European paleo-religion: Mater Larum, Holda and Huldra

Ancient Italic religion before christianity is often associated with the hierarchical and immanent-polytheist Olympian model of gods introduced with the economic, cultural and military expansion of the Greek states during the first half of the 1st millenium BCE. This followed closely with the increasing focus of power and settlement upon towns and cities, and a new emphasis upon commoditisation which would reach its zenith with the growth of Rome and its famous Republic, and fall apart after 400 years of Empire. However, the religion of ancient Rome had its roots in a more simplified, animistic and rural spirit and ancestor-based religion common to much larger swathes of Europe extending far into the north and back into the 2nd millenium BCE and beyond…

The traces of this more ancient animistic faith are seen clearly in the form of the disincarnate spirits known as Lares, Manes and Lemures (otherwise Lases, Genii, Daimones, Nymphs, Naiades, etc) whose immanence permeated all households, roads, boundaries, buildings, natural springs, lakes, trees and groves, rocks and bushes in the minds of everyday people. With the growth of powerful city-states, these spirits underwent various phases of promotion, demotion, conflation, renaming and reinvention and added to the already bloating pantheon of divine and semi-divine legendary personages and deified humans that would eventually mark the ultimate collapse of paganism in the face of the stripped, portable and reductionist literal religious philosophies flowing back from the Hellenised Near East. However, the belief in immanent spirits and ancestral gods seemingly refused to die even though the major gods fell away, leaving Europe with rich parallel traditions of animism in the form of folklore about fairies, elves, ghosts, mysterious wild females and man-beasts which persisted alongside monotheism until modern times.

In the literate and artistically creative milieu of the Italic peninsula of the archaic and classical periods, we are lucky to have literary, epigraphic and depictional evidence relating to these animistic beliefs, and in particular to the disincarnate spirits known as Lares or Lases who were at the core of the ancient domestic religion, based in the independent, subsistence tribal cultures of the past. These, like the more modern European ‘fairies’, developed various synonyms and identities based upon their status in relation to individual families, tribes, ethnic groups, places and shifts in power and cultural influence. As regional versions of them amalgamated some became demoted in status, while others grew in stature, this process becoming anchored in the power of the Roman Republic. This produced, from a number of anciently more important divinities, an Olympian hierarchy (important to expression of state power) with a subservient ‘rustic’ pantheon of lesser spirits.

A Lare was what we might call a genius locus – a spirit with a specific haunt. In the ancient world, a spirit was an incorporeal living creature made of what the Greeks called aither or aether, which could be known only by the mind. Gods were deemed the same, and therefore gods and spirits were a philosophical system for describing the mechanisms by which the corporeal elements were excited into life and motion. In Mediterranean immanent polytheism, it was therefore possible for all phenomena to have a god or spirit attached to them. In Roman culture, the Larvae and Lemures were restless and dangerous forms of Lares, whereas Lares themselves were usually spirits in a state of helpful and benevolent equilibrium with mankind. They were ancestral spirits of humans, also known as Dii Penates or Manes, who maintained a presence among the haunts of the living: a form of collective memory, representing the skill and knowledge of ancestors, passed down among the living. Households had shrines to them, and these must have evolved into tribal group-expressions as Lares also had communal shrines encountered in rural and urban districts, at crossroads and along highways. They also had formal worship as part of the greater state-religion, of which more shortly. Festivities associated with these immanent ancestral spirits included the famous Saturnalia and associated Compitalia, the Liminalia, Feralia, Ambarvalia and Lemuria, as well as other rustic celebrations such as the Robigalia. These aspects of the tutelary and protective ancestral genius locus seem to underpin some of the agrarian Etruscan legends I have commented on in other posts. This aspect of italic paleo-religion may have been preserved in Roman culture in the form of the ancient priestly collegia known as the Fratre Arvales (Arval Bretheren) as well as the Augurs and Haruspices. The Arvals held solemn annual rites designed to sanctify agricultural production, ensuring the feeding of city dwellers and thus ultimately the wealth and power of state. This was a chthonic cult appealing to the earthly forces, among whom the dead traditionally resided: a connection to the ancient paleo-religion with its emphasis on death and regeneration. This was such an important tradition that during the period of the Roman Empire, the Emperor himself was always one of the 12 Arval priests, the others being selected patricians who held their office for life. As these priests were not trained specialists like the Augurs, their temple preserved inscriptions of aides-memoires of some of their ritual chants, from which we know the following (Old Latin) ‘Carmen Arvale’ :

Enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate, enos Lases iuuate

neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
neue lue rue Marmar sins incurrere in pleores
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
satur fu, fere Mars, limen sali, sta berber
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
Semunis alternei advocapit conctos
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
enos Marmor iuuato
triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe! triumpe!

This invocation of the Lares (using the archaic form ‘Lases’), Mars/Marmor and the ‘Semunis’ (fertility spirits?) in an important ritual to sanctify agricultural production (90%+ of provincial Roman citizens were agronomists) shines a fascinating light upon older Roman religion. You might ask, for instance: ‘Why Mars? Surely he was a war god?’… Well, for the Romans, Mars was as much a protector and stabiliser during the Republican and early Imperial eras, as he was a symbol for aggressive conquest (during the expansionist era of the Empire). Militarised Romans tended to associate the virile masculine element with warfare rather than that traditionally associated with aspects of nature and animal husbandry during the springtime (Mars’ month is known to us as ‘March’). For the Celts, this symbolism of the fertile war-god was illustrated in the form of the rutting stag or bull with adorned horns, such as is illustrated by the god ‘Cernunnos’ on the French ‘Pillar des Nautes’ and the medieval Irish accounts of the ‘Tain Bo Culainge’ with its ‘rutting’ warriors in their riverside showdowns etc.

