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Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Fairy Facts: Redcaps

 For this instalment of fairy facts we're looking at one of the more infamous Otherworldly beings, the Redcap or Red Cap. 

Name: Redcaps or Red Caps

Description: a short, older man with long thin arms ending in eagle-like talons, wearing faded clothes, iron tipped boots, and the requisite red cap. The cap may be the color of dried blood or coated in fresh, dripping blood. 

Found: Redcaps are found in the folklore of the border areas between Scotland and England.

Folklore: The Redcap is a malicious spirit which haunts ruins, particularly of castles. Katherine Briggs and William Henderson both considered them a type of goblin while the poet William Scott Irving depicted a Redcap as a ghost or haunting spirit. In either case the Redcap lurks in ruins and attacks travellers at night by throwing large stones at them with the intent of killing them to gain fresh blood to die its cap with. Sir Walter Scott claimed that across southern Scotland every castle ruin had a Redcap in residence. Henderson suggests that in East Lancashire there may have been folk belief connecting a human witch to Redcaps, evidenced by a public house named 'Mother Redcap'' although this idea is tenuous at best it is not wholly out of line with wider Scottish folklore which overlapped various Otherworldly spirits with human witches. 
  Across the bulk of folklore these beings are seen as vicious and dangerous, immune to the usual fairy-warding methods involving iron but quick to flee when they hear Biblical passages read or see a cross. Upon hearing or seeing such Christian devices the Redcap will either run or vanish in a burst of flame, apparently unable to bear proximity to Christian holy items or words. 
  One especially well-known Redcap was the fairy familiar or familiar spirit of Lord Willliam de Soulis, rumoured to be a sorcerer, Warden of the West Marches an area including Galloway and Dumfries. Folklore claims that de Soulis made a pact with a Redcap for protection against weapons which aided him in his tyrannical rule of the area. History records that de Soulis was eventually arrested for conspiring against Robert the Bruce and died in prison, but wider folk belief has it that he was dragged to the Ninestang Rig in Roxburghshire and boiled to death in oil - a death that neatly got around the promise for protection against weapons that the Redcap had made him. 
  There is one account of a less overtly dangerous Redcap in Perthshire, who would occasionally be spotted in Grantully Castle. It was thought to be lucky to see him. 
   Redcaps are sometimes conflated with other types of castle spirits like Powries and Dunters. 

Where It Gets Muddy: There are many, many types of fairies and Otherworldly beings who wear red caps or hats but aren't the same beings as the malicious Redcap. This can and has caused confusion between the various folk beliefs and possibly contributed to modern fiction and gaming depicting Redcaps as benevolent to any degree. It should be understood that the Redcap is a particular phenomena of the Scottish borders and that beings of a similar name or sartorial proclivity found elsewhere are completely unrelated. 

What They Aren't: friendly, helpful, or on the 'good' end of the spectrum, despite appearing that way in some fiction and having the option to be played that way in role playing games. 
  There's a horror movie 'Unwelcome' that came out in 2023 featuring Redcaps but, while the movie is fun and clever, it largely leaves actual folklore behind in favour of creative fiction. Oddly enough one of the closest things the movie includes to actual Redcap folklore is the idea of the 'Mother Redcap'.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Book Review: Sacred Bones, Magic Bones

 Today I'd like to offer another book review, this one for Ness Bosch's 'Sacred Bones, Magic Bones'. As someone who has worked with bones for a long time the topic of this book immediately got my attention and I was curious to see what the author's take on the subject was. 

First, this book is not a simple look at bones in a spiritual context. Instead it weaves together several interrelated concepts, including animism and ancestor veneration. These are not treated as separate topics but rather as interconnected, as things that are part of each other. One cannot work spiritually with bones without acknowledging the spirits within them, nor the way they connect us to those who have gone before us. They give us structure both literally and figuratively. 

Sacred Bones, Magic Bones is divided into two parts. Part 1 includes 5 chapters which explore the history and beliefs around the subject. Part 2 includes 3 chapters which take a look at active practices. The second part builds on the first and offers readers a way to put the beliefs of part 1 into action in various ways. The two parts work well together and give the reader a feel that the whole book is building on itself. 

