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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Odin and the Wild Hunt - Excerpt from 'Pagan Portals Odin'

The following is an excerpt from my recently released book 'Pagan Portals Odin'
Cover art by Ashley Bryner

"The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is a group of spectral horsemen who ride the air at night, accompanied by hounds and horses, and led by a fearsome Huntsman (or in some cases Huntswoman). The Hunt is found in several areas of Western Europe as well as America and who exactly they are as well as who leads them can vary depending on where they are, so that in Wales they are known to be fairies led by the God Gwynn ap Nudd, while in Norse lands they are the souls of dead warriors, or the dead more generally, led by either Odin or Odin and a consort (Jones, 2003). In the Germanic areas the Hunt is often led by Odin under the name of Wodan, or sometimes Frau Hulda, or both together, and parts of England by Herne. There has been some suggestion that Herne is either Odin in disguise or else if Herne is a purely literary character that his later development into a deity was heavily influenced by Odin (Ford, 2001). The hunt in Germany is also sometimes led by Frau Perchta, or Frau Gauden [Mrs. Odin], who led groups of dead children or witches through the sky (Berk, & Spytma, 2002). In the areas where it is led by Odin it may be called Odensjakt [Odin’s Hunt], Oensjaegeren [Odin’s Hunters] or Odin’s Army. Odin’s connection to leading the Hunt goes back in writing at least several hundred years and speculatively in oral tradition to the 13th century (Lecouteux, 1999).

    The Wild Hunt is known to ride out at certain times of year, especially during Lent, which is usually March and April, as well as around Midsummer and Midwinter (Grimm, 1883). Meeting the Hunt was usually seen as a bad thing and people would flee indoors or avoid going out when the Wild Hunt was known to be abroad, because of the danger it represented, but it could also bring blessings to people who were clever enough to earn them. For example, in stories like “Wod, the Wild Huntsman” the protagonist meeting the Hunt is rewarded with gifts of meat and gold for his cleverness. Conversely offending the Wild Hunt might mean the person earning a more gruesome reward, such as the corpse of his own child or a severed human limb, while other times the Hunt would turn on the individual and tear them to pieces (Berk, & Spytma, 2002; Grimm, 1883).

The beings who make up the Wild Hunt itself in Norse and Germanic lands are most often the dead, often the battle dead who still appear to bear the wounds that killed them. These ghostly troops also included animals, particularly hounds and sometimes wolves, and horses that may have as few as two or as many as eight legs (Kershaw, 2000). It’s possible that these horsemen are the Einherjar, although they may also be other members of the Dead associated with Odin. 

The Wild Hunt may also have had a living counterpart, a cult of masked youths who engaged in ecstatic practices to connect to Odin and the spirits of the ancestral dead, and held processions at certain times of year (Kershaw, 2000). The Wild Hunt, particularly in Germany, had associations with blessing the harvest (Lecouteux, 1999). We may perhaps suggest that at least in Germany Odin as Wodan and his Wild Hunt was at one point connected to cultic practices that may have had many layers of purpose, possibly both connecting to the dead and blessing the land."

Berk, A., and Spytma, W., (2002) Penance, Power, and Pursuit, On the Trail of the Wild Hunt
Ford, D., (2001). Royal Berkshire History: Beware the Ghostly Hunt
Grimm, J., (1883). Teutonic Mythology, volume 1
Jones, M (2003) The Wild Hunt. Retrieved from
Kershaw, K., (2000). The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Mannerbunde
Lecouteux, C., (1999). Phantom Armies of the Night

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Possession by Fairies or Elves

I'll note as I begin that I will in this article be using the terms elf and fairy synonymously, as general terms for Otherworldly beings. This reflects the generalized use of the terms in the source material I'm referencing in writing this. For those who prefer to see the terms as applying to specific beings, understand that what follows would then apply equally to both.

That fairies or elves are capable of possessing humans may seem like a strange concept to some people reading this, but it is a power that they were always understood to have until recently. Just as they can influence a person's perceptions through the use of illusion - glamour - they can also directly influence a person's mind by bringing madness or even by displacing the spirit and taking over control of the person's actions. Effectively what we in modern terms would call possession, although historically we see a variety of examples of this ranging from voluntary to involuntary, temporary to longer-term. Like the more commonly understood demonic possession however possession by fairies was problematic enough that cures and exorcism rituals for it exist.

Demonic possession and possession by fairies seem to have been understood as different and distinct situations, but they were also seen as somewhat overlapping in nature. Looking at the Saxon evidence we see that cures for elf-possession were found alongside exorcism for demons and in the case of one example found in the marginalia of a manuscript it simply adds the word 'aelfe' into the existing Latin rite of exorcism (Jolly, 1996). The symptoms for elf-possession in the Anglo-Saxon and Saxon evidence however is not what we would in modern contexts associate with demonic possession, necessarily, and is marked by fevers, nightmares, and madness more generally. Madness in these cases was usually described as marked changes in personality, nervousness or anxiety, or significant behavioral changes. This is reflected somewhat in a later Irish anecdotal example of fairy possession from the 19th century which also involved madness. Elves are often grouped with demons and night-hags as beings which both possess and torment humans and for which there are specific prayers, charms, and herbal cures (Jolly, 1996).

There is a specific word for such possession in Old English: ylfig. Ylfig seems to have been associated with possession by aelfe [elves] in particular and had both negative connotations which could require exorcism as well as some connections to prophecy (Hall, 2007). The fact that there was a particular word for this exact type of possession, separate from the word for divine possession [gydig], tells us that it was either widespread enough or understood enough in the culture to necessitate its own vocabulary and that is significant.

In Irish sources there are hints of fairy possession in the mythology, especially in some of the stories of the conceptions of heroes or kings believed to have both mortal and fairy fathers. Depending on how one reads the tales of the conceptions of Cu Chulainn and Mongan it can either be interpreted that the being in question, a member of the Tuatha De Danann who was also at the time among the aos sidhe, physically visited the woman or else possessed the body of the woman's legal spouse*, giving the child, effectively, two fathers. There is also a more clear anecdote of fairy possession in 'The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' which describes a girl whose father "held communion with evil spirits" and whose house was built into a fairy hill, who came to be possessed by the fairies and was eventually institutionalized (Evans-Wentz, 1911). After two years of that she was taken to nuns and then to a Fairy Doctor who eventually worked a cure for her.

During the Victorian period some writers favored the idea that changelings* were the result of fairy possession rather than actual physical abduction (Silver, 1999). In these circumstances it is not the child's body that is taken into Fairy but only the soul, and the body left behind is then filled with a different spirit. One source described it as if the child was being overshadowed and displaced by the secondary spirit (Silver, 1999). The symptoms of a changeling then would also be the symptoms of fairy possession, which would be inline in many cases with what is seen in the Anglo-Saxon and European evidence: illness (fevers), nightmares, and significant behavioral or personality changes. By this logic charms to get rid of a changeling and return the human are actually a type of exorcism, seeking to drive out the foreign spirit and allow the original to return; tragically like some demonic exorcisms the possessed person/alleged changeling doesn't always survive the treatment.

Fairy possession is also found in mainland Europe. It is seen among the Romanian Calusari who dealt with a type of fairy called the iele; the iele possessed people as well as teaching those who followed them herbal cures (Purkiss, 2000). In Germany while outright possession is not explicitly described the elben [elves] are clearly connected to both madness and nightmares, two things that are closely tied to the ideas of fairy possession. Grimm, for example, relates that in German there were two closely related expressions for nightmares: "dich hat geriten der mar" [the night-mare has ridden you] and "ein alp zoumet dich" [an elf bridles you i.e. has a horse's bridle on you] (Grimm, 1888).

Involuntary possession by fairies seems to occur most often when a person has transgressed against the Good Folk in some way, although they may not be aware of having done so. It also occurs, looking at anecdotal evidence, to children whose parents have transgressed in some way, as we saw in Evan-Wentz's story and the theory about changelings. It is also possible that such possession can be invited by an individual voluntarily, either as a result of seduction by a fairy or through a desire for prophecy. The Calusari invited possession by the iele through trance dancing (Purkiss, 2000).

