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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Slánugud na Mórrigna - the Healing of the Morrigan

Slánugud na Mórrigna

And-sin tánic in Mórrígu ingen Ernmais a Sídib irricht sentainne, corrabi ic blegun bó trí sine na fiadnaisse. Is immi tanic-si (mar) sin, ar bith a forithen do Choinchulaind. Dáig ni gonad Cuchulaind nech ar a térnád, co m-beth cuit dó féin na legis
Conattech Cuchulaind blegon furri, iarna dechrad d'íttaid. Dobretha-si blegon sini dó. Rop slán aneim dam-sa so. Ba slán a lethrosc na rigna. Conattech-som blegon sini furri. Dobreth si dó. Inéim rop slán intí doridnacht. Conaittecht-som in tres n-dig ocus dobretha-si blegon sine dó. Bendacht dee & andee fort, a ingen. Batar é a n-dee in t-aés cumachta, ocus andee in t-aés trebaire. Ocus ba slán ind rígan.
 - E. Windisch, 1905

not three teated cows

The Healing of the Morrigan

Then came the Morrigan daughter of Ernmas from the Sidhe in the form of on old woman, engaged in milking a three teated cow where he'd witness her. For this she came, for the sake of a remedy from Cu Chulainn. Since any wound of Cu Chulain anyone escaped him with, for a portion of life only himself could heal.
Cu Chulainn submitted to her for the milking, iron-furious his thirst. She gave him the milking of a teat. 

"May this be health promptly for me."
The Queen's one eye was healed. He submitted to her for the milking of a teat. She gave it to him.
"Promptly may this be health to whoever gave it."
He submitted for the third portion and she gave to him the milking of a teat. 

"Blessing of Gods and not-Gods on you, oh maiden."
Their Gods are the people of power, and the not-Gods are the farmers*. And the Queen was whole.

* I just want to note that although trebaire has been understood as farmers or tillers of soil the word also means warriors and heroes. This passage "Batar é a n-dee in t-aés cumachta, ocus andee in t-aés trebaire" *could* also be read as 'their Gods are the people of [magical] power and the not-Gods are the warriors'. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Morgan's Re-telling of the Morrigan's Interactions with Cu Chulainn part 3

Rounding out our modern re-tellings of the Morrigan's interactions with Cu Chulainn we have what may be called the final chapter of the Ulster Cycle, the Death of Cu Chulainn. I will say this, there is some disagreement about some of the details here, specifically in some places who was doing what, and there are also more than one version of this story. I am giving a re-telling which I feel is true to the spirit of the originals, but of course I encourage everyone to read the originals themselves

The Death of Cu Chulainn

The cattle raid of Cuiligne was done and over and Cu Chulainn had several other adventures since that time, but he had made some dangerous enemies, one of which was Queen Medb who had never forgiven him for ruining her plans to take the Brown Bull, or for killing so many of her champions. And she probably still remembered that time he killed her pet sitting on her shoulder when he flung a sling stone at her, as well. So Medb had gotten together many warriors who also hated Cu Chulainn, and she had gotten the children of Calatin, a warrior Cu Chulainn had killed in the Tain Bo Cuiligne to ally with her against him. The daughters of Calatin were fearsome looking, each having only one eye, and Medb sent them to be trained in witchcraft.

Medb began attacking Ulster again with her army and her new champions, hoping to draw Cu Chulainn out to fight. Initially the people who cared about Cu Chulainn tried to trick him into not joining the fighting in several ways, including sending him to a valley where he would be unable to hear any outside noises, but he still saw the smoke rising from the other army and insisted on fighting.

The night before his final battle the Morrigan broke his chariot, trying to prevent his going because she knew he would not return. When he tried to leave the next morning there were several ill omens, including the weapons falling from the racks and Cu Chulainn's own brooch pin falling and cutting his foot. When he called for his chariot to be readied Laeg replied that for the first time his horse, the Grey of Macha was refusing to be harnessed. Cu Chulainn went out himself and spoke to the horse, who turned his left side to his master three times then cried tears of blood at his feet.

All the women wept to see him going, and after he left he saw a woman [the Morrigan or Badb] washing bloody clothes in a river. When he called to her and asked whose clothes she was washing she responded that it was his own.

Then he came upon the three one-eyed daughters of Calatin disguised as three crones. They were at a cooking hearth by the side of the road cooking a dog on a rowan spit, and Cu Chulainn had geasa on him not to eat at a wild cooking hearth or to eat his namesake so he tried to hurry past. The three witches called out to him though and asked him to join them, and when he refused they mocked him for turning down their hospitality saying he would have stopped for a grand meal but not for the small bit they had to offer. Since there was also a geis on refusing hospitality Cu Chulainn was literally screwed if he did and screwed if he didn't, so he stopped. One of the women offered him the shoulder of the cooked dog with her left hand and he took it in his left hand and ate, then put the bone beneath his left leg; the arm and leg immediately weakened.

Then he came to the plain of Muirthemne where the warrior Erc has set up an ambush for him, with many warriors waiting. And it had been said that kings would fall by Cu Chulain's spear so they had devised a clever strategy to get him to give them his spear, that is they set up three pairs of men fighting each other and with each stood a satirist. As Cu Chulainn went across the plain fighting the army he came upon the first pair of fighting men and the satirist called to him to stop them, so he did by killing them. Then the satirist asked for his spear, and when Cu Chulainn refused the satirst said he would make a mockery of him for not giving it so Cu Chulainn hurled his spear through the man. Then his enemies, Lugaid and Erc, recovered it and Lugaid asked the sons of Calatin who would be killed by the spear and one replied that a king would be killed by it. So Lugaid threw it and struck Laeg, who was acclaimed as the king of charioteers. Laeg died and Cu Chulainn carried on, removing the spear and driving his own chariot.

Then he came upon the second pair and again was asked to stop them, again killed them and had the satirist demand his spear. Again he refused and the satirist said he would mock him but Cu Chulainn said he had already bought his honor that day, so the satirist promised to mock Ulster if he did not so he threw it through the man and this time Erc recovered it. He asked the sons of Calatin who would be kiiled by the spear and they replied a king so Erc threw it and mortally wounded the Grey of Macha who was called the king of horses. Cu Chulainn pulled the spear out and the Grey of Macha broke free and ran to the Sliab Fuait with half the yoke still attached.

Again he drove across the plain and this time saw the third pair fighting and again stopped them when requested and as before the third satirist asked for his spear. He refused and the satirist said he would mock him but Cu Chulainn said he had already bought his honor that day, so the satirist promised to mock Ulster if he did not and he said he had paid for that already as well. Finally the satirist promised to mock his whole people and Cu Chulainn threw the spear butt first through the man. Lugaid recovered it and asked the sons of Calatin who the spear would kill. They said a king, so as Cu Chulainn drove again through the army Lugaid threw the spear, disemboweling the king of Ireland's heroes. His second horse broke its yoke as well and fled, stranding the chariot with Cu Chulainn in it.

Now he asked his enemies if he could go to the nearby lake for a drink and they agreed as long as he promised to come back, and he said he would or if he could not they would have to come get him. And he held his guts to his chest with his hands and went to get a drink, and wash himself, and prepare for death. On his return to the plain he saw a great pillar stone and he tied himself to it so that he wold die on his feet. When his enemies gathered around him they did not know if he was alive or dead yet, and as they waited the Grey of Macha came back and defended him for as long as he lived.

Finally the Morrigan and her sisters came in the guise of hooded crows and perched on the pillar, or some say on Cu Chulainn's shoulders, and so his enemies knew that the life was gone from him and they closed in to claim their battle trophies, carrying off his head and right hand to Tara, although Lugaid lost his own right hand when Cu Chulainn's sword fell and severed it.

Cu Chulainn's allies were hurrying to the plain and the met the Grey of Macha on the road, covered in blood and gore, and knew that Cu Chulainn had died. And they followed the horse to his body, where the Grey of Macha stood and laid his head against Cu Chulainn's chest in grief.

Morgan's Re-telling of the Morrigan's Interactions with Cu Chulainn part 2

Part 2 - the Tain Bo Cuiligne

So the big cattle raid that the Morrigan predicted in the Tain Bo Regamna, which we re-told in part 1, has now come to pass. In this part we are going to look only at the actions of the Morrigan in dealing with Cu Chulainn - keep in mind though this is not her only appearances in this story, nor even her most important ones in my opinion.

We begin with the story of King Buan's Daughter, but here's the thing about that - 1. it only appears as far as I know in one recorded version of the Tain Bo Cuiligne, 2 it is basically a modified and condensed version of some of the events in the Tain Bo Regamna which is older, specifically the threats to attack Cu Chulainn; some scholars have suggested this episode was added later by a scribe trying to justify the Morrigan's interaction with Cu Chulainn within the text and 3 I would highly advise taking the events with a huge grain of salt as we know that the Morrigan has previously been deceptive towards Cu Chulainn. I personally don't think the proclamation of love or offer to help him are genuine, but you can decide for yourself.

King Buan's Daughter

Cu Chulainn was guarding the ford after many long days fighting when he saw a beautiful young woman approaching. He asks her who she is and she says that she is the daughter of King Buan, and that she fell in love with him after hearing of his glorious deeds and has brought her treasure and her cows with her. He tells her its not a good time, and that they are struggling and hungry so he isn't in a good position to meet a woman. She says that she could help him, but he replies 'I am not here for a woman's ass'.

She then promises to cause him trouble by coming against him when he is fighting, tangling his legs in the form of an eel. Cu Chulainn replies that he prefers that to the King's daughter and says he will break her ribs and she will not be healed unless he blesses her. She then says she will drive cattle at him while in the form of a wolf to which he replies that he will smash her eye with a stone from his sling and she won't be healed unless he blesses her. Finally she says she will come at him in the form of a hornless red heifer, and he says that he will break her legs with a sling stone and she won't be healed unless he blesses her. Then they parted

The Death of Loch

Now Cu Chulainn found himself fighting against the warrior Loch who was a formidable opponent and while they fought in the river ford the Morrigan came from the sidhe to fulfill her promise to destroy Cu Chulainn. She came in the form of a white red-eared heifer with fifty white cows, each bound to another with a bronze chain. Cu Chulain threw a stone with his sling and broke one of her eyes.

Then she came at him again, this time in the form of a black eel who twined around his ankles and tripped him, so that he fell and Loch wounded him in the chest. Cu Chulain rose when he was wounded and smashed the eel against some rocks, breaking its ribs.

Finally she came at him as a grey-red wolf bitch, driving cows before her, and she bit him and distracted him so that Loch wounded him again this time in the loins. Cu Chulainn cast a spear at her and wounded her a third time, and was so enraged that he cast teh Gae Bulga at Loch, impaling him upon it and mortally wounding him. Dying Loch asked that Cu Chulainn grant him the dignity of dying on his face not his back so that everyone would know he had not died trying to run away, which Cu Chulainn did.

Cu Chulainn then composed a poem of the fight in which he recounted the events, and mentions the wolf and eel attacking him, calling the Morrigan 'Badb'

The Healing of the Morrigan

After fighting Loch Cu Chulainn has what may fairly be called a very bad day, with Medb violating the agreement of fair combat which dictated that warriors would fight one on one by sending 6 warriors at once against Cu Chulainn.

The Morrigan then appeared again to Cu Chulainn disguised as an old woman* who was milking a three teated cow. Because he had wounded her and no one could be healed from such wounds unless Cu Chulainn blessed them.

Desperately thirsty Cu Chulainn begs the old woman for a drink and she gives him some milk from the first teat. He responds by saying "May this be a cure for me, O old woman" and so the Morrigan's eye was healed. He begged for another drink and she gave him milk from the second teat to which he said "May she be healthy now who gave this" and her ribs were healed. He begged a third drink and she gave him one from the final teat, after which he said "blessing of the Gods and un-Gods on you, woman" at which her leg was healed. And so the Morrigan was healed.

Medb then attacks him again with her warriors and he defeats them

*just want to note the Irish used actually specifies a woman over 70 years old.

Morgan's Retelling of the Morrigan's Interactions with Cu Chulainn part 1

So, for those who haven't read the Ulster Cycle consider this a slightly abridged re-telling of the Morrigan's interactions with Cu Chulainn, beginning with the encounter that sets up their encounters in the Tain Bo Cuiligne

In the Tain Bo Regamna....

Cu Chulainn wakes up to the sound of a cow bellowing. Leaping out of bed naked he runs outside with his wife Emer chasing him carrying his clothes. He yells to his charoiteer, Laeg, to ready their chariot and they go to find out what all the hubbub is about. After a short ride they come upon a strange sight: a chariot pulled by a one legged red horse, with the chariot post affixed through the horses body and forehead. In the chariot is a red haired woman wearing a red cloak which trails to the ground; next to it is a large man using a hazel rod to drive a cow who is bellowing.

Cu Chulain points out that the cow doesn't like the way she's being driven and the woman replies that its none of his business because its not his cow, or his friend's cow. Cu Chulainn then says that it is his business because every cow in Ulster is his business, to which the woman replies that he takes on a lot. He then asks why she is talking to him and the man isn't and she says because she's the one he yelled at. He then says that when she speaks she speaks for the man and she replies by giving the man's name as
"Cold wind-conflict-brightness-strife". Cu Chulainn remarks that this is a wondrous name and asks if she is going to speak for him the whole time and what her name is, at which point the man speaks, and tells him that the woman's name is "Keen edged-small lipped-plain cloaked-hair-sharp shouting-fierceness-a phantom"

Cu Chulain gets pissed at this point and accuses them of trying to make a fool of him, then leaps onto the woman in the chariot and holds a spear to her head, asking her who she really is.

