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Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Fairy Folklore in 'A Boy Called Christmas'

 This is a 2021 Netflix original movie but I chose it for the second piece in my series on fairy folklore in movies/television because of the wider theme. It is a children's movie and a Santa origin movie (surprisingly non-Christian) but for all that it does have a good amount of older folklore and hints of fairy beliefs that are reasonably accurate. 

This blog will contain minor spoilers, so be warned if you haven't watched the movie yet. 

The gist of the plot of the of 'A Boy Called Christmas' is that Nikolas lives with his father in a kingdom that has lost all hope. Nicholas's mother died and his father is sent on a quest (along with other men) by the king to restore hope to the kingdom by proving magic is real and finding the fabled Elfheim, home (as the name implies) of the elves. Nikolas is left with his horrible aunt who badly mistreats him and eventually decides to leave to find his father after finding a hidden map to Elfheim left by his mother, who used to tell stories of a girl who spent the winter with the elves there (spoiler: she was that girl). Over the course of his adventures Nikolas proves to be a truly kind and giving boy and eventually finds the elves, the magic, and the spirit of Christmas, which in this movie is a sort of nebulous winter festival of joy the elves celebrate*.

So, on to the fairy folklore:

  1. The elves are a hidden people, which is inline with older folklore, and at one point Nicholas is in the middle of their town and doesn't know it because he can't see any of it. At least not until he is shown how to. This is all actually really accurate to many beliefs about the Good Folk.
  2. The elves are around 4 to 5 feet tall, live in a society much like a human one, and are both helpful and dangerous to humans. Again this is all fairly accurate to older folklore and honestly very refreshing to see especially in a children's movie.
  3. Besides elves we also see a Troll and a pixie. The troll is large and dangerous, but not especially smart, and the pixie is human-sized, with wings, and a rather malicious sense of humour. The troll - given the wide array of troll folklore - is more or less what one might expect a troll to be like. The pixie, while I would quibble with the wings and ears, is at least in size and personality close to what one would expect. I did find the inclusion of a Welsh/Cornish pixie in what is otherwise framed as a northern European-esque story a bit odd but given how the whole of it was handled I'm willing to give it a pass. 
  4. The pixie can only tell the truth. Now this is a debated point in fairylore and likely doesn't apply to pixies, as there isn't a tradition in the areas pixies come from of the Good Folk only speaking the truth, but it is a concept found elsewhere. So this one is a bit of a mixed bag as folklore references go and its taken to an extreme where the pixie must speak the truth even when its rude rather than the wider belief that the Good Folk don't lie but can be very deceptive. I'm still including it here though as its an aspect of fairy folklore not often mentioned in media. 
  5. One of the elves holds a serious grudge against all humans because of the actions of a few and because of a hurt done by a human (unintentionally) long ago. This definitely seems to reflect the stubborn nature of the Good Folk. The reaction of the elf and actions she takes because of it are also quite extreme which is also very reflective of older folklore. Elves always tend to have extreme reactions when they react to things.
  6. The humans kidnap an elf child. So this isn't fairy folklore obviously but I did find it to be a fascinating reversal of changeling folklore, where instead of the elves taking a human child the humans take an elven one, for nefarious purposes (as a prisoner to prove magic exists)
  7. Elves have magic which is both benevolent and malevolent. This is another thing that often gets treated badly in movies and tv, where we see elves as either effectively magicless or as mostly able to do helpful things (think Tauriel's healing spell in The Hobbit for example). In this movie we see elves both healing as well as using magic in more negative ways to control or attack others. I enjoyed the nuance of it. 
So, overall I found the elves to be especially well done in this movie and was quite surprised that they were handled as well as they were considering its a children's movie which are usually the worst culprits for mauling the older beliefs around fairies (TinkerBell and Fern Gully I am looking at you). The overall personalities of the elves and pixie were also pretty much in line with what folklore would have us expect and I appreciated that. For what it is - a blatant Santa origin movie - its actually very good and surprisingly true to wider folklore around these beings. 

*okay that part was kind of weird to be honest but I'm not opposed to a depiction of an entirely secular Christmas

Friday, December 17, 2021

9 Fiction Writing Tips

 I'm just wrapping up my tenth novel and so I have writing and fiction on my mind which led me to deciding to write this today. The internet is glutted with writing tips, most of which are confusing and contradictory when compared to each other, so I hope that this attempt might offer aspiring writers some more practical suggestions than the usual run.

This is not meant to be business writing advice, most of which in my experience sucks the joy right out of the process of writing. This is advice for how to write good stories and still like doing it ten years later.

  1. Write What You Want to Read - This is pretty straightforward advice but honestly its so important. When I wrote my first novel my friend Catherine Kane, who had encouraged me to give it a try, was the one who told me to write what I would want to read, and its advice that hasn't ever steered me wrong. If you don't want to read what you are writing why should anyone else? A lot of people will tell you to write to market, to avoid tropes, to write what's popular or going to be popular but ultimately you have to remember that you are part of the market too. If you love those tropes that other people say are tired then trust me so do plenty of other people. Everyone telling you that elves are overdone now? If you still want to read it then so do other people. Write what you want to read and you will find an audience for it. 
  2. Research Matters - This is pretty obvious with non-fiction but even with fiction this is important. Some of the cringiest moments I've had as a reader have come from badly researched material in novels, whether its a book character supposedly from Connecticut talking about how 'new' everything there is compared to New Orleans (New Orleans was first reached by the French in 1690; Connecticut by the Dutch in 1614, for context), a book consistently referring to a town in Maine as a small town despite it having a population of 25,000 people (again for context 6 of the 10 biggest cities in Maine have less than 25,000 people), or books set in Ireland written by people in the US that have clearly never been to Ireland. Even in high fantasy take the time to find out how far a person can walk in a day or a horse can travel, or what you write is going to be unbelievable and not in a good way. And please if you are including foreign language material for a language you don't speak hire a native speaker to check it for you.
  3. Beta Readers Are Essential - A beta reader is someone who reads the early version of your story or book and offers feedback on it. This can be anything from pointing out plot holes or weak characterization, noting areas where a story drags or moves too quickly, or suggesting points where the story is weak. Some beta readers will also read for errors in the text, or anything else you specifically request. Beta reader feedback allows you to polish a story and fix details that you may not be aware of because you are so immersed in the story. 
  4. Don't Worry About Having a Perfect Draft - Some of the best early advice I got (from Dave D'Alessio if you were curious) when I started writing was to look at the first draft as a rough product that was meant to be fixed later and not an instant finished project. When we expect our first draft to be perfect we are setting ourselves up for problems and stress. Get it written and then go back and smooth things out, add or delete as needed, address plot holes or any other issues you have. A book (or story) isn't done when you finish writing that first draft, its only beginning so don't treat the first draft as if it should be flawless. 
  5. If You Get Stuck, Try Something Different - This is something I discovered really helps me when I get jammed up in a scene - which does and will happen. Sometimes things just stop flowing or you lose that creative momentum, and its easy to get frustrated and give up or put a project on permanent hold. What I do instead is switch to another section of the story, or go back and read from the start, or even just stream of consciousness write for a bit. This may or may not work for you too (see point 7) but I do think its worth suggesting here because its easy to let that frustration completely derail us, just like its easy to start to see word count goals as all important. But ultimately its okay to delete what doesn't work and its okay to switch things around if you need to, or anything else that frees up that creative block. And in the end if walking away is what you need to do then do that - go watch a movie or take a walk. 
  6. Define Success for Yourself - I consider myself a successful author. Do other people agree with that? I don't know and honestly it doesn't matter to me. There will always be measures of success applied by others that we don't meet. Always. That's life. What matters is if we think we've succeeded. What is your goal with your writing? Have you met it on any level? Then you are successful. 
    On a related note I highly recommend setting up a variety of goals for yourself and celebrating every success you have, big or small. Its great to be called a best selling author, sure, but its just as great to see someone loves your story, or see your name on a byline, or simply see a something you wrote out in the world. All of those things are success and all deserve recognition. 
  7. Find What Works For You - As I mentioned in the intro there is a lot of writing advice to be found online and its often predicated on what worked for the person writing it. And the thing is I could tell you what works for me and you could try it - and be absolutely miserable because my writing process is not what works for you. And I've seen that so many times, where someone reads writing advice from a famous author they admire and tries to follow it and finds that it absolutely kills their desire to write. Because the process that works for one person can be absolutely counterintuitive to another. Do you need to plan out plot points in a detailed outline before starting? Do that. Do you write best off the cuff with only a general idea where its all going? Do that. 3,000 words a day? Awesome. 100 words a day? Just as good. It really is wahtever works best for you to get your story down.
    Ultimately we can't compare ourselves to other writers, we have to find our own way - and that means trial and error and work and failing and succeeding. 
  8. Consider Sensitivity Readers - So, let's talk diversity. Yes its important (in my opinion) to include diversity in your writing but its so, so easy to mess that up because writing outside your own life experience is difficult to do well. Its worth considering sensitivity readers within any group you don't belong to but are writing about, although you must understand that a sensitivity reader isn't going to give you some sort of stamp of approval but rather will help you see areas that may need improvement. In other words a sensitivity reader is there to help you write more realistically about things you personally don't understand by pointing out places you may be reflecting stereotypes instead of reality, creating a caricature instead of a character, or leaning into race tropes
  9. Content Warnings - if you plan to share your writing publicly and your work includes things that are common triggers for other people's trauma, such as sexual assault, suicide, disordered eating, you should use content warnings. These are just an easy way to signal to potential readers if a book might be something they shouldn't read. You don't need to and realistically can't content warning every possible thing that might cause an issue with someone but definitely make note of the common ones especially if they are unusual in the genre you are writing (ie you don't need to put a content warning for sex on a paranormal romance book where it would be typical content for the genre, but consider putting a content warning on animal death which isn't necessarily expected)
My final comment here isn't exactly writing advice but it is important. Once you put your writing out there for the public you will get people who like it and you will get people who don't. There is no perfect, universally loved novel or story because everyone enjoys something different. And that's okay. Do what you can to make your work the best it can be, listen to fair critique to help you improve, but don't let the unfair criticism pull you down. Like Dita Von Teese said: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be somebody who hates peaches.” and that's true of writing as well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

2021 Recap

 Hello everyone! 2021 is just about wrapping up and I wanted to offer a quick recap of what I've been up to work-wise this year, which has been a very tumultuous one for me (and I'm sure many others).

I had three articles published in 2021:
“Sexuality and Gender Among the Good Neighbours: the Intersection and Inversion of Human Norms in Fairylore”, written for Revenant Journal 2020, cut, posted on; FIS newsletter 2021
“Lugh, God of Many Skills”, Pagan Dawn, Lammas Issue, 2021, no 220
“Seeking in the Mists: Gods and Goddesses of Ireland”, Pagan Dawn, Samhain issue, 2021, no 221

I presented  “Unseely to anti-hero: The Evolution of Dangerous Fairies in Folklore, Fiction, and Popular Belief” at Hertfordshire University’s ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ conference

I wrote and published two stories in my 'Queering Fairy' series:
The King of Elfland: A queer retelling of Thomas the Rhymer 
In the Fairy Wood: A queer retelling of Alice Brand 

I wrote two articles for forthcoming anthologies which I hope will be out in the next year or so, one focused on Irish America folk magic and the other on the Irish sidhe in modern fiction. 

I wrote three books that will be out in the next year, including a high fantasy novel that's out with beta readers right now and the forthcoming Pantheons the Norse and Pagan Portals Aos Sidhe.
I had three books published in 2021, one through Moon Books and two self published:
Pagan Portals Lugh 
Settling of the Manor of Tara 
Through the Mist a dual language mythology book 

Additionally I have three books under contract with Moon Books that I will be working on across the next year. I taught several classes through the Irish Pagan School and I ventured into offering my own class with 'Elves After Dark' which looked at elves and sex across folklore. I also presented at several conferences and was a guest on a variety of podcasts and shows, which is always fun. And of course I've been blogging a few times a month and making fairy focused educational videos on Youtube, including a series focused on the fairy ballads. 

With 2021 almost over I'm looking forward to 2022 and the new projects in the works. I hope you all have a good new year and a better 2022. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Fairy Folklore in Jim Henson's 'Labyrinth'

 I'm going to do a small series of reviews over the next few months looking at the fairy folklore in different films and tv shows, prompted by some discussion on social media. I think this will be fun and also help people see the various threads of older beliefs that are woven into some popular shows and movies. I'm thinking of covering a variety of things including Pan's Labyrinth, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Legend, Maleficent, The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, Siren, and maybe Krampus. But I'll start with one of the most classic fairy films, Jim Henson's Labyrinth. 

 Full disclosure this is one of my favourite movies, in part because Brian Froud was eth concept designer and he is one of my favourite artists. I also want to note that while I'm specifically picking out threads of folklore found across the film there are many, many ways to interpret this movie including seeing it all as a coming of age story, a dream, or as a reflection of Sarah's mental state. I'm not getting into any of those here and sticking purely to the folklore.

Discussing fairylore in Labyrinth is, admittedly, low hanging fruit (pun intended). Brian Froud has said in an interview that "We based Labyrinth on European folklore." so its hardly a stretch to find that folklore on display in the film. I will go over them point by point below. Before I start I do want to quickly note that historically goblins, elves, and fairies were treated interchangeably and the terms were used synonymously so I will be taking the same approach here. 

Warning spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't seen the movie before.

  • The foreshadowing in the movie of the owl in the park while Sarah is pretending to rehearse a play, where the owl is later revealed to be the Goblin King in disguise, harkens back to folklore which tells us that the fairies can be around but unseen at any time. One might read into this the implication that the goblins had wanted to take Sarah's brother and were arranging circumstances to their own advantage. This is echoed later in the labyrinth where Jareth appears in disguise as a beggar then reveals his true self to confront Hoggle and Sarah. 
  • The idea of a specific phrase or word having magic power to invoke Otherworldly beings, ie 'I wish the goblins would come and take you away right now'. This is very much in line with older folklore where the fairies could take a thing - or a human - if certain words were said about it. In folklore this was usually either the owner/guardian speaking ill of it or people failing to properly bless it; in this case wishing her brother away would qualify as speaking ill of it or ill-wishing in my opinion. 
    This is reinforced when Sarah asks for her brother back and Jareth replies 'what's said is said'. 
  • Jareth trying to bribe Sarah with the gift of a magical object is reminiscent of various stories of the Fair Folk giving something in exchange for something they want form a human as a form of compensation - although what they give is rarely what it appears to be.
  • The scenes where Jareth turns an object into various things - a crystal, a snake, cloth -  echoes wider fairy lore about fairy glamour and also is similar to the scenes in the ballad of Tam Lin 
  • '13 Hours' a time that doesn't properly exist on any human clock recalls wider folklore about the way that time moves differently in the world of Fairy. This is also shown in the way that Sarah's entire adventure in the Labyrinth occurs over those 13 hours but she returns home after a much shorter time, not even long enough for her father and step-mother to notice her absence. 
  • The deceptive nature of appearances is a particularly interesting aspect of fairylore incorporated into the film. Sarah learns quickly that the 'nice' looking twee fairies bite while the unattractive dwarf Hoggle - as well as beings like Ludo who frighten others - are helpful. There are also several points where the landscape of the labyrinth itself proves this as well, with things changing based on perspective, like the wall that is actually a doorway. As Sarah herself says partway into her journey 'things aren't always what they seem'. 
  • Sarah encounters a talking worm soon after entering the labyrinth and later talking objects like the door knockers. This idea of intelligence and speech in beings/objects that humans wouldn't normally attribute them too is another thing that is often found in fairy folklore, particularly because things may not be what they seem - like the owl that is actually the goblin king - and partially due to fairy magic. 
  • Toby being taken so that he can be turned into a goblin* is from classic changeling lore, where a baby might be taken and turned into one of the fairies, or trolls, or trows, etc., It was common across a wide swath of folklore for humans to be stolen and transformed into the same type of being who stole them, in order to add to the numbers of the Good folk who are not known to reproduce often. One might perhaps argue that Sarah's later experience with the Junk Lady where Sarah has forgotten why she is there and starts to transform into a Junk Lady herself also echoes this theme. 
  • Following on that last point Sarah engaging in a quest to recover her brother is also following classic changeling folklore. Although her quest is particularly magical and odd, we find multiple examples across folklore of people who recovered stolen humans (babies, brides, etc.,) by either confronting the fairies directly or by stealing the person back from them. Often times in these tales the person is seen riding a horse as part of a fairy cavalcade and the rescuer pulls them down and gets them back home without saying a word (if they speak the person is lost).  
  • Jareth asking Sarah how she likes the labyrinth and when she replies that its 'a piece of cake' he immediately makes it harder and creates a dangerous situation for her to face, as well as his later claim that his actions in tormenting her throughout the labyrinth were 'generous' certainly captures the wider temperament of the fairies. The Fireys inability to understand Sarah's physical differences - her body parts can't detach as their do - is another good example of the way that fairies think differently from humans and react differently to situations. We might also argue that the way they try to remove her head but are angry when she pulls off one of theirs (and throws it) saying that isn't fair because you are only supposed to throw your own head, despite their attempts to forcibly pull hers off demonstrate the different rules that fairies apply to themselves versus humans. 
  • The scene with the peach has a lot going on with it, but I'll just note in particular the idea of eating fairy food resulting in a person being trapped in fairy and the deceptive dreamlike nature of some fairy experiences. 
This touches on the main points that I'd like to note with this particular film. There may be more that I have missed or some that I mention that are open to discussion but I think this summarizes the most salient points. From the perspective of fairy folklore at least Labyrinth may be viewed as a classic tale of a quest to recover a changeling, albeit with a lot of extra flourishes and additions, and goblins that are more comical than truly malicious. 

*the implication here is that all of the goblins in the labyrinth were once human babies, stolen and transformed.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Resources for Learning Old/Middle Irish

  I recently published a new book of translations from old/middle Irish into English and as sometimes happens when the subject comes up people are asking me how I learned the language and for suggestions on where to start themselves. For those who aren't aware old and middle Irish are the predecessors of modern Irish, in much the same way that old and middle English are the predecessors of modern English, and even if you speak modern Irish you would have to learn old and middle Irish separately. 

Learning old Irish, as with any language, is best done from teachers who are fluent in the language themselves, however that isn't always an option. I am entirely self taught because there wasn't any way for me to attend classes on the subject. And I will warn people learning a language, especially one like Sean agus Méan-Gheailge, is difficult and requires dedication and a degree of stubbornness, as well as a willingness to hunt for any and all helpful materials. 

Below I am going to give a list of both free online resources as well as books (not free) that a person could use to learn this language if they wanted to. These are the ones I have personal experience with and recommend but are not the only things out there. 

Free Online Resources:

Memrise, a good way to learn vocabulary
Through the University of Texas Linguistic Research Center 
Old Irish conjugated prepositions on Quizlet 
Pronunciation guide
the electronic dictionary of the Irish language aka eDIL, a dictionary of old and middle Irish 
UCC's online Irish Texts, a source for the original material with parallel English and modern Irish translations 

Books available to purchase:

Old Irish Verbs and Vocabulary by Anthony Green
Sengoidelc: Old Irish for Beginners by David Stifler
Old-Irish Paradigms & Selections from the Old-Irish Glosses with notes and vocabulry by John Strachan
Old-Irish Workbook by EG Quin
Dictionary of the Irish Language: Based Mainly on Old and Middle Irish Materials by EG Quin
Old Irish Reader by Rudolf Thurneysen
A Concise Old Irish Grammar and Reader by Julius Pokorny
A Student's Companion to Old Irish Grammar by Ranke de Vries
An Introduction to Old Irish by RPM and WP Lehmann

Sunday, October 24, 2021

A Modern House Blessing

 In the past I've been asked to help people cleanse or bless their new houses. It occurs to me that this sort of simple thing would be good to post here for anyone to do themselves. This method is entirely my own, as far as I know, and thoroughly modern, but is based on older methods and concepts, particularly drawn from the Carmina Gadelica material.

  First I walked through the house, room by room, burning herbs associated with cleansing. In general I recommend using a combination of vervain, rosemary, and juniper when possible, but any one of those alone is also good. Using smoke to purify and bless spaces and the home is an old practice, particularly using juniper. F. Marian McNeill in the Silver Bough says "Juniper, or the mountain yew, was burned by the Highlanders both in the house and in the byre as a purification rite on New Year's morning" and the Gadelica itself says "Iubhar beinne [juniper] and caorran, mountain ash or rowan, were burnt on the doorstep of the byre on the first day of the quarter, on Beltaine Day and Hallowmas." Likewise rosemary also has a strong historical association with cleansing, as according to Grieve's Modern Herbal it was burned to cleanse a sick room and was also believed to remove any evil influences in general (Grieve, 1931). Vervain in both the Celtic and Roman world was considered a sacred herb and used as an offering to the Gods (Grieve, 1931).
   Next I lit a white candle and walked through each room again praying for blessing on the home. This is based on traditions associated with certain holidays, like Samhain, where fire - usually in the form of a burning torch - would be taken around the boundary of a property to bless it and protect it.
    In the end I stood in the middle of what would be the living room, holding the candle, and recited a prayer slightly modified from the Carmina Gadelica:
"Gods bless this house,
From site to stay,
From beam to wall,
From end to end,
From ridge to basement,
From ground to roof,
From foundation to summit,
Foundation and summit."

The above prayer is the modified version from my book By Land, Sea, and Sky, but is changed very little from the original which can be found in the first volume of the Carmina Gadelica by Carmichael here and below:
House Blessing 45
God bless the house,
From site to stay,
From beam to wall,
From end to end,
From ridge to basement,
From balk to roof-tree,
From found to summit,
Found and summit.

 McNeill, F., (1965) The Silver Bough
 Carmichael, A., (1900). Carmina Gadelica 
Grieve, M., (1931). A Modern Herbal 
Daimler, M., (2010) By Land, Sea, and Sky 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Morrigan, The Dagda, and Samhain

 As we're getting into October and people are turning their  attention to Samhain I'm starting to see discussion and references to the meeting between the Morrigan and the Dagda at the river Unshin showing up here and there. This is one of those stories from myth that often suffers from 'telephone game syndrome', that is people who haven't actually read or heard the story themselves taking a small part of it that's widely repeated and creating their own context for it. Which, in the wider scope of modern folk belief, has its place - however today I thought it would be helpful to outline what's actually going on in that part of the story and address some common misconceptions around it that directly contradict the myth. 
    This isn't intended to argue against the more modern takes so much as to show the context and give some insight into the actual original story for those who are interested. This is easier to do to be honest because there is only one surviving manuscript containing this story, which occurs in the Cath Maige Tuired (CMT), so for once we have a singular source to look to rather than carefully sorting through multiple contradictory texts. 

I'd like to look at several specific ideas that I find are really common around this topic:

1 The Dagda and the Morrigan meet up/have sex on Samhain, not exactly. They do meet up and have sex, that part's true, but in the text its pretty clear that their meeting occurs more than a week before Samhain - its the battle with the Fomorians which occurs on Samhain.
According to the text the Morrigan and the Dagda meet 'around' the time of Samhain and she asks him to gather the Aes Dana, the skilled people of the Tuatha Dé (TDD), while she goes herself to attack Indech one of the Fomorian kings. She then meets them all at an agreed on point and displays the king's blood as proof she has done as she said she would. The text says of that second meeting: "Sechtmad rie samain sen, & scaruis cach oroile diob go comairnectur fir Erenn uili al-la rie samain."
"This was a week before Samhain and they all scattered until all the men of Ireland came together the day before Samhain."*
Now we can argue that Samhain itself isn't a single day - although its named as the first of November in the texts - but a time period, which is fair, but that time period is generally seen as extending forward beyond the 'day' of Samhain not as a nebulous time around that 'day'. Hence the month of November in Irish is the month of Samhain, mí na Samhna, beginning with the day of Samhain, 1 November. So when we see this meeting in the story its happening at some point around the middle of October, then she goes and attacks the Fomorian king, and then she meets up with the Dagda and Aes Dana a week before Samhain, then the day before Samhain all the Tuatha Dé gather for the battle. 

2 The Dagda sought the Morrigan out for her help in battle
When people talk about the meeting of the Dagda and the Morrigan its often framed in the context of the Dagda seeking the Morrigan out, as if he had gone on a quest to find her. However its clear from the myth that this meeting was one that occured every year between the two: 
"Bai dno bandal forsin Dagdae dia bliadnae imon samain an catha oc Glind Edind.....Is hi an Morrigan an uhen sin isberur sunn."
"The Dagda was to meet a woman on a day, yearly, about Samhain of the battle at Glen Etin....She is the Morrigan, the woman mentioned particularly here"
Its also important to note that these two figures aren't strangers or casual acquaintances, in fact they are referred to in several places as a married couple and in the CMT its said that the place they lay together was called Lige ina Lanomhnou 'the bed of the married couple'. So rather than going out to search for her he was simply meeting her where they met every year, and because the meeting that particular year was right before a battle she gave him martial advice - marital martial advice as it were.

3 The Morrigan had to be persuaded to aid the Tuatha Dé
 One of the more common ideas I see attached to the union of the Dagda and the Morrigan is that the Dagda slept with her in order to gain her aid in the battle with the Fomorians; this is often tied into a related (inaccurate) idea that the Morrigan was some sort of neutral party or was not one of the Tuatha Dé herself. 
Now putting aside that we've already established she was the Dagda's wife, its important to note a couple other points. Firstly the Morrigan is very clearly listed as one of the Tuatha Dé across all of the source material we have that mentions that sort of thing and her mother is listed as one of the women of the TDD. She has already appeared in the Cét-Cath Maige Tuired (first battle of Maige Tuired) against the Fir Bolg using her magic against the Fir Bolg and aiding the Tuatha Dé. More importantly perhaps in the story of the Cath Maige Tuired the Morrigan has already been helping the Tuatha Dé prior to her meeting with the Dagda, specifically by appearing to Lugh and inciting him to rise up and fight against the oppression of the Fomorians. She is without doubt on the side of the TDD and working in their favour and nothing in the story directly indicates the Dagda ever asked her for her aid or even advice. It says only that the Dagda spoke to her, they slept together, and afterwards she gave him military advice and went to attack the Fomorian king herself. 

4 The Morrigan and Fomorian Princess are the same person
 Another idea I see floated around a lot, which may be tied into point three, is a confusion between the Dagda's meeting with the Morrigan and the subsequent meeting and tryst he has with a Fomorian princess. Basically he meets with the Morrigan as discussed above and is later, after other war preparations, sent out by Lugh to spy on the Fomorian camp; in leaving there he encounters a Fomorian woman who says she is the daughter of the king Indech and the two become lovers, after which she promises to work magic against her own people. I will note that the second meeting is entirely omitted from Stokes translation of the CMT because as he says of it "Much of it is obscure to me, and much of the rest is too indecent to be published in this Revue."^; I suspect that this being the easily available public domain material which many people access and that section being omitted is one factor that led to the conflation of the two encounters, as people hearing of the second but unfamiliar with it assume it is in fact the first. In any case while there are some common themes between the two there are also multiple notable differences which makes it clear that the two are different figures within the story. 

These are a few of the most common things I run across that I feel should be addressed or clarified. As I said in the introduction people are free to believe what they will and follow different modern ideas of this meeting, but hopefully this has helped clarify the written version of the myth and what it actually tells us. 

*all translations are my own
^ I hate Whitley Stokes

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Quick Guide to Common Folklore Related Terms

Today I wanted to offer a quick and very rough guide to terms used around material connected to folklore. I find that this subject can be very confusing for people and hope this may help a bit with that. Disclaimer that these definitions are based in my own understanding of these concepts as an amateur folklorist.

Folklore - according to Oxford dictionary folklore is "the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.". Folklore has several key aspects including both its oral nature as well as its existence within a community. Folklore is also fluid and evolving, showing change in line with the community it is attached to.
Michael Fortune's Youtube videos of people being interviewed and discussing their community's or their family's fairy beliefs is an example of folklore. 

Anecdote - an anecdote is a personal story being recounted by the person who experienced it or passed on as such. It represents a real person describing events they witnessed or experienced. 
Someone describing their own encounter with a fairy is an anecdotal account. 

Retellings - Much of the Victorian material we have, as well as some popular modern material, falls into this category. Retellings represent folklore that is being preserved in written form with additions from the author; there can often be a fine line between a retelling and the folkloresque but while retellings often add flourishes and drama they generally adhere to the broad strokes of the original folklore. 
Lady Wilde's work may best be described as retellings. 

Folkloresque - Also previously known as fakelore and sometimes called folklorism, folkloresque is material that is rooted in folklore concepts of motifs but which heavily incorporates creativity and fiction to create something new. The folkloresque isn't properly folklore - it isn't representative of a group's beliefs or practices - but is inspired by or based on existing folklore. Another key difference between folklore and the folkoresque is that the folkloresque exists in a fixed form.
The movie Labyrinth can be described as folkloresque. 

Fiction - is written work that describes imaginary stories or relates events that aren't true. This is why works of fiction usually include disclaimers that the work was created by the author and any resemblance to real people or places, etc., is unintentional. Fiction is an exercise in human imagination and is usually predicated on telling an interesting story. 
The Dresden Files is an example of fiction. 

There is often debate on whether or not folklore is fiction, but in my opinion this presupposes that folklore is untrue and was created at some point purely for entertainment, which ignores the key aspect of folklore as belief and practice of a community. Whether or not stories of selkie wives did happen they represent active belief in a community, with attached practices, and were understood as true by the people who believed in them. Fiction in contrast is created intentionally to be a story for entertainment. This is an essential and pivotal difference. 

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Cana Cludhmor - Inventing an Irish Goddess

I saw a post on Twitter, under the folklore Thursday hashtag, claiming that the Irish goddess of music and the harp is Cana Cludhmor, which was a new one on me, so I decided to research the idea and that figure. I wasn't familiar with her as a name of any of the Tuatha De Danann, Fomoirians, or Fir Bolg, or from the Ulster or Fenian myth cycles but I am certainly not infallible nor do I know everything or every obscure figure from Irish mythology. Cana is a grade of poet and Cludhmor would read as roughly 'greatly famous' so the name itself could fit with the story. So I looked at what the modern idea of her was and tried to trace it back into the older source material.

The most readily available material is a wikipedia article about it, under the name Canola but noting the name Cana Cludhmor as well, claiming she fell asleep on the shore to mysterious music and awoke to realize it was the sound of wind on sinew & bone that had washed up on shore and invented the harp. This article, unsurprisingly, is repeated word for word in almost all the other main internet search hits (people love to plagiarize wiki). However the article lists only three sources: the 1854
Transactions of the Ossianic society, Patricia Monaghan's 2004 'Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore', and Brandi Auset's 2009 'The Goddess Guide'.
We'll get back to that first source in a minute, but let's look at Monaghan to start. Monaghan's book is widely problematic as it offers no sources or citations for any of the material it presents, so that's an immediate concern. The entry on 'Canola' is written in flowery prose and describes not a goddess but a 'legendary woman' who quarreled with her lover, then left his side to fall asleep near the seashore to the sound of gentle music; upon waking she realized it was coming from the remnants of a whale carcass where the wind was singing through the sinew still attached to the bones and was inspired to create the first harp.

Monaghan's story is suspicious but not entirely implausible across the breadth of Irish folklore, and its vital to note she describes 'Canola' as a human figure not a goddess. Digging further I found a single line reference in MacKillop's 1998 'Dictionary of Celtic Mythology' that says 'Canola' was the discoverer of the harp after hearing the musical sound of the wind over sinew attached to a whale skeleton. Very bare bones, if you'll forgive the pun, and no sources listed. However what we have at this point, roughly the early '00's, is a legendary woman who discovered the harp. 

Now back to the first source listed in wikipedia. I tracked down the original story that was reprinted in the Ossianic Society text to the Imtheacht na Tromdháimhe, a satirical work from around the 13th century, in the book of Lismore which is as follows:
""I know it," says Marvan, "and I will tell it thee. In former times there lived a married couple whose names were Macuel, son of Miduel, and Cana Cludhmor (or of great fame) his wife. His wife, having entertained a hatred for him, fled before him through woods and wildernesses, and he was in pursuit of her. One day that the wife had gone to the strand of the sea of Camas, and while walking along the strand she discovered the skeleton of a whale on the strand, and having heard the sound of the wind acting on the sinews of the whale, she fell asleep by that sound. Her husband came up to her, and having understood that it was by the sound she had fallen asleep, he proceeded into an adjacent forest, where he made the frame of a harp, and he put chords in it of the tendons of the whale, and that is the first harp that ever was made.'" 
So what the actual original story says, and what was still being told in the mid 19th century, is that Cana Cludhmor was a woman who fled from her husband and fell asleep to strange music produced through a whale carcass but it was her husband Macuel who found her and understood what was making the sound then recreated it using a wooden frame thus inventing the harp. 

I will note for thoroughness that she cannot be found at all in works by O'hOgain, Green, Waddell, or other reliable sources on actual Irish mythology and folk belief. 

The question becomes how did an obscure story about a man inventing a harp after chasing his wife to the shore get turned into her, under the name Canola, as an Irish goddess of music, and inventor of the harp? Because at this point in 2021 the idea is widespread online and ingrained to the point that there's an Irish tour company (founded in 2017) named Canola after this supposed goddess of music and the harp. It can be difficult to pinpoint the timeline of these things, but by 2011 there are multiple blogs and online articles that list her alongside well-known Irish deities and describe her as a goddess of music, dance, dreams and inspiration. So where did this begin? The answer seems to be wikipedia's third reference Auset's 'Goddess Guide'. This 2009 book by popular publisher Llewellyn - which cites no sources - claims Canola as the Irish goddess of not only music but also dance, and describes her inventing the harp to "capture the glorious sounds she'd heard in her dreams" before claiming she is the patron of musicians and poets and giver of inspiration - a far, far cry from the account in the Imtheacht na Tromdháimhe. While I might personally suppose Auset's creative text is based on Monaghan's that can't be proven as no source or citation is offered for the entry on 'Canola', however I do feel safe in suggesting Auset as the source of the modern idea of Canola or Cana Cludhmor as the Irish goddess of music, dance, dreams and inspiration as the 2011 online material closely follows Auset's Canola entry in both description of Canola and of her supposed purviews. 

So, effectively what we have here is an 'Irish' goddess created in or around 2009 by an author in the US, possibly based off a 2004 work which colorfully altered the story found in a snippet of a 1998 work, based on a very different 13th century Irish myth. The result 10+ years on being widespread online material including this new deity who is largely unknown in Ireland. 

Connellan, O., (1854) Transactions of Ossianic Society 5. Retrieved from 
Ossianic Society (1854) Transactions of the Ossianic society for the years, 1853-1858. Retrieved from
MacKillop, J., (1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Monaghan, P., (2004) Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore
Auset, B., (2009) Goddess Guide
Wikipedia (2021) Canola Retrieved from 
O'hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

A Charm Against the Evil Eye

      The Carmina Gadelica has a series of charms which all deal with the evil eye, that is the curse laid upon a person by another who wishes them ill or looks upon them with envy.  This one is my personal favorite and I have modified it slightly to be more pagan; the original can be found here.

 I love the imagery it presents and find it reminiscent of the Song of Amergin. Anyone who has read the works of the witch Sibyl Leek may recognize the middle portion of the charm, the “power over” section, as she made use of this portion in an unhexing spell in one of her books, clearly drawing on the Gadelica as a source. That same section has also appeared in a young adult novel by L. J. Smith called The Power; all of which could be seen as a testament to the power and flexibility of the Carmina Gadelica charms, as well as their intrinsic value.

Exorcism of the Evil Eye 141
I trample upon the evil eye,
As the duck tramples upon the lake,
As the swan tramples upon the water,
As the horse tramples upon the plain,
As the cow tramples upon the grass,
As the host tramples the sky,
     As the host tramples the air.
Power of wind I have over it,
Power of wrath I have over it,
Power of fire I have over it,
Power of thunder I have over it,
Power of lightning I have over it,
Power of storms I have over it,
Power of moon I have over it,
Power of sun I have over it,
Power of stars I have over it,
Power of earth I have over it,
Power of sky and of the worlds I have over it,
     Power of the sky and of the worlds I have over it.
A portion of it upon the grey stones,    
A portion of it upon the steep hills,
A portion of it upon the fast falls,
A portion of it upon the fair meadows,
And a portion upon the great salt sea,
She herself is the best instrument to carry it,
     The great salt sea,
     is the best instrument to carry it.
In the names of the Three of Life,
In the names of the Gods of Skill,
In the names of all the Ancient Ones,
And of the Powers together.

 - excerpted from By Land, Sea, and Sky by the author

Monday, August 9, 2021

7 Dangerous Fairies

 Despite the common modern perception of fairies as lovely and helpful folklore offers a wide range of dangerous Fairy beings who represented a real threat to any humans they happened to encounter. I'd like to offer a list of 7 such dangerous beings here, although there are of course many more than that found across the folklore. These are definitely not the sorts of fairies one would want to find in one's garden. 

  1. Redcap - a malicious type of goblin the redcap gets his name from the hat he wears which is dyed red with human blood. He is known to live in ruins and will attack humans unfortunate enough to cross his path. Unlike many other fairies he isn't averse to iron - in fact its said his shoes are made of iron or iron toed - but he will flee at the sight of a Christian cross or at Christian prayers.
  2. Each Uisce - literally 'water horse' these are shapeshifters who can take the form of a human when they choose to but are most often in the form of a horse. In both Irish and Scottish folklore the Each Uisce will appear on land and lure a human into riding them, only to run back to the water, drown, and eat them. 
  3. Nuckelavee - found in Orcadian and Scottish folklore these monstrous beings live in bodies of salt water. They look like a horse with the torso of a rider on their back, the head rolling bonelessly, the arms hanging down unnaturally long; instead of hooves the horse has flippers and the entire creature is skinless. The Nuckelavee avoids fresh water, including rain, but will roam the strand near the sea and kill any living thing it finds there. It has also been blamed in folklore for droughts and for illness among horses. 
  4. Hags - a type of water fairy found across English folklore, usually under specific names like 'Peg Powler'. Hags lurk in waterways and drown the unwary, particularly children; by some accounts they eat the people they drown. Usually described as emaciated elderly women with talons or iron tipped claws.
  5. Slua Sidhe - not a specific individual fairy but a grouping of them, Slua Sidhe means 'fairy host' or fairy army and is a collection of malicious Otherworldly beings who travel through the air. They may snatch up a human they run across or else may cause illness, death, or madness to those they encounter. 
  6. Mare - The source of the modern word nightmare the mare or mår is sometimes also called a hag (not to be confused with the water ones) and attacks people while they sleep by perching on the human's chest causing sleep paralysis and night terrors. Occasionally those she torments do not survive her nightly attention and she is known to kill both humans and animals. 
  7. Baobhan Sith - Her name means, roughly, 'evil fairy woman'. In Scottish folklore the Baobhan Sith lurk in forests and appear to hunters who express loneliness, offering to keep them company. Several accounts discuss a group of hunters out at night in the woods who meet a group of Baobhan Sithe - seemingly just human women - and invite them to join them for some music or dancing. One hunter eventually notices something is amiss and realizes the women have killed his companions and flees into the night taking refuge among the horses whose iron clad hooves ward off the fairy women. The Baobhan Sith kills by draining her victims blood and in some accounts by ripping out his heart. 

John Henry Fuseli, 'The Nightmare"

Monday, August 2, 2021

Feri, Faery Wicca, Fairy Witchcraft...Which is Which?

 There are several very similarly named traditions of witchcraft connected to fairies out there and this has long caused confusion. Which, given the subject relates to fairies, is perhaps inevitable or at least predictable. Nonetheless I thought that today it would be helpful to offer as much clarity on this as possible by briefly discussing the different traditions to illustrate how they are similar and different and how they may choose to incorporate - or not - fairies. It may be impossible to dispel the confusion entirely, particularly as each different group tends to claim it is the most accurate and genuine or the only one passing on the true beliefs. Hopeful this article will still offer some clarity on an admittedly muddy subject.
This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive discussion of these groups but only a basic outline to give readers a general idea of what they are and how they began, and hopefully a place to start digging further if they choose to.
I am going to present everything in chronological order to help illustrate the flow with this and also show readers a rough evolution of these groups within the last hundred years or so. 

The Fairy Faith 
Although not a tradition, per se, or witchcraft in any way, the Fairy Faith is an important place to start with this subject. The term Fairy Faith was coined in the late 19th/early 20th century by folklorists studying fairy beliefs who needed a simple term to describe what they were studying. The Fairy Faith is the collected beliefs and practices of people who believe in fairies as contained in folklore and anecdotal accounts; as such it is less a cohesive system of faith as it is a loose collection of concepts that all relate to fairies. There is no prerequisite to this belief (beyond the belief itself), no required religion, no initiation or acceptance. And as with all such folk traditions the name it was given by outsiders is not generally what people within the 'faith' call what they believe and do. The general focus of the Fairy Faith is on protecting against fairies and mitigating harm caused by them, and most stories have this focus. 

The Feri Witchcraft tradition was founded in the 1960's by Victor and Cora Anderson
Author and Feri initiate Sara Amis describes Feri as a strand of Trad Craft, that is a non-Wiccan initiatory approach to witchcraft. Feri is often conflated with or confused with various forms of Fairy Witchcraft, something that is exacerbated by the alternate spelling 'Faery' sometimes used for Feri by other initiates or more widely with the Fairy Faith but it is its own distinct tradition. Feri is based heavily on Anderson's teachings which in turn were heavily influenced by his own ecstatic and experiential beliefs rather than older or traditional folklore, although Anderson himself claimed his tradition was identical, except for cultural framework and terms, to the 'Faery Tradition' taught by RJ Stewart which is more strongly drawing from older folklore. Opinions among modern initiates about how much fairy material is included in Feri varies, with Amis saying there are some ties to general fairylore (non-culture specific) and inclusion of some fairy beings, an anonymous source saying that they felt fairies and fairy folklore didn't play a significant role, and a third initiate Shae saying that fairies are important but are understood through a different lens based on the traditions approach to several things. Amis and the anonymous source agree that a fairy king and queen play a role in Feri, however not a king and queen found elsewhere in folklore. 

Faerie Faith
Founded by an offshoot of the MacFarland Dianics; this group isn't specifically fairy focused, per se, although it does include fairies but rather loosely 'Celtic' and uses Graves' Tree calendar as a framework for teaching. It blends an array of concepts from Bach flower essences to Jungian archetypes into its system which emphasizes cohabitation with the unseen world.

Faery Tradition
Created in the 1980's by RJ Stewart this approach blends older fairylore, especially from the ballad material, with new age ideas and Kabbalah to create a unique new system. Stewart has written several books about Faery Tradition and also teaches widely on the subject. The Faery Tradition views fairies, generally, as allies to humans and protectors of nature. Teachings within the tradition seem to be aimed at helping the human connect to and work with these spirits for positive ends. 

Faery Wicca
Founded in the 1990's by author Kisma Stepanich (now Kisma Stepanich-Reidling) it is very loosely based on Irish and wider Celtic language speaking folklore heavily mediated through the author's personal lens. The original books about this tradition were pulled from publication and have long been overshadowed by accusations of plagiarism. Despite the name this tradition of modern Wicca is only tangentially connected to fairies or fairy beliefs, with its primary focus on a pseudo-Celtic framework applied to a more standard neo-Wiccan approach. 

An Creideamh Sí
The name for the Fairy Faith as Gaeilge [in Irish] this term was coined around the turn of the 21st century by Catholic priest Sean O'Duinn as an Irish language alternative for the English 'Fairy Faith'. As with that term this is not, of course, what people in Ireland who believe in fairies would call their system of belief which generally has no name. 

Faery Seership
Founded in the mid 2000's by Orion Foxwood Faery Seership is a collection of beliefs and practices shaped by both European and  Appalachian culture which takes the view that fairies are 'earth angels' and cousins to humanity and seeks to help humans realign with the earth and all living beings. Foxwood has several books on the tradition as well as a CD,  DVD, and offers classes.  

Fairy Witchcraft
A tradition founded in 2014 by me, based on my years of practice and experience. Fairy Witchcraft blends early modern witchcraft, neopagan witchcraft, and folkloric fairy beliefs into a cohesive system with an emphasis on allying with and connecting to fairies and the Otherworld. The name for the tradition is descriptive, as it is basically witchcraft focused on fairies; even the Gods acknowledged are ones connected to or based in Fairy folklore. No initiation or formal training is required and the tradition is mostly a personal one that anyone can claim if they follow the basic tenets outlined in the books describing the practice. 

Fayerie Traditionalism
Publicly appearing in 2018 with the publication of a book describing the beliefs and practices of the tradition, Fayerie Traditionalism was founded by author Robin Artisson from an amalgam of source material and the author's own practices and experiences. It incorporates an understanding of fairies and animism into its framework, through the interpretation of the author, as well as blending in material relating to fairies from the grimoires. Artisson has several books out on the subject now as well as a website.

Witchcraft with Fairies
The concept of witchcraft with or connected to fairies is an old one which can be traced back at least four hundred years (see Emma Wilby's 'Cunningfolk and Familiar Spirits' for more on this). Besides the specific traditions and groups discussed here there are of course a multitude of personal approaches and practices today which may be based on what would be called the Fairy Faith but aren't as cohesive as a a formal tradition. It is impossible to know how many people may follow this system or a spirituality that incorporates these beings in any sense - folkloric, popculture, or new age - and to what degree. 

The Fairy Wood, Henry Meyenell Rheam, 1903

I hope that this quick guide can offer some clarification for those who find the many similarly named groups confusing or who are just starting to explore the idea of witchcraft connected to fairies. I have done my best to present all of this without any bias and not to insert my own opinions on each of the groups/traditions being discussed but its impossible to do so completely so I do encourage readers to explore further on their own and to ask others in the community for opinions. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Why Do We Envision Fairies As Tiny?


fairy from the movie Labyrinth

For many people today the word fairy immediately invokes images like the picture above, of a tiny winged being. In today's post I want to discuss specifically the idea of fairies as tiny, because its so pervasive and yet largely a popculture concept, albeit an early modern one. So, why do we envision fairies as tiny?

The fairies of folklore - historic and modern - are depicted across a wide range of sizes and forms, from about 18 inches tall to well over 13 feet. These beings are known as shapeshifters and their size is often fluid and changeable, or at least human perception of their size isn't constant. Also specific types of beings are known to have particular sizes and appearances, such as the selkies who are human-like on land and seals in the water. In many Irish fairy encounters the beings are described as more or less human sized, a feature we see as well in Scotland. Some specific beings like Leprechauns were known to be about 18 inches to 3 feet tall, depending on the story. As with so many aspects of folklore this subject isn't clear cut or easy to simplify but includes a spectrum of possibilities. However we can say in a very general sense that the idea of tiny, insect sized or smaller fairies isn't common across Western European folklore. 

Where we do find tiny fairies is in England, particularly English literature but with possible roots in older folk beliefs. Katherine Briggs discusses several medieval English examples of what she terms 'diminutive fairies' which are described as about as tall as a finger is long; these were either specific types of beings or specific individuals in context, rather than all fairies more generally. The earliest such account comes from Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century who describes beings he calls 'Portunes' which are between a half inch and a foot tall* (Briggs, 1976). While a foot tall is on the smaller end of fairy sizes within folklore in general it isn't as tiny as we will find later as fairies are refined into the early modern period literature.

The earliest description I have found in writing of tiny fairies comes from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, completed in 1597, where he describes the fairy queen Mab as 'In shape no bigger than an agate stone; On the forefinger of an alderman' (Shakespeare, 1980). Mab is not only as tiny as the stone in a finger-ring but is said to travel in a wagon fashioned from insect parts: wheels spoked with spider legs and a wagon cover made of grasshopper wings. This idea is expanded several decades later in Michael Drayton's 1627 'Nymphidia' a poem which describes the English fairy court. In this poem the fairies are firmly established as tiny beings who can fit into flowers and use small natural objects for their construction - spider legs to build walls and bats wings to cover their roofs, for example. This comes to us from English literature (the literate class as opposed to direct folk belief) and is an idea we will see repeated in later works as well, blending the idea of diminutive fairies with Paracelsus's elemental divisions of these beings to create the tiny air and earth fairies that would later take hold in popular imagination. As to why fairies were so far reduced, as Diane Purkiss so aptly says it: "The Elizabethans and even more so the Jacobeans loved the miniature. In their hands, fairies shrank to tininess." and "Reducing the other to miniature scale reduces it to manageability too, making it laughable." (Purkiss, 2000, ps 181 & 182). Despite this diminishment the fairies of this period were still seen as having power and influence, particularly over human dreams, madness, and crops.

Fairy Hordes Attacking a Bat by John Anster Fitzgerald 1860

The Victorian era is one of the most pivotal points in how popular culture today would come to view fairies, with a surge in interest in romanticized folklore, nature, and entertainment. The fairies of folk belief became subjects of retellings and fairies more generally were rewritten and redefined away from  dangerous and powerful beings and into the fodder of children's stories and art. These fairies were firmly rooted as well in the miniaturization that had begun with Shakespeare and persisted through English literature and poetry, finding expression in Pope's 1712 'Rape of the Lock' for example where fairies are definitively small and generally powerless as well as in William Blake's late 18th and early 19th century works which described tiny fairies. Victorian era literature though took these existing ideas and framed them for children, reducing fairies not only in size by favouring the insect comparisons but also infantilizing and moralizing them. As Carole Silver explains it: "As the elfin peoples became staples of children's literature, the perception grew that they themselves were childish....Some of the tales promoted a false set of conventions, one that made, the fairies tiny and harmless - moral guides for children or charming little pets - and a tradition of sentimentalization and idealization developed." (Silver, 1999, p187). Being tiny was then directly connected to both being childlike and being powerless, creating a being that was physically miniature and more decorative than dangerous. 

Into the 20th century this idea was further refined in popculture with Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies and with JM Barrie's Peter Pan taking to the stage. While fairies in art during the Victorian period were often shown as small both of these sources were popular and gained wider traction in the popular imagination and refined fairies down to their essential tweeness. Barker's fairy art featured tiny childlike fairies connected to and often clothed with specific flowers and plants. Her fairies then were small enough that flower petals could form a skirt for one and an acorn the perfectly sized cap for another. Barrie's Tinkerbell in print was both feminine and seductive but on stage transformed into an indistinct ball of light who communicated through the sound of bells, existing largely through Peter Pan's perception and translation (Kruse, 2019). The tiny, glowing, nature-bound fairy may well be understood as the conglomeration of all of these influences into the 20th century. 

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, by Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849

So while tiny fairies can be found in older material, particularly in England, they represented only a small portion of the wider range of fairies. The image above of Oberon and Titania's quarrel in A Midsummer Night's Dream displays this range of sizes and appearances, including both human sized beings as well as tiny ones, rather than the exclusively tiny sized fairies that some modern sources depict. It is also important to understand that tiny fairies are largely coming from English literary traditions rather than folk belief, a point that Silver notes in her book and which we have traced out here. The tiny fairies that are seen and experienced today and which can be found in modern fairylore exist parallel to older folk beliefs, often contradicting them, and represent one unique strand of belief rather than the entirety.

*the text is sometimes given as 'half an inch' but Briggs rightly suggests this is a scribal error as that size is incompatible with the actions described - such as carrying a young frog - within the text. Despite this the error has undoubtedly influenced later perceptions of the size of fairies. 


Purkiss, D., (2000) At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things 
Kruse, J., (2019) "Ray of Light" Tinkerbell and Luminous Fairies', retrieved from 
Shakespeare, W., (1980) Romeo and Juliet. Retrieved from
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Silver, C., (1999) Strange & Secret Peoples: Fairies and the Victorian Consciousness

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Excerpt - Pagan Portals Lugh

 I'd like to offer an excerpt from my recently released book Pagan Portals Lugh. This particular section comes from chapter 5, looking at Lugh in the modern world. 


Lugh’s importance has changed over time, of course, as Christianity came in, but he has not been relegated to obscurity by any means as some of the other Tuatha De Danann were. Time has shaped people’s understandings of Lugh in new direction however which can be shown by looking at his depictions over the last hundred years or so. In this chapter we will look at the way that Lugh has been depicted in modern retellings of his stories, which often vary significantly from the older mythology, how he has been shown in mass media, and Lugh in modern paganism.

Modern Folklore

We have examined Lugh’s place in the older mythology and in older folklore but he can also be found in more recent folklore, some of which has been created by the fertile imaginations of authors during and since the Victorian period. It’s important to understand these newer  threads and how they have been woven into the older in the last 150 years. It is up to the reader to decide their place and value, but whether you accept or reject them they do form part of our understanding of who Lugh is.

Jeremiah Curtin, Hero-tales of Ireland, 1894 – Lugh continues to be found in modern Irish folklore and as was true historically this folklore can often be very regionally specific. One example of this is seen in Curtin’s late 19th century work which preserved folklore from the area of Donegal and gives us versions of the Lugh and Balor story that are largely different from older mythology. Curtin’s retelling has been presented already in chapter 2 so it won’t be recapped again however one key change to be emphasized here is the shifting of Lugh (called Lui in the story) into a wholly human figure. This sort of euhemerization is common in later material and Williams in ‘Ireland’s Immortals’ notes the prevalence of historic and ancestral figures named Lugh or with names that are variants of Lugh who are described in fully human terms yet are certainly meant to be reflections of the older deity.

W. B. Yeats – also writing in the late 1890’s we find Yeats, a poet and amateur folklorist, as well as occultist. Yeats wrote of Lugh, and the other Tuatha De Danann, in both poetry and prose and did much to help spread their popularity although his depictions were more concerned with evocative descriptions than passing on genuine folklore. The Lugh of Yeats was a more romantic figure and one intrinsically linked to the sun. This reflected Yeats own personal approach to deity as expressions of moods or imagination (Williams, 2016). From this view gods become a way to convey wider themes in a poetic work or embody the desired mood or atmosphere of the text. Yeats also did much to shift the existing understanding of the sidhe as a numberless multitude into the commonly listed pantheon of Tuatha De Danann we find in books today (Williams, 2016).

Augusta Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men, 1904 – Lady Gregory may represent the first example of widely read re-tellings of myths, where the core of the older mythology or story is retold in a new and partially fictionalized way. Her work was popular and has gained popularity again today, possible because it is easily accessed free online. This may present a challenge for readers that are new to Irish myth because her writing often combines multiple conflicting versions of tales, as well as her own ideas, into one whole that is presented in a way that may seem like genuinely older material.

Her writing is too extensive to recap full here but for example her chapter ‘The Coming of Lugh’ combines material from the Lebor Gabala Erenn, Cath Maige Tuired, and Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann along with her own flourishes into a single story the like of which had not existed previous to her writing it. She places Lugh in a central position throughout the story, repeatedly emphasizing his prophesied importance in driving out the Fomorians. For a second example in her chapter ‘The Hidden House of Lugh’ she retells the Baile and Scáil, but she adds material where Lugh is speaking to Conn so that she related his prophecy which is not found in the older text and she doesn’t have Lugh stating that he is a dead human, but rather at the very end of the text has him simply declare himself ‘Lugh son of Ethniu.’

Ella Young, Celtic Wonder Tales, 1910  – Ella Young was born in Ireland and emigrated later in life to California, USA. Considered an expert in Irish mythology she toured various universities and taught Celtic studies at Berkley. Despite this expertise her book ‘Celtic Wonder Tales’ takes extreme liberties with the older mythology, rewriting stories completely in places and creating new material in others. Her ‘Celtic Wonder Tales’ has become a common resource in the past hundred years and is enjoyed for its poetic text and evocative descriptions.

In Young’s work we first meet Lugh in a story titled ‘The Coming of Lugh’ which retells the Cath Maige Tuired in parts but with alterations. Young’s version begins with Manannan taking the child Lugh, who she calls a Sun God, away with him into Fairy from Ireland. She describes a variety of animals including lions, panthers, and unicorns that keep Lugh company as he grows. While he is with Manannan the Fomorians come to Ireland and steal the Dagda’s cauldron and the spear (another of the treasures) leaving only the stone of Fál which prevents the Fomorians from fully taking over. Finally Lugh reaches his 21st birthday and Manannan makes a show of giving him a  gift, the sword1 which is the fourth treasure and which has been in Manannan’s keeping. When he touches it Lugh remembers Ireland and pledges to go back. To help him Manannan equips him with a horse and armour. Lugh returns with a fairy host to Ireland, passing invisibly thanks to Manannan’s magic until he reaches Nuada’s court. He requests entry and is denied until he lists all his skills after which he is allowed in, then he best Ogma in a test of strength and plays chess. Finally Nuada proclaims him ‘Ildana’ and Lugh plays music on the Dagda’s harp which, according to Young, causes the seasons to turn. He lulls the court to sleep and slips away.

Lugh’s presence inspired the Tuatha De to rebel and they go to Uisneach. A battle is about to begin when Lugh and the fairy host appear, Young comparing his approach to the rising of the sun. the Fomorians are destroyed save 9 men who Lugh sends back to Balor to tell him and the other Fomorians that the De Danann are free from their oppression.

Lugh shows the Tuatha De Danann the sword and asks them for the other three treasures which they admit have been lost except for the stone. He then has them all swear an oath with the earth of Ireland on the sword and stone to fight and destroy the Fomorians. Shortly after this his father is killed by the sons of Tuireann and the earth sends a wind to tell Lugh. Lugh finds his fathers body and gets the tale of his death, then goes to the assembly and accuses the sons of Tuireann who Nuada orders killed. Lugh stays his hand however and asks instead that they gain items useful in the upcoming battle. They agree to these terms and set off to acquire the list of items Lugh requests2 engaging in adventures for each one. The three gain many of the treasures and Lugh, aware that they only have two left, decides they are succeeding too easily and puts a spell of forgetfulness on them so that they return early, however he immediately regrets this and sends out a second spell so that if the feel badly for what they have done they will not forget. They have no regret so they return early and are sent out a second time to gain the last two items. They manage to do this but are mortally wounded in the process. Finally dying they return to Ireland to give Lugh the items they have gained. Tuireann begs Lugh to heal his sons with the healing skin and so Lugh gives them the choice to be healed or to pass to the next life; they choose to go to the next life3.

Next Young retells a version of the battle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomorians. The two groups meet and fight but Lugh stays back waiting for Balor who he believes will not enter the fight until later. A few days pass before Balor does appear and then Lugh and he have their epic confrontation. The two meet an a scene that describes the clash of darkness and light, with Lugh throwing the spear into Balor’s eye and Balor dissolving into shadow.

This summarizes Young’s stories about Lugh, which hopefully the reader can hold in contrast to the Irish mythology discussed in chapter 2. Young’s Lugh is devoid of the fierce and tempestuous nature of the mythical Lugh and presented instead as a figure of light – figurative and literal – who acts as a saviour figure to the Tuatha De Danann.

Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Myth and Legend, 1989 – Ellis is an English historian and novelist who has written nearly 100 books, including several on Celtic mythology. ‘Celtic Myth and Legend’ is his attempt at retelling various famous myths from the Celtic language speaking cultures and includes a creation myth of the author’s own imagination.

The book begins with a chapter titles ‘The Ever Living Ones’ that combines Ellis’s own fictional creation story with a retelling of the Cath Maige Tuired. As with Young, Ellis takes creative liberties with the mythological material, for example attributing the sword to Lugh (not the spear which he gives to no one) and giving Lugh’s lineage as an odd combination of the possible fathers we find in mythology, saying that he was the son of Cian who was the son of Cainte. In Ellis’s version Lugh was kept from the battle of Maigh Tuired because the De Danann saw him as too valuable to risk and said “his was the wisdom needed to serve humankind” (Ellis, 1989 p 31). He also explains Nuada placing Lugh in charge for thirteen days as a means for Lugh to share his wisdom with them, before they set nine warriors to guard him from the battle. When Nuada was killed in the battle Lugh escaped and set out to join the fight, his arrival appearing like the sun’s rising to the Fomorians. Lugh kills Balor with his sling and then leads the Tuatha De Danann to victory.

Ellis ends that section of text with a passage claiming that Lugh was reduced into the folkloric Leprechaun and that is how his fame and memory have been preserved. We will discuss this assertion separately later in this chapter, but suffice to say here that it is less than accurate.

Ellis goes on in the following chapters to retell several other Irish myths, including the Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann with more accuracy. Although these retellings are written in a more exuberant manner than the originals and include expanded conversations the main themes and characters are kept relatively true to form. In itself this is good, but combined with the imaginative and less accurate earlier chapter this can be very misleading to readers who may struggle to sort out the accurate from the imaginative.