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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Scottish Fairies and the Teind to Hell

  There's an interesting tidbit of folklore in Scotland which says that the Good Folk must pay a teind (tithe) to Hell; this idea appears first in writing in two poems and seems from there to enter the wider lore particularly in the modern period. The teind is an interesting folkloric belief because it is not found in Ireland, nor was it a belief throughout Scotland until a much later period, originally being seen only along the southern border. In his extensive writing on the Scottish Fey in the 17th century, for example, rev. Robert Kirk makes no mention of such a teind, and it appears in only one contemporary witchcraft trial in Edinburgh, yet today it is often discussed as if it were factual for all the Good Folk.

 It is worth noting as we begin however that this may not simply be a Scottish belief but a particularly regional Scottish belief, appearing originally in the areas around the river Tweed. The textual evidence for the Teind comes from the 15th century poem 'Thomas of Erceldoune', later known as 'Thomas the Rhymer' and is tied by place and personal names into the area around Dryburgh Abbey and Melrose along the Tweed (Murray, 1918). The second oldest literary source for the teind is the poem 'The Ballad of Tam Lin' dating to the 16th century set at Carterhaugh in Selkirk, also near the Tweed, along one of its tributaries (Murray, 1922). The two locations are about 8 miles apart. In contrast Rev Kirk was living and writing in Aberfoyle, about 80 miles to the north. I believe this geographic difference was significant, and part of the explanation for why the teind seems to have been so strongly present in one specific area and almost unknown elsewhere.

The teind itself is the idea that the Good People must pay a tribute to Hell on a regular basis, generally said to be every seven years (Briggs, 1976). The exact agreement and terms vary by source: with the single witchcraft confession claiming it was a yearly tithe and the two poems clearly stating it is paid every seven years. It is also called both a teind in some variations and a kane in others; teind in Scots means tithe, a payment of a tenth part, while kane is a Scots word for a payment by a renter to his landlord (Lyle, 1970). The difference between a teind and a kane is of course hugely significant, as the first clearly implies the loss of a tenth of the population every seven years (if we assume seven years was the standard) and the second does not. Indeed the text of Tam Lin often implies that he expects to be the only one given to Hell as he says 'I fear 'twill be myself' (Lyle, 1970). It would seem that there is more logic to the idea of a single offering rather than of a tenth of the entire population being given every year or every seven years, but the evidence exists to support either interpretation.

In the trial of Alison Pearson the accused witch confessed to learning her craft from the fairies and said that "every year the tithe of them [the fairies] were taken away to Hell" (Scott, 1830). 'Thomas of Erceldoune' references the Devil fetching his fee from the fairies and suggests that Thomas will be chosen because he is so strong and pleasant:
"To Morne, of helle the foulle fende,
Amange this folke will feche his fee;
And thou arte mekill mane and hende,
I trowe wele he wode chese thee." (Murray, 1918).
 Similarly Tam Lin, while pleading with his lover to save him from his fate says that:
"But aye at every seven years,
They pay the teind to Hell;
And I am sae fat and fair of flesh
I fear 'twill be mysell.' (Child, 1802)
This seems to suggest that the tithe was a regularly anticipated event and that those chosen for the teind are picked for physical health and personality. It is the best who are chosen and given, and so in both poems the ones who would be the teind try to avoid their fate. Although the teind in general has a heavily christian overtone one might see in this aspect perhaps hints of an older pagan reflection, where a sacrifice chosen for a deity would always be of the best quality, unblemished, and usually of good temperament.

The core concept behind this payment seems to be the idea that the Gentry are the vassals or subjects of Hell and it's ruler and so owe it and him rent on a set basis. This rent is paid, we might say, in the currency of Hell - people. Lyle's article 'The Teind to Hell in Tam Lin' argues that the belief in the teind grew out of a need to explain the belief in changelings (Lyle, 1970). From this perspective people in seeking to understand why fairies stole human beings came to fit them and their motives into a Christian worldview; fairies were fallen angels who lived as tenants to the Devil, trapped as it were outside of both Heaven and Hell they needed to pay rent to their landlord and did so by stealing humans to spare having to give up their own folk. A key aspect to this argument is the fact that in both poems the teind is due to be paid the next morning and the men in the story can be saved that night if they escape Fairyland before the payment (Lyle, 1970). In Tam Lin this occurs explicitly on Samhain, a time in Scotland when the bi-annual rents came due, reinforcing the idea that the tithe or kane was a rent payment (Lyle, 1970).

It is entirely possible that Lyle is correct and that the teind is a later folk belief, dating to the mid second millennia, and created to explain changelings. Certainly it has many layers of such belief attached to it and it is impossible to ever know the ultimate roots of the beliefs now. However it is also possible that the ideas behind the teind may also reflect much older, highly localized beliefs which I might tentatively suggest originally related to offerings or sacrifices to the spirits of the area or perhaps a deity of the river Tweed. If the Christian overtones are stripped away and we remove the references to Hell and the Devil, which I think we can safely say are much later additions to any potentially earlier beliefs, we are left with a septennial sacrifice of either a single individual or a tenth portion - a tithe - paid as a form of rent by the Fairy inhabitants of the area of the river Tweed around Melrose. One might even go further and suggest that during the pagan period this payment was most likely from the human inhabitants to the Fey in that area or perhaps to the deity of that river itself. The Celts, et al., were well known for worshiping river deities and for making votive sacrifices to rivers, so such an idea is not at all out of place with what is known of native pagan religion (MacCulloch, 1911). Traditional Fairy Faith beliefs as well would support the idea of the importance of specific locations to very specific beings and practices and the idea that a belief might be highly localized, especially prior to modern technology and the spread of literacy (Evans-Wentz, 1911). I believe that after Christianization the beliefs were either changed to reflect the new cosmology, to fit into the new belief system, or else over time the older beliefs were confused and twisted when they stopped being followed.

So ultimately we can conclude that the teind is a fascinating and unique belief found in the southern area of Scotland as early as the 16th century. It reflects the idea that the fairies paid rent to Hell in the form of lives, preferably stolen human ones, probably once every seven years. A person could avoid being this teind if they could be rescued from Fairy on the eve of the payment, otherwise if they were fair enough and well mannered enough the Devil might choose them as payment. The belief itself might be a way to explain why the fairies took humans to begin with and left changelings, or it could perhaps be an echo of an older pagan practice or offering sacrifices to the spirits themselves for the humans to pay rent, as it were, to live in the territory of the gods or Fey. Ultimately we will never know with certainty, but it is an interesting subject to contemplate.

Child, F., (1802) Tam Lin
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Lyle, E., (1970). The Teind to Hell in Tam Lin
Murray, J., (1918) The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune
Murray, J., (1922) The Complaynt of Scotland
Macculloch, J., (1911) Religion of the Ancient Celts
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Scott, W., (1830) Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft

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