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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Discerning Good Source Material

One thing that's important for anyone who relies, to any degree, on sources outside themselves for spirituality - or anything else - is being able to judge a good source from a bad one. So today I want to just run down a quick list of ways to vett sources of any type to decide how much weight you should give to something. Even if a source isn't perfect it may have value - or it may be immediately tossed out. It depends on how it measures up.

  1. What sources does this source use? - One of the first things I do with any new source, be it written, video, in person, or what-have-you, is to try to look at what sources that source is using. Are they talking purely from personal gnosis? Are they using academic texts? Are they using other authors based in personal gnosis? Are they using well known and respected sources? Are they referencing conspiracy theorists or known white supremacists? Do they have no sources at all that they admit to? All of these things need to be taken into account. Something that's entirely personal gnoses isn't necessarily bad but needs to be understood in that context, while something from a deeply flawed or problematic source will be eliminated. 
  2. Never once the Wikipedia - Okay this is  bit ranty right here, but as soon as I see wikipedia listed as a source for anything I'm done with that source. There's a very good reason that wikipedia can't be used in college, university, or even high school classes: its notoriously unreliable and oddly biased. Anyone can and does edit wikipedia and while its true that wikipedia cites sources and includes references pretty much any print or online source can be used and there is no quality control. Let me repeat; there is no quality control. The entry on Baobhan Sithe was sourced mainly from modern vampire guides, themselves largely repeating modern urban legends, and from RPG guidebooks. No really. The entry on Finnbheara contained an assertion straight from a fiction novel (I removed it, because remember anyone can edit wikipedia). Please don't trust anything on wikipedia or any article using wiki as a source. Just don't. 
  3. What is the author's bias? - Every author or teacher has biases, that's just human nature. Figuring out what to think of a source means understanding what that source's biases are and how that's affecting the material. A bias doesn't mean you can't use a source but that you have to be aware of the way the author's opinions influence their work. To use myself as an example - I am unashamedly nativist in my views of Irish mythology and folklore. Nativism is a bias that means I will always tend to see material as having some native Irish influence or value in it; anti-Nativist in contrast means that the author tends to always see foreign influences in any historic Irish material or mythology. Neither is necessarily provably correct or incorrect but both strongly influence a person's views. Authors can have all kinds of different biases and its helpful to just be aware of them or at least that bias is a possibility. Even a book that is aimed at sharing facts will still be influenced by the author's personal opinions and views. Be aware that bias is a thing and that it matters. 
  4. Date - Another thing to consider is how old the source is, particularly for books and articles. Scholarship is always changing and evolving and when I was in school we were strongly encouraged to use material that had been written within the last 10 years and preferably within 5. That was in the field of psychology of course and in more casual study you don't need to be as strict with this but the core idea is the same, that older books tend to have ideas and theories that are more outdated. This doesn't mean the whole work is useless, just that it needs to be kept in context. For example I love the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries and find it valuable for the anecdotal material - yet the material written by the author themself which waxes eloquent about fairies as Bronze age pygmy survivals in iron age Britain is clearly not only out dated but thoroughly disproven by actual archaeology and anthropology.  
  5. Perspective - what perspective is this source speaking from? Is it being written by a member of the community? A believer? A non-believer? An outsider? A scholar? A laymen? Like bias the source's perspective on the material also needs to be understood in the context of its value, because someone who is part of a community writing about that community has a very different perspective than an outsider, and a scholar has a very different perspective than a laymen. Each voice can have value in a discussion, but we shouldn't forget where each one is speaking from. 
  6. Non-fiction or fiction? - this may seem like an odd one, but I see a lot of blurred lines between these two in some cases, possibly because older folklore is often treated as fiction and so modern fiction is given the same weight as folklore. It's worth keeping in mind though that folklore represents stories that people believed to be true (as opposed to fairy tales, which are something else) while modern fiction is the work of imagination. How fine or thick a line there is between those two will be a matter of opinion, but it should at least be considered when weighing the value of a source, whether it was written as fiction or not. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Imram Brian Meic Ferbail

One of the Imramma, or 'Voyage' stories, dating to possibly the 8th century. I can only find a small portion of the text in Irish to translate but it is an interesting section and offers insight into how far back the concept existed that to live on one of the Otherworldly islands meant to be unable to return to our world without immediately dying should you touch the earth.

Imram Brian Meic Ferbail

[gap: chasm in MS/extent: uncertain]Lil in chertle dia dernaid boí in snáthe inna certle hi lláim inna mná consreng dochom poirt. Lotar iarom hi tegdais máir arránic imda cach lánamna and .i. tri .ix. n-imdae. In praind dobreth for cach méis nír ircran díib
Ba bliadain donarfás dóib bith and ecmaing batir ilbliadna ni tesbi cach mblas. Gabais eólcaire fer diib .i. Nechtan mac Collbrain. Atchid a cenel fri Bran ara tía leis dochom nErend. Asbert in ben ropad aithrech in fáboll dálotar cammae. & asbert in ben arná tuinsed nech díb a tír & ara taidlitís léu in fer fodnácaibset i n-Inis na Mell tar essi a chéli.
Dollotár iarom co tornachtatár in dáil hi Srúib Brain. Iarmofochtatarside dóib cía dolluid in muir. Asbert Bran messe or se Bran mac Febail. Ni beram achni aní sin ol a chéli di híu. Atá i ssenchassaib lenni chena Imram Brain.
Docurethar úadib in fer asin churuch. Amal condránicside fri talmannaib na Herend bá lúathred fó chetóir amal bid hi talom no beth tríasna hilcheta bliadna. Is and cáchain Bran in rand so.
Do mac Colbrain ba mór mbaíss
tórgud a láme fri aís
can nech dorratad toind usci glain
tar Nechtan mac Collbrain.
Adfet iar sin Bran a imthechta uli o thossuch co tici sin do lucht ind airechtais & scribais inn rundnu so tre ogum & celebrais doib iar sin & ní fessa a imthechta ónd úair sin.

- Lebor na hUidre

Wandering of Bran son of Ferbal

[begins after gap in text]
The white ball of thread was in his palm, the thread of the ball of thread was in the woman's hand pulling them towards port. Then they went into a large house where they found a bed for every couple there that is three times nine beds. The meal given on every platter was not emptied from them.
There was a year's growth to them in that world there but it happened that there were many years with no savour lacking to them. A longing for home took a man of them that is Nechtan son of Collbran. Bran saw his kindred against him that he should go with him to Ireland. The woman said an assault of regret would be the going nevertheless. And the woman said therefore none of them should touch the land and that they visit with the man left in Inis na Mell [island of delight] who they'd left out of their companions.
They went afterwards until they came to a gathering at Srúib Brain [Bran's headland]. The men asked who it was that had come across the sea.
Bran said "It is me, Bran son of Ferbal."
"We do not recognize this one" the other person said. "[but] There are old stories of Bran's Voyage."
He puts himself out, the man [Nechtan], from the coracle. So that as soon as he was against the earth of Ireland he was dust immediately as if he'd been under the earth without life through many years. Then chanted Bran the section following:
"To the son of Colbrain, was a lack of judgment
Bringing his hand against a lifetime
without conferring any wave of pure water
to Nechtan son of Collbrain."
Then Bran told of all his wanderings from the start until then to the people gathered there and wrote these sections in Ogham and told them farewell and no one knows his wanderings from that hour.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fairy Taboo - #3 Names

Another taboo that we see among many of the Good People relates to names. Names have power and we find in many cases both an aversion to saying the names of certain types of the Daoine Maithe as well as an avoidance of personal names. Even nicknames have power and when we look at anecdotal evidence we find that often rather than giving a name to a fairy that a person might have regular encounters with a person or group might call them by their description.

First let's look at the wider taboo involving euphemisms. In this case the name in question is a collective one, for the entire group. There is a longstanding belief that to speak of them may draw their attention* and that it is always better to get positive attention than negative. Certain terms have been known to anger or annoy them, although which terms exactly aren't agreed on: at various points it was taboo to say aos sí or daoine sí or fairies, although at present fairies is the most often avoided. Euphemisms have been used since at least the 16th century to avoid the more direct terms, and these euphemisms were intended to be pleasing if they drew the fairies attention. So instead of fairies, elves, or goblins (interchangeable terms until recently) which all could raise their ire a person would say, for example, Fair Folk, Other Crowd, Mother's Blessing, or Seelie Wichts [Blessed Beings].

Beyond that we have an avoidance of personal names. Names have power, and using a being's name gives you power of them - or them power over you if they know and use your name. Because of this in folklore we rarely see any fairy willingly giving its name unless its in repayment for a debt of some sort or a deeper relationship is involved. Invoking a fairy's name, or even giving one a nickname, is often enough to drive one off as we see in stories like Tom Tit Tot or Rumplestiltskin. Finding out a fairy's name or intentionally giving one a nickname is one method of banishing a being who is causing problems are endangering people. Keep in mind however that this method of getting rid of a troublesome fairy also angers them and that can later come back to haunt the person.

When we see discussions of fairies who were known to interact regularly with people in anecdotes or stories, often that being is known not by a name but by a descriptive term based on what they look like or where they are associated with. Yeats related an anecdote of a woman whose mother had a friend among the Good People, who they simply called 'the Wee Woman' (although she was human sized) and Brownies are usually identified by the area they occupied, such as the Brownie of Cranshaws. A Scottish clan had a bodach attached to them which acted much like a Bean Sí in foretelling death and was known as the Bodach Glas, or 'Grey Man' (Briggs, 1976). In some cases we do have more well-known fairies whose names we do know, like Jenny Greenteeth or Meg Mullach [top/summit], but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule and they seem to still involve aspects of description or places.

Generally it is best to use euphemisms when talking about the Good People, so that if you get their attention they won't be offended by how you are speaking of them. You'll rarely know a fairy being's name, and if you do by chance it's better not to use it often, but descriptive names based on physical appearance or place are acceptable. One of the quickest way to offend the Daoine Uaisle is violating the taboo they have around the use of names so it is good to keep this in mind.

*one wonders if writing about them has the same effect. If it's true that they took rev. Kirk for his book Secret Commonwealth then perhaps we should all be more careful in what we put down on paper or screen as well. 

Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies