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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

10 Red Flags in Spiritual Books

 I've written before about 7 Warning Signs of a Bad Fairy Source but I wanted to expand a bit here and look more generally at red flags of books that may be problematic. Some of these things will overlap with the previous list and many won't but I think they all are important criteria for judging whether a book or other source might not be solid, especially in today's world where material is proliferating at such a fast pace. None of these, except maybe point #1, are necessarily signs that you shouldn't read a book but they are definitely indicators that caution and extra discernment is needed. 

I don't generally tackle people's personal gnosis in things like this because I feel like personal gnosis is just that, personal. It isn't for me to judge whether its true or not in any wider context, unless its being put out publicly with the expectation that others must or should accept it. That said some of these guidelines will apply to people's personal gnosis that is shared in books or other sources, such as point #4, and I stand by what I am saying here. That doesn't necessarily invalidate that person's beliefs but it should give other people, at the least, pause in considering whether that belief is meant to apply to anyone outside that individual. 

This one checks several on the list


  1.  Super Secret Translations/Sources - #1 red flag and the most easily spotted. When a book claims its text is or is based on a one of a kind ancient or historic text that only the author ever got to see or translate...just put the book down and walk away. Nothing good will follow. I have seen this multiple times in pagan and fairy books and every single time its obviously just a way for the author to try to claim a false authority for their own writing. And however valuable that writing may seem to those who do read it, its coming from a poisoned well in my opinion when the premise is a non-existent text, especially since the books that use this that I have read include multiple other red flags from this list.

  2.  Relying On Outdated Sources - A less serious red flag, but exceedingly common, are books that rely solely or largely on very old outdated sources. If the bibliography is mostly works from the 18th and 19th century* and the author is trying to use those to discuss modern beliefs and situations then at best its going to be inaccurate and lacking nuance. Older texts from those periods are notoriously problematic for multiple reasons: the bias of the authors, the class difference between author and material being recorded, the agenda of the author, the tendency for 'folklorists' of the times to include their own fiction or opinions in with recorded anecdotes, flagrant racism, etc.,. This material can be useful when understood in context but shouldn't be relied on as the sole sources for modern spirituality. 

  3.  No Sources - Obviously if the author is being clear they are relaying their own gnosis this doesn't apply, but if the book includes history, other people's anecdotal accounts, or discussion of factual information that can and usually would be sourced and it isn't then that's usually not a good sign. Referencing a source allows a reader to check that source for themselves; not doing so means the reader is entirely dependent on the author's paraphrased or retold version and I have found numerous instances where I recognized a source (usually Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries) being used in ways that intentionally or not distorted the actual material being repeated - but without that clear reference a reader who wasn't familiar with the source wouldn't realize that. 

  4.  'Everyone Else is Completely Wrong But Me' - Another significant red flag is when an author claims that they are the sole source of accurate knowledge on any subject or the only purveyor of genuine truth. Run, don't walk, away from this sort of approach because it leads directly into cults of personality and literal cults. 

  5.  Pseudowords - Pseduowords aren't necessarily bad if they are acknowledged as such - if the author is clear they made up a word or term for their own practice that's fine. If they say it was channeled to them but aren't claiming its part of any real human language or system also fine, as such. But if they are putting the word forward as a genuine term that they claim exists and has a history but which can't be verified in anyway except by them (see: tenalach) you need to be very skeptical. 

  6.  Invented Terms - Again if the author is honest about this it isn't a problem but when the term is presented as if it were a legitimate term within a wider community or spirituality when that community has no idea of the word or term, that's a big problem. (see: Seabhean). 

  7.  Misused Other^ Languages - Other languages are not, in fact, blank templates that can be redefined at the whim of outsiders. Words have set meanings, even in dead languages like Old/Middle Irish or Latin, and obviously especially in living languages. It is not even remotely okay for an author to take a term from a language they don't speak and redefine it for their own agenda and when tyhat happens in a book its a big red flag. For example Kisma Stepanich in her Faery Wicca books claiming that shillelagh is what wands are called or misusing the term ollamh. 

  8.  False History - Always be cautious of any book that gets basic history dates and facts wrong or claims an alternative history that is incompatible with established facts. And yes I do know that history is far more fluid than set in stone but if someone is claiming, for example, that Irish independence occured in the 19th century not the 20th and involved vampires and it was all covered up to hide the existence of vampires you really should see that as a red flag. Really, really. 

  9.  Racism/Antisemitism - This one may seem obvious but its surprisingly common in spiritual books to see both racism and antisemitism** slipped in with a veneer of either historical or spiritual acceptability. Books that include the outdated and racist theory that fairies were a primitive, dark race of people driven out by light skinned/haired invaders are a good example, and moreso books that advocate the even more blatantly racist 'African pygmies = fairies' theory. Any source talking about 'Irish slaves' should get a hard pass, as should anything getting into antisemetic 'lizard people', New World Order, or similar. 

  10.  Plagiarism - another one that I'd think should be obvious but any instances of  plagiarism of other works in a source is a big red flag. Don't trust a source that is presenting other people's work or writing as their own. This is where checking reviews of a book or source can be very helpful as often plagiarism will be mentioned by reviewers if its an issue; not to say you should automatically trust any random accusation of such online but if you see one you can dig further into it to see if it has substance. 
I do realize some of the linguistic stuff may be difficult to recognize as either legitimate or not, so I always encourage readers when encountering a new term in any book to take a few minutes to research the term. If you do a quick internet search and all the results go back to the author you are checking up on that's not a good sign. You might notice that several of these, particularly around language, are aspects of cultural appropriation, which is true, but as people seem to find that subject in general confusing and hard to parse I thought it would be more helpful here to highlight the specific areas that should be watched for instead of just making CA a point in the list, however that is definitely something to be aware of and watchful for.  

*the exception being when beliefs of that time are being discussed or specific material, like a ballad, is being analyzed within its own time frame. even then modern scholarship should be included as well.
other in this context meaning any language that isn't native/known to the author or speaker.
** I could add misogyny, transphobia, and xenophobia here but so far at least these seem to be more fringe (thankfully) and more easily recognized and called out by people - although I will say xenophobia is definitely on the rise. I'm highlighting specifically racism and antisemitism because I see them far too often and far too often accepted and justified across a range of spiritual works.  

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Imcallaim na Morrigan: the Morrigan, Cu Chulainn, and love?

 There is perhaps no other scene from Irish mythology that causes more confusion than the imcallam na Morrigna or so-called 'Buan's Daughter' section of the Táin Bó Cuailgne [TBC]. This is the scene where the Morrigan in disguise as the daughter of a king named Buan [literally 'lasting' or 'enduring'] goes to Cu Chulainn and first tries to tempt him then threatens him. 

This is the Faraday translation of the passage:
"Cuchulainn saw a young woman coming towards him, with a dress of every colour on, and her form very excellent.
' Who are you? ' said Cuchulainn.
'Daughter of Buan the king,' said she. 'I have come to you; I have loved you for your reputation, and I have brought my treasures and my cattle with me.'
'The time at which you have come to us is not good. For our condition is evil, through hunger. It is not easy to me to meet a woman, while I am in this strife.'
'I will be a help to you
..
[edited out from Faraday the original text is Cu Chulainn's response "It is not for a woman's arse I have come."]
.. I shall be more troublesome to you,' said she, 'when I come against you when you are in combat against the men. I will come in the form of an eel about your feet in the ford, so that you shall fall.'
'I think that likelier than the daughter of a king. I will take you,' said he, 'between my toes, till your ribs are broken, and you will be in this condition till a doom of blessing comes (?) on you.'
'I will drive the cattle on the ford to you, in the form of a grey she-wolf.'
'I will throw a stone at you from my sling, so that it shall break your eye in your head; and you will be in that state till a doom of blessing comes on you.'
' I will come to you in the form of a hornless red heifer before the cattle. They will rush on you on the plains (?), and on the fords, and on the pools, and you will not see me before you.'
' I will throw a stone at you,' said he, 'so that your leg shall break under you, and you will be in this state till a doom of blessing comes on you.'
Therewith she goes from him
."
- http://adminstaff.vassar.edu/sttaylor/Cooley/Faraday/Conversation.html 

The text following the edited portion is nearly a duplicate of the final back and forth between the Morrigan and Cu Chulainn in the TBR where she threatens to come at him in the three forms to make his combat with an equally matched warrior unfair in order to ensure that he is killed. This is the culmination in the TBR to a contentious meeting between the two and which ultimately results in a prediction of the TBC.

Looking at the misunderstandings of the Buan's Daughter passage there's two layers to the confusion, so let's start with the widespread assertion that this shows that the Morrigan loved Cu Chulainn and that she turned against him when he spurned her. If we actually read the text of the passage its not nearly that clear. He doesn't actually refuse her initially, he tells her it isn't a good time for him to "meet a woman" and only when she then offers to explicitly aid him in his efforts does he say that it isn't for sex that he's defending the border; this may be a reference to other occasions on which there are attempts to bribe him away from Ulster by offering him a woman, including Medb's own daughter. The Morrigan is also in disguise, having put on a richt or assumed form because he has of course already seen her in what may be her true form* in the Táin Bó Regamna [TBR] and in both the Buan's daughter encounter and subsequent 'Healing of the Morrigan' passage we see her appearing to him in very different disguises. Why is this? Because the two of them have an established and contentious relationship with each other, albeit one that is far more complex than simply adversarial. In the TBR for example when he realizes the woman he has been speaking to is the Morrigan he tells her that had he known the whole time they would have had a different encounter, implying he would not have parted so amicably from her. Similarly in the Healing of the Morrigan passage of the TBC when he realizes that he has healed the Morrigan he says that if he had known it was her he would not have done so. So why then is she coming to him at all? It is certainly odd given their previous interactions for her to suddenly go to him and declare her love while offering to help him in battle. One interpretation is that the scene isn't about seduction but is a test of Cu Chulainn's dedication to defending Ulster. From this view then the Morrigan isn't trying to actually proclaim her love but rather is seeing if he can be led into abandoning his post with the lure of a beautiful woman. He refuses and the two instead engage in battle, or at least she attempts to further test him by attacking him while he is battling the warrior Loch. I will note in fairness that some scholars do accept a romantic tone to this passage which leads us into the next point, which is the validity of the passage itself.

Although often treated as if it were ubiquitous to the TBC now, in fact this encounter is not found in other versions of the text, which more clearly and directly relate the Morrigan's attacks on Cu Chulainn to the TBR. For example this is from Dunn's version based on a text that doesn't include the Buan's Daughter incident but instead references back to the remscél of the Táin Bó Regamna:
"Then it was that the Morrigan daughter of Ernmas came from the fairy dwellings to destroy Cuchulain. For she had threatened on the Cattle-raid of Regomaina that she would come to undo Cuchulain what time he would be in sore distress when engaged in battle and combat with a goodly warrior, with Loch, in the course of the Cattle-spoil of Cualnge."
http://adminstaff.vassar.edu/sttaylor/Cooley/LochMor.html 
This has led some scholars, including Baumgarten in Éiru volume 34, to suggest that the insertion of the Buan' Daughter passage in that version of the TBC was a later one by scribes trying to explain the reason the Morrigan attacked Cu Chulainn in the story. This may reflect scribes who were unfamiliar with the remscél or, as Baumgarten further suggests, were trying to reconcile a misreading of one line within the TBR. This pivotal line is a comment by the Morrigan to Cu Chulainn (Yellow Book of Lecan version), "Is oc diten do baissiu atusa ocus biad" [I am and shall be guarding your death] which Baumgarten argues was a misrendering of "Is oc dídin do báis-siu atáu-sa ocus bia" that is "I am and shall be bringing about your death" (Baumgarten, 1983). In previous translations the error was forwarded that the word was a form of ditiu, which means protecting or guarding, despite that not fitting the context of the TBR passage which is clearly threatening and not protective in nature; Baumgarten instead suggests the correct term is díden meaning to lead to or bring about. 
Baumgarten's view has been accepted widely enough that it is given in the eDIL as an example of the word díden, in contrast to the older interpretations that rely on connecting the word to dítiu, however unlikely that seems in context. In this view the romantic overtones of the Buan's Daughter passage were created based on the assumption that the Morrigan had promised to protect Cu Chulainn in some sense and was appearing to fulfill that role, only becoming antagonistic when he refused her aid (Baumgarten, 1983). Even in this I might argue that there is less of romance at play and more a sense of guardianship, albeit one created through a linguistic misunderstanding.

The Buan's Daughter section has resulted in some modern readers and people interested in Irish mythology assuming that the Morrigan was in love with Cu Chulainn** and became his enemy only after he rejected her. I do not believe the text itself supports that assertion or that the wider interactions between those two figures can justify such a view, and think that there is ample evidence that the passage was indeed a later insertion to explain a misreading of the TBR. While this doesn't, obviously, negate the existence of the Buan's Daughter passage it should be taken into account when trying to understand the wider dynamic at play between the Morrigan and Cu Chulainn so that excessive weight isn't given to that single encounter and so that it may be understood within a wider context.


End Notes
*its uncertain but as his encounter with her in the TBR is unexpected and does not seem to be one she prearranged the 'red headed woman' is the best candidate for the Morrigan's true humanoid form, in my opinion. She is of course a shapeshifter so most often when she appears in stories she is described as being in a certain form.
**I am perhaps understating this, as I have seen some extreme claims based on this passage including that the Morrigan was desperate to bear Cu Chulainn's child or was deeply heartbroken after his 'rejection'. Neither of these or the other outré claims sprung from them are supported in mythology or folklore but all seem to be rooted back in this single passage.  


References
Baumgarten, R. (1983). Varia III. A Note on Táin Bó Regamna. Ériu, 34, 189-193. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30007756 
Daimler, M., (2015) Táin Bó Regamna. Retrieved from https://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2015/03/tain-bo-regamna.html
Dunn, J., (1914) Táin Bó Cualgn
eDIL (n.d.) electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language. retrieved from http://www.dil.ie/
Faraday, L., (1904) The Cattle Raid of Cualgne

Cuchulainn's death, by Stephen Reid 1904


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Are The Irish Gods, Gods?

  Every cultural type of paganism has its own unique little issues, things that go around within that particular community. Usually these are not things based in facts, but are a kind of urban legend, a statement made at a some point that was then repeated and taken as fact and slowly takes on a life of its own until it gains a kind of truth of its own, no matter how disconnected it may be from the actual root culture, historic fact, or myth. In Heathenry you see this with the [false] idea people constantly repeat that only those who die in battle go to Valhalla or that Valhalla is a universal goal, a kind of heaven, while Hel is a terrible place to be avoided. In Irish paganism what I see going around fairly often is the assertion that the Irish Gods were not, in fact, Gods at all. 

 This argument is put forth on several assertions. Firstly it's claimed that we have nothing recorded or written by the pagan Irish themselves therefore we have no idea who or what they considered Gods. The second assertion is that none of the Tuatha Dé Danann are ever referred to as Gods in any of the existing material, and that this is because they were never seen as being Gods at all just fictional characters. Both of these arguments are used, sometimes by people within the Celtic pagan community, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, as with the "we know nothing about Druids" line its simply an excuse to justify someone tossing out the historical material and making up whatever they like. Sometimes its an attempt to disparage Irish paganism. The responses to being told the Irish Gods aren't Gods are often sincere but emotional, so lets try a different approach here. 

   To address the assertion that we have nothing from the pre-Christian pagan Irish so therefore we don't know anything about their Gods, I honestly find that argument disingenuous. That statement is generally true of cultures like the Picts and neolithic Irish, but while we do not have any primary sources for the pagan Irish we have an abundance of secondary sources. We have mythology preserved by early scribes during and immediately after the conversion period and we have later folklore which preserved the memory of deities in certain areas. These secondary sources can be cross checked in some cases against other Indo-European cultures, both other Celtic language cultures and other closely related I-E ones because we know that I-E cultures had not only certain patterns of deities but also certain deities who can be found across cultures. Nuada is an excellent Irish example of that: a mythic figure, found among the Irish Tuatha Dé Danann who fits a wider pattern of the wounded king God seen in related cultures and who has clear cognates among the Welsh, British, and Gaulish. Archaeology is a significant tool as well, as studying  archaeological sites can tell us where ritual centers were and whether areas from myth and folklore did have ritual significance. We know from these sites that the Gods honored there were worshiped with offerings, and stories like "The Taking of the Sidhe" imply that such offerings were necessary for the people to receive blessing and abundance. We can also study place names and the way that folklore around specific deities focuses at a location. The different Tuatha De Danann had their own sacred places and real world sites that belonged to them. Like putting together pieces of a puzzle no single piece gives us an answer but when we put them all together we see the bigger picture. 
    Speaking of secondary sources, the second argument claims that nowhere are the Irish Gods, that is the Tuatha De Danann, called Gods. This is simply untrue. Some examples from the source material with the word for god or goddess in bold: 
  •     "ben in Dagda…día sóach(Gwynn, 1906). 
    the Dagda's wife…the shapeshifting goddess. 
  •    "‘H-i Ross Bodbo .i. na Morrighno, ar iss ed a ross-side Crich Roiss & iss i an bodb catha h-i & is fria id-beurur bee Neid .i. bandee in catæ, uair is inann be Neid & dia cathæ’.
    "In the Wood of Badb, i.e. of the Morrigu, for that is her wood, viz. the land of Ross, and she is the Battle-Crow and is called the Wife of Neit, i.e. the Goddess of Battle, for Neit is the same as God of Battle.’" (Meyers, 1910)
  •  "Brigit .i. banfile.... bandea no adratis filid," (Sanas Cormac, n.d.) 
    Brighid, that is a poetess...a Goddess poets used to worship" 
  •   "Manannan Mac Lir... inde Scoti et Britónes eum deum maris uocauerunt..." (Sanas Cormac, n.d.)  
    Manannan Mac Lir...
    the Irish and British called him the God of the sea 
  • Dagda .i. dagh .i. día soinemhail ag na geintíbh é, ar do adhradháis Tuatha Dé Danann dó, ar bá día talmhan dóibh é ar mhét a chumachta (Stokes & Windisch, 1897)
    Dagda that is a good god that is an excellent god he was of the pagans; because the Tuatha De Danann adored/worshiped him, because he was a god of the world to them, because of the greatness of his power
  This is only a small sample but it makes it clear that while each and every one of the Tuatha De Danann may not have been called Gods explicitly several of them were. It would seem very illogical for the people recording this information to retroactively promote fictional characters to deities during a period that was still in transition from one religion to another, when the populace would still remember the older beliefs. When the different iterations of the myths are studied I believe a pattern can be seen wherein the Gods are slowly demoted over time, so that the Morrigan is clearly a goddess in the oldest versions of the material but by the later period has become a spectral figure. Similarly Áine is clearly originally a goddess who slowly devolves into a fairy woman and then mortal girl. This pattern would not seem to fit with the idea that the Gods were never divine, but only a Christian literary device. 
   Were the Irish Gods understood to be Gods historically? It seems clear that they were. They have sacred sites, they have myths and folklore, they have cognates and related deities in other Celtic cultures, they are called Gods in the older texts. 
 Are the Irish Gods, Gods? Yes.
References:
Gwynn, E., (1906). Metrical Dindshenchas
Meyer, K., (1910). The Wooing of Emer
Sanas Cormac (n.d.) http://www.asnc.cam.ac.uk/irishglossaries/texts.php?versionID=9&ref=150#150
Stokes, W., and Windisch, E., (1897) Irische Texte




Copyright Morgan Daimler

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Power in a Name

 There is a lot of power in names and naming, so today I want to look at the way we see that played out in mythology and folklore. I thought this would be a good topic to discuss in particular because of the confusion I sometimes see around the idea of True Names and magical names within modern paganism. So let's look at what True Names and magical names are, and the difference between them, with some examples from mythology and folklore.


A True Name is the name that resonates with a being's soul or otherwise identifies that being on the deepest level. This is not necessarily the name you are given by your parents at birth, although we'll look at the power that your birth name can have later. Your True Name is a deeper metaphysical thing, something that you may or may not ever find if you are human, and something that you guard as more precious than your life. Knowing a being's True Name gives you power over that being and allows you a level of control of them. In the Cath Maige Tuired we see this when the Dagda encounters a Fomorian princess who demands he carry her on his back; he refuses until after asking him his name three times* he is forced to reveal his True Name, and knowing it she repeats the request using it and he is forced to comply. In the familiar story of Rumplestilskin we see knowledge of a True Name as the only way for a woman to get out of a contract she has made with a dwarf. This motif and variations of it are found throughout Europe, with either the firstborn child or the woman herself as the agreed upon pay for the Otherworldly being unless the Name can be discovered. Knowing a True Name means knowing the true nature of a being which allows that being to be commanded against their will, and this is exactly why knowledge of a True Name was hidden.

As I mentioned, your birth name does also have power over you. Perhaps anyone who has ever experienced an angry parent yelling their full name at them is already aware of this. Seriously though, even though your birth name is something given to you by others it has the power of blood and kinship bound up in it, and it is tied to your soul all the same, although not as strongly as your True Name. In most folklore it was understood as unwise to give your name to Otherworldly beings, because knowledge of your birth name gave them knowledge of you to some degree. We see examples of this in stories such as 'Maggy Moulach' where a fairy (in that case a Brownie) tragically loves a mortal; when he had asked her name, she told him it was 'Mise Fein' [Me Myself]. The young woman eventually is forced to throw boiling water on the amorous fairy, mortally wounding him, and when he was later asked who had harmed him he answered 'Me Myself' preventing his mother from seeking revenge against the girl. Names have power, even the ones our parents have given us.

As adults we can choose our own names. We can assume nicknames, or we can even (in most countries as far as I know) legally change our names. There is a long and deep seated tradition of adults changing names to shed the name they were given at birth and assume a new name as an adult, usually to better reflect who the person was. We see this in mythology with Setanta becoming Cu Chulainn; Gwion Bach becoming Taleisin; Deimne becoming Fionn Mac Cumhaill. There is power in naming ourselves, but we should choose wisely as well, because just like birth names the names we give ourselves hold power over us and create connections. Cu Chulainn taking his name also meant taking a gies against eating dog meat, and it his fate was bound up in that taboo.

It is from the power that your name has, I believe, that we see magical names coming in, particularly in ceremonial magic. A magical name was originally meant as a pseudonym, a way to keep your identity hidden from spirits and likely to act as a layer of magical defense from unfriendly people, witches and non-witches. Or perhaps we might say more aptly it was used to create a specific alternate identity for dealing with them. Magical names, like any good persona, were about creating an ideal image for the self, rather than a true reflection of the self. So, for example someone's True Name might be Echaire [horse-keeper] but they may take a magical name that is much grander and more impressive sounding like 'Storm Raven' or 'Ocean Rider'. People also often use the names of deities, mythic heroes, famous magicians of the past, and powerful animals for their magical names. Magical names did build power with use, but could also be shed and remade as needed. Think of them a bit like clothes or armor. Even with this though there was historically usually a layer of secrecy between a person's magical name and real name, an attempt to keep the two separate and distinct, so that in ritual or with fellow practitioners no other name would be used except the magical, and outside of those contexts no name except the birth name would be used.

At some point in the modern era I think the ideas of True Names and magical names were confused somehow, so that people began to think that a magical name was supposed to be a true reflection of self rather than a projection of power and confidence. From this we start to see two things happening, firstly magical names that are intended to reflect as much of a person's soul as possible, and secondly the public use of magical names in non-magical contexts. Or basically the entire concept of magical names became less about esoteric spirit work naming and more of a tribal assuming-a-new-name-with-a-new-community process. One is not better or worse than the other, but they need to be understood as distinctly different things. A public name that you use because you feel it fits you better than the one your parents gave you, isn't a magical name. And it isn't your true name either, or I hope it isn't if your sharing it around so publicly.

Names have power. We can take control of that power by choosing what we want people to call us, by naming ourselves. Even assuming a nickname is an act of power. We can use magical names. We can even seek, and sometimes find, our True Name But we shouldn't forget the lessons that mythology and fairy tales have taught us about the value of the power of the names and the need to guard the names that mean the most to us. Not all names are meant to be shared.

* there is also significance to the repetition of the number three, and of asking a question three times.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Urine & Dirty Water: Fending Off Fairies With Filth

   The Good Folk across several cultures are well known for their preference for cleanliness and their strong dislike of people and places that are unclean as well as things, like urine and dirty water, that are similarly unclean. They avoid humans who they judge not to meet their cleanliness standards and on the same side of that coin may be warded off by using the things they dislike.  I'll include examples here for illustration.

In England we find Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet writing about a fairy named Mab - whose name itself references a slovenly woman - who punishes lazy women by matting their hair: "This is that very Mab; That plats the manes of horses in the night; And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs."

Katherine Briggs, speaking generally about fairies in her 1976 Dictionary of Fairies mentions how dirty water left in a home might be punished by leg injuries or pinching. She also mentions that habitual uncleanness was a trait abhorred by the fairies and one which they frequently punished. 

In some Irish folklore dirty wash water was a ward against fairies, keeping them out of a home. In other regions however the opposite effect resulted from not throwing dirty water out, as having it standing in the home allowed fairies to enter. There are several accounts of folklore around the need to call out a warning before throwing out or dumping dirty water, lest the Good Folk passing invisibly by be splashed by it and then seek to punish the person who had thrown it. 

Similarly in Scotland there are several accounts of fairies who would appear at a door to ask the household to throw their wash water out elsewhere because it was draining into a fairy place. We can find examples of that in a story from Ulster which relates how the request by the fairies was usually quickly complied with, and another which mentions that the fairies were not to be annoyed and dirty water had to be carefully disposed of. 

Urine, like dirty water, offended the fairies* and also acted to keep them away. In Ireland urine was used to drive off a changeling, and we have accounts such as that of Bridget Cleary, where the presumed changeling was doused in urine with the idea that it would cause the fairy to flee and force the return of the stolen human. 

We have this from county Kerry, discussing the use of urine as a protection:
"To keep the fairies away from stealing or harming children the mothers washed them in urine and then the good people would not come near."
https://www.duchas.ie/ga/cbes/4742085/4734431/4923997

And from Limerick a slightly longer story:
"Many years ago there was a woman living near Kilfinane and she had an only daughter who was very handsome. One morning when she was going to school she was passing through a field in which there was a lios [fairy fort]. When she was passing the lios a beautiful red haired woman stood in front of her and took her in to the lios to mind her child. And in the evening when the other children came home from school she left her go. The following morning the same thing happened and was going on for a number of days and the girl never told her mother about it but the mother noticed that her daughter was getting delicate. One day a neighbour came to her and asked her what was wrong with her daughter that she wasn't going to school. The mother said that her daughter left the house every morning to go to school, but she said that she noticed her getting delicate and not eating her food like she used to. So she asked the little girl that night about not going to school and where was she spending the day and the little girl said "Don't blame me mother I was called by a lovely lady and she took me into her house to mind her baby for her and when the children used to be coming home from school she used let me go." Her mother was very worried and did not know what to do. So she went to an old woman who was a neighbour of hers to get her advice. And the old woman told her to tell her daughter to ask the lady what cure was there for a pet calf that would be pining away. And the next morning the little girl asked the lady for the cure and she told her to tell her mother that the best cure was to wash it in urine for nine morning, so when the little girl came home she told her mother what the red haired lady said. And the mother went and told the old woman about the cure. Then the old woman told the mother to bathe her daughter next morning in the urine. And she did. When the girl was passing the lios the next morning in her way to school she was met by the lady who told that she couldn't interfere with her anymore."
https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922044/4846951 

An account from Donegal relates how a man set up a cowshed in a way that the urine from the cows flowed into the home of the local fairy queen, annoying her so that she killed and injured his cows. On the advice of an old woman, who the neighbours later decided was herself a fairy, he moved the cowshed and his luck turned around. 

This is only a brief overview of some of the accounts of fairies being averse to dirty water and urine but hopefully it offers the reader a sense of the wider beliefs. Fairies are, as Briggs discusses at greater length, beings that prefer cleanliness and order and tend to react poorly to the opposite conditions even punishing those who they feel are slighting them or intentionally failing to offer then an appropriately clean place, as we see in a Welsh story of a servant girl who is punished for failing to set out clean water for the fairies. This aversion can be used against them as shown in the stories about urine being used to protect children**.


End Notes
*there are similar beliefs in Iceland, where the expression 'driving out the elves' is slang for urination, as it was believed that urinating offended the Álfar and would cause them to leave an area. 
** I'm not personally advocating bathing babies or children in urine. I am merely presenting it here as a folk belief to illustrate the fairies abhorrence of the substance and its power over them. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Critical Reviews: Why They Matter and How to Spot a Good One

 Critical reviews are important but are often misunderstood or maligned, particularly in communities which emphasize harmony or focusing on the good over the bad. While I can understand this desire the truth is that a critical review can be an important way to address misinformation presented in nonfiction books or various issues in fiction. These issues are important to address because without a fair counterpoint being offered many readers, particularly of nonfiction, may not be aware of issues that are significant such as radical factual errors. Critical reviews are also important to authors, because they allow an author to see where they may have misstepped, been inaccurate, can be more clear, or where particular demographics may have been offended or ignored. A critical review should be a learning tool for the reader and the author, highlighting things that needed improvement, editing, or revision. 

No book or author should be above or beyond criticism and the idea that anyone is should be a red flag for people that things are edging into personality cult territory. Fair and balanced criticism is essential and should apply to anyone.

The following are of course entirely my own opinions and suggestions.

Basic Guidelines for a Nonfiction Critical Review

  • A good critical review should critique content. If a review is attacking the author personally then you aren't reading a review of the book you are reading a review of the author, which is an entirely different thing. Criticism of content is valuable and can help people learn to distinguish good information from bad or see where errors are occurring which they may not have the knowledge of the subject to spot themselves. It can be important to frame a book in the context of the author's biases but ideally this shouldn't feel like an attack but rather give context to the wider review. For example pointing out that an author doesn't come from the culture they are writing about isn't an attack but can be important context for a review. 
  • A good critical review should not be a vehicle to attack an author, viewpoint, or group. This one is fairly obvious but if the entire point of the review is just to have an excuse to write an attack piece aimed at something besides the book itself then it isn't a good review. If the book opens up the author, perspective, or group to criticism based on the content of the book that's a different story, but if the two are largely unrelated then they should be treated separately. The only exception to this would be if the author has a known history of blatant harmful behavior or opinions which readers should be made aware of. For example if the author is a known neoNazi or pedophile; even in those circumstances however it should be presented as a caveat emptor [buyer beware] not attack.
  • A good critical review should align criticism with the subject. A book on folklore should be discussed based on folklore, for example, just as a book on witchcraft should be discussed through that lens. Criticizing a book on folklore based on personal experiences is never going to result in a solid review, just like criticizing a book on witchcraft through the lens of, say, modern American Protestantism won't result in a good critical review. 
  • A good critical review should offer solid examples of what is being criticized. Ideally this should be in the form of quotes from the text being reviewed which are then discussed, with counterpoints or better information offered. Vague mentions or hints of what might be the issue that are never well defined do not make for a good review.
  • A good critical review should have no logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are, quite frankly, a huge issue in many of the arguments people put forth even though they actually don't support what the person is trying to say. 
  • A good critical review should be clear on what the issues with the book were. After reading a good critical review a person should have a clear understanding of what the criticism was, how it was supported, and how the issues affected the book overall. 


Basic Guideline for a Fiction Critical Review
  • A good critical review should be aimed at content. Just like with nonfiction the point is to critique the book not the person's feelings about the author. Although there are some circumstances where an author's personal history or background may come into play that should ideally be tied into examples from the book itself. 
  • A good critical review should look at things like: pacing, plot holes, repetition, character development, dialogue, and believability. Some of these things, like pacing, will always be a personal preference by the reviewer but others like plot holes are more objective. 
  • A good critical review should warn about spoilers. If the review is going to give away key plot points or character's fates its important to warn the reader before they get to that section; some people do not want that sort of advanced knowledge if they are still trying to decide whether or not to read the book. 
  • A good critical review should be honest. If a person is criticizing something that bothered them personally they should acknowledge it. In contrast if they are critiquing something that has a factual basis - say the author radically misrepresented how quickly travel riding a horse is - that should be addressed on that basis. In other words it should be clear if the reviewer is saying "I didn't like how this was handled" versus "that's not how that physically works".
  • A good critical review shouldn't shy away from addressing issues of prejudice. Its entirely fair to criticize a book for falling into problematic tropes like the Magical Negro (or Magical Jew or Magical Queer, etc.,) or failing the Bechdel Test or similar. Good reviews shouldn't feel like they are trying to find these issues to point out however and should be able to offer clear examples.
A final note: criticism of grammar and spelling. In my opinion grammar and spelling should only be criticized if the mistakes are blatant, constant, and distracting to the reader. 

one of the more important critical reviews I have written was for Matthews' 'Secret Lives of Elves & Faeries'




Tuesday, March 16, 2021

7 Warning Signs of a Bad Fairy Source

 

I am often asked for direction on finding good sources on the subjects of fairies, which is fair because there is a lot of material out there and it ranges from good to terrible. I thought today it might be helpful to offer a very basic outline of what can indicate something is a bad source, or at least one that needs further vetting. Of course these are only my opinions and other people may have different thoughts on this subject but I have found these guidelines work well in vetting the quality of a source on fairies. 

  1. Using Names from Gaming - this is always a big red flag for me, when I see people using terms and names that explicitly come from role playing games or video games when discussing folklore and fairy belief. There are multiple things floating around online being shared as folklore that are actually excerpts from gaming manuals or websites, because people don't realize the excerpt isn't folklore. RPGs follow specific rules of game play which shapes the worldbuilding and lore that they create and this is often contradictory to or incompatible with functional belief.
  2. No Sources - its always a concern when a source doesn't have any sources of their own, unless we are dealing with a purely autobiographical work or anecdotal account. But when the subject is fairies  unless the work is clearly labeled as personal gnosis or experience (which is fine) outside sources are important especially when the work is claiming to describe or write about beings that have a long history in folklore. I always recommend looking at the bibliography of a book first to see what's there. Even if the bibliography seems solid if the text itself doesn't make it clear what sources are being used for what portions of the text its still a problem. I find it enormously frustrating to be reading a book where I can pick out segments of text that are paraphrased or even quoted without properly indicating the source, such as a book that uses a quote from Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries but only says something like 'this is the opinion of a 19th century Irishman in Galway'. Readers should be able to go to the source themselves to verify the part used in the book or further research. 
  3. Blurring Personal Gnosis and Folklore - now to be clear before everyone jumps in and yells at me, I am 100% in favor of personal gnosis and experiences and I think they are vital to the subject of fairies. But what I see a lot of in sources I find problematic is a failure to differentiate between personal gnosis and established folklore which often gives the impression that the personal gnosis is accepted folklore when it isn't. I am of the opinion that its important for authors on this subject to be clear as to what is their own thought or theory and what is found in wider folklore. Switching back and forth between personal opinion and established folklore without any indication of which is which is extremely confusing. 
  4. Claiming To Be The One True Source - claiming folklore is all wrong but the author has some special insight to the truth is another big red flag, not just for a bad source but for larger issues that can lean into cults of personality. There are a huge array of folklore and folk beliefs out there and much of it can be contradictory but its important to understand that diversity means no one is ever necessarily entirely right or wrong in their personal gnosis. When people seek to erase everyone else's experiences and thousands of years of folk belief in favor of their own ideas that should be considered problematic at the very least. 
  5. Plagiarism - there is a shocking amount of plagiarism in printed texts on fairies and on websites, whether that's from people who don't understand how to properly paraphrase or cite a source or people intentionally using someone else's writing. Either way any source that is using someone else's words without credit should not be trusted. 
  6. Fiction - I hate to even have to say this, but here we are. Fiction is not a source for fairy folklore. Despite what some people like to say to dismiss the subject folklore is not the fiction of our ancestors, its the collected beliefs and practices of specific groups which makes it diametrically different than fiction which is not belief but creative storytelling. If you find something interesting in fiction then take it further and research the actual folklore, don't just take the fiction and run with it. 
  7. Anthropocentricism - so this is undeniably my own hobby horse here, but I always tend to mistrust a source that centers humans or implies that humans have all the power and fairies need human protection and care to survive. If you could switch out the word fairies with 'wild birds' and not really effect the text then you are probably looking at one very particular opinion and a view that heavily diminishes and disempowers beings that have long been understood as powerful and possibly dangerous.