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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Oisín - Liminal Lord

  One figure from Irish mythology that doesn't tend to get as much attention in modern paganism is the Fenian hero Oisín, son of Fionn Mac Cumhail. Oisín falls into the grey area that many of the characters in the non-Mythic cycles may fall into, where he is not obviously a God but he is clearly not exactly a mortal man either. His mother was a woman of the sí and his father the larger-than-life hero Fionn. Oisín has a fascinating life that is very strongly interwoven with magic, for good and ill, and it seems entirely possible that he lives on today at the very least as a man of the sí.

Oisín's mother was Sadb*, daughter of Bodb Derg the king of the Munster sí, who was also a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Unfortunately she was turned into a deer by Fer Doirich, a Druid of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who was in love with her; she rejected him and he used his magic to change her form. As a deer she then ran afoul of Fionn mac Cumhail when he was out hunting but his two hunting dogs refused to harm her and Fionn realized she wasn't a mortal deer. Fionn took her to his home at where she regained her form as a woman and the two were married. While she was pregnant though Fionn left and she was tricked into leaving the fort only to encounter the Druid again who struck her with a wand and returned her to deer-shape. Fionn looked for her for 7 years to no avail but eventually found a wild boy living in the woods who he recognized as his son. The boy told him of being raised in the woods by a deer so he named the child Oisín, meaning 'little deer'.
We have this about his birth:
"Oisín mac Fhinn fear go n-goil
ro geanoir a gCluain Iochtair
ingein dheirg a mhthair maith,
torrthach naoi míos ón mór fhlaith." (Smyth, 1988)
[Oisín son of Fionn, man of valour
was born at Cluain Iochtair [Northern Meadow]
his good mother was the daughter of Derg
pregnant nine months with this great lord]

After being found by his father Oisín joined the Fianna and became both a renowned warrior and poet. He appears in many stories from the Fenian cycle of myths and a few beyond it as he was said to outlive the other members of the Fianna (Smyth, 1988). So pivotal was Oisín in the stories that the cycle is sometimes called the Ossianic Cycle and many tales are told by him or from his point of view (MacKillop, 1998).  In one of the most well-know stories, that of Dairmuid and Grainne, when Grainne was originally meant to marry Fionn she first fell in love with Oisín before switching her affection to Dairmuid; Oisín supported the two lovers in their flight from his father. Many of these stories were widespread and commonly known and over the centuries new details and pieces were added that shaped the tales in slightly different directions, giving us an evolving picture of the way people viewed him and the Fianna more generally. In the famous story of Oisín's encounter with saint Patrick we can watch the story evolving in written form from a more clearly ecclesiastical tale that showed Oisín and Caílte repentently converting to Christianity to later versions that show a lively debate between saint and warrior with Oisín defending the value of the Fianna and even tricking the saint through wordplay into getting his God to release the Fianna from Hell (O hOgain, 2006).

Oisín had one son while he was with the Fianna named Oscar with an unknown mother. Like his father his name incorporates the Old Irish word for deer 'os' combined with 'car' possibly meaning friend, although that is uncertain. Oscar was a renowned warrior and famous fighter; when Oisín later encounters Saint Patrick at the end of his life he tells the saint that he would only believe the strength of the Christian God if he saw that God wrestling his son Oscar to the ground and winning (O hOgain, 2006). He also had two sons and a daughter with his wife Niamh in the Otherworld.

In the Acallam na Senorach we are told that both Oisín and his fellow Fianna member Caílte survive the destruction of the Fianna. The two eventually meet Saint Patrick and relate to him what their life with Fionn and his men was like. In other stories from oral tradition later preserved in writing Oisín was hunting one day when he was approached by a woman on a white horse; she was Niamh Chinn Óir [Niamh of the Golden Hair] daughter of Manannán mac Lir. Niamh proclaims her love for the warrior and asks him to go with her back to her home - alternately either Tír na nÓg or Tír Tairngire (MacKillop, 1998). There the two live happily for three centuries until Oisín wants to return to Ireland to visit his family. Niamh warns him against doing this but he insists, so she tells him to ride one of their horses over but that under no circumstances can he touch the ground. Of course when he goes to Ireland he finds the land greatly changed and all who he knew gone from memory. When he leans over to try to help some men move a stone the girth on his saddle breaks and he falls, instantly aging; the horse flees back to the Land of Promise without him.

By some accounts Oisín was buried in county Leitrim on Curran mountain under a standing stone, while other say he is buried in county Down at Sí Airceltrai (Smyth, 1988). However in other stories when Oisín died he is said to have returned to the Sí of Blaí, his mother's place (Smyth, 1988). Given that he was half-sí himself on his mother's side (or half Dé Danann) and returned after death to her home it may be that he did not die at all but like many humans who were taken by the Othercrowd became fully one of the daoine sí. To me this makes more sense than believing he died as he did, given that he was half Tuatha Dé Danann; it would seem odd to me that he died ignobly while stories say the Fianna all sleep and wait to be roused when they are needed again. I would suggest that versions that have his fall to earth, discussion with saint Patrick, conversion, and death are more clearly set as penitent Christian myths of pagans turning to the new God than what we may view as actual pagan mythology. Each version of his story however adds important layers to our understanding of him.

Oisín is a fascinating personage, found in both mythology and folklore, son of a fairy woman and an epic hero. He was a poet and warrior like his father but in some ways the stories show him to be more levelheaded and compassionate than Fionn was, perhaps making him a better role model. He survives the destruction of the Fianna, either the battle itself or by living in Tír na nÓg until their time has passed and it may be that he lives on still in the shining halls of his mother's sí or by his wife's side in the Land of Promise. For those who seek out role models among the Fianna or who are looking for Gods or beings to honor among the people of the sí, Oisín deserves more consideration than he gets. And in any case, his stories are worth reading.

*in some version's Oisín's mother's name is given as Blaí or Blaí Dhearg, and her sí is called Ocht Cleitigh, near Sid in Broga, see Smyth or O hOgain for more on this. Both names, Sadb and Blaí, may relate to terms for places with Sadb possibly meaning a dwelling place and Blaí possibly meaning a field or plain.

Smyth, D., (1988) A Guide to Irish Mythology
MacKillop, J., (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Acallam na Senorach
O hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar; A Brief Overview of Elves in Norse Myth

Discussing the Álfar is complicated because they appear in mythology as both one cohesive grouping and subdivided into more specific groupings. Often in Norse myth we simply see references to the Álfar, often paired with but distinct from the Aesir, giving us phrases like in the Voluspo "How fare the Aesir? How fare the Álfar?" and this one from the Lokasenna "From the Gods and elves who are gathered here..."*. Yet we also find distinct groups mentioned among the Álfar that seem to have their own characteristics and descriptors, the Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar. It is possible that these distinct groups are literary conventions, created later to better define different mythic motifs, or to reflect foreign influences. Certainly in modern times we see only the general grouping of Álfar in folklore and the word álf is used in compounds such as land-elf and waterfall-elf, implying that álf has more general connotations.

Consider this a cliff notes of Alfár in Norse mythology. In the Prose Edda we see Snorri Sturlson mentioning distinct types of Álfar who appear in mythology, the Ljósálfar and the Svartálfar. A third group of álfar, the Dökkálfar also appear in mythology.
Ljósálfar - their name means 'light elves' and they live in a world called Álfheim [elf home] or Ljósálfheim [light elf home] that according to mythology belongs to the Vanic deity Freyr. The Ljósálfar are described by Snorri as being beautiful and fair to see. Ljósálfar are said to influence the weather and like the Aesir, Dwarves, Humans, and Giants they possess runes given to them by Odin.
Dökkálfar - The Dökkálfar are referenced in a few places in Norse mythology. The name itself means 'dark elves' and Snorri describes them as living in the earth. Grimm calls them 'Genii obscuri' or spirits of the dark and suggests a connection between them and nâir, spirits of the dead, even going so far as to place them living ''in hel, the heathen hades" (Grimm, 1888, p446). Grimm also questions whether the Dökkálfar should be separated from the nâir or whether "[t]he dusky elves are souls of dead men..." (Grimm, 1888, p 447).  There is some strong evidence that the Dökkálfar were the mound dead or male ancestors and the Dökkálfar are sometimes called Mound Elves; it is not certain however and it may be that some Dökkálfar are human dead but others are not**.
Svartálfar - meaning 'black elves' they possess their own world, Svartálfheim [black elf home]. The Duergar or dwarves also live in Svartálfheim creating a longstanding confusion about whether Svartálfar are truly elves in their own right or are actually another name for dwarves. Both are associated with mountains and mountainous regions, but seem to have a distinct and separate focus in activities and interactions with people. Grimm believes that the Svartálfar were good natured beings and argues that they received worship from people into the 19th century.

The álfar and the duergar - elves and dwarves - are also difficult groups to entirely sort out. On one hand there are some good arguments that the two may actually be the same, with Svartálfar and potentially Dökkálfar both simply being alternate names for deurgar. This is supported by three main things: many deurgar have names that incorporate the word 'álf' such as Vindalf and Gandalf; the Svartálfar were said to live in Svartálfheim but the deurgar live there as well; and the svartalfar and Dökkálfar were said to live beneath the ground or in mounds. However there is also evidence that might support the argument that the two groups were separate, including that they are occasionally referenced in the same work together as different groups.  In verse 25 of Hrafnagaldr Óðins we see the Dökkálfar being grouped together with giants, dead men, and dwarves: "gýgjur og þursar, náir, dvergar og dökkálfar" [Giantesses and giants, dead men, dwarves and dark elves]. This would at the least seem to indicate some degree of separation between Duergar and Dökkálfar. In the Alvissmal it is also established that the Álfar and Duergar have different languages and kennings for things, which would also indicate separation of the two groups (Gundarsson, 2007). For the most part the Álfar would seem to be beings closely tied to the Gods, perhaps one step beneath them in power and influence, beings who can influence weather and possess powerful magic that can effect people's health. The Duergar are associated with mining and smithcraft and are not as closely tied to the Gods; when they appear in myth dealing with the Gods they must always be negotiated with or otherwise dealt with in some fashion diplomatically.

The Álfar are a complicated and fascinating group in mythology and we have barely touched on them here. Consider this merely a brief introduction to some basic ideas about the Álfar as they appear in Norse mythology but bear in mind that they can be found throughout Germanic/Norse folklore. they are beings that are both benevolent and dangerous as the mood suits and depending on how they are treated, like the elves found across folklore.  

* For my own opinion I think this is likely referencing the Ljósálfar whose realm would seem by descriptions to be close to the realm of the Aesir, however as far as I know the original text does not specify which álfar
**the idea of some dead joining the elves after death is something we see as well in the Irish, indicating that this may be a wider concept.

Faulkes, A., (1995) Prose Edda
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology, volume 2
Hrafnagaldr Óðins
Gundarsson, K., (2007) Elves, Wights, and Trolls

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Seeking Advanced Practice

  I see a lot of people who are looking for more advanced material - and fair enough the market is glutted with beginner books that often enough repeat the same things over and over. People read one or two beginner books and then want to move on, to read that next step that will take them into deeper practice. So why don't we see a fair number of more advanced books? Why don't we see more people writing about truly advanced witchcraft practices?

There's reasons why advanced books are hard to find and it isn't because there's no one to write them. Most obviously there's the difficulty that some advanced material is oathbound or not allowed to be shared publicly. But there actually are advanced books on the market aimed at pagans so it's not that they aren't out there; the problem is they generally don't sell well or they are very niche - because advanced tends in many cases to mean specialized. Don't sell well means that they go out of print quickly and publishers hesitate to print them. Niche means if they do see print they may be quite expensive. Many people end up going through academic texts and books that aren't necessarily on witchcraft but tangentially related material - ceremonial magic perhaps - and teasing out anything useful in order to move slowly forward into the unguided darkness.

Another problem is that while basic material is fairly easy to write about as we get further and further into esoteric subjects it gets more difficult as things become less straightforward. We pass from the almost cookie-cutter 101 material, the 'chop wood, carry water' basics, into the experiential and numinous. I can teach a person the basics of fairy etiquette but how to put into words the complexities - moral, safety, and magical - of compelling and binding a fairy in ritual? Of course I can teach it but can the layered complexities be relayed properly and can I, as the person putting the material out there, be confident that it won't be misused? what responsibility do I bear if it is misused and should I care? How do I use words to describe a scenario that may go wrong in a dozen ways, and teach every way to recover and succeed if it does go wrong? Advanced often enough is the deep water beyond theory and thought where we are plunged into actually doing, and no book can guide a person through those currents and riptides as well as an actual in-person teacher.
Beyond all that though we run into the not insignificant wall of what qualifies as advanced material anyway. Particularly in witchcraft this question can be almost like a zen koan; if a witch is advanced enough do they even know they are advanced? What does advanced mean in a spiritual context? In the context of magical practices? What, really, is an advanced witch? For many people it seems to be an ideal of someone who has moved beyond the basics and into the real occult secrets. Here are some of my thoughts on what exactly it means to be advanced.

  1. Advanced practice usually involves things that are more dangerous or complex than basic practices. For example dealing with higher level spirits, casting magic that is harder to do in various ways, such as time involved or methods used, magic that has more intense possible consequences to the caster, or perhaps using methods in your magic that require an understanding of complex magical theories or spiritual commitments.
  2. Advanced practice means building on the basics - advanced practice is advanced for a reason; it is the culmination of what has come before. You don't just get to a point where all the earlier stuff gets tossed out the window and you're on to the real mysteries. The form and methods may change but ultimately the basic lessons are still key, and they are where we start for a reason. Directing energy, cleansing, grounding - these never stop being important.  
  3. Advanced practice is predicated on having mastered the basic concepts - just like in everything else you can't do the complex if you don't know how to do the simple steps that make up the complex. You can't do calculus if you don't know how to add and subtract. You can't ride a bicycle if you haven't mastered a sense of balance and coordination. 
  4. Advanced takes effort - getting beyond the basics isn't something that just happens anymore than hanging out in a swimming pool every day will make you an olympic class swimmer. It takes regular practice of the basic skills and work towards more complex skills to get to that advanced point. To use another analogy its like learning dance or martial arts, you have to just keep at it, practicing regularly to gain the skills to move forward. 
  5. Advanced should take time - there are no shortcuts to reaching the level of advanced material. People hate hearing this but its true. I'll point to the analogies I used above for effort because those hold true here as well. You don't take two dance lessons and become a prima ballerina and you don't go to a week of martial art classes and earn a black belt. Even someone who is extremely skilled and intelligent doesn't start and graduate college in a month with a PhD. 
Ultimately my point here is that advanced practice is often a matter of carrying forward the basic practices, and mastering them. You don't stop grounding and shielding and you don't stop cleansing your energy, no you do it until you can ground and shield in your sleep and cleanse reflexively. It is not just knowing how to do these things but knowing a dozen ways to do them under any circumstance. That is mastery, and that is what advanced practice is when we are talking about witchcraft. Advanced witchcraft is being able to use every basic lesson and amplify it, to take magic to a deeper place, to know what can and can't be done and then do the impossible anyway. It is definitely not basic practice, yet it is built on it so intrinsically that I don't think you can separate out the basic from the advanced. 

