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.
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