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Friday, December 2, 2016

Quick Thoughts on Apotropaic Iron

there seems to be a lot of confusion about the apotropaic qualities of iron.
So, let's clear some points up.
Iron is said in folklore to protect against a wide range of spirits and negative magics including [most of] the Good Neighbors and Alfar, Ghosts, Demons, and witches. Iron objects deter the majority of the Other Crowd who are averse to its presence and things like knives, scissors, nails, and horseshoes were recommended as protective objects. It is said that cemeteries had iron fences to contain any ghosts inside. Similarly older folklore said that demons were also repelled by iron, and it was believed to break the magic of witches. A horseshoe hung up above a doorway kept out a wide range of spirits as well as protecting from baneful magic.
Many people are familiar with the term 'cold iron' and associate it today with pure or simply worked forged iron - what is technically called 'pig iron' or 'crude iron'. Historically the term cold iron was a poetic term for any iron weapon and is synonymous today with the term 'cold steel'. So when you see a reference to cold iron it is talking about an iron weapon, usually a sword or knife.
As to iron and steel - they are effectively the same substance and have been treated that way in folklore and for apotropaic purposes historically. Steel is between 90 and 98% iron depending on the alloy, so a steel object is obviously mostly an iron object.
Those who are seeking to encourage the presence of the Gentry should remember their dislike of iron and limit its presence. On the other hand those seeking protection from Otherworldly influence would do well to keep iron or steel objects around. Remember though that I said earlier it is a protection against *most of* the Good Neighbors. In folklore there are some Fae it is known to have no effect on, including Etins, Redcaps, and spirits associated with mines or forges. Other protections are required for those, like salt or silver.

*editing to add:
in my experience iron ore and stones with high iron content work the same as iron, but to a weaker degree, ie hematite which is about 70-ish% iron and magnetite (72% iron) both work to deflect negative magic and to deter ghosts, negative spirits, and the Fey who are sensitive to iron but not as intensely as worked iron (even so-called 'pig iron'). 
Iron ore is most often hematite or magnetite along with a few others with a slightly lower iron content so it makes sense that they work in a similar fashion to iron. A variety of crystals also have iron as a component which is what give them their color, such as peridot, but usually not in an amount that would act as an effective deterrent (although I think its unlikely any Fey would wear them or desire to be around them and if you offer crystals to the Other Crowd I might suggest looking for ones without iron content)

- M. Daimler, 2016

Thursday, December 1, 2016


  I've recently had Bridget Cleary on my mind and that along with some synchronicity on social media that brought the subject up in a separate context made me decide to write today about changelings. For those who don't know, Bridget Cleary was a woman in Ireland who died in 1895 when her husband and several family members and neighbors burned her alive after several days of trying to 'cure' her, believing that she was actually a fairy who had taken the real Bridget's place. This belief was rooted in the idea of changelings, that the Good Folk can and do take people and replace them, and that the real person can only be returned if the changeling is forced to reveal itself. Bridget Cleary died and her husband and the others were tried for her murder, but belief in changelings still exists today and is deeply rooted in Fairylore.

The basic premise of the changeling is that it is a foreign being or object left behind in exchange for a desired human who is stolen into Fairy. In some cases the changeling was said to be one of the Good People who magically appeared to be the human but usually acted very differently; if it was a baby who had been taken the replacement would typically be sickly, constantly hungry, and impossible to please, while an adult who was taken might display equally dramatic personality changes. A person who had previously been kind and gentle might become cross and cruel, while a child who had before been pleasant and easy tempered would suddenly be mean spirited and demanding. In other cases the changeling might not be a living thing or spirit at all but rather would be an object like a stick or log enchanted to look like the person, left to waste away and die while the real person lived on in Fairy. Generally this was understood as the person having been replaced by a changeling although there were some occultists during the Victorian period who came to believe that changelings actually represented a type of possession where the human would be overtaken by a fairy spirit and in 20th and 21st century anthropology changelings are often viewed as attempts by folklore to explain medical conditions (Silver, 1999).

