oral transmission. As such, Brownies might be considered the helpful spirits of those who have gone before – those who had grown out of the very soil of the land. They were therefore quite obviously a manifestation of ‘ancestral’ spirits, and were believed to congregate (as families tended to do on night time evenings) around the hearth of the house – a symbol of continuity, which was customarily kept burning in perpetuity in the Gaelic provinces (it was considered bad luck to let the fire go out completely). Bowls of water or milk, and food was left out at night ‘for the fairies’, who typically (being creatures of the inverted Otherworld) visited at night, which was their daytime.

The ‘man-beast’ nature of these spirits was represented in the winter ‘guising’ traditions (e.g. – the Scandinavian Julbocken or dolly or as a disguised person in an goat costume). It was unlucky to offer a Brownie (or Phynnodderee, or Domovoi) clothes, because (to paraphrase the words of Robert Kirk) ‘When we have plenty, they have little, and so to the contrary’.

In fact, the word ‘Goblin’ (a ‘class name’ for the ‘Brownie’ beings comes from the Celtic/PIE root ‘Gabbal’, meaning ‘horse’. The horse occurs along with the other profound solar images of the sun-wheel and the head of the ‘glorious golden warrior’ on most of the Celtic coins of the Iron Age. In Irish myth, the helpful but horny Dagda appears to have been a representative of this spiritual role. The Nixie and the Kelpie were perhaps other aspects of this spiritual role, when the helper also became the conveyer to the realm of the dead.

Sí People or Sea People?

The Aes Sídhe (Aos Sí) are the group that in Gaelic folkore are known as fairies. Their name translates to English as ‘People of Peace’ or ‘People of the Sid-Mounds’ depending upon our interpretation of Sídhe, for the word ‘Síd‘ and its variants are used in a number of ways in Gaelic literature and tradition:

The Tuatha Dé Danann live in the ‘Síd‘ mounds in Ireland’s legendary fairy bardic romance literature, for example at ‘Síd Nechtain’. The Hymn of Fiacc (6thC?) claimed that the Irish worshipped Sid, possibly suggesting a race of ?gods called ‘Sid’ or that the Irish worshipped actual mounds. Another hagiographic work from the Book of Armagh (Tírechán‘s Collecteana) describes the reaction of some aristocratic women visiting a holy well at Cruachan, where they meet Patrick and his party, and initially believe them to be

‘viros side aut deorum terrenorum aut fantasiam

This can read ‘Sídhe-men or gods of the earth or apparitions’ or ”Sídhe-men: either gods of the earth or apparitions” depending on how you interpret the Latin (aut … aut …). It is possible that the author was unsure of the definition of the terms…

17thC Irish Historian Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Roderic O’Flaherty) made this appraisal of the ‘fair folk’:

“The Irish called aerial spirits or phantoms sidhe, because they are seen to come out of pleasant hills, where the common people imagine they reside, which fictitious habitations are called by us Sidhe or Síodha. ”    (Trans. John O’Donovan)

His summation pretty much expresses the continuing Irish belief. However in the other Gaelic cultural and linguistic territories – the Isle of Man and Scotland – the usage of the term is often open to wider interpretation:

The Manx term ‘Shee’ is less commonly found in relation to geographical locations, although Manx fairy tales often involve visits to subterranean places just as in the Irish traditions. Manx fairies are more often found in wild, peaceful and out-of-the-way locations, suggesting the other Manx etymology of ‘Shee’ – peace – which also corresponds to the inverted state of active daily living.  The same goes for Scottish fairy places called Sithean, which can just as well be secluded places as they can be hillocks or ruins of prehistoric buildings. What the Irish would have called ‘Gentle’ places during the 19thC, frequented by ‘Gentry’ – all Anglo-Irish derivations of the Latin words Gens and Gentes, meaning ‘(a) people’ – generations.

A root-analysis of the words sharing the ‘sith-‘ or ‘sid-‘ prefix in the Irish language can be made by taking a quick look at the online version of the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (‘eDiL’), and is quite revealing. For example:

síd (síodh/sídh/sídhe) – a fairy hill or mound:; wondrous, enchanting, charm-  ing, delightful; In pl. = áes síde supernatural beings, fairies:;

síd/sidi – peace, goodwill, peaceableness;  a state of peace;  a period  of peace, a truce;

sith- (prefix) – long;

síthcháin – peace, a state of peace, a compact  of peace; atonement

sithe/sithi; – permanence (?), lastingness (?);

sithithir/sithir – ‘as long  as’;

Of further interest is how eDiL deals with the term ‘Side’ and its variants:

side (sided/sith/sidi)– a blast or gust (of wind); rush, violent onset, swoop (of a bird), spring (of an  animal); Examples given include the usage: sidhe gaoíthe which folklorists believe means ‘fairy wind’.

