A beautiful old Manx ballad, performed by the talented Ruth Keggin and friends. Enjoy!
Following the recent news of the apparently hate-motivated vandalism of the statue of Manannán Mac Lir (apparently) by christian fundamentalists in Northern Ireland, another controversial tale of interference with modern pagan practices has emerged from the neighbouring Isle of Man: On 15th December 2014, the local news media reported upon the furtive and (to some) unwelcome removal of the ‘devotional’ objects from the Island’s (in)famous ‘Fairy Bridge’ on the main road between the towns of Douglas and Castletown. The bridge, has proved increasingly popular over recent years as a site of pilgrimage for locals and visitors seeking to honour their dead friends and relatives or appeal to the denizens of the Otherworld for protection in their endeavours. Typically, visitors attach notes, gifts and mementoes to the trees next to the bridge. It has become something of a regular and increasingly exotic destination on the Island’s tourist trail, especially around the time of the Island’s awesome, otherworldly and dangerous TT races – the last great contest-ground of those timeless Celtic Heroes.
The initial impression presented to the reporter who appears to have been invited to witness the removal of devotional objects at the bridge was that these had become an ‘eyesore’: scraps of paper bearing messages of hope and remembrance, ribbons, rags, motorcycle helmets, flags and pieces of motorcycle fairing were removed and disposed of. It appears from the story that the journalist was invited to witness the clearing of these items from the bridge as the news article contained photographs of the perpetrator at work:
Theories about what led to the act are varied: Some cite that the attachment of these objects are not ‘traditionally Manx’, even though folklorists of the 19th and early 20th century record a number of untidy-looking rag wells and ‘fairy trees’ tied with what the Scots refer to as ‘clooties’, and to which locals would pay their respects. Indeed, the phenomenon of tying deposits to the trees at this Fairy Bridge is actually a modern invention, which has only really taken off in the past 15 or so years, before which people would generally only stop to pay their respects to the Little People or raise a hand or finger in a wave or salute as they passed by in their cars. The latest news, sadly, is that a similar ‘attack’ has been made upon the Island’s ‘other’ more secretive Fairy Bridge…
The ‘Real Fairy Bridge’ is by no means a ‘public’ eyesore, lying as it does off of a secluded footpath in woodland away from civilisation. It has remained a place of quiet reflection and wonder, cluttered with tiny toys in memory of dead children, ribbons tied in memory of friends killed in road traffic accidents, or taken by illness. Candles and coins could until recently be found lodged between the crevices in the stones of the bridge, which was a favourite haunt for young people and families holding vigils of remembrance for their loved ones – believed to reside in the Otherworld with the spirits locals euphemistically and obliquely refer to as ‘Themselves’ (‘Them’s Elves!’) and the ‘Good People’. So… is removal of such items merely a common vandalism of a magical expression of innate spirituality, or a recognition of proper respect for the Island’s somewhat conservative fairies? Either way, the ‘cleaning’ of the fairy bridges has been deemed as sacrilegious and offensive by some locals, as it has been seen as an act of restitution by others of a more conservative persuasion. The fairy faith still enjoys a strong undercurrent of belief among the indigenous Manx peoples and perceived imported ideas about attaching devotional items to ‘their’ bridges and wells do not apparently sit well with some of the population. In the light of the Manannan statue desecration, it would be easy to blame a shady group of presumably christian fundamentalists who are seeking to destroy emergent pagan devotional sites. However – like the nature of the Good People themselves – the truth may be stranger than we first think: This is, after all, the Island which still claims a common belief that Manannan is their god, and is the place where Gardnerian Wicca was largely founded, although that was another controversy for the locals in itself, as Gardner paid little heed to the Island’s genuine vestiges of true ancient Atlantic religion… The trees and bridges will no doubt flourish their messages again soon. What would ‘Themselves‘ or the ‘Little People‘ think of it, I wonder? Has anyone actually asked them?
There is a certain difficulty encountered in equating ‘Celtic’ with ‘Slavic’ gods, particularly because the two ethno-cultural denominations are largely historically and archaeologically independent. A similar problem – perhaps more political – arises from the distinction between ‘Balts’ and ‘Slavs’. Some of the interpretation of the paleology and ethnology of the lands of the peoples who today call themselves ‘Balts‘ and ‘Slavs’ is still coloured by 19th and 20thC academic work beset with ideological political bias framed through artificial ethno-nationalist constructs. These were largely designed to support a federalised atheist communist Empire whose western borders desired such a buttress against western European identity. Nonetheless, in the era of the European Iron-Age, there was much more in common and the cultures and religious practices of peoples of this region would have been less determinately ‘Slavic’ or even ‘Germanic’ as the terms would be understood today…
Although the pagan mythology of the Slavs is known to us from relatively late (medieval) accounts congruent with some of the pagan Scandinavian cultures, it contains a number of important characters for whom there is reasonable evidence to posit a link to western Europe’s older system of deities. The 12thC ‘Primary Chronicle’ of the Kievan Rus mentions Volos and Perun as the principle gods worshipped by Slavs and Russ before their late conversion during the Viking era:
“…Thus tsars Leo and Alexander made peace with Oleg. After agreeing upon the tribute, they bound themselves by mutual oaths. The tsars kissed the cross, while Oleg and his men took oaths in accordance with Russian law, swearing by their weapons and by their god Perun as well as by Volos, the god of cattle…” (trans. Samuel Cross)
The same Oleg is recorded as visiting sorcerors – the word for which is given as Volkhi. These tell him that he must abandon his favourite horse as it will cause his death, which he assents to and turns it to pasture. The story given is that he then goes to visit it and is told it died, and on visiting its bones a snake emerges from its skull and bites him, causing his death… The relationship between Volkhi, the Scandinavian Volva and the god Volos might be worth mulling over!
Another reference in the Chronicle to Volos and Perun (again in relation to oaths) is a record of a treaty and oath given by the pagan prince Svyatoslav of allegiance to the Byzantine Emperor:
” … And even as I have given oath to the Greek Emperors in company with my boyars and all my subjects, so may we preserve this treaty inviolate. But if we fail in the observance of any of the aforesaid stipulations, either I or my companions, or my subjects, may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe, namely, of Perun and Volos, the god of flocks, and we become yellow as gold, and be slain with our own weapons… ” (trans. Samuel Cross)
Interestingly, Cross translates ‘may we be accursed of the god in whom we believe’ implying the original sense was a singular god with two aspects: Perun and Volos. In fact, later folklore frequently conflates attributes of the two, suggesting this sense may be true.