The primary targets for fairy abduction were babies and brides, but especially those of great beauty and the best temperment. Physical health was usually an important factor and in at least one story a bride who was in the process of being taken is left when she sneezes, because the Fae want only those in perfect health (Lysaght, 1991). Generally speaking humans in liminal states which included any transitions like birth or marriage were at risk of being taken, with babies and children up to age 8 or 9 being at high risk and women in child-bearing years being in equal danger (Skelbred, 1991; Jenkins, 1991). Other popular targets for abduction included new mothers who might be taken to wet nurse fairy babies, and may or may not be kept permanently or later returned; similarly some humans like midwives and musicians might be borrowed but usually were returned fairly quickly and usually were not replaced with changelings. Those replaced with changelings were those who the Good Folk intended to keep, and the changeling often died or returned to Fairy at some point, leaving the human family to mourn the person they then believed to be dead.

Why the Other Crowd take people is not entirely known but there are many theories. Probably the most common belief is that the fairies steal people in order to supplement their own numbers (Gwyndaf, 1991). This idea usually hinges on the related belief that the Good People reproduce rarely and with difficulty and that they must therefore look to outside sources like humans to strengthen their own population; or to be blunt they take humans to use as breeding stock. This is seen particularly in the variety of stories about stolen brides as well as stories of borrowed midwives where the midwife is taken by a fairy man to the bedside of his wife only to find herself delivering the child of a human girl she recognizes but that everyone thought had died. Another belief was that fairy babies were unusually ugly and so fairies coveted beautiful human babies and would exchange one for the other (Skelbred, 1991). They seem to prefer people who are in some way deviant or have broken societal rules (Jenkins, 1991). This can be seen in both anecdotal evidence where people taken are usually out alone when or where they should not be or have failed to follow the usual protocol for protection, or in ballads and folktales where people are taken while in or near liminal places. On the one hand this can represent one way in which people open themselves up to being taken but it could also represent a deeper underlying motivation, in which perhaps the people are being taken because they have some quality that the Fae folk either admire or need more of themselves. This of course is predicated on the idea that changelings are left in place of people taken for some at least nominally positive use, however it is worth noting that not all theories of fairy abduction are benevolent, by even the most lenient standard. If one favors the idea of the teind to Hell as an actual tithe that occurs and in which humans can be used as substitutes for fairies, then arguably people may be taken to be offered to darker spirits so that the fairies themselves may be spared (Lyle, 1970).

Means of identifying a suspected changeling often involve tricking it into revealing itself. This may be done through careful observation, such as the story of the mother who noted that when she was with her child the baby would cry ceaselessly but when alone in her room the baby would fall silent and the mother outside the room could hear music (Lysaght, 1991). A Scottish story along similar lines involved a changeling infant who was seen playing straw like bagpipes, or in a variant was seen playing a reed for other fairies to dance to (Bruford, 1991; Evans-Wentz, 1911). In older folklore a variety of tricks are suggested including boiling water in an eggshell which in the tales will cause the changeling to sit up and declare that as ancient as it is it has never seen such a thing before; a regional variant involves disposing of ashes in an eggshell (Bruford, 1991). A family could also seek out the advice of a wise person or fairy doctor to assess the suspected changeling and confirm or deny its fairy-nature. Generally if the presence of a changeling was confirmed every attempt was then made to regain the human child; only in very rare cases was the family advised to treat the changeling well and accept its in their family, with the idea that treating it well would earn good treatment for their own child in Fairy (Briggs, 1976).