She tells him that she is a satirist and that the cow was payment for a poem, given to her by Daire mac Fiachnai of Cuiligne. So Cu Chulainn says that he wants to hear her recite a poem and she says she will if he will get off of her, which he does, jumping down between the chariot poles.

She proceeds to recite a poem against him and he leaps into his own chariot only to find that the woman, cow, and man have disappeared and only a black bird remains perched in a tree nearby.

He calls her a hurtful woman and she says that the place they are at will be named 'Bog of Distress' because of his words.

He says if he knew who he was talking to they wouldn't have parted that way and she pledges that whatever he would have done it would still have ended badly for him. He then says that she has no power over him, to which she replies that she does indeed, and that she is bringing and will bring his death; she then explains that she has brought the cow from out of the Sidhe of Cruachan to be bred by the Brown Bull of Cuiligne and that the calf it carries will start a great cattle raid, and implies that Cu Chulainn will die in this raid. He of course replies that he will not be killed and that he will become enormously famous in this cattle raid. 

She then promises to wait until he is fighting a skilled opponent, who is his equal in all ways, and then she will come to him as an eel in the ford to trip him so that he will be fighting an unfair fight. He replies that he will dash her against a stone to break her ribs and that she won't be healed unless he himself blesses her.

She then promises to come at him as a wolf and tear a strip from his arm during the fighting so that the odds will be really unfair, to which he replies that he will wound her eye with his spear and she won't be healed until he blesses her.

Finally she says she will appear as a red-eared white heifer driving fifty other cows before her into the ford and the fight will be so unfair that he will be killed and his head taken as a trophy. He pledges to break her leg with a sling stone and that she won't be healed unless he blesses her, which he will not do.

The two then go their separate ways. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Colors and the Morrigan

Its an interesting thing that many of us who follow, work with, honor, or are otherwise connected to the Morrigan tend to associate her with the colors red, white, and black. At first one may wonder why, as there isn't any straightforward text or piece of evidence that says 'the Morrigan's colors are such and such'. However, if we look at the total of the evidence, that is all the textual references that mention her and also mention color, we can see some patterns that may explain it.

Directly relating to the Morrigan we admittedly have only a few pieces of color related evidence, but we do have some.

From the Tain Bo Regamna:
"A red-haired woman with red eyebrows was in the chariot with a red cloak around her shoulders"
"... he saw that she was a black bird on a branch near him."
"I will be a blue-grey wolf-bitch then against you," she said.
"I will be a red-eared white heifer then," said she...

From the Tain Bo Cuiligne:
"...a smooth, black eel"
"...a rough, grey-red bitch"
"...a white, red-eared heifer"

From the Cath Mag Rath:
"She is the grey-haired Morrigu"

Additionally we see Badb referred to repeatedly as 'red-mouthed' or 'the Red Badb', for example here in the Cath Maige Tuired Cunga: "The Red Badb will thank them for the battle-combats I look on.". In the Tochmarc Ferbe Badb is described as a 'white woman' or 'shining woman' and in the Destruction of De Choca's Hostel she is also said to be red-mouthed and pale. Black would be associated with her through ravens and crows. 

Macha, has less blatant references to color so more guesswork is required. As Macha Mongruadh [Macha of the red-mane] she would seem to be associated with the color red, something we may also with less surety say due to her being called 'the sun of womanhood' in the Rennes Dindshenchas. Her association with skull could perhaps give us the color white for her, although that in itself is an assumption based on her explicit connection to severed heads and the wider Celtic cultural use of skulls. Black is easier as she is clearly connected to crows and ravens, and grey is also a color connected to her through the hooded crow and through the most famous horse known to be hers [before he was known to be Cu Chulainn's] the Liath Macha, literally 'Macha's Grey'. 

All three of the Morrigans [Morrigan, Badb, and Macha] are said to take the form of hooded crows, birds which are black and light grey, and of ravens or crows more generally. In several stories including the Tain Bo Cuiligne the Morrigan is said to appear 'in the form of a bird' and one may perhaps assume the bird here was meant to be understood as a hooded crow or raven. In the Sanas Cormaic they are called the 'three Morrigans' and later 'raven women'. In one version of the Aided Conculaind we are told "And then came the battle goddess Morrigu and her sisters in the form of scald-crows and sat on his shoulder". The names Badb and Macha are also words in Irish that mean crows or hooded crows, reinforcing the connection between the Morrigan(s) and the color black as well as grey. 

By Zeynel Cebeci (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
For the curious a quick summary of the color meanings in old Irish, beyond the actual colors. 
Black had connotations of dark, dire, melancholy, and was used to express intensity, something like the word 'very' in english. 
White represented purity, brightness, holiness, truth but also bloodlessness and was sometimes used to describe corpses. It was also a color in combination with red that was often used to describe Otherworldly animals.
Red* was used to describe things that were bloody, passionate, fiery, fierce, proud, guilty (think red cheeks) also used as an intensive.
Grey usually represents age, in the plural the word for the color means 'veterans'

So we can see that when color is mentioned in association with the Morrigan it is usually red or black, and slightly less often white or grey, and rarely blueish-green. I might suggest that people who associate red, black, and white with her are either consciously or subconsciously picking up on these patterns from her stories, particularly of the colors of her animal forms when contesting with Cu Chulain in the Tain Bo Cuilinge which are black (eel), red (wolf), and white (cow), although the red/black/white pattern is not limited to that. Badb and Macha share these color associations in different ways, indicating that it is not the Morrigan as a singular being for which these colors are important but rather that all three Morrigans relate to them. 

*there are actually multiple words for the color red in Old Irish; I am using 'derg' here which is the one most often used in the texts to describe the Morrigans, et al, however it is not the only red used so that should be kept in mind.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016



  1. Odras, úais ind ingen,
    fris' indlem laíd lúaidme,
    Odornatan airme
    meic Laidne meic Lúaidre.
  2. Ban-briugaid ba brígach
    in gnímach glan gúasach,
    céile cáem co cruthacht
    do Buchatt balcc búasach.
  3. Bóaire cáid Cormaic
    co roblait in Buchatt,
    dúiscid búar co m-blaitne
    cach maitne for muchacht.
  4. Fechtus luid dia ésse
    a ben glésse gasta,
    Odras rúad co romét,
    do chomét búar m-blasta.
  5. Moch dia m-boí 'na codlud
    Odras groc-dub gnóach,
    dosrocht ben in Dagda,
    ba samla día sóach.
  6. Tuc léi tarb in tnúthach,
    in rígan garb gnáthach,
    baí i Líathmuine láthach,
    in fíachaire fáthach.
  7. Dairis boin in búaball,
    tarb túamann 'nar taídenn,
    ó Themraig tric táraill
    co Slemnaib Fraích Oírenn.
  8. Slemon ainm in tairb-sin,
    dremon in dóel donn-sin:
    a ainm, mer cen mebsain,
    'sed rolen in fonn-sin.
  9. Luid co Crúachain cróda
    iarsind úath-blaid ágda
    in Mórrígan mórda,
    ba slóg-dírmach sámda.
  10. Luid Odras 'na h-iarn-gait,
    iarmairt nárbu ada,
    's a gilla dúr dorthain,
    torchair i Cúil Chada.
  11. Cada ainm a gilla
    rofinna mór fíche:
    ruc Odras, úair áithe,
    for lurg a búair bíthe.
  12. Iarsin, d' éis a gilla,
    luid in ben gléis glanda
    co Síd Crúachan cumma,
    co fríth úath-blad alla.
  13. Roléic cotlud chuicce
    in groc-dub cen glicce
    i nDaire úar Fhálgud
    dia fúair sárgud sicce.
  14. Dosruacht ina tathum,
    trúag tachur for tulaig,
    in Mórrígan úathmar
    a h-úaim Chrúachan cubaid.
  15. Rochan fuirre ind agda
    tria luinde cen logda
    cach bricht dían, ba dalbda,
    fri Slíab mBadbgna m-brogda.
  16. Legais in ben brígach
    fri Segais, sreb súanach,
    mar cach linn cen líg-blad:
    nísbaí brígrad búadach.
  17. Don tshruthán fháen fhoglas
    is ainm sáer co soblas,
    luid ón mnaí thrúaig thadaill
    cosin abainn Odras. O.
- Metrical Dindshenchas, E., Gwyn, 1906