Marija Gimbutas examined the surviving 19thC Lithuanian and Latvian folklore attached to the spirits of the dead, who were there referred to as vėlės and to whom was attached a ‘leader’ known as Vélnias, Vélinas, or Véls – also used as a synonym for ‘devil’. In fact, an early dictionary of Lithuanian written by an ecclesiastic (Dictionarium Trium Linguarum by Konstanty Szyrwid, 1629) equates Velnias with ‘Piktis‘, another Baltic god-name associated with the ‘devil’, also known as ‘Pikùlas‘, ‘Peckols’ (Prussia) and ‘Patollo‘. These might be an example of the curious and widespread ‘Puck‘ hypostasis, possibly associated with local versions of Perun-Pirkons. The folkloric Vélnias was – like Odin/Wotan – one-eyed and led the troops of vėlės across the skies, causing storms and whirlwinds. He – like Veles – was also linked to herds. The vėlės themselves were – like Gaelic fairies – seen to troop between cemeteries and along their own special ‘paths’. Vélinas was explicitly a god of the hosts of the dead. Gimbutas notes the prevalence of placenames incorporating the name Vélnias that relate to bogs, pools, rivers, fields and forest clearings, suggesting the importance of such places to the local Otherworld mythology.
‘Velchanos’ in Crete:
The ancient Cretan/Minoan god Velchanos has been suggested as the origin for the Roman ‘Vulcan’. The Veles-Perun hypostasis mentioned in the Primary Chronicle of the Kievan Rus seems like it could link to this, particularly if the Weland link is correct. In Crete, he was also known as Zeus-Velchanos. The Latin words for thunderbolt, fulmen and fulgur, seem to have close etymological links to the Vul- prefix of the name Vulcan.
‘Vayl’ in the Isle of Man:
‘Vaayl‘ or ‘Vael‘ occurs commonly in the Isle of Man (situated between Britain and Ireland) as a local word for ‘Michael’ (the thunder-voiced military archangel, leader of the heavenly hosts). For instance, there is a pagan burial mound referred to as ‘Carn Vael’, situated near the coastal village of Kirk Michael (Keeill Vaayl) – home to some of the syncretic Christian-pagan-era stone crosses and monuments. It is entirely possible that this name was introduced by Baltic settlers in the Viking Age, although convention usually holds to majority being Norwegians. A custom common to Lithuania, Latvia and the Isle of Man was the rolling down hills of burning wheels at Beltain or Midsummer (Manx source: Harold ‘Dusty’ Miller ‘It’s a Fact’). I have discussed the connection between St Michael the Archangel and Belenos elsewhere…
The most obvious etymological link to the Celtic god Belenos is the ‘V’ of ‘Volos’ – a letter seemingly interchangeable with ‘B’ in the ‘Indo-European’ languages. This would suggest Bolos or Beles as a reasonable pronunciation variant of the Slavic divinity. Other versions of the name seem also to appear to in the 9th/10thC CE Old High German ‘Second Meresburg Incantation’:
“… Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza. Du uuart demo balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit. Thu biguol en sinthgunt, sunna era suister; Thu biguol en friia, uolla era suister; Thu biguol en uuodan, so he uuola conda: Sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki: Ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda, Lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin! … ““… Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods, and the foot of Balder’s foal was sprained. So Sinthgunt, Sunna’s sister, conjured it. And Frija, Volla’s sister, conjured it. And Wodan conjured it, as well he could: Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain, so joint-sprain: Bone to bone, blood to blood, joints to joints, so may they be glued! … “
The names ‘Phol‘ and ‘Volla‘ (uolla, rhymed with uuolla = ‘well’) have sufficient similarity to be considered potentially related. Indeed, the English word for a young horse – ‘foal‘ – has in this context interesting connotations for the Iron Age Celtic coins’ equine/solar imagery, combined with the military sun-child head of Alexander they apparently used to represent Belenos. Going deeper into etymology, the Latin word for a lightly-armoured cavalry skirmisher (a notable form of Celto-Roman auxillary fighter) was Veles, no doubt having a link to the Roman word for warfare: Bellum. The horsemanship of the Dacians (Getae), Thracians, Macedonians and Anatolian peoples was legendary in ancient Europe. In fact, the religious iconography of the Thracian and Phrygian peoples was notable for their depiction of the dragon-slaying horseman figure who would later become incorporated in the image of St George the Dragonslayer, popular among the Slavs.
Another etymological and mythological link between Veles and the ancient ‘Germanic’ world is that to the ‘magical smith’, Weland/Wolund/Wayland/Volundr, who featured prominently in the folklore and legends common to a good number of ethnogeographical pagan cultures in ancient northern Europe. I have discussed the link between Volund, and ‘Vili’ of the Odinnic hypostasis in the Icelandic Eddas, and believe it is worth considering Slavic Veles in the same light.
Another example of this from the Baltic Lithuanians (one of the last European peoples to become officially Christianised in the 14/15thc CE) is the god or divinity called Teliavelis who was recorded in folklore as a ‘blacksmith god’, possibly identical with Vélinas. He has been compared to the Finnic Kalevala god-hero Ilmarinen,and can be linked to the Slavic smith-god referred to as Svarog in the 15thC CE Hypatian Codex. This collection of monkish ephemera claims that Svarog was father of Dažbog (‘giving god’) or the sun – the two are usually thought of as separate. However, the Serbian folklore variant Dabog or Dajbog is sometimes known as Hromi Daba (‘Lame Daba’) and depicted as a distinctly chthonic/demonic character similar to Veles/Velnias, called ‘Shepherd of Wolves’. Lameness (an inability to walk upon the earth) is a trait common to European smith-gods.
Aside from the links to St George (from the ‘Thracian Horseman’), it is widely believed that Slavic Volos/Veles was used as the model for an early Christian saint, popular in the Orthodox Christian community, called Vlas, otherwise Blaise, or Vlasius. St Vlas (whose feast day is 12th February). He is popular in eastern Europe from Macedonia up to Russia, in which regions he has been associated with protection of cattle, in accordance with the Primary Chronicle account. Linda Ivanits (‘Russian Folk Belief’ Pub: Sharpe, New York 1989) notes the tradition of hanging icons of Vlas in cow biers.
like duality seems to explain the Slavic veneration along with George and Vlas all the more. To this observation must be added another: Given the tendency of Indo-European languages to ‘aspirate’ initial consonants, it is also interesting to note how ‘Veles’ can quite easily become a solar ‘Heles‘, implied in the Greek words ‘Helios‘ (a name held by Apollo, also called Phoebus) and, of course the country: ‘Hellas’. The fact that many mountaintop sanctuaries to the Greek god Helios (i.e. – the deified sun) later became dedicated to ‘St. Elias’ (‘the thunderer’), a Christianisation of the monotheism-promoting, Baal-denigrating Hebrew prophet Elijah, invoked by observant Jews at the advent of Sunday in the Havdalah ritual terminating the Shabbat. The Macedonian town with the theophoric name Veles is the site of one such shrine, but there are others. The connection with the sun, thunder and lightning suggests that Perun/Perkunas/Taranis was another aspect of the Veles/Vélinas/Belenos, both of whom took up places in Christianity as modified saints and the devil himself.