Because the fear of changelings, and more generally of losing a person to the Good People, was so pervasive there were many protections against it and methods of getting a person back. Looking at protections first we see an array of options, beginning with prohibitions against verbally complementing an infant, lest the words attract the fairies' attention and increase the chance of the child being taken. Although in some contexts red was seen to be a Fairy color it was also used as a protection against fairies, something we see more generally in the use of red thread (with rowan); there is at least some anecdotal evidence of the use of red flannel pinned to children's clothes as a way to keep them from being taken (Lysaght, 1991). In Wales early baptism was common because of the belief that a Christian baptism would protect and infant from being taken (Gwyndaf; 1991). So widespread that they might be termed ubiquitous were belief in the power of iron (or steel) and particularly of keeping scissors, a knife, a fire poker, or tongs over or near the cradle. Other commonly found protections include burning leather in the room, keeping bread nearby, fire, silver, giving the woman and child milk from a cow who had eaten the herb mothan, and being carefully and perpetually watched (Skelbred, 1991; Evans-Wentz, 1911). In many stories it was a moment's inattention or an adult falling asleep that allowed the changeling swap to happen, compounded by a lack of any other protections in place.

 I will warn the reader before we get into this section that, as Bridget Cleary's story illustrated, often the means of forcing a changeling to leave were brutal and could be fatal to the person on the receiving end. There were just as many methods of forcing a changeling to leave as there were protections against them because the belief was that once the changeling was forced to leave the human child or bride would return. To force a changeling to leave usually involved threatening or harming them, most commonly with iron or fire. In Bridget Cleary's case she was forced to drink an herbal concoction, doused in urine, and jabbed repeatedly with a hot iron poker, as well as having a priest come in and say mass over her; after several days of this she was set on fire and eventually died of her burns (Giolláin, 1991). A piece of iron might be thrown at the changeling, or in one of the more benign rituals salt could be placed on a shovel blade, marked with a cross and heated in a fire, with a window left open near the changeling (Gwyndaf, 1991). The changeling might be beaten, pelted with refuse and animal dung, or starved in order to force its own people to take it back, with the idea that only this cruel treatment could motivate the changeling's biological parents to return the human child to spare their own offspring (Skelbred, 1991). Fire often played a significant role in these rituals, with some involving the changeling being thrown into a fire or placed on an object that had been heated in a fire (Briggs, 1976). Another ritual to force a changeling to leave involved taking it to a river and bathing it three times in the water, and related practices involved leaving the infant or child at the edge of a body of water - a liminal space - so that the fairies would take it back and return the mortal child; a less kind version involved throwing the changeling into a river (Silver, 1999; Evans-Wentz, 1911). In cases where the changeling left and the human did not return, or the changeling had already died naturally, attempts could be made to force the return of the human captive by burning grass or trees on the nearest fairy hill (Briggs, 1976).

Changelings are found across Celtic folklore and stories of changelings exist in both folklore and more recent anecdotes. The idea that sometimes the Other Crowd take people and that those people may be saved and returned to the human community with effort or may instead be lost forever to their own kind is a pervasive one. Ultimately the fairies may take people to increase their own numbers or to diversify their own gene pool, to possess the beauty of a particular person or for darker reasons, but the folklore is clear that they take people usually with the intent of keeping them. Those who are rescued or otherwise returned are usually permanently altered by their time among the Good People and most often the hard evidence we have shows that attempts to get people back and force assumed-changelings out results in the death of the changeling.

Skelbred, A., (1991) Rites of Passage as Meeting Place: Christianity and Fairylore in Connection with the Unclean Woman and the Unchristened Child
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Jenkins, R., (1991) Witches and Fairies: Supernatural Aggression and Deviance Among the Irish Peasantry
Lyle, E., (1970). The Teind to Hell in Tam Lin
Lysaght, P., (1991) Fairylore from the Midlands of Ireland
Bruford, A., (1991). Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the Identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney in Shetland
Silver, C., (1999) Strange and Secret People: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
O Giolláin, D., (1991) The Fairy Belief and Official Religion in Ireland

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Doubled Edge of Fairywork

Sometimes people ask me why I don't talk much about personal practice and experience with the Othercrowd, beyond a handful of anecdotes that I repeat and some fairly generic for-public-consumption stories. I'm pretty free with talking about experiences that occured with other people, about being pixy-led, or seeing fairy hounds, or items being taken and returned. And I will talk about the numinous, about the Gods even the liminal Gods, pretty easily. So why not share more of the deeper personal things?

