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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.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Morrigan and Morgen le Fay

One source of much confusion is the connection - or lack thereof - between the Irish goddess the Morrigan and the Welsh Arthurian figure Morgen le Fay*. I've been meaning to write about this for a while but have hesitated because I am admittedly weak on the Welsh end of things and didn't want to do a disservice to the subject. However I've had several people ask me recently about what connection there might be between these two, so I feel like this needs to be said.

The short answer - historically there is no connection between the Morrigan and Morgen le Fay.

The Morrigan - The Morrigan is an Irish goddess with complex associations to battle, war, death, prophecy, sovereignty, magic, incitement, and victory. Her name in older forms of Irish was pronounced roughly 'MORE-rih-guhn' and later forms 'MORE-ree-uhn' and meant either great queen or phantom queen, depending what etymology one favors. We have a wide selection of mythology and folklore featuring her and it's clear that when she shows up she's an active force in whatever she's doing.
   The Morrigan has two sisters, Badb and Macha, who she appears with in some myths usually performing battle magic; in the Tain Bo Cuailgne she also appears with Nemain and Be Neit for the same purpose. The Morrigan in later mythology would come to be associated with night terrors and specters, viewed as demonic because she could not easily be turned into a meek saint.

Morgen le Fay - Morgen le Fay is a character first found in Arthurian stories, specifically the 12th century works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, where her name was initially spelled Morgen le Fay. It is worth noting that this spelling is significant because while both Morgan and Morgen are men's names (also worth noting) they are pronounced differently - Morgan evolved into the modern Welsh Morcant while Morgen became Morien (Jones, 1997). In the 12th century Morgen would have been pronounced, roughly, 'Mor-YEN' (Jones, 1997). The name Morgen is generally believed to mean 'sea born'.
  Geoffrey was collecting local stories from Wales and publishing them in France and while he certainly didn't invent Morgen for his Viti Merlini there is no way to know for certain how much or little he shaped the character as he preserved her. Which in fairness is true for all of the Arthurian characters he wrote about. That aside however Geoffrey's Morgen was a priestess, one of nine sisters connected to Avalon. In the 15th century Morgen would be renamed Morgan by Thomas Malory and recast as King Arthur's scheming half-sister who was set against both Arthur and his wife Guinevere.

The Evidence - One of the main arguments connecting the names is that they sound the same to modern English speakers, but I hope it's clear here that in Irish and Welsh the two names sound very different. They also have different meanings and that is significant. Another argument that favors their being the same deity is that they are both connected to magic, but while one may argue that both do indeed practice enchantment the nature of the magic they practice seems to be vitally different and outside of that single similarity the rest of their associations are very different. Morgen is connected to healing and, perhaps, to guiding the dead or dying to Avalon/the Otherworld; the Morrigan is associated with death and battle but nothing in her mythology relates her to healing or to a role as a psychopomp. People also argue that their stories have similar themes, but this is clearly not so: the Morrigan is married to the Dagda and may or may not try to seduce Cu Chulainn in one story while Morgen in various stories is married, is adulterous, and even tricks her own brother into conceiving a son with her; the Morrigan incites battles by directly encouraging people to rise up and fight while Morgen in some of her stories sows discord in more subtle ways; the Morrigan's main location is a cave, Uaimh na gCat, while Morgen's is an island on a lake, Avalon. These are only a few examples just to illustrate the very different natures of the two beings.

The Morrigan and Morgen le Fay are often associated with each other in modern paganism, perhaps because they are both perceived as powerful and potentially dangerous women who have gotten a bad reputation that they may not deserve. Both certainly were vilified and demonized over time as stories evolved, the Morrigan going from a goddess to a night specter and Morgen from a priestess of Avalon to an incestuous and usurping sister of the king. I certainly understand why people see associations between the two, although for myself I'd be more likely to picture them sharing stories at the bar over shots together than to believe they are the same being or energy.
   I cannot say whether or not Morgen is a deity or ever was a deity, nor do I deny that someone does answer when people call on Morgen le Fay today. What I can say is that there's no evidence that the Morrigan and Morgen le Fay share any roots or that historically the two have any connection to each other.

*I am aware that in modern terms her name is often given now as Morgan la Fey however I am choosing to go with the older original spelling used by the first person to write her name down.

Recommended Reading:
MacKillop, J., (2006) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Jones, H., (1997) Concerning the Names Morgan, Morgana, Morgaine, Muirghein, Morrigan and the Like. Retrieved from
Gray, E., (1983) Cath Maige Tuired
Dunn, J., (1914) Tain Bo Cualgne
Morgan la Fay (2018) The Camelot Project; University of Rochester. Retrieved from

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Christian Symbols to Protect from Fairies

The relationship between the Good People and the sacred objects and words of Christianity are complex. Some fairies are utterly unbothered by the symbols and ritual actions of the new religion, some are very concerned about their own place within Christian cosmology, while others seem to violently abhor anything relating to the 'new' religion. Those who show an aversion to these symbols and prayers can naturally be warded off using them.

 Some examples:
-Redcaps were known to fear very little, but some of the few things that could ward against them included Christian sacred objects and prayers, specifically the sign of the cross or the sound of bible verse being read aloud.
- In the ballad of Alice Brand the Elf King wants to be rid of two trespassers to his wood but because they are Christians he cannot act against them, so he must send someone under his sway who is not affected by such things.
- A brownie who was well known in a particular area was driven off forever when a well-meaning priest attempted to baptize him. The moment the holy water struck the brownie's flesh the fairy shrieked and fled never to be seen again (Briggs, 1976). In another anecdote a brownie was upset by the homeowner reading the Bible (Wilby, 2005).
- In one area of Scotland fisherman at sea would never say the words "church or manse or minister" to avoid offending the spirits and possibly endangering themselves (Wilby, 2005).
- In some versions of the ballad of Tam Lin, Tam Lin advises Janet to make a compass [circle] around herself with holy water while she waits for the Fairy Rade on Halloween; this renders her invisible to their sight and senses until she moves out of the circle.
- Signing a cross three times over a fairy captive or human-turned-fairy would release them from Fairy or break any magic holding them
- Baptism was a common protection for infants against fairy abduction, and Robert Kirk notes that it was a regular practice in Lowland Scotland for a Bible to be kept in the room of a woman in childbirth to ward against fairy intrusion.

Wilby suggest in her book that this avoidance of Christian symbols and prayers - which is not universal even in the Celtic countries - is likely rooted in the animosity that the Church itself created with its attempts to demonize the Fair Folk. Briggs, for her part, suggests that the cross is actually an older symbol, predating Christianity, that represents the liminal space of the crossroads where the fairies have less power and could be used either as a physical object or as a motion to ward them off. In either case the equal armed cross has been noted to be efficacious against Themselves in some circumstances, and would often times be combined with the use of iron by crossing two nails or opening a pair of scissors and hanging them up. Christian prayers, the sounds of church bells, and holy water are also mentioned as protections or things that will frighten off some fairies, although we should emphasize some.

Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Acland, A., (1998) Alice Brand
Wilby, E., (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits
Kirk, R., (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies

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