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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Måran - Night Mares

The following is an excerpt from my new book 'Following the Fairy Path' which should be released in 2018. It will be the third book in my Fairycraft series. This excerpt is discussing one particular type of spirit being or fairy that comes at night and torments sleepers.

The Nightmare, John Fuseli, 1781, public domain


They are a type of being who come at night while you are sleeping, paralyzing you, and bring fear and nightmares. The name for them, Måran or singular Mår is related to the same root word we get our modern word nightmare from, and indeed that is why we have the word – nightmare, night mare, a mare that comes at night. Mare is the Old English while Mår is the German which I use to avoid confusion with mare meaning a female horse. The word Måran is usually translated as goblins, night-goblins, or incubi but I would suggest that Måran are best understood as entirely their own type of being. Much like so many other of the beings we have discussed they are not straightforward though, and there are also some Mår who are human witches with the ability to intentionally or unwittingly project to people at night and oppress them, and as well Måran are often confused with other similar nighttime beings and occasionally with elves (Seo Helrune, 2017). It is important when dealing with them to learn to differentiate between a possible attack from another human that has the same symptoms as the Måran, malicious activity by elves, and activity by Måran.
In folklore Måran are always seen as female beings and it is possible to capture them, usually by blocking whatever place they entered through; it was believed that unless they could go out exactly as they had come in they lost their power (Ashliman, 2005). In several stories a man captured a Mår and then married her, something much like we see in the Selkie tales, and the new wife would act like any other human woman, even giving him children, but if she could ever get him to show her the place she’d entered that he’d blocked and clear it she’d leave immediately. In one tale a Mår is captured when the victim stays awake and sees her enter as a cat and then nails one of her paws to the floor; by morning she has transformed to a young woman (Ashliman, 2005).
When Måran appear they generally come alone and afflict a person in their sleep by perching on their chest. They cause a feeling of paralysis and fear, and can also sometimes make breathing difficult, creating a feeling of pressure or weight on the chest. In folklore they can kill both people and animals (Ashliman, 2005). An old term for this is ‘Old Hag’ although nowadays its known as sleep paralysis and scientific explanations remove spirits from the equation (Seo Helrune, 2017). Some people who are attacked by Måran also experience a sexual overtone to the experience which is partially why the word was translated as incubi and also why I think they are associated with elves, who themselves were often associated with incubi as well. It should be noted however that elves or in this case specifically the Anglo-Saxon aelfe were usually male and the Måran were believed to be female beings, suggesting that we may indeed be looking at two different beings here with a similar method of attack in some cases. This idea is supported by Alaric Hall in his article ‘The Evidence for Maran: The Anglo-Saxon ‘Nightmares’ in which he argues persuasively that Måran were in fact always seen as female and the translation of incubi was an early confusion between texts, and might more properly have been given as succubi.
Because attacks by Måran where not uncommon in the past there are many methods of dealing with them. Blocking the keyhole (if the door has one), placing your shoes backwards – ie laces facing the bed - by the bed, and then climbing into bed backwards can protect you from attack; animals can be protected by placing a broom near them (Ashliman, 2005). Also Måran like many fairies, ghosts, and spirits can be warded off with iron which should be placed near or under the bed. A salve or powder can be made with herbs including Lupin, Betony and Garlic (Seo Helrune, 2017). Mugwort can also be burned to ward off dangerous spirits. There are also a variety of charms to protect against Måran, such as this one which uses a single hair of the person’s head to mime tying up the Mår while saying:
The man of might
He rode at night
With neither sword
Nor food nor light,
He sought the mare,
He found the mare,
He bound the mare
With his own hair,
And made her swear
By mother’s might,
That she would never bide a night
What he had trod, that man of might.”
(Black, 1903; language modified from Shetland Scots)
There is also this one from Germany:
I lay me here to sleep;
No night-mare shall plague me,
Until they swim all the waters
That flow upon the earth,
And count all the stars
That appear in the firmament!”
(Ashliman, 2005).
I have had an experience with a mår once so far. I have never had sleep paralysis before in my life but I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to move or speak, surrounded by a pervasive sense of malevolence and dread. There was a strong sense of presence with this and a kind of impending doom. At first I was disoriented, because I'd been asleep but then honestly I got really angry because I'd had a long difficult day and I was so not in the mood to deal with anything supernatural. I drove the spirit off and forced it out of the house by visualizing bright light shoving it away. Took several minutes of slow effort but it worked.
In talking later with other people on social media I was surprised to find out how common these encounters seemed to be among people I knew, even casually. I think for those who deal with extra-ordinary things and Otherworldly beings it’s important to be aware of the Måran and know how to combat them if they attack either you or anyone you know. 

Seo Helrune 'Maran, Night-Walkers and Elves, Oh My!
Black, G., (1903). County Folk-Lore, vol. 3: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning the Orkney & Shetland Islands
Ashliman, D., (2005) Night-Mares

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Finnbheara - Fairy King of Connacht

 Generally speaking we have more named Fairy Queens than Kings but we do have a few examples of named Kings as well. Finnbheara is one of the Kings of the fairies in Ireland who is known variously as Finvara, Finveara, Fionbheara, Fin Bheara, Fionnbharr or Findbharr. His name may mean 'Fair Haired' in Old Irish; O hOgain however suggests the name is an oblique reference to the summit of Cnoc Meadha or the cairn found there. He is said to be the king of the fairies of Connacht, with his home at Cnoc Mheada in county Galway. MacKillop suggests that his popularity in later folklore gave him the title of king of all fairies in Ireland and also of king of the dead*.

Finnbheara was originally one of the Tuatha De Danann, he is mentioned as such in the Agallamh na Seanoach and is also said to be a brother to Oengus mac ind Óg and youngest son of the Dagda according to the Altram Tige Dá Medar. His mother is not mentioned. In the altram Tige Dá Medar he is called Finnbarr Meadha and he and Oengus get into a violent disagreement after he disparages one of Oengus's foster daughters while visiting Oengus's home. He is also sometimes said to be a rival of Donn Firinne, another Fairy King, although O hOgain suggests that the two could represent complementary rulers of the year in much the same way other scholars have suggested Áine and Grianne represent the summer and winter suns.

He is generally described as a handsome man, sometimes said to dress in black (Briggs, 1976). We can perhaps assume from his name that he is fair haired. In one story he appears in a coach drawn by four white horses and in another he is riding a black horse (Briggs, 1976). Finnbheara has a strong association with horses in general and with horse racing in specific, and in one tale he appeared to aid Lord Hackett by acting as jockey to his horse in a race before disappearing (O hOgain, 2006).

Finnbheara is married to the Fairy queen Una but he has a reputation for his love of mortal women, and women in general. In the aforementioned Altram Tige Dá Medar he had traveled to visit his brother in order to see Oengus's foster daughters, who had a reputation among the Tuatha De for their beauty and manners. In a story from folklore he abducts a woman named Eithne and keeps her for a year until her husband successfully wins her back from him by digging into Finnbheara's sidhe, salting the earth there, and freeing her from the enchantment she was under by removing a piece of fairy clothing she was wearing (MacKillop, 1998). In the Feis Tighe Chonain he appears as an Otherworldly rival competing with Finn mac Cumhal over a woman (O hOgain, 2006). In many other anecdotal tales he was known as a womanizer and for taking mortal women into his sidhe, even though his own wife was said to be peerlessly beautiful.

A mercurial figure, Finnbheara is well known for abducting people but also for blessing those he favors. He heals a sick woman in exchange for food, and is known for rewarding any blacksmith brave enough to try to shoe his three legged horse (MacKillop, 1998). He is known to appear to mortals and offer them aid of various kinds, but especially aid in horse racing, and then sometimes to invite them into his sidhe. These invitations may be a trap but on other occasions the person would be his guest at a feast, often finding the other guests to be dead people they had known previously, and would return safely to mortal earth the next day (Briggs, 2006). The success of crops in Connacht are also thought in folk belief to rest on both Finnbheara's presence in the area and his favor. In some folklore the crops bloom when Finnbheara and his fairies win at hurling against the fairies of rival provinces (O hOgain, 2006). In one anecdotal tale the fairies of Ulster challenged the fairies of Connacht and the two met and fought as clouds in the sky and "it was thought that Finnbheara won because there were good crops in Connacht that year." (MacNeill, 1962, page 593). It was generally believed that there was a standing rivalry between the Good People of Ulster and Finnbheara's people.

Finnbheara is an interesting figure in folklore and one who has a more complex history than is sometimes appreciated in fairylore. A member of the Tuatha De Danann and also a Fairy King, possibly also ruler of the dead, known to abduct mortals but also to aid them for little or even no recompense. He bridges the space between mythology and folklore, found in myths from the 12th century and also in modern day folklore around Cnoc Meadha. Those who seek to better understand the way that the Tuatha De Danann have merged with and affected our understanding of fairies can learn a lot by studying Finnbheara's stories.

*the relationship between the fairies and the dead is complicated but we also see this sort of crossover with Donn Firinne, who is called both a Fairy King and a god of the dead.

MacKillop, J., (1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Altram Tige Dá Medar
O hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
MacNeil. M., (1962) Festival of Lughnasa

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

How I Became an Author

I was asked the other day to share the story of how I became an author, so today that's what I'm going to talk about.

I'll be the first person to admit I never thought this is what I'd be doing at this point in my life, although I can't say its entirely a shock either. When I was in high school I co-wrote an unfinished book with a friend and I was always writing poetry. But it's also true that writing and reading have never come easily for me and the idea of making a career of it wouldn't have been my first thought.