It's a hard thing to talk about for many reasons. Certainly one is that I worry about people questioning my sanity as I talk about these experiences. Its funny how we can talk about things with Gods and people are, if not supportive, at least more willing to consider possibilities; even ghosts are met with a basic assumption of the person's sanity. But when it comes to the Othercrowd, at least in my experience, people are far quicker to jump to 'crazy' to explain away something. And of course I worry that in speaking about it I'll say too much and lose their favor which is a concern supported by folklore - the quote may go that the 'first rule of fight club is don't talk about fight club' but in my experience that is far more applicable to fairies. There's also always the worry that people simply won't believe me because its so difficult to convey these experiences in words without making them sound trite and contrived. Even I don't think some of them sound believable when I tell them, and I was there when they happened. So there's the fear that people just won't believe what I'm saying is true.

And there's the worry that they will.

I feel often like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth, saying on one side to seek Themselves out for their blessings and friendship and on the other to avoid them because of their mercurial nature and danger. And the Heaven and Hell of it, if you'll pardon the expression, is that both are equally true. Because I do think there's value in keeping the old ways and the reciprocal relationship with the Good Folk that has existed for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years - and indeed part of my service to Them as a priestess is to do what I can to keep those old beliefs and traditions viable - and I think that people should be encouraged to do that. But I also think that modern pop-culture has done the Fairy Faith no favors and that people do need to be reminded of the respect and fear that They are due and why they are due it. So its seek Them out and encourage Their interest in you but at the same time be cautious of Them and don't get Them too interested. And if that's a contradiction, then consider it your first lesson in fairywork.

I talk a lot about the darker side of Fairy and the dangers of the beings who dwell within it, and I do that on purpose. The Otherworld and its inhabitants are not the stuff of young adults novels and LOTR fanfiction. I see too many people who plunge head first into seeking the Gentry out, heedless of any potential danger, and my instinct is to warn people. I'll use the analogy of hiking here, that hiking on a summer day seems really appealing because its so beautiful and looks so easy - you just start walking in the woods, isn't that nice? And you know most of the time it will just be nice and pleasant and nothing bad will happen. Nothing at all will happen except for you getting some exercise. But - oh, there's always a but isn't there? - anyone who is an experienced hiker knows that there's always a chance of getting lost, or falling and getting hurt, or being attacked by an animal, or eating something that looks familiar but isn't what you thought it was, or...or. You see? And that's what I might say that Fairy is like. And if you get lost or hurt or attacked you had really better know what to do about it.

And there's a part of me that doesn't like to talk about some things I've seen or experienced because I worry that it may give people the wrong idea, may make things seem more alluring or good than they actually are. May make people forget the danger. May create that urge in people where they want to have that same experience because they are hearing the beautiful experience and not grasping the fuller context.

I am not yet 40 years old and I have seen things that I will never stop seeing - not horrible, terrifying things either but things so beautiful it breaks the heart and so enchanting it makes everything in mortal life seem a pale shadow in comparison. Beauty is a poison in its own way, and it sinks into the bone beyond removing. The stories talk about that too but we don't want to see it most of the time because we like the idea that people can be saved from Fairy in the end and return to their lives and be happy here. But once you've heard that music and once you've seen those shining halls you lose a part of yourself to the sound and sight of it and there is no real coming back from that. The old stories talk about that too you know. And ultimately I don't want the responsibility of leading someone else where I am, aching for a world that isn't here and that nothing here compares to.

Fairywork is worth doing and it has benefits that make it worth the risk, like any other dangerous thing. But it is dangerous both in Fairy's ability to actually harm a person and the way its enchantment changes a person. It is something that must be done with care and with constant vigilance to be done well, or something that must be done lightly to be done safely, or something that can and will consume a person. I suppose I talk about the things I do because I'd rather be a horrible warning than a great example, to paraphrase Aird,.

