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Friday, August 28, 2015

Witches, Mná Feasa, and Fairy Doctors, oh my!

A peer reviewed version of this article can be found in the 2014 Lughnasa/Samhain issue of Air n-Aithesc here

Waterhouse, The Mystic Wood, 1917

   In modern American terms we tend to call anyone who works with low magic or folk magic a witch, however from an Irish perspective such people actually fell into roughly three groups: witches called caillí (singular cailleach) in Irish, fairy doctors, and mná feasa (singular ban feasa). It is important to note up front that all three of these terms can be and sometimes are used interchangeably, and a single person, such as Biddy Early may be given all three labels by different people. To give an example, ban feasa means wise woman, but so does cailleach feasa, and both might be called a fairy doctor or a witch in English, depending on context and what they are doing. It's also important to understand that the Irish view of witches is not the same as the more commonly held traditional one; Irish witches were feared because they might steal milk from the family cows or ill-wish people, but they did not have the deeply sinister reputation found elsewhere.
    The final chapter of Kevin Danaher's book Irish Customs and Beliefs begins with an anecdote from the author's youth. He tells of an experience he had upon meeting an old woman named Nellie in Clare, who, he discovers later, is known through the area for her herbal cures and propensity to curse anyone who offended her. He ends the passage by saying:
"On the way home that day I couldn't help thinking that the old lady was very like the witch in the story books; the black cat in the hearth and the heather besom behind the door were just what a witch should have, and when I heard of her cures and curses my suspicion grew. But I soon found out that the classic figure of the witch cleaving the night air on a broomstick with her cat perched on the pillion was not recognized in local tradition. Old Nellie might be a bean feasa, skilled in cures and in divination, or even an old cailleach who stole the cows milk disguised as a hare, but not a witch." (Danaher, 1964, pages 121-122).
    This passage demonstrates a key difference between the Irish view of witches and the commonly understood one, which is based on continental views. While stories from continental and even British folklore depict witches flying through the air, gathering at meetings with the Devil and using their powers to curse and torment their neighbors by withering crops, causing illness, and killing, the figure of the Irish witch is very different. Although still seen as negative and working against the community the Irish witch in folklore is often less severe and less destructive. Most commonly Irish witches are described stealing milk while in the form of a hare or otherwise working magic on the cattle (O hOgain, 1995). These Irish witches may be referred to as “butter witches” to differentiate them from the more sinister continental ones (O Crualaoich, 2003). 
The more sinister view of witches seems to have been imported from Europe at a later time and never took the strong hold on the country that it did elsewhere, notably in Scotland (Danaher, 1964). Instead of the idea of truly evil witches we see stories of the cailleach, usually an old woman, intent on stealing milk from the cows and disrupting a family's luck.
    Ireland had very few witch trials over the centuries and these were usually within settlements of those of non-Irish descent (Danaher, 1964). The last witch trial on record in Ireland occurred in Carrickfergus in 1711 and resulted in a conviction and a sentence of the pillory and a year in prison (Danaher, 1964). This seems to reflect the different attitude with which the Irish approached the subject, compared to the far more rabid witch-hunting that went on in Europe. Perhaps because the beliefs about witches were not as severe or perhaps because the belief in the supernatural and use of magic in folklore was so strong even after Christianization, the Irish witch never created the hysteria in Ireland that was the hallmark of Europe during this period. 
   What is particularly worth noting though is the connection between Irish and Scottish witches and fairies, something that is shared with bean feasa and fairy doctors. While the latter two use the knowledge they gain from the Other Crowd to heal or cure magical afflictions, the witch uses her fairy-given knowledge to harm. The witch knows how to use elfshot, and does so in ways that - according to the Scottish witch trial records anyway, which we must look to given the scarcity of Irish witch trials - seem to have been an attempt to use supernatural power where social power was lacking. Often in these trial records we see witches confessing to making deals with or consorting with fairies, going to fairies for knowledge, and going to them to obtain elfshot (Hall, 2005). In the Irish we see witches, like fairies, taking the form of hares in order to steal milk from the cows and this may indicate another connection between the two (O hOgain, 1995). 