Cures for fairy possession in the Lacnunga and Leechbooks ranged from Christian rites of exorcism that included calling for the elf-spirit to be cast out to drinks made from frankincense, myrrh, and shaved agate* (Jolly, 1996). Exorcisms through prayers are common but so are casting out these spirits using salves, drinks, and incense. For example burning the plant aelfthone* soemtimes along with several other herbs, such as bishopwort and lupin, is repeatedly recommended in the Leechbooks. Another, safer, option is 'smoking out' the elf or fairy using mugwort. Smoke was believed to be an effective method to drive the elf out of a person, or as Jolly says "to purge or exorcise the internal evil" although Jolly does also discuss the difficulty of synthesizing "amoral creatures such as elves...into the Good-Evil paradigm of the Christian moral universe." (Jolly, 1996, p 136). Indeed Christianity has struggled everywhere to fit fairies into its paradigm, often settling for an uneasy compromise that places them ambiguously between angels and demons and this may be reflected in the approach to fairy possession, which is itself ambiguous.

Fairy possession is not a subject that is widely discussed in the Western world today, yet it was once commonly understood, enough so that in the 13th century Old English had a particular term for it. Unique from demonic possession, although an overlapping concept, fairy possession was marked by fevers, madness, and nightmares all of which were thought to indicate the influence of fairies on a person's mind and by extension body. Multiple cures existed for this type of possession relying to varying degrees on the aid of an expert, either a priest or a Fairy Doctor. In context it must be understood as something that cannot be clearly labeled as either good or bad, and that can be found in various places as a voluntary practice to gain knowledge from the fairies or elves as much as it can also be viewed as a punishment from them for people who offend them.

*for example in the Imramm Brain Manannán says that he is taking on the shape of a man and that he will be a vigorous bedfellow to Caintigern but Fiachra will acknowledge the son as his own.
*Personally I do not believe that any single theory explains changelings, but rather that there were likely multiple possibilities.
*please don't actually do this. I am in no way advocating the safety of this drink, nor do I recommend it.
*aelfthone is an old name for a specific kind of belladonna. I DO NOT recommend burning this unless you have experience handling poisonous herbs. Burning this herb or consuming it could be extremely dangerous. Do not do this.

Jolly, K., (1996) Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: elf charms in context
Hall, A., (2007) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Silver, C., (1999) Strange & Secret Peoples: fairies and Victorian Consciousness
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Purkiss, D., (2000) At the Bottom of the Garden: a dark history of fairies, hobgoblins, and other troublesome things
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology volume 2

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Translation: Tond Clidna/Cliodna's Wave

Today I wanted to do a piece from the Metrical Dindshenchas and I thought I'd take on a new look at poem 38 'Tond Clidna I' since I will be heading off to southwestern Ireland in a few weeks.

Tond Clidna I

Clidna chend-fhind, búan a bét,
'con tuind-se tánic a héc;
 damna d'a máthair beith marb
inní dia tarla in sen-ainm.
5] Dia ndernad in t-óenach the
ac lucht tíre tairngire,
is é thuc in mnái tre cheilg,
Ciabán mac Echach imdeirg.
Rígan ind óenaig thall tra,
10] ingen dar' chomainm Clidna,
tar in ler lethan longach
tuc leis Ciabán cass-mongach.
Rofhácaib hí forsin tuind,
luid uaithi echtra n-étruimm,
15] d'iarraid selga, monur mass,
luid roime fon fhid fholt-chass.
Tánic in tond tara éis,
do Chiabán nírbo deg-shéis;
mór gním, ba dimda linne,
20] bádud Clidna cend-fhinde.
Tond dúine Téite na tríath,
issé a hainm roime in bar n-íath
nocorbáided 'mon tuind tra
ben diarbo chomainm Clidna.
25] Lecht Téite 'sin tráig-se túaid;
rogáet immese a mór-shlúaig;
lecht Clidna 'sin tráig-se thess,
fri Síd Duirn Buide anairdess.
Fliuchthar folt in Duirn Buide
30] i tondaib in trom-thuile:
cid dimda do neoch fuil ann,
is sí Clidna nosbáidenn.
Ildathach is a dá macc,
robáitea in triur ac tochmarc;
35] is mairg roadair don luing
náchasanaig ar óen-tuind.
Cóica long lótar tar sál,
teglach tige Manannán;
nocharb í 'n chongaib cen gá:
40] robáitea ar thondaib Clidna. C.
- Metrical Dindshenchas

Cliodna's Wave I

Cliodna Fair-Haired, eternal her exploits,
with this wave came her end;
the cause of her mother's death
this the matter of the ancient name.
5] When there was held the gathering of the
people of the land of promise,
it is he who took the woman through deception,
Ciabán son of Echach Imdeirg.
The Queen of the gathering in truth,
10] the maiden her name was Cliodna,
taken over the ship-full ocean
taken with Ciabán curly-haired.
he left her on the waves,
he went on a swift adventure,
15] he sought to hunt, fine work,
he went forth under the foliage, the curly-haired.
the wave came after he left,
to Ciabán no well-omened sound;
great acting, that inhospitable ocean,
20] Drowned was Clidna Fair-haired.
The wave of the People of Téite of the lords,
was its name before in this territory
Until in truth the wave drowned
a woman there who was named Cliodna.
25] Téite's grave and her strand are northwards;
she was slain amidst her great army;
Cliodna's grave and her strand are southward,
southeast of the Síd of Duirn Buide.
Wet is the hair of Duirn Buide
30] in the waves of the heavy tide:
yet displeasure to anyone's blood there,
it is Cliodna that was drowned.
Ildathach and his two sons,
were drowned the three while courting;
35] There is sorrow to those who cleaved to the ship
who weren't saved from one wave.
fifty ships went across the sea,
the household of the house of Manannán;
That wasn't a host without spears:
40] they were drowned in the waves of Cliodna.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Meeting New Liminal Gods - Thallea and Thessilae

A lot has changed for me in my spirituality in the last few years, as anyone who follows my blog knows. But I do still follow the path I - for lack of a better term - call Fairy Witchcraft. And while I now focus my worship more on a specific Fairy Queen, who I feel fits the role of a liminal Goddess, I haven't stopped exploring who and what the liminal Gods are. And just like I had written about in November of 2016 I do sometimes run across new (to me) liminal deities; because Fairy Witchcraft was always meant to be a living and evolving tradition I wanted to share that here.

Today I want to talk about two liminal Goddesses I have started connecting to. Unlike the others who kind of organically came to me over time and exploration these two I found, because I was specifically looking for a deity of healing that felt like they fit in with the beings I already acknowledged. It was a slow process finding the right fit here and when I did finally meet the power I was seeking I was genuinely surprised to realize it was not one but two.

They are sisters, although what they do is very different, but as I have gotten to know them better I have come to believe they are like two sides to one coin despite their differences. They seem to act together as a pair and although I am not sure they are twins, per se, they seem very closely linked to each other; I have never seen them apart even when I am only trying to connect to one or the other.

Thallea, Lady of Roses: a power of healing and growth. I see her with skin like fresh turned earth, her hair a subtle dark green that always seems to be moving slightly, her eyes are black. Although she is focused on healing her mannerism is abrupt and brisk and I found her often impatient even though she is very kind. She is always in motion, like her hair, and rarely rests or sits still. She sings or hums when she heals and her presence is very warm. She is everything passionate about life and the struggle to live and keep living. Roses, especially pink roses, seem to be her symbol.

Thessilae, Lady of Thorns: a power of battle and death. I see her with skin like bone, dark hair and with black eyes like her sister. Her demeanor is calm and precise and she is a study in contrasts - still and peaceful when she is passive and a flurry of precise motion and deadly aim when she is active. I found her temperament to be much more calm and even soothing than her sister's. She may not seem at first like a healer but she is the aspect of healing that comes in the final release from suffering and pain and the transition out of the physical form. Her symbol is the blooded thorn.

An important thing to understand about these two is that in many ways they act together and they don't seem, in my experience, to differentiate at all between health and death as success in healing - both are the cessation of illness after all. They are compassionate and caring but they are, ultimately, Fey and they don't see things the same way we do; to them the spirit goes on in one form or another either with renewed physical health or freed from one body to be reborn in the next. It's just something to keep in mind if you decide to connect to them yourself.

Editing to add pronunciation:
Thallea - Thah-lee-ah with the 'th' like in this
Thessilae - Thehs-sih-laye

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Seven Years in Fairy

We sometimes see people referencing or discussing the idea of a person being in service to Fairy or going into Fairy for a set amount of time and then coming back to mortal earth, at least for a while. Often in folklore when this occurs it is for a very precise amount of time and what we most often see is 7 years. This pattern repeats in both folklore and ballads. 

It's said that the bean feasa and fairy doctors in some instances would be 'taken' for 7 years and then come back to serve the human population. Or, as Yeats puts it: "The most celebrated fairy doctors are sometimes people the fairies loved and carried away, and kept with them for seven years" (Yeats, 1888). Although the text does also clarify that not all fairy doctors are taken in this manner, it is interesting to note that 7 years is specified so exactly for those who are. We also see this number showing up in some of the ballad material as the number of years that a person will be taken to serve in Fairy before being returned to earth.

'Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland' by K. Cameron, image in the public domain

Thomas the Rhymer was gone seven years and then returned, at least temporarily. In the ballad after meeting the Queen of Elfland by chance she says to him:
"Now, ye maun go wi me," she said,
"True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe, as may chance to be.
Thomas is then taken into Fairy and serves the Queen for the required 7 years before being returned to earth with a pair of shoes and new coat - both green* - and the gift of prophecy and true speech. By some folklore accounts she later sent a white hind and stag to guide him back to the Otherworld.

In the ballad of 'The Faerie Oak of Corriewater' the Fairy Queen says that the young man she's taken to be her cupbearer will serve her for 7 years.
"I have won me a youth," the Elf Queen said,
"The fairest that earth may see;
This night I have won young Elph Irving
My cupbearer to be.
His service lasts but for seven sweet years,
And his wage is a kiss of me."
In this instance the person being taken is filling a specific role, although it is also implied that he will also be the Queen's the lover. Unlike True Thomas Elph Irving's payment for his 7 years of service is simply a kiss from the Queen, indicating that what exactly one does in the Otherworld or the reason one is taken has an important impact on how one may be treated and the compensation one receives. 

Although it's never explicitly stated in the ballad of Tam Lin, and there is much debate about how long Tam Lin has been in Fairy and how old he was when he was taken, it may possibly be argued that he had served the Queen for less than 7 years. When he convinces his pregnant lover, Janet, to free him he tells her that the fairies pay a tithe to Hell every 7 years, that the tithe is due November 1st (within a few days), and that he is afraid that he will be given in payment because he is 'so fair and full of flesh'. While not conclusive the implication is that he may not have been there for the previous tithe, hence his concern that Janet free him before the next one. It is of course also worth noting that here again we do see the number 7 showing up as significant.  

As with anything relating to Themselves there are other options seen, including being taken permanently or, as sometimes happened with nursing mothers, being taken until the fairy baby was weaned. However 7 years of service seems to be a common contract, and is a number we see repeated in ballads and folklore.

*green is a colour strongly associated with the Good People

Acland, A., (1997) Tam Lin
Child, F., (1882) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Yeats, W., (1888) Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fairy Taboos - #4 Food

Fairy taboos around food are complicated and layered, and each aspect tends to have its own rules and repercussions. For this blog we will break the prohibitions around food down into three categories and try to summarize each one as concisely as possible.

1 - Eating Food from Fairy.
     The most well known prohibition around food and fairies is certainly the rule not to eat fairy food. The general belief is that to eat the food of fairies is to be irreversibly bound to them and their world. We see a wide range of anecdotes centered on this idea, usually featuring a human who has encountered a group of fairies and been invited or inveigled to join them, been offered food or drink, and is then cautioned by a human among the group (often recognized as a recently deceased community member) not to take the offered meal. The warning always includes the explicit message that if the food or drink is accepted the person will not be able to leave and return to the mortal world or their family. In the ballad of 'Childe Rowland' the protagonist is advised to "bite no bit and drink no drop" when he goes to Fairy to rescue his sister if he wants to succeed and return again to earth with her. There are some exceptions to this, particularly in situations when the food is being offered by one of the monarchy of the Otherworld, but overall this is one of the most consistent prohibitions we find.

2 - Giving Food to Fairies.
     There is a long standing and deep seated understanding that fairies were entitled to a portion of the human harvest, including both crops and animals. We see this beginning in Irish mythology where the Dagda negotiates an agreement with the Gaels to give the Gods - who have gone into the sidhe to live - a portion of all their grain and milk in exchange for the Gods allowing the crops to flourish and cows to be in milk. Over time this concept was extended and shifted to the fairies more generally. In the modern period we find examples in MacNeill's book 'Festival of Lughnasa' that discuss the fairies being given a tithe of the crops during the harvest, with an understanding that such a tithe is due to them. While this may not at first seem like a taboo it should be understood in the context of an action that had to be taken in order for humans to prosper.

3 - Fairies Claiming Food.
     Related to point #2 is the idea that fairies will claim food they want, under different circumstances; this may be an extension of the idea that they are owed, by longstanding agreement, a portion of what humans harvest. Evans-Wentz relates anecdotes in 'The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' of the belief that if food fell or was dropped it was being claimed by the Good People and should be left to them. Along those lines Campbell in 'The Gaelic Otherworld' and Kirk in 'The Secret Commonwealth' both discuss the fairies removing the substance from food items, either in the fields or on the stove. This theft of the essence of food, rather than its physical presence, is attributed by Campbell to the owner of the item speaking badly of it. Another widespread folk belief in both Ireland and Scotland was that any berries left unpicked after Samhain belonged to the Good Folk and that eating them was unhealthy as they had been either spit on or urinated on by the púca, as a means of claiming them. Food that had been given to the fairies, or claimed by them, should not be eaten by humans as it was thought to have no value to it, although there are accounts of animals eating it. This falls into the area of a taboo as it was believed that taking what the fairies had claimed for themselves was at best very unlucky.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fairy Rings

  One particular bit of folklore that is still especially relevant today is that of fairy rings, also called fairy circles, elf rings, or elf circles. In Welsh they may be known as cylch y Tylwyth Teg [literally 'circle of the Fair Family']. The concept of these rings can be found throughout the different Celtic language speaking countries as well as the various diaspora and some Anglo-Saxon and German lore as well. Fairy rings appear as either a dark circle of grass or as mushrooms growing together in a ring, and less often as a circle of dead grass or small stones. It is said in folklore and common belief that this ring marks a place where the fairies have danced or where they like to dance. In the 12th century there was an English belief which attributed rings of daisies to elves dancing (Hall, 2007). The fairies love of dancing is well known as is their penchant to take people who disturb their revelry, either as a punishment or through a desire to keep the person in Fairy (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Fairy ring of Clitocybe nebularis (“Clouded Agaric”) photographed near Buchenberg in the Allgäu by Josimda – Own work,CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fairy rings can appear in different sizes, from three feet across to ten times that size (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). If they were the sort made of darker green within a field then they would be either moss or much darker green grass and were notable because "no rushes or anything grew on it" (Gwyndaf, 1991). From a scientific perspective fairy rings are created by the fungus mycelium and when they grow above ground can include a variety of mushroom species, both poisonous and edible. Even the dark grass circles or less common dead grass rings are the result of mycelium though, as the fungus naturally grows upwards and outwards in an expanding circle and effects the nutrient content of the soil, resulting in the visible fairy ring effect (Mushroom Appreciation, 2016). The scientific explanation doesn't necessarily contradict the fairylore explanation, and the two beliefs are compatible with each other. For example, in some folklore it isn't the fairies dancing that causes the circle but rather the existence of the circle that draws the fairies to dance there (Bennett, 2001).