And so when I talk about it I try to talk enough to encourage people to want to do it, but not enough about my personal deep experiences to give the impression that losing your soul to it should be a life goal. And I try to emphasize the danger so that if things go sideways people can't say they didn't know the pitfalls and bears where there along the trail the whole time.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Meeting a New Liminal God

I'm on a brief hiatus at the moment, and today is Thanksgiving here in the US, so I am re-posting this from my other blog 'Into the Twilight'. Its a look at more of the personal side of my witchcraft practice. Enjoy!

Generally speaking in my practice of Fairy Witchcraft I honor two main pairs of deities. From Bealtaine to Samhain the Lady of the Greenwood and Lord of the Wildwood hold sway as the rulers of the summer - what some may choose to call the Summer Court - and they are powerful as well during the full moon at any time of year. From Samhain to Bealtaine the Queen of the Wind and the Hunter have dominion as rulers of winter - what some might choose to call the Winter Court - and as well they are powerful during the dark moon throughout the year. I've also mentioned that there are other liminal fairy gods that people may connect to and discussed a few others that I am aware of, although I don't personally connect to them.

I've long felt that eventually I'd probably end up with seven Fairy gods for a variety of reasons, including the fact that 7 is just such a strong number in the folklore and in the system as its unfolded. But after all these years there were only the four and many times I feel as if I barely know or understand them. Which is probably a fair enough assessment really. But the thing about anything and everything to do with Themselves, even the ones that are Gods, is that you have to expect the unexpected and things often happen when you stop looking for them to happen.

So its the dark moon, and I'm up on social media and a friend happens to make a comment on her own page about polytheists needing to actually focus on doing and not talking (I'm paraphrasing). And this friend tosses out an offhand comment wondering if there is a goddess of such-and-such and unbidden I find myself wondering if there is a God of Shenanigans. Because there is a long running joke at this point about myself and a propensity for shenanigans (in the sense of mischief or high spirited behavior with maybe a small dose of secret activity). And without thinking I go to my own social media page and start typing about how if there were such a deity surely they would be a fairy god because fairies and shenanigans go together (again paraphrasing). And I joked that perhaps I should set up a shrine....and as soon as I typed it, actually as I was typing it, I had that sense of the numinous, of presence, pressing in on me, and I thought oh dear....

It seems I have found, quite without meaning to or looking, my fifth liminal fairy god. I meditated on him later and was given three names for him - titles all of them, just like the other liminal Gods prefer titles. although they so far have stuck to single titles. He told me to call him the Knight of Love, and the Keeper of Passages, and the Lord of Mischief. Shenanigans seem to sum up his nature pretty well; he is a spirit of gentle mischief and of cleverness, of high spirits and of fun, of the sort of devilment that never really results in permanent harm but can be quite irritating. I rather suspect he likes to hang out wherever the craic is mighty and may in fact influence the mood and spirit of a group or place. He inspires reckless love and passion, but all in the sense of genuine enjoyment and bliss. He loves a new adventure and seeing what's around the next turn but he also guards the pathways and roads Between - because he knows them all. He loves a good joke and admires the sort of trouble that a person gets into when they are having too much fun to care. In that sense he is a rather dangerous sort, but then he's of Fairy, so that's to be expected. Safe isn't exactly something you're going to find in abundance among Themselves. I do get the sense though that as much as he may encourage you to get into trouble he'll be equally quick to help you find your find your way out again.

I saw him as a young man, fair haired and light eyed*. I also got the impression of both endless sky and deep earthen tunnels around him, so again, pretty transitional. I believe his animals are foxes, otters, crows and swans. Both the colors red and white came through strongly with him, but he appeared dressed in black and green. I gather he'd like offerings of the traditional sort, milk, cream, bread, but also beer or hard liquor, and anything associated with happiness or good memories, or that symbolizes shenanigans by nature. He belongs to the Winter, properly, but I think he moves easily and freely between any and all times and places. I might choose to honor him especially on Samhain, as the year turns, and since I 'found' him, or he revealed himself, on the eve of the Dark moon I'd associate him with that as well.

It will certainly be interesting to see where this goes from here.

* I'd be surprised if that has any permanence to it. I gather he can appear however he chooses, which is no surprise.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Stepping Into Brigit - a Review

  Many people are familiar with my dedication to the Morrigan but what may not be as widely known is my love of Brighid. It is, by its nature, a different sort of love, but it is just as much a presence in my life in its own way. So when I was asked to help Beta test* a new course 'Stepping Into Brigit' designed for people interested in Brighid to learn about and connect to her I jumped at the chance.

The course is set up as an 11 module course, with each module containing multiple lessons, and is meant to be done - ideally - over a month. With roughly 38 overall lessons to complete (course surveys excluded) one would need to either decide to do one or more lessons a day or set aside time every few days to do a full module in order to finish in a month. What I liked about the set up though is the learning is self paced, so that you can choose to it at whatever speed you like and in whatever fashion works best for you. I took the 'chunky' approach myself and did a full module at a go because that was what worked best with my schedule, although other people may find a slower spacing better.

Each lesson is fairly thorough but also brief. At some points I felt perhaps a bit too brief, but the idea was to take time with each one and contemplate it, write down thoughts and reflections on the material, and really process it, rather than rushing through to get to the next one. They often included outside recommended reading or references to follow up, such as the Story Archaeology's entry on discussing her which should take some time to do. With that in mind the size of each lesson is pretty good, and it really was designed to encourage engagement from the student. I also like the use of mixed media throughout the course which used text, images, videos, and audio clips.

The material looks at Brighid in a holistic manner including both the pagan Goddess as well as the Christian saint, and while I didn't feel the same engagement with the material relating to the saint that reflects more of my own bias than any flaw in the course. It certainly was the most well-rounded view I think I've seen and I can't fault it's fairness in giving an equal voice to all sides. the material is generally presented without any favoring of one opinion over another and with clear citation of sources, allowing a student to draw their own conclusions for the most part about the very complex subject of Brighid pagan roots and Christian history.

Speaking of sources, I really did like the way the course offered a lot of quotes directly from source material. I think often this is the best way to let a student contemplate the original material without the filter of an author's opinion. I also like the amount of poetry included and the way that allowed me, as a student, to experience the material without overthinking it and to appreciate the beauty of the ideas presented. I also liked the option of entering feedback after each lesson, to share personal experiences or thoughts. I did feel there was a lack of more directed exercises beyond the journaling being encouraged, but I acknowledge that not all students want to feel like they have written homework to complete. The overall feel of the course was contemplative and engaging without being tedious or excessively 'school-like' in its feel, which I think will have a wide appeal to modern adult spiritual seekers.

There are many people out there interested in Brighid and many seeking classes or courses online to help them better connect to spiritual things of interest. For those looking to learn about and connect to Brighid I think this course would be a good option, if you find that online courses are generally a good option for you. As with any such course it requires a person to be self-motivated to do the lessons, and to incorporate the material in a practical manner. However for someone who has the desire to truly make use of what this course is offering I think a great deal of valuable knowledge can be gained here.

