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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. 

The Power of Names

 There is a lot of power in names and naming, so today I want to look at the way we see that played out in mythology and folklore and what we might be able to learn from that. I thought this would be a good topic to discuss because of the confusion I sometimes see around the idea of True Names and magical names. So let's look at what True Names and magical names are, and the difference between them, with some examples from mythology and folklore.

A True Name is the name that resonates with a being's soul or otherwise identifies that being on the deepest level. This is not necessarily the name you are given by your parents at birth, although we'll look at the power that your birth name can have later. Your True Name is a deeper metaphysical thing, something that you may or may not ever find if you are human, and something that you guard as more precious than your life. Knowing a being's True Name gives you power over that being and allows you a level of control of them. In the Cath Maige Tuired we see this when the Dagda encounters a Fomorian princess who demands he carry her on his back; he refuses until after asking him his name three times* he is forced to reveal his True Name, and knowing it she repeats the request using it and he is forced to comply. In the familiar story of Rumplestilskin we see knowledge of a True Name as the only way for a woman to get out of a contract she has made with a dwarf, a theme echoed in the similar English tale of Tom Tit Tot. This motif and variations of it are found throughout Europe, with either the firstborn child or the woman herself as the agreed upon pay for the Otherworldly being unless the Name can be discovered. Knowing a True Name means knowing the true nature of a being which allows that being to be commanded against their will, and this is exactly why knowledge of a True Name was hidden. 
      The best depiction I've ever run across of this in fiction is Ron C Nieto's 'Faery Sworn' series where all of the fairy folk use alternate names because anyone who knowns their true name can compel them with simple commands, a rule that holds true as well for humans; when the human protagonist unknowingly gives her full name to a kelpie she finds herself dealing with the consequences.  It gives the reader a good understanding of the power and danger of names within in the context of a fictional narrative but the theory behind it is the same as the one across folklore. 

As I mentioned, your birth name does also have power over you. Probably anyone who has ever experienced an angry parent yelling their full name at them is already aware of this. Seriously though, even though your birth name is something given to you by others it has the power of blood and kinship bound up in it, and it is tied to your soul all the same, although not as strongly as your True Name. 

As adults we can choose our own names. We can assume nicknames, or we can even (in most countries as far as I know) legally change our names. There is a long and deep seated tradition of adults changing names to shed the name they were given at birth and assume a new name as an adult, usually to better reflect who they are. We see this in mythology with Setanta becoming Cu Chulainn; Gwion Bach becoming Taleisin; Deimne becoming Fionn Mac Cumhaill. There is power in naming ourselves, but we should choose wisely as well, because just like birth names the names we give ourselves hold power over us and create connections. Cu Chulainn taking his name also meant taking a gies against eating dog meat, and ultimately his fate was bound up in that taboo.

Even if we choose a new name for ourselves and leave our birth names behind us later in life it is very hard to totally break the power they have over us because their connection is to us on a deep level. There are some memes and comics that go around online suggesting that the fairies will take names and that isn't entirely accurate - as we touched on above they will take a person's name in the sense of to use against them not literally remove it from the person. It would, generally, be very unwise to give any being of the Otherworld your name.

 In most folklore it was understood as unwise to give your name to Otherworldly beings, because knowledge of your birth name gave them knowledge of you to some degree. We see examples of this in stories such as 'Maggy Moulach' where a fairy (in that case a Brownie) hopelessly loves a mortal; when he had asked her name, she told him it was 'Mise Fein' [me myself]. The young woman eventually is forced to throw boiling water on the amorous fairy, mortally wounding him, and when he was later asked who had harmed him he answered 'Mise Fein' preventing his mother from seeking revenge against the girl. 

It is from the power that your name has, I believe, that we see magical names coming in, particularly in ceremonial magic. A magical name was originally meant as a pseudonym, a way to keep your identity hidden from spirits and likely to act as a layer of magical defense from unfriendly people, witches and non-witches. Or perhaps we might say more aptly it was used to create a specific alternate identity for dealing with them. Magical names, like any good persona, were about creating an ideal image for the self, rather than a true reflection of the self. So, for example someone's True Name might be Echaire [horse-keeper] but they may take a magical name that is much grander and more impressive sounding like 'Storm Raven' or 'Ocean Rider'. People also often use the names of deities, mythic heroes, famous magicians of the past, and powerful animals for their magical names. Magical names did build power with use, but could also be shed and remade as needed. Think of them a bit like clothes or armor. Even with this though there was historically usually a layer of secrecy between a person's magical name and real name, an attempt to keep the two separate and distinct, so that in ritual or with fellow practitioners no other name would be used except the magical, and outside of those contexts no name except the birth name would be used.

At some point in the modern era I think the ideas of True Names and magical names were confused somehow, so that people began to think that a magical name was supposed to be a true reflection of self rather than a projection of power and confidence. From this we start to see two things happening, firstly magical names that are intended to reflect as much of a person's soul as possible, and secondly the public use of magical names in non-magical contexts. Or basically the entire concept of magical names became less about esoteric spirit work naming and more of a tribal assuming-a-new-name-with-a-new-community process. One is not better or worse than the other, but they need to be understood as distinctly different things. A public name that you use because you feel it fits you better than the one your parents gave you, isn't a magical name. And it isn't your true name either, or I hope it isn't if your sharing it around so publicly.

Names have power. We can take control of that power by choosing what we want people to call us, by naming ourselves. Even assuming a nickname is an act of power. We can use magical names. We can even seek, and sometimes find, our True Name But we shouldn't forget the lessons that mythology and fairy tales have taught us about the value of the power of the names and the need to guard the names that mean the most to us. Not all names are meant to be shared.

* there is also significance to the repetition of the number three, and of asking a question three times.

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