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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fairy Food: "Bite No Bit, And Drink No Drop"

"And what you've not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again."
- the Ballad of Childe Rowland

I've previously discussed the food of Fairy in the context of what fairies themselves eat but today I thought it would be interesting to look at humans in relation to fairy food. Fairies are well known for taking human food, both the substance and the essence of it, but a quick glance at Celtic folklore shows a clear prohibition against humans eating the food of Fairy. As the above quote from Childe Rowland illustrates, to eat fairy food is to be trapped in Fairy; we see the same sentiment related by Lady Wilde in a story of a girl brought to a fairy banquet who was warned by another captive: "Eat no food, and drink no wine, or you will never see your home again". And yet in other cases to refuse Fairy food carries a heavy consequences. So how then is a person to know when it is safe to eat and when it is dangerous?

Not fairy food
In the Echtra Condla we see the Fairy woman who comes to woo Connla away from mortal earth giving him an apple; it becomes his only food and no matter how much he eats the apple remains whole (Daimler, 2017). After a month of this the Fairy woman returns and takes Connla back with her into Fairy. In some versions of the popular Fairy Midwife story the midwife is offered food after she refuses to stay with the fairies, but a new mother by the fire, who is herself a human captive, advises the midwife not to eat or drink anything or she won't be able to leave (Ballard, 1991). Similarly Yeats relates a tale of a stolen bride whose groom tracks her down with the group of fairies who have taken her; she directs him away from offers of food and drink to play cards instead so that he will not also be taken (Yeats, 1902). The idea seems to be that to consume food in Fairy binds a person to Fairy either by changing their nature and making them part of Fairy or by binding some essential part of the person to Fairy. One person from Sligo in 1909 described it thus: "Once they take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them forever." (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Yet this is not a hard and fast rule and we do also see cases where a person is offered or given food and walks away unharmed. In one anecdote a pair of men was walking and heard fairies inside a sí churning butter; they wished aloud for a drink of the buttermilk and to their surprise it was given to them. One took it and the other refused with the one who refused having bad luck afterwards (Bruford, 1991). Thomas in Thomas the Rhymer is paid by the Fairy Queen with an apple, which he eats and which gives him the ability to speak truly, but the apple does not bind him to Fairy, he is returned to mortal earth after his service is done (Acland, 1997). The difference may be that the men were given food they asked for and Thomas is explicitly given the apple as payment, in exchange for his service to the Queen for 7 years. In the same way we see Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish witch who dealt with the Queen of Elphame, saying that the Queen gave her meat to eat although Isobel was not taken into Fairy but remained on earth. The normal rules of food may not apply when that food is given as part of a clear exchange or payment of a debt owed by the fairy or for services rendered. The Good People are also known to give food as gifts, in which case no debt would be accrued and the person was not bound in any way (Gwyndaf, 1991). 

There are some exceptions to this, of course, as we see with the goblin fruit, for example, in the Goblin Market which is paid for by the human but is nonetheless a death sentence. In that case we are dealing with the Unseelie Court and it may be that they do not follow the more polite rules of the Seelie Court on this subject, but that all food from their hands is dangerous. Or it may be that the person is aware of what they are buying when they buy it, given the fruits' dangerous reputation. 

 In most of the  stories where the food is a kind of trap it is offered as part of hospitality or offered to the person when they have done nothing to pay for it. It is simply offered and taken, usually in a social context. It is also offered, most often, when the person is either in Fairy or in the company of a larger group of fairies, indicating that this may also be a factor. In the stories where the food is not dangerous to take the circumstances are generally different: the person has asked for food, the person was owed a debt by the fairy, or the person was explicitly in service to a fairy monarch. So it would seem that like so many other things on this subject it is neither simple nor clear cut, that there are some cases when eating fairy food is dangerous and others where it is not.

If you ever find yourself in a situation involving fairy food, I'd suggest remembering that its unwise to take what isn't owed to you. 

References
Daimler, M., (2017) Echtra Condla http://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2017/03/ectra-condla-chaim-meic-cuind.html
Gwyndaf, R., (1991). Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Bruford, A., (1991). Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney and the Shetlands
Yeats, W., (1902) Celtic Twilight
Acland, A., (1997) Thomas the Rhymer http://tam-lin.org/stories/Thomas_the_Rhymer.html
Acland, A., (1997) Childe Rowland http://tam-lin.org/stories/Childe_Rowland.html
Ballard, L., (1991) Fairies and the Supernatural on Reachrai
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Riding the River; My Journey into Paganism

 My journey into Paganism is something I've talked about before, but I don't think I've ever written explicitly about it here. Since there's a blog theme going around taking on that idea I thought it might be interesting to look at it here.



Many people when you ask them 'How did you end up pagan?' have a straightforward answer - they found a book or they met a particular person. My own story is a bit more complicated, although it does eventually involve both a book and a person, both of which I owe a great debt and neither of which continued with me on my path.

Unlike most of my peers I wasn't raised Christian. I tend to say I was raised a secular agnostic because that sums it up fairly well. We celebrated all the main American holidays but without any religious overtones - Christmas was when Santa came in his reindeer pulled sleigh to magically bring us presents and Easter was when a bunny brought us baskets of candy. I include the agnostic part because there was no firm disbelief, but neither was their any clear structure within any particular faith. We grew up hearing stories about our families history and culture, Cherokee, Irish-American, and New England with all the folklore and belief that came with that. I spent a lot of time out doors in nature, connecting to the wild world. I also had the added personal quirk of seeing spirits, something that (luckily for me) my family humored for the most part. I built little houses for the fairies and left them notes on my windowsill for as long as I could remember. But actual formal religion, there wasn't any.

I was also always a spiritual seeker, maybe because I saw things other people didn't. At various points I was curious about different religions, attending church services with my friends, reading about Judaism, I even read up on Mennonites and the Amish. Nothing ever quite fit though. And then when I was in middle school (the early 1990's) one of my best friends introduced me to a book by Scott Cunningham called 'Wicca: a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner'. For the first time I was reading about a religion - witchcraft and paganism - that made perfect sense to me. Gods and Goddesses, spirits, magic, these all resonated with me and fit into the world, spirits inclusive, that I already knew existed. I was mad for Irish culture at that point so it wasn't much effort to add in Irish mythology to to everything else and begin reading about the Irish Gods. I think I was about 11 years old.

I went to the library and found a few other books, and used my babysitting money to buy a couple more and I read what I could get my hands on at the time: Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch, Laurie Cabot's Power of the Witch. At the advanced age of 12 I decided to preform a self dedication ritual, out in the cold on Imbolc. Because at 12 I was certain that this was the most amazing religion ever.

Of course within a few years, by the mid 90's, I'd started to focus more on what I'd later learn was called Celtic Reconstructionism and by 1997 I'd joined a CR Druid group called the Order of the White Oak. In 2001 I joined another Druid group, Ar nDraoicht Fein, and in 2006 I joined Our Troth after I began studying Heathenry/Asatru. I had long since stopped considering myself Wiccan but I never stopped practicing witchcraft and throughout it all the Good People - by any name - where the bedrock of my belief system and practice.

I remained a dual-trad person, both a reconstructionist Irish polytheist and a Heathen but I also began to see that over the years I had developed my own type of witchcraft, my own flavor if you will. So in 2013 I wrote a book 'Pagan Portals Fairy Witchcraft' which would be published the following year that described my witchcraft and my belief system, formed from a lifetime of experience and woven from the Fairy Faith and a reconstructionist approach to working with the Other Crowd. That of course led to another book, Fairycraft, and another (coming out later this year) Fairies. And there's another one in the works that will be out in the next year or so as well. I feel like Themselves have something to say.

Last year, as those of you who read my blog already know, was a transitional one for me. I went to Ireland a polytheist dedicated to several Gods. I came back belonging to the Daoine Maithe. Looking back on my journey to paganism and its evolution over the years I suppose it was a predictable evolution, but I honestly never saw it coming. I had always thought of my path as a tree, growing up from roots into spreading branches but always one thing always the same even as it grew. I suppose in a way that's true, but recently I've realized that my path is far more like a river - the water is always the water but the river expands and contracts, reshapes itself, slows or speeds up as it travels. It changes as it needs to change. My path has always been about the Good People even before I realized I was on a path, and I have walked it my whole life even when I wasn't aware it was there. It has changed and reshaped itself radically along the way, and that's alright. I've learned a lot.

And where I am now is not the end either.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Baobhan Sìth



One of the most interesting Scottish fairies, to my mind, is the Baobhan Sìth (pronounced roughly Bah-van Shee). There are only a few stories preserved in folklore about this spirit, and they are fairly homogeneous in painting a picture of female fairies, usually appearing in groups, who seduce young men and kill them by drinking their blood. They seem to be members of the Fuath - generally dangerous water spirits - and also of the Unseelie Court.

The name itself is both straightforward and complicated, as is often the case with folklore. Baobhan is given as 'wizard', a wicked woman who curses or does evil to others, and a female spirit 'who haunts rivers' (Dwelly, 1902). In Gaidhlig Sìth is used in the genitive case as a modifier to indicate something is from or has a nature related to Fairy; hence Fear-Sìthe 'Men of the Fairies' ie fairies, Ban-Sìth, 'fairy woman' and muime-shìthe 'fairy godmother'. So with Baobhan Sìth we have roughly 'evil fairy woman' or 'fairy woman who curses', or perhaps 'fairy woman who lurks near rivers'.

When we find the Baobhan Sithe in folklore we find a commonly repeated story of four young men out hunting who stay over in the woods one night, finding shelter in a small lean-to or hut. One of the men begins playing music and they find themselves joined by four beautiful women. Three of the four begin dancing with three of the young men while the fourth lingers near the musician. That young man notices something is wrong with his companions, often seeing a trickle of blood on one of their necks and flees into the night, pursued by the fourth woman; he hides among a group of horses whose iron-shoes deter the spirit until dawn. Upon returning to the shelter he finds all three of his friends have been killed in the night, dying of blood loss.

This story can be found with slight variations although all have the same major points. In one it is one of the dancers who notices blood on another dancer, becomes alarmed, and tells the woman he is dancing with that he needs to go out, at which she tried to convince him to stay; once outside he flees and she chases him through the night (Robertson, 1905). Sometimes the number of men varies or their reason for being in the shelter; sometimes one of them wishes for companions before the women appear other times the women show up claiming to be lost. In one variation the musician who was singing for the group as they danced noticed the women had hooves instead of feet and stopped singing in surprise, at which point all his friends fell dead to the floor and he ran from the building (Robertson, 1905). In several versions the Baobhan Sìth whose partner flees grabs his plaid in her hands as he first tries to run and he leaves it behind to escape. Often the man does not return alone to the shelter but instead goes back to his village and returns with a group of people who together find the bloodless bodies of the remaining men (Robertson, 1905).

The young man in the story was saved because he realized the women were actually Baobhan Sìth and ran away, and because he was smart and took shelter among the horses. Some modern articles will say that the Baobhan Sìth have a fear of horses but that is a misunderstanding of the story; it was the horses' iron-shod hooves that held the fairy off not the presence of the animals themselves. Briggs, repeating MacKenzie makes this clear here: "He took refuge among the horse and she could not get to him, probably because of the iron with which they were shod." (Briggs, 1976, p16).

In folklore the Baobhan Sìth are said to wear green dresses and to have the hooves of deer in place of human feet although they are very beautiful otherwise (MacKenzie, 1935). They use their beauty to seduce and prey upon men, as the above story illustrates by drinking their blood. Except for possibly having hooves they otherwise seem exactly like human women and are mistaken for them until its too late. Besides their human form they are also able to take on the form of hooded crows or ravens (MacKenzie, 1935). They show many qualities that are common to fairies, including wearing green, having a deformity (in this case deer's hooves) which they try to hide, and being able to shift shape. Their preference for humans as prey, certainly put them in the darker category of the Unseelie Court.

Baobhan, which is also given as Baobh, is closely related to the word Badhbh, and both have the meanings of 'hag, witch, she-spirit' and 'wizard' (Am Faclair Beag, 2017). Badhbh, of course, is also related to the Irish war goddess Badb, who was later associated with the ban-nighe, the fairy women who were seen washing bloody clothes or armor in rivers as omens of death. I believe it is likely that the Baobhan Sìth is another type of fairy that is rooted in the older war goddess, later diminished and distorted in folklore. It is only a supposition but since we see badb in old Irish also appearing as bodb, and we see Badb/Bodb meaning deadly, dangerous, fatal and in Gaidhlig baobh having connotations of furious, destructive, frightening, I think it is at least possible (eDIL, 2017; Dwelly, 1902). The association between the Baobhan Sìth and female spirits who haunt rivers is also very similar to the ban-nighe who is strongly related to Badb, and like Badb the Baobhan Sìth can take the form of a hooded crow or raven. We can also see some of this connection in some of the compounds formed with Baobhan, like baobhachd which means both the actions of a wicked woman and the sound of crows (Dwelly, 1902).

The Baobhan Sìth are a more obscure but fascinating type of fairy, one of the few vampiric entities we can find in Celtic fairylore. They seem in many ways similar to the more deadly types of Leannán Sí as well as to the closely related Bean Sí, yet they have a distinct lore of their own. Modern information can be hard to find about them because the internet is as likely to give you pop-fiction information as actual traditional folklore. But the traditional folklore is still there to be found if you go digging for it. And its worth the effort to find.


References
Am Faclair Beag (2017) http://www.faclair.com/
Dwelly, E., (1902) Faclair Gàidhlìg air son nan sgoiltean
eDIL (2017) electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language
MacKenzie, D., (1935) Scottish Folk-lore and Folk-life
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionary of Fairies
Robertson, C., (1905) Folk-lore from the West of Ross-shire

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Witchcraft of The Devouring Swamp

My friend at Via Hedera wrote a great post about her green witchcraft in the context of her river and its spirits called "Green River Witchcraft". You should definitely give it a read. It has me thinking about the way that where we live, the environment we live in, shapes how we relate to spirits and perhaps our witchcraft or wider spirituality. For my friend at Via Hedera that means green, growing, knitting community together. It also reminds me of this Puscifer song:


All of this got me thinking about my own environment, my own animism and my own witchcraft.

Animism is and always has been a core concept of my beliefs, back for as far as I can remember believing things. The idea that there are spirits - souls - in objects, in places, in everything has always just been a given for me. Of course the river has a spirit. Of course the road has one too. People can split hairs about the details of animism, what it is and how its defined, but ultimately I think any view of animism hinges on that core idea of an ensouled world.

Building on that, for me, is the idea that the physical anchor for that spirit shapes and influences the spirit to some degree. Just as our experience in our body effect how we interact with the world, it has been my experience to a large degree that other spirits are effected by the state of their physical anchor, when they have one. A river that is free-running and clear is a happy river; one that is clogged and polluted is not. A happy river, often will have a happy spirit while an unhappy river will have an unhappy spirit, to give a simple view of it. Rivers shaped by waterfalls and wild rapids have more wild and fierce spirits. Rivers that are calm and slow moving have more languid spirits. I am speaking of generalities of course, trying to get a larger point across.

In turn the spirits and physical anchors they have shape us and resonate with us, or not. People are drawn to certain places, certain types of spirits, whether or not they are aware of it. We may say we like to live near specific terrain, or we always have to be around a specific kind of thing; or perhaps we draw those things to us. I have an affinity for things with thorns and now through no effort on my part my yard has been overtaken by things-with-thorns. We are connected to the spirits around us and they in their way are connected to us, and this is especially true for those of us who practice any form of magic or follow a spiritual path that lends itself to these connection.

Water flows through and around the land I live on, shapes it and re-shapes it. I live within 8 miles of the ocean, and a mile from a large river. But my backyard is a freshwater swamp, less than 50 feet from my house. Those spirits are woven into my home and my witchcraft, inevitably, because they are a part of my environment. They are what I am connected to and what I resonate with.

my backyard

 Rivers have a certain nature to them, whether they are big or small, and their spirits tend to reflect this. They flow, the move, they nurture. Swamps are very different in nature. Swamps devour. Swamps consume. Swamps take in. Swamps have their own cycles, their own ecology, their own blessings and dangers. Ground that looks safe often enough proves a sucking void and one misstep in a swamp can be costly. Swamps are where, often, we see the process of decay front and center, even when they are living and thriving. Trees, uprooted, crisscross the water dying and adding themselves back to the mix from which everything else springs. Yet swamps also nurture life in their own way. Trees grow here, finding roots on the dry islands that rise between the water. Birds nest here, frogs breed here, animals  make their homes here. Paths can be found across the danger by treading on the trunks of fallen trees, if one is daring and has good balance.

The spirits of swamps reflect the nature of swamps; they are devouring and merciless, but they can also be nurturing and helpful. They respect people who are bold, and people who know where to tread and where not to step. They are not subtle, except when they are. The green growth of the swamp stands directly on the brown decay in which its rooted, and the spirits of the swamp, more perhaps than other spirits, are mercurial and stand between baneful and blessing in nature. The Otherworldly beings that choose swamps to live in tend more towards darkness than light.

There is powerful magic to be found here, and powerful connections to be made with these spirits. The lessons of the swamp rest in patience, and rhythms, and finding paths where others see only obstacles. Swamp spirits teach you discernment in trust, and that things are rarely as they appear. The witchcraft of these liminal lands, as much water as earth, is something that knows to respect decay while nourishing new beginnings, and knows when to seek a safe path and when to give over to the devouring waters. The spirits here make powerful allies. But let's be honest, the swamp isn't an easy thing to learn and just when you think you understand it you're sure to set your feet wrong and fall into the half-decayed muck. It takes time and effort to learn the rhythms of any swamp, and to speak to its spirits and learn their language.

Just don't follow the lights in the swamp at night and you will be off to a good start.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Cliodhna: Goddess and Fairy Queen

The Following is an Excerpt from my book Pagan Portals Gods and Goddesses of Ireland




Cliodhna -
Cliodhna, also known as Clíona, is considered both one of the Tuatha Dé Danann in older mythology and a Fairy Queen in modern folk lore. Her name may mean ‘the territorial one’, likely reflecting her earlier role as a sovereignty Goddess; her epithet is Ceannfhionn (fair headed or fair haired) and she is sometimes called ‘the shapely one’1. In many stories she is described as
exceptionally beautiful.

Her sister is said to be Aibheall, and her father is Gebann, the Druid of Manannán mac Lir2. There are no references to who her mother might be or to her children among the Gods. Several mortal families trace their descent from her including the McCarthys and O’Keefes and she was well known for taking mortal lovers.

Cliodhna is said to have taken the form of a wren, a bird that may be associated with her, and she is also often associated with the Otherworldly Bean sidhe. By some accounts she herself is considered to be such a spirit, or their queen, although in other folklore she is more generally the queen of the fairies of Munster. She has three magical birds that eat Otherworldly apples and have the power to lull people to sleep by singing and then heal them3.

She is strongly associated with the shore and with waves, and the tide at Glandore in Cork was called the ‘Wave of Cliodhna’4. In several of her stories she is drowned at that same location after leaving the Otherworld either to try to woo Aengus or after running away with a warrior named Ciabhán. She has a reputation in many stories for her passionate nature and love of poets in particular, and in later folklore when she is considered a Fairy Queen she is known to abduct handsome young poets or to appear and try to seduce them. In folklore she has a reputation for seducing and drowning young men5.

Cliodhna is particularly associated with the province of Munster and especially with Cork, where she resides at a place called Carraig Chlíona (Cliodhna’s rock)6. It is likely that she was originally one of the sovereignty Goddesses of Munster and that her survival in folklore to the present period reflects how deeply ingrained she was in local lore.

Modern practitioners may choose to honor Cliodhna for her role as a sovereignty Goddess or as an ancestral deity related to specific families. I might suggest, given her more recent folklore related to the Bean sidhe and her penchant in stories for harming young men and poets, that she should be approached with caution. Offerings to her could include the traditional milk or bread given to the Gods and fairies, as well as poetry, of which she seems fond.

Citations
1. O hOgain, 2006; MacKillop, 1998
2. Smyth, 1988; MacKillop, 1998
3. ibid
4. O hOgain, 2006
5. Smyth, 1988
6. O hOgain, 2006


References
O hOgain, D., (2006) Lore of Ireland
Smyth, D., (1988) Irish Mythology
MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

poem translation 'Lugh's Arrival at Teamhair'

This is an excerpt from a 14th century poem; this portion is telling about Lugh's arrival at Temhair during the larger story of the Cath Maige Tuired. It's short but very interesting and worth a read I think. I've included the original Irish and then my translation. 


Crow perched on signpost in front of the Duma na nGaill, Teamhair, Ireland


Tabhás do Lugh, leannán Teamhra
thoir i nEamhain,
dá ránaig sé ar súr gach domhain
Múr Té, Teamhair.

Dúnta an chathair ar chionn Logha,
laoch ro thoghsom;
téid gusan múr sleamhain slioschorr
beanaidh boschrann.

Ar an doirseóir ris an deaghlaoch,
fá doirbh ruaigfhearg:
cáit as a dtig an fear áith ógard
bláith geal gruaiddearg.

Ris an doirseóir
a dubhairt Lugh nár loc iomghuin:
file meise a hEamhain Abhlaigh
ealaigh iobhraigh.

Nocha dligi, ar doirseóir Teamhra,
tocht diar ndaighthigh;
atá fear ri
- excerpt from "Mór ar bhfearg riot, ri Saxan"




'Lugh's Arrival at Tara'

Revealed to Lugh, lover of Teamhra
in the east in Eamhain,
so he went to search the whole earth for
Té's Ramparts, Teamhair [Tara].

closed was the city against Lugh's arrival,
the choicest of warriors;
touched with force the sharp-sided, smooth ramparts
struck the door-wood.

The King's doorman said to the great warrior,
whose anger was swift:
"From where comes the man, keen, young,
bright flower, red cheeked."

To the King's Doorman
said Lugh who never hesitated in reciprocal wounding:
"I am myself a poet of Eamhain Abhlach*
of swans and yews."

"Not merited", said Teamhair's doorman,
"Coming from conflict;"


* Emain Abhlach, emain of the apples, one of the si