The Arvals’ main cult of devotion was to the goddess called Dia or Dea Dia – apparently a female version of the masculine god-principle Dio (Zeus, Jupiter = Dio Pater), otherwise identified with Juno, and also known as Mater Larum – ‘Mother of the Lares’. Juno was, of course, Mars’ mother in Roman myth, so it is no wonder that the Arvals invoked him along with the Lares. This would make Juno (as ‘Mater Larum’) akin to the later Gaelic conception of the ‘Fairy Queen’, as the hypostasis corresponds so closely with later Celtic conceptions of fairies. However, this similarity with later folklore from the historically ‘non-Romanised’ north European world does not stop with the Irish and British Atlantic fringe, but that of the Scandinavians and Germans too:

The evidence for this link comes through a tale told by a single surviving Roman source – the great poet and mythographer, Ovid (1stC BCE/CE), who told a tale about the Mater Larum in his account of Roman festivals known as Fasti. He uses her synonym Lara, claiming her to have been a Naiad (water/spring/river) nymph conducted by Mercury to the gates of the underworld for the sin of betraying Zeus’ love secrets to Juno (of whom she appears to be a ‘hypostasis’). Jupiter apparently orders her tongue cut out as punishment, but Mercury falls in love with her and has intercourse en route to the chthonic realm, where she gives birth to twins (of unspecified gender) – the first Lares. Consequent to her punishment, she became known as Muta or Dea Tacita – the ‘silent goddess’ of the dead. The ‘silence’ is that of the grave – that great keeper of secrets – and her children are hidden in the secret recesses and crevices of liminal places: hearths, crossroads, storerooms (Penates) and so forth.

This account by Ovid of ‘silent’ Lara and her concealed children is curiously similar to the legends which persisted in the (unromanised) German and Scandinavian worlds of a female character known by various names: Holda, Hulder/Huldra, Holle, Hylde. She was the mother of the elves who (in Icelandic and Norwegian Christian tradition) hid her children from God, ashamed by their earthy dirty appearance… The following Christianised account is taken from ‘Icelandic Legends’ by J√≥n Arnason, (translated by George E. J. Powell and Eir√≠kur Magnusson) Pub: London, R. Bentley, 1864, pp.19-22:

‘The Genesis of the Hid-Folk’: Once upon a time, God Almighty came to visit Adam and Eve. They received him with joy, and showed him every- thing they had in the house. They also brought their children to him, to show him, and these He found promising and full of hope. Then He asked Eve whether she had no other children than these whom she now showed him. She said ” None.” But it so happened that she had not finished washing them all, and, being ashamed to let God see them dirty, had hidden the unwashed ones. This God knew well, and said therefore to her, ” What man hides from God, God will hide from man.” These unwashed children became forthwith invisible, and took up their abode in mounds, and hills, and rocks. From these are the elves descended, but we men from those of Eve’s children whom she had openly and frankly shown to God. And it is only by the will and desire of the elves themselves that men can ever see them.

The English word ‘Hidden’ translates directly to Hylde/Huld etc in the Germanic tongues. It is immediately apparent that the folklore is immediately comparable to Ovid’s Roman account. It is possible that the ‘Romanised’ Germanic tribes may have introduced this myth into the streams of Scandinavian folklore over the subsequent centuries, but it would be hard to justify, given the obvious religious independence of these regions at the advent of the Christian Roman Empire. What is more likely is that the ancestral cult of the ancient Europeans was widespread and influenced the Italic peoples before the Etruscan and Roman cultures developed and flourished. It is possible that the two important ‘prophetic’ and ‘revelatory’ Etruscan ancestor-divinities, Vegoia and Tages, were the ‘children’ of Lara: Etruscan ‘Mars’ was called ‘Laran’ ūüėČ

The ‘sacred twins’ conceived in a grove between a god and lesser divinity are a continuous theme of Greco-Roman religion: The mythological founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus were supposedly begat by Mars upon Rhea Silvia (said to be a sexually-errant Vestal virgin, but whose name evokes a Dryadic Titaness). Rhea Silvia cast the boys adrift on the Tiber but they were rescued and suckled by a she-wolf (the wolf was Mars’ animal), before being fostered by a woman with the name Acca Larentia, otherwise known as Dea Dia! Castor and Pollux/Polydeukes likewise had a similar furtive beginning when their mother Leda was accosted by a god (Zeus) disguised as a swan, and they seem to be connected – along with Romulus and Remus – to the origin-tale of the ancestral Lares as mentioned by Ovid. This suggests an amalgam of various versions of an older myth with aspects also seen in Irish and Scandinavian mythology. Another example would be the hiding by Gaia (Earth) of young¬†Zeus from his devouring father, Cronus, on Rhea’s sacred Cretan mountain: Mount Ida – perhaps one of the older root-myths of the others…

Another aspect of the ‘Mater Larum’ that needs to be addressed in the form of the fascinating goddess known to the Greeks as Hestia, and to the Italics/Latins as Vesta: She was the virgin sovereign goddess of the domestic hearth, and therefore a candidate to be associated with the ancient domestic cult of the Lares. We know this because Cicero tells us the following (De Natura Deorum 2. 27 (trans. Rackham) – 1stC BCE) :

“…The name Vesta comes from the Greeks, for she is the goddess whom they call Hestia. Her power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and all sacrifices end with this goddess, because she is the guardian of the innermost things. Closely related to this function are the Penates or household gods…”

Her cult was associated (as was that of the virgin Bridget at Kildare in Ireland in the 12thC) with the celebration of a hearth with an ‘eternal flame‘. This links quite closely to the Gaelic ideas of fairies/ancestors and the hearth in places like the Isle of Man which persisted down to the 19th/20thC CE. The ‘Getae’ (the Celtic Dacians, ancestors of the Romanians) conquered by Trajan in the 2ndC CE were said by Diodorus Siculus (1stC BCE) to worship ‘Hestia’. Ovid describes Vesta as the third sister of a triad including Juno (Hera) and Ceres (Demeter), implying that she actually represents the fire-cored Earth itself, hence her round domed temple in Rome which suggested the form of the globe of the planet. This copied the form of the Prytaneum at Athens, and was reflected in the design of the Pantheon. He further states that there were no statues of her at her temple – she being represented solely by the eternal flame kept burning there, tended by her famous virgin priestesses. Of interest to Gaelic folklore, is that Hestia or Vesta’s fire was re-kindled with a ritual of friction (an evocation of sexual intercourse) between two pieces of wood, similar to that apparently used for the May/Beltain bonfires (see elsewhere on the blog)… Herein lies a mystery about the ‘virginity’ of Vesta: Far from being a ‘chaste’ force, she is actually a representation of the full sexual potential of the feminine – the flames being a worldly allegory of unconquerable lust and fertile intent. The tales of ‘rape’ and ‘indiscretion’ concerning the genesis of the three sets of ‘divine twins’ at the core of popular Greco-Roman (and Irish, Welsh, Breton and Scaninavian) religious myths are simply an expression of the inevitable transgression of this ‘pure’ state of lust which characterises inevitable natural forces. Vesta or Hestia was therefore also the original ‘Mater Larum’, and actually one of the most fundamental and important goddess-aspects!

Going with the fairies – Alesoun Peirsoun, Gaelic ‘shamanism’ and the Otherworld

In Robert Pitcairn’s ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland’ is¬†a very interesting transcription of an assizes court¬†record¬†for May¬†1588¬†from Byrehill, Fife, of a woman named Allison Pearson (‘Alesoun Peirsoun’) who was accused of Sorcery and Witchcraft, for which she was subsequently executed by garrotting and burning.

The trial is interesting on two counts – firstly to historians of Elizabethan/Jacobean political and religious intrigue,¬†as there was a scandalous connection between Allison and the deposed Bishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson. Alesoun’s trial was just two years before the famous North Berwick witch trials, presided over by King James himself, who interviewed the traditional healer Agnes Sampson – a character no doubt like Aleisoun in her beliefs. James VI showed an inordinate interest in witchcraft during the 1590’s – a period of great political suspicion and instability. Of the Peirsoun case, it is interesting that a polemic poem The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe (supposed to have been written by William Sempill)¬†appears to have been written mentioning the case and making a salubrious innuendo that Aleisoun was caught giving sexual favours to the Bishop in his chamber!

Secondly, and most relevant to us, because of the details it records about Pearson’s account of ‘going’ with the court of the¬†fairy queen and dallying with her entourage, and how they taught her special knowledge of healing herbs. This was interpreted as ‘sorcery and witchcraft’ but the details of her confession as presented in the surviving court documents tell a tale of fairy belief, illumination from the otherworld and the frightening and terrifying regard in which these spirits were held…

The items of her conviction were¬†detailed as follows¬†…¬†for those not up to reading Middle Scots and ‘yoghs'(3) etc, I provide¬†my own translation:

Source: ‘Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, Compiled from the original records and mss, with Historical illustrations &c Volume 1, Part 3, 1584-1596’ by Robert Pitcairn; Pub. Edinburgh 1843 The Bannatyne Club. pp.161-165

“… VERDICT: The said Alesoune, being put to the knawledge of ane Assyis of the personis aboue writtin, wes conuict be thair delyuerance of the vsing of Sorcerie and Wichcraft, with the Inuocatioun of the spreitis of the Dewill, speciallie in the visioune and forme of ane Mr William Sympsoune, hir cousing and moder-brotheris sone, quha sche affermit wes ane grit scoller and doctor of medicin, that haillit hir of hir diseis in Lowtheane within the toun of Edinburghe, quhair scho reparit to him being twell 3eiris of aige, and thair cuming and ganging be the space of sewin 3eiris, quhen scho wes helpit of hir seiknes quhilk scho had quhan hir poistee and power wes tane fra hir hand and fute, continewing thairby in familiaritie with him be the space foirsaid, dealing with charmes and abusing of the commoun people thairwith be the said airt of Wichcraft thir diuers 3eiris bypast…¬†”