   The terms bean feasa and fairy doctor are often used interchangeably and indeed there is at best a fine difference between the two. It is highly likely that the two terms, one in Irish one in English, originally were applied to a singular type of practitioner; however in the modern source material we do see a nuanced difference between how the two terms are used. The bean feasa is often called to find lost objects and discern through divination the cause and cure of ailments, from illness to butter failing to churn (O Crualaoich, 2005). The fairy doctor, on the other hand, is called when fairy involvement is known or suspected, especially relating to afflictions caused by them, or when witchcraft is suspected, in order to discern the best cure (Wilde, 1991). The ban feasa was said to never teach her magic to others or preform her charms in front of people, while the fairy doctor could teach others, particularly passing her knowledge on to her child (Wilde, 1991; Locke, 2013). One might argue that the bean feasa is more of a general practitioner while the fairy doctor is a specialist, but both derive knowledge and power from their relationship with the Other Crowd. 
   Bean feasa means wise woman but it has connotations of someone who deals with the Other Crowd (fairies), specifically someone who gains their knowledge from the Gentry and is often away with them. It was believed that a bean feasa gained her power after being taken by the Fair Folk or spending time with them; that they taught her occult knowledge and continued to provide her with information and help (O Cualaoich, 2005). Often such a woman might appear to have knowledge of events occurring at a distance or the location of items, and such knowledge was said to be given to them by the fairies (O Cualaoich, 2003). The bean feasa helped the community with herbal remedies, divination, and advice especially relating to the fairies. Bean feasa were almost always older women, unmarried, who were known to travel (O Crualaoich, 2005). Biddy Early was a notable exception to this being often married and stationary; such was her reputation for curing that people came from all over to see her (Magic and Religious Cures, 2014). Herbal cures are employed by the bean feasa, but generally are used for their magical, more than their medicinal, properties (O Craulaoich, 2005). This can be seen in stories which describe the special way or place the herb must be gathered or include geasa around their use. These geis may include no one watching as they are prepared or given, the herb being brought to the person in total silence, or not looking backwards (O Craulaoich, 2005). Although known for clairvoyance and getting knowledge from the Gentry, the bean feasa were also known to use a form of divination involving dishes, sieves, or bowls, where they would shift or move around a selection of these items and then divine based on how the objects settle (O Crualaoich, 2003). 
   Lady Wilde describes fairy doctors thus: "The fairy doctors are generally females. Old women, especially, are considered to have peculiar mystic and supernatural power. They cure chiefly by charms and incantations, transmitted by tradition through many generations; and by herbs, of which they have a surprising knowledge." (Wilde, 1991). Whereas witches were thought to gain their powers from alliances with spirits and their own will, fairy doctors got theirs from the Good People (Yeats, 1888). Fairy doctors were more specific in what they did than the bean feasa, focusing on things that seemed to have a supernatural cause, and would be called in to discern if that cause was malignant witchcraft or fairies. The fairy doctor was most known for being able to recognize the ill effects of elfshot, the fairy wind, and the evil eye, all of which she could diagnose and then treat with charms or incantations, and less often herbal remedies (Wilde, 1991). Fairy doctors were also thought to be able to have the spirit sight and so could deal with the Fair Folk and see, for example, if a home had been built on a fairy road or near a fairy door.  It was believed that a person, usually but not always a woman, became a fairy doctor after either being away with the fairies or after suffering an illness that brought her near death and so closer to the spirit world (Locke, 2013). This closeness to the fairies granted the fairy doctor a special knowledge of magical afflictions and of herbal cures, and in some cases may have granted some type of psychic power. The fairy doctor used herbs, crystals, chants, charms, and special healing stones to work their cures (Locke, 2013). 
  It is said in many sources that the bean feasa and fairy doctors both would take no money for their charms or spells, but would accept gifts afterwards; money could be taken though for herbal cures (Wilde, 1991). Fairy doctors were known to be paid in barter, especially food and drink (Locke, 2013). It should be kept in mind though that the gifting after a cure was a requirement more than a suggestion; Biddy Early was said to make enough in her curing work that none of her husbands had to work.
   So what we see is a complex belief system that - much like the Fairy Faith's own approach to viewing the Good People - encompasses a selection of titles given to a certain type of magical practitioner whose application varied by circumstance and perspective. One person's cailleach may be another's bean feasa, and a third might describe that person as a fairy doctor - as we see with Biddy Early who bears all three titles. A close look at each shows distinct differences and specific practices and skills that define each one, however in modern pagan practice it is difficult to clearly delineate between the ban feasa and fairy doctor, if the terms are even known, and both might be lumped under the wider term of witchcraft. I believe though that it would do us well to try to return to the more nuanced meanings and get away from a dependence on the more common but less specific term of "witch" for those who do fit the general descriptions of bean feasa or fairy doctor. Certainly both are still here, and as more attention is brought to the old fairy beliefs and practices both the bean feasa and fairy doctor can find a place in the modern world.