A person who comes upon an active fairy ring might see the dancers within it, and even the instruments, but hear nothing from outside, although in other stories hearing the music acts as a lure to draw an unsuspecting mortal in. Most people had a clear aversion to the idea of entering a fairy ring as it was known that to do so risked the fairies coming and taking the person away. In one Welsh story preserved in the late 20th century a person was questioned about why they avoided fairy rings and they relayed the tale of a boy named Robin Jones who entered a fairy circle one evening; he saw the fairies dancing and after what seemed to him a few hours in their company he asked to leave only to return home to find that a hundred years had passed (Gwyndaf, 1991). In a similar tale a man stopped outside a fairy ring, just to watch the fairies dance within for a few hours, and lost fifteen years of time for his dallying (Gwyndaf, 1991). Often the person would dance for what seemed like a night to them, or even only a few minutes, and then be allowed to leave only to find that a year or more had passed. Some fairy rings appear to have been used as a sort of trap to intentionally lure mortals, especially children, that the Fey folk wished to take and these people if they entered the ring would never be returned (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Other times however it seems to be only chance that leads a person to find fairies dancing in a ring; in accounts from Brittany some who join them are treated well and released unharmed with little time passed while those who offend them while they dance are forced to join the circle until they collapse form exhaustion or worse (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Once in a fairy ring, by choice or by compulsion, a person could not leave unless they were freed by the Good Folk or rescued by another human being.  In one Scottish tale a man fell asleep in the middle of a fairy ring and woke to find himself being carried through the air by the angry fairies who dumped him in a city many miles away (Briggs, 1978). In the above example of Robin Jones the boy was allowed to leave when he asked politely to, although upon leaving he found that so much time had passed on earth that everyone he knew in life had died. In another story a boy was taken through a fairy ring and tried to leave later with a golden ball to show his mother; the fairies took the ball back and threw the boy out after pinching him until he was thoroughly bruised (Evans-Wentz, 1911). He re-emerged and returned home to his mother to find that several years had passed.

Several options were available for those seeking to rescue a comrade from a fairy ring. One Welsh method of securing a person's release was to place a stick of rowan across the boundary of the ring, breaking it (Gwyndaf, 1991). Some suggest throwing specific herbs, including thyme, into the circle, and of course iron is seen as superlative method of both disrupting a fairy ring and protecting oneself from angry Fey (Hartland, 1891). Any iron object would suffice and could be used to break the edge of the ring or could be tossed into the circle to disrupt the dancing. Another method was for someone safely outside the circle to reach in, sometimes by stepping on the perimeter of the ring, and grab the person as they danced past (Briggs, 1978). Even if they were rescued though many times the person could not truly be saved, and those who had danced with the fairies in a fairy ring were known to pine away afterwards or else, if they had been taken for a length of time and allowed to leave they might rapidly age or turn to dust when the truth of their long absence from mortal earth was revealed to them in their home place, then occupied by strangers (Brigg, 1978).

There is a strong belief that if one finds a fairy ring it should not be disturbed, not only because of the possible danger, but because there is a sacredness to the space set aside within them. If one were to damage a mushroom associated with a fairy ring reparations would be offered to avoid punishment (Bennett, 1991). In Scotland and Wales it was generally unthinkable by those who believed in the Good Folk to consider intentionally damaging the ring or mushrooms, and it was believed that those who did so would be cursed (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). In one Irish story a farmer who knowingly built a barn on a fairy ring fell unconscious afterwards and had a vision telling him to take down the barn (Wilde, 1888).

Fairy rings are still found today although perhaps fewer people see the footsteps of the Fey in them, and more see the science of mycelium. In the spirit of tradition though it doesn't have to be one or the other but can both, in truth, and we can still see the enchantment and sacredness of the footsteps of the Good People in fairy rings without denying the knowledge of their natural cause. If you keep your eyes open and your sense sharp you may find a ring of dark grass or new grown mushrooms in your yard or the area you live in.
Although perhaps you'll think twice about stepping across its boundary.

Bennett, M., (1991) Balquhidder Revisited: Fairylore in the Scottish highlands, 1690- 1990
Briggs, K., (1978) The Vanishing People
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and legends from Welsh oral tradition
Mushroom Appreciation (2016). Fanciful Fairy Rings
Evans-Wentz (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, E., (1888). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland
Hall, A., (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Hartland, E., (1891). The Science of Fairy Tales

Excerpted from my book 'Fairies'

When Dedication Ends

There's a good amount of discussion out there about honoring deities (or spirits) and about dedication to a deity. What I want to talk about today is something I don't see being discussed much - when dedication ends.

An image of the German Woden

When I began my pagan path I really wasn't aware of the idea of dedicating oneself to a deity, or several even, but over time I not only started to read about the idea but I started to see it in action. I met people who described themselves as a priest or priestess of a specific deity and I saw the way that dedication could impact a person's life. Nonetheless I hadn't felt pulled to that level of focus on any God or group of Gods during my first years as a pagan, although I certainly had my favorites. My spirituality was always a complex thing with different layers of focus between the Gods, the Good Folk, and magical practices and I was fairly happy with what it was.

It wasn't until I began following a Heathen path in the mid-2000's that I felt called to formally dedicate myself to a deity. While I had developed what I would describe as a sense of closeness with several deities when I started practicing Heathenry I very quickly felt pulled to Odin. In what seemed to me the blink of an eye I found myself beset by dreams of a pair of ravens with a one-eyed rider and haunted during the day by his presence. My life took a decidedly weird (wyrd?) turn and within a year I was standing before witnesses making oaths, pledging myself to Odin*.

I don't regret it. For a decade I considered Odin my fulltrui; I learned to read the runes and studied seidhr, I became the gythia of a kindred, connected to the Hidden Folk under new guises. Odin was a driving force in my practice of Heathenry, staying with me as I shifted from a more Norse to a more German approach. He became my muse and my poetry was dedicated to him. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy - Odin is a hard one in many ways and even his kinder faces present interesting challenges. But I loved him and I loved being dedicated to him.

Then, after a decade, it ended.

I was pulled into a deeper relationship with the aos sidhe and that shifted things profoundly for me. Before I knew it, and to my utter shock, I found that my connection - my dedication - to Odin was over. I meditated and had an experience of Odin coming to me and telling me I was freed from my oaths to him. I didn't believe it at first but when I went to several people I trusted who were good with divination or channeling they all confirmed it. I paid weregeld for the oath anyway, for the people who had witnessed my oath, and just like that it was over.
I don't think I truly understood why the Norse called such dedication 'fulltrui' until that friendship was gone.  Of course I can still honour Odin - and I do - and of course I can still call on him in ritual. But it isn't the same. It isn't that close, personal feeling, that friendship anymore.

People talk about building dedication and about finding patron deities, but no one talks about when those relationships end, whether that end comes from the deity choosing to break the connection or the person doing so. Its painful, as painful as losing an important human relationship is. When you are dedicated to a deity that deity becomes a part of your life on a regular basis and having that suddenly gone is a shock - it's like losing a friend.

I had to learn that it was alright to grieve that relationship. I had to tell myself it was alright to be sad that things had changed and that I was allowed to be sad that I wasn't formally dedicated to a deity I had spent 10 years of my life closely connected to. And that was hard. Painfully hard. But things change and even in devotional polytheism dedication isn't always for life, even when we go into it planning that it will be. The Gods have agency and independent will and sometimes what they want diverges from what we want. Sometimes what they plan isn't what we plan. And sometimes we grow in a different direction and that growth takes us away from the place that our dedication was rooted in.
And that's okay.

*I also dedicated to Macha around this same time - I found the two were a good balance for each other, and given how challenging Odin could be I am glad I had that balance.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Exorcism for a Leannán Sí

Recently in my wanderings through source material I ran across  particularly interesting folk charm in the 1854 'Transactions of the Ossianic Society'. The entry was first in Irish and then translated into English, with some notable variances from the Irish, and dealt with a spoken charm used by a Catholic priest to expel a Leannan Si from a woman named Shighile Tabaois [Sheela Tavish].