I am severely dyslexic as well as dyscalculaic; I didn't learn to read until I was in second grade, after years of special classes. It would be fair to say that my initial experience with the public school system was difficult and there were other bumps in the road as I went along. Once I did learn to read I very much enjoyed the ability to lose myself in other worlds and to learn from diverse sources, but writing, particularly spelling, never ceased to be a challenge. I don't know how to explain what its like to someone who isn't dyslexic but part of the challenge is that when I make an error no matter how many times I re-read the sentence or word I may not see the mistake. The only way I know to compensate for this issue is to proof read everything dozens of times (including books) and even then there will still be mistakes in them.

So perhaps you can see why if you'd asked me years ago if I thought I'd ever be an author I would have said no. Its not that I didn't think I could tell a good story or had anything valuable to say, but I am aware of the learning disability that I live with and how it effects my ability to communicate in writing.

Two things happened though which set me on the path of public writing. Firstly I was in a position where I was not writing everything by hand anymore (which I had done previously) and instead I was typing on a computer which offered spellcheck services that helped me greatly. Secondly I was a member of a Druid Order in the late 2000's which required dedicants to complete a project to become Druids. My project was to repaganize sections of the Carmina Gadelica, and my mentor for the project, Ellen Evert Hopman, suggested that the finished project would be valuable to put out as a book so that other people could also use it. I had never thought to do something like that before but self-publishing at that point in time made it feasible. And so I did it, realising a small book of repaganized prayers. I was so inspired by the project itself that I went on to do another selection from the same source this time aimed at charms as well as prayers; this was also released as a small book and then the two were combined into an omnibus edition.

I was emboldened by this writing success to begin a blog, this blog, as a resource for the community. I envisioned it as a place to share research I was doing and to offer good sources for people as well as just to share my thoughts on things. Its undergone different changes over the last 6 years, but I do hope that it has at least provided a resource for people, if nothing else.

In all honesty that probably would have been the end of it  - I had no further ambition beyond occasionally submitting poetry to magazines or anthologies - but shortly afterwards I was approached by small publisher through a friend because they were looking for someone to write a children's book on the Fairy Faith. It was my first publishing contract for a book. Not too long after that I had the idea, inspired by a book by Cat Treadwell, to use my blog material as the basis for a book. I put it all together and submitted it to a newer (at the time) imprint called Moon Books. Why Moon? Several reasons, including that I had friends who wrote for them at the time and that I liked the ease of their submission process online. My first full length non-fiction book came out of that, Where the Hawthorn Grows, which is a look at my thoughts on Druidism* and being a Druid in America. From there of course I have written other titles for Moon, and I found that I not only enjoyed writing but seemed to be good at it. I currently have seven books out with Moon, two more forthcoming in the next six months and three more under contract.

Once again though, it probably would have stayed with non-fiction if not for another friend and a conversation. I hadn't written fiction since high school but I had seen several friends on social media talking about doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo) in November and I kept thinking it looked like fun. I am always coming up with stories in my head but I had never written any of them down, at least not since the 90's. But I was talking with my friend Catherine Kane in 2012 about a NaNo project she was doing that ended up as a published novel 'The Land that Lies Between'** and when I mentioned having some NaNo envy she strongly urged me to try participating just for fun. In 2013 I did give it a try and I quickly realized that I genuinely love writing fiction, specifically urban fantasy, and to my surprise what was supposed to be a project just for fun took on a life of its own. I had taken to posting little plot summaries and word counts on my social media as a motivator to hit my goal and 'win' NaNo and I had several people asking me when they could read the finished book. This led to a brief attempt to find an agent (lots of very polite responses saying they liked it but weren't interested) and then to submit to a trade publisher. I was offered a contract on the first book, but I decided to self publish because they wanted me to re-write something in the book which was intentionally being left a mystery and because I knew at that point it was meant to be at least a trilogy and I was afraid if it didn't sell well the other books wouldn't see print. I am really glad I chose to self publish my fiction as its given me the freedom to write the series up to book #6 and to release new books on my own schedule.

I never planned to be an author but writing is something I really enjoy doing. I seem to be reasonably good at it, and I hope that my work on both my blogs and my books has been useful to people. I used to say, after each book, that I felt like that would be my last one and I wouldn't write anything else but I think at this point I will write until I feel like I have nothing else to add and no more stories to tell.

*I don't actually consider myself a Druid anymore, as my path has diverged from there and returned to focusing solely on witchcraft, however I will say that I still think Hawthorn is a good book.
**I highly recommend it by the way if you enjoy urban fantasy that is light and fun to read.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Bean Sí

Following up on last week's post about fairies of the battle field this week I want to look at the Bean Sí. The name itself simply means 'fairy woman' and is found in a variety of spellings including the anglicized Banshee. As we shall see though the Bean Sí may or may not actually be a fairy, although she is often considered one in both historic and modern folklore.  

