By ALFRED PERCEVAL GRAVES.
Among savage peoples there is at first no distinction of a definite kind between good and bad spirits, and when a distinction has been reached, a great advance in a spiritual direction has been made. For the key to the religion of savages is fear, and until such terror has been counteracted by belief in beneficent powers, civilization will not follow. But the elimination of the fear of the unseen is a slow process; indeed, it will exist side by side with the belief in Christianity itself, after a modification through various stages of better pagan belief.
Ireland still presents, in its more out-of-the-way districts, evidence of that strong persistence in the belief in maleficent or malicious influences of the pre-Christian powers of the air, which it seems difficult to eradicate from the Celtic imagination. In the celebrated poem entitled The Breastplate of St. Patrick, there is much the same attitude on the part of Patrick towards the Druids and their powers of concealing and changing, of paralyzing and cursing, as was shown by Moses towards the magicians of Egypt. Indeed, in Patrick’s time a belief in a world of fairies existed even in the king’s household, for “when the two daughters of King Leary of Ireland, Ethnea the fair and Fedelma the ruddy, came early one morning to the well of Clebach to wash, they found there a synod of holy bishops with Patrick. And they knew not whence they came, or in what form, or from what people, or from what country; but they supposed them to be Duine Sidh, or gods of the earth, or a phantasm.”
Colgan explains the term Duine Sidh thus: “Fantastical spirits,” he writes, “are by the Irish called men of the Sidh, because they are seen, as it were, to come out of the beautiful hills to infest men, and hence the vulgar belief that they reside in certain subterranean habitations: and sometimes the hills themselves are called, by the Irish, Sidhe or Siodha.”
No doubt, when the princesses spoke of the gods of the earth, reference was made to such pagan deities as Beal; Dagda the great or the good god; Aine, the Moon, goddess of the water and of wisdom; Manannan macLir, the Irish Neptune; Crom, the Irish Ceres; and Iphinn, the benevolent, whose relations to the Irish Oirfidh resembled those of Apollo towards Orpheus; and to the allegiance they owed to the Elements, the Wind, and the Stars. But besides these pagan divinities and powers, and quite apart from them, the early Irish believed in two classes of fairies: in the first place, a hierarchy of fairy beings, well and ill disposed, not differing in appearance, to any great degree at any rate, from human beings–good spirits and demons, rarely visible during the daytime; and, in the second place, there was the magic race of the De Danann, who, after conquest by the Milesians, transformed themselves into fairies, and in that guise continued to inhabit the underworld of the Irish hills, and to issue thence in support of Irish heroes, or to give their aid against other fairy adversaries.
There is another theory to account for the fairy race. It is that they are angels who revolted with Satan and were excluded from heaven for their unworthiness, but were not found evil enough for hell, and therefore were allowed to occupy that intermediate space which has been called “the Other World.” It is still a moot point with the Irish peasantry, as it was with the Irish saints of old, whether, after being compelled to dwell without death among rocks and hills, lakes and seas, bushes and forest, till the day of judgment, the fairies then have the chance of salvation. Indeed, the fairies are themselves believed to have great doubts of a future existence, though, like many men, entertaining undefined hopes of happiness; and hence the enmity which some of them have for mankind, who, they acknowledge, will live eternally. Thus their actions are balanced between generosity and vindictiveness towards the human race.
Mr. W.Y. Evans Wentz, A.M., of Leland Stanford University, California, and Jesus College, Oxford, has received an honorary degree from the latter university for his thesis, “The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries: Its Psychical Origin and Nature”, a most laborious as well as ingenious work, whose object is to prove “that the origin of the fairy faith is psychical, and that fairyland, being thought of as an invisible world within which the visible world is immersed as an island in an unexplored ocean, actually exists, and that it is peopled by more species of living beings than this world, because incomparably more vast and varied in its possibilities.” This may be added as a fourth theory to account for the existence of fairies, and it may be further stated here that the Irish popular belief in ghosts attributes to some of their departed spirits much of the same violence and malice with which fairies are credited. Mr. Jeremiah Curtin gives striking instances of this kind in his book, the Folk Lore of West Kerry.
It became necessary, therefore, for the Gaels who believed in the preternatural powers of the fairies for good and ill to propitiate them as far as possible. On May eve, accordingly, cattle were driven into raths and bled there, some of the blood being tasted, the rest poured out in sacrifice. Men and women were also bled on these occasions. The seekers for buried treasure, over which fairies were supposed to have influence, immolated a black cock or a black cat to propitiate them. Again, a cow, suffering from sickness believed to be due to fairy malice, was bled and then devoted to St. Martin. If it recovered, it was never sold or killed. The first new milk of a cow was poured out on the ground to propitiate the fairies, and especially on the ground within a fairy rath. The first drop of any drink is also thrown out by old Irish people. If a child spills milk, the mother says, “that’s for the fairies, leave it to them and welcome.” Slops should never be thrown out of doors without the warning, “Take care of water!” lest fairies should be passing invisibly and get soiled by the discharge. Eddies of dust upon the road are supposed to be caused by the fairies, and tufts of grass, sticks, and pebbles are thrown into the centre of the eddy to propitiate the unseen beings. Some fairies of life size, who live within the green hills or under the raths, are supposed to carry off healthy babes to be made fairy children, their abstractors leaving weak changelings in their place. Similarly, nursing mothers are sometimes supposed to be carried off to give the breast to fairy babes, and handsome young men are spirited away to become bridegrooms to fairy brides. Again, folk suffering from falling sickness are supposed to be in that condition owing to the fatigue caused by nocturnal rides through the air with the fairies, whose steeds are bewitched rushes, blades of grass, straws, fern roots, and cabbage stalks. The latter, to be serviceable for the purpose, should be cut into the rude shapes of horses before the metamorphosis can take place.
Iron of every kind keeps away malignant fairies: thus, a horseshoe nailed to the bottom of the churn prevents butter from being bewitched. Here is a form of charm against the fairies who have bewitched the butter: “Every window should be barred, a great turf fire should be lit upon which nine irons should be placed, the bystanders chanting twice over in Irish, ‘Come, butter, come; Peter stands at the gate waiting for a buttered cake.’ As the irons become heated the witch will try to break in, asking the people to take the irons, which are burning her, off the fire. On their refusing, she will go and bring back the butter to the churn. The irons may then be removed from the fire and all will go well.”
If a neighbor or stranger should enter a cottage during the churning, he should put his hand to the dash, or the butter will not come. A small piece of iron should be sewed into an infant’s clothes and kept there until the child is baptized, and salt should be sprinkled over his cradle to preserve the babe from abduction. The fairies are supposed to have been conquered by an iron-weaponed race, and hence their dread of the metal.
To recover a spell-bound friend, stand on All Hallows’ eve at cross roads or at a spot pointed out by a wise woman or fairy doctor. When you have rubbed fairy ointment on your eyelids, the fairies will become visible as the host sweeps by with its captive, whom the gazer will then be able to recognize. A sudden gust announces their approach. Stooping down, you will then throw dust or milk at the procession, whose members are then obliged to surrender your spell-bound friend. If a man leaves home after his wife’s confinement, some of his clothes should be spread over the mother and infant, or the fairies may carry them off. It is good for a woman, but bad for a man, to dream of fairies. It betokens marriage for a girl, misfortune for a man, who should not undertake serious business for some time after such dreaming.
Fairy changelings may be recognized by tricky habits, constant crying, and other unusual characteristics. It was customary to recover the true child in the following way: The changeling was placed upon an iron shovel over the fire, when it would go shrieking up the chimney, and the bona fide human child would be restored. It was believed that fairy changelings often produced a set of small bagpipes from under the clothes and played dance music upon them, till the inmates of the cottage dropped with exhaustion from the effects of the step dancing they were compelled to engage in.
On Samain eve, the night before the first of November, or, as it is now called, All Hallows’ night or Hallowe’en, all the fairy hills or shees are thrown wide open and the fairy host issues forth, as mortals who are bold enough to venture near may see. Naturally therefore people keep indoors so as not to encounter the spectral host. The superstition that the fairies are abroad on Samain night still exists in Ireland and Scotland, and there is a further belief, no doubt derived from it, that the graves are open on that night and that the spirits of the dead are abroad.
Salt, as already suggested, is regarded to be so lucky that if a child falls, it should always be given three pinches of salt, and if a neighbor calls to borrow salt, it should not be refused, even though it be the last grain in the house.
An infant born with teeth should have them drawn by the nearest smith, and the first teeth when shed should be thrown into the fire, lest the fairies should get hold of what had been part of you.
Those who hear fairy music are supposed to be haunted by the melody, and many are believed to go mad or commit suicide in consequence.
The fairies are thought to engage in warfare with one another, and in the year 1800 a specially sanguinary battle was believed to have been fought between two clans of the fairies in county Kilkenny. In the morning the hawthorns along the fences were found crushed to pieces and drenched with blood.
In popular belief fairies often go hunting, and faint sounds of fairy horns, the baying of fairy hounds, and the cracking of fairy whips are supposed to be heard on these occasions, while the flight of the hunters is said to resemble in sound the humming of bees.
Besides the life-sized fairies who are reputed to have these direct dealings with human beings, there are diminutive preternatural beings who are also supposed to come into close touch with men. Among these is the Luchryman (Leithphrogan), or brogue maker, otherwise known as Leprechaun. He is always found mending or making a shoe, and, if grasped firmly and kept constantly in view, will disclose hidden treasure to you, or render up his sparan na sgillinge, or purse of the (inexhaustible) shilling. He can only be bound by a plough chain or woolen thread. He is the symbol of industry which, if steadily faced, leads to fortune, but, if lost sight of, is followed by its forfeiture.
Love in idleness is personified by another pigmy, the Geancanach (love-talker). He does not appear, like the Leprechaun, with a purse in one of his pockets, but with his hands in both of them, and a dudeen (short pipe) in his mouth, as he lazily strolls through lonely valleys making love to the foolish country lasses and “gostering” with the idle “boys.” To meet him meant bad luck, and whoever was ruined by ill-judged love was said to have been with the Geancanach.
Another evil sprite was the Clobher-ceann, “a jolly, red-faced, drunken little fellow,” always “found astride of a wine-butt” singing and drinking from a full tankard in a hard drinker’s cellar, and bound by his appearance to bring its owner to speedy ruin.
Then there were the Leannan-sighes, or native Muses, to be found in every place of note to inspire the local bard, and the Beansighes (Banshees, fairy women) attached to each of the old Irish families and giving warning of the death of one of its members with piteous lamentations.
Black Joanna of the Boyne (Siubhan Dubh na Boinne) appeared on Hallowe’en in the shape of a great black fowl, bringing luck to the home whose Banithee (woman of the house) kept the dwelling constantly clean and neat.
The Pooka, who appeared in the shape of a horse, and whom Shakespeare is by many believed to have adapted as “Puck,” was a goblin who combined “horse-play” with viciousness, but also at times helped with the housework.
The Dullaghan was a churchyard demon whose head was of a movable kind. Dr. Joyce writes: “You generally meet him with his head in his pocket, under his arm, or absent altogether; or if you have the fortune to light upon a number of Dullaghans, you may see them amusing themselves by flinging their heads at one another or kicking them for footballs.”
An even more terrible churchyard demon is the fascinating phantom that waylays the widower at his wife’s very tomb, and poisons him by her kiss when he has yielded to her blandishments.
Of monsters the Irish had, and still believe in, the Piast (Latin bestia), a huge dragon or serpent confined to lakes by St. Patrick till the day of judgment, but still occasionally seen in their waters. In old Fenian times, namely, the days of Finn and his companion knights, the Piasts, however, roamed the country, devouring men and women and cattle in large numbers, and some of the early heroes are recorded to have been swallowed alive by them and then to have hewed their way out of their entrails.
Merrows, or Mermaids, are also still believed in, and many folk tales exist describing their intermarriage with mortals.
According to Nicholas O’Kearney, “It is the general opinion of many old persons versed in native traditional lore, that, before the introduction of Christianity, all animals possessed the faculties of human reason and speech; and old story-tellers will gravely inform you that every beast could speak before the arrival of St. Patrick, but that the saint having expelled the demons from the land by the sound of his bell, all the animals that, before that time, had possessed the power of foretelling future events, such as the Black Steed of Binn-each-labhra, the Royal Cat of Cloughmagh-righ-cat (Clough), and others, became mute, and many of them fled to Egypt and other foreign countries.”
Cats are said to have been appointed to guard hidden treasures; and there are few who have not heard old Irish people tell about strange meetings of cats and violent battles fought by them in the neighborhood. “It was believed,” adds O’Kearney, “that an evil spirit in the shape of a cat assumed command over these animals in various districts, and that when those wicked beings pleased they could compel all the cats belonging to their division to attack those of some other district. The same was said of rats; and rat-expellers, when commanding a colony of those troublesome and destructive animals to emigrate to some other place, used to address their ‘billet’ to the infernal rat supposed to hold command over the rest. In a curious pamphlet on the power of bardic compositions to charm and expel rats, lately published, Mr. Eugene O’Curry states that a degraded priest, who was descended from an ancient family of hereditary bards, was enabled to expel a colony of rats by the force of satire!”
Hence, of course, Shakespeare’s reference to rhyming Irish rats to death.
It will thus be seen that Irish Fairy Lore well deserves to have been called by Mr. Alfred Nutt, one of the leading authorities on the subject, “as fair and bounteous a harvest of myth and romance as ever flourished among any race.”
Alex. Carmichael: Carmina Gadelica; David Comyn: The Boyish Exploits of Finn; the Periodical, “Folklore”; Lady Gregory: Cuchulain of Muirthemne, Gods and Fighting Men; Miss Eleanor Hull: The Cuchulain Saga in Irish Literature; Douglas Hyde: Beside the Fire, (a collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories), Leabhar Sgeulaicheachta, (Folk Stories in Irish); “Irish Penny Journal”; Patrick Kennedy: The Fireside Stories of Ireland, Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celt; Standish Hayes O’Grady: Silva Gadelica; Wood-Martin: Traces of the Elder Faiths in Ireland, Pagan Ireland; W.Y. Wentz: The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries; Lady Wilde: Charms, Incantations, etc.; Celtic articles in Hastings’ Dictionary of Religion and Ethics.