People love the idea of an advanced witch as someone who knows secrets and who commands great power - and perhaps that is true for secrets are merely hidden knowledge and power resides in all of us if we know how to find it - but everyone wants that for themselves and they want it now. When we contemplate advanced though we may find that it is not something that lends itself to instant gratification or to quick mastery. It is slow, and it is boring, and it takes its own time. And ultimately it is not or does not need to be showy or flashy to be effective. It is the repetition of the simple and basic until they are reflexive and the person can take that reflex and do amazing things with it. 

If you are seeking advanced, then keep doing the basic. Every day. Practice, practice, practice, and keep seeking out knowledge wherever you can find it. Take risks, experiment, play with your magic. Learn from your mistakes, and learn from your successes. But never stop doing.
Ipsa scientia potestas est.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Fairy Resource List

When it comes to studying fairy beliefs and trying to learn about fairies finding good resources can be real challenge. I've offered suggested reading lists before but this time I wanted to take a more multi-media approach. This is only a small list of suggestions, as a truly comprehensive one would take more space than I could fit in a blog.

Non-Fiction Books:
There are a lot of non-fiction books out there about fairies and many are best avoided, quite frankly. Some though are solid resources and worth reading.
A Dictionary of Fairies by Katherine Briggs - really anything by Katherine Briggs is good as she was an eminent folklorist of her time. This book is my choice to recommend because its one of my go-to's and is easy to use due its format.
The Good People: New Fairylore Essays edited by Peter Narvaez - a collection of more recent essays on the subject of fairylore from different Celtic countries, including a lot of anecdotal evidence. A modern version of 'The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries'.
A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality: Sli Aon Dhraoi by Lora O’Brien – a great overall introduction to modern Irish paganism that includes some good discussion on the Othercrowd. I’d also recommend the author’s older book, “Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch”
Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry by W. B. Yeats – a look at folklore and belief, especially fairylore.
The Gaelic Otherworld by John Campbell – an overview of Scottish folk beliefs and folk lore
The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans Wentz – the classic text on the Fairy Faith its a bit dated at this point having come out in 1911 but it includes fairy beliefs from a wide array of Celtic cultures.
Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee – excellent artwork and some great tidbits of folklore sprinkled in
Elves, Wights and Trolls by Kveldulfr Gundarson – a look at Norse and German fairy beliefs and some comparison with the Celtic beliefs. Very useful for looking at how different closely related cultures viewed their fairies.
The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by reverend Robert Kirk – written in the 17th century its a short but fascinating look at traditional Scottish fairy beliefs
The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex by Brian Walsh – a review and analysis of rev Kirk’s book but extremely insightful and should be read in addition to Kirk’s book for its commentary on beliefs about fairies
Meeting the Other Crowd by Eddie Lenihan and Carolyn Green – excellent book on Irish fairy lore

Most fiction that is based around fairies don't make a good resource here, for obvious reasons - its fiction. It was written by someone wanting to tell a good story not for the purpose of passing on actual belief or folklore. As much as we might like to think that fiction authors are actually inspired by real fairies or trying to tell a true story, much of the fairy fiction on the market is vastly at odds with traditional folklore. There are however some that are closer to traditional lore, and so I'm listing those here as resources.
The Faery Sworn Series by Ron Nieto - a trilogy about the granddaughter of a Fairy Doctor in Scotland who teams up with a kelpie to find her grandmother when she goes missing.
The Knowing by Kevin Manwaring - a story that builds off of the life and disappearance of rev. Robert Kirk.
Good Fairies of New York by Martin Miller - a bit whimsical but also gritty. Story about Celtic fairies coming to New York and those already there, how their lives collide with several humans.
Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett - part of Pratchett's Discworld series, and in fairness his other books are also good, but this one is my particular favorite for fairylore.

Ah Youtube. There's some really interesting stuff on there. Here's a couple videos I'd recommend
The Fairy Faith - a documentary that looks at fairy beliefs and anecdotes in America, Ireland, and the UK
Irish Fairylore: An Interview with Folklorist Dr. Jenny Butler - a great interview with someone who knows the subject well from an academic perspective
Folklore Collections by Michael Fortune - Michael Fortune is a treasure; he has spent time and effort recording interviews with people about their beliefs in different parts of Ireland.
Eddie Lenihan - there are a few videos of Eddie Lenihan on youtube and I highly recommend them. He is an amazing storyteller and very knowledgeable

Not on youtube but really, really worth watching is the kin fables series on Vimeo.

Television and Movies:
Secret of Roan Inish - a movie about a family's multi-generational relationship with selkies, called rón in Irish.
The Spiderwick Chronicles - aimed at a very young audience, but seems to capture the idea of some traditional fairies
Pan's Labyrinth - fairly accurate, although very grim, depiction of fairies
Labyrinth - more lighthearted but truer to older folklore. A story of a girl trying to regain her baby brother from goblins; reminiscent of old changeling stories.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Purification and Cleansing of Baneful Energy

People sometimes ask about the concept of purification and cleansing in a Celtic worldview, and like most Indo-European based cultures there did seem to be one. The idea that the world contains both energy that is beneficial to people and should be encouraged and energy that is harmful to people and should be protected against or cleansed from people seems to be fairly ubiquitous across cultures. Many aspects of how the pre-Christian Irish pagans specifically would have viewed this concept and dealt with it has been lost, of course, but hints remain and these hints as well as modern folk practices are more than enough for a person to create a viable system to work with today. When we look at the iron age Irish we mostly find the idea of what harms people embodied as spirits (and so we see means to fight or drive off these spirits) but we do also see in some cases the idea of magic or energetic illnesses that effect people in negative ways, such as Cu Chulainn's wasting sickness or Aengus's love sickness. We also find the idea that people through their actions can place themselves into or out of society with people outside of society having a distinct and dangerous energy to them that must be purified before they return to civilization. Taking all of the evidence together can help us get an idea of the wider beliefs relating to healthy and harmful energy and how to deal with it.

We can find a few hints in mythology and ritual practices that indicate that people who intentionally stepped outside of society needed to be ritually cleansed before re-entering it. Specifically there is indications that a person who had left society to live in a wild state and who wished to re-enter society needed to be ritually cleansed using a process that featured a ritual meal, usually a broth (McCone, 1990). This process may have involved the broth being both consumed as well as asperged over the person or symbolically bathed in. This broth would have been made from food that was being ritually offered to the Gods and so was sacred by association as it were. The Fianna, who lived a portion of their time outside society, seem to have had cleansing rituals in order to re-enter society later and these rituals may have involved ritual anointing with milk or butter (PSLV, 2011). In this way we see that the food used for ritual feasting could play a role in purification, particularly the more significant or serious purifications including redeeming people who had been living wild or as outlaws.

On a simpler level we see the concept of entering a sacred place or space, especially for ritual or magical purposes, by first walking three times around the space sunwise [clockwise]. This practice has remained through the modern period in folk practices, but the concept of approaching somewhere from a sunwise direction with positive intentions, or indeed circling it against the sun for cursing, can be found in the mythology indicating the deep roots of the idea. It is a quick and basic way to draw beneficial energy, to simply walk clockwise around something.

As with many other cultures we also see the idea of burning different herbs to cleanse away baneful energy. The most well known in Irish and also Scottish culture may be juniper. Juniper is mentioned by various authors, including Danaher, Evans, and MacNeil, for its protective qualities in folk belief and for the widespread practice of burning juniper in the home and stables on the Quarter (Scottish cross-Quarter) days to be rid of dangerous energy and to bless the space and people. Another less well known herb burned for protection against evil spirits and baneful magic was mugwort, which was also kept around the home, tied onto livestock, and worn on a person's clothing for purification and to ward off fairies and witches (MacCoitir, 2006). Rosemary was also used especially as a fumigant in sick rooms, carrying the idea of cleansing away lingering illness or baneful energy in the atmosphere.

We don't know for certain exactly how the pre-Christian Irish viewed ideas like the Greek concept of miasma, if they even had such a concept themselves, but we do know that there were concepts relating to cleansing of a person, which allowed them to re-claim a place in society. Irish society in general was one that was very focused on reparitive justice, as we see in the Brehon Laws and in the mythology (Kelly, 2005). This, perhaps, explains why the focus on purification and cleansing is the way that it is with its emphasis on returning a person to a proper alignment with society and with its focus on protecting people and their places by keeping the energy there beneficial. We also know that specific actions such as entering a space sunwise had power to bless both a space and the person and could be used for cleansing. And finally there were practices relating to burning or wearing a variety of herbs, a few of which are mentioned here, with the belief that the smoke from these plants or their presence would cleanse away or ward off harmful energy and purify a space or person. This purification was important before engaging in any ritual activity or folk magic, and we see people engaging in such purification regularly - burning juniper on all the Quarter days, walking three times sunwise before entering a holy well, turning around three times before seeking a charm stone in a river.

For those seeking to work such magic or follow such a spirituality in a modern context maintaining a good habit of purification and cleansing is essential. Perhaps especially so for those who seek to walk a liminal way or who intentionally step outside society's bounds on a regular basis. The more baneful or harmful energy you may be around the more important it is to make sure you purify and cleanse often, but even if you live within society and keep on the straight and narrow (as it were) it's a good idea to at least purify and cleanse on the major holidays. I recommend a combination of the above mentioned methods, although I favor incorporating moving sunwise (or depending on circumstance against the sun) into everything you do, with intention.

McCone, K., (1990) Pagan Past and Christian Present in Earl" Irish Literature
MacCoitir, N., (2006) Irish Wild Plants
Kelly, F., (2005) A Guide to Early Irish Law
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (2011) The Hidden Imbolc 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What Do Fairies Look Like?

The idea for today's blog was partially inspired by a discussion with a friend on social media that sprung from a quote I posted, from my book 'Fairies':
When you imagine what a fairy looks like, what do you picture?

For most people the mental image is strongly shaped by pop-culture and artwork, and these in turn are largely products of an idealized cultural aesthetic. Although Tolkien-style elves may be an accurate representation of one type of Fairy being, the idea that all fairies are tall, lithe, and handsome is far from what we find in folklore. And while the images of small insect-winged* children may fit a very specific type of garden fairy, the more widespread images of winged Barbie-like beauties - wasp waisted, disproportionately large eyed, large breasted, with tiny hands and feet - is straight out of our culture's fantasies. Many modern images, such as those that depict selkies as a kind of seal mermaid with the upper torso of a human and lower half of a seal, are purely from an artist's imagination. In the same way the recent upsurge in anime and video game influenced images - those that have extremely long pointed ears, sharp features, slim figures but exaggerated sexual characteristics - don't reflect actual folklore or mythology but an artistic view that is aimed at appealing visually to an audience used to consuming a specific aesthetic. 

So, what do the Good People really look like? As with most questions relating to Themselves there is no simple answer, because the subject is too broad and diverse. I think, therefore, that the best approach is to look at a range of different types of fairies known to have more human-like forms and discuss how we see them described in folklore, in order to get a feel for the ways that these beings, overall, may appear. In order to keep this article reasonably short I'm only going to give very brief descriptions of each below:

Aos Sí - Yeats described the Daoine Maithe as looking much like human people, although prone to wearing slightly outdated fashion. Described as around five feet tall, sometimes slightly taller. We see the idea of their human appearance reinforced in much of the anecdotal evidence particularly stories of borrowed midwives, stolen brides, and musicians who spend a night inside a fairy hill. There would seem to be then at least one type of more powerful fairy people who do or can look very much like humans and may even pass for human to some degree. 

Tylweth Teg - like the aos sí generally described as human-like in appearance, usually fair haired. 

Pixies - Descriptions can vary greatly but they are known to wear green; in one potential account of two children who may have been pixies they were said to have green-tinted skin. Pixies may range in height from a few inches tall to five or six feet, and by some accounts may take the form of hedgehogs. Briggs describes them as red haired with pointed ears, short faces, and up-tilted noses. 

The Baobhan Sithe - described as beautiful human-looking women, about five feet tall, who wear long green dresses to hide their feet which are the hooves of a deer. Said to take the form of wolves and crows or ravens.

Brownies - generally about 3 feet tall, a uniform medium brown color all over and preferring brown clothing. In some areas it was said they had no fingers while others described them as having no noses. 

Leprechauns - look much like humans in the oldest stories, except they are said to only be about 12 to 18 inches tall. In later folklore they are described with a similar height and as looking like older men with grey or white hair and beards.  

Goblin, from 'English Fairy Tales' by J. Jacobs, 1895, pubic domain

Goblins - three to four feet tall, ranging from almost human like, although extremely ugly (by our standards), to very animalistic with whiskers, tails, claws, and the like. 

Trows - in some folklore trows are described as very human in appearance, although they may appear old, shriveled, or physically deformed. In other stories however they are described as clearly inhuman, unattractive, and twisted, even in sometimes appearing as a mix of human and horse. They are often described in unflattering terms as having oversized feet, large noses, flat faces, and short limbs. They can range in height from three to six feet depending on the story. They are often said to dress in grey. 

Dwarves - Another type of fairy that has a wide range even within its grouping. In some cases they may appear as Tolkien described them, as short, barrel chested, heavily bearded men. In other cases the may have clear physical deformities such as animal feet or feet turned backwards at the ankle. 

Púca - a shapeshifter the Púca can appear as a variety of animals including eagles, goats, horses, bulls, and dogs. May also appear as a small man. 

Kelpies - can assume the form of a horse or of a dark haired person, usually but not always a man. As a horse he is appealing and fine-looking; as a person he would seem human except that his hair remains damp and may have water weeds in it if one looks closely. 

Merrows - Like traditional mermaids they have the upper torso of a human and the lower half of a fish; merrows also have webbed hands. Females are extremely beautiful. Males are hideously ugly, with green tinted skin, and deep set red eyes. Children born from the union of a merrow and a mortal are said to have scales. 

Selkies - Selkies can take the form of seals or of dark haired human-like beings. The children of selkies and humans are said in folklore to be born with webbed hands or feet.

Glaistig - May appear as a beautiful woman with slightly damp or dripping hair; as a woman wearing a long green dress to conceal her lower half which is that of a goat; or may appear in the form of a goat.  

Huldra - A kind of Scandinavian fairy that looks like a very beautiful woman but always has some hidden deformity in stories; sometimes a tail, or a hollow back. The Huldrekall (male huldra) is quite ugly with a long nose. 

