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Thursday, March 25, 2021

Urine & Dirty Water: Fending Off Fairies With Filth

   The Good Folk across several cultures are well known for their preference for cleanliness and their strong dislike of people and places that are unclean as well as things, like urine and dirty water, that are similarly unclean. They avoid humans who they judge not to meet their cleanliness standards and on the same side of that coin may be warded off by using the things they dislike.  I'll include examples here for illustration.

In England we find Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet writing about a fairy named Mab - whose name itself references a slovenly woman - who punishes lazy women by matting their hair: "This is that very Mab; That plats the manes of horses in the night; And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs."

Katherine Briggs, speaking generally about fairies in her 1976 Dictionary of Fairies mentions how dirty water left in a home might be punished by leg injuries or pinching. She also mentions that habitual uncleanness was a trait abhorred by the fairies and one which they frequently punished. 

In some Irish folklore dirty wash water was a ward against fairies, keeping them out of a home. In other regions however the opposite effect resulted from not throwing dirty water out, as having it standing in the home allowed fairies to enter. There are several accounts of folklore around the need to call out a warning before throwing out or dumping dirty water, lest the Good Folk passing invisibly by be splashed by it and then seek to punish the person who had thrown it. 

Similarly in Scotland there are several accounts of fairies who would appear at a door to ask the household to throw their wash water out elsewhere because it was draining into a fairy place. We can find examples of that in a story from Ulster which relates how the request by the fairies was usually quickly complied with, and another which mentions that the fairies were not to be annoyed and dirty water had to be carefully disposed of. 

Urine, like dirty water, offended the fairies* and also acted to keep them away. In Ireland urine was used to drive off a changeling, and we have accounts such as that of Bridget Cleary, where the presumed changeling was doused in urine with the idea that it would cause the fairy to flee and force the return of the stolen human. 

We have this from county Kerry, discussing the use of urine as a protection:
"To keep the fairies away from stealing or harming children the mothers washed them in urine and then the good people would not come near."
https://www.duchas.ie/ga/cbes/4742085/4734431/4923997

And from Limerick a slightly longer story:
"Many years ago there was a woman living near Kilfinane and she had an only daughter who was very handsome. One morning when she was going to school she was passing through a field in which there was a lios [fairy fort]. When she was passing the lios a beautiful red haired woman stood in front of her and took her in to the lios to mind her child. And in the evening when the other children came home from school she left her go. The following morning the same thing happened and was going on for a number of days and the girl never told her mother about it but the mother noticed that her daughter was getting delicate. One day a neighbour came to her and asked her what was wrong with her daughter that she wasn't going to school. The mother said that her daughter left the house every morning to go to school, but she said that she noticed her getting delicate and not eating her food like she used to. So she asked the little girl that night about not going to school and where was she spending the day and the little girl said "Don't blame me mother I was called by a lovely lady and she took me into her house to mind her baby for her and when the children used to be coming home from school she used let me go." Her mother was very worried and did not know what to do. So she went to an old woman who was a neighbour of hers to get her advice. And the old woman told her to tell her daughter to ask the lady what cure was there for a pet calf that would be pining away. And the next morning the little girl asked the lady for the cure and she told her to tell her mother that the best cure was to wash it in urine for nine morning, so when the little girl came home she told her mother what the red haired lady said. And the mother went and told the old woman about the cure. Then the old woman told the mother to bathe her daughter next morning in the urine. And she did. When the girl was passing the lios the next morning in her way to school she was met by the lady who told that she couldn't interfere with her anymore."
https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4922044/4846951 

An account from Donegal relates how a man set up a cowshed in a way that the urine from the cows flowed into the home of the local fairy queen, annoying her so that she killed and injured his cows. On the advice of an old woman, who the neighbours later decided was herself a fairy, he moved the cowshed and his luck turned around. 

This is only a brief overview of some of the accounts of fairies being averse to dirty water and urine but hopefully it offers the reader a sense of the wider beliefs. Fairies are, as Briggs discusses at greater length, beings that prefer cleanliness and order and tend to react poorly to the opposite conditions even punishing those who they feel are slighting them or intentionally failing to offer then an appropriately clean place, as we see in a Welsh story of a servant girl who is punished for failing to set out clean water for the fairies. This aversion can be used against them as shown in the stories about urine being used to protect children**.


End Notes
*there are similar beliefs in Iceland, where the expression 'driving out the elves' is slang for urination, as it was believed that urinating offended the Álfar and would cause them to leave an area. 
** I'm not personally advocating bathing babies or children in urine. I am merely presenting it here as a folk belief to illustrate the fairies abhorrence of the substance and its power over them. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Critical Reviews: Why They Matter and How to Spot a Good One

 Critical reviews are important but are often misunderstood or maligned, particularly in communities which emphasize harmony or focusing on the good over the bad. While I can understand this desire the truth is that a critical review can be an important way to address misinformation presented in nonfiction books or various issues in fiction. These issues are important to address because without a fair counterpoint being offered many readers, particularly of nonfiction, may not be aware of issues that are significant such as radical factual errors. Critical reviews are also important to authors, because they allow an author to see where they may have misstepped, been inaccurate, can be more clear, or where particular demographics may have been offended or ignored. A critical review should be a learning tool for the reader and the author, highlighting things that needed improvement, editing, or revision. 

No book or author should be above or beyond criticism and the idea that anyone is should be a red flag for people that things are edging into personality cult territory. Fair and balanced criticism is essential and should apply to anyone.

The following are of course entirely my own opinions and suggestions.

Basic Guidelines for a Nonfiction Critical Review

  • A good critical review should critique content. If a review is attacking the author personally then you aren't reading a review of the book you are reading a review of the author, which is an entirely different thing. Criticism of content is valuable and can help people learn to distinguish good information from bad or see where errors are occurring which they may not have the knowledge of the subject to spot themselves. It can be important to frame a book in the context of the author's biases but ideally this shouldn't feel like an attack but rather give context to the wider review. For example pointing out that an author doesn't come from the culture they are writing about isn't an attack but can be important context for a review. 
  • A good critical review should not be a vehicle to attack an author, viewpoint, or group. This one is fairly obvious but if the entire point of the review is just to have an excuse to write an attack piece aimed at something besides the book itself then it isn't a good review. If the book opens up the author, perspective, or group to criticism based on the content of the book that's a different story, but if the two are largely unrelated then they should be treated separately. The only exception to this would be if the author has a known history of blatant harmful behavior or opinions which readers should be made aware of. For example if the author is a known neoNazi or pedophile; even in those circumstances however it should be presented as a caveat emptor [buyer beware] not attack.
  • A good critical review should align criticism with the subject. A book on folklore should be discussed based on folklore, for example, just as a book on witchcraft should be discussed through that lens. Criticizing a book on folklore based on personal experiences is never going to result in a solid review, just like criticizing a book on witchcraft through the lens of, say, modern American Protestantism won't result in a good critical review. 
  • A good critical review should offer solid examples of what is being criticized. Ideally this should be in the form of quotes from the text being reviewed which are then discussed, with counterpoints or better information offered. Vague mentions or hints of what might be the issue that are never well defined do not make for a good review.
  • A good critical review should have no logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are, quite frankly, a huge issue in many of the arguments people put forth even though they actually don't support what the person is trying to say. 
  • A good critical review should be clear on what the issues with the book were. After reading a good critical review a person should have a clear understanding of what the criticism was, how it was supported, and how the issues affected the book overall. 


Basic Guideline for a Fiction Critical Review
  • A good critical review should be aimed at content. Just like with nonfiction the point is to critique the book not the person's feelings about the author. Although there are some circumstances where an author's personal history or background may come into play that should ideally be tied into examples from the book itself. 
  • A good critical review should look at things like: pacing, plot holes, repetition, character development, dialogue, and believability. Some of these things, like pacing, will always be a personal preference by the reviewer but others like plot holes are more objective. 
  • A good critical review should warn about spoilers. If the review is going to give away key plot points or character's fates its important to warn the reader before they get to that section; some people do not want that sort of advanced knowledge if they are still trying to decide whether or not to read the book. 
  • A good critical review should be honest. If a person is criticizing something that bothered them personally they should acknowledge it. In contrast if they are critiquing something that has a factual basis - say the author radically misrepresented how quickly travel riding a horse is - that should be addressed on that basis. In other words it should be clear if the reviewer is saying "I didn't like how this was handled" versus "that's not how that physically works".
  • A good critical review shouldn't shy away from addressing issues of prejudice. Its entirely fair to criticize a book for falling into problematic tropes like the Magical Negro (or Magical Jew or Magical Queer, etc.,) or failing the Bechdel Test or similar. Good reviews shouldn't feel like they are trying to find these issues to point out however and should be able to offer clear examples.
A final note: criticism of grammar and spelling. In my opinion grammar and spelling should only be criticized if the mistakes are blatant, constant, and distracting to the reader. 

one of the more important critical reviews I have written was for Matthews' 'Secret Lives of Elves & Faeries'




Tuesday, March 16, 2021

7 Warning Signs of a Bad Fairy Source

 

I am often asked for direction on finding good sources on the subjects of fairies, which is fair because there is a lot of material out there and it ranges from good to terrible. I thought today it might be helpful to offer a very basic outline of what can indicate something is a bad source, or at least one that needs further vetting. Of course these are only my opinions and other people may have different thoughts on this subject but I have found these guidelines work well in vetting the quality of a source on fairies. 

  1. Using Names from Gaming - this is always a big red flag for me, when I see people using terms and names that explicitly come from role playing games or video games when discussing folklore and fairy belief. There are multiple things floating around online being shared as folklore that are actually excerpts from gaming manuals or websites, because people don't realize the excerpt isn't folklore. RPGs follow specific rules of game play which shapes the worldbuilding and lore that they create and this is often contradictory to or incompatible with functional belief.
  2. No Sources - its always a concern when a source doesn't have any sources of their own, unless we are dealing with a purely autobiographical work or anecdotal account. But when the subject is fairies  unless the work is clearly labeled as personal gnosis or experience (which is fine) outside sources are important especially when the work is claiming to describe or write about beings that have a long history in folklore. I always recommend looking at the bibliography of a book first to see what's there. Even if the bibliography seems solid if the text itself doesn't make it clear what sources are being used for what portions of the text its still a problem. I find it enormously frustrating to be reading a book where I can pick out segments of text that are paraphrased or even quoted without properly indicating the source, such as a book that uses a quote from Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries but only says something like 'this is the opinion of a 19th century Irishman in Galway'. Readers should be able to go to the source themselves to verify the part used in the book or further research. 
  3. Blurring Personal Gnosis and Folklore - now to be clear before everyone jumps in and yells at me, I am 100% in favor of personal gnosis and experiences and I think they are vital to the subject of fairies. But what I see a lot of in sources I find problematic is a failure to differentiate between personal gnosis and established folklore which often gives the impression that the personal gnosis is accepted folklore when it isn't. I am of the opinion that its important for authors on this subject to be clear as to what is their own thought or theory and what is found in wider folklore. Switching back and forth between personal opinion and established folklore without any indication of which is which is extremely confusing. 
  4. Claiming To Be The One True Source - claiming folklore is all wrong but the author has some special insight to the truth is another big red flag, not just for a bad source but for larger issues that can lean into cults of personality. There are a huge array of folklore and folk beliefs out there and much of it can be contradictory but its important to understand that diversity means no one is ever necessarily entirely right or wrong in their personal gnosis. When people seek to erase everyone else's experiences and thousands of years of folk belief in favor of their own ideas that should be considered problematic at the very least. 
  5. Plagiarism - there is a shocking amount of plagiarism in printed texts on fairies and on websites, whether that's from people who don't understand how to properly paraphrase or cite a source or people intentionally using someone else's writing. Either way any source that is using someone else's words without credit should not be trusted. 
  6. Fiction - I hate to even have to say this, but here we are. Fiction is not a source for fairy folklore. Despite what some people like to say to dismiss the subject folklore is not the fiction of our ancestors, its the collected beliefs and practices of specific groups which makes it diametrically different than fiction which is not belief but creative storytelling. If you find something interesting in fiction then take it further and research the actual folklore, don't just take the fiction and run with it. 
  7. Anthropocentricism - so this is undeniably my own hobby horse here, but I always tend to mistrust a source that centers humans or implies that humans have all the power and fairies need human protection and care to survive. If you could switch out the word fairies with 'wild birds' and not really effect the text then you are probably looking at one very particular opinion and a view that heavily diminishes and disempowers beings that have long been understood as powerful and possibly dangerous. 



Sunday, March 7, 2021

Excerpt: Pagan Portals Lugh

 My new book Pagan Portals Lugh comes out the beginning of May and so today I'd like to share an excerpt from it for everyone.


After the death of Nuadu and of those men, Lug took the kingship of Ireland, and his grandfather Balar the Strong-smiter fell at his hands, with a stone from his sling. Lugh was forty years in the kingship of Ireland after the last battle of Mag Tuired

-          Macalister, 1944

Lugh is a popular character in Irish mythology and was understood to be a popular God during the pagan period. He was depicted as both heroic and tempestuous, skilled and hot tempered, an excellent king and also sometimes unforgiving. He is compared to Christian figures like King David and the archangel Michael and appears as a pagan figure with the virtues valued by monotheism, yet he is also solidly depicted as a pagan deity and member of the Otherworldly Tuatha De Danann. All of these contradictions exist within the character of Lugh who has been shaped across millennia of shifting culture. He was never a sun God yet he is a sun god to many people today. He is still known as a great warrior yet his role as a mediator of sovereignty is not often discussed anymore. To understand who Lugh was and is and may yet become we must begin with his main features and relations.

Lugh was one of the High Kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann, ruling for 40 years after Nuada, and he was the only one who could defeat his grandfather, the Fomorian Balor, in the second Battle of Maige Tuired, placing him in a pivotal position in the mythology. During this battle we see Lugh demonstrating his epithet of many-skilled as he earns his way into the High King’s hall by proving he has more skills than any other single individual among the Gods. Before the battle itself we also see him actively using his magical skill to rally his army and to curse the opposing army (Gray, 1983). This multitude of skills, including magical ability, is a core facet of Lugh’s nature and perhaps reflects the source of his wider appeal as he was a deity who resonated with people across social dynamics, a god of kings and also of skilled labourers, of poets and magicians, of warriors and healers.

Lugh’s adeptness with all skills that were valued among the nobility is one of his key characteristics. He contains within himself all of the skills of his civilization, and in doing so he outshines the reigning king Nuada who has no such excessive talent (Williams, 2016). When he first arrives at the royal court of the Tuatha De Danann he is challenged before being allowed in and offers a series of skills that he can preform including as a builder, smith, champion, harper, warrior, poet, historian, sorcerer, physician, cupbearer, and brazier. He later goes on to prove his cleverness by defeating all present in a game of fidchell1, his strength by matching the champion Ogma’s throw of a heavy flagstone, and his skill with the harp by playing the three traditional strains of music2. Two of his epithets are based around his many skills and his role as the superlative leader and deity is often predicated on his vast knowledge and ability.

He is also in many ways the ideal king in contrast to Bres mac Elatha and may, therefore, have symbolized the importance of patrilineal inheritance. Bres is the son of a Fomorian father and Tuatha De Danann mother; Lugh represents the inverse of this as the son of a Tuatha De Danann father and Fomorian mother. When Nuada is maimed in the Cét-Cath Maige Tuired and loses his kingship afterwards it is the women of the Tuatha De Danann who urge the group to accept Bres as their new king. Bres proves to be a poor king and allows his paternal kin to put the Tuatha De Danann under great oppression. In contrast Lugh shows up in their greatest hour of need and proves himself skilled in very craft and noble skill, motivating King Nuada to voluntarily step aside and let Lugh lead the Tuatha De Danann. While the idea of the two figures representing juxtaposing values of kinship may seem to be a foreign or even offensive concept to modern thinkers it does reflect the mindset of the times that the stories were recorded in. This implicit bias must always be considered and whether we agree with the underlying viewpoint or not there is value in exploring the way it may have shaped aspects of the mythology.

Lugh’s place as the idealized king may have been so deeply ingrained that even after the conversion to Christianity he was retained as a symbol of divine sovereignty. Williams suggest this as an explanation for Lugh’s retention as both a literary figure and euhemerized human ancestor, as well as the persistence of the idea that Lugh was incarnating or favouring human heroes who bore his name (Williams, 2016). In this way Lugh becomes a contrasting figure to the divine Christ and Christian God, having both echoes of their stories worked into his own but also being used perhaps to show the lesser power of the pagan gods; for example Williams posits that Cu Chulainn’s triple conception may have been a subtle commentary on the pagan god’s inability to easily do what the Christian god had, that is conceive a mortal child or incarnate in a mortal form. While this would obviously reflect a much later bias being written into the material by Christian scholars it also demonstrates the continued importance and power of Lugh, that even hundreds of years after conversion there was both a need to bring Lugh down and also an understanding of his continued importance.

One final less emphasized but still vital aspect to Lugh is his appearance in a later text as a Scál. This word, like many in older Irish, is difficult to translate because it has many layers of meaning including ghost, phantom, spirit, hero, champion, giant, and person. MacNeill, citing another author, suggests that it may best be applied “to disembodied spirits of the dead or supernatural beings” (MacNeill, 1962, p 6). Lugh appears as such a being to the king Conn and Lugh’s father is called ‘Scál Balb’ in the Lebor Gabala Erenn. This may have been one way that Lugh remained active and relevant after the conversion period, losing his explicit divinity but remaining a clearly powerful and important supernatural being that could not easily be fit into the more common categories of saints or demons that were the fate of other members of the Tuatha De Danann.


End Notes

1 fidchell is a board game of strategy somewhat like chess

2 in many Irish tales these three types of music are mentioned, with mastery of all being a true sign of skill. They are: sleep music, sorrowful music, and joyful music. When a master plays each one the correlating effect should occur among the listeners so that sleep music puts the audience to sleep and sad music makes them weep or happy music makes them dance. 

References:

McNeil, M., (1962) Festival of Lughnasa
Williams, M., (2016) Ireland's Immortals
Gray, E., (1983) Cath Maige Tuired