“… VERDICT:¬†The said Alesoune, being put to the knowledge of an assize of the persons above written, was convicted by their deliberation of the using of Sorcery and Witchcraft, with the invocations of the sprites of the Devil, especially in the apparition and form of one ‘Mr William Sympsoune’, her cousin by her mother’s brother, who she affirmed was a great scholar¬†and doctor of medicine, that healed her of all diseases in Lothian, within the town of Edinburgh, where she repaired to him at the age of¬†twelve, and¬†with whom she had dealings for seven years, and was finally cured of a paralysis affecting her hand and foot, continuing in familiarity with him¬†in that time, and afterwards dealing in charms and abusing the common people with these for many years afterwards…”

The preamble is unusual as it states that William Sympsoun was both the devil and her cousin, suggesting that he might be a living person. Also, it states that Aleisoun was only 12 years of age when she arrived in Edinburgh. Things get more interesting as the record proceeds…

” … (2.) ITEM, for hanting and repairing with the gude nychtbouris and Quene of Elfame, thir diuers 3eiris bypast as scho had confest be hir depositiounis, declaring that scho could nocht say reddelie how lang scho wes with thame; and that scho had freindis in that court quhilk wes of hir awin blude, quha had gude acquentance of the Quene of Elphane, quhilk mycht helpit hir: bot scho wes quhyles weill and quhyles ewill, and ane quhyle with thame and ane vthir quhyle away; and that scho wald be in hir bed haill and feir, and wald nocht wit quhair scho wald be or the morne: And that scho saw nocht the Quene thir sewin 3eir: And that scho had mony guid freindis in that court bot wer all away now; And that scho wes sewin 3eir ewill handlit in the Court of Elfane, and had kynd freindis their, bot had na will to vifleit thame eftir the end: And that itt wes thay3 guid nychtbouris that haillit hir vnder God; And that scho wes cuming and gangand to Sanct Androus in hailling folkis thir saxtene 3eiris bypast … “

“… (2.) ITEM, for associating and staying with the ‘good neighbours’ (fairies) and the Queen of Elfland during many years past, as she has confessed in her disposition,¬†albeit that she cannot recall for how long she was with them; And that she had friends in the Fairy Court who were relatives of hers, who¬†were also on good¬†terms with the Fairy Queen, and offered her assistance.¬†She realised that while she was with them she was well, but when away from them she was sick;¬†Although she would retire to bed in good form, she might wake the next morning and not know where she was. During this period of seven years she did not see the Queen herself, but¬†encountered many dead friends, although eventually grew tired of visiting with them. And, that it was these ‘good neighbours’ who healed her by God’s will, and for the past 16 years, she¬†has been coming and going to St Andrews¬†to heal people… “

That some of these ‘good neighbours’ were known to Aleisoun as family members, who offered her help is an important aspect to the Gaelic fairy mythology. As we shall see, Aleisoun found sympathy from these members of the Seelie Court, but those who were not her relatives were of a more sinister nature in their behaviour to her. The court deposition further¬†details the family member she alleged to have met.

“(3.) ITEM Conuict of the said airt of Wiche craft, in sa far as be hir Depositioune, scho confest that the said Mr Sympsoun quha wes hir guidschire sone, borne in Striuiling,¬†his fader wes Kingis smyth, lernit hir craft; quha wes tane away fra his fader be ane mann Egypt, ane gyant, being bot ane barne, quha had him away to Egypt with him, quhair he remanit to the space of tuell 3eiris, or he come haine agane and that his fader deit in the meane tyme for opining of ane preist buik and luking vponne it. And that the said Mr Williame haillit hir sone eftir his hame cumming…”

“(3.) ITEM Convicted of the said art of Witchcraft¬†by¬†her own deposition, she confessed that the said Mr Sympsoun, who was her godfather’s son, born in Sterling where his father was the King’s blacksmith, taught her the craft; He was taken away from his father by a man of Egypt (AR: ‘gypsy’), a giant, when he was but a child, who had him away to Egypt with him, where he remained for the space of 12 years, before coming home again after his father was killed for professing his Catholic faith. And that the said Mt William healed her after his homecoming….”

The theme of being ‘stolen away by gypsies’ (the word gypsy means ‘egyptian’) was a common motif in medieval and early-modern folklore. ‘Gypsies’ – like ‘fairies’ – were often used as an explanation for both abduction and the learning of hidden knowledge. Another ‘out-group’ with a similar reputation who might be blamed were Jews, and in Elizabethan/Jacobean England and Scotland – Clansmen and their Romish kind...¬†Here, we see the court explaining Simpson as ‘gypsy-taught’, although his disappearance might have had as much to with the political fallout and murders around the time of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. His father was royal armourer – a high status individual. This would make Aleisoun herself of reasonably high status too, perhaps explaining why she ended up at the Bishop’s court…

In Item 4, she admits Рat around the age of 12 Рto having had what sounds like a possibly sexual encounter with fairies (although they might possibly have been humans). The jolly man dressed in green is a coded way of describinging a man from the fairy world in medieval and later folklore.

