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Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Today's blog is a new translation of the Metrical Dindshenchas entry for Tlachtga. 


  1. Tlachtga, tulach ordain úais,
    forbaid mór ríg co rochrúais,
    ón chéin rosgab Tlachtga thoich,
    ingen Moga réil ríg-Roith.
  2. Mug Roith mac Fergusa Fáil
    mac Rossa rígda ronáir,
    Cacht ingen Chathmind na cles
    a máthair dath-grind díles.
  3. Roth mac Riguill roalt h-é;
    de ba Mug Roith rogaide:
    dá mac Moga, Búan is Chorb,
    sona dar slúag a sáer-dord.
  4. Ba h-í máthair na mac mass
    Derdraigen dúr dron-amnass,
    ocus máthair chert Cairpri,
    is becht lem ó bláth-bairdni.
  5. Ingen Moga, mílib slúag,
    Tlachtga toga, nár tháeb-fhúar,
    luid ria h-athair n-dímór n-dil
    co Símón sáer sechtmisid.
  6. Trí meic la Símón, ba sám,
    ba dímór a n-díabul-bág,
    Nero, Carpent is Uetir,
    ba balc-gent co m-beó-gletin.
  7. Doratsat na meicc 'malle
    seirc do Thlachtga tri tháide,
    cor' sílsat a broinn, cen bréic,
    do chloinn chomadais chomméit.
  8. Tlachtga di thriun, nírbo thimm,
    dorigne in roth rúad rogrinn
    maróen la Mug n-dímór n-dil
    is la Símón sechtmisid.
  9. Hí dorat léi in fuidell, fiss,
    forfácaib in roth rochliss,
    lía foirbthe i Forcarthain fainn,
    ocus in coirthe i Cnámchaill.
  10. Dall cach óen nodnaicfe sell,
    bodar cach óen nodcluinenn,
    marb risa m-benfa ní de,
    don roth garb-grennach gráinne.
  11. Iar tuidecht anair don mnaí
    ruc tri maccu co mór-gnaí:
    atbath dia m-breith in mer menn:
    scél mór cen chleith rocluinemm.
  12. Anmann na mac, lúad nad chres,
    Múach is Chuma is Doirb díles:
    in tshlóig ó Thoraig, rostecht,
    dóib (is comaid) a cloistecht.
  13. Hi céin béit ós Banba blaid
    anmann na mac ar marthain,
    is scél fír fri sílad sin,
    ní tic díbad dia daínib.
  14. In cnoc in rohailed úag
    do mnaí na n-airer n-adúar,
    dar cach sogairm suí sana
    is dó is togairm tuí Tlachtga. T.
- Gwynn, E., Metrical Dindshenchas, 1922

  1. Tlachtga, dignified, noble hillock,
    [place of] completion of kings with great valour,
    that long ago belonged to fair Tlachtga,
    daughter of the pure Moga [slave] of king Roith.
  2. Mug Roith son of Fergusa Fáil
    son of royal, devout Rossa,
    Cacht daughter of Chathmind of the feats
    [was] his mother lovely-complexioned, reliable.
  3. Roth son of Riguill fostered him;
    so he was taken as Mug Roith [Roth's slave]:
    Moga's two sons were Búan and Corb,
    lucky for the host was their noble-chanting.
  4. The mother of these sons was
    Derdraigen, severe, ruthless,
    and mother of fair Cairpri,
    who is surely gentle as bardcraft's flower.
  5. Moga's daughter, assembly of thousands,
    chosen Tlachtga, not cold her form,
    went with her great and beloved father
    to noble Símón sechtmisid [lit. 'seven months' child'].
  6. Three sons had Símón, they were at ease,
    vast their devilish undertaking,
    Nero, Carpent and Uetir,
    they were a powerful people, always in strife.
  7. Together the sons gave
    love to Tlachtga through secrecy,
    cast their seed into her womb, without exaggeration,
    with fitting children of equal size.
  8. Tlachtga one of the three, not feeble,
    she made the red wheel, greatly-strong,
    together with great and beloved Mug
    and with Símón sechtmisid.
  9. She takes the remainder, I know,
    Left behind by the wheel's track,
    a perfect stone in weak Forcarthain,
    and the standing stone in Cnámchaill.
  10. Totally blind each one who beholds with his eye,
    deaf each one who hears it,
    dead any because of the thing,
    the wheel rough-bristling points.
  11. After arriving from the east
    carrying three sons of great-beauty:
    the bright spirited lady dies at the time of birthing:
    a great story without concealing the hearing.
  12. The names of her sons, told without restriction,
    Múach and Chuma and fair Doirb:
    the assembly of Thoraig, possessed them,
    to them (and their safety) was proclaimed.
  13. Long enduring fame over Banba's renown
    as long as the names of her sons endure,
    the true story from there is spread,
    no quenching will come to her people.
  14. The grave-mound was dug on the hill
    of the woman of the very-cold region
    among every high-name of a lucky sage
    is the high-name of silent Tlachtga.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Excerpt from Pagan Portals Odin

Today's blog is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Pagan Portals Odin, which will be released in March 2018

artwork by Ashley Bryner
Powers and Associations
Odin, like any deity, can and will influence whatever he chooses to but there are particular areas that he is especially associated with. I might not go so far as to say that he is the god of these things in the traditional sense2, but they are certainly things that he seems to have an especially keen interest in or knowledge of.
Poetry – Odin is known as the god of poets and poetry, although he is not the only one. It is Odin who possesses the mead of poetry, Odreorir, which gives inspiration, and Odin himself is known to inspire those who he chooses to. His direct inspiration is the sort that is rooted in the meaning of his name ‘frenzy’ and perhaps should best be understood in that context. He inspires through passion, both the obviously good sort that motivates the creation of epic writing and songs as well as the kind that drives warriors to rush headlong into battle.
Madness and Ecstasy – Odin is a God whose very name is rooted in the Old Norse word óðr ‘furious’ and Adam of Bremen said of him, “Woden id est furor” [Woden, that is madness] (Simek, 1993; translation Daimler, 2017). As with his aspect as a God of poets Odin’s power as God of madness is rooted in his ability to inspire, in this case inspiring fury and frenzy. We see this in particular in the way he inspirers the Berserkers to battle-frenzy where they feel no pain and fight relentlessly. Simek suggest that ecstasy may have played a vital role in Odin’s cults during the Heathen period (Simek, 1993). Kershaw posits that this madness was directly related to divine possession and ecstasy, and connects it to a type of inspiration (Kershaw, 2000).
Battle – Odin is a god of battle who can influence every aspect of battle from inspiring or stirring up wars, to encouraging warriors to fight to their utmost, to choosing who gains victory and who dies. Ynglinga Saga relates that Odin brought war to the world, and we are told that at the beginning of a fight a spear would be cast over the opposing army to dedicate it as a sacrifice to Odin (Simek, 1993). In a story in the Eddas where Freya obtains a magical necklace named Brisgingamen, Odin has Loki steal the necklace and will only return it if Freya causes two kings to go to war with each other (Crossley-Holland, 1981). Odin was also the one who could give or withhold victory depending on who he favored, and those who lost or were killed in battle were seen as having lost Odin’s favor. In the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, after King Hrolf and his men refuse a gift offered them by Odin in disguise and figure out it was in fact Odin offering it, one of the men comments, “I suspect that we have not behaved very wisely in rejecting what we should have accepted. We may have denied ourselves victory.” (Byock, 1998, p69). During wars sacrifices were made to Odin for victory, both by pouring out drink and offering blood (Tourville-Petre, 1964).
The Dead – Odin’s connection to the dead is a complex one. There is some suggestion that the main colors associated with him, particularly dark blue and blár, were colors of death that were symbolic of corpses (Gundarsson, 2006). His hall in Asgard was home to some of the dead, especially the heroic battle dead called Einherjar, and several of his by-names relate to the dead. Besides being associated with the battle dead though he was also connected to those who died by hanging, and some of his other names refer to this, making him a god of the gallows. Additionally we see him seeking out the dead, as will be discussed in the section on prophecy, in order to obtain information on future events, showing that he had the power and knowledge to call the dead forth from their burial mounds and communicate with them in Helhiem.
Magic – Odin is associated with several types of magic, most notably runic magic and seidhr, both of which we’ll discuss in greater depth in a later chapter. In the Havamal Odin discusses the various magical uses for runes that he knows and in Baldrs Draumar Odin is called the father of magic chants (Simek, 1993). We may also see an echo of his magical powers in his ability to shapeshift, as Odin is known to take multiple human disguises as well as the form of an eagle.
Wisdom – Odin as a God of wisdom could also be described as a God of cunning, because he is associated with both knowledge for its own sake and with the clever use of it. It should be kept in mind that his pursuit of wisdom is ruthless, to the point that he hangs on the World Tree without sustenance for nine days to find the runes and gives an eye for a drink from Mimir’s Well. Odin does not just passively collect this knowledge either but rather uses what he gains, such as the knowledge of runes for magic, and the information in prophecies to affect the future. And no matter how much he knows he continues to seek more knowledge, trying to see whatever it might be in creation that he does not know (Bauschatz, 1982).
Prophecy – Odin has strong connections to prophecy, both as a deity who sees the future himself and as a God who is known in the stories to seek out those who can see the future to tell him what will come to pass. From his throne, Hlidskjalf, it is said that he can see all things, and we know that to obtain the prophecy about Ragnarok he traveled to the boundary of Helheim to speak to a dead Seeress. The practice of prophecy itself in a modern context is one that is strongly associated with him.

By this I mean that people tend to understand Gods as ‘the God of X’ and then pigeonhole the deity into that role. However that approach doesn’t work especially well with the Norse pantheon (or several other pantheons for that matter) because they have a flexibility to them in what they can and will do. There is a great deal of cross-over between the different Gods, and overlap, in who is the God of what, so that we see Odin as a God who foresees the future but we see Frigga doing this as well. Odin is a God of warriors, especially berserkers, but Thor is also a God of warriors, although perhaps of a different sort. In this way there is no true specialization in the Norse pantheon, only those who favor certain perviews over others. 