Part 1 begins by exploring bones from a physical perspective which I really appreciated. I find that many times pagan books ignore the practical aspects of a subject to focus on the spiritual, as if the two can't co-exist. This book instead begins with the practical, the physical components and function of bones, and uses that as a foundation to move into the esoteric. Once we understand how bones are what they are and do what they do we can begin to understand how they can be more than just a physical thing. Bones are discussed in the context of history, as a way to understand humans through preserved skeletons, bones, and burials; archaeology segues into anthropology and we learn about beliefs relating to bones across cultures, including the way that various animal bones have been used in folk practices. Next is a discussion of Gods connected to bones and the way that bones are connected to the sacred. Finally we wrap up with a section on modern bone traditions, showing that these beliefs and practices are still alive today. All of this lays the groundwork to establish the deep history of bones in a spiritual context.

Part 2 moves into the experiential and the poetic. These final three chapters explore active practices, stories, prayers, and magic around bones and worked with them. It is the house built on the foundation of part 1, inviting the reader to move in and make themselves at home. The book has included stories from the author's life throughout but part 2 seems to speak in the language of stories, making the impersonal personal. It feels more intimate than part 1, as if the reader has gotten to know the author as the book has progressed, and having gotten to know the story of bones is now getting to know the stories told by them.

Sacred Bones, Magic Bones is a deep dive into a subject that doesn't often get much attention. Bones can be a point of contention with those who don't believe in this type of spirit work or who have strong opinions on the ethics of sourcing materials, and in the same way in modern witchcraft those who work with bones may be mocked for embracing a dark stereotype. This book dispels those images and replaces them with a deep, reverential look at the place bones can hold within a person's spirituality.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Fairy Facts: Selkies

 In this installment of fairy facts we're looking at a popular one - selkies.

Name: Selkie, Silkie, Selchie, Rón
The name literally means 'seal' and may appear in English as selkie-folk or seal-folk to differentiate from the animal

Description: Selkies appear as seals in the water, like any wild seal except for their eyes which are said to be particularly human-like. They may go on land and remove their seal skin to take on or reveal a human form. In human form they are often described as having dark hair and dark seal-like eyes. 

Found: Selkies, under variations of the name, are found in folklore across Ireland, Scotland, the Orkney and Shetland islands, as well as Iceland.

Folklore: Selkie folklore is vast and complex as well as regionally varied, however some wider concepts can be found across the bulk of stories. Perhaps the most well-known is the idea of the selkie wife: A fisherman sees a selkie dancing on the shore and sneaks over to take her sealskin; without it she is trapped on land and marries him. They have several children together and live as a married couple until one of the children eventually finds the sealskin and tells their mother. Once the sealskin is returned the selkie immediately goes back to the ocean - sometimes with her children other times leaving them behind. In contrast there are two main stories of male selkies. In one the selkie takes a human lover and leaves her with a child which she is forced to raise alone; the selkie returns years later to claim the child. In the other a heartbroken human woman cries into the sea and a selkie lover appears and takes her with him into his realm.
The half-human children of these unions are said to share their selkie parent's dark hair and eyes and to be born with webbed hands or feet. It has been suggested that selkie stories may originate with attempts to explain such birth defects or genetic disorders in some families, while other scholars also suggest it may be an explanation for early encounters with Inuit peoples.
In most folklore selkies can change their form at will, while in some they are limited to only coming on land one day a year. They are described as living in family groups and some selkie wives had a husband and children among the selkie folk before being taken by a human. They are also said to both cause storms at sea and to sometimes save sailors from drowning in storms.

Where It Gets Muddy: Selkies are becoming increasingly popular across modern fiction in stories which often radically rewrite the older folklore for plot purposes. This has resulted in a growing confusion not only about what selkies are but also about the rules which govern them, particularly around the magic of their sealskin. In some cases attempts to rewrite selkie wife stories to move them away from the abducted or forced bride trope have gone so far the opposite direction that they've just created the same thing under a different rule. For example the story where the selkie drops their coat in a human cafe and a human picks it up and returns it to them causing the selkie to instantly fall in love with them and claim they are now married. 
It is best to take these newer stories with the understanding that they are fiction.

What They Aren't: Contrary to some popular art, selkies aren't described like classical mermaids, with a human top half and seal bottom half. As described above they appear as seals in the water or as fully human on land. This confusion may come from the fact that in some folklore they are called 'mermaids' interchangeably with being called selkies or else are called a mermaid but described as a selkie. It is likely that in Ireland, Iceland, and the UK mermaid at points was being used as a non-specific term and that it may have served as the best English language translation for the terms in the original languages. 

