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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fairy Etiquette

Consider this a bit of a crash course - or the cliff notes version - in fairy etiquette. Like anything else on this subject for every rule or guideline there's an exception (see my last blog on eating fairy food if you don't understand what I mean by that) but this offers the broad strokes. Before reading this its important to keep in mind that the Fair Folk in general are not humans and are not like humans; as Yeats would have it they have few unmixed emotions and are beings of extremes, both good and bad. Often what they do seems perplexing to us, sometimes capricious and sometimes cruel. We cannot approach this subject expecting them to be or do what humans would in any circumstance but we must look at the system they operate in as a guideline to understand their etiquette which is distinct from our own. For example, the Good People have no compunction at all about stealing from humans or harming humans, although we see in folklore that they do have some strict rules about humans doing those same things to them - it is not an equal playing board but one on which they have different sets of rules for themselves and for mortals. This must be understood to understand anything else about them.

So then this guide to etiquette is not so much about the etiquette of fairies among themselves, butof etiquette for humans dealing with fairies:

  1. Don't lie to the Good People - Fairies are always honest; in folklore and my own experience the Daoine Maithe don't lie but always speak the truth. I suspect this is why they can be tricked in ways we perceive as 'easy' sometimes, such as the story where the girl tells the Brownie in the mill her name is 'mise' [myself]*. Of course as I have mentioned more than once before this does not in any way keep them from tricking us by telling us nothing but the truth in ways that get us to assume a conclusion that is not true. Semantics is an artform of which they are masters. Because they do not lie they don't expect dishonesty from humans either and as you may imagine they react badly to being lied to.
  2. Keep your word - Building off that last one, should you ever be in the position to make a promise or take an oath to a member of the Othercrowd under no circumstances should you break your word. They don't grade on a curve for this one - a promise is a promise and an oath is an oath. Do what you say you will do. 
  3. Lending and Borrowing - It happens that the Good Neighbors do sometimes ask the loan of things from us, and it usually wise to give it. This can range from food to grain to items (usually household items or farm equipment).  They always repay their debts, most often with interest but not always in kind; for example there is a well-known anecdote about a man who lent the fairies wheat and was repaid with more than he gave but in barley. There are also stories of fairy mothers who ask a nursing human mother to let a fairy baby nurse just once from them in trade for a blessing; again this is considered good to do. Humans may also borrow from the Gentry but slightly more caution is required as folklore tells us that a deadline for re-payment is always set and must not be missed.
  4. The Issue of Wash Water - This one is a bit complex, but generally speaking, one should not throw dirty water on the ground without an audible warning first, to alert the fairies, and one should not pour such water out over a large rock, lest it be the abode of fairies. Fairies abhor filth and seem to have an especial hatred of dirty water and urine (both of which can be used as protection against them). There is also the matter of having dirty water standing in the home, something that was more common in the past when people would come in and wash their feet; this 'foot water' depending on the area of belief would either drive fairies away or conversely allow them entry into an otherwise protected home.  
  5. Gifts - If offered a gift it is wise to accept it and to offer something in return; however fairy gifts are rarely what the seem. That which seems valuable initially often turns out to be worthless and that which seems like nothing at first is often revealed to be quite valuable. Fairy gifts are also, as often as not, traps, and so great caution should be used with them. In many stories we see something given as a gift that does indeed bring luck or happiness to the person who receives it, but in others the item - particularly if it is food or drink - may act to trap the person or bind them to Fairy. Gifts are never straightforward. You really have to use your head here, because accepting them can be a good idea and refusing them can anger the fairies, but sometimes refusing them is the best choice. 
  6. Nothing is Free - Related to the subjects of lending/borrowing and gifts, try to keep in mind that nothing is free. Even gifts that are given as true gifts without hidden traps still come with obligations. Fairy is a very feudal system in that respect, everything is tied together through debts and obligations and what's owed to who. If you give to them then they owe you in return, even if that owing is paid back simply by not causing you mischief. If they give you gifts then gifts are expected in return. Reciprocity and obligatory return are the foundations of their society, at least in much of folklore and my experience. 
  7. Never Say Thank You - It is a widespread belief, although not ubiquitous, that one shouldn't say thank you to the fairies. I have heard one theory behind this, that it implies a debt to them, a blank check if you will, that would allow them to decide how you repay them. Another theory suggests it is dismissive and implies you feel superior to them. Whatever is the case you should try to avoid saying it. Offering a gift in exchange for something you feel you've received can be a good idea, or saying something else along the lines of expressing gratitude for what happened without saying thank you directly, such as 'I am so happy with ---' or 'I really appreciate ---'. 
  8. Silence - it is possible for a person to have the favor of the Other Crowd and to gain by it. However the fairies have a strict rule about a person not speaking of experiences or blessing they get from the Good People. I think this is why we have more negative stories than positive and why we have more stories of single encounters than multiple ones. A person can sometimes get permission to speak or to reveal things, but the general rule is that to keep their favor you must stay silent about their activity in your life. Those who brag about fairy blessings or gifts almost always lose them and the future possibility of them. 
  9. Privacy - Fairies really, really do not like being spied on or having their privacy invaded. Many stories in folklore involve a person who stumbles across the Good People doing their normal thing, is seen watching, and punished severely - in only a few cases does the person manage to talk their way out of any repercussions. Its a good idea to respect their places and to trust your instincts when you feel like you should or shouldn't go somewhere. If you do happen upon fairies it is probably best to stay quiet and hidden, and wait for them to move on, unless they make it clear from the start they know you are there. 