This old Serbian Dodola/Dodole (rainmaking) song illustrates the Elijah-Perun link:
Da zarosi sitna rosa,
oj dudula mili Bože!
Oj lija daj Bože daj!
Oj Ilija moj Perune!
Daj Bože daj, daj Ilija daj!
Let fine dew drizzle,
oh dudula dear God!
Oh Elijah give us, God, give!
Oh Elijah, my Perun/Thunder!
Give us, God, give, give, Elijah, give!
Dodola/Dodole was supposed to be Perun’s wife. She is sometimes viewed as a Slavic rain-goddess. The antagonism between Perun and Veles revolved around Perun’s wife being stolen – remember that all rivers were once believed to flow to the otherworld, and the connection between Velnias and water in Lithuania 😉 Elijah functions here quite obviously as the ‘bridging’ function, representing Helios (who travels daily to the underworld in his rotations)…
– Volos, Veles and Velnias were associated with both the Underworld (realm of the dead) and with herds and hosts, including the hosts of the dead. In the Baltic, Velnias was associated with bogs and pools of water – classic Celtic routes into the Otherworld.
– Veles was closely linked to the ‘thunder god’ Perun (Perkunas or Perkons in the Baltic states) who was a ‘polar antithesis’ of him, possibly representing the forces ‘above’: sky, lightning, the up-thrust of trees, particularly the Quercus or Oak (Try switching the ‘Q’ for ‘P’ after the insular celtic style…). The two were represented in a state of mutual antagonism in some Slavic mythology.
– Veles/Volos may be related to the Germanic smith-god Weland/Volundr. The 9thC second Meresburg charm relates to horses and mentions ‘Phol’ and ‘Volla’. ‘Teliavelis‘ was the name of a Baltic smith-god, and the Slavs had ‘Svarog’ in the same role. A possible association with horses is that smith-gods tended to be crippled, and hence would have used horses to move about. The concept of reincarnation is engendered in the art of smithcraft – a secret fiery re-forging in the otherworld.
– The etymological leap from Vel to Bel is so slight that it would be remiss not to consider a link to Belenos: himself possibly a chthonic war-god, similar to Roman Mars. Likewise the link between Vel and Hel (which would be an aspirated pronunciation of ‘Vel’).
‘Ankou’ is the personification of death’s assistant (a psychopomp) from Breton folklore, and a figure which reached greater prominence here than in any other of the modern ‘Celtic’ nations. It was noted by folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz in his 1911 book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, that L’Ankou and The Dead appeared to provide the equivalent role to the Aes Sidhe of Gaelic folklore – a parallel which provides us with some interesting questions as to the nature of Celtic spirit-beliefs:
“… Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors…”
(The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz; Pub. Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1911; p.218)
He goes on to note ‘Every parish in the uncorrupted parts of Brittany has its own Ankou, who is the last man to die in the parish during the year‘. Wentz’s source, the respected Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, wrote a book about Ankou, called La Légende de la Mort () and had this to say about it:
The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro) and he is also known as the grave yard watcher, they said that he protects the graveyard and the souls around it for some unknown reason and he collects the lost souls on his land. The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk. (“on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou”).
Wentz drew parallels with the Gaelic beliefs in people ‘taken’ to fairyland, but unfortunately did not establish much else by the way of concordance with this supposedly ‘Brythonic’, and in terms of surviving folklore, specifically Breton belief. It is therefore my aim here to demonstrate that Ankou did indeed have its Gaelic equivalents, whose memory became lost due to the influence of christianity and the 19thC romantic movement:
Ankou in the Isle of Man and Scotland:
The Manx – a nation whose linguistic and cultural roots lie firmly in the ‘Gaelic’ world – maintained an independent tradition which corresponds closely with that of L’Ankou. However, in examining this it is first necessary to go ‘back’ to Brittany and examine the word ‘Ankou’ itself:
The standard English definition or translation usually given for the Breton word ‘Ankou’ is ‘the agony’, originally proposed in a ‘pirated’ (uncredited) 1860 English translation (Breton Legends – Pub. London 1860, Burns and Lambert) of the folklore collected and published in French by Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué – a noted Breton dictionarian and philologist. ‘An-‘ is the definite article, and ‘-Kou’ is usually (in English translations) supposed to mean ‘agony’. However, this etymology is speculative at best, as the ‘kou’ suffix as a sound can have a number of meanings within the scope of the historical linguistics of the celtic languages. Indeed, the 1821 Breton-French dictionary of Jean-François-Marie-Maurice-Agatha Le Gonidec tellingly uses the word Kouer to mean ‘peasant’, of which more presently.
Fockleyr Manninagh as Baarlagh – the 1863 dictionary (based partly upon an earlier manuscript of John Kelly from the late 18thC) published by the Manx Society contains the following interesting entry:
Keimagh s. pl. -ee, A spirit which is supposed to haunt and guard the churchyard stiles.
Also, the word Cughtagh:
Cughtagh s. pl. cughtee – A fairy, a sprite, a spirit of the houghs* …
*AR: Hough in this context refers to a rough, rocky place or a cliff
Both entries are followed by the interesting usage example ‘Ny keimee as ny cughtee’ of which the authors say no more, but which appears to be a reference to a popular Manx charm for stopping blood, a version of which can be found in William Harrison’s ‘Mona Miscellany’ (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. Isle of Man, 1869).
The idea of the last deceased watching over the graveyard appears to have been common to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – Donald MacPherson called it the Faire Chloidh in his book ‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and Original Poems; with Notes on the superstitions of the Highlanders &c’ (Pub. Thomas and George Underwood, London 1824), p.202:
FAIRE CHLOIDH, (THE GRAVE WATCH.)
It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred, to stand sentry at the grave-yard gate, from sun-set until the crowing of the cock, every night, until regularly relieved. This, sometimes, in thinly inhabited parts of the country, happened to be a tedious and severe duty ; and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends, sometimes, much uneasiness.
The Manx ‘Keimagh’ and ‘Cughtagh’ spirits share a link of sorts to the grave, vagrancy, caves or shelters: This can be seen from the fact that the Manx word ‘cugh‘ has connotations of dirt, filth and dung, and a link between this and the cave, mound or hole-dwelling spirit is also found in the word Cughlin, meaning a vagrant’s doss-hole or a mean filthy shelter, another Manx word for which is Kemmyrk. Recall that the Breton word Kouer, means ‘peasant’ and consider the restless vagrant properties ascribed to the spirits of the dead and a few ideas might start to form about the origins and meaning behind these archaic terms and the ‘Ankou’ itself.
The Manx word Keim or Keym (from which Keimagh is derived) is the same as the Irish céim, meaning ‘step’ in the same sense as it occurs in English – as a verb and a noun. The stile at old churchyard gates was often a slab of stone which those entering the church precinct would be required step over (and scrape your shoes on) in order to enter hallowed ground. It is common for the ‘m’ sound in Celtic languages to transform into a ‘w’ in pronunciation meaning that a ‘keimagh’ might easily become a ‘keiwagh’. By the same laws of linguistics, -gh-, -ch-, and -th- will lose any pretensions to consonantal pronunciation when occuring inside words.
This puts us in the interesting position of being forced to examine another similarly named spirit from the Gaelic world – Scotland’s An Ciuthach (pronounced ‘Kewach’), a being mentioned as a hairy spirit haunting caves in Volume 3 of John F. Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ (p.55), in a folk-tale based on the story of the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Graine by Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
The Gaelic word ‘cuthach’, means ‘mad’ or ‘raging’ and fits with the portrayal of a marginal ‘wild-man’ who lives underground, and also with the Manx words ‘cugh’ and ‘cughlin’, associated with the filthy ‘Merlinesque’ state of the wild divine, a familiar sight in medieval Ireland, Britain and France where holy men often lived in a state of wild squalor. It should be obvious by now that the Breton word ‘Ankou’ had distinct similarities with the Gaelic ‘An Ciuth’ or ‘An Cuth’, ‘kou’ meaning a state of frantic restlessness, rather than ‘agony’. This fits the etymology of the Breton word for peasant: Kouer – a class of person living in mean conditions and continually working to survive.
The Irish Dullahán and the Gruagachs:
The ‘Dullahán’is the Irish legendary personification of death, usually represented as a skeletal headless horseman. The name possibly signifies ‘black one’ or ‘gloomy one’ (Dubhlachán?), probably on account of the lividity of the dead, and his appearance in popular tradition was to foretoken death. His earliest literary mention is in the writings of Charles Vallancey (‘Prospectus of a Dictionary of the language of the Aire Coti, or Ancient Irish’, Pub. Graisberry & Campbell, Dublin, 1802), who recounts that the Irish peasantry would be in fear of hearing the Dullahan or ‘Wullahan’ dragging his chains through the streets at night. Like the Ankou, it was often associated with a horse or coach and horses.
The Ankou is therefore quite possibly the ‘Wild Hunter’ who leads the Sluagh Sidhe! Was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, really originally Finn-Mac-‘Kou’-al?
The ‘wild man’ archetype has much to say about where we developed from, and about the processes by which nature is regenerated from its own ‘putrefaction’.
There are important relationships in empirical human culture between dirt, ordure and decayed matter and the regeneration of new life. To live ‘wild’ is to live in comfort with this kind of state. Such symbolism no doubt informs the apparent associations between death, the spirit world and reincarnation that underpin the ancient European beliefs. The idea anciently used to express this was termed putrefaction, and important doctrine of the natural philosophy of Europeans until the scientific age introduced new paradigms.
The British and Irish age of Romanticism started in earnest during the ‘Enlightenment’ era of the late 17th and 18thC with the researches and writings of Roderick O’Flaherty, John Toland, Edward Llhuyd, and James MacPherson, and it continued with the emergence of renewed interest in the pagan past seen in the writings of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), and in the fading customs, beliefs and lifestyles of the defeated Highland peoples documented for popular consumption by authors such as Walter Scott. Romanticism provided a vision of indigenous pagan beliefs still remaining among the peasantry, albeit in a form designed for the tastes and prejudices of educated and wealthy elites. Wavering paradoxically between apparent veneration of quaint rustic traditions and a visceral disgust of its ‘gloomy’ and ‘unenlightened’ superstitions, Romanticism would unfortunately often prove the undoing of much of what it fawned over: by swelling interest in ‘old-fashioned’ customs it ultimately encouraged the aspirational rural poor to resent becoming ‘quaint’ objects of fascination for the middle classes seeking relief from industrialised realities. By the late 1800s many Gaelic speakers had consequently rejected their traditional culture and sought to emulate modernity.
A romanticised view of what the rural poor ought to believe therefore eventually trickled down to influence their ideas: The traditions characterised as ‘gloomy’, ‘dismal’ and ‘unseemly’ – usually dealing with aspects of death, sex and disease – would become increasingly displaced.
Putrefaction as an essential cultural idea behind abundance and regeneration among rural peoples was probably finally defeated when people stopped putting shit on their crops and used chemicals in its place… This was the era of mass-slaughter and industrial warfare, which reached its first full and horrific manifestation in the First World War.
Beltane (which falls on either the 1st or 12th of May depending on if you use the Gregorian or the older Julian calendar) is the first day of the summer months in Atlantic Europe. It signifies the accelerating surge of vegetative plant growth, aided by warmer (and for a time wetter) climate, and stimulating the increased activity of animals and people, transhumance of agricultural animals, abundance of milk and the migrations/movement of wild grazing animals and birds such as Swallows and Golden Plover. It is therefore a significant seasonal and climatic event in the subsistence world of Europe's forebears… In the Middle Irish tale known as The Boyhood Deeds of Finn mac Cumhail (Macgnímartha Finn) the hero utters the following verses upon attaining his bardic skills:
May-day, season surpassing! Splendid is color then. Blackbirds sing a full lay, if there be a slender shaft of day.The dust-colored cuckoo calls aloud: Welcome, splendid summer! The bitterness of bad weather is past, the boughs of the wood are a thicket.Summer cuts the river down, the swift herd of horses seeks the pool, the long hair of the heather is outspread, the soft white bog-down grows.Panic startles the heart of the deer, the smooth sea runs apace-season when ocean sinks asleep-blossom covers the world.Bees with puny strength carry a goodly burden, the harvest of blossoms; up the mountain-side kine take with them mud, the ant makes a rich meal.The harp of the forest sounds music, the sail gathers-perfect peace. Color has settled on every height, haze on the lake of full waters.The corncrake, a strenuous bard, discourses; the lofty virgin waterfall sings a welcome to the warm pool; the talk of the rushes is come.Light swallows dart aloft, loud melody reaches round the hill, the soft rich mast buds, the stuttering quagmire rehearses.The peat-bog is as the raven’s coat, the loud cuckoo bids welcome, the speckled fish leaps, strong is the bound of the swift warrior.Man flourishes, the maiden buds in her fair strong pride; perfect each forest from top to ground, perfect each great stately plain.Delightful is the season’s splendor, rough winter has gone, white is every fruitful wood, a joyous peace in summer.A flock of birds settles in the midst of meadows; the green field rustles, wherein is a brawling white stream.A wild longing is on you to race horses, the ranked host is ranged around:A bright shaft has been shot into the land, so that the water-flag is gold beneath it.A timorous tiny persistent little fellow sings at the top of his voice, the lark sings clear tidings: surpassing May-day of delicate colors!
The festival was more properly celebrated as 'Beltane Eve' (starting 31st April), based upon the ancient tendency to start each new day with nightfall – a traditional practice in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man dating back to the Celtic cultures of Europe during the late Iron Age, as commented upon by Caesar in Book 6, ch. 18 of his account of the 1stC BC conquest of Gaul, known as De Bello Gallico:
“…All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids. For that reason they compute the divisions of every season, not by the number of days, but of nights; they keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night…”
Those familiar with astronomy might realise that the rising of Virgo in the south-eastern horizon is the significant sky-event that marks the sunset on Beltain eve, and the significance of a woman holding an ear of corn (as the constellation is often portrayed) can be understood when considering the fertility aspects of the festival. It is balanced by the setting of the sun in the Ram constellation of Aries (close to Taurus and other 'herd' or 'flock'-themed constellations) – a significant fertility symbol.
Important 'Celtic' folk-customs associated with Beltain have been recorded from across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man and many have attempted to use them in reconstructing a celebration of these festivities. There are not many places where the ancient customs have been part of a continuous living tradition, but the Isle of Man is one of them, perhaps the best of all:
The Manx Beltane customs:
The Manx people refer to Beltain as Laa Boaldyn or Oie'l Boaldyn (pron: 'Lay Bolthane/Balthane/Boltheen' or more properly by aspirating the labial consonant from 'B' to 'V' – Voaldyn) and the current customs (many still active and living) relating to it include:
(i) The fashioning the 'Crosh Cuirn'. The Crosh Cuirn (Ir.G/Sc.G. = crios caorann/caorthann) is a cross fashioned properly from two hand-broken twigs of the Mountain Ash tree, traditionally fastened with sheeps' wool pulled from a bush, or by splitting one of the twigs and pushing the other through this aperture. No metal must be used in fashioning it. Its Manx name means either 'cross' or 'girdle' made from 'Cuirn/Keirn' (Mountain Ash or Rowan Tree). The Crosh Cuirn is/was hung over doorways of human and animal dwellings and sometimes tied to the tails of domestic beasts. It was also worn by people in the fashion of a talisman. Some people also collected Ivy boughs for their apotropaic decorations – particularly on certain farms, where modern vets still see them mounted over cow sheds from time to time. Cuirn trees growing in old graveyards/churchyards are sometimes sought out for use in fashioning the 'Crosh'. Elsewhere (such as in Scotland), the 'crios' was a simple Rowan branch, not a cross. It was considered apotropaic. Manxman John Clague in his book 'Cooinaghtyn Manninagh – Manx Reminiscences' (Pub. M.J. Blackwell, 1911) said this of the 'Crosh':
“…The right way to make a kern cross is to split one stick and put the other stick through it, and thus bind them together…”
This echoes the description of 18thC author and 'whig historian' James MacPherson (celebrated throughout Europe during the early 1700s as the 'rediscoverer' of the ancient Ossianic lays) of Scottish highlanders making a 'clip' of Beltane herbs in the cleft of a stick, which he called 'Clou-an-Bel-Tein'. Macpherson's book, 'An introduction to the history of Great Britain and Ireland' (3rd Edition, Pub. London 1773, T. Becket and T.A. De Hondt) has this to say about 18thC Beltain customs in the Scottish highlands.
“… It was a custom, till of late years, among the inhabitants of whole districts in the North of Scotland, to extinguish all their fires on the evening of the last day of April. Early on the first day of May some select persons met in a private place, and, by turning with great rapidity an augre in a dry piece of wood, extracted what they called the forced or elementary fire*. Some active young men, one from each hamlet in the district, attended at a distance, and, as soon as the forced fire was kindled, carried part of it with great expedition and joy to their respective villages. The people immediately assembled upon some rock or eminence, lighted the BEL-TEIN, and spent the day in mirth and festivity.* TEIN-EGIN, or the forced-fire. The practice of extracting the TEIN-EGIN is not yet altogether discontinued among the ignorant vulgar.The ceremonies used upon this occasion were founded upon opinions of which there is now no trace remaining in tradition. It is in vain to inquire why those ignorant persons, who are addicted to this superstition, throw into the BEL-TEIN a portion of those things upon which they regale themselves on the first of May. Neither is there any reason assigned by them for decking branches of Mountain-Ash* with wreaths of flowers and heath, which they carry, with shouts and gestures of joy, in procession three times round the fire. These branches they afterwards deposite above the doors of their respective dwellings, where they remain till they give place to others in the succeeding year.* “Clou-an-BEL-TEIN” i.e., the split-branch of the fire on the rock. Those who have ingrafted Christianity on many of the superstitions of their remotest ancestors have now converted the Clou-an-Bel-Tein into a cross… “
The use of 'tin-egin' in the Hebrides (Uist) was first mentioned by writer Martin Martin in the late 17thC. The MacPhersons were lairds in western Scotland – an area which had deep cultural connections to the Isle of Man, Hebrides and Ireland, and whose folk-cultural memories unravelled following the Jacobite rebellions and subsequent Highland clearances. The MacPhersons were guilty of treating their own tenants badly, and James' own contempt of the 'vulgar' is obvious in his own writings. The Beltane bonnach was not recorded as a particular Manx custom, although it features both at Easter (when people would use no iron in their fire and cook a triangular bonnag directly on the hearthstone and use a branch of Keirn as a fire-poker) and at Samhain/Sauin at the other end of the year. MacPherson's description of the 'clip' of herbs seems analogous to the Manx Crosh Keirn, although there is little evidence of the Manx using other plant species. MacPherson's own account mentioned the clip had been replaced by the cross among christians. One suggestive description nearer (but not contemporary) to MacPherson's account is sadly third-hand, from the preface to the memoirs of Manx archdeacon Benjamin Philpott, who served in Andreas parish in the 1830's:
“…On the eve of St. John (AR Ed: sic – St James) the Beltane fires fling their ancient flames to heaven from the mountain sides. Everyone who does not wish to be haunted by ill-luck for a whole year must throw into the fire some object belonging to his house. In the good old days, which nobody remembers, it would probably have been a superfluous baby, but in the nineteenth century any old thing will do. On that same eve, the fairies – malign Celtic fairies, not our merry English elves – are wont to walk abroad. No one could have a stronger objection to popish practices than my grandmother, but she would never have kept a servant if she had not yearly, on St. John's Eve, allowed the house to be hung with green crosses and each child to wear a green cross round its neck. Otherwise Heaven knows what the fairies might not have done…” (Source: 'Our Centenarian Grandfather – 1790-1890' by Arthur Granville Bradley, Pub. 1922 London, John Bale, Sons and Danielsson)
The conflation of Mayday/Beltane (St James' Day) and St John's day (midsummer) seems to have been constant throughout the Gaelic territories, with much inter-changeability of customs. The wearing of herbs (in particular Artemisia vulgaris) is still a tradition in the Isle of Man on 'Old' (Julian) midsummer day, otherwise known as Tynwald festival. The 'green crosses' may well just have been made of fresh Rowan twigs, but there are a number of other interpretations: Firstly that the cross was made as per MacPherson's description, secondly that 'green' is a misunderstanding of the Manx/Gaelic word for the sun – Grian – whose yellow light makes things green! Philpott's original manuscript memoir is sadly unavailable to consult on the matter…
(ii) Strewing of yellow flowers. The picking of yellow and green flowers/plants and strewing them on the thresholds and hearth of the house: species used might include (depending upon the annual availability) Primroses and Cowslips, Marsh Marigold, Ranunculus spp., Rushes, Yellow Iris, Ivy branches and sometimes blue Dog Violets. The yellow-coloured flowers were evocative of bountiful milk and butter and were supposed to either attract or repel fairies, depending upon the interpretation of custom. Rushes were symbolic of welcoming in the Gaelic world: Originally, the Manx people wanted to placate fairies and not frighten them. They were considered 'lucky' and able to ward off 'evil' influences. The 'tax' of their god, Manannan, at the midsummer festivity was a bundle of green rushes, as detailed in an ancient Manx ballad. These are today strewn on the processional way of the national Tynwald festival, held on the Julian midsummer day. On that day, the herb of choice to wear is Mugwort/'Bollan Bane' (Artemisia vulgaris).
The Manx called the bog-loving Marsh Marigold or Kingcup by the name Bluightyn which means 'milker', reinforcing the association of Beltane with cattle fertility. The 7thC Anglo-Saxon scholar Bede recorded that the month of May was known as 'Þrimilci-mónaþ' ('thrimilci monath'), meaning 'the month/moon of three milklings' (Source: De Temporum Ratione – version: The Reckoning of Time – By Bede, Faith Wallis, Translated by Faith Wallis, Published by Liverpool University Press, 1999 – ISBN 0853236933, 9780853236931). Throughout Atlantic Europe are records of May customs involving yellow flowers in celebration of cattle fertility and richness in milking.
Marsh Marigolds are of particular significance over other May flowers because they often emerge from pools of standing water, which gives them a special mystical significance. The act of visiting spring wells early on May morning was also known in the Isle of Man, and there are wells actually named after the day – Chibbyr Baltane/Bolthane near Surby, for example.
The Tarroo Ushtey (a fairy water-bull) was said to emerge from pools (or spring wells!) on Boaldyn morning and mate with cattle, causing them to have sickly changeling calves (From: 'Shadowland in Ellan Vannin' by I.H. Leney (Mrs C.J. Russell); Pub. Elliot Stock, London 1890). The otherworld was considered a close and present danger!
(iii) Lighting of bonfires. Although no longer a practical custom in the Isle of Man, the lighting of bonfires was once part of the widespread practices of celebrating Boaldyn. It was accompanied (according to local records) with a number of other practices of interest: the blowing of horns 'in all directions' was one attested practice (See: 'Notes and Queries', August 1867 p.144: 'May Fires in the Isle of Man'). Joseph Train (1845) noted that this was often carried out 'on the mountains'. The other noise-tradition was the banging of the 'Dollan' – a frame-drum. Many of the 'bonfires' were actually burning Gorse bushes, the torching of which was the annual custom among country peoples, particularly in the upland districts. The custom (as in Ireland) has a certain confusion with celebrations held at Midsummer Eve (St. John's Eve), and the whole period from Beltane to midsummer seems to be an expression of heat, moisture and growth. The popular explanation of these fires in the Isle of Man by the 19thC was that they were to 'burn out' fairies and witches, meaning a purgation of evil influences. The Major Rogation Days of the church were designed to precede Beltane in the Isle of Man and elsewhere – these were a Christian blessing of the fields and would have employed fumigations of incense before the Protestant Reformation. The smoke of fires was considered purificatory (didn't the Manx use it to cure their kippers?). In the Isle of Man fairies were generally considered unwise to offend, and were encouraged in the household (bowls of water and food left out for them at night) – it is likely that the 18thC description of people trying to burn them is a sceptical interpretation…
The 'saining' of cattle by driving them through the smoke and flames of Beltane fires is remarked upon as being of great antiquity. Whitley Stokes' edition of John O'Donovan's translation of Sanas Cormaic ('Cormac's Glossary') – an Irish manuscript believed to date to around the 10thC – has this to say of Beltane:
“Belltaine, 'May Day' i.e., Bill-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 margin] 'they used to drive the cattle between them'…” (Sanas Chormaic: Cormac's Glossary – Trans. John O'Donovan, Ed. Whitley Stokes; Pub. Calcutta 1868)
Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating), in his famous and influential 17thC book Foras Feasa ar Éirinn ('History of Ireland') mentions the ancient festival at Uisneach as being held at Beltane, and gives similar details (translation by O'Donovan).
“He (Tuathal) erected the second palace in that part of Meath which was taken from Connaught, viz., at Uisneach, where was held a general meeting of the men of Erin, called the meeting of Uisneach. This fair, or assembly, was held on the first day of the month of May; and they were wont to exchange and barter their cattle, jewels, and other property there. They were also accustomed to make offerings to the chief god which they worshipped, named Bel; and it was a custom with them to make two fires in honour of this Bel in every cantred of Ireland, and to drive a couple of every kind of cattle in the cantred between the two fires, as a preservation, to protect them against every disease during that year. And it was from this fire, made in honour of Bel, that the noble festival of Phillip and James (i.e., the 1st of May) is called Beilteine, i.e., the fire of Bel.”
The reference to the 'god' Bel and his fires may just be Keating's own interpretation (based on sources like the Sanas Chormaic), but are worth considering. The 'two fires' are interesting in that they may represent the two fires of summer – Beltane and Midsummer – explaining the frequent conflations between the festivals. An explanation for this may be that 'Beltane' represented the period between Mayday and midsummer…
In fact, the conflation also extends to Easter customs. Recall MacPherson's account of Beltane fires, given above: The 'Tein-Egin' – 'forced fire' or 'need fire' – was a traditional annual rekindling of the spark of the hearth-fires. This procedure was carried out at other times of the year, in response to disease or misfortune. All hearth-fires in a community were rekindled and animals driven through the smoke, in the case of murrain. In continental Europe as well as in Britain, the sacred kindling of the flame of the Paschal Candle was an Easter tradition of the Roman Catholic church. The Manx had a superstition about rekindling of their hearth fires at Easter – it was considered bad luck to 'lend the seed of the fire' (ie- to rekindle someone else's hearth fire with your own). It is evident the Paschal traditions were overlaid on pagan ones. Muirchu's 'Life of Patrick' describes him overthrowing a druid fire festival at Tara at 'easter'.