When we look at exactly what the Bean Sí may be and what her origin is we find there's no simple answer, but multiple options ranging from literary to folk tradition. MacKillop in his Dictionary of Celtic Mythology says that "In folk etiology the banshee was thought to be the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, or of a murdered pregnant woman." (MacKillop, 1998). Lysaght in her very thorough work 'The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger' has an entire chapter on the topic which elucidates the following possible theories:
- She may be a fairy
- She may be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann
- She may be the child of a fairy and a mortal
- She may be a human woman, living, abducted by the fairies but allowed to return to caoin for her family
- She may be a fallen angel
- She may be the spirit of an unbaptized child
- She may be the ghost of a murdered maiden, killed by a family member
- She may be a human soul working off misdeeds in a fashion like purgatory (specifically the sin of pride which is why according to folk tradition the banshee has long beautiful hair she combs out)
- She may be someone who was a keening woman when she was alive who was negligent in some way and so must pay by continuing to serve as a keening woman in death
- She may be someone who was a woman who lost her family tragically and never stopped mourning them

 It is possible that like so many other kinds of fairies the answer to the Bean Sí's origin isn’t one or the other but a combination, with these fairies being made up of some who are mortal dead and others who have always been fairies and may be related to Badb of the Tuatha De Danann. There is certainly no reason to expect a single origin or explanation for the Bean Sí when we already know that very few things with the fairies are either simple or straightforward. 

The Bean Sí is a female spirit who is known for attaching herself to a particular family and appearing whenever someone in that family is about to die. In one account a Bean Sí attached to a family near Lough Gur came when a woman of the family was dying and both of the woman’s sisters heard sad fairy music playing (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Some people say that only those in the family she is attached to can hear her cry (Ballard, 1991). In other stories the Bean Sí may appear on the night of a death wailing or keening in mourning and may be heard by anyone in the area of the dying person. The sound she makes has been described in a variety of ways including like the sound of a crying fox, howling dog, or moaning scream, but most often is heard as a woman keening

 The Bean Sí, particularly in Ireland is often said to be very beautiful, appearing as a young woman, although in other places such as Scotland she may be described as a very old woman (MacKillop, 1998). She is often described as a grey figure or a woman wrapped in a grey cloak, although by other accounts she wears a long grey cloak over a green dress with her eyes deep red from crying (Ballard, 1991; Briggs,1976). Others say that the Bean Sí wears white, or white with red shoes, and has long golden hair (MacKillop, 1998; Logan, 1981). She brushes her hair with a special comb and it is considered very dangerous even today to pick up a stray comb you find laying on the ground, in case it belongs to this spirit. Folklore tells of those who find a silver or gold comb and bring it home only to be confronted at night by horrible wailing and scratching at the windows until they pass the comb out on a pair of tongs which is pulled back in twisted and broken (O hOgain, 2006). 

The Bean Sí is particularly associated with several goddesses among the Tuatha Dé Danann, including Badb and Cliodhna. In same areas of Ireland the word badb (pronounced in those dialects as bow) is the name used for the Bean Sí; like that famous war Goddess the Bean Sí is able to take the form of a hooded crow (MacKillop, 1998). Cliodhna is sometimes called the 'Queen of the Banshees' and she acts as the Bean Sí for the McCarthy family, who are said to be her descendants, appearing to cry and announce a death in the family. 

Many people today fear the Bean Sí as the cause of deaths, but in most folklore she is clearly not the cause but merely an omen of the inevitable. She would appear just before or at the moment of death to announce the event to the family and others gathered around the ailing person. Over time her appearance in this capacity and association with immanent death seems to have given her a more sinister reputation, although some authors do suggest that she began with a clear association with the Goddess Badb and the battle field and only slowly switched to the more personal and passive death messenger we know today. If this is so then the Bean Sí may be slowly shifting back into her earlier and more actively dangerous persona as modern belief re-imagines her as fearsome and possibly fatal to those who cross her path. 

Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Ballard, L., (1991) Fairies and the Supernatural on Reachrai
Logan, P., (1981) The Old Gods: The Facts about Irish Fairies
Lysaght, P., (1986) The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger
MacKillop, J., (1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology

Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Fortune, M., (2016) The Bow/ Banshee
O hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Fairies of the Battlefield

In Irish mythology, particularly the Ulster cycle we see references to certain groupings of fairies that appear on the battlefield, although they are obscure figures. For example in this passage from the Táin Bó Cuiligne: "Crothais a scíath & cressaigis a slega & bertnaigis a chlaidem, & dobert rém curad asa bragit, co ro recratar bánanaig & boccanaig & geniti glinni & demna aeoír re úathgráin na gáre dos-bertatar ar aird. