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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fairies, Invisibility, and Old Irish Mythology

It is generally understood in modern folklore that the Fair Folk cannot be seen unless they choose to be or unless a person has some special ability or power to see them. The idea of the Good People being able to go unseen by mortal eyes is well accepted but not necessarily well understood and can often lead to discussion of the related subject of whether or not the fairies have physical forms. This seems to be rooted in the modern perception that we cannot see them because they are insubstantial or exist entirely as energetic beings, rather than that we cannot see them because they do not want us to see them. I would argue that they do indeed have physical forms, based on the amount of folklore in which they interact directly and substantially with people and the number of stories where children are produced. However that issue aside we are left with an assumption that the Fair Folk can become, effectively, invisible as an idea that is embedded in folklore. I think it may be worth looking at how far back that idea stretches in order to appreciate how deeply rooted it actually is.

Although some people today may attribute this ability to newer folklore relating to fairy glamour or even see it as evidence of fairies fading from this world, when we look at Irish mythology we see the same power attributed to them. We can find evidence of the concept in Irish mythology for as long as we have evidence of the fairy folk themselves:

1. "Oenfer sund chucund innossa a Chucucán", ar Loég...."Acht ni saig nech (fair) & ní saig-som dana for nech, feib nacha n-aicced nech issin dúnud chethri n-ollchóiced hErend"
Is fír aní sin a daltán," for se. "Cia dom chardib Sídchaire-sa..."

-Tain Bo Cuailigne, 12th century from oral material that dates earlier
[A single man coming towards us now, oh Cu Chulainn," said Laeg...."But none advance on him and he advances on no one, as if no one saw him in all the camp of the four grand provinces of Ireland."
"The man coming there, oh fosterling," said he, "he is to me a friend from the fairy-troop..."]

2. "Síd mór i taam conid de suidib nonn ainmnigther áes síde."
 "Cía a gillai" ol Cond fria mac acailli. úair ni acca nech in mnaí acht Condla a óenur."
 - Echtra Condla, 11th century material likely dating to the 8th century
["We live in the great fairy hill and are called the people of the fairy hill."
"Who [do you speak to], oh boy?" said Conn to his son. Because no one could see the woman but Connla alone.]

3. "Lá n-and doib a n-ingenaib uilib isind inbiur oca fothrocud co n-accatar in marcach isa mmag cucu dond usciu.....Etain indiu. .n. Dochúaid úadib in t-óclaech iar sain iocus ní fetatar can dodeochaid la cid iarom."
 - Tochmarc Etaine, 14th century, language dated to 9th century
[One day it happened to them that the girls on this occasion were at a river-mouth and were washing when they saw a horseman on the plain from the noble waters...(he recites a poem claiming Etain as one of the sidhe and predicting war on her behalf)...Etain at that time went from the young man and was different afterwards and they didn't know whence he came from or yet went afterwards.]

In all of these examples, from texts written between 1,000 and 600 years ago but generally based on oral material hundreds of years older, we see people of the sidhe coming to interact with people in our world but remaining unseen by those they didn't want to be seen by. Cu Chulainn's friend among the sidhe walks through the encampment of the men of Ireland, the army who at the time was fighting against Cu Chulainn and Ulster, unimpeded and as Laeg relates unseen. Connla's fairy woman, who has come to court him and tempt him to join her in the sidhe, appears next to him and talks to him but only he can see and hear her until she chooses to speak to his father Conn as well*. The rider of the sidhe who speaks a prophecy about Etain appears and seemingly disappears with no one the wiser as to where he came from or where he went afterwards. There are other similar stories in other texts, including the appearance of the fairy woman Fidelm in the Tain Bo Cuailigne. In the exact same way we find tales in later folklore of people of the fairy hills who appear to specific people but not others or who can choose who sees them in our world. 

We find this power to go unseen among the Tuatha Dé Danann as well as the fairy folk, but there is some persuasive evidence that it is an ability that the fairies had first. This power seems to have come to the Tuatha Dé Danann from their connection to the Good Neighbors and particularly from Manannán's gift of the Féth Fiadha. The Féth Fiadha is a magical mist or veil, likely a type of enchantment, which hides those under its power by making them invisible or otherwise deceiving the sight of those who looked at them so they were hidden. We find a discussion of this in the story 'Altram Tige Dá Medar' where the Féth Fiadha is given to the Tuatha Dé Danann by Manannán so that they "could not be seen" and he also teaches them "to carry on their mansions in the manner of the people of the fair-sided Land of Promise and fair Emhain Ablach" (Dobs, 1929). Manannán is also the one in that version of the story who allocated the sidhe to the Tuatha Dé Danann and decided who would live where. From this we can safely gather that it was Manannán who taught the Tuatha Dé Danann to live among the Fairy folk after they were forced into the sidhe by the Gaels. We may also perhaps conclude that it was the Daoine sidhe, through Manannán, who taught the Tuatha Dé Danann how to move unseen and how to live in the sidhe, not the other way around. 

Ultimately the evidence we have from Irish mythology shows us that the idea of the Fair Folk going unseen, or being selectively seen, can be traced back in writing at least 1,000 years. If we accept scholars' assertions that the oldest text discussed here, the Echtra Condla, can be further backdated based on language to the 7th century** then we are looking at a 1,400 year old story of a fairy woman who was seen by one person in a crowd. The ability by the Good People to make themselves invisible is one that is not only deeply ingrained in their mythology and folklore, but even seems to be something they taught to the Irish Gods. This power then rather than a modern concept is one of the oldest and most significant magics that we are aware of the Daoine Maithe possessing. 

*Later in the story Conn's druid is able through magic to temporarily hide her entirely from Connla so that she cannot keep courting him, but he is apparently unable to force her to reveal herself. 
**some scholars feel the 8th or 9th century is more likely while others argue for dates as early as the 7th. See Beveridge 'Children Into Swans' and Oskamp 'Echtra Condla' in Etudes Celtiques 14 for further discussion on dating of this manuscript. 

Dobs, M (1929) Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie vol 18


  1. This is a fascinating post! Thanks for sharing :)

  2. Wonderful post. Very thought provoking. Makes me eager for your book release! :-)

  3. A wonderful post, Morgan...The Same is true of u.F.O's..I Had Been with People , often rigid Logicos Who could not see What Two others were I conclude That it has a Lot do do with How open Your Mind Is, Otherwise, what you Do not believe, even if You enconter It will be Filtered Out..

  4. you all may not believe
    but i must tell coz someboby must know
    a girl was one year with me and at last day of school, she called me to meet her
    and she told something and vanished infront of me .i was faint and when i woke up it was already evening
    who was she ? what was she ? i wanna know any idea someone plz its been like myth to me

  5. I have a feeling that what's physical and what's not is a subtle thing, and that 'spirits' can be physical, for people who are themselves partially crossed over. So being seen and unseen is probably a function of yanking someone partially through the veil, so that a nonphysical person and a physical person can meet in the middle. And meanwhile the un-yanked people around won't see a thing.