(iv) Battle of the Queen of Summer with the Queen of Winter. Now a long-dead custom, this performance was apparently once a popular expression of the seasonal drama: It was first described in print by George Waldron in his 1733 book Description of the Isle of Man:
“… In almost all the great parishes they chase from among the daughters of the most wealthy farmers a young maid, for the Queen of May. She is drest in the gayest and best manner they can, and is attended by about twenty others, who are called maids of honour: she has also a young man, who is her captain, and has under his command, a good number of inferior officers. In opposition to her, is the Queen of Winter, who is a man drest in woman's clothes, with woollen hoods, furs tippets, and loaded with the warmest and heaviest habits one upon another: in the same manner are those who represent her attendants drest, nor is she -without a captain and troop for her defence. Both being equips as proper emblems of the beauty of the spring, and the deformity of the winter, they set forth from their respective quarters; the one preceded by violins and flutes, the other with the rough musick of the tongs and cleavers. Both 'companies march till they meet on a common, and then their trains engage in a mock-battle. If the Queen of Winter's forces get the better, so far as to take the Queen of May prisoner, she is ransomed for as much as pays the expences of the day. After this ceremony, Winter and her company retire, and divert themselves in a barn, and the others remain on the green, where having danced a considerable time, they conclude the evening with a feast: the queen at one table with her maids, the captain with his troop at another… “
The portrayal of the year in feminine form is deeply intertwined with the ancient Atlantic mythology, often represented by the figures of Brighde and An Cailleach.
(v) Miscellaneous Manx Boaldyn customs:
The old ecclesiastical court documents of the Isle of Man from the 17th and 18th centuries make references to people being presented for superstitious practices carried out on May Eve. For instance, on 13th June 1730 in a church court held at Kirk Michael the following was recorded:
Pat : Corlet having reported yt he saw Bahee, the wife of John Kaighin of Skaristal, on May Day 1735 early in the morning, in the ffields, & about the houses of her neighbrs in a suspicious manner, as if she were practicing charms or sorcery…
This seems like a particularly common time for such anxieties to be reported to church courts, as there are a number of similar entries on similar subjects in the first half of the 18th century. This represented a belief also found in Ireland (as recorded by Oscar's dad, William Robert Wilde, in his fascinating post-famine book on Irish folklore called Irish Popular Superstions) that Beltane was a time when the goodness of one person's land and beasts might be transferred by acts of 'witchcraft'. Wilde talks of tales of 'well-skimming' at Beltain where 'witches' visit spring wells and 'skim' the cream from the cattle whose lands are watered by the spring. The same tales occur in the Isle of Man. Wilde also talked of the Irish 'May Bushes' and decorated May 'balls', but these are not obvious in Manx records.
The dew of May morning was believed to have special nourishing a fertile properties and 'skimming' this was viewed in the Isle of Man as a means to acquiring its potency. People might gain beauty and health by rolling in the dew on Boaldyn morning – a Manx friend of mine told me she has done this. The 18thC church courts have presentments dealing with allegations of this practice, albeit being suspected of being performed to gain the fertility of crops.
In addition to the Boaldyn bonfires and gorse-burnings, there was one more custom practiced that seems to heark back to Scandinavian customs, and was recorded by the illustrator Harold 'Dusty' Miller in his series of illustrations about Manx ephemera, folklore and history for local newspapers in the middle of the 20thC. This was the rolling of burning wheels covered in pitch-soaked straw down hillsides at Beltane – a strong solar motif, that was also apparently practiced in the Baltic region.
The Manx celebration of Beltane/Beltain/Bealtain, known locally as Yn Voaldyn, was an important part of the rural calendar that still has customs associated with it. It was a time when the fertility and safety of households was celebrated. It was an invocation of vegetation and cattle and an invocation of the heat of summer.
In the Christian era, many of its customs were conflated with those of Easter and midsummer (St John's Day). Due to the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars in the 18thC, the Manx celebrations of festivals might fall on dates of either calendrical system. In addition, the former use of a lunar calendar until the early medieval period has led to other festivals being conflated with the 1st May. The Rogation days, the major feast of the local Saint Maughold and a number of other local festivals bear witness to this.
Some time between 1720 and 1730, a young Englishman by the name of George Waldron was living in the Isle of Man, employed as a trade commissioner for the British government who were trying to supress smuggling in the Irish Sea region. Fascinated by the strange history and wild ancient beliefs of the islanders he began compiling a book – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ – which provided one of the earliest pieces of indigenous ethnography and folklore writing from Britain and Ireland. This was published shortly after his untimely death in 1731:
The book was famously used as source material by romantic authors of the next century, most notably Sir Walter Scott, who employed some of the Island’s fairy tales and legends to embellish historical stories such as Peveril of the Peak. In the book, Waldron related one particular popular local tale of the Manx taken from the popular pseudo-historical narrative tradition:
A person at his first coming to this Island, would be strangely amazed at the little complaisance they pay to the: weaker sex: the men riding always to market on horseback with their creels on each side their horses full of fowls, butter, eggs, or whatever they bring thither to dispose of, and the women following them on foot over rocks, mountains, bogs, sloughs, and thro’ very deep rivers, and all this without either shoes or stockings’ carrying, these superfluous coverings, as they term them, under their arms till they come near the market-town; then they sit down all together on the side of a hill, and put them on for fashion sake, and let down their petticoats also, which before were tucked up higher than their knees’ for the convenience of wading thro’ the rivers, and to preserve them from the mire of the bogs and sloughs.
But the reason for obliging the females to this hardship, is a very whimsical one, and such a one, as I believe, cannot but afford some diversion to my curious reader, I shall therefore insert it in the manner it was told me by an old native, to whom it had been handed down from many generations as an undoubted verity.
He told me that a famous enchantress sojourning in this Island, but in what year he was ignorant, had, by her diabolical arts, made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men, that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her. The passion they had for her so took up all their hearts that they entirely neglected their usual occupations; they neither Flowed nor sowed; neither built houses nor repaired them; their gardens were all overgrown with weeds, and their once fertile fields were covered with stones; their cattle died for want of pasture, their turf lay in the Bowels of the earth undug for; and every thing had the appearance of an utter desolation: even propagation ceased, for no man could have the least inclination for any woman but this universal charmer, who smiled on them, permitted them to follow and admire her, and gave every one leave to hope himself would be at last the happy he.
When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.
To prevent any such like accident for the future, these wise people have ordained their women to go on foot, and follow wheresoever their lords the men shall lead; and this custom is so religiously observed, as indeed all their traditions are, that if by chance a woman is before, whoever sees her, cries out immediately, Tehi-Tegi! Tehi-Tegi ! which, it seems, was the name of that enchantress which occasioned this law among them.
The essence of the legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is of a magical female in times past (the usual narrative subtext for a pagan goddess) whose beauty leads an enslaved army of Manx men on a procession ‘through the provinces’ and then to a river or to the sea (the legend has a certain plasticity) where they are drowned and taken by the waters. The tale contains strong elements of the old Scots legends of Kelpies and the related Scando-Germanic Nixies or Necks – usually portrayed as beautiful women who transform into horses and drown men in rivers or in the ocean. The root word of Nix apparently means ‘wash’, and this probably relates to the fairy washer-women who pepper folk-tales in the Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland as well as further afield. It is also related to the Mermaid traditions, of which the Isle of Man has a rich share. The theme is of a transforming feminine force, related somehow to horses, which steals men’s lives by conveying them into water. The Manx also call their own local Kelpie the Cabbal Ushtey or Water Horse, or the Glashtyn – ‘Grey One’. There is even a pool on the Island called Nikkesons showing the Viking input to the legendary heritage of the place.
However, ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is also a tale bearing strong similarities to that of Nerthus in Tacitus’ Germania from the 1stC CE. In Waldron’s tale, the ‘Enchantress’ rides a white horse rather than travelling in a wain or waggon, but the parallels are striking: The procession ‘through the provinces’ led by a potent ancient ‘magical’ female, and the drowning of the enslaved at the conclusion of the account… There are also echoes in the medieval story of the Ratcatcher or Piper of Hamelin in Germany. It therefore appears that it might represent a little fragment of pagan belief cast in legend!
The name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ means ‘Fair Chooser’ (Tei is the Manx verb ‘to pick, gather, collect’, Teg is a Brythonic Gaelic word meaning ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful’, placing the origin of the name in the island far back in time). The meaning of the name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ and the description of her as an enchantress mark her as a pagan deity, preserved in a fairy tale. Curious details include her final transformation into a flying creature bring to mind an otherworld-transition; She becomes a bat in Waldron’s version, and but more usually a wren in other local versions, linking ‘Tehi-Tegi’ firmly to the annual Wren Hunt held on St Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26th) on the Island and in former times, elsewhere. Here are some examples of this:
Legends of the north, or The feudal Christmas; a poem By Henry Rolls (mrs.), Pub Simpkin & Marshall London 1825, pp.269-270
The wren is still regarded by the Manx people as possessing supernatural intelligence. They say that when St Maghull (Ed: Maughold – the Manx ‘Saint’) came to the island and converted it to Christianity he banished all the fairies but their queen who assumed the form of a wren in which she at times still appears and that if in that shape she can be killed her power will cease for ever. They hate this bird but fear to destroy it as some dire calamity will befall the person and all his family who effects the destruction of the reign of the fairies in Man.
From: History of the Isle of Man, by Hannah Bullock; Pub. Longman, London, 1819. (Chapter 19):
….one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year’s Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy…
Tehi-Tegi’s white horse (possibly representing the moon which controls the tides) becomes a porpoise and swims away at the end of Waldron’s version of the tale – redolent of the scene in the Voyage of Bran when Manannan introduces the transition to the otherworld and the horses galloping alongside him appear as fish!
The tale probably survived in its traditional form because it also acted as a metaphor where Tehi-Tegi IS the sea – drawing the Manxmen away from agriculture and into the trades of the sea: fishing, commerce and piracy! The Manx rural economy as far back as records go has been supported by its menfolk going to sea during the herring fishing season in order to increase food stocks of winter food and provide cash money to supplement the income from agricultural surplus. It was a dangerous trade, and a law of 1610 limited the fishery to operate only between midsummer and the end of December, meaning that the start of harvest crossed over with that of the fishery, offering some Manxmen a quandary between going to sea and working the land. Either way the womenfolk must have been anxious – both about the danger, and the lack of male help on the farmstead close to harvest… This perhaps provides a social aspect to the legend as told to Waldron, crackling as it is with gender politics.
So who might this ‘enchantress’ or ‘Fair Chooser’ have been? She appears in the legend and by her name to operate as a psychopomp or conductor of souls of the dead. She also represents the ‘otherworld attractor’ qualities of Love and Beauty that typifies fairy legends. She also has a particular association with the rivers and the ocean, and with horses, marine life and flying creatures. The Manx tales state ‘Tehi-Tegi’ was Queen of the Fairies, and there is a similar account from Ireland, naming the Fairy Queen Cliodhna as the protagonist who is annually transformed into a Wren. She is more usually associated with the Tonn Cliodhna – a powerful tidal surge in the neck of Glandore Harbour, Co.Cork. Local legends held her to be a daughter of ‘Manannnan’s druid’. Manannan is also associated with the Tonn Banks off Co. Donegal, which also have Cailleach legends associated with them.
That some of these attributes could be associated with the Scandinavian Vanir goddess Freyja (and her Father:Mother (N)Jörð) is perhaps unsurprising as the Islanders are a genetic combination of Viking and Celtic settlers whose folklore preserves many of the old pagan ideas. Freyja was described in Snorri‘s 13thC Icelandic ‘Prose Edda’ tale – Gylfaginning – as having the choice of ‘half of the slain’ in battle, the other half going to Odin. He uses the kenning Valfreyja – ‘Lady of the Fallen’ – a function certainly being carried out by Tehi-Tegi. One of the other kenning-names used by Snorri was Mardöll, possibly meaning ‘Image of the Sea’ (Mar and a contraction of the Lat in/Greek word (e)idola, which entered Germanic languages and Manx at an early stage).
Freyja was supposed to have had a ‘cloak of feathers’ which could transform the wearer into a bird, much in the manner of the jǫtunn Þjazi, to whom some legends have her being grand-daughter. Apart from the connection of Tehi-Tegi with the bat or wren, another Manx legend – of a giant magical female called Caillagh ny Groamagh who comes from the sea in the form of a bird on February 1st (or March 25th – the tradition is confused) to search for firewood/build her nest back on land. The dating of ‘Caillagh ny Groamagh’s Day’ coincides with that of the day of St Bridget, which is also the Celtic/Atlantic festival of Imbolc. The similarity between the Manx name for Bridget: Vreeshey or Breeshey (the terminal -ey in Manx is pronounced ‘-a’, as ‘Vreesha‘) and the name Freyja is very intriguing. One wonders if they might be related? And is the Manx name for the Isle of Man – Vannin or Mannin – related to the tribe of the Vanir? We know that many of the Scandinavians who settled Iceland and who preserved many of the old Eddaic legends were connected strongly to the Viking kingdoms of Dublin and the Isle of Man.
It is possible that regional alliance and cultural and population mobility between the northern European peoples during the Iron Age led to a syncresis between Western and Eastern forms of paganism which led to the combined Aesir and Vanir traditions recorded and described by the (Christian) Icelanders during the 13thC. Alternatively, the Scandinavian and Germanic religions may be the survival of un-Romanised, un-Christianised Celtic paganism, albeit altered through a prolonged interaction with these cultures before the final Christianisation began in the 10th and 11th centuries.