  1. Odras, noble the woman,
    about whom we make this poem,
    daughter of famed Odornatan
    son of Laidne son of Lúaidre.
  2. A wealthy woman and powerful
    the active, pure, danger-loving,
    beloved and fair wife
    of stout cattle-lord Buchatt.
  3. Stock-master to noble Cormaic
    was the strong Buchatt,
    he awakens the mighty herds
    each morning early.
  4. One day went journeying out
    his bright, alert wife,
    Odras fierce and proud,
    to guard the fair cattle.
  5. Early in the day slept
    Odras, dark-wrinkled, beautiful,
    [then] the wife of the Dagda came,
    a phantom the shape-shifting Goddess.
  6. She took with her a furious bull,
    the well-known harsh queen,
    from Líathmuine of mighty deeds,
    the wise raven-prophesier.
  7. The bull covered a cow,
    a bull of grave-mounds and hosts,
    traveled swiftly from Tara
    to Oírenn's smooth moorland.
  8. Slemon was the name on the bull,
    furious the swarthy black one:
    his name, spirited without defeat,
    remained with that territory.
  9. To bloody Crúachan she went
    thereafter the great phantom, warlike,
    the mighty Mórrígan,
    whose ease was a host of troops.
  10. Odras came to thieve with iron,
     not a justified consequence,
    with her solid, unlucky servant,
    who accidently fell at Cúil Chada.
  11. Cada was her servant's name
    he knew great fights:
    Odras brought him, a swift hour,
    in pursuit of her taken cows.
  12. Thus, after her servant's death,
    came the bright, pure woman
    to Síd Crúachan's form,
    in wilderness a great phantom hall.
  13. She allows sleep to take her
    the dark-wrinkled one without wisdom
    at unfriendly Daire Fhálgud
    there she is overtaken by cold dishonouring
  14. Came upon her sleeping,
    returning on the hill,
    the terrifying Mórrígan,
    suitably her cave is Crúachan.
  15. Chants over her the possessor of the cows
    with vehemence unabating
    each swift spell, it was sorcery,
    towards mighty Slíab Badbgna.
  16. Dissolves the vigorous woman
    against Segais, a sleepy stream,
    like every pool without famed-stone:
    she had no victorious powers.
  17. There a prone greenish stream
    is named, noble and sweet-tasting,
    this wretched woman becomes
    the little river Odras there.
not the river Odras
I'll add as a note here that the word 'úath' is used a lot in this to describe the Morrigan and Cruachan in different ways - its one of those fun words that has a lot of meanings from horrible, terrible, fear, specter, monster, phantom, hawthorn tree, cold, few, earth/'s even the name of a type of story. I made a choice to stick with phantom pretty much throughout to give a sense of consistency equivalent to the repetition of the word in the Irish because I think to use different meanings would lose that feeling. However one should keep in mind that where you see phantom its a more layered nuance than just the English phantom and does have the overtones of frightening, etc.,

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What Do Fairies Eat?

My oldest daughter asked me today, what do fairies eat?

Like everything else to do with Themselves there's actually no one simple answer and it depends a lot on what sort of fairy we're talking about. There's also been a lot of speculation, even going back to the 17th century and the writings of rev. Kirk, that fairies may not eat our solid food at all, but rather absorb the essence of the food, what Kirk called the 'foyson', Campbell called the 'toradh*', or Evans-Wentz called the quintessence. It was for this reason that food offered to the fairies, or which it was believed they had consumed the essence of, was not considered fit for human consumption nor even for animals to eat (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Again though this may be something that is true of some types while others do literally consume the item itself. Without getting into what may be traditionally offered to fairies, but only looking at what folklore tells us they are known to consume, here are some general things we can say to give people an idea of what different fairies eat:

  1. Some fairies eat 'corn' - a general term for grains -, bread, and drink liquor and milk (Kirk, 1691)
  2. Fairies will steal, and presumably eat, any and all human food and produce if the owner of it speaks badly about it, by taking the 'toradh' out of it so that it gives no value to the humans (Campbell, 1900). 
  3. Fairies are known to take the 'substance' from such crops as turnips and grain, and will take butter if they can (Evans-Wentz, 1911). They will also steal quality food from the hearth that is cooking, such as meat or vegetables, leaving behind something wasted or unpleasant in its place (Wilde, 1920). 
  4. The corrigans and lutins are fond of meat, especially beef, and will steal and butcher cows to prepare their own feasts (Evans-Wentz, 1911). 
  5. Some fairies are said to use glamour to make their food appear as delicious fare like to what humans would eat when really it is leaves, weeds, roots, and 'stalks of heather' (Briggs, 1976). 
  6. Several types of fairies, including hags, kelpies and water horses are known to eat human flesh. Briggs mentions one such reference to a fairy court's feast which consisted of the prepared and cooked body of an old woman (Briggs, 1976, p 145). Similarly tales of the hag Black Annis mention her penchant for eating children; kelpies can trick people into riding them, tear them apart and eat them (Briggs, 1976). On a related note the Baobhan sidhe drinks blood, and the welsh form of the Leanann Sidhe, the Lhiannan Shee is also said by some to have a vampiric nature (Briggs, 1976). 
  7. It is said that some Irish fairies eat fruits, vegetables, honey, and drink milk, but do not eat meat (Lysaght, 1991)
  8. The Good Neighbors of Orkney and Shetland eat oatmeal, fish, and drink milk (Bruford, 1991)
  9. In Wales the fairies eat eggs, butter, and drink milk (Gwyndaf, 1991)
  10. Yeats recounts a tale of one of the Gentry who passed a Halloween with a family and ate with them, a meal of duck and apples, although she had only a single bite from each portion (Yeats, 1892). 
  11. It is said that some fairies eat rowan berries. Indeed rowan berries were also said to have been the food of the Tuatha De Danann by some accounts (McNeill, 1956). 
  12. Several types of fairies appear to either be fond of barley or to grow it as their own crop, and to eat it. Milk is also widely reported to be consumed by fairies, not only cow's milk but also goat's milk and the milk of deer (Briggs, 1976). This widespread love of grain and milk is particularly interesting in folk belief as it echos much older myth from the De Gabail in t-Sida where the Tuatha De Danann retreat into the sidhe (fairy hills) and cause all the crops to fail and cows to go dry until an agreement is reached whereby they will be given a portion of each harvest, specifically "ith" [grain] and "blicht" [milk]. 

To summarize milk was often mentioned, as were grains which would seem to be prepared in ways similar to humans; most sources including Briggs and Campbell refer to the fairies use of grains ground into meal, for example. Baking is mentioned as is cooking more generally, and when fairy feasts are mentioned, barring the more macabre ones, they seem to be filled with the same dishes humans would eat. Besides an emphasis, perhaps, on dairy and baked goods, generally fairies seem to eat much the same foods humans do, although certain types of fairies are more specific in their diets and some of course eat things we would not. While they are often noted to take the essence from foods they are also equally often said to eat the food itself so both seem equally possible.

Bruford, A., (1991) Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney and Shetland
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Kirk, R., (1691) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
Campbell, G., (1900) Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland
Evans-Wentz, W. (1911). Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, E., (1920). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Lysaght, P., (1991) Fairylore from the Midlands of Ireland
Yeats, W., (1892) Celtic Twilight
McNeill, F., (1956). Silver Bough

*literally 'fruit' but probably in this context meaning produce, profit, or substance

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Alfar, Huldufolk, and Elves

Ängsälvor by Nils Blommér (1805)
One of the challenges in understanding the Norse and Germanic material is that many different Otherworldly beings are translated into English as "elves", just as many different Irish beings are called fairies. The Norse word Alfar appears in German as Alp or Elb, and English as Elf, while in modern Icelandic they are known as both alfar and Huldufolk (hidden folk), although Huldufolk is also used as a generic term, like elf, that can describe alfar, trolls and land spiritis. Landwights are also sometimes conflated with the alfar, because the two have many commonalities, but also key differences that indicate they actually are separate types of beings (Gundarsson, 2007). The modern view of elves as tiny laborers is vastly at odds with the traditional view of the Alfar as tall, beautiful, and powerful beings. If you are familiar with Tolkein's elves then you have some idea of the older view of the alfar.

The alfar were created when the Gods created the world and in Norse myth one of the nine worlds belongs to them: Ljossalfheim (Light Elf Home). Properly there are at least three groups referred to as alfar in Norse myth: the Ljossalfar (light elves), svartalfar (literally black elves; often conflated with duergar - dwarves), and drokkalfar (literally dark elves; mound dead), although it is difficult to know with certainty if these were originally seen as different beings altogether which were all later simply called alfar for convenience, or if they were always seen as related beings. Jacob Grimm tried, in his Teutonic Mythology, to make a literal division of the groups by color, so that the ljossalfar were white, the svartalfar black and the drokkalfar grey, but this is almost certainly his own invention (Grimm, 1883). I think it is more likely, personally, that alfar was sometimes used as a term to describe supernatural beings who were neither Gods nor giants and so could be used in a more general sense, as well as specifically with the ljossalfar probably being the original beings under that name. In the lore however we do see beings referred to as alfar at one point and elsewhere as other types of beings, including gods or giants, so it can be difficult to have any real clarity on this (exactly like the Irish material). There is some clear distinction between the ljossalfar, the more traditionally understood Otherworldly elves, and the drokkalfar, who are understood to be the mound-dead, but there is also significant crossover as well which may indicate an understood connection between the two groups (Gundarsson, 2007).

The alfar are known to interbreed with the other beings, particularly humans, and some mythic heroes and kings (as well as the king's half sister in the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki) were said to be half-elven. Icelandic patronyms sometimes show this possible ancestral connection (Gundarsson, 2007). This may reflect the common belief that the birthrate among the elves is low or that females are rare; a common theme in mythology is the stealing of brides and babies or of midwives to help at births. In the older Norse material Alfar always appear to be male, although in later Icelandic folklore we see females as well, and in the Swedish material we mainly see alf women (Gundarsson, 2007).

Alfar are associated with their own world, ljossalfheim, of course, but are also believed to live in or access our world through natural sites including mountains, cliffs, and boulders. They are known to be associated with certain places, and particularly certain individual trees, and it is believed that to disturb the places belonging to the Hidden Folk is very bad luck (Gundarsson, 2007). As recently as October 2013 protesters in Iceland were trying to block a highway project on the grounds that the construction passed through an area belonging to the alfar, who would be angered (Scherker, 2013). It is believed by many that disturbing the alfar with construction will result in bad luck and machines breaking down and often a special person who is known to be able to see and communicate with the elves will be brought in to negotiate (Gruber, 2007). Those who are brave enough to enter an alf-hill or visit the realm of the alfar may find that time moves very differently there, and sometimes the alfar will not release those who have gone among them.

In folklore the Alfar are seen as being especially active during the twelve days of Yule and at Midsummer. Gundrasson suggests - and I have long agreed - that the summer activities of the alfar, while still potentially perilous to humans, are less dangerous in nature and intent than the Yule activities (Gundarsson, 2007). The alfar ride out in full procession at midsummer and Yule, an activity which may convey blessing on the areas they pass through, but in Iceland the Yule ride of the alfar, the alfarieth, is equated to the Wild Hunt and is extremely dangerous to see or contact (Gundarsson, 2007).

Interacting with the alfar is always a tricky business, as they can give blessings or lay curses on a person. In many traditional tales those who encounter elves and please them - often with good manners and generosity - may receive gifts, but those who offend them are killed or driven mad. When offered a gift from the alfar one should not refuse, and these gifts might include food, drink, or worthless things like leaves which will later turn to gold (Gundarsson, 2007). The alfar can also heal illnesses and injuries, if properly petitioned, and can be called on with a specific ceremony to protect a baby (Gundarsson, 2007).

The alfar are angered by several types of human activity including the aforementioned disturbance of their places. They are also driven out of an area by the placing of an alfreka or by people urinating on the ground (Pennick, 1993; Gundarsson, 2007). When angered they can cause bad luck, sickness, madness, or death. Elves were also thought to be able to inflict illness on humans through the use of alf-shot or an elf-blast, the first being a small, invisible arrow that created diseases including bone cancer and arthritis, the second being a method where the elves would breath or blow sickness into a person. There are several surviving charms aimed at curing alfshot (Gundarsson, 2007). There is also a reference in older material to "alf-seidhr" possibly a type of magic worked by the alfar against humans to cause madness and death (Gundarsson, 2007).

In Norse lore iron and steel are used as a protection against dangerous alfar and other spirits, although it is not effective against giants (Gundarsson, 2007). Any item made of this metal may be used, but traditionally bladed weapons and nails were the most commonly seen, and iron or steel nails might be hammered into a post or doorway to protect a home. Sulfur, rowan, and juniper are also traditional Norse protections, as well as a blend of woody nightshade, orchid and tree sap which was said to protect against the "unwanted attentions" of the huldufolk (Gundarsson, 2007). It is also said that church bells ringing will drive off the alfar, as will Christian prayers, although this may perhaps represent more of a reaction by the alfar to a religion which offends them than a sign of any power that faith actually has over them.

It is wise to remember to honor the alfar, with rituals and offerings. The alfar are closer to us and our world and affect us more often than the Gods generally do, and they should be respected. It is also a good idea to understand how the alfar can affect us, for good and ill, and ways to best deal with them.


Gundarsson. K., (2007) Elves, Wights, and Trolls
Grimm, J., (1883) Teutonic Mythology
Scherker, A (2013) Protecting Elves from Highway Construction is a Thing in Iceland
Gruber,B., (2007) Iceland: Searching for Elves and Hidden People

Excerpt from Fairycraft