The intuitive meaning here for me is that all of these words are related to a common root – one of ‘onset’ or ‘springing up’ and ‘persistence’ which fit with the idea of fairies as the ANCESTORS.

Tírechán, in his collected accounts of Patrick, uses the term ‘Viros side’ to describe what some women think the saint and his companions are when they see them at the spring (fontem) known as Clebach. He does not use ‘Gens side’ or similar but explicitly comments upon their masculine sex. Why?

The first clue lies in the location: Cruachan Hill (‘Cruachan Bri Eile’), probably the Hill of Croghan in Co.Offaly,  bordering the Bog of Allen – a location with some interesting legends and archaeology suggesting it was once a significant place in the pagan Otherworld belief system. The second clue lies in what the women are doing – visiting a spring well. Water was seen as a ‘bridge’ to the fairy world – its reflective qualities suggesting the inverted ‘other’ state. Just as in all of the traditional fairy tales of boy-meets-girl – a woman would expect the síd people she met to be masculine in form, hence ‘Viros Side’

The connection with water and the otherworld is a very strong one in ancient Atlantic European mythology. To the Gaels, the otherworld was sometimes conceived as an island west of the great sea. It might seem frivolous at this point to mention the allusion in the title of this post to a similarity between the Gaelic word síd and the English ‘Sea‘ (from Old English ). However, this equation may not be as fanciful as it at first sounds…

The Germanic word ‘see‘ and its variants is very old, and in its original sense it appears to have referred to any standing body of water. The holy lake in which Tacitus (Germania) tells us ‘Nerthus‘ was bathed in her/his chariot before its attendant slaves were drowned there would represent a ‘sea’ by the old definition. Drowning in pools was almost certainly the fate of the high status Iron Age male bog-body retrieved in 2003 from the Bog of Allen, near to where the girls met those reluctant christian ‘viros side’. Given the importance of raths (often with moats) and crannogs in fairy mythology, it is perhaps worth considering if there is a connection between , síd and ‘sea’…

Moral philosophy and the Atlantic European ‘Otherworld’

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

What was this ‘Otherworld’?

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

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

Who was in the otherworld?

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

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

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

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

Where was the otherworld?

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

The otherworld’s moral philosophy:

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

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

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

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

From decay comes generation.

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

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

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

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

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

Sight of another World

The belief that people could have visions into an invisible world parallel with ours has long been a feature of Atlantic European culture. The belief in what has been termed ‘Second Sight’ encompasses visions that are both prophetic and intimately linked to the idea of fairies and the fairy world.

The 17th century was a period when there was renewed interest in prophecies due to political and religious upheaval. Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703) contained a particular account of the ‘Seers’ in the Hebrides in the late 1600’s, and is useful because it corroborates many of Robert Kirk’s observations of Highland beliefs at the same period. Kirk’s work, usually known as ‘The Secret Commonwealth’, was to remain unpublished until rediscovered by members of Walter Scott’s literary circle in the early 19th century. A perhaps lesser-recognised book about the Second Sight among the Scots (‘Deuteroskopia or, A Brief Discourse upon the Second Sight, so-called’) was published in 1707 from the notes of the late Revd John Frazer, minister of Tiree and Coll. There was considerable interest in the intellectual and scientific examination of such phenomena at this period.

However, accounts of the second sight go back much further. During the 14th century, Ranulph Higden – a cloistered monk at St Werberg’s monastery, Chester, was writing an encyclopaedic Latin compendium of knowledge about Britain that he called the Polychronicon. It was to become a popular book – so much so that it was eventually translated to English and printed. In this work, Higden mentions the following fascinating account of superstitions in the Isle of Man (probably gathered from a Scotsman called Martholine who was supposedly an administrator there during the occupation by Robert the Bruce):

In ilia insula vigent sortilegia, superstitiones, atque praestigia …. Ibi frequenter ab indigenis videntur etiam de die homines prius mortui, decapitati sive integri, juxta modum suae mortis; ut autem alienigenae et adventitii hoc videre possint, ponunt pedes super pedes incolarum, et sic videre poterunt quod incolae vident.

Which translates as:

“In this Island are observed prophecies, superstitions and trickeries … Frequently, by the very light of day, some of the islanders have visions of men who are about to die, and can tell by their appearance – beheaded or whole – in what manner they will meet their demise. Incomers wishing to share the sight of the Manxmen simply place their foot upon that of the islander.”

