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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Reconstructing Iron Age Irish Ritual Feasting Practices

I am currently in Ireland so for today's blog I am offering an article I wrote for the February issue of Air n-Aithesc. If you enjoy it I highly recommend checking out other issues of the journal which is full of awesome material. 

Reconstructing Iron Age Irish ritual Feasting Practices

Ite teora feisa hErenn .i. feis Eamna, feis Temra, ocus feis Chruachna” – Cath Maige Rath
There are three feasts of Ireland, that is, the feast of Emhain [Macha], the feast of Tara, and the feast of Cruachan

   Ritual feasting is one aspect of ancient Irish, and more generally Celtic, polytheism that can easily be carried forward into modern life. To do this we must understand both the importance of the feast in a ritual context and the animals that would have been consumed, as both the social aspects as well as the sacred need to be carried forward. Entire books have been written on the social significance of feasting so the main focus of this article will be limited to the main animals chosen for consumption and their significance.
   Archaeological evidence points to the important role that seasonal ritual feasting played in Iron Age Ireland, specifically through faunal remains at known ritual centers like Dun Ailinne (Koch, 2005). Although it can be difficult to discern from such remains what the context of the animals use was generally in cases where ritual sites are being examined it is known that the site itself had a ritual purpose based on its design and the deposited bones show evidence of special disposal that is not consistent with ordinary domestic use, particularly wrapping and burial (McCormick, 2010). This hard evidence is supported by references in mythology to the great feasts held at these same sites on notable dates, particularly Samhain and Lunasa:
“…and that of every king in Ireland as well, for the purpose of holding Tara’s Feast: for a fortnight before samhain that is to say, On samhain-day itself, and for a fortnight after.” (Jones, n.d.)
With the men of Ireland too it was general that out of all airts they should resort to Tara in order to the holding of Tara's Feast at samhaintide. For these were the two principal gatherings that they had: Tara's Feast at every samhain (that being the heathens' Easter); and at each Lughnasa, or' Lammas-tide,' the Convention of Taillte." (O’Grady, 1892).
   Feasting on the holy days played a vital social role and one that was intrinsically tied to the agricultural calendar. As Nerys Patterson notes in ‘Cattle Lords and Clansmen’ the pagan festival dates survived after the religion itself was lost due to their connection to the seasonal turning points and rhythms of domestic animal husbandry (Patterson, 1994). Fergus Kelly in ‘Early Irish Farming’ discusses the increase in value of pigs and cows at specific holy days, including Samhain and Lunasa, indicating both the pivotal nature of these days and their intrinsic relationship to agricultural events (Kelly, 1997). Even as the religious overtones were lost the superstitions and appreciation of the cycles associated with the farming year remained, and these can be appreciated today for the hints they provide of the older pagan beliefs and practices.
    Samhain was a period of both feasting and assemblies which especially featured the consumption of young pigs, called ‘banb samna1’ (Kelly, 1997). Faunal remains also indicate that the remains of cattle found at Iron Age ritual sites including Dún Ailinne were those of young cows, rather than of older animals (McCormick, 2010). McCormick in his paper ‘Ritual Feasting in Iron Age Ireland’ argues persuasively that the feasting which occurred at these times at these ritual sites would have been part of a larger event that included the sacrifice of the animal to the Gods being honored, their preparation, and then consumption by the community, a processes which was shared by other contemporary Indo-European cultures.
    The animals featured in ritual feasts primarily included cows and pigs, with cows as the main sacrificial remains found at Dún Ailinne and Teamhair and pigs the main animal consumed at Emhain Macha (McCormick, 2010). This may reflect the local availability of the animals, or possibly the preferred animal may be based on the specific deity cults at each location. For example, Emhain Macha is most strongly associated with the goddess Macha and shows a high amount of faunal pig remains. Although pigs account for only about 35% of remains at Dún Ailinne and 22% at Teamhair, they represent nearly 60% of fragments found at Emhain Macha; in contrast only 30% of Emhain Macha remains are of cows, while they represent nearly 54% and 48% at Dún Ailinne and Teamhair respectively (McCormick, 2010). Such a significant difference in sacrificial and feast animal preference cannot be explained simply and is likely a reflection of multiple factors, including both economic as well as cultic preference.
    Evidence suggests that the animals were killed immediately before consumption and then boiled rather than cooked in fire (McCormick, 2010). This could possibly indicate that formal ritual feasts may have often featured stewed dishes. In several myths the broth of a special or ritual meal is given cleansing or initiatory properties that are used to elevate a person’s social status or cleanse the person of existing social stigmas, including allowing someone to return from a wild state to a civilized one (McCone, 1990). If such stories are taken as mythic examples of a cultural understanding of the power of ritual food preparation and consumption, combined with faunal evidence of ritual animals being boiled, it is not unreasonable to suppose that eating the meat with a liquid was usual and held significance.
    Certain animals were consumed in exceptional cases, including horses, dogs, wolves, foxes, and a monkey. The remains of these animals are very unusual in faunal deposits and so seem to be associated only with rare circumstances. The monkey appears to have been imported from Africa and its remains, indicating the presence of a single animal, were found at Emhain Macha (McCormick, 2010). This supposition is based on its presence with other faunal remains at the site, and the fact that the species of monkey is normally found in northern regions of Africa. The monkey represents 1% of the total animal remains found at Emhain Macha; similarly horse, dog, and wolf remains from single animals were also found at that site each representing a single percent of total remains recovered (McCormick, 2010). The primary animals used at Emhain Macha were very clearly pigs and cows, with the numbers and amounts of remains being reversed at the other two sites, placing cows as the primary animals and pigs as secondary. It is clear however that these two animals formed the bulk of sacrifices by far. Monkey and wolf were not found at all at Teamhair or Dún Ailinne and Dún Ailinne had no fox remains either; Teamhair has the lowest number of remains recovered in total but by far the highest percentage of both dog and horse, at 10% and 5% respectively (McCormick, 2010).
It is also crucial to remember that the Irish had a system of personal and familial food taboos often related to a specific animal that would have prohibited someone from eating that particular animal. This was usually manifested in the form of a geis. In the Ulster cycle Cu Chulainn had such a prohibition against eating dog, and in Togail Bruidne Da Derga Conaire had one against killing birds, in both stories when the geis was broken it eventually resulted in the person’s death. There were also certain animals which were almost always not eaten due to societal taboos2. For example although horses were used as food animals in Viking Dublin they were generally considered forbidden to eat by the Irish, and drinking mare’s milk was not permitted (Waddell, 2014). We find literary references to this prohibition in sources such as the Tochmarc Emire where it says “A foal is the ruin of a chariot to the end of three weeks….and there is a gess on a chariot to the end of three weeks for any man to enter it after having last eaten horse-flesh. For it is the horse that sustains the chariot.3” (Meyer, 1890). This is supported by the extremely low number of faunal remains of horses found at both ritual sites and domestic sites and with later legal prohibitions against consuming horses; both horse and dog meat were seen as having no value (Kelly, 1997).
    Looking at the total of the evidence it can be concluded that feasting at holy days such as Samhain and Lunasa would primarily have featured meals of pork and beef, likely cooked by boiling, preferably meat from younger animals. In a modern context this can be carried forward with the use of these two types of meat as the centerpiece of rituals feasts. Although many people today cannot or prefer not to raise and butcher their own animals the aspect of the ritual feast for those who do still choose to eat meat can be kept through the choice of meat used and its preparation.

1 Banb samna – literally ‘young pig of Samhain’. Pigs were especially associated with Samhain and are repeatedly listed as the main animal to be used for the feast at this time (Kelly, 1997; Patterson, 1994).
2 There has long been supposition that horses were sacrificed and consumed at royal inaugurations, but this appears to have been an extremely rare exception to what was otherwise a fairly widespread social avoidance of the horse as a food animal.
3‘An fulacht asrubart-sai for ro fonad dun lurcaire (.i. serrach) ann sen, iss e is coul carbaid co cend teorai nomad fo bit fo rigaib ocus as geis do a combairge .i. geis dien carbod co cend teurai nomad ier n-ithe feulai eich duine de doul ind; fodaigh ar is each folloing an carpait.’ – Tochmarc Emire
My translation: "The cooking hearth I said, on it was cooked a foal (that is a colt) in there, it is a violation [of] a chariot to the end of 27 days* under a land under kings and a geis* for their protection, that is a geis on a chariot to the end of 27 days against a man from entering it for the eating of horse-flesh; because a horse rules the chariot."
*literally three nomads, with a nomad being a period of nine days and nights
*geis - ritual prohibition

McCormick, F., (2010). Ritual Feasting in Iron Age Ireland
Koch, J., (2005) Celtic Culture
Jones, M., (n.d.) The Battle of Crinna
O’Grady, S., (1892) Silva Gadelica
Kelly, F., (1997). Early Irish Farming
Patterson, N., (1994). Cattle Lords and Clansmen; The social structure of early Ireland
Waddell, J., (2014). Archaeology and Celtic Myth
Meyer, K., (1890). The Wooing of Emer
McCone, K., (1990). Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Excerpt from Suidigud Tellaich Temra

Suidigud Tellaich Temra

23. ‘A Findtain,’ arse, ‘& Éri cía gabad ca rabad inde?’
‘Ní ansa,’ ar Fintan, ‘Íaruss fis. tuadus cath. airthis bláth.
teissus séis. fortius flaith.’
‘Is fír ém, a Findtain,’ ar Tréfhuilngid, ‘’ at senchaid saineamail.
Is amlaid robái & bias co bráth béos, .i.

24. A fis, a forus, a foirceatol, a bág, a breithemnus,  a
comgne, a cómairle, a scéla, a seanchasa, a sos, a sodelb, a sulbairi,
a háine, a himdercadh, a gart, a himed, a hindmus asa híarthur
‘Can as aidi?’ bar in slúag. ‘Ní ansa,’ arse. ‘A hÁe, a hUmull, a
hAidhne, a Bairind, a Briuuss, a Breithfne, a Brí Airg, a Bearramain,
a Bagnu, a Cera, a Corund, a Cruachain, a hIrrus, a hImga, a
hImgan, a Tarbgu, a Teidmmu, a Tulchaib, a Muaid, a Muirisc,
a Meada, a Maigib .i. etar Traigi & Reocha & Lacha, a Mucrumu,
a Maenmaig, a Maig Luirg, a Maig Ene, a hAraind, a hAigliu,
a hAirtiuch.’

25. ‘A catha, immorro,’ arse, ‘& a comrama, a dúiri, a drobela, a
drenna, a díumasa, a dímáine, a húaill, a hallud, a hindsaigthi,
a crúas, a coicthi, a congala, asa tuaiscert atúaid.’
‘Can a[s] suidiu?’ ar in sluag. ‘Ní ansa.
A lLiu, a lLurg, a lLothur, a Callaind, a Fearnmaig, a Fidhgha,
a Sruib Bruin, a Bernus, a Dabull, a hAird Fhothaid, a Gull, a
hIrgull, a Airmmuch, a Glennaib, a Geraib, a Gabur, a hEamain,
a hAiliuch, a hImchlar.’

26. ‘A bláth dino,’ arse, ‘& a beathamnass, a ceasa, a cosnuma,
a cleas n-airm, a noethaighi, a halle, a hingantai, a sobés, a
sochostud, a háinis, a himid, a horddan, a tráchta, a turcharthi,
a teglochus, a hilldána, a hinaltus, a hilmáine, a sróll, a síric, a
sítai, a bri(t)graighi, a bre[cc]glas, a brugamnos asa hairthear
‘Can as suide?’ ar in sluag. ‘Ní ansa ém,’ olse.
‘A Fethuch, a Fothnu, a hInrechtro, a Mugno, a Biliu,
a Bairniu, a Bernaib, a Drendaib, a Druach, a Diamair, a
Leib, a lLiniu, a Laithirni, a Cuib, a Cúailgiu, a Cind Chon,
a Maig Roth, a Maig Inis, a Muig Muirthemne.’

27. ‘A hesa, a hóenaigi, a donda, a derga, a súithi, a cruithnecht,
a céolchairecht, a bindis, a hairfideadh, a hecna, a hairmitniu,
a séis, a foglaim, a foirceatul, a fiansa, a fidchelacht, a déne,
a díscere, a filidecht, a fechemnus, a féle, a forus, a tascor, a
torthaigi asa descert andeas.’
‘Can as suidi?’ arsiat. ‘Ní ansa,’ ar Tréfuilngid.
‘A Mairg, a Maistin, a Raighniu, a Rúirind, a Gabair, a Gabran,
a Clíu, a Cláiriu, a Femhniudh, a Faifaiu, a Bregon, a Barcaib,
a Cind Chailli, a Clériu, a Cermnu, a Raithlind, a Gleannamain,
a Gobair, a Lúachair, a Labraind, a Loch Léin, a Loch Lugdach,
a Loch Daimdeirg, a Cathair Chonrái, a Cathair Cairbri, a Cathair
Ulad, a Dún Bindi, a Dún Cháin, a Dún Tulcha, a Fertae, a
Feoraind, a Fiandaind.’

28. ‘A rrígi, uero, a rechtairi, a hordan, a hoireochuss, a cobsaidi,
a conhgbála, a fuilngeda, a forrána, a cathaigi, a cairpthigi, a fiandus,
a flaithemnas, a hardrigi, a hollamnas, a mid, a maithiuss, a ciurm,
a clothaigi, a rroblad, a rathmaire, asa meadón.’
‘Can as suidi?’ arsiat. ‘Ní ansa,’ ar Tréfuilngid.
‘A Midiu, a Biliu, a Bethriu, a Bruidin, a Colbu  a Cnodbu,
a Cuillind, a hAilbiu, a hAsul, a hUissniuch, a Sídán, a Sleamain,
a Sláine, a Cnu, a Cernu, a Cenandus, a Brí Scáil, a Brí Graigi,
a Brí meic Thaidg, a Brí Foibri, a Brí Díli, a Brí Fremhaindi,
a Temair, a Teathfa, a Teamair Broga Niadh, a Temair Breg, a
forbflaithius for Érind uili eistib sin.’
- source R I Best

Arranging of the Household of Tara

23. ‘Oh Fintan,’ said he, ‘and Ireland, how has it been divided, how is it therein?’
‘Not difficult,’ said Fintan, ‘In the west knowledge. in the north battle, in the east renown.
in the south melody. above her sovereignty.’
‘This is true, oh Fintan,’ said Tréfuilngid, ‘You are an excellent historian.
Thus it is and and shall be forever, that is

24. Her knowledge, her stability, her teaching, her boldness, her judgments, her
likeness, her advice, her stories, her histories, her resting, her beautiful form, her eloquence,
her brilliance, her insulting, her generosity, her bounty, her ardour from the western part of the west.’
‘Whence are these?’ said the assembly.
‘Not hard’ said he. ‘from Áe, from Umull, from Aidhne, from Bairind, from Briuuss, from Breithfne, from Brí Airg, from Bearramain, from Bagnu, from Cera, from Corund, from Cruachain, from Irrus, from Imga, from Imgan, from Tarbgu, from Teidmmu, from Tulchaib, from Muaid, from Muirisc, from Meada, from Maigib that is between Traigi and Reocha and Lacha, from Mucrumu, from Maenmaig, from Maig Luirg, from Maig Ene, from Arainn, from Aigliu, from Airtiuch.’

25. ‘As well her battles,’ he said, ‘and her contests, her strongholds, her rough roads, her combats, her arrogance, her vanity, her pride, her glory, her aggressiveness, her bravery, her fifths, her valours, from the northern part of the north.’
‘Whence are the aforementioned?’ said the assembly. 

‘Not hard. From lLiu, from lLurg, from lLothur, from Callaind, from Fearnmaig, from Fidhgha, from Sruib Bruin, from Bernus, from Dabull, from Aird Fhothaid, from Gull, from Irgull, from Airmmuch, from Glennaib, from Geraib, from Gabur, from Eamain, from Ailiuch, from Imchlar.’

26. ‘Her flowering as well,’ said he, ‘and her supplies, her spears, her protection, her weapons-feats, her householders, her praises, her wonders, her morality, her good manners, her splendour, her enclosures, her honour, her strength, her wealth, her householding, her multitude of arts, her attendants, her many treasures, her banners, her fine fabrics, her silks, her riding horses, her young trout, her hospitality, from the eastern part of the east.’
‘whence the aforementioned?’ said the assembly.
‘Not hard indeed,’ said he. ‘from Fethuch, from Fothnu, from Inrechtro, from Mugno, from Biliu, from Bairniu, from Bernaib, from Drendaib, from Druach, from Diamair, from Leib, from Liniu, from Laithirni, from Cuib, from Cúailgiu, from Cind Chon, from Maig Roth, from Maig Inis, from Muig Muirthemne.’

27. ‘Her flowing streams, her fairs, her nobles, her redness, her knowledge, her wheat, her music-making, her harmony, her entertainment, her wisdom, her respect, her melody, her learning, her instruction, her warrior-bands, her fidchell playing, her swiftness, her boldness, her poetry, her patronage, her science, her stability, her King's retinue, her fruitfulness from the southern part of the south.’
‘Whence the aforementioned?’ arsiat.

 ‘Not hard,’ said Tréfulngid. ‘From Mairg, from Maistin, from Raighniu, from Rúirind, from Gabair, from Gabran, from Clíu, from Cláiriu, from Femhniudh, from Faifaiu, from Bregon, from Barcaib, from Cind Chailli, from Clériu, from Cermnu, from Raithlind, from Gleannamain, from Gobair, from Lúachair, from Labraind, from Loch Léin, from Loch Lugdach, from Loch Daimdeirg, from Cathair Chonrái, from Cathair Cairbri, from Cathair Ulad, from Dún Bindi, from Dún Cháin, from Dún Tulcha, from Fertae, from Feoraind, from Fiandaind.’

28. ‘Her kings, as well, her administrators, her honor, her leading nobles, her stability, her maintaining, her champions, her aggressions, her warriors, her charioteers, her war-bands, her sovereignty, her high Kings, her highest poets*, her renown, her excellence, her fame, her great glory, her prosperity, from the center.’
‘Whence the aforementioned?’ arsiat.

 ‘Not hard,’ said Tréfulngid. ‘From Midiu, from Biliu, from Bethriu, from Bruidin, from Colbu from Cnodbu, from Cuillind, from Ailbiu, from Asul, from Uissniuch, from Sídán, from Sleamain, from Sláine, from Cnu, from Cernu, from Cenandus, from Brí Scáil, from Brí Graigi, from Brí meic Thaidg, from Brí Foibri, from Brí Díli, from Brí Fremhaindi, from Temair, from Teathfa, from Teamair Broga Niadh, from Temair Breg, the landed sovereignty of all Ireland from these.’

*those who hold the rank of ollamh

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fairy Familiars

 The familiar spirit, often simply called the familiar, is one of the most well known companions of the classical witch. When most people think of the traditional witch's familiar they automatically imagine a demonic one, however there is a long history of fairies taking the role of the familiar spirit with some witches in Europe, just as some witches met not with the Devil but with the Queen of Elfland. In these cases the fairies seem to have been less like servitors, as some classic familiars may appear, and more like advisers who aid the witch by giving them knowledge and acting as a go-between for them with the world of Fairy.

There is a great deal of fluidity in the terms used here and what a clergyman might call a demon or devil the accused witch in turn would call instead a fairy or even an angel. For example Andro Man, a witch tried in Scotland in the 16th century said that his familiar was an angel who 'favours the Queen of Elfland'* (Wilby, 2005). In Eastern Europe there was a concept of witches or healing women having either good or evil spirits who aided them (Pocs, 1999). In some views what differentiated the familiar as either a fairy or a demon, as either a 'good' spirit or an 'evil' one, was the actions of the human being and the use they put the knowledge they gained from the spirit. This reflects a deep seated conflation of elves, fairies, and demons which existed particularly in England and shows a striking similarity in the supernatural afflictions caused by and magical cures used against both groups (Hall, 2007). This gives us not only a blurry line between fairies and demons as familiars but also shows us that there was truly no hard and fast line nor rigid definition separating the two types of spirits in common understanding.

Fairies as familiars are associated with both witches and cunningfolk, that is with both those who used magic for personal reasons and those who use it in service to the community. How a person was defined, like the term used for the familiar itself, was often fluid and could change or be multifaceted, so that one person's witch was another person's cunningperson or seer, and so on. Robert Kirk mentions such fairy familiars being attached to the Scottish Seers who he describes as predominantly male (Wilby, 2005). In later periods such familiars came to be more associated with women, even perhaps finding echos in the more modern leannán sí who guide and give knowledge to the bean feasa, but several older accounts claim the fairy familiar as the province of men (O Crualaoich, 2003; Davies, 2003). It may be best to say that fairy familiars were not segregated by the gender of the practitioner but that both men and women might have them.

Fairy familiars could take the form of animals, particularly dogs, but just as often appeared as ordinary looking people. They were notable only for how very unremarkable they were, looking little different than the common people around them; although they did sometimes wear the fairy color of green they were also noted to wear all black or all white (Wilby, 2005). In some cases like the fairy who was seen helping a bean feasa in Ireland as she gathered herbs other people besides the witch themselves saw the fairy (O Crualaoich, 2003). It should also be noted that they were clearly visible to the witch as tangible presences, not as dreams or see-through illusions (Wilby, 2005). While modern people may tend to relegate the familiar to the mental realm of guided meditations or spiritual journeys, historically they were real world manifestations which were seen, heard, and spoken to in the waking world. The reality of the fairy and encountering of the fairy familiar in daily life and while the witch was awake is noted in multiple sources (Wilby, 2005; Davies, 2003).

These fairy familiars were acquired in one of two ways, either met apparently by chance while the person was engaged in some mundane activity or else given to them intentionally as a kind of gift (Wilby, 2005). In several cases of accused witches in Scotland the witch claimed the Queen of Fairy herself gave them their fairy familiars, while in others it was passed on to them by a family member or other human being. The ones who were assigned by the Queen of Fairy seemed to act in particular as a go-between connecting the witch to Fairyland, relaying messages, and bringing the witch to Fairy to see the Queen at specific times. Those who found the fairy familiar coming to them spontaneously were in times of crisis, in great need due to illness, poverty, or other desperate situations, and would be offered help by the fairy in exchange for listening to the fairy's advice or agreeing to their terms (Wilby, 2005). Once the witch agreed to what the fairy asked or did as the fairy suggested they might continue to deal with that same familiar spirit for a short time or for years (Wilby, 2005). The relationship between the witch and the fairy familiar varied widely from person to person based on accounts that survived, mostly in witch trials, and could be either formal or more intimate.

The main help fairy familiars offered to those they were attached to came in the form of giving knowledge, both predicting events and teaching the person cures to treat illness (Wilby, 2005). Cunningfolk in particular made their careers through the knowledge of healing gained this way and the ability to cure any person who came to them with their familiars help. These spirits acted as givers of healing knowledge and as guardians for the witch, and in some cases granted the witch special powers of foresight or second sight directly (Pocs, 1999; Davies, 2003). They would accompany the witch when they went to meet other witches, traveled to see the Fairy Queen - and indeed would advise the witch there on proper behavior, such as kneeling - and when they went to the infamous witches' sabbath (Wilby, 2005; Davies, 2003). This is a marked difference from the role the demonic familiar played in other, particularly continental lore, where it might be sent out to do the witch's bidding by directly effecting people. The fairy familiar, in contrast, did not generally work the witch's will that way but rather improved their life by passing information to them and offering them advice and protection.

Having a fairy familiar was not an entirely positive experience however. Many of the witches and cunningfolk who spoke of such spirits mentioned times were they were frightened by them, even knowing that the fairy meant them no harm, one witch even going so far as to say that when confronted once unexpectedly by her familiar she fell to the ground in a fit (Wilby, 2005). There were also a variety of taboos which existed around such familiar spirits, often extensions of similar taboos seen throughout fairylore. For example it was considered unwise to speak of one's fairy familiar or to tell others of the things one's familiar did to help. In the trial records many witches initially denied having such familiars and only admitted it later under hard questioning, fearing breaking this taboo (Wilby, 2005).

The idea of the witch's familiar is a classic one and one that most people have some awareness of; usually the image people immediately think of is the demonic familiar spirit however historically the fairy familiar was just as present. There were some key differences between demonic and fairy familiars, the most important perhaps being who the spirit answered to - Devil or Fairy Queen - and the fact that the demonic familiar usually required a ceremony to call it forth while the fairy familiar was noted to appear at its own will, often to the surprise of the witch. Additionally the manner in which the spirit aided the witch also differed significantly between the two types. In other ways however it seemed that the difference between the two types of spirits was a semantic one, depending on the opinion of the person describing it as well as the actions and reputation of the person who it was attached to. In modern understanding it is the demonic familiar spirit which has come to be the main one we remember, but we would do well to consider the significance and folklore of the fairy familiar as well.

*the quote in Scots is: 'swyis to the Quene of Elphen'

Wilby, E., (2005). Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Pocs, E., (1999). Between the Living and the Dead
Davies, O., (2003). Popular Magic: Cunningfolk in English History
O Crualaoich, G., (2003) The Book of the Cailleach
Hall, A., (2007) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Popculture, Modern Fiction, and Fairies

In November of 2015 I wrote a blog titled 'The Influence of Fiction and Hollywood on Paganism'. It was mostly me discussing my own opinions on the way that I have seen media change, or at least influence, pagan beliefs over the decades. Lately different discussions on social media have gotten me thinking that I might want to do a similar blog about the effects of popculture and fiction on fairy faith beliefs, although I'll say up front that I doubt I can include all of the ways that modern media is influencing what neopagans believe on this subject.

I also want to be clear at the beginning that pointing out that something is a more modern belief is not necessarily a judgment on that belief. I happen to personally agree with some new beliefs, but I still think its important to be clear about what is new and what is older. My goal here is simply to help differentiate between traditional folklore beliefs and modern beliefs rooted in fiction and popculture. As with my previous blog this one is based on my own knowledge of the subject and observations.

Summer and Winter courts - this is one of the ones that I personally like and use myself, however as far as I can find it is a newer term for the two courts. Of course as I discussed back in July in my post on the Seelie and Unseelie Courts themselves the entire idea of two courts as such is itself probably comparatively newer as well. Within the last decade or so there have been several young adult fiction series and paranormal romance series which have featured the idea of either a Summer and Winter Court of the Fairies or of courts based on all four seasons, or who use the terms Seelie and Unseelie but also incorporate summer and winter as nicknames for each. This concept has been adopted into fairylore more generally by those who dislike the hard seelie=good unseelie=bad division and feel that summer and winter are more ambiguous and less morally loaded terms.

The Grey court - Another idea like the Summer and Winter courts which cannot be found in older folklore as far as I am aware but which is gaining in modern popularity. The Grey Court is a term which I came across in a paranormal romance series based on the Fae, but has also popped up among pagans who believe in fairies as a term for a third more neutral court* or used as a term for the court of those fairies who are more wild and less civilized than the other two courts. In traditional fairylore the more wild fairies would have been termed solitary as opposed to the more civilized fairies or those who prefer to be in groups who were known as trooping fairies.

Unseelie as the good guys - Now to be clear all fairies are mercurial and can be inclined to either help or hurt - however those termed Seelie were known to be more inclined to helping while those termed Unseelie were known to be more inclined to hurting. The idea that the Unseelie were all or largely just misunderstood good guys, and more so that the Seelie were the real bad guys**, is entirely from modern fiction, and so common now that it has become a trope of its own. The idea that the Unseelie are just angst ridden bad boys trying to prove they can be good is really really just from modern fiction. Yes there are stories in folklore of beings generally labeled Unseelie doing helpful things or falling in love with mortals and so on, but those were exceptions rather than the norms and also those stories still tended to end tragically. When it comes to Fairy the only generality we can really make is that we can't easily make any generalities.

Fairies are nice - Fairies can be nice, but fairies are not nice by nature anymore than people are. The idea that they all are all the time is entirely modern and an extreme break from actual folklore. I tend to point to the Victorians as the source on this one but its hard to pinpoint exactly when and what started this shift and I think in reality it was probably a combination of the Victorian flower fairy obsession, the New Age movement's emphasis on the positive and a conflation with the idea of spirit guides. This leaves us with modern popculture fairies who don't resemble historic ones; certainly Disney's Tinkerbell is an example of the stereotypical modern fairy but H. M. Barrie's Tinkerbell was pretty vicious. Fairies in folklore were not to be messed with and could - and would - kill, maim, or hurt people for what may seem to us to be trifling slights.

Fairies are our Guides - this appears in both books and pagan culture more generally, the idea that fairies are a kind of spirit guide or are more highly evolved beings seeking to help humanity grow and develop. Some of them may perhaps be beings along these lines, there is after all a lot of diversity, and there is the idea in folklore that some people - especially witches - may have a particular individual fairy who helps them. But they are not all like this and I think it is an error to assume that every single fairy is a helpful spirit guide to all of humanity. for many kinds of fairies like Each Uisge or Hags we are nothing but a food source, and to others we simply don't matter at all.

Fairies are small, winged creatures - This one I do solidly blame the Victorians for and the popularity of children's books during that time which featured little winged flower fairies. This compounded with the early 20th century Cottingley Fairy hoax seemed to have profoundly affected how people visualized fairies, something which has since been perpetuated by everything from Disney to the art of Amy Brown. In folklore, however, and many anecdotal accounts the Good People appear in a wide array of forms from animal to human-like from tiny to giant, from beautiful to monstrous. Wings are actually very uncommon features though.

one of five photographs, taken in 1917, Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies. image public domain

Fairies protecting the environment - Many modern pagans are firmly convinced that fairies are nature spirits and staunch protectors of the environment, an idea that appears in the works of pagan authors as well as movies (I'm looking at you Fern Gully). This is not something supported in actual folklore though but an idea that seems to have begun and gained popularity with humanity's own growing awareness of environmental concerns. It is true that many of the Fair Folk are extremely territorial and messing with their places is a profoundly bad idea - but this isn't due to a wider drive for them to protect our world so much as an urge for them to protect what belongs to them. There is, to my knowledge, not one single example in myth or folklore of the Good People appearing and warning anyone about the dangers of clear cutting forests, damning rivers, polluting, etc., prior to the modern era. And yes those things did happen historically which is why Europe isn't covered in forest anymore and has lost a variety of native species to extinction due to hunting.

Fairies rescue abused children - Fairies in folklore were known to take a variety of human beings for a variety of purposes, not all of them positive. They would take brides and musicians, as well as midwives and nursing mothers. But they were also known to take infants and children and I think this is ultimately the root of the modern idea that they rescued abused children, however I will argue that saying they were rescuing these children is a modern recasting of the stories to soothe our sensibilities today. The idea appears in fiction dating back to the 1990's, at least, and gives a much nicer explanation for why the children were taken than folklore which says they were - effectively - breeding stock to supplement low population numbers among the Fey folk or servants. As with the other examples so far there is nothing in the actual folklore to indicate that the children taken were abused and in fact usually in the stories they seem to have been wanted and well loved, with many tales revolving around the parents struggle to get the child back.

Maeve as Queen of the Unseelie - I admit this one baffled me when I ran across it. There are certain beings associated as queens of Fairy in Ireland and Maeve could be counted among them, however Ireland doesn't have the Seelie and Unseelie Court structure the way Scotland does, and as far as I know there is no Scottish equivalent to Maeve; also the Irish Maeve would not necessarily fit the mold of the Unseelie, never mind as a Queen of it. The English Mab who appears in Shakespeare is a queen of the fairies but is never mentioned as being Unseelie and is referred to as a midwife to the fairies and is associated with dreams and mischief making. Even Mab/Maeve's appearances in early 20th century literature hold to the view of her as a granter of wishes and giver of dreams. It isn't until very recently with the Dresden Files and The Iron Fey series, as far as I've been able to suss out, and possibly some television shows like Merlin, Lost Girl, and True Blood, that Queen Maeve/Mab has been cast in the role of the Unseelie and given a darker personality and inclination. As far as I can tell this is entirely based in modern fiction.

These are only a handful of examples of ways that modern fairylore differs from traditional fairylore and has been influenced by popculture. Indeed new fiction and new movies continue to come out and the popular ones seem to inevitably find a way to effect what people believe about the Other Crowd. For example when a recent movie featuring a selkie came out (and a great movie it was too) which had the plot twist that the selkie couldn't speak without her sealskin coat I started seeing people repeating that tidbit as if it were traditional folklore, even though it is not. In a culture today where many people are disconnected from the traditional folklore and plugged into mass media and popculture it should not be surprising that it is fiction and movies that are shaping people's fairy beliefs rather than actual traditional folklore.

*I can only point out here that the use of Grey Court for a third neutral court sitting between the so-called Light and Dark courts is exactly how it was used in the paranormal romance series.

**none of the Fair Folk are 'good guys' by modern human standards.