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Monday, January 29, 2018

The Morrigan is not my Sex Goddess

I want to start off by acknowledging that we all see the Gods differently and I know that sometimes a person can relate to a deity in a way that is unusual (comparatively) or unique to them; maybe this is how they need to see that deity for personal reasons. What I want to address here is something that I've seen more and more often among people discussing the Morrigan, and that is the idea that she is a goddess of sex or sexuality - not that an individual relates to her that way but that it is a definitive part of who she, as a deity, is. People even claim that it is one of her main purviews. I've seen it said in many places by many different people, and in a wider way we can see it reflected in the way she is often shown in artwork: scantily clad (or nude), alluringly posed, oozing sex appeal even on a battlefield or among corpses. 

Banshee by WH Brooke, 1824, public domain

I won't address the statue issue here, as John Beckett recently blogged about that and I think he covered the imagery aspect of the discussion fairly well. I will only say that I don't think clothes or lack of clothes is the problem. I love Paul Borda's Morrigan statue, which depicts her nude and as a warrior. I don't find it sexy at all or male gaze oriented and I think that's the key. One can be naked and powerful or one can be naked and vulnerable, and too often the 'nude Morrigan' artwork shows her as the latter. And I'm sorry people but when she's being shown looking like a very young woman who couldn't physically hold the blade she's carrying - or is holding it point down over her own foot! - it's pretty clear that the image isn't meant to depict a powerful goddess but simply an attractive female body.

What I want to discuss here is why, exactly, this idea of the Morrigan as a goddess of sexuality and sex is problematic to me and why it concerns me to see it spreading.

One of the most often repeated things I run across is the idea that the Morrigan has lots of lovers among the gods, or her stories are full of sexual trysts with gods and mortals. So let's start by looking at the Morrigan's mythology and when and how often she has sexual encounters. Don't worry this won't take long.
The Cath Maige Tuired:
"The Dagda had a house at Glenn Etin in the north. The Dagda was to meet a woman on a day, yearly, about Samain of the battle at Glen Etin. The Unish of Connacht calls by the south. The woman was at the Unish of Corand washing her genitals, one of her two feet by Allod Echae, that is Echumech, by water at the south, her other by Loscondoib, by water at the north. Nine plaits of hair undone upon her head. The Dagda speaks to her and they make a union. Bed of the Married Couple was the name of that place from then. She is the Morrigan, the woman mentioned particularly here." (translation my own)

Tain Bo Cuailgne: "
Cú Chulainn saw coming towards him a young woman of surpassing beauty, clad in clothes of many colours. 
‘Who are you?’ asked Cú Chulainn. 
‘I am the daughter of Búan the king,’ said she. ‘I have come to you for I fell in love with you on hearing your fame, and I have brought with me my treasures and my cattle.’
‘It is not a good time at which you have come to us, that is, our condition is ill, we are starving (?). So it is not easy for me to meet a woman while I am in this strife.’
 ‘I shall help you in it.’ 
‘It is not for a woman's body that I have come.’
‘It will be worse for you’, said she, ‘when I go against you as you are fighting your enemies. I shall go in the form of an eel under your feet in the ford so that you shall fall.’ 
‘I prefer that to the king's daughter,’ said he.'"
 - Tain Bo Cuailgne, Recension 1, O Rahilly translation

So there you go. That's it.
In the first example we see the Morrigan and the Dagda having a pre-arranged meeting at a set time and place, and it should be noted that the two are likely married. The reference above notes this when it says the place they lay together was called 'the Bed of the Married Couple' and the Morrigan is called the Dagda's wife in other sources like the Metrical Dindshenchas. In the second example - which please note does not occur in all version of the Tain Bo Cuailgne - we see the Morrigan approaching Cu Chulainn disguised as a young woman and proclaiming her love for him. I am highly suspicious, as are several scholars, of the genuineness of this and believe it is most likely a trick to try to get him to abandon the ford he is guarding. Some scholars have suggested this bit of narrative was added later by scribes unfamiliar with the Tain Bo Regamna who needed an explanation for why the Morrigan then set herself against Cu Chulainn. In any event as you can see she never actually offers him sex or tries to seduce him, although she does offer her love and her goods as what would have been either a wife or as a mistress.

In fairness I will add that there is, as far as I'm aware, one description of Herself appearing naked, from the Cath Magh Rath:
"Bloody over his head, fighting, crying out
A naked hag, swiftly leaping
Over the edges of their armor and shields
She is the grey-haired Morrigu
(translation mine)
In this text the Morrigan is specifically described as grey-haired and a hag, and is leaping over an army about to engage in battle, shrieking. 

