Gods and Robbers: Robin Hood

Undoubtedly the most globally famous of Britain and Ireland’s legendary bandits is the much vaunted Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest. His popularity has much to do with his wide-ranging status as a champion of the disenfranchised, freedom-fighter against oppressors, self-sufficient inhabitant of the marginal wilds, egalitarian redistributor of wealth and adventurer whose legend resonates with a timeless, placeless audience. Of all the mythological outlaws of note, his has most often been linked to the euhemerisation of the land’s oral traditions of older pagan gods, trampled under the march of quill and parchment from the early middle ages. As most people know a few stories about him, in this post I am going to refrain from discussing plots which have little relevance to the underlying meaning.

In truth, evidence about the origins of the myth of ‘Robin Hood’ is somewhat sketchy, and this in itself is complicated by the apparent transformations of the tale in art, song, story and dramatic performance right down to the most modern times. The story seems always to have suited various contemporary propagandistic political and revisionist narratives which have retold it in order to magnify their own contemporary causes through appropriation of the story. More recently, for instance, it has been used to serve both cold-war communist and multiculturalist dogmas. However, the underlying narrative is one of the establishment of justice and economic stability, essentially crystalized in the following framework-myth:

A outlaw man with claims to leadership of the common people (i.e. – national husbandry) is expelled from his community when it comes under the yoke of a wrongful order which is unjust and economically unfair. He goes to live in the wilds where he learns skills that allow him both to survive without recourse to common society and to become a master of his new kingdom – nature itself. The hero gradually makes increasingly bold forays against the invasive new order, and sweeps back into the social spotlight where he dazzles and tricks his way through the obstacles thrown in his path, eventually regaining his rightful position within his society as a trusted hero and leader.

What’s in a name?

The earliest versions of the myths preserved in (15thC) medieval ballads demonstrate Robin more as a commoner, omitting claims of royalty which have been suggested to have come as later additions made possible by the increasing social mobility engendered in phases following both the Black Death and subsequent peasants’ revolts, and then from the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII and the redistribution of land following the fractions of the Protestant Reformation and various wars and revolutions this engendered. The oldest medieval tales often focus more on ‘Lytel Johne’ as the main protagonist, with ‘Robin’ often seeming a touch otherworldly, and therefore (from John’s frustrated perspective), somewhat erratic and untameable. The relationship seems somewhat akin to that between humans and the mythological ‘fairies’ known as ‘Robin Goodfellow’, ‘Brownie’, ‘Phynnodderee’ or ‘Hobthrust’ of folk legends. The name ‘Robin’ is derived from the Latin word for the sanguine colour (red) – ruber. ‘Robin’ is synonymous with the name ‘Robert’, which has a phonetic similarity to the English word ‘robber’, implying a thief and outlaw.

‘Robin Goodfellow’ is the English fairy who is supposed to help with domestic husbandry, and therefore a version of the ancestral household deity once so common in European religions of the Iron Age and earlier. The name is obviously very similar to ‘Robin Hood’, and this brings us to an examination of the ‘Hood’ part of the name: The Old English words ‘Hode’ or ‘Wode’ (they are interchangeable) do not mean ‘hood’ or ‘wood’, but instead refer to ‘wildness’ or ‘madness’, and are therefore related to the name of the Germanic deity ‘Wodan’ or ‘Odin’, not to mention the Germanic fairies referred to as ‘Hodekin’ who may somehow be related. The modern English word ‘Mad’ is a version of the same, ‘M’ and ‘W’ being interchangeable in many Indo-European languages, both Celtic and Germanic. ‘Robin Hood’ therefore probably means ‘Wild Red One’, although ‘Robin God-fellow’ might be another interpretation. The name ‘Robin Artisson’ is given for the spirit associated with Alice Ketil (Kyteler) – an aristocratic (Hiberno-Norman-Norse) woman who was tried by the Bishop of Ossory for heretical pravity, use of magic and consorting (sexually) with a demon at Kilkenny in the early 14thC. The Annales Hiberniae have this to say on the matter:

“…. Ricardus Ledered, episcopus Ossoriensis, citavit Aliciam Ketil, ut se purgaret de heretica pravitate; quae magiae convicta est, nam certo comprobatum est, quendam demonem incubum (nomine Robin Artisson) concubuisse cum ea…”

Accusations and suspicions of heretical paganism seemed to stick to the more recently Christianised Norse-Hibernian elites of the Irish Sea region during the middle ages. The name ‘Artisson’ is a Norse version of the Irish ‘Mac Airt’, meaning ‘Son of the Bear’. This would imply that ‘Robin Artisson’, like Robin Hood was a creature of the wild woods, or maybe even a real man somehow associated with ongoing practices and beliefs in Norman Ireland of the Norse Berserker cult of Odin … perhaps ‘Robin Wode’ would be another name for the same character.

Madness and divinity are close bedfellows! The concept of madness appears to have had a different connotation in ancient times – ‘wildness’ seems more of an appropriate interpretation: close to the state of beasts and the turbulence of the untamed. I have already previously talked about the connections between the Celtic god Belenos, madness, prophecy and battle-fury and the seed of the herb, Henbane (Hyoscyamus Niger/Albus), which was anciently (and still is) called ‘Beleno’. Another connection with madness-inducing plants is alluded to by the name of the Roman god Robigus, who seems more pertinent to this discussion of ‘Robin Wode’: Robigus was one of the rustic (and therefore indigenous, non-oriental/non-Greek) gods worshipped by the Italic Iron Age peoples and on during the Roman Empire. He was the god venerated for the protection of crops from rust disease, much of which was caused by the ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea) which was a famous cause (along with contamination with the Darnel grass, Lolium temulentum) of madness among those who ingested contaminated grain. Robigo/Robigus was probably related to the chthonic-military Italic god, Mars-Quirinus, whose colour is red (like that of his planet). The Robigalia was celebrated by the Flamen Quirinalis on April 25 (close to Beltain) with the sacrifice of a dog, in order to prevent crop disease. Mars is the most active planet on the ecliptic path – dancing and looping like the merry pranks of Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood, and any number of legendary equivalents…

Profuse wildness of growth and references to the colour red appears in a number of British plant-names: for instance, we have Herb Robert/’Red Robin’ (the prolific Geranium Robertianum – replete with red stems and pink flowers) and the equally prolific but decidedly un-red ‘Robin-Run-Over-The-Hedge’ (Glechoma Hederacea). There is also ‘Ragged Robin’ – Lychnis flos-cuculi – another pink flower, a lover of acid soils and boglands. The notable north European bird species, Erithacus rubecula the European Robinis perhaps of greater significance in indigenous traditions. An old English rhyme states ‘The Robin and the Wren are God’s two holy men’, and the old Manx wren-hunt ballad or rhyme refers to ‘Robbin the Bobbin’ as the instigator of the wren hunt itself – the wren being the incarnation of the Manx pagan goddess of olden times – Tehi-Tegi, the ‘Fair Chooser’ of the dead… The robin bird, unlike others, is famously inquisitive of human activity, and is sometimes known as ‘the gardener’s friend’. It – like the fairy ‘Robin Goodfellow’ has a semi-wild sympathy with the human race…





‘The Hairy Helper’ – folklore of the Brownies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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