This is the text of the charm in Irish

This is my transcription from the above*:
"An t-Aithar Conn O'Domhnaill
ag díbirt a Lennan Síghe .i. an Stalcaire, ó Shíghile Tabaois.
Cros Chríosd ort a Shíghile, ód' ghearrán nuadh,
Cros fhírinneach Iosa ad choimead buan;
Ur an síghbharra ro shínear led' gheal-chnámha suas,
Ud choimhdeacht 'san oidhche 's ad chufáil chruaidh!
     Ní bhfuil sígh-bharra ó'n n-dílinn go geal-tráigh thuaidh
Maoil-chnoic ná mín-lir le cruinneamhuil sluagh;
Ná h-aoirfead le laoithibh na sean-rádh suagh,
Muna g-cuirid ó Shíghile an spreasán duairc!
     Sgríbhfead go h-Aoibhill go geal-tráigh thuaidh,
Ríg-bhean na bruighne 's lionán sluaigh;
Díoghaltur ir díbh-fheirg, ir cufáil chruaidh,
Do thabhairt do'n t-sígh-barra so Shíghile 'sa chongmháil uainn?
     Saoilim gun sígh-bharra gan choimead cuan,
Do díbridh ó shíghe-chnoic an Lorán Ruadh;
No fíor-spreas o Aoife na sean-radh i d-Taudhmhumhain
Do sgaoileadh le draoigheacht-chlir na n-Danann n-duairc!
     Sgaoiliom le síghe-chnoic an spreasán uainn,
No le slim-shreabhaidh líossa na srután luaith;
D'á chuibhrioch go cíocrach le Seannaid shluaigh,
Tre luighe leatra, a Shíghile, gan chead d'fhághail uainn?"

And this is the English translation from the book;
"Father Conn O'Donnell
composed this song in order to expel a Leannan Sighe, or incubus, from Sheela Tavish.
The Cross of Christ be upon you, Sheela, against your new incubus,
Let the true Cross of Jesus protect you forever;
From this fairy that lies close to your snow-white bosom,
Who accompanies you at night and gives you hard cuffs.
     There is not a fairy that existed since the deluge, even those of the white northern strand,
And of the broad-topped smooth lioses where their hosts assemble,
That I will not satirize by the lays of the old sayings of the sages,
If they will not banish this dull midge from Sheela.
     I will write to Aoibheall of the fair northern strand,
The Queen of the Bruighin, and the Familiar (spirit) of hosts;
To inflict vengeance with the wrath of hard cuffs,
Upon this fairy that haunts Sheela, send him away from us.
     I suspect he is a fairy that has no place of rest,
And was expelled from the fairy hill of Loran Ruadh;
Or is a genuine imp sent from Aoife of the north,
That was loosed by the expert spells of the surly Tuatha De Dananns.
     Let us expel to the fairy hills this sullen midge from us,
Or to the bright waters o the Lee of the rapid currents;
There to be strongly fettered by the Shenad [Shannon's] hosts,
Because he slept with you, Sheela, without your leave."

I'll point out quickly to start that the English translation is a bit loose from the Irish. For example the two terms given as 'incubus' don't actually mean that. We have stalcaire which can mean a stubborn person or a stalker, and gearrán which is a term for a horse, often a gelding. We see a similar thing with the word being glossed as 'fairy' - sighbarra - which might more accurately read as 'barrow fairy'. That one is worth noting as it specifically identifies this leannan si with the barrows, or ancient burial mounds. In the same way when the text calls him 'a pest' or an 'imp' sent by Aoife the Irish term spreas means a 'worthless person'.

This is a really fascinating piece of folk magic, effectively a type of ritual exorcism but what makes it interesting to me is that it calls on both the priest's own God - Jesus - as well as the fairy Queen Aoibheall. It also implicates both Aoife, as another Fairy Queen, and the Tuatha De Danann more generally, for possibly setting this spirit on the woman in question. The chant also includes the claim by the priest that he will not hesitate to satirize any spirits who won't help him to banish this leannán sí, an unusual suggestion since one might assume that he would usually resort to calling on his own deity for that.

'Exorcism of a Leanná Sí' is only one example of the way that folk magic, fairy belief, and the dominant religion blended into a cohesive system of practice in early modern Ireland. We may look at this approach and say that it is an attempt to cover all the possibilities, as it were, in assuring that a cure is achieved. Or we may see it as reflecting the multiple cultural threads that influenced people, including clergy, even in the 19th century. In any case it is an important piece of evidence and also a useful charm.

 *any errors in my transcribing the Cló Gaelach are entirely my own. I have included the original text for the reader to see for themselves.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Irish/English Glossary of Common Terms

This post is meant to offer a selection of the common terms I use in Irish with their English translations, to help readers of my blog who may not have any Irish or who may find the use of Irish placenames, euphemisms for the Good Neighbours, and other miscellaneous words confusing. Hopefully this will offer a bit of clarity.

Aitainmneacha / Place Names

An Cheathru Chaol - Carrowkeel
Brú na Bóinne - Brugh na Boyne
Cnóbha - Knowth

Cnoc - hill
Connachta - Connacht
Cúigí na hÉireann - Provinces of Ireland
Dumha na nGiall - Mound of the Hostages
Laighin - Leinster
Lios - Ring fort, fairy mound
Mide - Meath
Mumhain - Munster
Ráth - Fort, ring fort
Sidhe - fairy mound
Sid in Broga - Newgrange
Sliabh na Caillighe - Loughcrew, literally 'mountain of the Cailleach'
Teamhair - Tara
Uaimh na gCat - Cave of Cats
Ulaidh - Ulster

Sofhroital na Sióga/ Euphemisms for Fairies

Aos Sidhe - People of the fairy hills
Bean Sidhe - fairy woman
Daoine Eile - Other People/ Other Crowd
Daoine Maithe - Good People
Daoine Sidhe - People of the fairy hills
Daoine Uaisle - Noble People
Fear sidhe - fairy man
Leannan Sidhe - fairy lover
na hUaisle - the Gentry
Tuathghinte - literally 'northwards people'

Go hilghneitheach/ Miscellaneous

Badb - name of a goddess also a term for a supernatural woman, witch, and crow
Bainne - milk
Banríon - Queen

Bantuaithech - old Irish term for a specific type of 'leftward' working witch
Bean feasa - wise woman
Cailleach - name of a goddess, also means crone, hag, witch

Caite - elf-struck
Conriocht - werewolf
Déithe - Gods

Draíodóir - wizard, enchanter
Draoi - magic user, druid
Gaeilge - Irish language
Iarlais - changeling
Im - butter
Piseog - charm, spell, also supersition
Rí - King
Sidhe gaoithe - fairy wind
Slua sidhe - Fairy host
Taibhse - ghost, spectre, phantom
Tromluí - incubus, nightmare

Pronunciations for all of these can be found below, thanks to Lora O'Brien who was kind enough to collaborate with me on this, after the idea of glossary was suggested on facebook

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Discerning Good Source Material

One thing that's important for anyone who relies, to any degree, on sources outside themselves for spirituality - or anything else - is being able to judge a good source from a bad one. So today I want to just run down a quick list of ways to vett sources of any type to decide how much weight you should give to something. Even if a source isn't perfect it may have value - or it may be immediately tossed out. It depends on how it measures up.