This description is congruent with those gathered 400 years later by Martin, Frazer and Kirk (who also mentions the placing of the foot), and there is good evidence of a continuity of the belief in both the Hebrides and the Isle of Man down to the 20th century if not longer. In fact, Adomnán of Iona‘s 7thC ‘Life of Columba’ draws upon traditions about Columcille which depict him as a prophet in the Hebridean sense.

Kirk’s 17thC account suggests that it was believed that ‘fairies’ would make premonitions by acting out or aping scenes of what was to come, and a near-contemporary account of the Manx by George Waldron suggested that this was believed in the Isle of Man too. Visions of fairies performing funerals or christenings were supposed to predict a death or a birth respectively. However, Kirk mentions the belief that each living person has an attendant spirit double which can be transmitted to appear to others over great distances – particularly when the owner was in peril. The other aspect to the belief was the appearance of inanimate objects such as funeral shrouds or hangman’s nooses in the visions, sometimes also of sparks of light. It can be of little doubt that there was a fervent belief in such phenomena which approached the religious, and that this was reinforced by telling stories of accounts of it, as can be seen from Martin’s extensive and somewhat credulous reports.

The concurrence of the Second Sight beliefs and Fairy beliefs indicates that the ‘Otherworld’ could be accessed by the common people, although not by all, and not always by choice. The world of the dead and the world of fairies were the same realm, albeit in a seemingly inverted state to that of ours, and from which we might gather information about the future. Periods at which the spirits were closer allowed for a greater common appreciation of what the otherworld might show, and this is why festivals such as Samhain were associated with popular prognostications. At other times, the Second Sight was the province of specialist Seers and ‘Fairy Doctors’ who could read the signs from where the two worlds interacted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wentz then goes on to comment:

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

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

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

Sluagh – ‘Hosts’, the spirit world – the ‘hosts’ are the spirits of mortals who have died. The people have many curious stories on this subject. According to one informant, the spirits fly about “n’an sgrioslaich mhor, a sios agusa suas air uachdar an domhain mar na truidean’ – ‘In great clouds, up and down the face of the world like the starlings, and come back to the scenes of their earthly transgressions’. No soul of them is without the clouds of earth, dimming the brightness of the works of God, nor can any make heaven until satisfaction is made for the sins on earth. In bad nights, the hosts shelter themselves, ‘ fo gath chuiseaga bheaga ruadha agus bhua-ghallan bheaga bhuidhe’ –

‘behind little russet docken stems and little yellow ragwort stalks’.They fight battles in the air as men do on the earth. They may be heard and seen on clear frosty nights, advancing and retreating, retreating and advancing, against one another. After a battle, as I was told in Barra, their crimson blood may be seen staining rocks and stones. ‘Fuil nan sluagh’, the blood of the hosts is the beautiful red ‘crotal’ of the rocks, melted by frost. These spirits used to kill cats and dogs, sheep and cattle, with their unerring venemous darts. They commanded men to follow them, and men obeyed, having no alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Hidden Folk’:

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

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

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

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

Fairies as ancestors in the Isle of Man

Right at the centre of Europe’s Atlantic archipelago, in the sea between Ireland and Britain and guarding the southern approaches to the Hebrides and west of Scotland, sits the Isle of Man – smallest of the surviving ‘Celtic’ nations. Although falling under successions of external rulers from Ireland, Scandinavia, Scotland and England since the middle ages, it has managed to maintain an independent cultural identity and language (Manx Gaelic, a version of Irish). Due to its insular nature, fertile geology, habitable geography, and because it has faced relatively little major warfare and social or political upheaval in its history, it has managed to maintain a good deal of its ancient traditions down to quite a recent period, traditions which elsewhere would otherwise have been lost.

The_Isle_of_Man_svg

When a man called George Waldron (a commissioner for the British government) was working there in the early 1700s, he wrote a treatise on the island’s history, geography and economy embellished with some interesting sketches of the beliefs, traditions and stories of some of the locals. His purpose was, no doubt, to portray islanders as credulous, superstitious and backward, but you can tell from some of the stories that Waldron’s own credulity was being cheekily tested. Nevertheless, the book he wrote: A Description of the Isle of Man (published posthumously in 1731 following his untimely death) stands as one of the late Early Modern period’s most valuable ethnographic tracts dealing with fairy belief in the Celtic/Atlantic world. Along with Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703) and Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth (1691) it was to inspire generations of future writers such as Sir Walter Scott, and fuel the romanticisation of what ‘progress’ was rapidly destroying. In fact it may have been indirecctly responsible for a great deal of the tourism the Isle of Man experienced during the 19th century!

