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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Fairy Taboos - #4 Food

Fairy taboos around food are complicated and layered, and each aspect tends to have its own rules and repercussions. For this blog we will break the prohibitions around food down into three categories and try to summarize each one as concisely as possible.

1 - Eating Food from Fairy.
     The most well known prohibition around food and fairies is certainly the rule not to eat fairy food. The general belief is that to eat the food of fairies is to be irreversibly bound to them and their world. We see a wide range of anecdotes centered on this idea, usually featuring a human who has encountered a group of fairies and been invited or inveigled to join them, been offered food or drink, and is then cautioned by a human among the group (often recognized as a recently deceased community member) not to take the offered meal. The warning always includes the explicit message that if the food or drink is accepted the person will not be able to leave and return to the mortal world or their family. In the ballad of 'Childe Rowland' the protagonist is advised to "bite no bit and drink no drop" when he goes to Fairy to rescue his sister if he wants to succeed and return again to earth with her. There are some exceptions to this, particularly in situations when the food is being offered by one of the monarchy of the Otherworld, but overall this is one of the most consistent prohibitions we find.

2 - Giving Food to Fairies.
     There is a long standing and deep seated understanding that fairies were entitled to a portion of the human harvest, including both crops and animals. We see this beginning in Irish mythology where the Dagda negotiates an agreement with the Gaels to give the Gods - who have gone into the sidhe to live - a portion of all their grain and milk in exchange for the Gods allowing the crops to flourish and cows to be in milk. Over time this concept was extended and shifted to the fairies more generally. In the modern period we find examples in MacNeill's book 'Festival of Lughnasa' that discuss the fairies being given a tithe of the crops during the harvest, with an understanding that such a tithe is due to them. While this may not at first seem like a taboo it should be understood in the context of an action that had to be taken in order for humans to prosper.

3 - Fairies Claiming Food.
     Related to point #2 is the idea that fairies will claim food they want, under different circumstances; this may be an extension of the idea that they are owed, by longstanding agreement, a portion of what humans harvest. Evans-Wentz relates anecdotes in 'The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' of the belief that if food fell or was dropped it was being claimed by the Good People and should be left to them. Along those lines Campbell in 'The Gaelic Otherworld' and Kirk in 'The Secret Commonwealth' both discuss the fairies removing the substance from food items, either in the fields or on the stove. This theft of the essence of food, rather than its physical presence, is attributed by Campbell to the owner of the item speaking badly of it. Another widespread folk belief in both Ireland and Scotland was that any berries left unpicked after Samhain belonged to the Good Folk and that eating them was unhealthy as they had been either spit on or urinated on by the púca, as a means of claiming them. Food that had been given to the fairies, or claimed by them, should not be eaten by humans as it was thought to have no value to it, although there are accounts of animals eating it. This falls into the area of a taboo as it was believed that taking what the fairies had claimed for themselves was at best very unlucky.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fairy Rings

  One particular bit of folklore that is still especially relevant today is that of fairy rings, also called fairy circles, elf rings, or elf circles. In Welsh they may be known as cylch y Tylwyth Teg [literally 'circle of the Fair Family']. The concept of these rings can be found throughout the different Celtic language speaking countries as well as the various diaspora and some Anglo-Saxon and German lore as well. Fairy rings appear as either a dark circle of grass or as mushrooms growing together in a ring, and less often as a circle of dead grass or small stones. It is said in folklore and common belief that this ring marks a place where the fairies have danced or where they like to dance. In the 12th century there was an English belief which attributed rings of daisies to elves dancing (Hall, 2007). The fairies love of dancing is well known as is their penchant to take people who disturb their revelry, either as a punishment or through a desire to keep the person in Fairy (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Fairy ring of Clitocybe nebularis (“Clouded Agaric”) photographed near Buchenberg in the Allgäu by Josimda – Own work,CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fairy rings can appear in different sizes, from three feet across to ten times that size (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). If they were the sort made of darker green within a field then they would be either moss or much darker green grass and were notable because "no rushes or anything grew on it" (Gwyndaf, 1991). From a scientific perspective fairy rings are created by the fungus mycelium and when they grow above ground can include a variety of mushroom species, both poisonous and edible. Even the dark grass circles or less common dead grass rings are the result of mycelium though, as the fungus naturally grows upwards and outwards in an expanding circle and effects the nutrient content of the soil, resulting in the visible fairy ring effect (Mushroom Appreciation, 2016). The scientific explanation doesn't necessarily contradict the fairylore explanation, and the two beliefs are compatible with each other. For example, in some folklore it isn't the fairies dancing that causes the circle but rather the existence of the circle that draws the fairies to dance there (Bennett, 2001).

A person who comes upon an active fairy ring might see the dancers within it, and even the instruments, but hear nothing from outside, although in other stories hearing the music acts as a lure to draw an unsuspecting mortal in. Most people had a clear aversion to the idea of entering a fairy ring as it was known that to do so risked the fairies coming and taking the person away. In one Welsh story preserved in the late 20th century a person was questioned about why they avoided fairy rings and they relayed the tale of a boy named Robin Jones who entered a fairy circle one evening; he saw the fairies dancing and after what seemed to him a few hours in their company he asked to leave only to return home to find that a hundred years had passed (Gwyndaf, 1991). In a similar tale a man stopped outside a fairy ring, just to watch the fairies dance within for a few hours, and lost fifteen years of time for his dallying (Gwyndaf, 1991). Often the person would dance for what seemed like a night to them, or even only a few minutes, and then be allowed to leave only to find that a year or more had passed. Some fairy rings appear to have been used as a sort of trap to intentionally lure mortals, especially children, that the Fey folk wished to take and these people if they entered the ring would never be returned (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Other times however it seems to be only chance that leads a person to find fairies dancing in a ring; in accounts from Brittany some who join them are treated well and released unharmed with little time passed while those who offend them while they dance are forced to join the circle until they collapse form exhaustion or worse (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Once in a fairy ring, by choice or by compulsion, a person could not leave unless they were freed by the Good Folk or rescued by another human being.  In one Scottish tale a man fell asleep in the middle of a fairy ring and woke to find himself being carried through the air by the angry fairies who dumped him in a city many miles away (Briggs, 1978). In the above example of Robin Jones the boy was allowed to leave when he asked politely to, although upon leaving he found that so much time had passed on earth that everyone he knew in life had died. In another story a boy was taken through a fairy ring and tried to leave later with a golden ball to show his mother; the fairies took the ball back and threw the boy out after pinching him until he was thoroughly bruised (Evans-Wentz, 1911). He re-emerged and returned home to his mother to find that several years had passed.

Several options were available for those seeking to rescue a comrade from a fairy ring. One Welsh method of securing a person's release was to place a stick of rowan across the boundary of the ring, breaking it (Gwyndaf, 1991). Some suggest throwing specific herbs, including thyme, into the circle, and of course iron is seen as superlative method of both disrupting a fairy ring and protecting oneself from angry Fey (Hartland, 1891). Any iron object would suffice and could be used to break the edge of the ring or could be tossed into the circle to disrupt the dancing. Another method was for someone safely outside the circle to reach in, sometimes by stepping on the perimeter of the ring, and grab the person as they danced past (Briggs, 1978). Even if they were rescued though many times the person could not truly be saved, and those who had danced with the fairies in a fairy ring were known to pine away afterwards or else, if they had been taken for a length of time and allowed to leave they might rapidly age or turn to dust when the truth of their long absence from mortal earth was revealed to them in their home place, then occupied by strangers (Brigg, 1978).

There is a strong belief that if one finds a fairy ring it should not be disturbed, not only because of the possible danger, but because there is a sacredness to the space set aside within them. If one were to damage a mushroom associated with a fairy ring reparations would be offered to avoid punishment (Bennett, 1991). In Scotland and Wales it was generally unthinkable by those who believed in the Good Folk to consider intentionally damaging the ring or mushrooms, and it was believed that those who did so would be cursed (Bennett, 1991; Gwyndaf, 1991). In one Irish story a farmer who knowingly built a barn on a fairy ring fell unconscious afterwards and had a vision telling him to take down the barn (Wilde, 1888).

Fairy rings are still found today although perhaps fewer people see the footsteps of the Fey in them, and more see the science of mycelium. In the spirit of tradition though it doesn't have to be one or the other but can both, in truth, and we can still see the enchantment and sacredness of the footsteps of the Good People in fairy rings without denying the knowledge of their natural cause. If you keep your eyes open and your sense sharp you may find a ring of dark grass or new grown mushrooms in your yard or the area you live in.
Although perhaps you'll think twice about stepping across its boundary.

Bennett, M., (1991) Balquhidder Revisited: Fairylore in the Scottish highlands, 1690- 1990
Briggs, K., (1978) The Vanishing People
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and legends from Welsh oral tradition
Mushroom Appreciation (2016). Fanciful Fairy Rings
Evans-Wentz (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, E., (1888). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland
Hall, A., (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
Hartland, E., (1891). The Science of Fairy Tales

Excerpted from my book 'Fairies'

When Dedication Ends

There's a good amount of discussion out there about honoring deities (or spirits) and about dedication to a deity. What I want to talk about today is something I don't see being discussed much - when dedication ends.

An image of the German Woden

When I began my pagan path I really wasn't aware of the idea of dedicating oneself to a deity, or several even, but over time I not only started to read about the idea but I started to see it in action. I met people who described themselves as a priest or priestess of a specific deity and I saw the way that dedication could impact a person's life. Nonetheless I hadn't felt pulled to that level of focus on any God or group of Gods during my first years as a pagan, although I certainly had my favorites. My spirituality was always a complex thing with different layers of focus between the Gods, the Good Folk, and magical practices and I was fairly happy with what it was.

It wasn't until I began following a Heathen path in the mid-2000's that I felt called to formally dedicate myself to a deity. While I had developed what I would describe as a sense of closeness with several deities when I started practicing Heathenry I very quickly felt pulled to Odin. In what seemed to me the blink of an eye I found myself beset by dreams of a pair of ravens with a one-eyed rider and haunted during the day by his presence. My life took a decidedly weird (wyrd?) turn and within a year I was standing before witnesses making oaths, pledging myself to Odin*.

I don't regret it. For a decade I considered Odin my fulltrui; I learned to read the runes and studied seidhr, I became the gythia of a kindred, connected to the Hidden Folk under new guises. Odin was a driving force in my practice of Heathenry, staying with me as I shifted from a more Norse to a more German approach. He became my muse and my poetry was dedicated to him. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy - Odin is a hard one in many ways and even his kinder faces present interesting challenges. But I loved him and I loved being dedicated to him.

Then, after a decade, it ended.

I was pulled into a deeper relationship with the aos sidhe and that shifted things profoundly for me. Before I knew it, and to my utter shock, I found that my connection - my dedication - to Odin was over. I meditated and had an experience of Odin coming to me and telling me I was freed from my oaths to him. I didn't believe it at first but when I went to several people I trusted who were good with divination or channeling they all confirmed it. I paid weregeld for the oath anyway, for the people who had witnessed my oath, and just like that it was over.
I don't think I truly understood why the Norse called such dedication 'fulltrui' until that friendship was gone.  Of course I can still honour Odin - and I do - and of course I can still call on him in ritual. But it isn't the same. It isn't that close, personal feeling, that friendship anymore.

People talk about building dedication and about finding patron deities, but no one talks about when those relationships end, whether that end comes from the deity choosing to break the connection or the person doing so. Its painful, as painful as losing an important human relationship is. When you are dedicated to a deity that deity becomes a part of your life on a regular basis and having that suddenly gone is a shock - it's like losing a friend.

I had to learn that it was alright to grieve that relationship. I had to tell myself it was alright to be sad that things had changed and that I was allowed to be sad that I wasn't formally dedicated to a deity I had spent 10 years of my life closely connected to. And that was hard. Painfully hard. But things change and even in devotional polytheism dedication isn't always for life, even when we go into it planning that it will be. The Gods have agency and independent will and sometimes what they want diverges from what we want. Sometimes what they plan isn't what we plan. And sometimes we grow in a different direction and that growth takes us away from the place that our dedication was rooted in.
And that's okay.

*I also dedicated to Macha around this same time - I found the two were a good balance for each other, and given how challenging Odin could be I am glad I had that balance.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Exorcism for a Leannán Sí

Recently in my wanderings through source material I ran across  particularly interesting folk charm in the 1854 'Transactions of the Ossianic Society'. The entry was first in Irish and then translated into English, with some notable variances from the Irish, and dealt with a spoken charm used by a Catholic priest to expel a Leannan Si from a woman named Shighile Tabaois [Sheela Tavish].

This is the text of the charm in Irish

This is my transcription from the above*:
"An t-Aithar Conn O'Domhnaill
ag díbirt a Lennan Síghe .i. an Stalcaire, ó Shíghile Tabaois.
Cros Chríosd ort a Shíghile, ód' ghearrán nuadh,
Cros fhírinneach Iosa ad choimead buan;
Ur an síghbharra ro shínear led' gheal-chnámha suas,
Ud choimhdeacht 'san oidhche 's ad chufáil chruaidh!
     Ní bhfuil sígh-bharra ó'n n-dílinn go geal-tráigh thuaidh
Maoil-chnoic ná mín-lir le cruinneamhuil sluagh;
Ná h-aoirfead le laoithibh na sean-rádh suagh,
Muna g-cuirid ó Shíghile an spreasán duairc!
     Sgríbhfead go h-Aoibhill go geal-tráigh thuaidh,
Ríg-bhean na bruighne 's lionán sluaigh;
Díoghaltur ir díbh-fheirg, ir cufáil chruaidh,
Do thabhairt do'n t-sígh-barra so Shíghile 'sa chongmháil uainn?
     Saoilim gun sígh-bharra gan choimead cuan,
Do díbridh ó shíghe-chnoic an Lorán Ruadh;
No fíor-spreas o Aoife na sean-radh i d-Taudhmhumhain
Do sgaoileadh le draoigheacht-chlir na n-Danann n-duairc!
     Sgaoiliom le síghe-chnoic an spreasán uainn,
No le slim-shreabhaidh líossa na srután luaith;
D'á chuibhrioch go cíocrach le Seannaid shluaigh,
Tre luighe leatra, a Shíghile, gan chead d'fhághail uainn?"

And this is the English translation from the book;
"Father Conn O'Donnell
composed this song in order to expel a Leannan Sighe, or incubus, from Sheela Tavish.
The Cross of Christ be upon you, Sheela, against your new incubus,
Let the true Cross of Jesus protect you forever;
From this fairy that lies close to your snow-white bosom,
Who accompanies you at night and gives you hard cuffs.
     There is not a fairy that existed since the deluge, even those of the white northern strand,
And of the broad-topped smooth lioses where their hosts assemble,
That I will not satirize by the lays of the old sayings of the sages,
If they will not banish this dull midge from Sheela.
     I will write to Aoibheall of the fair northern strand,
The Queen of the Bruighin, and the Familiar (spirit) of hosts;
To inflict vengeance with the wrath of hard cuffs,
Upon this fairy that haunts Sheela, send him away from us.
     I suspect he is a fairy that has no place of rest,
And was expelled from the fairy hill of Loran Ruadh;
Or is a genuine imp sent from Aoife of the north,
That was loosed by the expert spells of the surly Tuatha De Dananns.
     Let us expel to the fairy hills this sullen midge from us,
Or to the bright waters o the Lee of the rapid currents;
There to be strongly fettered by the Shenad [Shannon's] hosts,
Because he slept with you, Sheela, without your leave."

I'll point out quickly to start that the English translation is a bit loose from the Irish. For example the two terms given as 'incubus' don't actually mean that. We have stalcaire which can mean a stubborn person or a stalker, and gearrán which is a term for a horse, often a gelding. We see a similar thing with the word being glossed as 'fairy' - sighbarra - which might more accurately read as 'barrow fairy'. That one is worth noting as it specifically identifies this leannan si with the barrows, or ancient burial mounds. In the same way when the text calls him 'a pest' or an 'imp' sent by Aoife the Irish term spreas means a 'worthless person'.

This is a really fascinating piece of folk magic, effectively a type of ritual exorcism but what makes it interesting to me is that it calls on both the priest's own God - Jesus - as well as the fairy Queen Aoibheall. It also implicates both Aoife, as another Fairy Queen, and the Tuatha De Danann more generally, for possibly setting this spirit on the woman in question. The chant also includes the claim by the priest that he will not hesitate to satirize any spirits who won't help him to banish this leannán sí, an unusual suggestion since one might assume that he would usually resort to calling on his own deity for that.

'Exorcism of a Leanná Sí' is only one example of the way that folk magic, fairy belief, and the dominant religion blended into a cohesive system of practice in early modern Ireland. We may look at this approach and say that it is an attempt to cover all the possibilities, as it were, in assuring that a cure is achieved. Or we may see it as reflecting the multiple cultural threads that influenced people, including clergy, even in the 19th century. In any case it is an important piece of evidence and also a useful charm.

 *any errors in my transcribing the Cló Gaelach are entirely my own. I have included the original text for the reader to see for themselves.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Irish/English Glossary of Common Terms

This post is meant to offer a selection of the common terms I use in Irish with their English translations, to help readers of my blog who may not have any Irish or who may find the use of Irish placenames, euphemisms for the Good Neighbours, and other miscellaneous words confusing. Hopefully this will offer a bit of clarity.

Aitainmneacha / Place Names

An Cheathru Chaol - Carrowkeel
Brú na Bóinne - Brugh na Boyne
Cnóbha - Knowth

Cnoc - hill
Connachta - Connacht
Cúigí na hÉireann - Provinces of Ireland
Dumha na nGiall - Mound of the Hostages
Laighin - Leinster
Lios - Ring fort, fairy mound
Mide - Meath
Mumhain - Munster
Ráth - Fort, ring fort
Sidhe - fairy mound
Sid in Broga - Newgrange
Sliabh na Caillighe - Loughcrew, literally 'mountain of the Cailleach'
Teamhair - Tara
Uaimh na gCat - Cave of Cats
Ulaidh - Ulster

Sofhroital na Sióga/ Euphemisms for Fairies

Aos Sidhe - People of the fairy hills
Bean Sidhe - fairy woman
Daoine Eile - Other People/ Other Crowd
Daoine Maithe - Good People
Daoine Sidhe - People of the fairy hills
Daoine Uaisle - Noble People
Fear sidhe - fairy man
Leannan Sidhe - fairy lover
na hUaisle - the Gentry
Tuathghinte - literally 'northwards people'

Go hilghneitheach/ Miscellaneous

Badb - name of a goddess also a term for a supernatural woman, witch, and crow
Bainne - milk
Banríon - Queen

Bantuaithech - old Irish term for a specific type of 'leftward' working witch
Bean feasa - wise woman
Cailleach - name of a goddess, also means crone, hag, witch

Caite - elf-struck
Conriocht - werewolf
Déithe - Gods

Draíodóir - wizard, enchanter
Draoi - magic user, druid
Gaeilge - Irish language
Iarlais - changeling
Im - butter
Piseog - charm, spell, also supersition
Rí - King
Sidhe gaoithe - fairy wind
Slua sidhe - Fairy host
Taibhse - ghost, spectre, phantom
Tromluí - incubus, nightmare

Pronunciations for all of these can be found below, thanks to Lora O'Brien who was kind enough to collaborate with me on this, after the idea of glossary was suggested on facebook