Hall, A., (2005) Getting Shot of Elves: Healing, Witchcraft and Fairies in the Scottish Witchcraft Trials. 
Folklore Vol. 116, No. 1 (Apr., 2005)
O Crualaoich, G., (2005) Reading the Bean Feasa. Folklore Vol. 116, No. 1 (Apr., 2005)
O Crualaoich, G., (2003) The Book of The Cailleach
Magic and Religious Cures (2014). Ask About Ireland. Retrieved from
Danaher, K., (1964). Irish Customs and Beliefs
Wilde, L., (1991). Irish Cures and Mystic Superstitions
O hOgain, D., (1995). Irish Superstitions

Yeats, W (1888). Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry 
Locke, T., (2013). The Fairy Doctor. Retrieved from

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Morrigan and Personal Sovereignty

The Morrigan's most well-known, and arguably main, aspects may be battle, death, and war but she also has other purviews including sovereignty and that is what many of her followers today seem to connect most strongly with. In our modern world  many people feel disempowered in their lives, making the idea of reconnecting with personal power an alluring one, and something that the Morrigan can help with by pushing us to find our own sense of sovereignty. She is not, in this case, a giver of sovereignty to those who seek it, but rather she will challenge us to fight for the independence and strength we need to feel like we are in control of our own selves.
We live in a world where we are disconnected from the idea of sovereignty, in part because the modern idea is far different from the ancient one. Historically sovereignty was the power of a person to rule, embodied in a concept called flaitheas in Irish. Several Irish goddesses were bestowers of flaitheas, deciding who would rule over the geographic area they were associated with, such as Macha in Armagh or Aine in Limerick. A king or chieftain successfully rule over the land and people of his domain was dependent on the blessing of this goddess. Sometimes the king would ritually marry the goddess to symbolize his union with her, in other cases she would appear and offer him a drink from a cup representing sovereignty. It was very important that the king live in right relation with the goddess of sovereignty because to do so would bless his people with abundance and prosperity, while offending her or angering her would bring about loss and scarcity.
Over time the concept of sovereignty has evolved. It is no longer restricted to kings and rulers but has become something personal, something that we all have within us. Whereas the Irish word flaitheas applies very specifically to rulership, kingdoms, and domains, the English translation of sovereignty has different meanings which have come to shape our understanding. Sovereignty is not only about rulership and authority over others, but also about personal autonomy and freedom, in essence about our ability to rule over ourselves. To have personal sovereignty is to stand in our personal power, take responsibility for all of our actions and their consequences, and to embrace the idea that we are ultimately our own authority. Our bodies belong only to ourselves. Our lives are lived as we choose to live them, whether that is for ourselves or for others, for our own happiness, or for other peoples'. Personal sovereignty is a choice, even when we are in situations where we can't control or choose what is happening we can choose how we react to the situations we are in. We each have the possibility of connecting to the goddess of sovereignty. We each have the potential for self-determination. We each have the capacity to be completely in control of ourselves and our own actions, to live by choice and not by chance, and in doing so to live in right relation to the goddess of sovereignty and earn her blessing in our life. 
Just as the word itself has changed with time, so too has the purview of the goddess of sovereignty changed over time. The Morrigan is still who and what she was historically, nothing has fallen away from her, but new things have been added as the world and human society changed, because the gods grow and adapt with us. In the past she might decide who would rule by shaping the outcome of a battle, or by challenging kings to act when action was needed. Macha, a goddess who is one of the three Morrigans, was directly associated with sovereignty by blessing or cursing kings, and as Macha Mongruadh with choosing the king. In a modern context the Morrigan comes to us individually and provokes us to embrace our own autonomy, to find our own sense of personal sovereignty.
The Morrigan is not known as a gentle goddess although how she interacts with us can depend on the situation and the person. In inciting us to find our own sovereignty she is challenging. Like a smith separating the dross from the good material she does what is needed to make us stronger. She  pushes us to confront our fears, to admit our weaknesses and turn them into strengths, to face the things we want only to avoid, to confront instead of hide. She teaches us that sovereignty has a price, but if we are willing to pay that price she will help us become better, stronger people. She does not give anything easily or freely but she will push us to find our own way to our personal power. Because what she offers has great value it is not easily earned nor freely given, but it is more than worth the effort. 

The Morrigan does not give sovereignty - she urges us to embrace our own by challenging us to find our strength and stand in our power. We may each have different definitions of what sovereignty is, but however we choose to define it we should strive to understand how it fits into our life. Decide for yourself what sovereignty is and then find a way to embrace it. The Morrigan stands before us and says: "Who rules your life? Dare to be your own sovereign, dare to rule over your own flesh, dare to be in control of your own self."

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Personal Boundaries, Sovereignty, and Consent Culture

  I was recently reminded of an older blog post by John Beckett about boundaries and it got me thinking. We all have personal boundaries, of course, but I think too often in interacting with others there is a default assumption that others share either our personal boundaries or else wider cultural boundaries. To me, when we talk about personal boundaries I immediately think about consent culture and the idea of personal sovereignty.
     Whether we like to admit it or not we live in a society that assumes our bodies are not really our own, especially if you are female*. From a young age most of us are taught to hug people whether we want to or not, because it's "polite". Children learn quickly that it doesn't matter whether they want to or not, its expected. Of course some people enjoy this contact and do it by choice, but there is also an underlying assumption that it is a social norm. Women constantly fight against the ideas that being female means owing physical contact to other people usually expressed as intimacy. The whole concept of the "friend zone" exemplifies this because it carries the implicit belief that if someone likes a woman and tries to court her she is somehow being unfair or manipulative to deny that person an emotional or physical response they want. Many pregnant women experience having their belly touched by strangers, without their permission, as if being pregnant in itself ceded such consent away. I have had my hair, tattoos, and (yes, really) breasts touched in public by strangers who believed they had a right to touch me without my permission. In the pagan community there is also often an assumption that physical touch is wanted or accepted so much so that I have sometimes seen people refer to hugging as the pagan handshake, as if it were the default greeting.
   Here's the problem. Not everyone wants to be touched, especially by strangers or people they don't know well. There are many reasons why someone may not want to be touched, but honestly it doesn't matter. The point is that not everyone welcomes casual touching or hugging. For some people there is a strong boundary that exists at the limit of their personal space which says please stay out, in the same way that another person might feel about strangers or acquaintances going through their purse or wallet without asking. To me part of  our right to control our own body and what happens to it includes being able to decide where that boundary of personal touch is.
    What baffles me here is the offense people take when someone who doesn't want to be touched expresses that. People who want to hug seem to believe people who don't want to hug are rejecting them on a personal level, when that is not (generally) the case at all. It isn't a judgment on the hugging individual as a person (again usually) so much as it is an expression of the non-hugging individuals personal comfort levels. I'll use myself as an example. I do not like being touched by most people, and being hugged by people I don't know or don't know very well and trust causes me anxiety. You'll note I said most, so right off I get criticized because I say I don't like being touched but then I do let some people touch me - as if it's only acceptable for me to have this boundary if I make it all or nothing, again removing my ability to choose who I am and am not comfortable being touched by. Most people don't ask, they simply hug, putting me in the extremely awkward position of either letting them violate my personal space in a way that I find upsetting or of ducking away which they find offensive. I usually brace myself and put up with it, because in my experience rejecting unwanted physical contact that is socially acceptable, is ironically not socially accepted. And for those of you reading this and thinking I'm exaggerating, the next time you go to a larger pagan event try to enforce a strict "no touching" rule. When I was at Pantheacon I even wore a ribbon, bright red, which said "No touchy!!" and it made no discernible difference, although several people did apologize after hugging me, then asking permission, and being told I would really prefer not to (and I appreciate the apology, even retrospectively).

  I have seen an online discussion about this subject in a pagan group where people argued that hugging shouldn't require consent and that non-huggers needed to conform. One person even went so far as to suggest forcibly hugging people who expressed a desire not to be touched, because they needed to get over it. I've also seen people who don't want to be touched called un-pagan, mean, and heard it said that if you don't like hugs you're missing out on some essential aspect of community building. In the same way that people who are very open to touching are judged negatively, so people who don't like to touch are judged.
   Not wanting to be touched has nothing to do with me judging you. It has everything to do with me needing to feel like I am controlling what is happening to my own body. This is where personal sovereignty comes in, because personal sovereignty, to me, is the idea that we as individuals are in control of what happens to our own bodies; you are the supreme authority of your own flesh. I decide what I am comfortable doing and not doing, and I decide who can and can't enter my personal space and what they can and can't do there. To put a twist on an old saying, however, my sovereignty ends where the next person's begins. Some people have permeable boundaries, and that's fine if that's what they are comfortable with. Some people have rigid boundaries and that should be fine too, if that is what they are comfortable with. The key here is that we each should have the ability to decide for ourselves what happens to our own bodies*.
   Another vital aspect of this, which could really solve many of the problems caused by the assumption that touching as social norms are okay, is the idea of consent culture. Simply put, ask first. If you want to hug someone, ask. And respect their answer, even if it's no. Don't take that no personally or assume anything about why the answer is no, because likely it isn't about you at all. Consent culture is rooted in respect and the idea that by asking first we are acknowledging the other person's sovereignty over their own body, just like we would their car or purse (I hope).
       Consent culture is not something we have right now, it's a work in progress, but it is something we can make a reality. In the same way personal sovereignty is something we each must work to understand and establish for ourselves, because no one can give us sovereignty it is something that we must learn to stand up for. I highly recommend JD Hobbes"The Hug as a Personal Greeting" for guidelines on good etiquette on touching other people at public events. And hopefully as we move forward we can learn to respect each other's limits, instead of judging those who have comfort-zones different from our own.

* cis-, trans-, or any other form of female identification are all considered female here
* you can pretty much guess from this view how I feel about most subjects relating to body-choices. I admit though that children are a grey area because they should be raised with a sense of personal sovereignty but also must, by necessity, fall under their parents decision making processes in many things. That's a topic for a blog on it's own however

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Excerpts from Cóir Anmann

 Just as the Banshenchus can give us some insight into the different Irish Goddesses, the Cóir Anmann can give us insight into a few of the Gods. Below is an excerpt of the relevant  original material which is mostly Middle Irish and a bit of Latin followed by my translation:

149 Tuatha Dea (.i. Donann) .i. dée in t-áes dána & andeé in t-áes trebhtha; amail asrubhairt Cú .cc. for Taín Bó Cúailnge, día m-bái a toirrsi & a n-ítaidh mhóir déis Lóich meic Mofeidbis do mharbad. INtan bói Cú Chulainn isin comrag sin Lóich, taínic chuigi In Mhórríghan inghen Ernmhais a richt anaichnidh a sidhibh do bhasgadh Con Culainn isin comhrag. Tug Cú Chulainn root n-urchuir donMhórrighain gura bhris a lethrosc. Taínic sí aridhisi a richt t-seantainne d'innsaighi Chon Culainn, & dobhí sí ag bleghan bó tri sine ina fiadhnaisi. IS ime tra táinic sí arbíthin a foírithnech do Choin Culainn, daigh ní ghonadh Cú Chulainn nech araterná[d] co m-beth cuid dó fein ina leighis. Conaitecht Cú Chulainn in bleóghan fuirri iarna dhéchradh d'ítaidh. Dobreth sí blegan sine dó. ‘Rob slán an neim damh-sa só!’ ar Cú Chulainn. Bá slán didiu lethrosc na ríghna annsin. Ar Cú Chulainn robhris a lethrosc roime sin. Conaitecht som bleoghan sine aile fuirri. Dobert sí dó. ‘An neimh rob slán intí doridhnacht’, or Cú Chulainn. Conatach som in tres n-digh & dobert bleghan sine dó. ‘Bennacht dée & anndée fort, a inghen’, or Cú Culainn. Batar é a n-dée in t-aés cumhachta{folio 582a} & a n-andée in t-aes trebaire, & bá slán in righan iarsin.

150  Dagda .i. dagh dé .i. día soinemhail ag na geintíbh é, ar do adhradháis Tuatha Dé Danann dó, ar bá día talmhan dóibh é ar mhét a chumachta.

151 Eochaid Ollathair .i. uilliu é inna a athair. N[ó] ollathair .i. athair oll do Thuathaibh Dé Danann é.

152 Ruadh Rofesa .i. is aigi robhoí óighi ind fessa g[e]inntlidhe, & is aigi bádar na tréidhe ildealbhaidhe.

153 Eochaid Bres .i. Eochaid cruthach, ar cach ní caem & cach ní cruthach atcíther ind Erinn is co Bres samhlaither .i. Breas mac Ealadhan meic Dhelbaith is fris atberar, & Eochaid ainm aile dó.

154 Núadha Airgetlámh, cidh día tá? Ni ansa. A lamh dheas doben Sreng mac Senghainn de a comracc a cath Muighi Turedh Cunga, intan tangadar Túatha Dé Danann a n-Eirinn. Dochuiridar leaghaThúaithe Dé Danann lámh airgit co lánlúth cacha laimhe for Núadhait. Is aire sin tráth aderthi Núadha Airgétlámh friss iarsin.

155 Tuirenn Beggreann .i. grenn beg bhói fair .i. ba beg a ulcha. Dealbháeth ainm aile dó, & is do Thuirinn bá clánd in chlann remhraíti .i. clann Tuirinn .i. Brían & Eochaid & Iucharbha.

156 Manannán mac Lir .i. Oirbsin a ainm. Oirbsiu proprium nomen eius Allaei nomen patris eius. .i. cendaighi amhra robí a n-Inis Manann .i. issé lúamhaire is dech robhí for muir a n-iarthar domain. Rofinnadh triana engnacht sic. leg. tria nemhghnacht, as in marg. sup. i. tría dheicsin ghné índ neime .i. ind aeoir, ind airet nóbhith in t-soininn nó in doininn, & intan conclaechlobadh cechtarde araile, & is aire sin rothoimnetar Bretnaigh & fir Erenn eissiumh gur' bhá dée in mhara é & Mac Lir aderthi fris .i. mac in mhara. Manannan dano do rádh ris a Manainn.

157 Dían Cecht .i. ainm suithe leigís Eirenn, dían na cumachta, nam cecht cumhachta dicitur, unde Néidhe mac Adhnai dixit: Cechtsam derca áthsgeanmaim ailcne .i. cumhachtaigsium ailcni .i. sceillec romhebaid don ailig condombí fri[a] súil-seom. Coni cáecsom .i. imrubhairt a chumhachta. Non est ut imperiti dicunt Cechtsum .i. cáechsum. Nó dian (.i. deus) caech (.i. sui). Ut est deus salúitis.

  - Stokes, W., and Windisch, E., (1897) Irische Texte

 The Rightness of Names:

149 Tuatha Dea (that is Donann) that is Gods the people of art and not-Gods the people of the populous; as Cú Chulain said because of the Taín Bó Cúailnge, when he was sorrowing and he had a great thirst after Lóch son of Mofeidbis had been killed. When Cú Chulainn was there in combat with Lóch, the Mórríghan daughter of Ernmas came towards him in a strange form out of the Fairymound to wound Cu Culainn during the combat. Cú Chulainn gave a cast at the Mórrighain in response breaking one of her eyes. She returned in the form of an old woman approaching Cu Culainn, and she was milking a cow with three teats in his presence. And it was for the sake of this therefore to get his help for her previous wounding by Cu Culainn, because any wounding of anyone by Cú Chulainn a portion of the act of healing must be treated by him himself. Cú Chulainn sought the milking on her because of the furious thirst. She gave the milking of a teat to him. ‘May it be health not poison on me!’ said Cú Chulainn. Health was then in one eye of the Queen. Because Cú Chulainn had broken her one eye before. He sought the milking of the other teat on her. She gave it to him. ‘Not poison but may health be on her who grants this’, said Cú Chulainn. He sought the third drink and she gave the milking of the teat to him. ‘Blessing of Gods and not-gods on you, oh maiden’, said Cú Culainn. These were their Gods the people of power and the not-Gods the people of husbandry, and after that the Queen was healthy.

150  Dagda that is a good god that is an excellent god he was of the pagans; because the Tuatha De Danann adored/worshiped him, because he was a god of the world to them, because of the greatness of his power

151 Eochaid Ollathair that is greater he than his father. Or ollathair that is ample father for the Tuatha Dé Danann.

152 Ruadh Rofesa that is it was he who had the wholeness of heathen knowledge, and it is he who had the 
multi-formed accomplishments.

153 Eochaid Bres that is Eochaid the beautiful, because every thing fair and every thing beautiful seen in Ireland is compared with Bres, that is Bres son of Elada son of Delbaeth is called thus, and Eochaid is the other name on him.

154 Núadha Airgetlámh, why thusly? Not difficult. His right arm was struck off by Sreng mac Senghainn in combat during the first battle of Muighi Turedh, when the Túatha Dé Danann came to Ireland. The physicians of the Túatha Dé Danann put a silver arm filled with the movement of every arm on Núadha. So that afterwards he then gets Núadha Airgétlámh on him.