Martin Brandenburg 'Elfenreigen', Public domain

Elves - elves present a unique difficulty because the English word elf is used to gloss several words in other languages and was also used for a long time as a generic. Because of this we end up with a range of beings that fall under the label 'elf' but are very different in nature and description. We may perhaps divide them into two main groupings, the taller elves and the small elves. The latter are generally described as about a foot tall and can appear as old and wizened or younger. The former group are often described as more human in appearance, although they are clearly supernatural in their abilities and are averse to iron. Grimm suggest a division in Germanic mythology of taller elves into three main groups, the ljossalfar, dokkalfar, and svartalfar, each living in different domains and having slightly different appearances; lossalfar means 'light elves', dokkalfar 'dark elves', and svartalfar 'black elves'. Snorri writing about Norse mythology described only ljossalfar and svartalfar. In Scottish and Germanic sources the taller elves may be described as beautiful and the word elf was sometimes glossed with incubus; elves were known for seducing mortal women. However in other Germanic sources elves were explicitly called ugly and were said to have long or crooked noses. 

Giants - there are also a variety of giants to be found in fairylore, beings who can be 7 or 8 feet tall or more. In English folklore these are usually named beings like the Jack-in-Irons or Jimmy Squarefoot. In other cultures these may appear as a type of being in their own right such as the Norse Jotun or Anglo-Saxon Ettin, both names meaning 'giant'. Giants may appear very human but on a larger scale or may be monstrous, such as the aforementioned Jimmy Squarefoot who was part man and part boar, or they may have extra heads or limbs.

Gruagachs - male or female, generally human-like in looks may appear as either young and attractive, or as wizened, old, and very hairy.  

Muryans - Cornish fairies that could be as small as ants. They might be shape-shifters who could take animals forms, particularly birds, but were also associated with the Heathen dead. It was believed they had once been human-sized but had shrunk over time, eventually disappearing entirely. 

This is only, obviously, a small sample of the huge array of fairies that can be found in folklore. I hope though that this has illustrated the range of descriptions we see, from human-like to monstrous, from tiny to taller, from what we may call beautiful to what we judge as ugly, from entirely human-like to animalistic, with various skin colors including green. As Katherine Briggs says "The fairy people are good and bad, beautiful and hideous, stately and of their greatest variations is size" (Briggs, 1976, page 368). Personally I have seen what we would call beautiful, but I have also seen beings we'd describe as outside that 'normal' that are within context considered beautiful by their own. Hollow backs, back-turned feet, single eyes and limbs, small, huge, horns, tails, famine-thin and very large, webbed feet or hands, immobile, non-ambulatory - Fairy has an enormous diversity to it that far, far defies our modern cultural perceptions of 'beauty'. If we are seeking to understand and appreciate the folklore, and to connect on any level with these beings then we must understand this diversity and appreciate it for what it is without overlaying our own perceptions and opinions onto it. We must understand that each group of fairies, each kind, would seem to judge by their own standards just as we do by our cultural ones, so that what a pixie considers beautiful is not what an elf (of any type) might consider beautiful, and neither may be what a human would call beautiful. I think we limit our appreciation of Fairy when we are looking at it through our own lens of beauty, height, ability, size, skill, or mobility, rather than appreciating it and Themselves for what and who they are in themselves. 


Further Reading:
Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans-Wentz
Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats
Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry by Yeats 
Meeting the Othercrowd by Lehinhan and Green
Teutonic Mythology by J. Grimm
Prose Edda Snorri Sturlisson
The Trows, Orkneyjar 
A Dictionary of Fairies by Katherine Briggs
Elves in Anglo-Saxon England by Alaric Hall

*on a small side note, the idea of fairies having wings is actually more recent and comes from the theater. I recommend this article 'In Search of the Earliest Fairy Wings' for a far more in-depth discussion of the subject. 

* there is some art out there that is based more closely on folklore, rather than adapting an idealized concept of what a fairy is to our modern beauty standards. What I am referencing here is specifically the more popular images found in video games, anime, and more imagination based art. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Excerpt from the Cath Maige Tuired

Cath Maige Tuired

1. Batar Tuathai De Danonn i n-indsib tuascertachaib an domuin, aig foglaim fesa ocus fithnasachta ocus druidechti ocus amaidecchtai ocus amainsechtai, combtar fortilde for suthib cerd ngenntlichtae.
2. Ceitri catrachai i rrabatar og fochlaim fhesai ocus eolais ocus diabuldanachtai .i. Falias ocus Gorias, Murias ocus Findias.
3. A Falias tucad an Lia Fail bui a Temraig. Nogesed fo cech rig nogebad Erinn.
4. A Gorias tucad ant sleg boi ac Lug. Ni gebtea cath fria no frisinti an bidh i llaimh.
5. A Findias tucad claidiub Nuadot. Ni ternadh nech dei o dobirthe asa idntiuch boduha, ocus ni gebtai fris.
6. A Murias tucad coiri an Dagdai. Ni tegedh dam dimdach uadh.
7. Cetri druid isna cetri cathrachaib-sin. Morfesae bai a Falias; Esras boi hi nGorias; Uiscias boi a Findias; Semias bai a Murias. It iad-sin na cetri filid ocar' foglaindsit Tuata De fios ocus eolas
 - E. Gray, Cath Maige Tuired, 1983

