The magical swineherds of Irish mythology.

“…in ancient days first of the long-haired nations, on whose necks once flowed the auburn locks in pride supreme; And those who pacify with blood accursed savage Teutates, Hesus’ horrid shrines, and Taranis’ altars cruel as were those loved by Diana, goddess of the north; All these now rest in peace. And you, ye Bards, whose martial lays send down to distant times the fame of valorous deeds in battle done, pour forth in safety more abundant song. While you, ye Druids, when the war was done, to mysteries strange and hateful rites returned: To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars to know or not to know; secluded groves your dwelling-place, and forests far remote. If what ye sing be true, the shades of men seek not the dismal homes of Erebus or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life still rules these bodies in another age…” Lucan – Pharsalia 1stC AD

Wild and semi-wild pigs played an important part in the rural economies and philosophies of the peoples of the Atlantic Iron Age. Europe (including Ireland) was once extensively forested, and the Eurasian Wild Boar (Sus scrofa) roamed and thrived in this environment. It was from these that most local varieties of domestic pig were bred, but domestic pigs only began to diverge seriously in appearance from their wild cousins during the course of the 18thC when foreign conquest and trade and the acceleration of agricultural breeding programmes introduced new external genetic traits. The Irish ‘Greyhound Pigs’ and Manx ‘Purrs’ (which had largely died out by the early 19thC) were such throwbacks to the Wild Boar, whose long snouts, long legs and hairy bodies were ideally suited to a semi-wild existence of foraging. Indeed, these formed the majority of wild pigs in Ireland and Mann, which were commonly found before the agricultural reforms of the late 18thC.

“… In the mountains they have also a small breed of swine called purrs or wild swine; not that they are ferae natura or wild, for every man knows his own; but because they are bred and live continually in the mountains without coming to their houses, and both these and the wild sheep are counted incomparable meat…” (Account of the Isle of Man by Bishop Thomas Wilson – from the 1722 edition of William Camden’s Britannia produced by Edmund Gibson, Lambeth.)

The same form of swine-husbandry was still prevalent in Ireland during this period, in continuity with methods extending right back into prehistory. As well as allowing the ‘fat of the land’ to infuse the pigs, turning them away in herds allowed the more domestic breeds to mate with the population of wilder varieties, which in turn encouraged genetic diversity and disease-hardiness. The appearance of these semi-wild Irish pigs was evidently not to the taste of Gerald of Wales who visited Ireland (as a high church official) in the wake of the armies of the Angevin king Henry II’s conquest of  Ireland during the 1180’s:

“… in no part of the world have I seen such abundance of boars and forest hogs. They are, however, small, misshapen, wary, no less degenerated by their ferocity and venomousness than by the formation of their bodies… ” Topographia Hiberniae, Giraldus Cambrensis (‘Gerald of Wales’ or Gerald de Barri).

These hogs, so vital to the supply of invading armies, were the ward of Ireland’s swineherds (muccoi/mucced/muiceadh) who looked after them in the forests. By this period (and especially with the ingress of Norman feudal culture), the memory of the importance of the office of swineherd was largely set in the pre-conversion era before the 5th/6thC, as evinced by the number of tales in which these colourful characters featured. At this time swineherds were evidently powerful and influential men.

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

Wild pigs feeding in oak forests.

The earliest encounter between christianity and swineherds is recorded in Muirchú moccu Machtheni‘s account of the christianisation of Ireland in his ‘Life of Patrick’ from the 7thC CE:

” …He and those who were with him in the boat landed at Inber Sláne, hid their small craft, and went a short distance inland in order to rest there. They were found by the swineherd of a man who was good by nature, although a pagan, whose name was Díchu. He lived in the place where there is now the barn named after Patrick. The swineherd, thinking they were thieves or robbers, went to tell his master Díchu (about them), and led him upon them unawares. Díchu had come with intent to kill them, but when he saw the face of holy Patrick the Lord changed his mind for the better, and Patrick preached the faith to him, and there and then he believed Patrick—the first man to do so—and the holy man stayed with him for a few days… ” (trans. L. Bieler)

Here, the swineherd is the first point of human contact between Patrick’s mission and an Irish pagan. Patrick goes on to convert the swineherd’s master, Dichu, who becomes the first Irish saint, and is sometimes characterised as the swineherd in some medieval martyrologies. Muirchú’s preamble to Patrick’s arrival contains a passage proclaiming that the druids of the King of Tara prophesied Patrick’s coming and the apparent downfall of paganism:

…In the days when this took place there was in those parts a great king, a fierce pagan, an emperor of non-Romans, with his royal seat at Tara, which was then the capital of the realm of the Irish, by name Loíguire son of Níall, a scion of the family that held the kingship of almost the entire island. He had around him sages and druids, fortune-tellers and sorcerers, and the inventors of every evil craft, who, according to the custom of paganism and idolatry, were able to know and foresee everything before it happened. There were two of these whom he preferred above all the others, whose names are these: Lothroch, also called Lochru, and Lucet Máel, also called Ronal; and these two, by their magical art, prophesied frequently that a foreign way of life was about to come to them, a kingdom, as it were, with an unheard-of and burdensome teaching, brought from afar over the seas, enjoined by few, received by many; it would be honoured by all, would overthrow kingdoms, kill the kings who offered resistance, seduce the crowds, destroy all their gods, banish all the works of their craft, and reign for ever. They also described the man who was to bring this way of life and to win them for it, and they prophesied about him in the following words, in the form, as it were, of a poem, which these men often recited, and especially during the two or three years immediately before the coming of Patrick. These are the words of the poem— not very intelligible, owing to the peculiarity of their language:

“… There shall arrive Shaven-Head,
with his stick bent in the head,
from his house with a hole in its head
he will chant impiety
from his table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer ‘Be it thus, be it thus’ …”

In our own language all this can be expressed more clearly. ‘When all this happens’ (the druids would say) ‘our kingdom, which is a pagan one, will fall.’ And so it happened afterwards: when Patrick came the worship of idols was abolished and the catholic Christian faith spread over our whole country…

This theme of prefiguration through the prophecies and visions of magicians seems to thread through the writings of Ireland’s early christians. Ireland’s curiously smooth transit from paganism to christianity obviously involved very little change to the social order, with hereditary religious functionaries likely continuing their traditional familial or clan vocations within the new framework. That swineherds  were considered holders of visionary and magical powers is highly interesting. Was there a connection between this office and druidism or religious hierophancy?

A good example of this theme, with obvious references to Muirchú’s prefigurative testimonies can be found in the 14thC Leabhar-na g-Ceart/Lebor na Cert, or ‘Book of Rights’ detailing the dues of the ancient kings of Cashel. It commences with fragments of an older story of the founding of Cashel (Senchas Fagbála Caisil – found in another manuscript: Dublin, Trinity College, H.3.17: V, pp. 768–73) as prophesied by the swineherds of two local magnates, whose language dates them between the 8th and 10th centuries. Here is Myles Dillon’s translation of the Lebor na Cert version, taken from CELT:

“… In the time of Corc son of Lugaid two swineherds happened to frequent that hill for a period of three months, masting their swine, for it was a ridge of forest. The names of the swineherds were Durdru, swineherd of the king of Éle, and Cularán, swineherd of the king of Múscraige. And they beheld a form as bright as the sun with a voice as sweet as the lute, blessing the hill and the place, and prophesying Patrick. And it said:

A good man shall reign
over lofty and venerable Cashel
in the name of the Father and of the Son of the Virgin
with the grace of the Holy Ghost.
A bishop stately and benign,
sage of all the world in judgement,
will fill Ireland of the angels with people of every rank
with many canonical orders in the service of gentle Christ.

That form was Patrick’s angel Victor prophesying Patrick, and proclaiming that the dignity and primacy of Ireland would be always in that place. Accordingly that is Patrick’s sanctuary and the principal stronghold of the king of Ireland. And the rent and service of the men of Ireland is due to the king of that place always, namely to the king of Cashel through the blessing of Patrick son of Calpurnius… ” (Trans. Myles Dillon)

Of course, the period of three months refers to the period between Lughnasadh and Samhain when the acorn and nut crops were lying on the forest floor and when visionary experiences might be available to errant and bored woodsmen through the use of certain drugs then available from the plant and fungal world. The name Durdru seems almost to be a metathesis of the word ‘Druid’ or variant of the old Irish word ‘Draoi‘ (magician), making the link between swineherds and magic that much more intriguing. The Senchas Fagbála Caisil text goes further in making this identification, also giving the name as ‘Druidriu’ and stating that he proclaimed the first king of Cashel (after the manner of a christian bishop), and his descendants – the Uí Druidrenn – maintained this hereditary right under the Eóganachta Kings of Cashel who ruled Munster between the 6th and 10th centuries. Cashel was, of course, one of the foremost centres of christian power in early medieval Ireland – the tale seems almost to boast of a continuity between druidism and the portable faith, which spread by associating itself with the courts of monarchs.

The theme of swineherds as magicians is part of the narrative associated with perhaps the most famous and celebrated of the Irish epic tales of the middle ages, namely the Táin Bó Cúailnge or ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley‘. It exists in parts in several important manuscripts – the Lebor na hUidre (‘Book of the Dun Cow’ created at the Abbey of Clonmacnoise in the 12thC), the Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin (‘Yellow Book of Lecan’ from the 14thC) and as fragments and side-tales in the 12thC Book of Leinster. The 12thC saw a flourishing in northern European literature and story-telling relating to the former pagan era, ensuring that further copies of original written variants were reproduced and survive to this day. This may have been a factor of the ingress of continental courtly culture and its interaction with the bardic traditions of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Although the linguistic style of the 12thC copies of the Táin are identifiable with 8th/9thC Irish, the subject matter is set in the pre-christian Iron Age, containing a number of motifs identifiable across Europe’s Pre-Roman cultures of the 1st millenium BCE, so it is generally believed to originate in this period. Chariot warfare, magical bulls and fairy queens all make an appearance alongside the brave celtic warriors who contest on liminal river banks and sacred hilltops like so many rutting stags. The prize of the battles is the fertility of the land, embodied in the form of the two bulls Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach, whose genesis is dealt with in a tale peripheral to the main story, known as De Chophur in dá Mucado – ‘Contest of the Two Swineherds’ – found in the aforementioned Book of Leinster.