Recommended: For a modern media approach to selkie stories I highly suggest people watch 'The Secret of Roan Inish' a movie about selkies set in Ireland which includes a lot of relevant folklore. The 1994 movie is based on an older book 'The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry' set in Scotland.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Fairy Facts: Slua Sidhe

 For this installment of fairy facts we're going to take a look at the Slua Sidhe, beings found in folklore as well as incorporated into modern Role Playing Games (RPGs). 

Åsgårdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Name: Slua Sidhe (Irish) or Sluagh Sìthe (Scottish)
In Irish the name translates to the Fairy Host or Army. In Gaidhlig the terms means Fairy People, Fairy Host
In Scotland the term may be shortened to Sluagh, while Sluagh na Sìthe is a poetic term for the fairies

Please note the term slua or sluagh is a collective noun which describes a group of beings, a host or crowd, not an individual being. 

Description: a group of malicious or dangerous beings who travel primarily through the air using magic. May or may not be on horses or accompanied by hounds.

Found in Irish and Scottish folklore, and in Irish mythology

Folklorein Irish folklore the Slua Sidhe (modern Irish Slua Sí) are malevolent fairies who travel in whirlwinds or gusts of wind and who are prone to both kidnapping humans and causing injuries to those they pass. They might swoop down and abduct any solitary human who takes their fancy, sometimes keeping them and sometimes dropping them very far from home. Those they injure may be blinded, lamed, or driven mad, if not outright killed. According to Katherine Briggs they are most active at night. In older Irish material and myth the Slua Sidhe are simply any army of the Aes Sidhe.

In Scottish folklore the Sluagh may be understood as fairies but are also described as being the unforgiven human dead, who kill animals and restlessly wander the skies. It is believed that they lived wicked lives as humans and must therefore atone for their sins by wandering the earth without rest. They may employ elfshot, invisible arrows, against their victims, and by some accounts serve or are driven by another spirit; Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica doesn't name or describe these beings, only referring to them as 'spirit-masters'.

Irish folklore has a different term, slua na marbh, for the host of the dead, however Gaidhlig doesn't differentiate the two in the same way. 

Where It Gets Muddy: The sluagh appear in Changeling: The Dreaming, an RPG put out by White Wolf. However the sluagh of the RPG are vastly different from those of folklore, not only because the term is (mis)used as an individual noun but also because they are said to live underground; the other name used for them us 'Underfolk'. They are primarily associated with causing fear. The RPG sluagh are bound not to cause any real harm and work to frighten children into good behaviour. 
In short the RPG sluagh are entirely different beings than those of folklore, however many people who are only familiar with the gaming concepts are unaware of that. 

What They Aren't: As noted above, Slua is not an individual term. A person cannot be 'a slua', as that literally means a host or crowd. An individual would be a member of the slua.
The Slua are not psychopomps, nor are they associated with stealing newly dead souls (only still living humans). 
The Sluagh do not have wings. They fly via magical means rather than a physical appendage. 

Friday, March 8, 2024

Book Review: A Fairy Path

 Today I wanted to do a book review on a book that recently came out that I particularly liked: A Fairy Path by Daniela Simina. I really liked the author's previous book Where Fairies Meet which is a comparison of Irish and Romanian folk belief around fairies so I was excited to see this one come out as well.

One of the best things about Simina's work is that it fills a gap in the English language market for books discussing Romanian magic and folk beliefs. People who are curious about these subjects don't have many options for resources, and what is out there is very difficult to weigh the quality of. Simina is a solid source - she has presented a paper for the Folklore Society - who is speaking from within the culture and her writing is accessible and easy to understand.

A Fairy Path is autobiographical, telling the story of the author's life in communist Romania, her own other-than-usual experiences and connection to the Unseen, and her path into folk practice. Unlike many biographies and autobiographies this book isn't a dry read though; the story is told so smoothly that it often feels like a novel rather than non-fiction and the folklore and folk practice blends in seamlessly. It is an enjoyable read for its own sake but one that will also teach you a range of material in a far more engaging way than most lectures. 

The book starts with an author's note that I recommend people read before going on; I know not everyone likes to read author notes but I think this one really helps set the tone for the book. From there it moves into the main body of the text, 18 chapters which lay out the author's story. There is an epilogue, followed by two appendices. The first appendix is a guide to the folk magic that comes up in the book and offers great insight into Romanian practices. The second appendix is a list of resources for further study - I found this especially invaluable because it can be so hard to sort out good from bad sources on the subject, or even to find any at all much of the time. 