Battle of the Field of Pillars

1. The Tuatha De Danann were in the northern islands of the world, gathering occult knowledge and sorcery and druidry and witchcraft and skill in magic, until they had mastery of the produce of Heathen-magical skill.
2. Four cities had all occult knowledge and wisdom and diabolatry that is Falias and Gorias, Murias and Findias.
3. From Falias they brought the Lia Fail [stone of Fal] to reside in Temraig [Tara]. It would shriek under each king who would take Ireland.
4. From Gorias they brought the spear that was Lug's. None were able to support battle against it or against he with it in his hand.
5. From Findias they brought Nuada's sword. No one escapes when it is pulled from its fatal scabbard, and none could resist against it.
6. From Murias they brought the cauldron of the Dagda. No company went away unsatisfied hence.
7. Four druids were in those four cities. Morfesae was in Falias; Esras was in Gorias; Uiscias was in Findias; Semias was in Murias. These are the four poets from whom the Tuatha De learned knowledge and wisdom.

This passage represents the beginning of the story and the first introduction in the tale to the Tuatha De Danann, the People of the Goddess Danu. We learn that before coming to Ireland they have been in the 'northern islands of the world', in four cities which had a vast store of magical, occult knowledge. In these cities lived four men, alternately called druids and poets, who taught this great magical knowledge to the Tuatha De until they had mastered it. We also learn some valuable information about the famous four treasures of the Tuatha De, information that reinforces that from another piece the Tuath De Danand na Set soim.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Online Morrigan Resources

I often see people asking for recommendations for online accessible resources for the Morrigan, so I thought today I'd offer my personal suggestions. None of these are necessarily blanket endorsements but these are resources that can be found online, are free, and are worth reading. As with anything else in life remember to use critical thinking and to keep in mind that on this subject there can be a variety of opinions.

Dissertations and Papers - There are some great academic works out there on the Morrigan worth checking out. There are also some that I don't entirely agree with but still recommend because they add important layers to any discussion about this complex deity/deities.
  1. War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word badb in early Irish literature by Kim Heidja  
  2. The 'Mast' of Macha: The Celtic Irish and the War Goddess of Ireland by Catherine Mowat
  3. War Goddess: The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  4. Demonology, allegory and translation: the Furies and the Morrigan by Michael Clarke
  5. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural. - by Jacqueline Borsje 
Blogs - There are a lot of people who blog about the Morrigan these days and I will admit my own suggestions will be limited to people I know, and read regularly. I don't go out looking around for new Morrigan bloggers because I just don't have time. You'll also note this only includes written blogs, which isn't an intentional snub to vloggers or youtbers just a reflection that I hardly ever have time to watch videos on my pc so I can't recommend them (since I haven't really watched many).
  1. Call of the Morrigan: A Community Blog for the Great Queen - a great community based blog that offers a variety of views and opinions by different authors
  2. Dark Goddess Musings - the blog of author Stephanie Woodfield. Not updated regularly, but has interesting content
  3. Lora O'Brien - Author and Freelance Writer - what it says on the tin. Not Morrigan specific but there are Morrigan posts to be found and Lora's writing is always good and worth reading. Lora also offers paid courses on the Morrigan and several other related topics that I highly recommend.
  4. Under the Ancient Oaks - the blog of Druid and author John Beckett. Not Morrigan exclusive either but she is a frequent topic. 
Websites - An assortment of Morrigan related websites out there that I am aware of and whose content is generally reliable
  1. Scath na Feannoige - Morrigan content and content focused on the warrior path. Some free and some paid access, but excellent material. 
  2. Mary Jones Celtic Literature Collective - as advertised, a resource for all things Celtic. your best source for myths on the Morrigan (in the Irish lit section) and also offering an encyclopedia section
  3. Story Archaeology - A great resource for newer translations of the myths and discussion of the stories in context. if you search the site/podcast you'll find multiple results relating to the Morrigan 
  4. Coru Cathubodua - a site by a group dedicated to the Morrigan, with articles and a resource list 

Artwork - Some of my personal favorite sources for Morrigan artwork I like. Your mileage may vary. These are not free - obviously - but I can't list Morrigan resources without including them
  1. the Ever Living Ones, art of Jane Brideson 
  2. Lindowyn @ Deviantart, art of Ashley Bryner
  3. Gemma Zoe Jones
  4. Dryad Design - statuary and jewelry by Paul Borda 

Music - We can't forget about music, after all! Its a great resource and a great way to feel connected

  1. Omnia 'Morrigan'  (or this slower version)
     2. Darkest Era 'The Morrigan'
     3. Cruachan 'The Brown Bull of Cooley'
     4. Cruchan 'The Morrigan's Call'
     5. Heather Dale 'the Morrigan'
      6. Mama Gina 'Ruby

Books - I should probably mention here that generally I am not aware of any decent books on the Morrigan, specifically, that are available free online. You can access some older public domain works including Hennessey's 'War Goddess' on Sacred Texts but books that old have issues with some seriously outdated scholarship and need to be read with a big grain of salt. They are worth reading with some critical thinking and discernment but I wouldn't give them a blanket recommendation