*This of course is key to her escape from his vengeful mother after she kills him, because when asked for the name of his attacker he can only repeat 'myself, myself'.

Further Reading:
Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies 
W. B. Yeats, Celtic Twilight
W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Peter Narvaez (ed) The Good People: New Fairylore Essays
Eddie Lenihan & Carolyn Green, Meeting the Other Crowd

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fairy Food: "Bite No Bit, And Drink No Drop"

"And what you've not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again."
- the Ballad of Childe Rowland

I've previously discussed the food of Fairy in the context of what fairies themselves eat but today I thought it would be interesting to look at humans in relation to fairy food. Fairies are well known for taking human food, both the substance and the essence of it, but a quick glance at Celtic folklore shows a clear prohibition against humans eating the food of Fairy. As the above quote from Childe Rowland illustrates, to eat fairy food is to be trapped in Fairy; we see the same sentiment related by Lady Wilde in a story of a girl brought to a fairy banquet who was warned by another captive: "Eat no food, and drink no wine, or you will never see your home again". And yet in other cases to refuse Fairy food carries a heavy consequences. So how then is a person to know when it is safe to eat and when it is dangerous?

Not fairy food
In the Echtra Condla we see the Fairy woman who comes to woo Connla away from mortal earth giving him an apple; it becomes his only food and no matter how much he eats the apple remains whole (Daimler, 2017). After a month of this the Fairy woman returns and takes Connla back with her into Fairy. In some versions of the popular Fairy Midwife story the midwife is offered food after she refuses to stay with the fairies, but a new mother by the fire, who is herself a human captive, advises the midwife not to eat or drink anything or she won't be able to leave (Ballard, 1991). Similarly Yeats relates a tale of a stolen bride whose groom tracks her down with the group of fairies who have taken her; she directs him away from offers of food and drink to play cards instead so that he will not also be taken (Yeats, 1902). The idea seems to be that to consume food in Fairy binds a person to Fairy either by changing their nature and making them part of Fairy or by binding some essential part of the person to Fairy. One person from Sligo in 1909 described it thus: "Once they take you and you taste food in their palace you cannot come back. You are changed to one of them, and live with them forever." (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Yet this is not a hard and fast rule and we do also see cases where a person is offered or given food and walks away unharmed. In one anecdote a pair of men was walking and heard fairies inside a sí churning butter; they wished aloud for a drink of the buttermilk and to their surprise it was given to them. One took it and the other refused with the one who refused having bad luck afterwards (Bruford, 1991). Thomas in Thomas the Rhymer is paid by the Fairy Queen with an apple, which he eats and which gives him the ability to speak truly, but the apple does not bind him to Fairy, he is returned to mortal earth after his service is done (Acland, 1997). The difference may be that the men were given food they asked for and Thomas is explicitly given the apple as payment, in exchange for his service to the Queen for 7 years. In the same way we see Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish witch who dealt with the Queen of Elphame, saying that the Queen gave her meat to eat although Isobel was not taken into Fairy but remained on earth. The normal rules of food may not apply when that food is given as part of a clear exchange or payment of a debt owed by the fairy or for services rendered. The Good People are also known to give food as gifts, in which case no debt would be accrued and the person was not bound in any way (Gwyndaf, 1991). 

There are some exceptions to this, of course, as we see with the goblin fruit, for example, in the Goblin Market which is paid for by the human but is nonetheless a death sentence. In that case we are dealing with the Unseelie Court and it may be that they do not follow the more polite rules of the Seelie Court on this subject, but that all food from their hands is dangerous. Or it may be that the person is aware of what they are buying when they buy it, given the fruits' dangerous reputation. 