Overall I think this book is a great resource for Romanian folk belief and magic, and a fun read outside of that. It also offers a unique look into the culture of Romania at the time of the author's childhood, and the way that folk beliefs linger even in hostile environments. I'd recommend it to anyone who is curious about the subject or who just enjoys a good autobiography. 

A Fairy Path is a unique look into the intersectionality of Romanian fairy belief, life outside the norm, and finding a place in a changing world, deftly interweaving the author's experiences and thoughts as she came of age in communist Romania and reconciled her experiences with fairies against the unbelief of those around her. This is not your typical autobiography but rather works to guide the reader, along with the author's younger self, through the process of integrating personal experience, folk belief, and magic into a cohesive whole in a world that is too often hostile to those who are different. A fascinating and valuable read.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Fairy Facts: Changelings

 For our next installment of fairy facts I thought we'd tackle one of the most widely misunderstood subjects: changelings. To be fair a changeling isn't a type of fairy, per se,; we have stories of a wide array of specific types of beings that leave changelings from the aos sidhe to trolls. They are called changelings instead of by a specific term because they are something that has been changed for a stolen human; so perhaps we could understand it more as a kind of job description. 

Changelings are a huge topic - they take an entire chapter in my book Aos Sidhe and that's looking only at the Irish folklore - so this isn't going to be a comprehensive discussion here only an overview. At some point soon I will offer a full article on this subject and specifically dig into some of the most controversial or confusing aspects, but hopefully this today will at least help people get a better idea of what changelings are to start.

Name: Changelings

Description: A changeling is something left in place of a stolen human. There are three options with changelings: 1 an inanimate object that has been magically changed to look like the stolen person, 2 an elderly fairy that wants to be pampered and cared for, 3 a sick and dying fairy baby.
  The physical description of a changeling is often dependent on the specific story; if an inanimate object it will look exactly like the stolen human. If its a fairy it will often be described as an 'ugly' version of the stolen human.

Found in folklore across western Europe, from Iceland to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Germany.

Folklore: Across folklore we find stories of humans stolen by the fairies who are babies, toddlers, children, and adults; each is taken for different reasons but it usually boils down to filling a need the fairies have. Usually the stolen human is either left alone at a critical time during which the swap happens or wanders alone too close to fairy property. To cover these thefts a changeling is left in the stolen human's place and the changeling either "dies" and is buried or eventually leaves through various means. There are a very small number of stories where the changeling, if a fairy baby, survives and is raised by humans but always with community knowledge that they are (assumed to be) a changeling; more often the fairy is reclaimed by their fairy family while still a child. Most often the changeling is either driven out, forcing the stolen human's return, or the human is rescued forcing the changeling to leave; in some stories the changeling is killed or driven off but the human doesn't return (see anecdote section below).
   There is a wide diversity of folklore around changelings but it can be roughly divided into 6 types:
   1 Insatiable - baby or child who mindlessly consumes food and drink
   2 Inconsolable - baby or child that cannot be satisfied or appeased and is constantly crying
   3 Personality Changes - a child or adult who suddenly begins acting unlike themselves
   4 Eerily Knowledgeable - a baby or child who demonstrates impossible knowledge or skill, such as playing an instrument or dancing, or who otherwise reveals itself to be an elderly fairy
   5 Failure to Thrive - a baby or child who doesn't age or grow across years
   6 Dies - the changeling dies within a short time of being swapped for the human (particularly common in stories of women stolen after giving birth)
   In folklore of changelings we find various methods to force a changeling to leave or reveal itself, most of which are cruel and deadly. In a small number of stories the person is urged to provide excellent care for the changeling so that the fairies will care equally well for the stolen human, but usually the changeling is tortured in an attempt to force the fairies to take it back, which in the stories of course works. In another small sample of stories the stolen human is rescued directly from the fairies and the changeling disappears. 

Anecdotes: Changeling folklore exists both in story types, as mentioned above and in anecdotes which represent stories of people's personal experiences. Technically these are not separate things but for our purposes here I am dividing them for clarity, because there is a sharp contrast between the story types and alleged changeling encounters/experiences people have. While the above story types represent motifs and tropes that are found across various cultural tales and provide the stereotypical understanding of changelings, the anecdotes often represent very different approaches to this belief. For one thing anecdotes don't focus as strongly on infants but tend to feature children and adults more often, and the tell tale signs of a changeling rarely fit the story types. For example a story told on was about an 8 year old boy who was out picking nuts and disappeared; when found he was in a catatonic state and remained so until his parents followed the advice of a local fairy expert and - they believed - the changeling left and their 'real' son returned, although with no memory of the events since he'd disappeared. 
Anecdotal accounts sometimes involve court cases or stories wherein the person is murdered because of the belief they are a changeling. In these stories it is usually reasonably clear the child or adult was suffering from an illness, birth trauma, or other medical issue which caused them to be assumed a changeling. 

Where It Gets Muddy: popular modern fiction has largely reversed the concept of a changeling, taking it from an old or sickly fairy - or stick - swapped for a living human and turning it into a trope about a magical child raised by humans who later discovers they are a fairy. This is entirely foreign to the older or culturally based stories but has become the dominant view across popculture in the last decade or so as the trope has become well known in fiction. This has caused many people who get their understanding of folk beliefs directly from modern fiction to accept this view as definitive. 

What They Aren't: despite the proliferations of memes and social media assertions, changeling wasn't the older term for autistic children or how autism was previously understood. The association with autism only dates back to the 1990s and is based strictly on one or two story types associated with changeling folklore (ignoring the others and all anecdotal accounts). It is a term that some modern autistic people self-identify with but should be understood in that context. Prior to the 1990s, specifically in the Victorian period, folklorists and other academics had explained changelings as a misguided belief by ignorant people around children born with clinical retardation or Down Syndrome. Martin Luther in the 16th century explained changelings as children born without souls who only existed as a physical body. It is possible that some autistic children in the past would have been labelled as changelings but it is far from a 1 = 1 equivalency. 

There is a strong link between changeling folklore and people, particularly children, suffering from physical disabilities or congenital issues. I highly recommend dr Rose Sawyer's book 'The Medieval Changeling' to better understand the intersection of changeling belief and disability. 

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Fairy Facts: Cait Sìth

 A recent discussion on social media has motivated me to start a small series which I am going to call 'fairy facts' which will offer a brief overview of specific types of beings often labelled as fairies or within the wider purview of the subject. This will not be an in-depth full article - I have already written a book, A New Dictionary of Fairies, that deep dives into various fairies and folklore Katherine Briggs style and I am not going to do that again here. But I am going to offer a solid basic intro to each one that can hopefully help people understand this folklore better and dispel some popular misunderstandings. 

So, to start lets look at a victim of meme'ing misinformation, the Cait Sidhe or more properly the cait sìth.

not a cat sidhe, just a regular cat

Name: Cat sìth in Gaidhlig, Cat sidhe in Irish, both meaning 'fairy cat' or 'cat of the Otherworldly mounds'
    plural is cait sìth or cait sidhe

Description: a medium-to-large-dog-sized black cat with a spot of white on its chest

Found in primarily Scottish and to a lesser extent Irish folklore

Folklore: despite the name a cat sìth isn't a cat per se, but rather is either a fairy in the shape of a cat or a witch who has transformed into a cat. As a witch it is believed they can change into their cat form 8 times and change back to human form but if they change a 9th time they will be trapped as a cat forever. In stories of the fairy in cat form they sometimes speak or act in anthropomorphic ways, and its believed they walk on two legs when they think they won't be observed. 
  Cait sìth are believed to steal the souls of the newly dead, so there are a variety of wake practices which were  focused on preventing that, including attempts to distract or delay the fairy cat from reaching the corpse. 

See: Campbell's The Gaelic Otherworld for more on cats and witches/witches in the form of cats

Where It Gets Muddy: much of the folklore that is commonly found about Cait sìth comes from a single website from 2000, which didn't cite any sources for its claims. This is where the idea that a bowl of milk would be left out on samhaine [sic] for the cat sidhe comes from, for example. While purporting to share scottish folklore the website uses Irish spellings and uses the plural cait sidhe in place of the singular, suggesting caution should be applied to the material. Nonetheless nearly a quarter century on from its start the material has become widespread and has been accepted into the modern folklore corpus. 

What They Aren't: cait sìth are not a breed of cat, although it is thought that they may have been inspired by the Scottish Kellas cat. They aren't any type of human-world cat nor are they housepets in any way. Despite the name and proliferations of twee memes, the cat sidhe isn't simply the fairy world equivalent of a human world cat, but is best understood as a humanoid spirit in the shape of a cat.