Bauschatz, P., (1982). The Well and the Tree
Byock, J., (1998) The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
Gundarsson, K., (2006). Our Troth, volume 1 
Kershaw, K., (2000). The One-eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Mannerbunde
Simek, R., (1993). Dictionary of Nothern Mythology
Tourville-Petre, G., (1964) Myth and Religion of the North

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dangerous Fairies and Knowing Your Limits

When I was at Pantheacon this year I taught a class about the Unseelie Court. It was a fun class to teach, late at night and with a good crowd. I may have been slightly delirious from jet lag and sleep deprivation. I may also at one point have uttered the now somewhat infamous line in response to what to offer them 'I wouldn't offer meat because then you're going to attract the sorts of things that eat meat. And you know, we're made of meat.' So it was that sort of class, which is really the best sort of class in my opinion.

My purpose in teaching it was to address some of the misinformation that goes around about the Dark Court, painting them as more sympathetic and more kind than they generally are, but also to discuss ways that we can work with the more dangerous members of the Othercrowd safely. That may sound like a contradiction, but it isn't - like most things in life it isn't that all of the dangerous beings should be avoided completely but that they should be understood for what they are and respected. Part of dealing with dangerous Otherworldly beings safely, probably the most essential part, is knowing your own limits, because we have to know where and what our boundaries are in order to know how we can safely push those limits.

In the course of the class I mentioned that in the area I live in I am aware of the presence of an Each Uisge [water horse] in a local reservoir* that has drowned many people over the years. These types of fairies are definitely considered Unseelie Court and have a penchant for tricking people into riding them and then drowning and eating the person. Someone asked what I had done about the Each Uisge being there and I told them I tried to spread the word that it was a dangerous place. But people wanted to know why I didn't try to go in there and actually get rid of the Water Horse or fight it, so I said, rather bluntly, that a Water Horse was beyond my ability to safely deal with. People were quite surprised to hear this and wanted to know how I could know it was there and dangerous and not try to do something about it. I had to try to explain that even in folklore that sort of being is notoriously hard to deal with and extremely dangerous. It's a thousand-plus pound animal with human intelligence. Its fierce. It's fast. And if you touch it you can't let go again.

Let's be realistic here, I may be fairly experienced with these sort of things but I'm not Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I'm not stupid. I know my limits and taking on a homicidal fairy horse on its own turf is not going to end well.

A local water-horse free lake
For those who seek to truck with uncanny things, to create allies among the Otherworldly folk, to work with the Good Neighbors one of the most important things you must always keep in mind is your own limitations. Magically and physically know exactly what you are capable of doing. Especially when you're dealing with things that are known in folklore to consider humans a food source. Because this isn't a fun exercise in visualization, a game, or the plotline of a teen novel, and there can be some real and serious consequences when you mess up. You can be hurt physically, you can be hurt emotionally, and what I've seen most often is you can be deeply wounded in the soul or spirit. And sometimes those consequences are permanent and sometimes those consequences are fatal.

This is true with any kind of magic or working with spirits (angels scare me spitless, quite frankly with their Old Testament activities) but it should be common sense if you know you're intentionally going to be dealing with something dangerous to treat it as something dangerous. In the mundane world you wouldn't walk up to a wild bear or wolf and try to pet it, and in the same way in the non-mundane you should approach Other Folk with caution. But just like you can handle a wild animal safely if you know how and you know exactly what you personally can and can't do, what your physical limitations are, just so you can often handle spirits and Otherworldly beings as long as you know your capabilities. And even in unexpected situations you can bluff or manage your way out provided you know your own limitations - and a good grounding in folklore doesn't hurt.

There's a certain amount of risk that's required of anyone who seeks to connect to the Good People. But be wise in what you risk, and know exactly how far you can push.

*I call it an each uisge because that's the name that seems to describe it best. Its a large dark horse that lives in the water and drowns people. It doesn't physically consume them as far as I know, but it does feed on their emotions and spirit - if it isn't an actual Celtic water horse then I don't know of any local folklore that explains what it could be.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Aoibheall, Fairy Queen of Clare

Many of the Irish Fairy Queens were once Goddesses and we know this because they are listed among the ranks of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Gods of Ireland. However not all of them are so easily traced back to deities, although there may be an argument that they all have their roots in previous land and sovereignty Goddesses. One such more obscure Fairy queen is Aoibheall of Clare, whose folklore goes back to at least the 11th century but who is not found directly among the Tuatha De Danann. 

Bonfire at the Morrigan's Call Retreat 2016

Her name is from the Old Irish word oibell for 'spark, flame, heat' and as an adjective means 'bright or merry'. There are many variants of the spelling of her name including Aoibhell, Aoibhil, Aíbell, Aebill, Eevell, and Ibhell; it is pronounced roughly 'EEval'. By some accounts her name was once Aoibheann [EEvan], which is said to mean beautiful or lovely, from the Old Irish oíbhan 'little beauty'. Understanding the meaning of her name gives us the first clue as to her nature and temperament. 

She is not found named among the lists of the Tuatha Dé Danann, but we may perhaps see a connection there as by some accounts her sister is Clíona, and while folklore does not tell us about Aoibheall's parentage we do know that Clíona's father was Gabann, a druid of Manannán mac Lir. The two are also rivals, specifically over the affections of a man named Caomh; because of this rivalry at one point Clíona turned Aoibheall into a white cat. In folklore Aoibheall was said to have control over the weather and she possesses a magical harp whose music kills those who hear it. Her harp may be why she is considered by some in more recent folklore to be an omen of death.

She was likely originally a territory and sovereignty goddess of Clare, associated with mortal kingship and succession, and is later known as a fairy queen and bean sí. Her sí is at Craig Liath [Craglea] which is also called Craig Aoibheall [Crageevel]. Nearby there is a well associated with her called Tobhar Aoibill. Her presence is connected to the area of Slieve Bearnagh and more generally around Killaloe. One later bit of folklore says that Aoibheall left the area after the wood around Craig Laith was cut down. She is often called the Fairy Queen of Tuamhain [Thomond] which was a historic territory of the Dál cCais that is now modern day Clare, Limerick, and some of Tipperary. 

She is known as the protector of the Dál gCais, and so the O'Briens, and she is called both their bean sí and the banfáidh ó mBriain [prophetess or seeress of the O'Brien's]. It is said that she appeared to Brain Boru in 1014 the night before the battle of Clontarf and predicted his death as well as who his successor would be; she was also said to be the lover of one of his sons. Her involvement with the king, predicting his death, and naming his successor, may all be seen as functions of a territorial or sovereignty Goddess.

She appears as the judge in Merriman's 18th century poem An Cuirt an Mhéan Oíche, hearing the complaint of women that men do them wrong in not marrying them and taking advantage of them. In that poem she is called "the truthful" and "all-seeing". She sides with the women, ruling that men must marry by 21 or are open to women's reprisals. She also appears in the folk song An Buachaill Caol Dubh where she asks the spirit of alcohol, personified as a 'dark, slim boy', to release a person under his sway.

Aoibheall is a complex folkloric figure. If she was once a Goddess the proof of it has now been lost although hints remain in her powers and activities. Her actions in poem and song seem benevolent, yet in folklore she is associated with death, both through its prediction and causing it with her harp music. Like many Fairy Queens she takes human lovers, and we might associate her with cats, especially white ones, and with fire. Like the flame itself she is named beautiful, yet can be either terribly destructive or a great blessing. Ultimately she is as much mystery as certainty. 

Marshall, R., (2013). Clare Folk tales
MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
O hOgain, D., (2006) Lore of Ireland
Westropp, T., (1910). Folklore of Clare
Merriman, B., (2006) The Midnight Court - translated by Ciaran Carson
An Buachaill Caol Dubh - folk song

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Shifting Spirituality

This is going to be complicated. Also mysticism and personal experiences ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

I went to Ireland six months ago, and its been a time of transition and refocusing since then.

I don't tend to always share a lot of really deep personal stuff, for various reasons, including worry about how my experiences will be perceived. I've been reflecting a lot on that lately, but its kind of a side issue. People in my life have asked what's going on with me spiritually and I've mentioned that I'm working on processing a lot of things. I wrote a bit about the more spiritual side of my trip last year after I'd come back in my blog Muddy Boots or Setting My Feet on the Path and that did show that things had taken an unexpected turn. I'm sure people who read my blog have noticed a shift in what I write about, and that also is a bit indicative as I always write about whatever is interesting me at the moment.

I went to Ireland, considering myself someone who was very focused on the Daoine Eile but who was also largely a polytheist working on honoring the Gods and doing their work as best I could. I had been dedicated to Odin for a decade within a Heathen context and was dedicated to Macha, and had a strong relationship with the Morrigan and Badb as well. Not to mention the other Gods I regularly honored. The entire point of the Ireland trip was a pilgrimage to honor the Morrigan. If I had to give numbers to things I would have said my practice broke down to like 55% Othercrowd, 45% Gods and 10% ancestors. The Good People were what gave everything cohesion and held the diversity of my practices together, but they were still only a portion.

Then Ireland.

I wrote about it in the blog linked above, so I'll spare you the tl;dr re-hashing but it changed everything, while simultaneously not changing things. My personal experience of that trip was entirely Daoine Sí focused. There are some details I haven't told many people before, although these are things a few people are aware of or became aware of separately. That doesn't entirely matter. On the dark moon in October, in Uaimh na gCat I saw the sí of Cruachan open and I had an aisling there. Not of the Morrigan, which is what I had expected, but of a different Queen, from Elsewhere. The next night at Tlachtga in ritual I was named a priestess of the aos sí, a title I chose to accept. This has had some repercussions which I'm still sorting out.

Upon arriving home I was fairly seriously ill for several months with respiratory infections that just wouldn't quit. During this period everything has shifted to focus on the aos sí. That may not sound like a big shift for me, but it really is; its profound. Odin, after 10 years of dedication, severed my oaths to himself, which was a really difficult thing for me. I currently have no clear idea of where I stand with Macha, and while I don't think that's come to an end, it feels different now. The Gods in general still feel present but not nearly as immediately as they always have. For the first time in over 25 years the gods, in one form or another, by one name or another, are not a significant aspect of my daily or even general spirituality. Those numbers I mentioned before? They've shifted at this point to something closer to 90% Othercrowd, 5% Gods, 5% ancestors. That's a seismic shift for me and I feel like I'm floundering trying to find a balance with it.

The Tuatha Dé Danann are among the aos sí, and that's a layer of complication I'm still sorting out. Because its not simple or straightforward. As an animist I've always seen the Gods as just a powerful type of spirit, and I still think that is so, yet this is showing me there is also a distinction here, almost a tribal division going on somewhere dividing groups of spirits, of Gods from not-Gods. Of Aesir from alfar. I haven't sorted it all out yet, and honestly I think it's going to be a slow process as I feel my way along. Because as I mentioned the Gods aren't gone, its just that my relationship to them has changed.

What I do know is that I'm in service to a Fairy Queen, and have been since last Samhain. And that's something new I have to figure out as well. At the time she didn't tell me her name, only that I wasn't to cut my hair anymore (yay for personal geasa). I thought I had figured out who she was over the last six months, but I was wrong. She finally did tell me her name and she is someone I know literally almost nothing about, which if you know me you'll know is pretty unnerving for me. But there's been independent confirmation from two sources - friends who I trust and who are talented with psychic things, although they may not phrase it that way - who described her and told me details about her without my telling them anything about what was going on, so its hard for me not to trust this.

So that's where I'm at. Moving forward one step at a time, doing what I've always done and trying to rely on both academic resources and mysticism to see me though. I've let go of a lot of labels recently which has been an enormously difficult thing. Labels, in there own way, are an aspect of self-definition, so letting go of those words has been a process of letting go of pieces of myself that don't fit any more.

Still a witch. A priestess of the Good People. No idea about any of the rest of it.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Queen of Elfland

 One figure that we see appearing in Scottish folklore in ballads, stories, and witch trial accounts is the Queen of Elfland or Queen of Fairies. This Queen is never named explicitly in these accounts but only referred to by her title and usually appears alone although in some rare cases she was known to have a king by her side. An enigmatic figure she traveled to the mortal world in some ballads and took young men who interested her, keeping them for a period of time, and in other stories she held court in Fairy itself. In all cases she appeared to be a powerful and influential force.

"Under the Eildon Tree Thomas Met the Lady" by Katherine Cameron, public domain
In ballads the Queen of Elfland appears frequently, often having stolen a young man. In the ballad of Tam Lin the eponymous character relates to the protagonist Janet that when he fell from his horse as a youth the Queen of Fairies caught him and took him "in yon green hill to dwell" (Acland, 1997). Fearing that he is about to be given as the fairies' tithe to Hell Tam Lin then convinces the pregnant Janet to save him by pulling him from his horse as the Queen leads a procession out on Halloween night, which Janet does; she successfully holds onto him through a series of fearsome transformations, winning him away from the Queen. The Queen then curses Janet for stealing away her best knight (rather ironic that) and says that had she known this would happen she would have either taken out Tam Lin's eyes and replaced them with 'eyes of a tree' or his heart and replaced it with one of stone, depending on the version of the ballad. In a similar ballad with a less successful end for the human protagonist, The Faerie Oak of Corriewater, a sister tries to do much the same as Janet to win back her brother who has been taken by the Queen of Fairies, but when her brother is turned to fire in her arms she is afraid and tries to drop him at which point she herself goes up in flames. In contrast to this act of destruction, in the ballad of Alison Gross the Queen of the Seely Court comes across a man bespelled into the shape of a worm, as she and her court are riding our on Halloween, and she returns him to his true shape. Getting back to the theme of the Queen of Elfland taking people we look at the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, were a man sees a beautiful woman riding on a horse and after calling her the Queen of Heaven she corrects him and say that she is in fact the Queen of Elfland (Acland, 1997). In some versions she offers him a kiss and then declares that he must come with her to serve her for 7 years, in other versions the two have sex and afterwards she seems to his sight to have become an ugly hag, but nonetheless she compels him to go with her; once in Fairy her beauty is returned (Acland, 1997; Henderson & Cowan, 2007). It's possible this ugly appearance is a test for Thomas as he faces several others in Fairy including the requirement that he not speak while he is there. It was not always young men who were taken however, as we see in 'The Queen of Elfan's Nourice' where the Queen abducts a nursing mother, with the promise that the woman will be freed when the child she is wet-nursing reaches a certain height (Buchan, 1991).

The Queen of Elfland in the ballads has some common themes. When she is described she is usually on a white horse and wearing green. The white horse is almost certainly a sign of rank or importance as well as being a color associated with fairy animals and green is a common color for fairies to wear in folklore, placing her appearance solidly in the realm of the supernatural. She is said be incomparably beautiful, sometimes compared to the Christian Queen of Heaven, and her actions are best described as mercurial. A kiss as either an element of binding or as payment features in both The Faerie Oak of Corriewater and Thomas the Rhymer. In all the ballads we see her able to both bless and curse people, having the power to transform what she chooses and as we see in Thomas the Rhymer to give the gift of prophecy and true speech. She often takes people, but usually for set amount of time which seems to have been agreed on beforehand, and those who are taken can be won free with effort. She is a power that transcends humanity yet chooses to seek it out and interact with humans, for both good and ill.

The Queen also appears in the witch trial documents, as some of the Scottish witches said it was to this Fairy Queen and not the Christian Devil that they owed allegiance. Isobel Gowdie, one of the most well-known Scottish witches, described the Queen of Fairy well dressed in white and claimed she had been taken into the fairy hill and given as much meat as she could eat (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). In this case, as meat was a luxury food, it may be that what Isobel was fed was form of payment for her services. She also said she was taught things and given elfshot to use against people. Accused witch Bessie Dunlop claimed that she encountered the Queen of Elfland when she [Bessie] was giving birth, and Alison Pearson was put on trial and accused, in part, for spending time with the 'Quene of Elfame' (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). Many of these witches claimed in the trials to have been brought to Fairy to meet with the Queen or the Queen and King of Elfland and related things they had done or seen while there. These visits and the relationship with the Queen more generally usually involved being taught knowledge of healing herbs and skills, and in some cases potentially of cursing. Another Scottish witch, Andro Man, claimed to have had repeated sexual encounters with the Queen of Elfland, or as he called it Elphin (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). This tie in to sexuality is an interesting echo of what we see in the ballads where the Queen also uses sex and intimacy to bind men to her service. Several of these witches said it was this Queen who directed them in their witchcraft and assigned them a fairy as a familiar spirit (Wilby, 2005).

The Queen of Elfland could easily be dismissed today as simply an old literary trope and yet when we look at both her presence in the ballads and her pervasive role in the witchcraft trial testimony, we may perhaps come to another conclusion. She could represent a deeper folklore echo of a goddess, once found in Scotland, whose name has since been lost and who over time went from a deity to a Fairy Queen, and eventually to a literary character. Certainly we see such a pattern in Ireland, although there the names of the Fairy Queens are preserved still and we can trace them back to their former divine persona. We can see hints of this in the Queen of Elfland's appearance and actions in the ballads and more so in the testimony from the witch trials, where she tended to appear to people in circumstances of dire need or liminal states, such as Bessie Dunlop giving birth; to supplant the role of the deity they worshiped previously; and to represent a power that protected, blessed, and empowered them in their lives. This is all supposition, of course, but it is an interesting theory based on the evidence. The Fair Folk at any rate occupy a transitional place between deities and humans and whether she is a goddess or not the Fairy Queen is doubtless a powerful force and one who can help or harm as she chooses.

Buchan, D., (1991) 'Ballads of Otherworld Beings', The Good People
Acland, A., (1997) Tam Lin Child Ballad 39A
Acland, A., (1997) Thomas the Rhymer
Henderson, L., and Cowan, E., (2007) Scottish Fairy Belief

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Simple Magic, Butter and Salt

There was a time when my magical practices were fairly complicated, and I suppose sometimes they still can be. I won't deny that I like my fancy candles and herbs as much as most witches do, and I am fond of a variety of woods and natural materials. There is something visceral and satisfying in working with these tangible things, in - for example - making my own incense and watching a variety of herbs beings ground slowly into one united purpose. Its fun to have a range of tools in the metaphysical tool kit to draw on.

But I can also appreciate a more simple approach. There are times when simple isn't just more convenient but also more powerful. You aren't being distracted by the need for a long or complex process, or trying to focus on something that may be involved or detailed. There's a purity in minimalism that can add instead of detract. For a while I forgot this.

 When I was first starting out in witchcraft I was very young and so very limited in what I had access to for supplies. Some generic incense. Inexpensive candles. Yarn. Salt. Cornmeal for offerings. And yet with these basic things I was able to practice my spirituality and magic just fine; I never felt as if my humble tools limited my ability or success. To give you an example at one point when I was in high school one of my uncles who I was very fond of had a heart attack and I wanted to do a healing spell for him. Since I had nothing to work with I used a piece of notebook paper and cut out a poppet from that, believing that it was the image itself that mattered for the spell not the quality of the material used. The old witches after all used what they had on hand.

But like many people as my means increased so did my desire for fancier and more elaborate things. The books I was reading in the 90's and early 00's tended to leave me with the impression that fancier was better, with spells often including a list of exotic ingredients, from herbs and oils to crystals and manufactured tools. I'm not criticizing those things of course - they work and they work well. But eventually I realized that so do the plants growing in my yard and the stones I can find in the earth and streams around me, provided I know what they are and how to use them.

As time has gone on I've noticed both in myself and in some other people a refining of the go-to magical tools. In some cases as I mentioned above its a turning back to more locally sourced supplies. In other cases it may include that but also go even further, a refining to the simplest approaches, of something for blessing and something for banishing. For some people these tools refine down to fire and water, or perhaps earth and light. For me its salt and butter. I've found that in almost any circumstance one or the other can be used, either salt for banishing, protection, or cleansing, or butter for offering, blessing, and healing. I always carry a bit of salt and butter on me as a kind of emergency magical kit and I have found it extremely useful under a variety of unexpected circumstances.

Magic can be complicated and many magical processes and spells can also be complex. Yet magic can also be straightforward, especially folk magic. Singing a chant. Speaking a blessing over an object or person. Offering butter to spirits. Salting a boundary. Gathering herbs from your yard. Hanging up a hag stone. Simple actions, yet when done with intention and focus, they can be very powerful.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What's in a Name? Imp, Elf, Fairy, Good Neighbor

When it comes to the denizens of Fairy, what's in a name? As it happens a lot, but there's also a great deal of confusion because many of the terms in English that we apply today to specific beings are rooted in generic terms that were once interchangeable. The water is further muddied by the widespread use of euphemisms, designed to encourage a positive response should you attract the attention of anything Otherworldly. These terms which we now think of as exclusively applying to one specific type of Otherworldly being a few hundred years ago, or less, were used synonymously with each other and different groupings of terms had certain connotations for good or ill. What one called the beings popularly named fairies today would dictate the way they would respond, and whether that response would be friendly or hostile. 

This Scottish poem demonstrates some of the variety of synonymous terms we see in the folk cultures:
"Gin ye ca' me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I'll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca' me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca' me seelie wicht
I'll be your freend baith day and nicht."
 - Chambers, 1842
[If you call me imp or elf
I counsel you, look well to yourself;
If you call me fairy
I'll work you great misery;
If good neighbor you call me
Then good neighbor I will be;
But if you call me seelie wight*
I'll be your friend both day and night]

La Belle Dame sans Merci by Waterhouse 1893

Looking at this 19th century rhyme we see an assortment of terms that can all be applied to the Good Folk, each of which either angers or pleases them. We're advised that calling a member of the Other Crowd an imp, elf, or fairy will anger them, while calling them 'Good Neighbor' or seelie wight will gain their favor. However all of these various terms are treated synonymously rather than as unique terms for different types of beings. There is no idea that these are different types of beings, but rather that these are all terms that someone might choose to apply to the same being. This reflects an older understanding that saw the members of Fairy more fluidly and less rigidly categorized. 

The first two terms mentioned, which are used together, are imp and elf. Imp comes to us as a term in older forms of English that originally denoted a child but by the 16th century had become a term for a small devilish being (Harper, 2017). Similarly the English word elf during that period was often used to both describe a malicious creature, often used interchangeably with incubus and goblin, as well as more generically to describe any Otherworldly being (Williams, 1991). There was often a fine, sometimes indistinguishable, line between the demonic and the Otherworldly and it was not uncommon in older sources to see the same being described by one person as a demon or incubus and by another as an elf or fairy. The activities of some of these beings was also a grey area that could be considered evil as it may involve seduction, violence, or death. So we see in the first line of the poem two terms often used to indicate potentially dangerous beings, with the warning that to call them such is to invite the danger they represent. 

An image of the Cottingley Fairies, circa 1917

Next we see the term fairy*, with the warning that to call them that invites great misery. The term fairy is actually a complicated one, of obscure origin, which was originally used to describe the Otherworld itself - the world of Fairy - and as an adjective for beings from that world or a type of enchantment (Williams, 1991). Only later would the word itself shift to indicate an individual being. In this sense it is strongly reminiscent of the Irish term 'sidhe' (later sí) which in the same way is a word indicating a place and used as an adjective, but that has recently started to be used to indicate the individual beings. When it comes to the word fairy in early sources, including Chaucer, we see the beings referred to often as elves and their world as Fairy (Williams, 1991). Why this word would offend them may seem less clear to us today, however just as the words imp and elf had strong associations with evil the word fairy at different points had pejorative uses, including being applied to sexually loose women and later homosexual men, in both cases carrying overtones of sexual impropriety (Briggs, 1967). These associations towards people only came later, likely because of the word fairy's meaning relating to the Otherworld and enchantment which when used to describe a person implied uncanniness and improper behavior. Since early sources do not indicate the word fairy caused any insult I would suggest that it was this pejorative association that was the source of the offense and with their dislike for the term. In a modern context fairy is possibly the most widely used generic term for all Otherworldly beings as well as a specific term for small winged beings. 

Next we see the term Good Neighbor, one of the more well know euphemisms. I haven't been able to trace how far back this one goes, but I do know that the use of euphemisms has a long history. For example we can find the term Fair Folk [Fair Folkis] in a work from 1513 by Gavin Douglas. The idea of euphemisms is simple: you use a nice term for them and they respond in a nice way. This is illustrated by the poem itself, "If Good Neighbor you call me, then good neighbor I will be". As such we see all the euphemisms reflecting positive qualities, from Good Neighbor and Fair Folk, to Good People and the Gentry. 

The final term used in the poem is Seelie wicht, a name we are assured that will gain us the friendship of the Fey folk 'both day and night' if it's used. Wicht is a Scots term, also found in related languages including Old English, Icelandic, and German, that simply means a living thing. Sometimes seen as wight in English it is often used in combination with good as a term for the fairies; guid wichts, good wights, the fairies. Seelie is a Scots term that means lucky, blessed, fortunate. So, in effect, seelie wicht means 'lucky or blessed being'. Understandable why they'd be so pleased at the use of this term then. It is also seen in one of the more well known Scots euphemisms for the fairies, Seelie court, which has grown into a complex concept in itself. 

So, what's in a name? Ultimately the meaning and context of the name seems to be the key to whether it pleases or offends the Othercrowd when we call them by it. They respond well to being complimented and flattered with favorable terms, explaining perhaps why the use of euphemisms became so popular, and are angered at being insulted. To offend them is to risk their wrath; to please them is to invite their blessing. 

*although in modern terms people tend to associate the word fairy with a specific type of small winged sprite, the word itself has long been used and is still used in many places to simply refer to any being of the Otherworld.

Chambers, R., (1842) Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland
Harper, D., (2017). Imp, Online Etymology Dictionary
Williams, N., (1991). The Semantics of the Word Fairy; article in the anthology 'The Good People: New Fairylore Essays'
DSL (2017) Dictionary of the Scots Language
Briggs, K., (1967). the Fairies in Literature and Tradition

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Influence of Folk Etymologies

  Something I've been giving some thought to recently is the influence of the meaning of names. Most pagans I know are at least curious about what a deity or mythic figure's name means and knowing the etymology then adds a layer of understanding about that deity. If we interpret the Morrigan's name to mean 'Great Queen' I think that must in some way influence how we understand her more generally, the same way that understanding Boinn as the 'White Cow' or Oengus as 'Unique Force' shapes how we view them. But some of the understandings of names, even the older ones, are based on folk etymology, that is on definitions that are popular with people but are actually incorrect. Nonetheless these inaccurate but sometimes widespread name-meanings have an effect and also contribute to how deities and mythic figures are perceived by adding new layers of meaning to Gods and in many cases changing how they are understood.

For example the Dagda has many names including 'Ollathair' which is Old Irish for 'great/vast/ample father'; this probably ties in, I believe, to his possession of the cauldron of abundance and his widespread fame, Yet many people today believe that Ollathair means 'All Father', based on oll's similarity with the English all (the two are basically homophones). Understanding him as a 'Vast Father' is clearly different than seeing him as an 'All Father', since one implies greatness in the sense of size or magnitude while the other is usually interpreted to imply a literal fathering of the pantheon.

Étaín's name is thought to most likely be a diminutive form of the word jealousy:  ét, jealousy; -an indicating small or little. However I have seen folk etymologies that give her name as a seed or kernel, possibly confusing her name with the word etne. Although the kernel meaning is inaccurate people find it resonates probably because of her mythology; the Goddess reborn as a woman and then transformed into a fairy queen. There is clearly a lot of difference though between seeing her as strongly tied to jealousy - a major theme in her myth - or to rebirth and the qualities of a seed - another arguable theme in her mythology.

Badb's name means 'hooded crow' primarily and can also be an adjective meaning 'deadly, ill-fated, dangerous'. However several modern sources erroneously claim that her name means 'boiling' or 'one who boils' which has led to associations between Badb and cauldrons, and even the idea of herself as deity of the afterlife and rebirth. In the same way Macha's name actually means 'hooded crow' or 'field, milking field, plain' yet some modern sources say it means 'battle' which shifts her from a more pastoral deity to a strongly martial one*. In both these examples the actual meaning and the folk etymology are at odds and the folk etymology gives a profoundly different understanding of the Goddess in question.

The Fairy Queen and sovereignty Goddess associated with county Clare, Aoibheall is an obscure figure. Her name is based in the Old Irish oibell which means 'heat, spark, flame, bright' which paints one picture of her probable nature. But a source from 1906 defined her name as meaning 'beautiful', which has a very different connotation and could lead people to draw different conclusions about her nature. One carries with it the caution we have around all fiery things, while the other is simply attractive and appealing.

One of the most well known and oldest of these folk etymologies comes to us from an Irish glossary, which told us hundreds of years ago that Brighid's name was rooted in the words 'breo-saighead' meaning fiery arrow. Of course her name comes from Brig, meaning 'high' or 'exalted', but the fiery-arrow meaning has become deeply rooted in people's minds. Its evocative and people already liked connecting her to fire so the idea that her name had a fiery meaning has appeal. It creates associations and connections that weren't there before the folk etymology though.

These are only a handful of examples but hopefully they illustrate the point I'm trying to make about the difference we see in meaning between the actual etymology from the source language and the folk etymologies we find going around. I'm not saying that folk etymology is right or wrong, good or bad, but it is something we need to be aware of. I am encouraging people to reflect on the way that what we think a name means changes how we view the being that name is attached to. We can't always know what a name means, and sometimes there's disagreement over the ultimate meaning of a name - is the Morrigan the Great Queen or the Phantom Queen? - but whether we realize it or not the meaning we associate with a name does shape how we think of that being.

*although in Macha's case she does have battle associations so the difference in understanding is more in a loss of the layers we gain from seeing her connection to the land and to abundance through cows, than an added meaning given through the folk etymology and not found elsewhere.