  1. What sources does this source use? - One of the first things I do with any new source, be it written, video, in person, or what-have-you, is to try to look at what sources that source is using. Are they talking purely from personal gnosis? Are they using academic texts? Are they using other authors based in personal gnosis? Are they using well known and respected sources? Are they referencing conspiracy theorists or known white supremacists? Do they have no sources at all that they admit to? All of these things need to be taken into account. Something that's entirely personal gnoses isn't necessarily bad but needs to be understood in that context, while something from a deeply flawed or problematic source will be eliminated. 
  2. Never once the Wikipedia - Okay this is  bit ranty right here, but as soon as I see wikipedia listed as a source for anything I'm done with that source. There's a very good reason that wikipedia can't be used in college, university, or even high school classes: its notoriously unreliable and oddly biased. Anyone can and does edit wikipedia and while its true that wikipedia cites sources and includes references pretty much any print or online source can be used and there is no quality control. Let me repeat; there is no quality control. The entry on Baobhan Sithe was sourced mainly from modern vampire guides, themselves largely repeating modern urban legends, and from RPG guidebooks. No really. The entry on Finnbheara contained an assertion straight from a fiction novel (I removed it, because remember anyone can edit wikipedia). Please don't trust anything on wikipedia or any article using wiki as a source. Just don't. 
  3. What is the author's bias? - Every author or teacher has biases, that's just human nature. Figuring out what to think of a source means understanding what that source's biases are and how that's affecting the material. A bias doesn't mean you can't use a source but that you have to be aware of the way the author's opinions influence their work. To use myself as an example - I am unashamedly nativist in my views of Irish mythology and folklore. Nativism is a bias that means I will always tend to see material as having some native Irish influence or value in it; anti-Nativist in contrast means that the author tends to always see foreign influences in any historic Irish material or mythology. Neither is necessarily provably correct or incorrect but both strongly influence a person's views. Authors can have all kinds of different biases and its helpful to just be aware of them or at least that bias is a possibility. Even a book that is aimed at sharing facts will still be influenced by the author's personal opinions and views. Be aware that bias is a thing and that it matters. 
  4. Date - Another thing to consider is how old the source is, particularly for books and articles. Scholarship is always changing and evolving and when I was in school we were strongly encouraged to use material that had been written within the last 10 years and preferably within 5. That was in the field of psychology of course and in more casual study you don't need to be as strict with this but the core idea is the same, that older books tend to have ideas and theories that are more outdated. This doesn't mean the whole work is useless, just that it needs to be kept in context. For example I love the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries and find it valuable for the anecdotal material - yet the material written by the author themself which waxes eloquent about fairies as Bronze age pygmy survivals in iron age Britain is clearly not only out dated but thoroughly disproven by actual archaeology and anthropology.  
  5. Perspective - what perspective is this source speaking from? Is it being written by a member of the community? A believer? A non-believer? An outsider? A scholar? A laymen? Like bias the source's perspective on the material also needs to be understood in the context of its value, because someone who is part of a community writing about that community has a very different perspective than an outsider, and a scholar has a very different perspective than a laymen. Each voice can have value in a discussion, but we shouldn't forget where each one is speaking from. 
  6. Non-fiction or fiction? - this may seem like an odd one, but I see a lot of blurred lines between these two in some cases, possibly because older folklore is often treated as fiction and so modern fiction is given the same weight as folklore. It's worth keeping in mind though that folklore represents stories that people believed to be true (as opposed to fairy tales, which are something else) while modern fiction is the work of imagination. How fine or thick a line there is between those two will be a matter of opinion, but it should at least be considered when weighing the value of a source, whether it was written as fiction or not. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Imram Brian Meic Ferbail

One of the Imramma, or 'Voyage' stories, dating to possibly the 8th century. I can only find a small portion of the text in Irish to translate but it is an interesting section and offers insight into how far back the concept existed that to live on one of the Otherworldly islands meant to be unable to return to our world without immediately dying should you touch the earth.

Imram Brian Meic Ferbail

[gap: chasm in MS/extent: uncertain]Lil in chertle dia dernaid boí in snáthe inna certle hi lláim inna mná consreng dochom poirt. Lotar iarom hi tegdais máir arránic imda cach lánamna and .i. tri .ix. n-imdae. In praind dobreth for cach méis nír ircran díib
Ba bliadain donarfás dóib bith and ecmaing batir ilbliadna ni tesbi cach mblas. Gabais eólcaire fer diib .i. Nechtan mac Collbrain. Atchid a cenel fri Bran ara tía leis dochom nErend. Asbert in ben ropad aithrech in fáboll dálotar cammae. & asbert in ben arná tuinsed nech díb a tír & ara taidlitís léu in fer fodnácaibset i n-Inis na Mell tar essi a chéli.
Dollotár iarom co tornachtatár in dáil hi Srúib Brain. Iarmofochtatarside dóib cía dolluid in muir. Asbert Bran messe or se Bran mac Febail. Ni beram achni aní sin ol a chéli di híu. Atá i ssenchassaib lenni chena Imram Brain.
Docurethar úadib in fer asin churuch. Amal condránicside fri talmannaib na Herend bá lúathred fó chetóir amal bid hi talom no beth tríasna hilcheta bliadna. Is and cáchain Bran in rand so.
Do mac Colbrain ba mór mbaíss
tórgud a láme fri aís
can nech dorratad toind usci glain
tar Nechtan mac Collbrain.
Adfet iar sin Bran a imthechta uli o thossuch co tici sin do lucht ind airechtais & scribais inn rundnu so tre ogum & celebrais doib iar sin & ní fessa a imthechta ónd úair sin.

- Lebor na hUidre

Wandering of Bran son of Ferbal

[begins after gap in text]
The white ball of thread was in his palm, the thread of the ball of thread was in the woman's hand pulling them towards port. Then they went into a large house where they found a bed for every couple there that is three times nine beds. The meal given on every platter was not emptied from them.
There was a year's growth to them in that world there but it happened that there were many years with no savour lacking to them. A longing for home took a man of them that is Nechtan son of Collbran. Bran saw his kindred against him that he should go with him to Ireland. The woman said an assault of regret would be the going nevertheless. And the woman said therefore none of them should touch the land and that they visit with the man left in Inis na Mell [island of delight] who they'd left out of their companions.
They went afterwards until they came to a gathering at Srúib Brain [Bran's headland]. The men asked who it was that had come across the sea.
Bran said "It is me, Bran son of Ferbal."
"We do not recognize this one" the other person said. "[but] There are old stories of Bran's Voyage."
He puts himself out, the man [Nechtan], from the coracle. So that as soon as he was against the earth of Ireland he was dust immediately as if he'd been under the earth without life through many years. Then chanted Bran the section following:
"To the son of Colbrain, was a lack of judgment
Bringing his hand against a lifetime
without conferring any wave of pure water
to Nechtan son of Collbrain."
Then Bran told of all his wanderings from the start until then to the people gathered there and wrote these sections in Ogham and told them farewell and no one knows his wanderings from that hour.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Morrigan and Morgen le Fay

One source of much confusion is the connection - or lack thereof - between the Irish goddess the Morrigan and the Welsh Arthurian figure Morgen le Fay*. I've been meaning to write about this for a while but have hesitated because I am admittedly weak on the Welsh end of things and didn't want to do a disservice to the subject. However I've had several people ask me recently about what connection there might be between these two, so I feel like this needs to be said.

The short answer - historically there is no connection between the Morrigan and Morgen le Fay.

The Morrigan - The Morrigan is an Irish goddess with complex associations to battle, war, death, prophecy, sovereignty, magic, incitement, and victory. Her name in older forms of Irish was pronounced roughly 'MORE-rih-guhn' and later forms 'MORE-ree-uhn' and meant either great queen or phantom queen, depending what etymology one favors. We have a wide selection of mythology and folklore featuring her and it's clear that when she shows up she's an active force in whatever she's doing.
   The Morrigan has two sisters, Badb and Macha, who she appears with in some myths usually performing battle magic; in the Tain Bo Cuailgne she also appears with Nemain and Be Neit for the same purpose. The Morrigan in later mythology would come to be associated with night terrors and specters, viewed as demonic because she could not easily be turned into a meek saint.

Morgen le Fay - Morgen le Fay is a character first found in Arthurian stories, specifically the 12th century works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, where her name was initially spelled Morgen le Fay. It is worth noting that this spelling is significant because while both Morgan and Morgen are men's names (also worth noting) they are pronounced differently - Morgan evolved into the modern Welsh Morcant while Morgen became Morien (Jones, 1997). In the 12th century Morgen would have been pronounced, roughly, 'Mor-YEN' (Jones, 1997). The name Morgen is generally believed to mean 'sea born'.
  Geoffrey was collecting local stories from Wales and publishing them in France and while he certainly didn't invent Morgen for his Viti Merlini there is no way to know for certain how much or little he shaped the character as he preserved her. Which in fairness is true for all of the Arthurian characters he wrote about. That aside however Geoffrey's Morgen was a priestess, one of nine sisters connected to Avalon. In the 15th century Morgen would be renamed Morgan by Thomas Malory and recast as King Arthur's scheming half-sister who was set against both Arthur and his wife Guinevere.

The Evidence - One of the main arguments connecting the names is that they sound the same to modern English speakers, but I hope it's clear here that in Irish and Welsh the two names sound very different. They also have different meanings and that is significant. Another argument that favors their being the same deity is that they are both connected to magic, but while one may argue that both do indeed practice enchantment the nature of the magic they practice seems to be vitally different and outside of that single similarity the rest of their associations are very different. Morgen is connected to healing and, perhaps, to guiding the dead or dying to Avalon/the Otherworld; the Morrigan is associated with death and battle but nothing in her mythology relates her to healing or to a role as a psychopomp. People also argue that their stories have similar themes, but this is clearly not so: the Morrigan is married to the Dagda and may or may not try to seduce Cu Chulainn in one story while Morgen in various stories is married, is adulterous, and even tricks her own brother into conceiving a son with her; the Morrigan incites battles by directly encouraging people to rise up and fight while Morgen in some of her stories sows discord in more subtle ways; the Morrigan's main location is a cave, Uaimh na gCat, while Morgen's is an island on a lake, Avalon. These are only a few examples just to illustrate the very different natures of the two beings.

The Morrigan and Morgen le Fay are often associated with each other in modern paganism, perhaps because they are both perceived as powerful and potentially dangerous women who have gotten a bad reputation that they may not deserve. Both certainly were vilified and demonized over time as stories evolved, the Morrigan going from a goddess to a night specter and Morgen from a priestess of Avalon to an incestuous and usurping sister of the king. I certainly understand why people see associations between the two, although for myself I'd be more likely to picture them sharing stories at the bar over shots together than to believe they are the same being or energy.
   I cannot say whether or not Morgen is a deity or ever was a deity, nor do I deny that someone does answer when people call on Morgen le Fay today. What I can say is that there's no evidence that the Morrigan and Morgen le Fay share any roots or that historically the two have any connection to each other.

*I am aware that in modern terms her name is often given now as Morgan la Fey however I am choosing to go with the older original spelling used by the first person to write her name down.

Recommended Reading:
MacKillop, J., (2006) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Jones, H., (1997) Concerning the Names Morgan, Morgana, Morgaine, Muirghein, Morrigan and the Like. Retrieved from
Gray, E., (1983) Cath Maige Tuired
Dunn, J., (1914) Tain Bo Cualgne
Morgan la Fay (2018) The Camelot Project; University of Rochester. Retrieved from

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Christian Symbols to Protect from Fairies

The relationship between the Good People and the sacred objects and words of Christianity are complex. Some fairies are utterly unbothered by the symbols and ritual actions of the new religion, some are very concerned about their own place within Christian cosmology, while others seem to violently abhor anything relating to the 'new' religion. Those who show an aversion to these symbols and prayers can naturally be warded off using them.

 Some examples:
-Redcaps were known to fear very little, but some of the few things that could ward against them included Christian sacred objects and prayers, specifically the sign of the cross or the sound of bible verse being read aloud.
- In the ballad of Alice Brand the Elf King wants to be rid of two trespassers to his wood but because they are Christians he cannot act against them, so he must send someone under his sway who is not affected by such things.
- A brownie who was well known in a particular area was driven off forever when a well-meaning priest attempted to baptize him. The moment the holy water struck the brownie's flesh the fairy shrieked and fled never to be seen again (Briggs, 1976). In another anecdote a brownie was upset by the homeowner reading the Bible (Wilby, 2005).
- In one area of Scotland fisherman at sea would never say the words "church or manse or minister" to avoid offending the spirits and possibly endangering themselves (Wilby, 2005).
- In some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin advises Janet to make a compass [circle] around herself with holy water while she waits for the Fairy Rade on Halloween; this renders her invisible to their sight and senses until she moves out of the circle.
- Signing a cross three times over a fairy captive or human-turned-fairy would release them from Fairy or break any magic holding them
- Baptism was a common protection for infants against fairy abduction, and Robert Kirk notes that it was a regular practice in Lowland Scotland for a Bible to be kept in the room of a woman in childbirth to ward against fairy intrusion.

Wilby suggest in her book that this avoidance of Christian symbols and prayers - which is not universal even in the Celtic countries - is likely rooted in the animosity that the Church itself created with its attempts to demonize the Fair Folk. Briggs, for her part, suggests that the cross is actually an older symbol, predating Christianity, that represents the liminal space of the crossroads where the fairies have less power and could be used either as a physical object or as a motion to ward them off. In either case the equal armed cross has been noted to be efficacious against Themselves in some circumstances, and would often times be combined with the use of iron by crossing two nails or opening a pair of scissors and hanging them up. Christian prayers, the sounds of church bells, and holy water are also mentioned as protections or things that will frighten off some fairies, although we should emphasize some.

Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Acland, A., (1998) Alice Brand
Wilby, E., (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Kirk, R., (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fairy Taboo - #3 Names

Another taboo that we see among many of the Good People relates to names. Names have power and we find in many cases both an aversion to saying the names of certain types of the Daoine Maithe as well as an avoidance of personal names. Even nicknames have power and when we look at anecdotal evidence we find that often rather than giving a name to a fairy that a person might have regular encounters with a person or group might call them by their description.

First let's look at the wider taboo involving euphemisms. In this case the name in question is a collective one, for the entire group. There is a longstanding belief that to speak of them may draw their attention* and that it is always better to get positive attention than negative. Certain terms have been known to anger or annoy them, although which terms exactly aren't agreed on: at various points it was taboo to say aos sí or daoine sí or fairies, although at present fairies is the most often avoided. Euphemisms have been used since at least the 16th century to avoid the more direct terms, and these euphemisms were intended to be pleasing if they drew the fairies attention. So instead of fairies, elves, or goblins (interchangeable terms until recently) which all could raise their ire a person would say, for example, Fair Folk, Other Crowd, Mother's Blessing, or Seelie Wichts [Blessed Beings].

Beyond that we have an avoidance of personal names. Names have power, and using a being's name gives you power of them - or them power over you if they know and use your name. Because of this in folklore we rarely see any fairy willingly giving its name unless its in repayment for a debt of some sort or a deeper relationship is involved. Invoking a fairy's name, or even giving one a nickname, is often enough to drive one off as we see in stories like Tom Tit Tot or Rumplestiltskin. Finding out a fairy's name or intentionally giving one a nickname is one method of banishing a being who is causing problems are endangering people. Keep in mind however that this method of getting rid of a troublesome fairy also angers them and that can later come back to haunt the person.

When we see discussions of fairies who were known to interact regularly with people in anecdotes or stories, often that being is known not by a name but by a descriptive term based on what they look like or where they are associated with. Yeats related an anecdote of a woman whose mother had a friend among the Good People, who they simply called 'the Wee Woman' (although she was human sized) and Brownies are usually identified by the area they occupied, such as the Brownie of Cranshaws. A Scottish clan had a bodach attached to them which acted much like a Bean Sí in foretelling death and was known as the Bodach Glas, or 'Grey Man' (Briggs, 1976). In some cases we do have more well-known fairies whose names we do know, like Jenny Greenteeth or Meg Mullach [top/summit], but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule and they seem to still involve aspects of description or places.

Generally it is best to use euphemisms when talking about the Good People, so that if you get their attention they won't be offended by how you are speaking of them. You'll rarely know a fairy being's name, and if you do by chance it's better not to use it often, but descriptive names based on physical appearance or place are acceptable. One of the quickest way to offend the Daoine Uaisle is violating the taboo they have around the use of names so it is good to keep this in mind.

*one wonders if writing about them has the same effect. If it's true that they took rev. Kirk for his book Secret Commonwealth then perhaps we should all be more careful in what we put down on paper or screen as well. 

Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Morrigan is not my Sex Goddess

I want to start off by acknowledging that we all see the Gods differently and I know that sometimes a person can relate to a deity in a way that is unusual (comparatively) or unique to them; maybe this is how they need to see that deity for personal reasons. What I want to address here is something that I've seen more and more often among people discussing the Morrigan, and that is the idea that she is a goddess of sex or sexuality - not that an individual relates to her that way but that it is a definitive part of who she, as a deity, is. People even claim that it is one of her main purviews. I've seen it said in many places by many different people, and in a wider way we can see it reflected in the way she is often shown in artwork: scantily clad (or nude), alluringly posed, oozing sex appeal even on a battlefield or among corpses. 

Banshee by WH Brooke, 1824, public domain

I won't address the statue issue here, as John Beckett recently blogged about that and I think he covered the imagery aspect of the discussion fairly well. I will only say that I don't think clothes or lack of clothes is the problem. I love Paul Borda's Morrigan statue, which depicts her nude and as a warrior. I don't find it sexy at all or male gaze oriented and I think that's the key. One can be naked and powerful or one can be naked and vulnerable, and too often the 'nude Morrigan' artwork shows her as the latter. And I'm sorry people but when she's being shown looking like a very young woman who couldn't physically hold the blade she's carrying - or is holding it point down over her own foot! - it's pretty clear that the image isn't meant to depict a powerful goddess but simply an attractive female body.

What I want to discuss here is why, exactly, this idea of the Morrigan as a goddess of sexuality and sex is problematic to me and why it concerns me to see it spreading.

One of the most often repeated things I run across is the idea that the Morrigan has lots of lovers among the gods, or her stories are full of sexual trysts with gods and mortals. So let's start by looking at the Morrigan's mythology and when and how often she has sexual encounters. Don't worry this won't take long.
The Cath Maige Tuired:
"The Dagda had a house at Glenn Etin in the north. The Dagda was to meet a woman on a day, yearly, about Samain of the battle at Glen Etin. The Unish of Connacht calls by the south. The woman was at the Unish of Corand washing her genitals, one of her two feet by Allod Echae, that is Echumech, by water at the south, her other by Loscondoib, by water at the north. Nine plaits of hair undone upon her head. The Dagda speaks to her and they make a union. Bed of the Married Couple was the name of that place from then. She is the Morrigan, the woman mentioned particularly here." (translation my own)

Tain Bo Cuailgne: "
Cú Chulainn saw coming towards him a young woman of surpassing beauty, clad in clothes of many colours. 
‘Who are you?’ asked Cú Chulainn. 
‘I am the daughter of Búan the king,’ said she. ‘I have come to you for I fell in love with you on hearing your fame, and I have brought with me my treasures and my cattle.’
‘It is not a good time at which you have come to us, that is, our condition is ill, we are starving (?). So it is not easy for me to meet a woman while I am in this strife.’
 ‘I shall help you in it.’ 
‘It is not for a woman's body that I have come.’
‘It will be worse for you’, said she, ‘when I go against you as you are fighting your enemies. I shall go in the form of an eel under your feet in the ford so that you shall fall.’ 
‘I prefer that to the king's daughter,’ said he.'"
 - Tain Bo Cuailgne, Recension 1, O Rahilly translation

So there you go. That's it.
In the first example we see the Morrigan and the Dagda having a pre-arranged meeting at a set time and place, and it should be noted that the two are likely married. The reference above notes this when it says the place they lay together was called 'the Bed of the Married Couple' and the Morrigan is called the Dagda's wife in other sources like the Metrical Dindshenchas. In the second example - which please note does not occur in all version of the Tain Bo Cuailgne - we see the Morrigan approaching Cu Chulainn disguised as a young woman and proclaiming her love for him. I am highly suspicious, as are several scholars, of the genuineness of this and believe it is most likely a trick to try to get him to abandon the ford he is guarding. Some scholars have suggested this bit of narrative was added later by scribes unfamiliar with the Tain Bo Regamna who needed an explanation for why the Morrigan then set herself against Cu Chulainn. In any event as you can see she never actually offers him sex or tries to seduce him, although she does offer her love and her goods as what would have been either a wife or as a mistress.

In fairness I will add that there is, as far as I'm aware, one description of Herself appearing naked, from the Cath Magh Rath:
"Bloody over his head, fighting, crying out
A naked hag, swiftly leaping
Over the edges of their armor and shields
She is the grey-haired Morrigu
(translation mine)
In this text the Morrigan is specifically described as grey-haired and a hag, and is leaping over an army about to engage in battle, shrieking. 

Why then is it repeated so often that the Morrigan is a sexual goddess and has multiple sexual encounters?

At this point I think a lot of it is simply the internet effect, where one website stated it as a fact at some point* and now it gets repeated and passed on as fact. The idea appeals to people for different reasons. In my own experience I have found that some men like the idea of the Morrigan as a goddess of sex and as sexual because it allows them to relate to her the way they would to a beautiful human woman. I have seen some women like this idea because they find it sexually empowering for themselves. There is also, of course, the fact that in video games and fiction she's shown as sexual and sex focused, and while those are fiction and entertainment we can't underestimate the way that does impact how people start to subconsciously relate to the deity.

Macha Curses the Men of Ulster, 1904, public domain

That all sounds like it could be good, but it concerns me on a couple levels. Firstly, while I do appreciate the desire for women to feel sexually empowered and to look to a goddess as a role model here, reshaping the Morrigan to do it is only reinforcing existing Western ideas of beauty and female power - we focus on the Morrigan as a young beautiful woman who is powerful because she engages in sexual relationships with men on her own terms. That seems great on the surface, sure, but what about seeing her as beautiful as the naked hag? As the red-haired satirist? As a crow or raven? What about seeing her as powerful without a man? Or simply acknowledging her power as a goddess of battle, incitement, prophecy, and sovereignty? Basically my question is why do we have to make her into something she isn't when she already is beautiful and powerful in a different way

The other side of that coin, the objectification, is a more complicated problem. It seems to me to rest not on redefining her power but on reducing it by taking a fearsome goddess of several things that are genuinely terrifying for humans and making her into a deity of things humans find pleasant and enjoyable. Instead of a deity of war and death she becomes a goddess of sexual pleasure; instead of a screaming hag above armies she becomes a young girl with come-hither eyes and barely there clothes. And to me that speaks volumes about containing her power by limiting her to ideas and to an image that our culture sees as both safe and inherently disempowered.

Yes gods evolve and change with their worshippers, but that change in the past was usually organic and a slow process. We live in a world now where a single person can assert something as fact and that assertion, based in nothing but one person's opinion, can then spread quickly and far as fact - and that in my opinion is not how the evolution of gods has ever worked before. When we take a being with history and depth and layers of mythology and detach them from their own stories and personality and make them nothing more than a mirror for our own desires we aren't engaging with deity anymore, whether we see deity as archetype or as unique individual beings. Perhaps in time there will be a new deity - a new version - of the older goddess created from this milieu of rootless belief. But it will not be the Morrigan of Irish culture, it will be something created from modern beauty standards and sexual mores. And we need to be aware of that and of what that really means.

So, the Morrigan isn't, in my opinion, a good candidate for a sex deity - but then who is? Well, I think when we look at the Irish pantheon the Dagda as sex god makes a lot of sense. But I also think that all the same cultural reasons why we, collectively, want to force this title into the Morrigan are the same reasons we avoid it for the Dagda. When we make a powerful female figure more sexy we make her safer, particularly when we are using imagery and language that hinges on defining her by roles our society sees as weaker. When we make a male figure more sexually imposing though one of two things happens: its comedic or its frightening. The Dagda is a physically big figure, a warrior, powerful - the idea of his being a sex deity may frighten some people. He is also often mislabeled as an 'all father**' deity and envisioned as a kind of red-haired, portly Santa-type and our culture really dislikes seeing that as sexy, we'd much rather find comedy in it. And that is also something I think we should give some serious thought to.

People are always free to hold their own opinions. I have shared mine here, and my reasoning for why I think and feel as I do. The Morrigan is not a sex goddess for me, or a goddess of sex or sexuality. But she is fierce, and beautiful, and powerful. She is a goddess of personal autonomy and of the sovereignty of kings. She is the land, blood soaked after battle, and the shrieking cry of warriors plunging blade-first into conflict. She is the voice that inspires the downtrodden to rise up and fight for freedom, and the whispers of prophecy foretelling the fate of all. She is awesome in the oldest sense of the word. And that is enough.

*this is exactly how the idea that falcons are connected to her and that she is a goddess of rebirth happened. One website more than a decade ago, run by someone who was very honest that they were posting channeled and personal material said it, and it spread from there. Once it was accepted into the common belief no one really knew where it had come from or why they believed it.
**as I've said previously ollathair doesn't mean all father but great or ample father. It certainly connects him to abundance but not to physical proliferation.