“…(4.) ITEM that scho being in Grange-mure with the folkis that past to the Mure, scho lay doun seik alane and thair come ane man to hir cled in grene clathis quha said to hir, ‘Gif scho wald be faithfull he wald do hir guid’; and that scho seing him cryit for help bot nane hard hir; and thane scho chargeit him, ‘In Godis name and the low he leuit one’, that if he come in Godis name and for the weill of hir saull, he sould tell; Bot he gaid away thane and apperit to hir att ane vther tyme, ane lustie mane, with mony mene and wemen with him: And that scho sanit hir and prayit, and past with thame fordir nor scho could tell; and saw with thame pypeing and mirrynes and gude scheir, and wes careit to Lowtheane, and saw wyne punchounis with tassis with thame: And quhene scho tellis of thir thingis, declarit scho wes sairlie tormentit with thame. And that scho gatt ane fair straik the fyrst tyme scho gaid with thame, fra ane of thame quhilk tuke all the poistie of hir car syde fra hir, the mark quhairof wes blae and ewill faurrit; quhilk mark scho felt nocht and that hir syd wes far war…”

“…(4.) ITEM that she being in Grangemuir with the¬†people that¬†held that estate, she lay down sick by herself, when a man dressed in green came to her and said that ‘if she would be with him, he would offer her boons’, and that¬†on seeing him she cried for help, but no-one heard her; and then she confronted him, (saying) ‘In the name of God and the Law he lives under’, that if he came in God’s name and for the good of her soul, he should tell. He went away then, but appeared to her another time, a merry man in the company of many men and women. She sained herself and prayed, and accompanied them, losing track of time;¬†They were¬†playing pipes and tambourines and making merry, and she was swept along to Lothian, when they took out wine puncheons and began to (?)make (sexual) teases.¬†And when she told of their actions, declared she was sorely tormented¬†by them. And, that she was struck hard the first time she went with them, for one of them caused her to lose power down her left side, causing a¬†bruise of ill-disposition, yet which did not hurt and it was her paralysis which concerned her more…”

The initial encounter sees Aleisoun feeling sick and then lying down, when she encounters a green-clad man who makes her feel uneasy and vulnerable. She eventually follows him and an entourage on a number of gallivants, culminating in the arrival in Lothian when a dangerous encounter follows: The phrase ‘and saw wyne punchounis with tassis with thame’seems to suggest the party plied Aleisoun with wine and began ‘teases’ (tasses) which might imply sexual molestation or interaction of some sort. Whatever happened, these ‘people’ who were subsequently violent with her and made threats, and she suffered the condition known as ‘fairy stroke’ – unilateral paralysis.¬†A relationship of secret trust had been established, perhaps initiated with the sexual encounter, from which she was to gain some powers, albeit under the threat of harm for breaking their trust.¬†Subsequent to these ongoing encounters and a sickness they engender, she begins¬†to learn the healing arts from them,¬†assuming the sequence of the indictment reflects her own¬†confession:

(5.) ITEM, that scho saw the guid nychtbouris mak thair sawis with panis and fyris, and that thay gadderit thair herbis before the sone rising, as scho did. And that thay come verry feirfull sumtymes and fleit hir verry sair, and scho cryit quhene thay come. And that thay come quhyles anis in the aucht dayes, and quhene scho tauld last of it thay come to hir and boistit hir, saying scho sould be war handlit nor of befoir; and that thaireftir thay tuke the haill poistie of hir syde in sie soirt, that scho lay tuentie oulkis thaireftir. And that oft tymes thay wald cum and sitt besyde hir and promesit that scho sould newir want gif scho wald be faithfull and keip promeis, bot gif scho wald speik and tell of thame and thair doingis thay sould martir hir. And that Mr Williame Sympsoun is with thame quha haillit hir and teichit hir all thingis, and speikis and wairnis hir of thair cuming and saulfis hir and that he was ane 3oung man nocht sax 3eiris eldar nor hirselff, and that scho wald feir quhene scho saw him, and that he will appeir to hir selff allane before the Court cum, and that he before tauld hir how he wes careit away with thame out of middil eird. And quhene we heir the quhirll wind blaw in the sey, thay wilbe commounelie with itt or cumand sone thaireftir, than Mr Williame will cum before and tell hir and bid hir keip hir and sane hir, that scho be nocht tane away with thame agane for the teynd of thame gais ewerie 3eir to hell…”

(5.) ITEM, that she saw the ‘good neighbours’ make their salves with pans and fires, and that they gathered their herbs before sunrise, as was now her practice. At times they would appear to her in a frightening way and¬†scare her badly, causing her to cry when they came. ¬†¬†And they came until once, at the Octave (?of Easter or Pentecost), she¬†decided to tell¬†people about it, and they then came to her and scolded her, threatening that they would handle her more roughly than before, and this time they left her completely paralysed down her side, causing her to be sick in bed for 20 weeks. Often during this period, they would come and sit beside her, telling her she would want for nothing so long as she kept their trust, but that if she would speak and tell of them and their doings, they would murder her. And that Mr William Simpson came to her during this time and was the one who healed her and taught her all things, and speaks and¬†warns her of their coming, and makes her safe; and that he was a young man not six years older than her, and that she overcame her fear when she saw him, and that he would appear to her alone just before the (Fairy) Court appeared, and he told her that he himself had been carried away from the land of the living. And when we hear the whirlwind blowing¬†across the¬†sea, this is made by them, and they will be coming soon after; then William will come before and warn her, and bid her and keep her and sain her, so that she not be¬†taken away with them again, for the tithe/tenth of them goes every year to hell…

The account of her ‘rescue’ from the tormenting fairy mob by William¬†is at once touching, tender¬†and romantic. Remember, she was only 12 years old when this started and claimed that she was ‘away’ 7 years suffering her fairy illness. During this time, William (who had been abducted from middle eird – middle earth –¬†by the fairy cavalcade – by which she means dead in this world)¬†teaches her and heals her and makes her whole again before apparently eventually tasking her with the healing of Bishop Adamson.

“…(6.) ITEM of hir confeffioune maid: That the said Mr Williame tauld hir of ewerie seiknes and quhat herbis scho sould tak to haill thame, and how scho sould vse thame, and gewis hir his directioune att all tymes. And in speciall scho said that he tauld hir that the Bischopof Sanct Androus had mony seikneffis, as the trimbling fewer, the palp, the rippillis and the flexus, and baid hir mak ane saw, and rub it on his cheikis, his craig, his breast, stommak and sydis. And siclyke gaif her directiounis to vse the 3ow mylk, or waidraue, with the herbis, claret wyne and with sume vther thingis; scho gaif him ane sottin fowll and that scho maid ane quart att anis quhilk he drank att twa drachtis twa sindrie dyetis…”

“… (6.) ITEM of her confession made: That the said Mr William told her of every sickness and what herbs she should¬†use to heal them, and how she should use them, and gives her his direction at all times. And escpecially, that he told her that the Bishop of St Andrews had many sicknesses, such as the trembling-fever, palpitations, rigors and gastroenteritis, and bade her make a salve and to rub it on his cheeks, chin, chest, abdomen and loins. And suchlike gave her directions to use the milk of a ewe and Woodruff, to give him claret wine with the herbs and some other things; she ?made a drunken fool of him,¬†giving him a quart to¬†drink in two draughts, between each of his assembly sessions…”

 

The story of what we know of her life appears to end sadly, mired in the vicious intrigues and politics of late 16thC Scotland and England, when she apparently provides a cure for a malady (?an ague) suffered by the controversial Bishop of St Andrews, Patrick Adamson, for whom she was presumably in service by the time of her prosecution. The fact that the bishop had many enemies (for reasons tied up in the battles for episcopal conformity and regnal politics) was probably a factor in selecting Allesoun for prosecution.

Allison’s own culture-normative accounts of¬†how she acquired healing abilities¬†(as well as her sexuality) were ultimately¬†to damn her to death, convincing the court¬†she had indeed consorted with devils (sorcery) and therefore committed witchcraft. Unfortunately, the court had no insight into her fairy beliefs, and her claim that the fairies taught her because God allowed it fell on unsympathetic ears. They had secured ‘evidence’ that she had made a pact with the devil (with requisite quasi-sexual aspects) and was carrying out magic taught her by devils, even though a ‘rational’¬†modern reading¬†might suggest¬†evidence of a bout of mental illness, perhaps bought about through rape and abuse.¬†A multitude of factors might have informed¬†her interpretation of events in her life:

Firstly,¬†hers is a typical origin story common to¬†many forms of exceptional or occult knowledge in the ‘Gaelic’ world. The abduction followed by a return after seven years bearing wealth or knowledge¬†is a standard motif of fairy-encounters, and occurs frequently in the folklore and¬†medieval mythological literature of¬†Atlantic Europe. Her¬†physical¬†(and possibly sexual)¬†maltreatment is another feature of Gaelic fairy lore, explaining both bodily marks and disease itself – pinches, strikes and blasts. Nonetheless, she gains from her disquieting association with the Otherworld denizens¬†a higher form of knowledge. Exceptional poets, musicians and craftsmen might have a similar tale ascribed to the acquisition of their skill, and in Allison’s case¬†the supernatural acquisition of powers¬†would have been a useful¬†‘marketing tool’ to confirm her legitimacy as a traditional fairy doctor by the time of her arrest.

Her ‘illness’ appears to have been a combination of paralysis and delirium which, in the case of a young¬†girl of 12 years of age,¬†could be explained by the possibility of either psychological and emotional disturbances precipitated by an act of rape,¬†or the deleterious¬†effects upon the nervous¬†system¬†of¬†Syphilis contracted from her possible¬†attackers. Other possibilities include transverse myelitis and polio, TB abscesses of the spine etc.

The aspects of possible rape may be overplayed, and her tales to the court of fairy abuse, followed by¬†‘rescue’ by a young and handsome¬†daoine sith lover who teaches her secrets might just¬†represent aspects of a budding and romantic teenage sexuality frustrated by illness.¬†¬†Allison was, according to the indictment, only¬†12 at the time of the start of her formative ‘otherworld’ experiences and illnesses, and these¬†supposedly continued for 7 more years.

The fact that Aleisoun¬†could have been mentally ill is another factor that needs to be examined.¬†She could well have been¬†experienced¬†a transient delusional mental¬†illness (with beliefs congruent on normative ideas in late 16thC Scotland) during¬†a period of¬†physical, psychological and emotional¬†recovery¬†following a traumatic experience of rape or even possibly being orphaned. Indeed, by her own confession she was ill during her seven years stay in Elfhame,¬†and claimed that the fairies (her relative William in particular)¬†made her better, just as they had made her sick in the first place.¬†However, this story may just be¬†her justificatory narrative to explain her¬†supposed curative¬†powers that she was using at the time of her arrest, some time in early adulthood¬†by which time¬†she was apparently confident enough following her childhood traumas,¬†to¬†find time to massage healing oils into the chest and abdomen of one of Scotland’s most prominent clergymen while plying him with wine!

To quote the words of the poem The Legend of the Bischop of St Androis Lyfe:

Scho being in the bischopis cure,

And kepit in his castell sure,

Without respect of warldlie glamer,

He past into the witchis chalmer,

Closing the dure behind his bak,

And quyetlie to hir he spak,

And said, his work lome was not worthe,

Lowsing his poyntis, he laid it furth.

Scho sayned it with hir halie hand ;

The pure pith of the pryoris wand :

To help that raipfull scho hes rest him,

Whairfore, ye say, my ladie left him.

For scho had sayned it tuyss or thrise,

His rubigo began to ryiss :

Then said the bischop to Jhone Bell,

Goe, tak the first seye of hir yor sell.

The witche to him her weschell gave,

The Bischops blissing to resave.

What dayis of pardone then scho want

The relicques of that holie man

Micht save her saule from purgatorie.

His wyfe, coceiving jelowsie,

Cryed out his deid, when it was done,

Ran through the tovn, and tauld it sone.

I will leave the Scots translation to you, but needless to say it contains an indicator of why Aleisoun was probably¬†bought to trial. The Bishop’s enemies would not fail to see the simile between the ‘adoration’¬†by this young woman of the Bishop’s body and draw a parallel with the body of Satan, with whom witches were supposed by the Christian doctrines of the day to have sexual relations… Aleisoun appears to be the confident aggressor in this matter (at least in the poem) and both the poem and the court transcript seem to suggest she was a well-established local traditional¬†healer, so she cannot be portrayed as a weak and feeble-minded victim. She was a strong character!

Perhaps the most interesting part of¬†Allison’s confession, apart from the suggestion of sexual initiation with fairies,¬†is that she met her dead ancestors while in fairy land! This feature of fairies as departed ancestors was later hinted at in Robert Kirk’s ‘Secret Commonwealth’, although he¬†evades expressing it as a creed directly, not in the least because he was a ‘bright young thing’¬†on the evangelical clerical scene of his day.¬†Kirk mentions the ‘spirit-doubles’ and ‘ghosts’ of the living and dead (seen by those with second sight) as if in continuity with descriptions of otherworld experiences with the ‘Sith’, and further discusses fairies as fore-runners who once farmed the hilltops where men no longer can, but he stops short of¬†equating them with ancestors. I refer you to read this document yourself (follow the links!).

After the Jacobite rebellions and subsequent land-clearances of the 18thC, the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders’ rapidly-disappearing traditional lifestyles and beliefs became a thing of interest to scholars and authors seeking to capitalise on the popularity of James MacPherson and Walter Scott. James Browne had this to say about their fairy beliefs in the early part of the 19thC:

“…According to the traditionary legends of the Highlanders, the Shi’ichs (AR: Sheogues) are believed to be of both sexes, and it is the general opinion among the Highlanders that men have sometimes cohabited with females of the Shi’ich race, who are in consequence called Leannan-Shi. These mistresses are believed to be very kind to their mortal paramours, by revealing to them the knowledge of many things both present and future which were concealed from the rest of mankind. The knowledge of the medicinal virtues of many herbs it is related has been obtained in this way from the Leannan-Shi. The Daoine Shi of the other sex are said in their turn to have sometimes held intercourse with mistresses of mortal race…”

From: p.112¬†“History of the Highlands & of the Highland Clans, Volume 1, Part 1” By James Browne (Pub. Glasgow, A. Fullarton & Co 1834)

This opinion seems to concur with the court account of Allison Pearson who apparently gained magical healing powers after a sexual encounter with men of the Otherworld. The contra-sexual aspect of tutelary human-fairy relationships is another example of the otherworld-inversion principle. It might also be noted that in the Gaelic world, a healing charm/piseog/pishag/ortha was often supposed to inherited from woman to man and vice versa.

That Pearson believed she had met dead ancestors in the Seelie Court may be an aspect of a phenomenon¬†commented on¬†by James Browne’s contemporary, Donald MacPherson (of the (in)famous¬†Gaelicist MacPhersons),¬†who discussed the Highland beliefs in the migration of souls¬†into hills after death:

‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and original poems: with notes on the superstitions of the highlanders &c’ By Donald Macpherson. Pub. London 1824, Tomas and George Underwood)

pp. 200-202

OPINIONS RESPECTING THE STATE OF DEPARTED SPIRITS

…The admixture of Christianity with the ancient religion of the Gael created infinite confusion of ideas with respect to the state of departed souls. Heaven and Hell were sometimes mentioned from the pulpit, but the nurse spoke daily of Flath inis, and the Hills of their departed kindred to the children at her knee, and ancient tales of those who had been favoured with visions of the state of the dead prevented the Christian idea of heaven and hell from ever being properly established. It was supposed that only the souls of the supremely good and brave were received into Flath inis and those only of the very base and wicked were condemned to the torments of Ifrin. The Hills of their fathers were in an intermediate state, into which the common run of mankind were received after death. They had no notion of an immaterial being, but supposed that each spirit on departing from this mortal habitation received a body subject to no decay, and that men in a future state enjoyed such pleasures as had been most congenial to their minds in this, without being subject to any of the evils that flesh is heir to. The belief in the Hills of Spirits began in general to give way soon after the reformation and in some parts of the Highlands it soon disappeared altogether. Others however proved more tenacious of it, and among some clans and branches of clans it lingered until very lately. The Orc, a high conical hill in Inverness-shire, was regarded by the House of Crubin, of the clan Macpherson, as their future inheritance, and the House of Garva of the same race believed that their spirits should inhabit Tom mor. On the entrance of every new inhabitant, those hills were seen by persons at a certain distance in a state of illumination. Tom mor was seen on fire for the last time, I believe, about thirty years ago and it was confidently asserted that some member of the house of Garva was passing from this into a better state of existence. But no death being heard of in the neighbourhood for some days an opinion already on the decline was on the eve of being consigned to utter contempt when to the confusion of the sceptics news arrived that the daughter of a gentleman of the house of Garva had expired at Glasgow at the very moment Tom mor had been seen on a blaze. But into whatever state the departed spirit passed it had for a time to return to perform a sacred duty on earth. This was – FAIRE CHLOIDH – the grave watch It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred to stand sentry at the grave yard gate, from sun set until the crowing of the cock every night, until regularly relieved. This sometimes in thinly inhabited parts of the country happened to be a tedious and severe duty and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends sometimes much uneasiness…