Why then is it repeated so often that the Morrigan is a sexual goddess and has multiple sexual encounters?

At this point I think a lot of it is simply the internet effect, where one website stated it as a fact at some point* and now it gets repeated and passed on as fact. The idea appeals to people for different reasons. In my own experience I have found that some men like the idea of the Morrigan as a goddess of sex and as sexual because it allows them to relate to her the way they would to a beautiful human woman. I have seen some women like this idea because they find it sexually empowering for themselves. There is also, of course, the fact that in video games and fiction she's shown as sexual and sex focused, and while those are fiction and entertainment we can't underestimate the way that does impact how people start to subconsciously relate to the deity.

Macha Curses the Men of Ulster, 1904, public domain

That all sounds like it could be good, but it concerns me on a couple levels. Firstly, while I do appreciate the desire for women to feel sexually empowered and to look to a goddess as a role model here, reshaping the Morrigan to do it is only reinforcing existing Western ideas of beauty and female power - we focus on the Morrigan as a young beautiful woman who is powerful because she engages in sexual relationships with men on her own terms. That seems great on the surface, sure, but what about seeing her as beautiful as the naked hag? As the red-haired satirist? As a crow or raven? What about seeing her as powerful without a man? Or simply acknowledging her power as a goddess of battle, incitement, prophecy, and sovereignty? Basically my question is why do we have to make her into something she isn't when she already is beautiful and powerful in a different way

The other side of that coin, the objectification, is a more complicated problem. It seems to me to rest not on redefining her power but on reducing it by taking a fearsome goddess of several things that are genuinely terrifying for humans and making her into a deity of things humans find pleasant and enjoyable. Instead of a deity of war and death she becomes a goddess of sexual pleasure; instead of a screaming hag above armies she becomes a young girl with come-hither eyes and barely there clothes. And to me that speaks volumes about containing her power by limiting her to ideas and to an image that our culture sees as both safe and inherently disempowered.

Yes gods evolve and change with their worshippers, but that change in the past was usually organic and a slow process. We live in a world now where a single person can assert something as fact and that assertion, based in nothing but one person's opinion, can then spread quickly and far as fact - and that in my opinion is not how the evolution of gods has ever worked before. When we take a being with history and depth and layers of mythology and detach them from their own stories and personality and make them nothing more than a mirror for our own desires we aren't engaging with deity anymore, whether we see deity as archetype or as unique individual beings. Perhaps in time there will be a new deity - a new version - of the older goddess created from this milieu of rootless belief. But it will not be the Morrigan of Irish culture, it will be something created from modern beauty standards and sexual mores. And we need to be aware of that and of what that really means.

So, the Morrigan isn't, in my opinion, a good candidate for a sex deity - but then who is? Well, I think when we look at the Irish pantheon the Dagda as sex god makes a lot of sense. But I also think that all the same cultural reasons why we, collectively, want to force this title into the Morrigan are the same reasons we avoid it for the Dagda. When we make a powerful female figure more sexy we make her safer, particularly when we are using imagery and language that hinges on defining her by roles our society sees as weaker. When we make a male figure more sexually imposing though one of two things happens: its comedic or its frightening. The Dagda is a physically big figure, a warrior, powerful - the idea of his being a sex deity may frighten some people. He is also often mislabeled as an 'all father**' deity and envisioned as a kind of red-haired, portly Santa-type and our culture really dislikes seeing that as sexy, we'd much rather find comedy in it. And that is also something I think we should give some serious thought to.

People are always free to hold their own opinions. I have shared mine here, and my reasoning for why I think and feel as I do. The Morrigan is not a sex goddess for me, or a goddess of sex or sexuality. But she is fierce, and beautiful, and powerful. She is a goddess of personal autonomy and of the sovereignty of kings. She is the land, blood soaked after battle, and the shrieking cry of warriors plunging blade-first into conflict. She is the voice that inspires the downtrodden to rise up and fight for freedom, and the whispers of prophecy foretelling the fate of all. She is awesome in the oldest sense of the word. And that is enough.

*this is exactly how the idea that falcons are connected to her and that she is a goddess of rebirth happened. One website more than a decade ago, run by someone who was very honest that they were posting channeled and personal material said it, and it spread from there. Once it was accepted into the common belief no one really knew where it had come from or why they believed it.
**as I've said previously ollathair doesn't mean all father but great or ample father. It certainly connects him to abundance but not to physical proliferation. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Fairy Taboos - #2 Privacy

 Having looked at the common (but not ubiquitous) prohibition of the fairies against humans saying thank you to them, now let's turn to another even more prevalent fairy taboo, that of secrecy. The idea with this one is that the Good People do not like to find out they have been seen, unless they are choosing to show themselves, and they prefer people not to talk too freely about benefits they have received from the fairies.