Contest of the Two Swineherds:

Similar to the visionary swineherds of the Lebor na Cert and Senchas Fagbála Caisil texts, the two contesting ‘swineherds’ in the origin-story are actually two powerful magicians, whose job is to guard the flocks of semi-wild swine of two great lords when they are annually sent out to ‘pasture’ and fatten on the nut-crops of Ireland’s wild forests. The story revolves around their attempts to outdo one another in feats of magic, resulting in their successive transformations into combatting birds, sea-creatures, stags, men-at-arms, as two spirits (scáth) and finally worms which slither into the source-rivers of their masters’ territories where they are consumed by cows who become pregnant with the two bulls, who represent the final incarnation of the magicians. The pagan themes in this are striking.

These two bulls come to represent the goal for the warring parties of the Táin Bó (‘cattle-raid’): Conchobar Mac Nessa and Medb and Aillil of Connacht. The tale’s narratives are of the contests of men and women – consciously mirroring the territorial rutting of the animal kingdom. The subtext of having the magicians reincarnate as bulls in De Chophur in dá Mucado might be a medieval christian attempt to suggest that the pagan spirit lay at the heart of the inter-tribal warfare which appeared to be Ireland and the continental Celtic Iron Ages’s perennial curse, albeit that the pagan theme of regeneration through death was not entirely alien to christian doctrine…

As swineherds, these two wizards or druids represent the conduit between mankind and the ‘fat of the land’ – that on the backs of their hogs, who are fattened freely in the wilds. That the two start out sharing their masters’ forests to indulge each another’s pigs contains a message of unity, that is destroyed when they are set against each other in contests which ultimately create the two bulls, who become totemic prizes driving human (or Tuatha Dé Danann) folly. This was ultimately the folly which broke the back of Iron Age Celtic culture, after all…

Collectio Canonum Hibernensis

The ecclesiastical manuscript collection known as Collectio Canonum Hibernensis (dating from the 8thC CE) contains among its collection of continental and insular church statutes some interesting comments about the origins of customs in the Celtic church. One of the more fascinating of these claims that the ear-to-ear frontal tonsure of the early ‘Celtic’ church was copied from that worn by the swineherd of St Patrick’s (eventually converted) adversary Lóegaire mac Néill, King of Tara. In a note erroneously attributed to Gildas, the text says:

“…XI. THE ROMANS SAY: The tradition is that the tonsure of the British took its origin from Simon Magus, whose tonsure reached only from ear to ear, following the very excellence of the tonsure of sorcerers, by which only the fore part of the forehead was wont to be covered. But that the first originator of this tonsure in Ireland was a swine-herd of King Loegaire mac Neill, is made evident by the word of Patrick. From him nearly all the Irish assumed this tonsure…” (translation from Latin by Hugh Williams, 1899)

The Saxon church’s ‘Roman’ opinion that followers of Simon Magus originated the Celtic style of tonsure is directly compared here to the Irish account that Loegaire’s swineherd wore this tonsure, and was therefore probably considered a magician or sorceror. No extant hagiography of Patrick survives to confirm the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis comment, although Patrick is said by Muirchú to have worked as a swineherd himself after being enslaved in Ireland during his early life. In the 12thC hagiography of Patrick by Jocelyn of Furness (designed for the Anglo-Norman conquerors, and their Hiberno-Norse cousins in the Isle of Man), the Isle of Man was won from the pagan magician ‘Melinus’ who pretended to fly into the air after the manner of Simon Magus. Patrick evidently enjoyed visionary experiences from guiding spirits while in his captive rôle as a swineherd, albeit that the swineherd appears to have been something of an elite vocation in ancient Irish society, causing us to question Patrick’s original true vocation:

“… An angel used to come to him regularly on the seventh day of every week, and as one man talks to another so Patrick enjoyed the angel’s conversation. Even when, at the age of sixteen, Patrick had fallen into captivity and spent six years in servitude, the angel came thirty times to meet him, and he enjoyed the angel’s counsels and their conversations before he went from Ireland to the Latins. He used to pray a hundred times during the day, and a hundred times during the night. One day, when tending swine, he lost them and the angel came to him and showed him where the swine were. One day after the same angel had talked to him about many things he placed his foot on the rock of Scirit opposite Slíab and ascended in his presence, and the footprint of the angel can be seen in the rock to the present day…” (trans. L. Bieler)

So why the connection between swineherds and magic?

The era of the early Celtic christian church crosses over with that of the decay of the late Roman Empire and its western authority, which was in turn coupled to the resurgence of indigenous cultural movements within the Romanised portions of the northwest European Celtic polities. One of these in particular was that of the Armorican Bagaudae or Bacaudae of late Roman Gaul – rebellious rural insurgents who challenged the power of Imperial Rome, and who provided a cause for which 5thC christian bishop (and mentor of Patrick), Germanus of Auxerre, was able to leverage social, political and (no doubt) cultural influence. To the elements of Gaulish society opposed to Roman power, this ‘grass-roots’ movement (so far as we can tell from our biased Roman sources) might have resonated somewhat with the marginal swineherds and Déisi tribes of Ireland, from the point of view of her continentally-oriented evangelists.

The ‘swineherd’ of ancient Ireland was more akin to a more modern cowboy of America’s ‘wild west’, tasked with driving herds of pigs from domestic corrals for fattening on the ‘mast’ crop of acorns, chestnuts and beech nuts in the forests which used to cover Ireland. As well as guarding these flocks, they served (as in the tale of the arrival of Patrick’s mission) as guardians and representatives of local lords at the peripheries of their territories. Swineherds were also engaged with hunting and retrieving these pigs at the end of the masting season before the swine-slaughtering periods which were around the time of Samhain in Autumn, and in late springtime leading up to Beltain. Swineherds were therefore important guardians of a region’s wealth and territorial integrity – significant heroes with great animal-hunting and trapping skills, who worked close to the liminal and magical zone of interface with the natural world. The idea of men turned away for a period into the wilds as hunter-warriors, living by the primal laws of nature is in every way evocative of the ancient and popular narrative tradition of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of Fianna

The position of ‘swineherd’ was therefore one combining the skills of both herding, hunting and trapping and was therefore far from a lowly job, but one of extreme skill, bravery and dexterity. Culturally during the European Iron Age and well into the medieval period, the boar-hunt was one of the highest acheivements of hunting skill and bravery, as these creatures were the epitome of tenacity, strength and savagery when cornered. The swineherd was, in this context, a prime embodiment of the protector-provider hero-archetype, versed in the magical mysteries of nature.

The boar was an iconic cult animal of the Celtic tribes of Europe: As well as seeking in the cthonic realms of earth for their food, wild pigs fed and fattened on the crops of trees, which were also potent archetypal symbols of ancestral continuity and the forces of natural regeneration. Conceptually, trees were also linked to the branching nature of springs, streams, and rivers, and – to the Celts at least – notions of the regenerating and returning Otherworld realm. The appearance of boars and serpents in the art of the Celtic Iron Age hints at the cthonic mysteries – both are ‘fanged’ and hunt upon the surface and in the recesses of the earth. Both shun human contact but can be deadly when cornered. Both represented the forces of regeneration inherent in the earth’s mysteries.

The connection between Druids and Swineherds:

Reading between the lines of Ireland’s early christian stories and more secular traditions such as the Táin, it is apparent that the ‘swineherd’ may in fact be a literary codification of the Atlantic tradition’s druids. Such an identity works on many levels:

(i) Judaeo-Christian distaste for swine as ‘unclean’.

(ii) Swine-herding was prevalent over shepherding in the Irish agricultural traditions. The use of the ‘shepherd’ archetype as applied to christian missionaries must therefore, in Ireland’s case, be subverted into a similar ‘local’ archetype. Due to the biblical negativity towards swine, this metaphor never really connected with the later christian mission. The ‘event horizon’ of Patrick necessarily erases any heretical or syncretic forms of christianity existing in Ireland before his ministry, the ‘Brigitine’ church, being one example of this, another being Pelagianism: ‘Gentile’ or ‘Paganus’ were terms used by metropolitan early christians of the Roman world to describe the rural peoples who chose the Old Religions. The idea of pagan religious leaders living with their herds of ‘little pigs’ out in the wilds was almost the ideal metaphor for Ireland itself, living as it did outside of the Romanised world of late antiquity.

(iii) Swineherds are identified with magicians and both of these are identified with pagan barbarian kings. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the swineherd-magicians become identities of the earth’s fertility (and, to give a christian subtext to matters), with conflict and unstability. The early christian monk and author Gildas (De Excidio Brittonum) portrays the violence, conflict and instability of his age (5thC CE) as being mediated by pagans, perhaps as instruments of god’s wrath for the improper piety of christians! In contrast to this turmoil, the christianisation of Ireland under Patrick is portrayed as being a smooth transition untouched by the anxieties besetting Britain which experienced the settlement and invasions of the pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes with considerably less ease. In Ireland, the ‘swineherds’ of the peripheries became the ‘shepherds’ working out of the seats of royal power, establishing abbeys in towns as well as far-away dysarts.

(iv) St Patrick was a swineherd in his early life in Ireland, his coming is prophesied by magicians and the first pagan he meets upon returning to Ireland is a swineherd. His ‘guardian angel’ Victor is first met when he is in Ireland working as a swineherd. Victoria was the Roman goddess of victory and overcoming death, popular in the late Empire even after the advent of christianity. She was cognate with Bellona, a war-goddess possibly influenced by or related to the Celtic war-god Belenos. The boar, savage in its own defence, was also an archetype of overcoming death among the Celtic peoples. A druid called Milúch moccu Bóin (his former captor) is the first man Patrick goes to seek out and convert upon his arrival in Ireland, according to Muirchú’s 7thC account of his ministry. Some of Patrick’s earliest successors had names invoking the memory of the wild magician-swineherds: Mochae, Mochtae and Mochua, for example…

So those ‘swineherds’ may well have just been druids – Ireland’s alternative to the ‘good shepherds’ of middle eastern and continental christianity. It appears that in order to survive the change in power which came, under christianity, to rest in kings rather than gods, that they chose (in Ireland) to become the ministers of a new religious hegemony. The focus of religious power shifted from the wilds – hilltops, forests and sacred springs, where the liminal ‘other’ was sought and mysteries expressed – into the heart of habitation. Druids and their herds of ‘little pigs’ munching upon the acorns of holy trees and drinking from sacred springs, became Abbotts and their monks feeding from another authority – that of the written word, and power not from nature, but from the world of men…

Tinneas Sidhe: Afflictions from the Fairy Realm.