 

Both¬†MacPherson and Browne would have been well¬†aware of Robert Kirk’s recovered manuscript (first published in 1815 by Walter Scott and friends), and were influenced by the writings of (and Donald’s case, family connection to)¬†James MacPherson (he of ‘Ossian’ fame). MacPherson’s description appears to be saying that ‘fairy hills’ might be the ancestral hill of a highland clan. Although unsaid, Peirsoun’s account of the boon given her by her departed relative¬†seems akin to MacPherson’s ‘Faire Chloidh’, which was also known in the Isle of Man as the Keymagh (‘stile guardian’).

Even though Pearson’s account of herself retold at her trial is from a lowland source, it appears to have been bathed in the same legendary lore as the accounts of Kirk, Martin, Browne,¬†MacPherson and from records of more ancient provenance¬†elsewhere in the Gaelic-Atlantic world. That her reports of going with fairies to learn secret knowledge were repeated by others both before and after her are testament to a tradition shared by those persons who would become known as Fairy Doctors.

Moura Encantada and Mari

The southernmost Atlantean provinces (NW Spain, Portugal, the Basque Country and former Aquitania as well as part of Occitania) have a history and folklore rich in the traditions of the Atlantean Religion, and remember the Goddess in folk tradition as the ‘Moura Encantada’ in Portugal,¬†Gallicia and¬†Asturia, and as ‘Mari’ in the Basque Country. The Basques were late nominal converts to Christianity, probably being changed during the 10th and 11th centuries – the same time as the Scandinavians.

The Moura is remembered as¬†the most prominent member¬†of a race of ‘Mouros’ – equivalent to the fairy folk of the northern Atlanteans,¬†said to¬†inhabit the old Castros, barrows and megalithic structures of the region, as well as being associated with caves and springs – typical sites of veneration for pagans. She (Moura) is often portrayed as a frighteningly seductive fairy,¬†who like her northern European counterparts is able to shape-shift. She is¬†sometimes portrayed as being trapped in her haunts by a spell, and beseeches humans to free her in return for promises of treasure etc. She might sometimes¬†show herself as a serpent, a horse, a goat or as a cat or dog. Traditional activities of the Moura include those¬†also typical of (fairy) women in the northern Atlantean provinces – brushing her lovely hair, spinning and washing in particular. Although usually appearing as a young woman, some older tales portray her as elderly. In short, she has all of the attributes of an Irish, Scots, Welsh, Breton¬†or Manx fairy woman and can be considered as representative of an identical idea – the Goddess.

In a 1998 paper, Gallician scholar Fernando Alonso Romero (University of Santiago de Compostella) wrote an account of the Moura (sometimes also called Orcabella at Fisterra) and her activities. He noted that local legends generally suggested that Dolmens and Standing stones as well as landscape features were deposited by the Moura, suggesting she was analogous to the Cailleach in Ireland,¬† Mann and Scotland as well as legendary giants of the atlantic coasts of France and England/Wales. Romero also noted that as well as carrying stones on their heads, Mouras (?Moirae?) carried a distaff for spinning – redolent of the Isle of Man’s mountainous ‘Red Woman’ (Ben Jiarg).¬† Sites Romero mentions include: Arca de¬†Ogas, the¬†Casa de¬†Vella Troiriz, Casia de Arquela and Casa da Moura among others.

Mari, in the Basque country, is a similar character¬†more often¬†associated with¬†particular caves and is said to travel periodically between different abodes in these¬†caves¬†in the¬†mountains,¬†for example¬†between¬†Anboto and Oiz. She is believed (like Manannan in the Isle of Man)¬†to be responsible for weather phenomena. Like the Moura, she is sometimes linked to a tribe of beings whose collective name seems derived from hers¬†– the Mairu – a name usually¬†used in reference to¬†the Lamia or Laminak*. Unlike Moura, she is¬†sometimes associated¬†in legend with a masculine consort figure or aspect¬†– known s Sugaar or Maju, who has snake/dragon connotations. In this regard she shares legendary characteristics typical of ‘giants’¬†in other Atlantean districts – mountainous, cave-dwelling and chthonic, a controller of the weather, and often paired with a partner.¬†In spite of this, she is still a representation of the Goddess – the form of her legends is simply typical of the geography and geology of the landscape where her tales were told. Although considered a separate entity to the other magical female species of the Basque country – the *Laminak – it is worth noting that Laminak bear a more specific resemblance to the Portuguese and Gallician¬†Moura. They are considered more of a plural species, whereas ‘Mari’ is considered a more singular deity or ‘legendary place-holder’, but are probably representations of the same Goddess.