*to be clear - I was asked to Beta test the course by its creator, but this review is being offered by me freely and without any compensation. As far as I am aware I was asked to help test the course in part because of the book I had written on Brighid and my knowledge of Her, and in the interest of transparency my book Pagan Portals Brigid is recommended reading for this course. However I would not and will not endorse nor recommend anything I do not genuinely see value in and my opinions offered here are honest; had I not seen value in the course on its own merits I would simply not have reviewed it.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Fairies, Witches, and Dangerous Magic

When many people think of the classical image of the witch it comes with the implicit shadow of the Devil looming over it and an inherent sense of danger. When the folklore is studied in Scotland and Ireland, however, it is not cloven hooves and hellfire that mark many witches but the touch of Fairy and interaction with the Otherworld that made them what they were, and for some of us what we are still. But people are right nonetheless to associate this kind of fairy-touched witchcraft with dangerous magic, the sort that up-ends social orders and defies the status quo, the sort that runs wild under the night sky singing to itself of madness and mystery, the sort that seeks to give power to those who society sees as powerless. And that sort of magic is without a doubt dangerous, because it is boundless and unrestricted by what Yeats called (in another context entirely) "the nets of wrong and right".

A modern Fairy Witchcraft altar for Samhain

From a traditional point of view the cunningfolk and wise women(1) worked with the right order and helped the community, but the witch worked against that order - and so did the fairies. Witches might steal a cow's milk, or stop butter from churning, or take a person's health, or a family's luck - and so might the fairies. Elfshot was wielded by the Good People, but it was also used by witches. Witches might take the form of hares to travel the countryside - and so might fairies.  A witch's purpose was often personal, instead of communal, and might seem inexplicable to their neighbors, in the same way that the Other Crowd seemed to operate with their own concerns in mind, regardless of the human community. The witch defied the social order, retaliating against offenses and taking actions to ensure their own success and prosperity instead of that of the greater communal good, a good that often enough was at odds with the witch's own interests, exactly as people might view the Good Folk acting for their own good over human interests.

Isobel Gowdie said that it was from the Fair Folk that she and the other witches got elf shot and by some accounts it was from the fairies that Biddy Early obtained her famous blue bottle. Alison Pearson, a confessed witch from Scotland, said that she learned her knowledge of herbs and herbal cures from the fairies, and I have previously discussed the claims by some historic witches that they were given familiar spirits from Fairy. The idea of witches gaining knowledge from Otherworldly sources is an old one, and in itself an idea that threatened the proper order, because things taught to people by the Gentry were inherently out-of-bounds and in defiance of a system that sought to regulate and control information and education. The Other Crowd give people weapons to fight against other humans - elfshot, Otherworldly arrows that humans cannot generally even see to defend against; they give herbal knowledge which provides magical cures in defiance of established medicine; they give visions of what is and what may be to help a witch find lost items and predict the future(2).

Along these lines when questioned a variety of witches in Scotland claimed to serve not the Devil but the Queen of Elphen or Elfhame, saying that it was this Queen who they would be brought to visit and who they served in some capacity. We can perhaps see echoes of this concept in ballads like Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer; in the first Tam Lin is a mortal who is taken to serve the Queen of Fairies, apparently by guarding a well at Carterhaugh, and in the latter Thomas is taken by the Queen of Elfland to serve her for seven years in an unspecified manner before being returned to the mortal world. In the case of witches it was a very literal defiance of social order, where the witch's ultimate allegiance was to no earthly person or heavenly power (by Christian standards) but to the monarch of the Otherworld itself, usually bound by formal pledges or oaths and by a renunciation of mortal order in the form of the Church.

In the examples we have of historic witches associated with fairies, whether we look at those brought to trial or those renowned in more positive ways, we most often see people who were otherwise socially powerless or limited by the society of their times. People who were poor, marginalized, struggling, even victimized by the social order. Scottish witch Bessie Dunlop claimed that she made her pact with the fairies when her husband and child were desperately ill, for example. Sometimes, as in the cases of Biddy Early or Alison Pearson, the practise of magic and of dealing with the fairies seemed to be directly related to a major life change; the death of her husband in Biddy Early's case, and an illness in Pearson's. Both arguably directly impacted the person's social status and ability to fend for themselves within their society, and both arguably gained status from their fairy-related practises, although Pearson was eventually caught up in Scotland's witchcraft persecutions. Witchcraft, ultimately, was and still should be a way for people to gain or re-gain control of their own lives.