It is a common theme in many anecdotes and stories for the fairies to fiercely guard their privacy. They are well known to react badly to being spied on in many cases and to expect humans who they favor to keep any gifts and friendship largely a secret. We see this idea played out in stories of borrowed midwives who accidently anoint their own eye with an ointment that grants true sight of fairies only to admit having the ability later and be blinded, as well as in tales of fairy lovers who abandon their human sweetheart when that human tells a single person of their existence. In some stories of those who received money from the fairies, when they spoke too openly about it or bragged they found the money stopped coming to them or even in a few stories that the wealth they had been given was reduced to leaves, gingerbread, or the like. In all but the rarest cases once offended the fairies good favor was withdrawn and contact ceased, despite any effort by the human to regain it. As with the 'thank you' rule this is not an absolute blanket prohibition and we do see exceptions where a person is allowed to speak of them or forgiven for breaking this rule, but when they react badly they react extremely badly, as in the blinding example already given.

As with many of these taboos the exact reason for it is never spelled out explicitly but we can perhaps offer some possibilities. I think to begin we need to break this down into the two issues we are actually dealing with which are related but separate; their dislike of being observed against their will or without their consent, and their dislike of being spoken of by someone who has agreed not to do so. In the first case the real issue is that the Good Neighbours prefer, generally, to move unseen in the human world and when this invisibility is somehow breached by a human it upsets them. There is a clear logic to their reacting badly to being seen when they do not wish to be, since moving unseen is a main way they survive in our world and is one of the many ways they have power here. The second issue, however is as much one of trust as concern over actual privacy as it represent someone telling a secret they have usually been asked not to tell. It is also true in a wider sense that they dislike people who brag overmuch and tend to respond to human arrogance by taking actions to punish the people; in these cases someone who receives a boon from them and then talks too much of it may find their good luck withdrawn simply because they have annoyed the Gentry with their bragging.

Why do the Good People not want everyone to know how active they are in the world or how many people are receiving their blessings? Perhaps because the Fey folk are a people with their own agency and agenda and they prefer to control who knows of them, sees them, and receives good from them.

It is an old belief that if you have the Second Sight and see the Good People when it's clear they don't realize you can see them that you should not in any way acknowledge that you can see them; I suggest this same approach to anyone who thinks they may have seen the fairies unawares. If you are fortunate enough to have gotten a gift from them or if they have done you a kindness and it was a one time thing it is generally safe to talk about it, however if they have a pattern of helping you, or if they have asked you or made you promise not to speak of what was done on your behalf you must not do so. If you are unsure if its alright to talk about a personal experience or something you've seen, my best advice is to err on the side of caution.

Emhain Macha, 2016, copyright M Daimler
Further Reading:
Yeats, W. (1888) Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
Lenihan and Green (2004) Meeting the Other Crowd
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Narvaez, P., (1991) The Good People

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Spirituality and Modern Sacred Prohibitions

I've talked before about the way that spirituality can sometimes end up affecting the way we live our lives in a blog called 'Reshaped Living' and I think it's important to understand the way that personal gnosis can directly influence us. Another way that spirituality can influence our lives is with the taking on of spiritual prohibitions or directives, which may be related to our spirituality in a wider sense or may be specific to us and come from an initiation or intense spiritual experience.

We see personal prohibitions or directives in many different religions including mainstream monotheistic ones, particularly around food where a religion might declare a certain food off limits for followers of that religion, or in turn might require the consumption of something. In historic Irish paganism these prohibitions and directives would be called geasa (singular geis), although it should be understood that geasa were not taken lightly. Except where they are specific to a role, like kingship, they were for life and once in place remained in place until the person died.

  A geis is something the you either must do or must not do in order to maintain your luck and health, and breaking a geis means certain doom usually orchestrated by Otherworldly powers. We can find a wide array of examples of geasa in Irish mythology from those placed on kings when they took the crown to those of a more personal nature that might might be given at birth. A prohibitive example might be taken from Da Derga's Hostel were Conaire isn't supposed to invite a person alone into a place he staying in after sunset, while in contrast a directive geis would be seen with Fergus's requirement always to accept hospitality offered to him. Geasa are never, in stories, taken on by a person but are always placed on a person by an outside force or power. They also in many examples relate to an individual's spiritual connection to an animal, other being, or group; we see this in Conaire's geis not to hunt birds to whom he was related through his Otherworldly father, Cu Chulainn's not to eat dog meat since he was connected to that animal through his name, and Diarmuid's not to hunt the Otherworldly boar that his fate was bound to.

Some people argue that geasa only apply to kings, heroes, and other very rare important people based on the examples we have from mythology but I think there is a strong argument from folklore that the idea behind geasa was applied to many people across demographics in different ways. Although I might not call them geasa in the modern world the underlying concept of something that must be done or not done to maintain one's luck and health remains true. Yeats relaying an anecdote about a fairy doctor relates specific habits and dietary restrictions, such as not drinking alcohol or eating meat, which were strictly adhered to and had clear spiritual overtones. Cultural or communal prohibitions, such as not disturbing fairy mounds, also argue for a wider application of this concept.

In modern spirituality a person might acquire such a sacred prohibition when they achieve some type of initiation; for example when I became a priestess of the Othercrowd I was given a prohibition not to cut my hair. Interestingly I know several people who have a similar prohibition against hair-cutting for different spiritual reasons in paganism. Such a thing could come from the person initiating you, from the Gods in whatever form you feel such messages come, or may be a standard thing in your tradition for that type of ceremony. Becoming a priest or priestess in particular often seems to come with a sacred prohibition or prohibitions for people. As with the older concept, these prohibitions are generally permanent and cannot be transgressed without serious consequences for the person, and so should not be taken lightly or viewed as something to jump into getting.

A sacred prohibition can also come in the modern world through pure personal gnosis, although I will personally caution here that in these cases because of the gravity of these prohibitions I always recommend double or triple checking the message. This can be done by asking a neutral third party - someone who has no stake in the answer - who is good at divination or channeling to see if they get the same or a similar message. To use myself as an example again (because I don't like using other people as examples without permission) I also have a prohibition from Themselves not to enter into a Christian church or any place where active Christian worship is being conducted*; as I have no dispute with Christianity myself this prohibition surprised me and I was careful to get it verified before accepting it as genuine. People may have prohibitions through personal gnosis that could include an array of different things but the most common ones I have seen or heard of relate to food, drink, hair, or the need to always do or say something specific at certain time or place.

Sacred prohibitions in the modern world are not a subject we discuss often, nor are they an aspect of modern spirituality that is often focused on. Yet the core idea of having a spiritual prohibition or directive is not uncommon in my experience and is something that I not only have myself but also that I know many other people who have. These prohibitions or directives can impact a person's life in ways that may include social aspects, and I think for that fact alone it's worth wider understanding and consideration.

*I have my suspicion as to why this is, and I think it relates to a long standing animosity between some of the Daoine Maithe and the new religion. Emma Wilby discusses some aspects of this in her book 'Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits' but it boils down to the way the Church tried to demonize the Good Neighbors, and the way that hostility became two-sided over time.

Yeats, W., (1888) Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Selling Your Soul to the Fairies

Most of us are familiar with the idea of classical witches selling their souls to the Devil, but there is another concept we see as well in folkloric sources: a person selling their soul to the fairies. The implication in the wider narrative is that the soul is being pledged to the Queen of Fairy but it is rarely spelled out as such. This is usually done as a combination of a required renunciation of the person's previous faith and either a pledge of loyalty to the Good People or else a more formal agreement to give over one's soul to them, with the implicit understanding that ultimately one's loyalty then is owed to the Fairy Queen or King. We see this in examples from the Scottish witch trials where an agent of the Fairy Queen approaches a person and offers them things they would want, often good luck and success, in exchange for the person giving up Christianity and swearing loyalty to the fairies instead.

Cemetery, Kildare, 2016  copyright M Daimler 

The idea of a person selling their soul is seemingly ubiquitous in Christian accusations against early modern witches. It hinges on the belief that the soul could be offered by a person to non-Christian powers in exchange for worldly benefits to the person, with the understanding that this would cost the person their potential salvation within Christianity. Although most well known in relation to diabolism, this concept is seen as well in witchcraft trials relating to those who dealt with or worked with the fairies. Emma Wilby argues in her book 'Cunning folk and Familiar Spirits' that while we might be tempted to see the idea of selling the soul to fairies as a later Christian distortion of tradition it does reflect genuine beliefs surrounding those who dealt with fairies and the much older ideas in the culture that to deal closely with fairies was understood to represent accepting a fate bound to them (Wilby, 2005). These older fairy beliefs were likely vestiges of pagan practice, held over by the initial approach of the Church to fairies as beings that fell into an ambiguous area, but shortly before the witch hunts began in Scotland there was a shift in the ecclesiastical view to seeing fairies as more clearly demonic and including them, sometimes interchangeably, with the Devil and demons (Henderson & Cowan, 2007). This was a significant shift in perspective in Scotland, although we do not see a similar shift in Ireland where fairies remained in that grey area between good and evil, clearly outside of the main accepted belief system but persisting as powerful beings with connections to the dead and the pagan Gods.

At this point I think we need to look at exactly what we mean with the phrase 'sell your soul' and unpack the concept, particularly separating it from the embedded negative connotations. The expression is, of course, one that comes to us from a Christian context and implies trading one's soul, implicitly to a negative entity, in exchange for worldly benefits. However this idea hinges on the wider belief that one's soul has already been given to the Christian God and that selling your soul elsewhere is bad because it means giving up the benefits that would otherwise come from that God. But I think there's a valid argument that commitment to any God or religion is just as much of a 'sale' of the soul, in that one is committing oneself to that specific deity in exchange for specific benefits, and with an understanding that there are specific requirements one will have to live by. What makes selling your soul to the Devil, or the fairies, or pagan Gods, negative is more about perspective coming from one religion to another than anything else. Ultimately what we are discussing here is not that different from a person dedicating themselves into any religion, or to any deity, except that whereas the promises of Christianity hinge on the afterlife entirely the promises of the fairies involve both the mortal life and the afterlife.

Next I think we need to look at what we mean by 'soul'. This may sound simple but it's actually a bit more complicated because there isn't any clear agreement on what a soul actually is, or even if it is one holistic thing. For some cultures the soul is comprised of multiple parts which can be separated, while others see the soul as one unit, the animating force that inhabits the body. Generally in the older material when we see the soul discussed what is meant is the consciousness of a person that contains their personality; the words soul and spirit are used interchangeably. However even in the fairylore material we see the idea that a person can be away with the fairies, that a part of their spirit can be in Fairy while the rest of them remains here, hinting at the possibility that even this conscious soul can be divided or at least focused in two places simultaneously (Wilby, 2005, Evans-Wentz 1911). It is possible then that in any case where we see a person committing their soul to something or someone they are only pledging a part or aspect of the soul, possibly that which is is the unique personality, and that other parts may go elsewhere. I am not going to dictate to anyone how to view what a soul is, I will only say here that what we see discussed in the texts and folklore is something separable from the body which retains the essence of the person's character in life. When you pledge your soul and the time comes for that to be collected your body is left behind and it is this part of yourself that's taken*.

There is a formulaic approach to selling one's soul to the fairies which involves first renouncing your old religion or God and then overtly promising one's self to the new. This is not done spontaneously by an individual but usually at the specific request of the fairies or at the urging of a specific fairy, often the person's existing fairy familiar. Emma Wilby discusses this at length in chapter 6 of her book 'Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits'** mentioning examples from the  Scottish witch trials where we see the renunciation and promising pattern. This is not a a bargain that only favors the fairies, however, and we always see the person offered something valuable in return. Cunning woman Joan Tyrry claimed she learned her healing skill from the fairies; Jean Weir was given a small piece of wood by an envoy of the Fairy Queen which allowed her to spin unusually quickly and inexplicably fine quality yarn ; Bessie Dunlop was offered gear and goods (Wilby, 2005). It is worth noting that the narrative of selling the soul to the Devil is largely absent from English witchcraft trials (Gregory, 2013) and that such confessions and connections specifically to Fairy were unique to areas with strongly ingrained existing fairy beliefs and were notably absent in other places.

Renunciation - In these examples we find the fairies, usually through the intermediary of a fairy familiar sent to the person, asking for an explicit renunciation of the person's 'Christendom' and baptism, although there were also examples where they required the person to keep making a show of going to Church or even encouraged them to be sure they were adequately devout. There are also cases where the renunciation was implicit rather than explicit, such as we see with Alison Peirson, who was never asked to verbally renounce Christianity but was instead asked to agree to be faithful to a green-clad fairy that appears to her, in exchange for his good favor; her responding yes to his request was perceived as an implicit renunciation of her other religion (Wilby, 2005). In the cases of implicit renunciation a person agreeing to be faithful to or to act as an agent of the fairies - in effect skipping to step two - was viewed as carrying with it the inherent rejection of the person's previous pledges to any other faith.

Promising - After the person's previous religion or God was renounced they were required to pledge their loyalty to the fairies, usually in the form of a fairy familiar or envoy. Bessie Dunlop promised that she would be 'loyal and true to [her familiar Thom] in any thing she could do', and Alison Peirson swore to be faithful (Wilby, 2005). In one singular account Joan Willimot was asked to promise her soul to a fairy woman, which she did (Wilby, 2005). Those who made these oaths would later be taken to Fairy and presented to the Fairy Queen, or Queen and King, or at the least would be regularly urged to go to Fairy if they refused to leave this world. It is possible that this travel to Fairy marked the final sealing of this agreement, something that may be supported by Wilby's assertion that to travel to Fairy was to give one's soul, implicitly, to the fey folk for the time one was there. Those who had sworn loyalty to a fairy or to the fairies more generally would have fallen into the ultimate hierarchy of Fairy itself and owed their loyalty to the monarchs of the group they were dealing with.
In some cases the person might be formally presented to the Queen of Fairy, while in others, such as Isobel Gowdie, the Queen might give the person a gift from her own hand, or as in the case of Andro Man might have sex with the person (Wilby, 2005). All of these actions can be viewed as fully committing oneself - one's soul - to Fairy generally and to it's monarch specifically.

This renouncing and promising was sometimes noted to follow a specific ritual format where the person would place their hand on the sole of one foot, and place the other hand on the crown of their head (Wilby, 2005). This can be seen as a pledging of the person's entire self - of everything between one hand and the other - to the powers they are speaking to. This also shows an important difference from the similar soul selling ritual in diabolism which usually involved the person giving blood to the Devil, or later signing their name in blood.

It is clear that the common belief of the time was that those who dealt with fairies and went with them into Fairy, particularly if negotiation was involved, understood that their soul could end up in Fairy when they died (Wilby, 2005). This is not a surprising idea given how complicated the relationship is between the fairies and the dead; it was a well ingrained belief that sometimes a person who died had actually been taken into Fairy and we see a wide range of anecdotes supporting this. Reverend Robert Kirk was believed to have been taken by the fairies, possibly for writing too much about them (Briggs, 1976). Evans-Wentz in the 1911 text 'A Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' includes several stories of people thought to have died in various manners who were then seen or believed to have become part of the company of Fairy. The idea then of consciously committing oneself to that fate wouldn't have seemed outlandish, especially for those who were dealing with fairies and were already aware that it was a possibility simply because of their existing interactions with the Otherworld. We don't see this explicit giving of the self or soul to the fairies in the Irish material but arguably we do see the implicit giving occurring, particularly with the witches and bean feasa who were said to have leanánn sí.

The final question that should perhaps be asked here, is why the Fair Folk would want to enter into these bargains. They offer practical advantages to the human in the human world in exchange for that person's sworn loyalty and for a commitment of the person to the fairies. These particular bargains are specific to the class of people later termed witches and cunning folk, so it is likely that there were specific reasons why these people were seen as desirable to the fairies, however in a wider sense the pattern of fairies taking people is well established. Looking at these stories gives an idea of why the Good People might want to take human beings, and ultimately the answer always comes down to pragmatic uses of one sort or another. In the more common stories the people taken were brides, young men, nursing mothers, babies, musicians, and people who were considered especially beautiful or well mannered. In some cases, such as the musicians, the person might only be taken temporarily to entertain the fairies with their skill. Some Irish witches and Fairy Doctors were said to have been taken by the fairies for a period of seven years before being returned to the human world with great knowledge and magical skill, while others were often known to be away with the fairies while still living in mortal earth, as we see of their Scottish witch counterparts. In most other cases however the taking was permanent and the person's fate might be less pleasant, with various forms of servitude and use as breeding stock being common and sacrifice, such as in the Lowland fairies teind to Hell, not being unheard of.

Ultimately when we consider the evidence for people dedicating themselves to the fairies through transactions which involved an explicit or implicit renunciation of the previous faith and pledging of loyalty to the Good People, we see what amounts to the conversion to a new religion. Although couched in negative terms because these narratives come to us from a religion that saw these fairies as evil spirits and was being repudiated by these witches and cunning folk, the actual pattern followed and promises involved are little different than those of any person converting from one religion to another. The only major difference, and the most significant, is that the world of Elphame is no land of eternal bliss and rest for the soul but another life entirely, and the fate of the soul once there was not necessarily positive, although no religion necessarily guarantees an entirely positive afterlife.

Hylas and the Nymphs, Waterhouse, public domain
*Generally anyway. In the vast majority of examples the physical body is left behind and the spirit goes to Fairy and is transmuted there, however there are some anecdotal examples where the body is also taken. For brevity I am only focusing here on the soul and situations where the soul is being taken; for a more thorough discussion of wider examples see changeling lore.
**Wilby also discusses later 19th and 20th century Scottish examples were a practitioner might make an agreement with fairies for a specific amount of time; in these cases the deal is not a permanent pledging of the self but a temporary partnership. In these later examples the terms were agreed in a contract with the Good People offering specific services or knowledge in exchange for payments, and with the terms lasting for a prescribed period of time (Wilby, 2005).

Wilby, E., (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Henderson, L., Cowan, E., (2007) Scottish Fairy Belief
Gregory, A., (2013) Rye Spirits: Faith, faction and fairies in a seventeenth century English town

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fairy Taboos - # 1 Saying Thank You

I'd like to do a series focusing on specific geasa, or taboos, that relate to how humans interact with fairies. These are things that you either should do or should never do when dealing with the fey folk. I'm hoping that doing this as a series of shorter posts might be more engaging for readers and make the points easier to remember than having a wall of information thrown at you.

I thought it would make sense to start with one of the ones that I tend to mention almost everytime I teach anything relating to the Good People - never say thank you. This is also one of the hardest ones for many people to get used to, especially if you have had it ingrained in you to always say thank you.

I have to be honest, I don't remember where I learned this one. I have wracked my brain but I can't remember where I may have read it or who might have told me about it originally. As far back as I can remember it has just been a rule I lived by: you speak politely and you never say thank you. When I initially tried to track down where I'd heard it and came up empty I started to wonder if I'd made it up, however further research did provide some validation.

Anecdotally I have met a variety of people across demographics who share this prohibition, not only with strictly Celtic fairies but also with less clearly culturally defined one. I also found a reference in Katherine Briggs Dictionary of Fairies to this taboo. This is something that we can see directly with some specific fairies like brownies and pixies who will become enraged if thanked verbally.

Why is this a taboo? It is hard to say as folklore offers no clear explanation, but we can offer a few suggestions. One school of thought is that saying thank you implies that the Daoine Uaisle are in some way lesser than you and serving you, which offends them - and is why they react with anger. Another thought is that saying 'thank you' is seen as acknowledging a debt owed, and it is never a good idea to owe an unspecified debt to any of the Good People. It is also possible that saying thank you, or overtly acknowledging what They have done for you, is problematic because they prefer not to have that sort of attention or focus on themselves.

What then is one to do if one feels the Other Crowd have done something helpful or kind? Briggs suggests that, "no fault can be found with a bow or curtsy" (Briggs, 1976, p196). I have found that a gift returned for a gift works well, as does a general expression of gratitude for the event or item itself (not the giver). Saying things like 'I am so glad that this worked out this way' or 'I am so happy that this is here' for example.

Briggs, K (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Embracing Joy in Spirituality

I talk often, I know, about the work that goes into my spirituality - and I think that's fair enough because it is work and we shouldn't underestimate that. But there's joy in what we do as well, or their should be, its just easier often times to focus on the effort instead of the fun.

When I first began on my spiritual path I think I had the idea that it would all be fun and adventure, that witchcraft was a plunge into the numinous every few minutes - and that the numinous was always a good feeling. As time went on of course I realized that this wasn't the case, that spirituality is as often frustrating as it is fulfilling, that it can be rewarding but it can also be real work. I also realized that the numinous can be take-your-breath-away-scary just as much as it can be ecstatic. Sometimes it's both at once.

As time goes on though I found that it was easy to start focusing more and more on the work and the effort, and the joy got lost sometimes. There are, as the saying goes, dark nights of the soul and there are also points I think were we get so caught up in what we are trying to build or connect to that we lose sight of why we are doing it. Trying to make our ritual perfect eclipses being in the moment of the ritual itself. Trying to get every detail of a spell correct obscures that feeling of being surrounded by magic. Trying to invoke and connect to Gods or spirits becomes such an overwhelming focus that experiencing those same Gods and spirits when they show up gets lost.

It's easy to forget as we go along and our spirituality becomes more challenging or more tedious that it's also supposed to be enjoyable. It is work and effort but it's also joy and ecstasy. We seem to lose that over time, or at least I know that I can struggle with it. I overthink things, and I can take things too seriously if they matter a lot to me. Which means that with my religion and my magic it's easy for me to get so caught up in the need to do it well as an aspect of offering it to the Gods and spirits that I forget to enjoy it in the moment.

One of my best memories of a ritual happened about 20 years ago. A few friends and I were doing a Lughnasadh ritual at one of my friend's houses, and that friend had a daughter who was around three. All the adults were trying to be very serious, making sure we had all the stuff together, deciding who would handle what, and all that. And we get going and it's a good enough ritual, very by the book 'pagan standard', but when we get to making offerings the little girl takes her share of the bread we had to offer and starts skipping around the space, tossing bits of bread very enthusiastically into the air to share with the spirits. It was adorable, and everyone started laughing; then the adults started doing it too. The whole energy changed from somber to light hearted in an instant.

Ultimately spirituality is about both effort and enjoyment. We should work at what we are doing so that we can be good at it, and we should take what we are doing seriously, but it shouldn't all be serious and it shouldn't all be work. There should be joy and enjoyment in there as well. I often say, and it's true, that my spirituality has its share of blood, sweat, and tears but it also has laughter and has layers of ecstasy. Not in balance, but in turns and shifts and unexpected moments. And those moments of joy are invaluable and are just as important to my spirituality as the effort and study and practice.

Don't stop doing the work, but never forget to have fun along the way.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Excerpt from 'Travelling the Fairy Path'

I have a new book coming out in September of this year, called 'Travelling the Fairy Path' so today I'd like to offer an excerpt from it. Its going to focus on the more experiential side of my own spirituality but it also includes some discussion of things I've learned from the folklore, with a chapter on the ballad material. This excerpt is from that chapter. 

The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice [the Queen of Elfland’s Nurse]
The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice is the story of a human woman taken by the Queen of Fairy to be a nursemaid. It gives us a unique look at one of the common reasons that the Fey folk were known to take new mothers, from the mother’s point of view. [I'm including the complete ballad below with the language updated to modern English].

I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
And a cow low down in yonder glen;
Long, long will my young son weep
For his mother to bid him come in.
I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
And a cow low down in yonder fold;
Long, long will my young son weep
For his mother to take him from the cold.
       * * * * *
'Waken, Queen of Elfland,
And hear your nurse moan.’
‘O moan you for your meat,
Or moan you for your money,
Or moan you for the other bounties
That ladies are want to give?’
‘I moan not for my meat,
Nor moan I for my money,
Nor moan I for the other bounties
That ladies are want to give.
But I moan for my young son
I left at four nights old.
‘I moan not for my meat,
Nor yet for my money,
But I mourn for Christian land,
It’s there I gladly would be.’
‘O nurse my child, nurse,’ she says,
‘Till he stands at your knee,
And you’ll win home to Christian land,
Where glad it’s you would be.
‘O keep my child, nurse,
Till he goes by the hand,
And you’ll win home to your young son
You left at four nights old.’
       * * * *
‘O nurse lay your head
Upon my knee:
See you not that narrow road
Up by yon tree?
       . . . . .
That’s the road the righteous goes,
And that’s the road to heaven.
‘And see not you that broad road,
Down by yonder sunny hill?
That’s the road the wicked go,
And that’s the road to hell.’
(modified from Child, 1898)

The ballad opens seemingly from the human woman’s point of view, as she talks about how long her son will cry over her loss. The next verse picks up with the Queen of Elfland being awoken by someone telling her that her nurse is weeping; the Queen then asks if the nurse is hungry, wanting to be paid or wanting some other small gift. The nurse replies that she wants none of those things but is crying for her baby son who she left as a newborn and for mortal earth. The Queen replies that if she nurses the Fairy Queen’s son until he ‘stands at [her] knee’ and ‘goes by the hand’ – one may assume is walking on his own – then she will be returned to her own son. Then, as we saw previously in the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, we see the Queen comforting the nurse by telling her to lay her head on the Queen’s knee and showing her a vision of two roads, one to heaven and one to hell. Obviously since they are already in Fairy she doesn’t show her a third road, perhaps not wanting to show her the way to escape back to mortal earth.
It is interesting that we see here again the idea of the different roads or paths and that again they are being shown to a mortal by the Fairy Queen herself. In Thomas the Rhymer this vision was called a ‘wonder’ and it was also used to soothe a person who was upset. To me this indicates that the idea of the roads has some significance worth considering. In both poems the road to heaven is described as the less attractive and more difficult and the road to Hell is more pleasant looking and ‘broad’.

The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice is a more obscure poem but it is valuable because it shows us another side of dealing with the Fairy Queen and fairies more generally. The new mother has been taken by the Fey folk but her unhappiness does seem to matter to them and the Queen makes some attempt to comfort her, although at no point is her freedom immediately offered. She is however promised that when certain conditions are met, in this case nursing the Queen’s child for a specific period of time, she will be returned to mortal earth and her own child. There is also the implication in the Queen’s words, asking the nurse whether she is moaning about money, food, or gifts, that imply she was willing to pay for the services in other ways as well. Only when the nurse explains that she doesn’t want those things but is upset about her baby son and her home is she offered her eventual freedom. This however suggests that negotiation is an option even with the Fairy Queen. 


Travelling the Fairy Path will represent the third, and I anticipate final, book in my Fairy Witchcraft series.