155 Tuirenn Beggreann that is a small beard was on him that is small was his beard. Delbáeth was the other name on him, and the children of Tuirinn where his children that is the family of Tuirinn that is Brían and Eochaid and Iucharba.

156 Manannán mac Lir that is Oirbsin his name. Oirbsiu was his proper name Allaei the name of his father. That is a wonderful trader who was on the island of Man that is he was the best steersman on the sea in the west of the world. He knew through understanding, as it was actually written, through sky knowledge, that is through gazing at the appearance of the sky that is the air, the length of the world, the fine weather or stormy weather, and when the two elements would change each other, and the people of Britain and the men of Ireland called him the God of the sea and Mac Lir he was called that is son of the sea. Manannan moreover he was called for the Isle of Man.

157 Dían Cecht that is the name of the master physician of Ireland, swift the powers, for his learned powers it is said, whence Néidhe mac Adhnai said: An eye blinded by a splinter of rock purified that is using his power; splinter of rock, that is a small piece of stone, strikes to the other decreased against his eye. So that it is not 'blinds' but is 'strikes his powers'. That is not to say skilled powers but blinds. Or dian (that is a god) caech (that is learning). That is a god of healing.*

* basically the word "cáech" means blind in one eye and this entry is a lot of linguistic gymnastics to explain Dian Cecht's name by explaining why it isn't related to blindness. In reality "cecht" is related to both learned knowledge, skill, ploughing, and later power (although this is probably a reflexive association coming from Dian Cecht's name)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

the Slua Si

    Whenever the subject of the fairies comes up it is best to remember that they are not the twee little things of pop culture. Even among the diverse groups of fairies though some deserve more caution and respect than others. One group that was particularly feared is the slua sí, the fairy host. In Scotland the Sluagh are considered the most daunting of the fairies (Briggs, 1976).This fairy army would travel on the wind, especially the whirlwind, which was called the séideán sídhe, fairy blast, or sitheadh gaoithe, meaning thrust of wind, and often called by the similar sounding name of sí gaoithe, fairy wind (O hOgain, 1995; MacKillop, 1998). 

   Although most often described as invisible to mortal eyes and traveling in the form of a wind, in Scotland the Slua is also said to appear in the form of clouds (Carmichael, 1900). The Slua traveled most often at night, but was especially active around midnight (Evans Wentz, 1911). Anyone who had reason to be out at night, and more so if they were out alone, needed to be careful to avoid the fairy host. This does not mean that the slua appears only at night though, and in fact the fairy host may appear anywhere at any time. 

     In Ireland it was said that the slua sí would often force a human to go along with them while they engaged in their malicious endeavors (O Suilleabhain, 1967). In tales these endeavors often included kidnapping brides, a common theme in many different types of fairy stories. A hapless traveler out alone at night or wandering where they shouldn't be might be taken up by the slua and find themselves with no choice but to go along where the fairies took them. People taken this way might be said to be "in the fairies" (O Suilleabhain, 1967). In folklore people taken by the slua sí may go as far afield as France or Spain and be left there to find their own way home, or else may be returned to the place where they were taken mostly unharmed. There are also tales of those, out traveling at night, who would see another person who had been or was being taken by the slua. To get the host to release anyone they may have taken one should throw the dust from the road, an iron knife, or your left shoe and say "This is yours; that is mine!" (McNeill, 1956).Those known to have been taken and released were gone to for advice relating to the fairies and seen as being quite knowledgeable about them (O Suilleabhain, 1967).

   In Scotland some people believe that the Slua sí, the fairy host of the air, are spirits of the mortal dead*, specifically those who died with unforgiven sins (McNeill, 1956; Briggs, 1976). Alexander Carmichael described them as the ghosts of men who died full of sin and Evans Wentz related stories of the Slua as both the mortal dead and as fallen angels (Carmichael, 1900; Evans Wentz, 1911). In Irish folktales related by authors like Yeats and Hyde however the fairy host seem distinct from the human dead and appear to act like fairies in other tales, engaging in behavior such as stealing human brides. It's possible that no simple line can be drawn between the two groups, but rather that crossover existed which is reflected in the different folk beliefs.

     The fairy host would appear in a sudden wind and the sound of voices, armor clinking, or people shouting (O Suilleabhain, 1967). Hyde describes it in the story "Guleesh Na Guss Dhu" this way: "he heard a great noise coming like the sound of many people running together, and talking, and laughing, and making sport, and the sound went by him like a whirl of wind..." (Hyde, 1890, p 76). Some say it appears as a dust devil which moves over roads and hedges as the Good Neighbors travel (JCHAS, 2010). When the whirlwind appeared people would avert their eyes, turn their backs, and pray, calling on saints or their guardian angels or else saying "Good luck to them, the ladies and gentlemen" (O hOgain, 1995, JCHAS, 2010, p. 319). This was done to avert any harm caused by the close proximity of the Host and to hopefully avoid drawing their attention. The sidhe gaoithe (fairy wind) which was a sign of the presence of the fairy host, could bring illness or cause injury as it passed by, contributing to its fearsome reputation (MacKillop, 1998). The Slua had a reputation for being mercurial and prone to malicious behavior and unlike more sedentary types of Fair Folk they are not easily appeased but most often must be warded off, usually with iron, driven away, or out-witted.

   I've only encountered the Slua Si once and that is enough for me. Their reputation is what it is for a reason.


MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
McNeill, M (1956). The Silver Bough, volume 1
O Suilleabhain, S., (1967). Nosanna agus Piseoga na nGael
O hOgain, D., (1995) Irish Superstitions
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionary of Fairies
Carmichael, A., (1900) Carmina Gadelica
Evans Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Hyde, D., (1890) Beside the Fire
JCHAS (2010) Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society

*This may tie into the idea seen on the continent of the Wild Hunt as spirits who travel the air and can take people.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Tech Duinn

 For many people Donn is seen as the first ancestor and ultimately the God of the dead in Irish paganism. There is a lot of folk belief behind this and I've previously written about Donn elsewhere but today I thought it might be interesting to take a look at two passages in Old Irish which mention Donn and the story of how Tech Duinn got it's name

Tech nDuinn
Teach nDuind, cidh diatá? Ní ansa. In tan dolotar meic Miled aniar don Erinn, asbert a n-druí fríu: ‘Fear raghas isin crand siúil’, for se, ‘Ocus madh é chanus ar tus dichedla for Tuathaib Dei, maighfidh in cath forro, ocus lindi íarsin co brath a tír: ocus bebais in fer cuirfes in m-bricht.’
Fochres crandchor forro, ocus tachraidh do Dhonn taidhecht isin seól. Dogníther íarom samlaid, ocus luidh Dond isin seól, ocus canaidh tinchetla fríu, ocus doluidh sís iarsin, ocus asbert: ‘Tonga na deo’ ol sé, ‘cona didhemthar cert no cóir duib festa.’
 Canaid-seom dano di thír tinchedla forro-som dia fregra. Iar mallachadh Duinn íarom do Thuaith De dofáinic crith-ghalar fo chétóir isin luing. 
Asbert Amarghen: ‘Bidh marb Dond’, for se, ‘ocus ní seghdha dund congbail im athgabail an ghalair. Ar día ructhar Dond i tír, bíaidh an galar-sa co brath a n-Erinn.’
 Asbert Dond: ‘Berar mo choland-sa’, for sé, ‘a n-oen na n-ínnsi, ocus dobéra mo chinél bendachtain form co brath.’
 Ticc íarom ainbhtine doibh tria thinchedlaibh na n-drúadh, ocus báiter an bárc a m-bái Dond.
 ‘Berar a choland isin carraic n-aird thall’, ol Aimhirghen: conidh de dogarar Teach nDuind. ‘Ticfad a munnter an maighin sin’, ol Amhirghen.
 Is aire sin adellad na h-anmanda peccacha co teach nDuind ría techt a n-ifearn, do reír na ngennti, cédus, co tabraid a m-bendachtain for anmain Duinn. Madh anum fírén imorro fir aithrighe is di chéin adcí-sidhe, ocus ní berar fordul. As i sin tra cédfaidh na ngénnti. Conid desin dogarar Tech nDuind.
 - Gwynn 1906 Metrical Dindshenchas

The House of Donn
 The house of Donn, what origin? Not difficult. When the sons of Mil came from the west to Ireland, their Druid said to them, "A man must go up that mast*", said he, "and then chant his best druidic chants on the Tuatha De, this will rout the battle on them, and after that time  this will be our land forever: and the man will die who casts the spell." 
They set a casting of lots on them, and it was cast to Donn to go** to the sail. Afterwards it was done thus, and Donn moved to the sail, and chanted Druidic spells against them, and returned down after, and said: "I swear by the Gods" said he, "we will be without granting justice or recompense to you henceforth." 
They chanted also from the land Druidic spells against them in response. Then they cursed Donn and afterwards the Tuatha De brought a shaking-sickness immediately on the ship. 
Said Amergin, "Donn shall die", said he, "and not lucky his keeping on account of taking back the illness***. If we carry Donn to the land, the sickness will be in Ireland forever."
 Said Donn, "Take my body", said he, "to one of the islands, and my people will give blessing on me forever."
Afterwards through the spell casting of the Druids a storm was brought on them, and the ship of Donn was sunk. 
"Take his body there to that high rock yonder", said Amergin: it will be called Tech Duinn^. "His people will go to that place there", said Amergin. 
And for that burden the souls of sinners visit Tech Duinn before they go to Hell, according to the heathens^^, indeed, to give their blessings on the soul of Donn. Nevertheless righteous souls, that is penitent men, they see it from a distance, and do not take a detour there. That is then the opinion of the heathens. So it is called Tech Duinn.

Lebor Gabala Erenn:
 Atbert Dond. "Dobersa" ar se "fo gin gai ocus chlaidib innossa na fail i nHerind."
 Ocus deligis in gaeth friu in luing i mbai Dond & Herech da mac Miled & in luing i mbaí Bress & Búas & Buagne. Coro baitte ocna Dumachaib oc Taig Duind. Duma cach fir and. 

The Book of Invasions of Ireland:
Donn said, "I will bring" said he, "under edge of spear and sword now the land of Ireland."
And separated the wind against him [and] the ship of Donn and Herech, two sons of Mil, and the ship of Bress and Búas and Buagne. They were thrown; they drown close to Dumachaib at Tech Duinn. The grave-mound of every man is there.

Comparing the two we can see that the Lebor Gabala Erenn version has a very different tone - Donn is an aggressor who not only wants to conquer Ireland but to kill everything there; because of his bloodlust the wind itself rises up against him and capsizes his ship and he along with several others are drowned. In the Metrical Dindshenchas version on the other hand we are told that Donn was chosen by throwing lots to sacrifice himself in order to break the power of the Tuatha De Danann so that the Sons of Mil could succeed in their invasion. Because of this he was cursed by the Tuatha De and died, but his burial on a "high rock" on an island created a blessing or perhaps we should say created a situation where the souls of the newly dead were obligated to go to Donn's House and bless him. Even the obviously Christianized aspects at the end of the story are telling in that they reveal the pagan belief that the dead were required to "visit" Tech Duinn before moving on elsewhere; even the so-called "righteous men" (one may assume Christian souls) had to see it, if not go into it. The Metrical Dindshenchas version strongly supports a view of Donn as a God of the dead, and his house as a place where souls go after death. 

* crand siúil, literally "sail tree"
** interestingly taidhecht, a form of techt, also means "act of dying"; both fit in this context
*** in other words, if Donn, or his body, was kept on the boat or brought to Ireland the illness would remain.
^ Tech Duinn is literally "house of Donn"
^^ genti, a Latin loanword from gentis, literally "Gentiles" in the sense of non-Jews, extrapolated out to include non-Christians. In texts this can be rendered Gentiles, pagans, or heathens and was often used in particular to refer to the Norse. Given the common usage in the annals of "dubgenti" and finngenti" for Danes and Norwegians I have chosen to go with "heathens" in this translation, however it should be understood to mean non-Christians generally. 

Copyright Morgan Daimler

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Read All the Things!

  Those of you who enjoy my translation efforts, don't worry I have some interesting bits about Tech Duinn and Donn coming out tomorrow, but today I wanted to shift back a bit into a more discussion style blog.
    I've noticed a trend lately of people asking for opinions about books and getting some strangely territorial responses. What I mean by that is responses which seem to assume there is one - and only one - book worth getting on a particular subject. It can get very Highlander-esque ("There can be only one!") with people advocating for one book and putting down others like there was some sort of epic prize to be won.
my son with volume 1 of Air n-Aithesc a peer reviewed CR journal. He has good taste in reading material

   First of all, book recommendations will always be highly personal. The book one person loves another person may not be able to finish. So there is that, and we should never forget that a recommendation is really just an opinion about what someone liked. In some cases it isn't even about whether the book is good or bad, just whether it resonated with that person. My preferences tend to extremes - either dry and academic or highly engaging and experiential; some people may like one or the other but many people don't like either. Just like I like chocolate ice cream, but someone else might not; that doesn't mean chocolate ice cream is bad per se.
   Secondly, what a person wants to get out of the book and their own background matters. If someone who is coming from a very neo-pagan background asks me for a book recommendation on Celtic paganism my response will be different than if someone who is coming from a CR approach asks the same question. Context mattes.
   Speaking of context. There's this strange idea that I've seen floating around that if a book is too "Wiccan*" or "New age**" it is somehow flawed or inferior. Let's get something straight here if you are neopagan or worshiping in a neopagan dynamic then there is nothing wrong with books written to cater to that market. While I may be one of the first people to jump on bad scholarship, modern pagan practice is not synonymous with a lack of knowledge of the subject. I have read some very good neopagan books and while that may not be my personal spiritual approach that doesn't detract from the quality of the book itself. I have also read some really awful books and articles written by people claiming a reconstructionist or polytheist approach, so its not as if we can or should assume that neopagan equals poor quality and recon equals good quality. It would be really awesome if we, as a wider community, could cut out the more-pagan-than-thou-better-scholarship-than-thou attitudes. It isn't a competition.
Variety is your friend

   Thirdly, it is entirely possible to recommend a book without putting down every other similar book. It doesn't have to be about how much you loved that one book because everything else ever written about the subject is garbage. I have never seen any subject where there is only one good book in existence on the topic. Also it is possible to recommend a book that you don't like - I do it all the time when I recommend Hutton's 'Blood and Mistletoe' which I can't personally stand but which I admit is a good basic survey of what we do and don't know about the Druids.
   Now in fairness, yes I have written book reviews and publicly said that people should avoid certain books *coughWittacough* for a variety of reasons. And if you have a really valid reason to tell someone not to read something - that it's plagiarism, that it's a disaster of inaccurate info mislabeled, that it has dangerous advice in it - then just be really clear on why you think people shouldn't read it. The reason really should be a lot more than just I didn't like it, or it didn't do anything for me personally.
    In the end it is a truism that we learn from all the sources, good, bad, and blah. Everything we read, every experience we have, contributes to our overall understanding. The key is to keep an open mind and always by willing to re-assess and change your view if you find out a source you liked wasn't accurate, or new information on a subject emerges.
   So read all the things. All of them.
   Ipsa scientia potestas est.

*obviously not referencing British Trad Wicca, but being used as a general term for Wiccan style neopaganism
** also not referencing actual New age material, but apparently being used as a pejorative.

Copyright Morgan Daimler