One of the central doctrines of the Gaelic ‘fairy faith’ (Irish: creideamh sidhe/sí, Manx: credjue shee) was the belief that the ‘Good People’ could cause illness and disease. Although such a belief is well documented, the mechanics of it have rarely been explored in any great detail, although followers of my blog may have been able to gain a passing insight.

An 'Elfshot' or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky charm.

An ‘Elfshot’ or Neolthic flint arrowhead, here mounted as a lucky amulet.

The concept of Tinneas Sidhe (in Manx, Chingys Shee) or ‘Fairy Disease’ was a common across the Gaelic realms, and representative examples of its different aspects have been recorded at different times from Ireland as well as Scotland, Mann and Britain. William Camden’s late Elizabethan nationalistic masterwork ‘Britannia’ contained the following observation on Irish superstition from an English schoolmaster at Limerick called John Good, whose account he dates to 1566:

They think, the women have peculiar charms for all evils, shar’d and distributed among them; and therefore they apply to them according to their several AilingsThey begin and conclude their Inchantments with a Pater-noster and Ave-Maria. When any one gets a fall, he springs up, and turning about three times to the right, digs a hole in the ground with his knife or sword, and cuts out a turf; for they imagin there is a spirit in the earthIn case he grow sick in two or three days after, they send one of their Women skill’d in that way, to the place, where she says, I call thee P. from the east, west, south and north, from the groves, the woods, the rivers, the fens, from the fairies, red, black, white, &c. And after some short ejaculations, she returns home to the sick person, to see whether it be the disease Esane (which they imagin is inflicted by the Fairies,) and whispers in his ear another short prayer, and a Paternoster; after which, she puts coals into a pot of clear water, and then passes a better judgment upon the distemper, than all the Physicians.

The exact nature of ‘Esane’ remains mysterious to this day, sounding suspiciously like the term given for a cure, rather than a disease. However, Good’s account in Camden was partly mirrored by another, written some 300 years later: That of William Wilde (father of Oscar). He researched, wrote and lectured about the folklore of the different parts of pre-famine Ireland, a subject which became more popular in the late 18thC when many of the beliefs in the old ways were rapidly spiralling away. His wife, Lady Francesca Wilde used her husband’s observations and notes in her book ‘Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland’ (1887), in a chapter headed ‘The Fairy Doctor’:

The Fairy Doctor

IF a healthy child suddenly droops and withers, that child is fairy-struck, and a fairy doctor must be at once called in. Young girls also, who fall into rapid decline, are said to be fairy-struck; for they are wanted in Fairy-land as brides for some chief or prince, and so they pine away without visible cause till they die. The other malign influences that act fatally on life are the Wind and the Evil Eye. The evil power of the Wind is called a fairy-blast; while, of one suffering from the Evil Eye, they say he has been “overlooked.” The fairy doctor must pronounce from which of these three causes the patient is suffering. The fairy-stroke, or the fairy-blast, or the Evil Eye; but he must take no money for the opinion given. He is paid in some other way; by free gracious offerings in gratitude for help given. A person who visited a great fairy doctor for advice, thus describes the process of cure at the interview:- “The doctor always seems as if expecting you, and had full knowledge of your coming. He bids you be seated, and after looking fixedly on your face for some moments, his proceedings begin. He takes three rods of witch hazel, each three inches long, and marks them separately, ‘For the Stroke,’ ‘For the Wind,’ ‘For the Evil Eye.’ This is to ascertain from which of these three evils you suffer. He then takes off his coat, shoes, and stockings; rolls up his shirt sleeves, and stands with his face to the sun in earnest prayer. After prayer he takes a dish of pure water and sets it by the fire, then kneeling down, he puts the three hazel reds he had marked into the fire, and leaves them there till they are burned black as charcoal. Ali the time his prayers are unceasing; and when the sticks are burned, he rises, and again faces the sun in silent prayer, standing with his eyes uplifted and hands crossed After this he draws a circle on the floor with the end of one of the burned sticks, within which circle he stands, the dish of pure water beside him. Into this he flings the three hazel rods, and watches the result earnestly. The moment one sinks he addresses a prayer to the sun, and taking the rod out of the water he declares by what agency the patient is afflicted. Then he grinds the rod to powder, puts it in a bottle which he fills up with water from the dish, and utters an incantation or prayer over it, in a low voice, with clasped hands held over the bottle. But what the words of the prayer are no one knows, they are kept as solemn mysteries, and have been handed down from father to son through many generations, from the most ancient times. The potion is then given to be carried home, and drunk that night at midnight in silence and alone. Great care must be taken that the bottle never touches the ground; and the person carrying it must speak no word, and never look round till home is reached. The other two sticks he buries in the earth in some place unseen and unknown. If none of the three sticks sink in the water, then he uses herbs as a cure. Vervain, eyebright, and yarrow are favourite remedies, and all have powerful properties known to the adept; but the words and prayers he utters over them are kept secret, and whether they are good or bad, or addressed to Deity or to a demon, none but himself can tell.” These are the visible mysteries of the fairy doctor while working out his charms and incantations. But other fairy doctors only perform the mysteries in private, and allow no one to see their mode of operation or witness the act of prayer. If a potion is made up of herbs it must be paid for in silver; but charms and incantations are never paid for, or they would lose their power. A present, however, may be accepted as an offering of gratitude…

Although this account is particular to one individual from the South of Ireland, the concepts of the the ‘Fairy Stroke’, ‘Fairy Blast’ and ‘Evil Eye’ were more universal within the Gaelic world, and indeed further afield.

The Fairy Blast: The English word ‘blast’, meaning a ‘gust of wind’, was equivalent to the the Gaelic gaoithe, and the ‘fairy blast’ was referred to as ‘sidhe gaoithe‘ or perhaps ‘gaoithe sidhe‘ in Ireland, a term which was once often applied specifically to tornados and dust-devils, which were once believed potent visible manifestations of this force. The connection between spirits and winds is an ancient one: for starters, the Latin word for ‘soul’, anima, also carried the meaning of ‘breath’ as well as ‘spirit’ and ‘life’. Common technical understanding of spirits was that they were invisible and made of a very rarified substance akin to light itself. Because of this subtle nature, they were only usually able to move very light things, such as the air, and it was common for the medieval mind to attribute sudden unexpected gusts of wind to the provenance of demons or spirits. In fact, modern ghost beliefs still continue this tradition.

Why were gusts of wind associated with disease?

Ireland and Britain are lashed by seasonal winds and storms that are usually fairly predictable on the calendar. These events (more typically at the onset of winter) coincide with a change in the patterns of disease, such as an increase in infectious diseases of the respiratory tract. Wind can itself be a terrible and violent force, and is to be feared for this alone. The ancient ‘elemental’ and corresponding ‘humoral’ doctrines of disease saw health and vitality as being in a state of ‘heat’ and ‘moisture’, whereas the wind was ‘cold’ and ‘dry’, and could therefore be considered contrary to health. The mythological Cailleach Bheur of Scotland personified these energies, as did the Sluagh Sidhe – a turbulent aerial host of roaming spirits who were sometimes held responsible for the effects of the Fairy Blast. In the Anglo-Manx dialect of the 19thC the word ‘blass’ (blast) was used to denote a skin lesion – a spot, boil, lump or rash. The English word ‘blister’ derives from ‘blast’ (a German word), indicating that gusts of wind must have been associated with wind from Anglo-Saxon times or earlier. The suggestion is that external diseases were considered a form of buffeting or abrasion from a force without. Interestingly, in Manx skin rashes were also called ‘Chenney Jee‘ (Irish: Tinneas Dia, ‘God’s Fire’ – Ignis Sacer) as it was commonly believed in ancient and medieval times that the gods or god would burn the wicked with ethereal fire, which of course is also the substance from which spirits and divinities were conceived as being composed of. Of course the Irish/Gaelic word for disease – tinneas – is derived directly form that which means ‘fire’ (teine), illustrating that an ancient concept linked disease to the unseen spiritual fire. 

A good crop of Ireland's prime 'fairy herb' - Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as 'Luss Mor' or 'Foxglove'.

A good crop of Ireland’s prime ‘fairy herb’ – Digitalis Purpurea. Also known as ‘Luss Mor’ or ‘Foxglove’, it was used in ‘cures’ to defeat fairy influence. Notoriously it was occasionally fed to ‘changeling’ children, causing their death.

In the Old Testament Bible Book of Leviticus (likely a product of Babylonian Judaean exiles under the influence of Mazdaism), these cutaneous diseases are referred to by the generic term ‘leprosies’, commonly misconceived of as what we now sometimes call ‘Hansen’s Disease’. In the Middle Ages, the Christian church and society was obsessed with ‘leprosy’ in the biblical context, which was the idea of disease caused by divine agency – outwardly visible marks of divine disfavour. Of course, to country people in the Gaelic world these disease-inflicting agencies were fairies, and the church devised an interpretation that that fairies were elements of the angelic host who had been cast out of paradise in the christian narrative of ‘Lucifer’ and his ‘fall from heaven’. Again, from Lady Wilde’s book:

The Fairies as Fallen Angels

THE islanders, like 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. As a rule, the people look on fire as the great preservative against witchcraft, for the devil has no power except in the dark. So they put a live coal under the churn, and they wave a lighted wisp of straw above the cow’s head if the beast seems sickly. But as to the pigs, they take no trouble, for they say the devil has no longer any power over them now. When they light a candle they cross themselves, because the evil spirits are then clearing out of the house in fear of the light. Fire and Holy Water they hold to be sacred, and are powerful; and the best safeguard against all things evil, and the surest test in case of suspected witchcraft.

That this concept was once common across Europe (from Russia to Iceland), indicates that it was an official church doctrine to equate fairies and elves with the fallen angels of the biblical narrative’s interpretation. The legend of the Fall popularly ascribed elemental stations to the angels when they lodged in the various parts of the ‘Elemental’ mundane world. The spirits who occupied the air evidently became the ‘Sidhe Gaoithe’. The gradual onset of skin lesions can fit logically with the mode of action of wind which frequently starts gently and increases gradually. Sometimes, mysterious bruises appearing upon the limbs were ascribed to ‘fairy pinches‘, and in the Isle of Man it was once a customary belief that improper piety to the Good People by not leaving them a bowl of fresh water at night would invite these particular skin blemishes. However, the sudden onset of illness was attributed to what is known as the ‘Fairy Stroke’.

The Fairy Stroke and Evil Eye:

A striking or blow by the fairies (or unspecified spirits) was deemed responsible for a number of afflictions which might sometimes also be classed as ‘Tinneas Sidhe’: A sudden sharp pain, seizure or paralysis was likely caused by a ‘stroke’ or blow from an invisible being. The term even persists in the English language for describing the effects of a cerebral infarction or haemorrhage! The idea of being ‘Buailte‘ (‘struck’), is actually quite a complicated subject which combines with that of the Evil Eye, the Fairy Blast, and the concept of being ‘Elf-Shot’.

A belief that fairies and elves cast darts at people to harm them was fairly widespread, especially in Scotalnd and (hence) Northern Ireland, and was reinforced by the presence of curious and beautiful Neolithic-era stone arrowheads that are not occasionally discovered in the landscape, and have long been a subject of curious speculation. Lady Wilde’s description of girls being considered ‘fairy struck’ when they pined away for a supposed fairy lover who desired them owes more, it seems, to the concept of the ‘Evil Eye’ or ‘Jealous Eye’, or to the concept of fairies ‘taking’ people, changelings etc. The mysterious plasticity of this belief in ‘striking’ is best approached by trying to understand the ancient beliefs about light, vision, intellect, the soul and spirits. I have attempted to explain the concept in this article here. See here also. As ‘striking unknown’ and the ‘bad eye’ were also attributes often popularly ascribed to humans practising magic or witchcraft, is somewhat complicated by Robert Kirk’s famous and detailed 17thC account of fairy traditions in the Scottish Highlanders who believed that living people were accompanied by a ‘spirit double’ who is one of the fairies, or as he calls them – Sith:

…THEY (Ed: fairies) are clearly seen by these Men of the SECOND SIGHT to eat at Funeralls & Banquets; hence many of the Scottish-Irish will not teast Meat at these Meittings, lest they have Communion with, or be poysoned by, them. So are they seen to carrie the Beer (Ed: Bier) or Coffin with the Corps among the midle-earth Men (Ed: people of our world) to the Grave. Some Men of that exalted Sight (whither by Art or Nature) have told me they have seen at these Meittings a Doubleman, or the Shape of some Man in two places; that is, a superterranean and a subterranean Inhabitant, perfectly resembling one another in all Points, whom he notwithstanding could easily distinguish one from another, by some secret Tockens and Operations, and so go speak to the Man his Neighbour and Familiar, passing by the Apparition or Resemblance of him. They avouch that every Element and different State of Being have Animals resembling these of another Element; as there be Fishes sometimes at Sea resembling Monks of late Order in all their Hoods and Dresses; so as the Roman invention of good and bad Dæmons, and guardian Angells particularly assigned, is called by them an ignorant Mistake, sprung only from this Originall. They call this Reflex-man a Co-walker, every way like the Man, as a Twin-brother and Companion, haunting him as his shadow, as is oft seen and known among Men (resembling the Originall,) both before and after the Originall is dead, and wes also often seen of old to enter a Hous, by which the People knew that the Person of that Liknes wes to Visite them within a few days. This Copy, Echo, or living Picture, goes att last to his own Herd. It accompanied that Person so long and frequently for Ends best known to it selfe, whither to guard him from the secret Assaults of some of its own Folks, or only as ane sportfull Ape to counterfeit all his Actions. However, the Stories of old WITCHES prove beyond contradiction, that all Sorts of People, Spirits which assume light aery Bodies, or crazed Bodies coacted by forrein Spirits, seem to have some Pleasure, (at least to asswage from Pain or Melancholy,) by frisking and capering like Satyrs, or whistling and screeching (like unlukie Birds) in their unhallowed Synagogues and Sabboths. If invited and earnestly required, these Companions make themselves knowne and familiar to Men; other wise, being in a different State and Element, they nather can nor will easily converse with them…

Kirk’s account is perhaps the most technical and in-depth of the system behind the fairy belief that we have, written down as it was at the behest of his friends excitedly discussing the emerging scientific revolution among London’s coffee shops and salons. His account is interesting as it emphasises that the Sith or fairies sicken by stealing away the quintessence of earthly objects, beasts and people. He mentions that the Sith strike and pierce, but merely as a means for extracting what they are after:

…They also pierce Cows or other Animals, usewally said to be Elf-shot, whose purest Substance (if they die) these Subterraneans take to live on, viz. the aereal and ætherial Parts, the most spirituous Matter for prolonging of Life, such as Aquavitæ (moderately taken) is among Liquors, leaving the terrestrial behind. The Cure of such Hurts is, only for a Man to find out the Hole with his Finger; as if the Spirits flowing from a Man’s warme Hand were Antidote sufficient against their poyson’d Dairts…

Of course, the Evil Eye was also responsible for causing transference of quintessence and the Manx called this stolen substance ‘Tarra’, ‘Tharroo’ or ‘Tharrey’. They referred to the condition of being afflicted with the Evil Eye ‘yn aarcheoid‘, and employed a number of charms and rituals in order to recover lost Tarra caused by this state. Manx accounts of the effect of the evil eye and fairies, like many Gaelic fairy tales from elsewhere are frequently accompanied by the victim experiencing a sudden sharp pain. This is illustrated in ‘Ned Quayle’s Story Of The Fairy Pig’ from Sophia Morrison’s ‘Manx Fairy Tales’:

…WHEN I was a little boy, we lived over by Sloc. One day, when I was six years old, my mother and my grandmother went up the mountain to make hay and I was left by myself. It was getting rather late, and they had not come back, so I was frightened, and started off up the mountain to try and find them. I had not gone far when I saw running before me a little snow-white pig. At first I thought it was some neighbour’s pig and I tried to catch it, but it ran from me and I ran after it. As it went I saw that it was not like an ordinary pig-its tail was feathery and spread out like a fan, and it had long lapping ears that swept the ling. Now and again it turned its head and looked at me, and its eyes were burning like fire. We went higher and higher up the mountain, and all of a sudden I found myself at the edge of a steep brow and was all but over. I turned just in time, and ran as hard as I could go down the mountain and the pig after me. When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw that it was jumping over the big stones and rocks on the mountain side as if they had been butts of ling. I thought it would catch me; it was close behind me when I ran in at our garden gate, but I was just in time, and I slammed the door upon it. I told my mother and my grandmother what had happened, and my grandmother said it was a Fairy Pig. I was not like myself that night ; I could not eat any supper, and I went soon to my bed ; I could not sleep, but lay tossing about; and was burning hot. After a time my mother opened the door to see if I was asleep, and when she looked at me, HER EYES WERE LIKE THE PIG’S EYES. I felt a sharp pain go through my right leg like a stab. After that the pain never left me; it was so bad that I could not bear to be touched, and I could eat nothing. I grew worse and worse, and after some days my father said he would take me to a Charmer at Castletown. They lifted me in the sheet, four men taking the four corners, and carried me to a cart. Never, will I forget the shaking and jolting I had in that cart. When we got to Castletown I was more dead than alive. The Charmer lived in Arbory Street and they took me to his house. When he saw me he said that they must all go away and leave me alone with him, so my father and my mother went to wait for me at The George. The Charmer carried me to a room upstairs and sent his wife away, and laid me on the floor and locked the door. Then he took down a big book and placed it on the floor beside me. He opened it at the picture of a little plant-I can see the plant to this day-and he pointed with his left hand to the picture, and with his right hand he made the sign of the cross on my leg, where the stab went through me, and said: ‘ Ta mee skeaylley yn guin shoh ayns en.nym yn Ayr, as y Vac, as y Spyrryd Noo, Ned Quayle. My she guin, ayns ennym y Chiarn, ta mee skealley eh ass yn eill, ass ny fehyn, as ass ny craueyn,’ which means in English-I spread this fairy shot in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Ned Quayle. If it is a fairy shot, in the name of the Lord, I spread it out of the flesh, out of the sinews, and out of the bones. That minute the pain left me. I felt very hungry, and the Charmer’s wife set me at a table and gave me dinner. The Charmer went to fetch my father and my mother, and when they came in I was eating like two. The Charmer told my mother I must not go on the mountain alone between the lights again. The pain never came back. I have been sound from that day to this, but I have the mark on my leg where the stab went through as clear as glass to the bone…

The word ‘archeoid’ is suffixed by the Manx Gaelic word ‘-keoi’ (Scots Gaelic  = cuthaich), which means ‘disturbed state of mind’, ‘madness’ or ‘frenzy’. It was cured by herb magic and through performing certain rituals. This brings us to another manner in which fairies could sicken people:

‘Taking’:

Another pathological power believed exercised by fairies was their ability to sicken or delude the mind, causing their victim to go running off (or be ‘carried off’) in a wild fugue or frenzy, to become lost and disorientated. The above tale of wild pursuit by a fairy pig and a state of delirium occasioned by the pig’s gaze in fact embody the synthesis of ‘taking’, the ‘fairy stroke’ and the ‘evil eye’ all together. Being ‘abducted’ by fairies and placed in a state of confusion is one of the commonest motifs in Gaelic fairy stories. It represents the victim somehow having the entrance to the fairy world ‘pierced’ so that he or she might enter its strange dimensions. To return whole from this realm was dependent upon a number of frequently encountered stipulations, such not eating the fairies food, or taking their wine; Not setting foot on their lawns or meadows is a common caution in Ireland’s medieval fairy tales. Not looking back or conversing with spirits is also a common theme, which has obvious provenance identifiable in the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, such as the tales of Orpheus and Euridice. Fairy ‘taking’ was often ascribed to a ‘fairy horse’ (such as the Kelpie or Nikker) whom the victim rashly decided to try and ride, and fairies were blamed for riding domestic horses at night so that their owners found them exhausted by the morning time. Likewise, humans ‘ridden’ by the fairies would meet the morning dazed and exhausted. The sickening, weakening or befuddling effect of fairies was often ascribed to setting foot upon one of their precincts. Raths, meadows, fairy circles (mushroom rings) and other ‘sidheogue‘ or ‘sidheach’ places had the power to inflict these states. The ‘hungry grass’ or féar gortachwas said to be a patch of grass which had the power to make you suddenly hungry and weak. It was etymologically and conceptually linked to a hunger-spirit called the Fear Gorta (‘hungry man’), a concept recognisably related to the hungry abstracting concept of Fairies desiring the wealth of this world in order to strike a balance with the otherworld (read Kirk and my own commentaries on the Gaelic Otherworld.) In fact, delirium and states of mental confusion are not in themselves uncommon. The elderly are particularly prone to them, as are those who consume too much alcohol for a prolonged period of time. In medieval times, there were further perils faced by the Gaelic peoples which may have influenced their beliefs about mystical and confusing encounters with the Sidhe/Sith/Shee peoples: For starters, famine could cause states of starvation resulting in hallucinations. When food was plentiful, there was the ever-attendant risk of grain crop contamination with the hallucinogenic Ergot fungus (Claviceps Purpurea) as well as the weed-grass known as Darnel (Lolium Temulentum), whose seeds were equally hallucinogenic and could be easily confused for barley. Both of these were known to cause sharp bodily pains as part of their side effects. Darnel also caused trembling and dull vision. Sudden shocks can induce a condition called ‘Transient Global Amnesia’ which seems to be triggered by blood being forced upwards into the neck when people either fall or experience a sudden stressful event, causing a period of memory loss and bewilderment often lasting hours…

Changelings: wasting-diseases, famine and being ‘taken away’:

Obviously, the attrition of jealous fairy-folk was often blamed for the wasting and fading of vitality associated with particular diseases, a fact often noted by observers such as William Robert Wilde during Ireland’s famine era. In Ireland, the term ‘Cnaoidh’ (‘Cnai’) was used to describe the effects of marasmus (whole body wasting due to dietary energy-deficiency) common to that period. Other widespread endemic diseases such as Tuberculosis and Rickets could also cause such states, as would conditions such as cancer. The power of the Otherworld (expressed so potently by Kirk) to take away life and vitality from those considered vulnerable: ‘Changelings‘ were not just infants, but could also be older children, even adults.

The folklore of the ‘changeling’ was a very ancient and common feature of fairy-beliefs up until the 19thC. It was noted that apparently healthy and flourishing children might all of a sudden become sickly and gradually dwindle away. Such beliefs were common before modern medical sciences began to understand and deal with many of the causes of infant and child mortality, particularly malnutrition (which often also affected the minds and judgement of parents) as well as infectious diseases, diabetes and cancers. Formerly, it was believed that the suddenly ‘different’ child was replaced by a fairy child, while the latterly vigorous youngster was taken to continue thriving in the fairy realm.

Summary: The fairies of Atlantic Europe were believed capable of causing disease, either by the mode of removing nutritional vitality and quintessence through their hunger for the goodness of the living, or through physical attacks by searing magical fiery (or chilling) winds, or by dispensing ‘projectiles’ causing sudden ‘attacks’ of disease. They also possessed the power to abduct and control people – making them ‘wild’ or mad.

Beltane: not a ‘fire festival’…

The 'Beltaine flower' Caltha Palustris (, Marsh Marigold, Lus buí Bealtaine) emerging in 'curragh' pools at Beltaine.

The ‘Beltaine flower’ Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Lus Buí Bealtaine) emerging in ‘curragh’ pools at Beltaine.

The ancient Atlantic Gaelic seasonal festival of Beltane, Beltaine or Boaldyn (usually ascribed to the 1st May/12th May) celebrates the opening of summer and the burgeoning growth and fertility of nature. Before the second half of the 19th century, it was a great cause for public and domestic celebrations and observances in many rural districts of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, as well as many districts is Wales and England. Seemingly coming down from prehistory, these seasonal May celebrations were characterised by hilltop bonfire parties, cattle-saining (prior to transhumance to the summer pasturage) and the celebration of foliage, flowers, fertility and water through various customary and superstitious observances.

Was Beltane really a fire festival?

There is a popular conception that Beltane was a fire festival, not in the least reinforced by a famous early record of Beltane celebrations, found in the c.10thC Irish glossary-cum-clerical-resource-book known as Sanais Chormaic (‘Knowledge of Cormac’), which deals with Irish words, concepts and customs important to medieval religious functionaries and scholars of Irish orature and literature. Whitley Stokes’ 1868 edition of John O’Donovan’s translation contains the following two relevant entries:

“Bil from Bial i.e. an idol god, unde beltine – May day – i.e. fire of Bel.

and

“Belltaine… May-day i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] ‘they used to drive the cattle between them’…”

The first example is very intriguing, as it states that ‘Bil’ was an ‘idol god’, and that ‘beltine’ means ‘fire of Bel’. This is slightly at odds with the definition given for ‘Belltaine’, as ‘lucky fire’. No connection is made of the bible’s Baal, however – this would come later.

The second passage states that between the two Beltaine fires, cattle were driven. The original text and its marginalia are by no means clear as to their exact meaning: it is NOT necessarily saying that druids used to build a pair of bonfires between which cattle were led or driven! Evidence from copious historical and folkloric records confirms that Irish ‘Beltaine’ fires in Ireland were held on 1st May as well as at Midsummer day, with many traditions being interchangeable. William Robert Wilde noted this in his immediate post-famine account of lost or dying Irish traditions, Irish Popular Superstitions (Dublin, 1852) :

“… As at the Midsummer festival so at the May fires, the boys of an adjoining bonfire often made a sudden descent and endeavoured to carry off some of the fuel from a neighbouring bonfire, and serious consequences have resulted therefrom. When all was over it was no uncommon practice in Connaught at least at the Midsummer fire to drive the cattle through the greeshagh or warm ashes as a form of purification, and a against witchcraft, fairies, murrain, blackleg, loss of milk and other misfortunes or diseases. Even the ashes which remain bear a charm or virtue and were sprinkled about like the red and yellow powders at the Hindoo festival of Hoolie …” (p.50)

Wilde supposed, like many scholars of the 18th and 19thC, that Mayday Bealtaine was the original festival, transferred to the ‘christian’ festival of midsummer during the era of primary evangelism. That both occasions (1st May and Midsummer) were ones at which the smoke and embers from the celebratory fires were used in saining people, animals, fields and properties might support this, but it is evident that midsummer celebrations were of an equal significance in traditional paganism across Europe. The interval period between La Belteine (1st May) and midsummer was one in which cattle were typically driven to summer pastures, which would otherwise be inhospitable and sparse during the winter months.

The Old/Middle Irish term ‘druidhe’, ‘draide‘ or ‘draithe’ in the source texts of Sanas Chormaic is the genitive plural of ‘draoi’, meaning ‘magician’, but equated generally with the Latin term druides used by Caesar and Pliny etc. This was apparently a trend started by 16/17thC Irish historian Seathrún Céitinn (d. 1644, hereafter, ‘Geoffrey Keating’) whose great account of Irish history, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, freely used the old Irish term ‘draoi‘ (pron. ‘dry’). He was effectively sealing a link in peoples’ minds behind the medieval Irish accounts of their religious/magical functionaries during the early medieval period and those of the continental and British Iron Age. Borrowing from sources such as Sanais Chormaic, and spicing things with a dash of invention, Keating (who wrote in Irish) continued the suggestion in Sanais Chormaic that ‘Bealltaine’ was a celebration of the god ‘Beil’ and fires. Here is a translation:

“… Now, when Tuathal had put these four parts together and made them into one territory called Meath, he built therein four chief fortresses, that is, a fortress in each of the portions. Accordingly he built Tlachtgha in the portion of Munster which goes with Meath; and it was there the Fire of Tlachtgha was instituted, at which it was their custom to assemble and bring together the druids of Ireland on the eve of Samhain to offer sacrifice to all the gods. It was at that fire they used to burn their victims; and it was of obligation under penalty of fine to quench the fires of Ireland on that night, and the men of Ireland were forbidden to kindle fires except from that fire; and for each fire that was kindled from it in Ireland the king of Munster received a tax of a screaball, or three-pence, since the land on which Tlachtgha is belongs to the part of Munster given to Meath. On the portion he had acquired from the province of Connaught he built the second fortress, namely Uisneach, where a general meeting of the men of Ireland used to be held, which was called the Convention of Uisneach, and it was at Bealltaine that this fair took place, at which it was their custom to exchange with one another their goods, their wares, and their valuables. They also used to offer sacrifice to the chief god they adored, who was called Beil; and it was their wont to light two fires in honour of Beil in every district in Ireland, and to drive a weakling of each species of cattle that were in the district between the two fires as a preservative to shield them from all diseases during that year; and it is from that fire that was made in honour of Beil that the name of Bealltaine is given to the noble festival on which falls the day of the two Apostles, namely, Philip and James; Bealltaine, that is Beilteine, or the fire of Beil…” (Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Ch.39; Translation/Edition: “The general history of Ireland … Collected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records” by Dermod O’Connor. Dublin, 1723. Sourced from CELT)

A god called ‘Beil’ and druids galore! His attitude towards fire-ceremonies and druid-savvy opinions were probably shared by a strong Irish contingent of contemporary Roman Catholic and Scots scholars exiled on the continent during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Scots had been first off of the mark in the new National History stakes with Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527), which made free license with the history of the druids, who Boece claimed took up residence in the Isle of Man after the fall of Anglesey to the Romans in the 1stC, and became educators of the early Scots monarchs.

These ideas would certainly have been known to the continental expatriate Jesuit historian Michael Alford (Michael Griffiths d.1652) who appears to have been the first to have commented on the possible connection between the names Belinus and Baal in his Latin book Annales Ecclesiae Britannicae (finished in the 1650s, but published posthumously at Liege in 1663). Alford and Keating were both influenced by William Camden’s former use of formal history to assert national identity in a style less conjectural that Boece and his English counterpart and plagiarist, Raphael Hollinshead. Camden used numismatic evidence from old British Celtic coins to glean the names of Britain’s earliest known kings in his famous works of British history published in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Alford commented upon the names of these rulers depicted on Camden’s coins (which on bookplates in printed versions of Britannia). In particular he enlarges upon the name Belinus and equates it with the Canaanite Baal of the bible:

“… Effigies illa foemine, quae in eidem nummi facie prostat, Britanniae symbolum est, factae sub tributo. Obscurior vox illa NOVANE: nisi sorte Novantum, vel Trinobantum Urbem, Britanniae Principem, velis accipere. Quod in adversa parte visitur, Apollo cytharum pulsans, & Cunobelini nomen: devotum Regem significat illi numini, unde & nome ceperat. Enimvero quod Hebraeis, Chaldaeis, Suris & toti ferme Orienti, Baal, Bel, Belus erat : hoc idem Occidenti nostro Belinus…

Scholars of the early modern era onwards were generally fascinated by the references to ‘druids’ in Caesar, Pliny etc, and could be guaranteed to find traces of them in the medieval manuscript texts of the Irish. For Keating (himself a Catholic priest), druids could provide further prestige to Irish history, which could already unarguably lay claim to being a leading light in christianising northern Europe. Had not the Irish converted almost seamlessly from paganism to christianity? During the 16th and 17thC English literature had sought to attack and demean the Irish, and Keating provided a positive (and  Roman Catholic) narrative which he hoped would equal that of Camden.  He was writing in an era noted as much for its ahistoric ‘druid craze’ as its efforts to establish some kind of stable orthodox history which promoted a notion of continuous progress from a barbaric unchristian past into an enlightened christian present. As a Roman Catholic he was all too aware that Protestantism frequently derided Catholicism as backward and superstitious. Druids appeared to early modern man’s mind as the ideal bridge from savagery into ‘enlightened’ christianity, and the Irish manuscript narratives (in particular the traditions of Patrick and the early Irish saints portrayed as ‘taking over’ from the ‘druids’) were the ultimate form by which this might be expressed.

This association of the indigenous god (‘Bel’ or ‘Belinus’) with the Assyrian or Canaanite god continued to exert increasing influence as time went on. In 1707, Martin Martin’s ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ detailed his c.1695 tour of his native Hebrides. In it, he says the following:

“… Another God of the Britons was Belus or Belinus, which seems to have been the Assyrian God Bel or Belus; and probably from this pagan deity comes the Scots term of Beltin, the first day of May, having its first rise from the custom practiced by the Druids in the isles, of extinguishing all the fires in the parish until the tithes were paid; and upon payment of them the fires were kindled in each family, and never till then. In those days malefactors were burnt between two fires; hence when they would express a man to be in a great strait, they say, “He is between two fires of Bel,” which in their language they express thus, “Edir da din Veaul or Bel.” Some object that the Druids could not be in the isles because no oaks grow there. To which I answer, that in those days oaks did grow there, and to this day there be oaks growing in some of them, particularly in Sleat, the most southern part of the isle of Skye. The houses named after those Druids shall be described elsewhere… “

Martin was steadily enlarging the prevalent theme linking Beltaine with fire and fire-gods. The druid-concept came to its fuller popular fruition in the writings of another Irish author, John Toland, whose ‘A specimen of the critical history of the Celtic religion and learning, containing an account of the Druids &c’ was published shortly after his death in 1722, to much acclaim in certain circles.

Many 18thC scholars and gentry, perhaps egged on by John Toland’s writings increasingly enjoyed identifying themselves with the ‘noble’ vision of ancient druids, who offered a closer-to-home vision of their ancient elite forebears, favoured over the previous desire to show sympathy with the great classical era Greek and Roman or biblical characters. After the custom of the day, they began to create the ‘neo-druidic’ fraternal orders which sought to establish some kind of continuity with the ancient mystical past of non-Roman, pre-christian Europe. Unfortunately, in so doing, they were also effectively censoring themselves from deviating from group-held opinions on what had really been going on among the ancient ‘Celts’…. These scholars with a love of all things ‘druidic’, were often (like Keating) of a religious background – literacy being greatest among the clergy. If not, they were steeped in the religious cultures of Protestant and Roman Catholic christianity. For this reason, they tended to attempt to fuse the contending interests in the history of ancient paganism with the biblical narratives. There thus developed in the 17th and 18thC a popular theory that Beltane was a remnant of a festival worshipping the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal or Bel somehow transplanted to Britain by (presumably) Phoenicians in dim and dusty unknowable antiquity. 

When the Scottish laird James MacPherson published (in perfect English hexameter verse) his version of a supposedly lost ancient epic poem by the legendary Irish poet ‘Ossian’ (and son of Fionn Mac Cumhail), suddenly new visions of a hallowed ancient past to match those of Homer startled and galvanised the scholars and educated gentry of the European world. Anything seemed possible in an era already heady with the almost daily discoveries of science and exploration, and this led to a certain excessive credulity. The idea of Baal being worshipped at Beltane was given increasing force in the mid to late 18thC by antiquarians in Ireland, such as Charles Vallancey, who expounded a linguistic theory trying to prove that the Irish were descendents of tribes from the biblical Holy Land, who had bought Baal worship with them. Religiously, the Christian churches historically liked to portray ‘light’ coming from the East to the gloomy heathen West – part of a misguided popular narrative which believed humanity was continually bettering itself.

The exploratory and empire-building Europeans of the 16th-19th centuries frequently came across and subjugated populations whose level of technical and social development they equated with their own ‘savage’ pre-christian past. The new awareness of examples in the east of immolatory human sacrifice (Suttee), along with the fire-ceremonies and corpse-exposure practises of the Zoroastrians reminded druid-crazed Europeans of the Greco-Roman propaganda about Celtic immolatory practices. This reinforced the notion of a primitive religion being about fire-worship, and the Beltane activities seemed to prove this link to ‘barbarism’, extending also into a Protestant polemic narrative against ‘primitive’ and ‘ungodly’ Roman Catholicism.

In reality, the bonfires were not particular to Beltane in its various regional variants, and the practice of using smoke and fire to cleanse and bless is by no means specific to any one festival or religious/superstitous practice, being common across all religions throughout history. Bonfires were also special features of the other ‘quarter day’ and ‘cross-quarter day’ festivities in the traditonal and ancient Gaelic ‘wheel of the year’ celebrations. Samhain, Lammas/Lughnasadh, Imbolc and the celebrations of the Solstices and Equinoxes were also typified by fires.

Beltane is not just about fire: Forgetting the theories of Canaanite fire gods and druidic immolations, we are left with a pretty large and diverse collection of folkloric accounts of Beltane and Mayday practices from Britain, Mann and Ireland, which demonstrate it was a celebration of a complex set of natural forces. Fires were certainly an important element (as they are for any good communal feast or activity), but there is absolutely no reason from evidence to suggest that they were the core defining aspect. The collecting, carrying and displaying of foliage and flowers was a particularly important and widespread aspect of customs, which is unsurprising given that the beauty of surging vegetation is characteristic of the season. Water was also important, as was the ascending of mountains and hills, where it is likely to be found.

In late spring and early summer of Atlantic Europe, the combination of sunshine and rain in equal measures ensures that greenery is a potent and visible feature of the landscape, typified by the acceleration of vigourous vegetative growth in herbaceous plants, and the explosion of blossom and leaves on trees. This offered ancient peoples with a significant reliance on animal-herding in their rural economies (such as the Irish and Britons) opportunites to exploit burgeoning upland pasturage once the threat of harsh weather had receded. This coincided with better access to turbary (cutting turf/peat for fuel) and the hunting opportunities offered by movement of herds of wild deer and birds etc to the same upland pastures, as well as the movement of fish up rivers to spawn. It is perhaps no surprise that many records of older Beltane festivities involve the ascending of hills and creating of fires upon them. Of course, hills or mountains are not just good summer sources of food for man and beast, but are also often the sources of streams and rivers which proceed downwards from them and across the land and to the sea. Often saturated with rain and cloud they are great sources for the rivers which nourish the lowlands, and – excepting the morning dew – there is nothing clearer and purer than a mountain spring, just as there is nothing muddier than estuarine waters. To the ancients, mountain springs were therefore a special source of water, just as the mountains themselves attracted a special accretal of mythology, legend and spiritual importance. It is unsurprising that both dew and spring wells enjoyed a special prominence in ancient May traditions.

Wilde (Irish Popular Superstitions, 1852) noted the importance of springs, wells and water to the Irish Beltaine festivities:

“… Wells, whether blessed by saint, or consecrated by pilgrim’s rounds, or merely furnishing the healthful spring are objects of especial care and attention at May time, and in former years were frequently watched all night, particularly in pastoral districts, to ensure them against being skimmed with a wooden dish or cuppaun by some butter abducting hag as the sun rose on May morning. This was called ‘taking the flower of the well’ and the words “Come butter come” were then repeated.

Farmers drive their flocks by daybreak to the wells that they may drink there before those of their neighbours, and the greatest rivalry prevails amongst the servant girls and milkmaids as to who should first draw water from the spring well upon May morning… ” (p.54)

The idea of ‘taking the flower of the well’ echoes the English Mayday-tradition of well-dressing or ‘well-flowering’ in which wells were anciently decorated with flowers. Such collective efforts at beautifying wells and springs are believed to have an ancient pagan provenance, and removing items from such religious sites would have been associated with bad luck or an attack on the common good, as suggested by the well-skimming ‘witch’ stories common across the Gaelic world. In the same way, the removal of rags and ribbons left at ‘clootie wells’ has long been considered unlucky.

Wells and springs represent the returning of waters to the land, and waters flow in a branching manner (from branch to trunk to roots) redolent of the form of trees and vegetation whose growth is celebrated at Beltane, represented in Ireland and Britain by ‘May bushes’ and ‘May poles’. The heat of the sun is only fertile when combined with the moisture of water spouting forth from the sky and earth.

Beltane is not a ‘fire festival’… 

The goddess Aine and St Winifred

Time and again we see the myths of paganism subsumed into the narratives of hagiography in the early centuries of the Christian church in northern Europe. Another prime example of this can be found in the stories about ‘St Winifred’ – an early Welsh saint with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name, whose life is ascribed to the 7thC CE.

Winifred is interesting because her life, legends and veneration are full of the indicators of a pagan origin hinting at the Gaelic great goddess, known as Brigit or Aine. She is local to north Wales in the tribal areas of the Deceangli, known by medieval times known as Tegeingl – modern Flintshire. The Deceangli were a Celtic tribal polity of the late Iron Age whose origins are supposed to lie in part in Ireland. Winifred’s father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, is supposed to have been a chieftain among these peoples.

Although relating her floruit to the 7thC CE, the earliest hagiographies (surviving in the Laud and Cottonian manuscript collections) must stem from at least the 12thC, as the work of Giraldus Cambrensis (‘An Itinerary through Wales’) from that century makes no mention of Winifred’s Well and its supposedly famous shrine. The 12thC was an important period for clerical writers who were busily remodelling the more ancient and often syncretic traditions of the past in order to suit the anti-heretical world of new Christian piety, modelled around the example of the Cistercians. The recent Christianisation of Scandinavia (whose settlers had peopled Ireland and Britain) demanded such a modern narrative in order to disguise more overt pagan themes underpinning Christian piety from the eyes of the aware.

Winifred’s tale begins, suitably, with a tale of death and rebirth: An only daughter, she decides from an early age to dedicate her life to Christ, and convinces her father to allow her holy maternal uncle, Beuno, to build a church upon his land. One day while preparing for mass, a huntsman (Caradoc, son of a local prince) emerges from the woods and attempts to rape her or convince her to marry him, but being devoted to Christ she escapes and spurns him. In a fit of rage Caradoc pursues her to the threshold of Beuno’s oratory or church and decapitates her. The head rolls down a hill, and where it comes to rest a miraculous spring bubbles up from the ground. Luckily for her, Beuno arrives, kills Caradoc (his body melts into the ground) and contrives to magically join the maiden’s head back to her body, restoring her to life in god’s name. Beuno then his benediction, proclaiming that pilgrims who honoured the well would be healed of their ailments. Winifred takes holy orders, and Beuno says he must go, but instructs her to annually place a cape of her own fashioning upon a rock in the middle of the river issuing from the spring, and it would be conveyed, dry, with the rock to where Beuno would be staying (either Wales or Ireland depending on the tradition). The spring well supposed to have been created by Winifred’s decapitation is known as St Winifred’s Well at Holywell, and was an important location for pilgrimage in the later middle ages, during which time (up until the Reformation) such sites were of great economic importance to the church.

Pagan elements of the Winifred narrative:

The Christian legend about Winifred and Beuno seems wholly designed to replace a pagan narrative associated with a holy well: a typical site of Celtic worship. As such the details of the story, fantastical and grotesque as they seem, offer us a fascinating chance to understand what it was the Christians were trying to replace.

The Head: The apparent decapitation of Winifred is used here to explain the creation of the spring. That Beuno undoes the discombobulation is a narrative theme of negation typical of early Christian hagiographies – it is an act contrary to an underlying pagan narrative. This would imply that a head or something representing a head was once associated with the well, and would be removed occasionally. Similarly, the spring obviously predated Winifred’s supposed floruit, yet the narrative wishes it to start with her, rather than linking it to a pagan past.

The head was a potent symbol in the Iron Age Celtic world, depicted time and again in Celtic art and in accounts of Celtic warriors treasuring the heads of their enemies. Numerous examples of male and female carved stone heads from the Celtic era have been found throughout Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, and sometimes in association with spring wells in an archaeological context.

Decapitated heads played an important part in the mythology of the Mabinogion (the head of Bendigeidfran, for instance). In the ‘Arthurian’ poem of Gawain and the Green Knight, the decapitated head of the tale’s eponymous adversary (Bertilak) – like that of Bran the Blessed – has an active life after its separation from the Knight’s body, indicating a supernatural provenance. This potent and pertinent theme of ancient Atlantic spirituality also occurs in the Ulster Cycle Irish tale Fled Bricrenn (Bricriu’s Feast) in which three contesting heroes have to submit to a trial by beheading with the disguised Manannan hypostasis – Cu Roi. The idea of a beheaded female, however, is largely absent from the mythological corpus.

Mobile Stones: The idea of a moveable holy stone associated with a river and the sea in this cultural region is hinted at in a number of medieval legendary and apocryphal tales. One of these can be found in the Irish version of the ‘Historia Brittonum’ of the monk Nennius, which discusses certain wonders to be found in the Isle of Man during the early medieval period:

“…The Wonders of Manann down here:

The first wonder is a strand without a sea.

The second is a ford which is far from the sea, and which fills when the tide flows, and decreases when the tide ebbs.

The third is a stone which moves at night in Glenn Cindenn, and though it should be cast into the sea, or into a cataract, it would be found on the margin of the same valley…”

The name ‘Cindenn’ contains an element which appears to represent the Gaelic word for ‘head’, which is ‘Cin’ or in modern Manx ‘Kione’ and in Irish, ‘Ceann’. The implication might be that in the Isle of Man during the period of the text’s writing, a stone (head?) was taken from a location near to a water source in a glen (valley) and placed in the sea before being returned to its location. The name Cindenn has not survived in the modern Isle of Man, so the location is unknown. However, most tantalising and curious reference is from an ancient Manx ballad, ‘Berrey Dhone’, which makes allusions to a magical female character who steals cattle and hides out on the high mountains within rocks referred to as ‘doors’. The ballad refers to her having ‘stone of/for her head’ (the Manx phrase in the song is ‘As y lhiack er e kione’). ‘Berrey’ is pronounced ‘Beara’, leaving no doubt that the ballad is referring to the ancient ‘Cailleach’ herself.

Holy Cloaks: The curious reference in the Winifred tale to an annual gift of a cloak (at midsummer) is another tantalising glimpse of a lost pagan tradition. The ‘cloak’ or ‘veil’ is, of course, an attribute of the eponymous Cailleach, whose name (we might speculate) might mean ‘covered stone’.

Death and Rebirth at the Holy Well: Winifred’s story starts with her martyrdom – something of a change to the usual story of Christian saints. However, she is promptly brought back to life by a male saint, an aspect of the story seeming to deliberately emphasise the power of the masculine over the feminine.  Rivers had female personifications in the Celtic world, with many legends associating them with magical females who stand guard over their sources – typically spring wells, which were deemed holy. It was believed that the life-giving waters of these springs flowed both to and (mystically) back from the Otherworld. I discuss this in some detail here.

Interestingly, the ‘decollation’ of St Winifride was celebrated on the summer  solstice – 22nd of June, which was her original festival day before it was moved to the 3rd November (Samhain) later in the middle ages, a date more suited to ‘witches’. Proof enough that ‘Winifred’ was a reaction to goddess worship…

Gifts to the Otherworld: The idea of a former pagan belief in an Otherworld river arising from Winifred’s Well is made explicit in the part of the narrative which has Beuno advising the saint to annually express her gratitude to him by casting a gift into the stream arising from the spring, safe in the knowledge that it will mystically travel to him in Ireland. One wonders if Beuno himself as well as Winifred was a Christian hypostasis of a pagan theme, rather than solely a male Christian character imposed upon a pagan female narrative. It was once a practice (according to an 18thC account by Thomas Pennant) to dedicate calves and lambs born bearing a special mark on their ear (a slit or nick called ‘Nôd Beuno’) to the saint at his church and supposed tomb at Clynnog in north Wales.

The Irish connection:

Being in the same region as the diocese of St Asaph, Winifred’s legend and the themes of her hagiographic narrative must in some way be culturally linked to that of the water-loving St Kentigern, also called ‘Mungo’. The Glaswegian saint’s legend mentions him sojourning in North Wales with Asaph during his spiritual questing in ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ (‘The Old North’ Celtic polity of sub-Roman Britain during the early Anglo-Saxon pagan era): Northwest Britain, Southwest Scotland and North Wales were once part of a purer Celtish cultural polity connected to Ireland after the collapse of continental Roman administration.

Argument for Winifred as the goddess Áine:

The prefix of the name Winifred (‘Wini-‘) calls to mind the Celtic words for river: Abhain (Irish), Awin (manx) and Afon (Welsh) – all generally pronounced in a similar manner, and the ‘saint’ herself is strongly connected with the source of rivers. It has been suggested that the Irish goddess name Áine (pronounced ‘Awynya’ or ‘Awnya’) might also be connected to the word for ‘river’, as it also signifies a circle or cycle, as does the Latin word Annus, from which the goddess of the seasons, Anna Perenna was named.

Indeed, the Manx use of the name ‘Jinny the Winny’ and ‘Jinny the Witch’ (Jinny is pronounced either ‘djinny’ or ‘yinny’) for the supernatural female associated with Samhain (in Manx called ‘Hop-tu-Naa’ or Sowin) persists to this day, providing linguistic evidence of a connection between Winifred and the pagan goddess of the Gaels.

Another interesting link comes from the term ‘Awen’, familiar to students of neo-druidry and those with an interest in Welsh celtic reconstructionism. This is usually described as meaning ‘poetic inspiration’ and is indeed related to the previously mentioned Celtic word for river: it implies a flow of inspiration. If Cormac’s 10thC ‘Glossary’ is to be trusted, the triform Brigit was the pagan goddess of poetry among the Irish and she and Áine appear to be different aspects of a triple goddess of the annual cycle, represented by the Maiden (Brigit, goddess of spring), the Mother (Aine, goddess of summer) and the Crone (the Cailleach who represents winter). The multi-dimensional mystery of this triple formed goddess and her triple-formed consort must have been a core spiritual tenet of the druidic religion, now lost, but seemingly within grasping distance for us once again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gods and Robbers: Caher Roe

Southeast Ireland claims its own version of the medieval ‘Robin Hood’-styled mythical outlaw-god in the guise of a character known as ‘Caher Roe’. The name literally means the ‘Red Outlaw’ or ‘Red War-Chieftain’ (Irish, Cathair Ruadh – the ‘-th-‘ and ‘-dh’ sounds are aspirated/softened), depending on how one interprets the term ‘Cathair’. He is largely known to us in modernity through Máire MacNeill’s revelatory and seminal 1962 book ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’, in which the author collated many local traditions from across Ireland pertaining to the important hilltop Lughnasa celebrations at the start of harvest. ‘Caher Roe’s Den’ was one such site that MacNeill discusses in relation to this pagan festival of ripened summer fruits and red-tinged moons. The ‘Den’ is (like that of the Welsh ‘Twm Siôn Cati’) a rocky hillside outcrop with a supposedly blocked-up cave on Blackstairs mountain in the Blackstairs range of southern Leinster on the Wexford-Carlow border:

“…A most interesting story is told of Caher Roe’s Den. The country-people identify the Caher Roe who gave his name to it with Cathaoir na gCapall, a young man of the O’Dempsey family of Clanmaliere in Laix. His family forfeited their lands in the seventeenth century and Cathaoir turned rapparee and controlled a widespread organisation for stealing the horses of the new planter gentry, hiding them, disguising them, selling them at distant fairs, and getting money too by ‘finding’ lost animals. His organisation had ramifications through a large part of the country and specially in the lands through which the Barrow flowed. The country-people were sympathetic to him and enjoyed the stories of his adventures and ruses. He was, however, finally brought to trial and hanged at Maryboro in August 1735. Local tradition says that the Den on the slope of Blackstairs was one of his hiding-places, that its precipitate passage leads down into caverns where treasure is hidden, but few have been foolhardy enough to seek it and the entrance has been blocked upto prevent the mountain sheep from falling down into it. It is in Caher Roe’s memory, people say, that the ‘Mountain Patron’ is held. The following story* is told:

One day, when Caher was returning to his Den he met a girl with a pitcher of water. He asked her for a drink and as she was handing it to him, he caught her by the armand pulled her up on his horse. Her loud screams attracted the neighbours. They came around with sticks and pitchforks and succeeded in rescuing the young girl. They followed him to his Den on the mountain top where, after discharging his pistol to them, he sprang headforward into his Den and was not heard of for years afterwards…” ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’ by Máire MacNeill (2nd reprint, Pub. Dundalgan Press, Dublin 2008) pp.226-227 – *the source of the story is UCD Folklore Commission MS 890, pp.498-499.

Needless to say, the tale of Cathaoir na gCapall is treated by MacNeill as apocryphal, as she phrases it as told by ‘the country people’, and the identity of Charles Dempsey with a real ‘Caher Roe’ seems engineered to fit the legend of the Lughnasa site, which is evidently too well-known and visible a site at which to hide, and which is definitely not suitable for stabling horses. She rightly observes that the profile of the folktale she relates is unsympathetic to a man who would otherwise be seen as a folk-hero at any time in Ireland’s history, and the somewhat demonic Caher of this tale seems very much like ‘red-bloody’ Sawney Bean of Gallovidian legend, not mention the wider legends of the ‘fairy horse(man) ‘who abducts people away into rivers and underground caverns… Caher Roe – like Twm and Sawney – appears to be an image of this older legend, transformed in successive oral traditions to suit the religious, social and political changes of the day. Interestingly, 1735 is a date which corresponds with Britain’s passing of  its seminal final ‘Witchcraft Act’ (9 Geo. II c. 5) which was designed to strangle superstition by making it illegal to profess magical beliefs or to accuse others of them. This law was part of a broader protestant ‘enlightenment’ agenda, which had identified superstition with ‘backward’ Celtic cultures and ‘Popery’…

The ‘other’ Caher – Cathair Mór:

Ancient Irish power liked – in the same way as other medieval European dynasties – to link itself to a mythical ancestral past. As such, it sponsored the creation of books which told the stories of these supposed ancestors in order to establish its claim to majesty and rights over the land. One such ancestor was ‘Cathair Mór’ – a legendary High King of Ireland from the pseudo-historical traditions, from whom Leinster clans claimed to descend. He was succeeded in the historical traditions (Lebor Gabála Érenn) by Conn Cétchathach, who evidently shares the ‘Cathair’ title within his own cognomen and was son of Fedlimid Rechtmar, and therefore possibly Cathair’s brother. It is possible that this ‘Caher’ was closer to the legendary root from which the tales of ‘Caher Roe’ evolved.

Like the Welsh aristocracy who battled the English between the 14th and 15th centuries, the Irish Kings of Leinster were also similarly concerned, so it is entirely possible that legends of Caher Roe – like those of Twm Sion Cati extend back to at least the same era, and probably have older mythic roots in the sovereignty-bestowing gods of the pagan age – the ‘sleeping heroes’, supposed to return in times of great need. The O’Kavanagh/Cavanagh (or MacMurrough-Cavanagh) were famous kings of Leinster during the high middle-ages, notable for their ability to withstand or politically handle/acculturate the Anglo-Norman invaders, and to maintain a degree of independence for their region right up until the assaults on indigenous Gaelic culture consequent upon the Tudor invasions of the 16thC. ‘Cavanagh’ are named after St Caomhan (Kevin) of Glendalough – a saint whose legend is linked to the female deity euhemerised as ‘Cathaleen’ or ‘Caitlínn’ in the saint’s mythology – an incarnation of the celtic sovereignty-goddess (otherwise ‘fairy queen’) of whom I have written a fair amount…

Overview:

‘Caher Roe’ appears to be linked to the legends of a number of similar legendary outlaw-figures from the British and Irish islands. These seem to have a curious affinity to the colour red, to inhabit caves associated with heights, and to have a connection to or claim to the sovereignty of the land. They are either heroic or demonic, depending on the political and polemical needs of the era of their tales’ telling…

Fairy Doctors, Sluagh Sidhe and Fianna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fianna and the Sluagh Sidhe:

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

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

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

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

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

“….A doctor told this anecdote—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crotal_Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Latiaran of Cullen (Cuillinn)

Cullen or Cullin is a small village about four miles south of the Kerry border, near the town of Millstreet in the old Barony of Dulhallow, Co. Cork. It is home to an old ‘holy well’ dedicated to an Irish female saint known as ‘Latiaran’ or ‘Laitiaran’ (sometimes spelled ‘Lateerin’ in older english books), also known as ‘Laserian’. This last version has an interesting concordance with another supposed early male saint, associated with smithily-named St Gobban of Leighlin (Co. Carlow): This was his brother ‘St Molaise’ (St Molashog), also known as ‘St Laserian’. Whether hearking from Cullen or the bosom of Gobban, all of these saints have a curious set of accretions to do with blacksmiths. Latiaran herself is stranger still as she (and her sisters) do not seem to have an official place in Ireland’s various historic calendars of saints, and have all the trappings of Christianised aspects of a/the feminine triple-deity. 

The popular story about Laitiaran of Cullen, recorded by travellers there in the early 19thC was that the saint once lived in the village, from where she would regularly travel across the old bog-causeways to visit her two holy sisters. Such was her piety, she refused to keep her hearth-fire burning in continuity (a pagan custom/superstition), but would instead go daily to the blacksmith’s forge in the village to get a ‘seed’ for the fire, which she carried home in her apron or cloak, and which miraculously did not burn it. However, one day, she let her sanctity slip a little when the blacksmith complemented her on her shapely legs or feet, and a lapse into vanity caused her to take a peek and see if he was indeed right. The ember burned through her apron and singed her ankle, the result being that she cursed the smith, to the effect that ‘there never was a blacksmith in Cullin thereafter’.

This is yet another striking example of the christianisation of an important part of the original Gaelic pagan mythos. The name, Cuillin, is that of the legendary blacksmith from whom Cuchullain was named, and with whom I have suggested a strong etymological and legendary link to the Germanic character Weland/Wayland. The imposition of a female saint into such a tale involving this character is also seen at Slieve Gullion in Armagh. You might recall the the pagan Brighid was associated with ‘smithcraft’. But what more about ‘Lateerin’?

She is one of three regional sister-saints : Laiser, Inghean Buidhe and Latiaran, sometimes also given as Craobh/Crobh Dearg, Latiaran, and Gobnait. Assuming craobh dearg is the original meaning, ‘red branch’ – something the local legends of Cullen would disapprove of! Gobnait’s name is redolent of gobban (blacksmith), and her feast day in the Martyrology of Oengus is 11th February (Imbolc). This is really fascinating. The mystery deepens when we realise that Latiarin’s pattern day was/is held at the well on July 25th, or the nearest Sunday (or both!) corresponding to the pagan festival of Lughnasa, as detailed in Maire MacNeil‘s amazing book, ‘The Festival of Lughnasa’. The pattern of Ingean (or ‘Ineen’) Bhuidhe was (unsurprisingly) celebrated near the start of May at the local settlement at ‘Bull Ridge’ of Dromtariff, while that at the well of Cill Lasaer (who presumably is identical with Gobnait) was at the ‘start of spring’ (early February, Imbolc), and was held at Boherbue (Bóthar Buí = Yellow Road).  

The anglophone part of her name, ‘-teer-‘, appears to be from the Gaelic word saor/tsaoir, meaning ‘smith’ or ‘craftsman’, and ‘teerin’ could therefore quite conceivably signify the ‘smith’s daughter’. Laitiaran is the modern Irish orthographic spelling, which perhaps belies the name’s true origins as an attempt to obfuscate a piece of important Irish pagan lore… Astute readers might recognise that the names ‘Lasaer’ /’Lasair’ and ‘Lateer’ are pretty much the same, derived from the prefix ‘La-‘ and the Irish word for blacksmith – saor . Bui, is also a name of the Cailleach Bera in the famous ‘Lament’ poem, not to mention part of the name of Boherbue/Boherboy nearby.

This intrigued MacNeil deeply, although she did not make the linguistic association of ‘Latiaran’ with blacksmiths. She did however notice the possible connection between the triad of divine females and the passage from the Book of Leinster which describes Badb, Macha and Anand, from the last of whom it says the nearby Paps of Anu were named… She also wondered if the nearby Lughnasa hill of Taur might have been the lost ‘Tara’ of Munster, Teamhair Luachra. This theory is especially intriguing given the fire-kindling, Bealtaine associations of the other Royal Teamhair.

What are the other local links with blacksmiths and fire?

 The old Barony of Duhallow in northern Cork contains the aforementioned villages of Boherbue and Cullen, but is also notable for some of its other placenames such as Banteer, whose name contains an overt suggestion of ‘Female Smith’ (‘Bean tSaor’). In fact, County Cork itself has a fair share of legends regarding a famous hallowed Blacksmith-Builder-Craftsman, the Gobban Saor.