 In most of the  stories where the food is a kind of trap it is offered as part of hospitality or offered to the person when they have done nothing to pay for it. It is simply offered and taken, usually in a social context. It is also offered, most often, when the person is either in Fairy or in the company of a larger group of fairies, indicating that this may also be a factor. In the stories where the food is not dangerous to take the circumstances are generally different: the person has asked for food, the person was owed a debt by the fairy, or the person was explicitly in service to a fairy monarch. So it would seem that like so many other things on this subject it is neither simple nor clear cut, that there are some cases when eating fairy food is dangerous and others where it is not.

If you ever find yourself in a situation involving fairy food, I'd suggest remembering that its unwise to take what isn't owed to you. 

Daimler, M., (2017) Echtra Condla
Gwyndaf, R., (1991). Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Bruford, A., (1991). Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney and the Shetlands
Yeats, W., (1902) Celtic Twilight
Acland, A., (1997) Thomas the Rhymer
Acland, A., (1997) Childe Rowland
Ballard, L., (1991) Fairies and the Supernatural on Reachrai
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Riding the River; My Journey into Paganism

 My journey into Paganism is something I've talked about before, but I don't think I've ever written explicitly about it here. Since there's a blog theme going around taking on that idea I thought it might be interesting to look at it here.

Many people when you ask them 'How did you end up pagan?' have a straightforward answer - they found a book or they met a particular person. My own story is a bit more complicated, although it does eventually involve both a book and a person, both of which I owe a great debt and neither of which continued with me on my path.

Unlike most of my peers I wasn't raised Christian. I tend to say I was raised a secular agnostic because that sums it up fairly well. We celebrated all the main American holidays but without any religious overtones - Christmas was when Santa came in his reindeer pulled sleigh to magically bring us presents and Easter was when a bunny brought us baskets of candy. I include the agnostic part because there was no firm disbelief, but neither was their any clear structure within any particular faith. We grew up hearing stories about our families history and culture, Cherokee, Irish-American, and New England with all the folklore and belief that came with that. I spent a lot of time out doors in nature, connecting to the wild world. I also had the added personal quirk of seeing spirits, something that (luckily for me) my family humored for the most part. I built little houses for the fairies and left them notes on my windowsill for as long as I could remember. But actual formal religion, there wasn't any.

I was also always a spiritual seeker, maybe because I saw things other people didn't. At various points I was curious about different religions, attending church services with my friends, reading about Judaism, I even read up on Mennonites and the Amish. Nothing ever quite fit though. And then when I was in middle school (the early 1990's) one of my best friends introduced me to a book by Scott Cunningham called 'Wicca: a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner'. For the first time I was reading about a religion - witchcraft and paganism - that made perfect sense to me. Gods and Goddesses, spirits, magic, these all resonated with me and fit into the world, spirits inclusive, that I already knew existed. I was mad for Irish culture at that point so it wasn't much effort to add in Irish mythology to to everything else and begin reading about the Irish Gods. I think I was about 11 years old.

I went to the library and found a few other books, and used my babysitting money to buy a couple more and I read what I could get my hands on at the time: Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, Sybil Leek's Diary of a Witch, Laurie Cabot's Power of the Witch. At the advanced age of 12 I decided to preform a self dedication ritual, out in the cold on Imbolc. Because at 12 I was certain that this was the most amazing religion ever.

Of course within a few years, by the mid 90's, I'd started to focus more on what I'd later learn was called Celtic Reconstructionism and by 1997 I'd joined a CR Druid group called the Order of the White Oak. In 2001 I joined another Druid group, Ar nDraoicht Fein, and in 2006 I joined Our Troth after I began studying Heathenry/Asatru. I had long since stopped considering myself Wiccan but I never stopped practicing witchcraft and throughout it all the Good People - by any name - where the bedrock of my belief system and practice.

I remained a dual-trad person, both a reconstructionist Irish polytheist and a Heathen but I also began to see that over the years I had developed my own type of witchcraft, my own flavor if you will. So in 2013 I wrote a book 'Pagan Portals Fairy Witchcraft' which would be published the following year that described my witchcraft and my belief system, formed from a lifetime of experience and woven from the Fairy Faith and a reconstructionist approach to working with the Other Crowd. That of course led to another book, Fairycraft, and another (coming out later this year) Fairies. And there's another one in the works that will be out in the next year or so as well. I feel like Themselves have something to say.

Last year, as those of you who read my blog already know, was a transitional one for me. I went to Ireland a polytheist dedicated to several Gods. I came back belonging to the Daoine Maithe. Looking back on my journey to paganism and its evolution over the years I suppose it was a predictable evolution, but I honestly never saw it coming. I had always thought of my path as a tree, growing up from roots into spreading branches but always one thing always the same even as it grew. I suppose in a way that's true, but recently I've realized that my path is far more like a river - the water is always the water but the river expands and contracts, reshapes itself, slows or speeds up as it travels. It changes as it needs to change. My path has always been about the Good People even before I realized I was on a path, and I have walked it my whole life even when I wasn't aware it was there. It has changed and reshaped itself radically along the way, and that's alright. I've learned a lot.

And where I am now is not the end either.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Witchcraft of The Devouring Swamp

My friend at Via Hedera wrote a great post about her green witchcraft in the context of her river and its spirits called "Green River Witchcraft". You should definitely give it a read. It has me thinking about the way that where we live, the environment we live in, shapes how we relate to spirits and perhaps our witchcraft or wider spirituality. For my friend at Via Hedera that means green, growing, knitting community together. It also reminds me of this Puscifer song:

All of this got me thinking about my own environment, my own animism and my own witchcraft.

Animism is and always has been a core concept of my beliefs, back for as far as I can remember believing things. The idea that there are spirits - souls - in objects, in places, in everything has always just been a given for me. Of course the river has a spirit. Of course the road has one too. People can split hairs about the details of animism, what it is and how its defined, but ultimately I think any view of animism hinges on that core idea of an ensouled world.

Building on that, for me, is the idea that the physical anchor for that spirit shapes and influences the spirit to some degree. Just as our experience in our body effect how we interact with the world, it has been my experience to a large degree that other spirits are effected by the state of their physical anchor, when they have one. A river that is free-running and clear is a happy river; one that is clogged and polluted is not. A happy river, often will have a happy spirit while an unhappy river will have an unhappy spirit, to give a simple view of it. Rivers shaped by waterfalls and wild rapids have more wild and fierce spirits. Rivers that are calm and slow moving have more languid spirits. I am speaking of generalities of course, trying to get a larger point across.

In turn the spirits and physical anchors they have shape us and resonate with us, or not. People are drawn to certain places, certain types of spirits, whether or not they are aware of it. We may say we like to live near specific terrain, or we always have to be around a specific kind of thing; or perhaps we draw those things to us. I have an affinity for things with thorns and now through no effort on my part my yard has been overtaken by things-with-thorns. We are connected to the spirits around us and they in their way are connected to us, and this is especially true for those of us who practice any form of magic or follow a spiritual path that lends itself to these connection.

Water flows through and around the land I live on, shapes it and re-shapes it. I live within 8 miles of the ocean, and a mile from a large river. But my backyard is a freshwater swamp, less than 50 feet from my house. Those spirits are woven into my home and my witchcraft, inevitably, because they are a part of my environment. They are what I am connected to and what I resonate with.

my backyard

 Rivers have a certain nature to them, whether they are big or small, and their spirits tend to reflect this. They flow, the move, they nurture. Swamps are very different in nature. Swamps devour. Swamps consume. Swamps take in. Swamps have their own cycles, their own ecology, their own blessings and dangers. Ground that looks safe often enough proves a sucking void and one misstep in a swamp can be costly. Swamps are where, often, we see the process of decay front and center, even when they are living and thriving. Trees, uprooted, crisscross the water dying and adding themselves back to the mix from which everything else springs. Yet swamps also nurture life in their own way. Trees grow here, finding roots on the dry islands that rise between the water. Birds nest here, frogs breed here, animals  make their homes here. Paths can be found across the danger by treading on the trunks of fallen trees, if one is daring and has good balance.

The spirits of swamps reflect the nature of swamps; they are devouring and merciless, but they can also be nurturing and helpful. They respect people who are bold, and people who know where to tread and where not to step. They are not subtle, except when they are. The green growth of the swamp stands directly on the brown decay in which its rooted, and the spirits of the swamp, more perhaps than other spirits, are mercurial and stand between baneful and blessing in nature. The Otherworldly beings that choose swamps to live in tend more towards darkness than light.

There is powerful magic to be found here, and powerful connections to be made with these spirits. The lessons of the swamp rest in patience, and rhythms, and finding paths where others see only obstacles. Swamp spirits teach you discernment in trust, and that things are rarely as they appear. The witchcraft of these liminal lands, as much water as earth, is something that knows to respect decay while nourishing new beginnings, and knows when to seek a safe path and when to give over to the devouring waters. The spirits here make powerful allies. But let's be honest, the swamp isn't an easy thing to learn and just when you think you understand it you're sure to set your feet wrong and fall into the half-decayed muck. It takes time and effort to learn the rhythms of any swamp, and to speak to its spirits and learn their language.

Just don't follow the lights in the swamp at night and you will be off to a good start.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Cliodhna: Goddess and Fairy Queen

The Following is an Excerpt from my book Pagan Portals Gods and Goddesses of Ireland

Cliodhna -
Cliodhna, also known as Clíona, is considered both one of the Tuatha Dé Danann in older mythology and a Fairy Queen in modern folk lore. Her name may mean ‘the territorial one’, likely reflecting her earlier role as a sovereignty Goddess; her epithet is Ceannfhionn (fair headed or fair haired) and she is sometimes called ‘the shapely one’1. In many stories she is described as
exceptionally beautiful.

Her sister is said to be Aibheall, and her father is Gebann, the Druid of Manannán mac Lir2. There are no references to who her mother might be or to her children among the Gods. Several mortal families trace their descent from her including the McCarthys and O’Keefes and she was well known for taking mortal lovers.

Cliodhna is said to have taken the form of a wren, a bird that may be associated with her, and she is also often associated with the Otherworldly Bean sidhe. By some accounts she herself is considered to be such a spirit, or their queen, although in other folklore she is more generally the queen of the fairies of Munster. She has three magical birds that eat Otherworldly apples and have the power to lull people to sleep by singing and then heal them3.

She is strongly associated with the shore and with waves, and the tide at Glandore in Cork was called the ‘Wave of Cliodhna’4. In several of her stories she is drowned at that same location after leaving the Otherworld either to try to woo Aengus or after running away with a warrior named Ciabhán. She has a reputation in many stories for her passionate nature and love of poets in particular, and in later folklore when she is considered a Fairy Queen she is known to abduct handsome young poets or to appear and try to seduce them. In folklore she has a reputation for seducing and drowning young men5.

Cliodhna is particularly associated with the province of Munster and especially with Cork, where she resides at a place called Carraig Chlíona (Cliodhna’s rock)6. It is likely that she was originally one of the sovereignty Goddesses of Munster and that her survival in folklore to the present period reflects how deeply ingrained she was in local lore.

Modern practitioners may choose to honor Cliodhna for her role as a sovereignty Goddess or as an ancestral deity related to specific families. I might suggest, given her more recent folklore related to the Bean sidhe and her penchant in stories for harming young men and poets, that she should be approached with caution. Offerings to her could include the traditional milk or bread given to the Gods and fairies, as well as poetry, of which she seems fond.

1. O hOgain, 2006; MacKillop, 1998
2. Smyth, 1988; MacKillop, 1998
3. ibid
4. O hOgain, 2006
5. Smyth, 1988
6. O hOgain, 2006

O hOgain, D., (2006) Lore of Ireland
Smyth, D., (1988) Irish Mythology
MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

poem translation 'Lugh's Arrival at Teamhair'

This is an excerpt from a 14th century poem; this portion is telling about Lugh's arrival at Temhair during the larger story of the Cath Maige Tuired. It's short but very interesting and worth a read I think. I've included the original Irish and then my translation. 

Crow perched on signpost in front of the Duma na nGaill, Teamhair, Ireland

Tabhás do Lugh, leannán Teamhra
thoir i nEamhain,
dá ránaig sé ar súr gach domhain
Múr Té, Teamhair.

Dúnta an chathair ar chionn Logha,
laoch ro thoghsom;
téid gusan múr sleamhain slioschorr
beanaidh boschrann.

Ar an doirseóir ris an deaghlaoch,
fá doirbh ruaigfhearg:
cáit as a dtig an fear áith ógard
bláith geal gruaiddearg.

Ris an doirseóir
a dubhairt Lugh nár loc iomghuin:
file meise a hEamhain Abhlaigh
ealaigh iobhraigh.

Nocha dligi, ar doirseóir Teamhra,
tocht diar ndaighthigh;
atá fear ri
- excerpt from "Mór ar bhfearg riot, ri Saxan"

'Lugh's Arrival at Tara'

Revealed to Lugh, lover of Teamhra
in the east in Eamhain,
so he went to search the whole earth for
Té's Ramparts, Teamhair [Tara].

closed was the city against Lugh's arrival,
the choicest of warriors;
touched with force the sharp-sided, smooth ramparts
struck the door-wood.

The King's doorman said to the great warrior,
whose anger was swift:
"From where comes the man, keen, young,
bright flower, red cheeked."

To the King's Doorman
said Lugh who never hesitated in reciprocal wounding:
"I am myself a poet of Eamhain Abhlach*
of swans and yews."

"Not merited", said Teamhair's doorman,
"Coming from conflict;"

* Emain Abhlach, emain of the apples, one of the si