The Other Crowd are dangerous and unpredictable in many ways, and so can witches be, which is what we see when we look at history; because anyone who worked outside of what was deemed the proper social order was a wild card as far as that social order was concerned. In Old Irish the Good Folk are called 'túathgeinte', literally leftwards or northwards people, with túath having connotations of evil, wicked, and of motion to the north instead of the luckier and more beneficent rightward/southward motions. In exactly the same context we have the words túathaid - person with magical powers - and túaithech - witch, or magic worker. In both cases the concepts are directly linked with the idea that dessel, with the sun, righthandwise, was lucky and fortuitous while túathal or túathbel, against the sun, lefthandwise, was unlucky and related to ill-luck and confusion. Both fairies and some witches(3) then went against the right order, turning against the sun instead of with it.

The magic of the Good Neighbors that was taught to these witches - what I in modern practice call Fairy Witchcraft - was about empowering the powerless and giving the witch a way to meet their own needs and to ensure their own safety. It was knowledge and magic that removed the person, to some degree, from human society and this removal made them dangerous because it realigned their allegience in unpredictable ways. This is magic that is meant to effect real change for the benefit of the witch, not necessarily for some nebulous greater good. There was - is - a cost, of course, because there is always a cost in dealing with Themselves, and sometimes that cost was heavy. But it gave and gives hope to people who were suffering and hopeless, and offers control to those who otherwise are at the mercy of others.

Walking with the sun, righthandwise, is trusting the system, whether that system is religion or something else, to bless you and take care of you because you are walking the expected way, the well-worn way. Walking against the sun, lefthandwise, is taking your fate in your own hands and disrupting that system, going against that order; it is walking with the Other Crowd into danger and uncertainty because you believe ultimately the knowledge you gain there is the greater blessing. Fairies and witches have a long history together, and it is all dangerous magic. 
Which is exactly as it should be, because dangerous magic gets things done in the end.

"Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill,
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of hollow wood and the hilly wood
And the changing moon work out their will."

 - W. B. Yeats, 'Into the Twilight'

1 understand however that these terms are fluid and one person's cunningman was another person's witch, perspective being everything in these cases.
2 not that the Brahan Seer was a witch, necessarily, but some stories do say that it was from the fairies he got his famous seeing stone, and certainly some say that Biddy Early could look into her blue bottle and see things.
3 there are multiple words in Old Irish that mean witch, and it should be understood that túaithech is only one and has particular connotations not seen in the others. I have discussed this in a previous blog 'Nuances of the word 'Witchcraft' and 'Witch' in Old Irish'

Further Reading:
Tam Lin (1997) Child Ballad 39A
Harvard Classics (1914) Volume 40: Engish Poetry I: from Chaucer to Gray
Linton, E., (1861) Witch Stories
Pitcairn, R., (1843) Ancient Criminal Trials in Scotland, vol 1, part 3
Wilby, E., (2010). The Visions of Isobel Gowdie
Gregory, A., (1920) Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland
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
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

Daimler., M (2014). The Witch, the Bean Feasa, and the Fairy Doctor in Irish Culture. Air n-Aithesc, vol 1 issue 2, Aug. 2014

Friday, November 11, 2016

a Prayer to Brighid

Brighid, Lady of healing
May we find wholeness in troubled times
Brighid, Lady of the smith's flame
May we forge a brighter future from uncertainty
Brighid, Lady of sweet speech
May we raise our voices in eloquence and strength
Brighid of the Hospitalers,
May we support those in need around us
Brighid of the Judgments,
May we act fairly to all, friend or foe
Brighid of the Cowless,
May we protect the helpless among us
Brighid of the Tuatha De Danann
May we find courage to endure every challenge
By the endless sea
By the ever-changing sky
By the firm earth
Let it be so
- M. Daimler, 2016

statue of Saint Brigit, Kildare, Ireland, image copyright M Daimler 2016