Of the Manx belief in fairies Waldron had this to say:

Some hundred years, say they, before the coming of our Saviour, the Isle of Man was inhabited by a certain species called fairies, and that everything was carried on in a kind of supernatural manner; that a blue mist hanging continually over the land, prevented the ships that passed by from having any suspicion there was an island. This mist, contrary to nature, was preserved by keeping a perpetual fire, which happening once to be extinguished, the shore discover’d itself to some fishermen who were then in a boat on their vocation, and by them notice was given to the people of some country, (but what, they do not pretend to determine) who sent ships in order to make a further discovery: that on their landing they had a fierce encounter with the little people, and having got the better over them, possess’d themselves of Castle Russin (Ed – Castle Rushen, at Castletown in the south of the island), and by degrees, as they received reinforcements, of the whole Island. These new conquerors maintained their ground some time, but were at length beaten out by a race of giants, who were not extirpated, as I said before, till the reign of Prince Arthur, by Merlin, the famous British enchanter. They pretend also that this Island afterward became an asylum to all the distress’d princes and great men in Europe, and that those uncommon fortifications made about Peel Castle were added for their better security…

Waldron’s account that some Manx people in the 18th century apparently believed that their land was first inhabited by fairies and giants would have gained snorts of derision from the enlightened, rational coffee-sipping intellectuals of the day. He continues warming to his theme later in the text:

I know not, idolisers as they are of the clergy, whether they would not be even refractory to them, were they to preach against the existence of fairies, or even against their being commonly seen: for, tho’ the priesthood are a kind of gods among them, yet still tradition is a greater god than they; and as they confidently assert that the first inhabitants of their Island were fairies, so do they maintain that these little people have still their residence among them. They call them the good people, and say they live in wilds and forests, and on mountains, and shun great cities because of the wickedness acted therein; all the houses are blessed where they visit, for they fly vice. A person would be thought impudently profane who should suffer his family to go to bed without having first set a tub, or pail full of clean water, for these guests to bathe them selves in, which the natives aver they constantly do, as soon as ever the eyes of the family are closed, wherever they vouchsafe to come.

He paints a picture of a local belief in fairies not dissimilar to that of Robert Kirk, of which there is ample support in the Island’s folklore records, which show that the Manx had fairy-seers, believed that fairies prognosticated events, and that they interfered with the ‘substance’ or quintessence of humanity. He also demonstrates a belief in them as representing the souls of forebears who continue to live as spirits among the living, and are welcomed into their homes at night. Waldron paints a picture of fairies as moral agents who bestow a blessing upon correct deeds and living – a distinctly religious aspect to the belief, existing in parallel to Christianity.

Writing in 1845, following on from a renewed and somewhat more sympathetic romantic interest in fairies and the rapidly disappearing old world, Joseph Train published his Historical and Statistical Account of the Isle of Man in Two Volumes in which he noted the following custom:

” On New Year’s eve, in many of the upland cottages, it is yet customary for the housewife, after raking the fire for the night, and just before stepping into bed, to spread the ashes smooth over the floor with the tongs, in the hope of finding in it, next morning, the track of a foot ; should the toes of this ominous print point towards the door, then, it is believed, a member of the family will die in the course of that year ; but, should the heel of the fairy foot point in that direction, then, it is firmly believed, that the family will be augmented within the same period.” Volume 2, p. 115, (1845).

The implication here is that it was believed that fairies entering the house portended deaths and births, linking these spirits to the process of genesis and decay. In fact the hearth seems to have been the focus of the domestic fairies in the Isle of Man, as supported by numerous other Manx traditions: leaving bowls of water and food near the hearth for fairies, the traditional curse was a damnation of hearthside empty of ‘root, branch and seed’, ‘Saint’ Bridget’s bed being made here on the 1st of February, planting an Elder (‘Tramman’) tree at the hearth gable end of the house for the fairies to live in, rebuilding houses but maintaining the hearth etc etc. Waldron had commented that it was the custom of the people to never allow their hearth fire to be extinguished, citing the legend of the fairies’ perpetual fire going out, implying this was a superstition against calamity. The original Celtic New Year appears to have been Samhain or the night of October 31st (November 10th in the original Julian calendar) and it is probable that Train’s account refers to this, as throughout the Atlantic/Celtic world Samhain was a time to look for these prognostications. A similar belief in the ‘fairy footprint’ was recorded in Ireland during the same century by Lady Wilde, and in 1932, Manx folklorist William Walter Gill elaborated on Train’s observation of nearly 100 years before, saying that the Manx believed the fairy footprint to be like that of a bird – the crow (W.W. Gill – A Second Manx Scrapbook; Pub. Arrowsmith Bristol 1932).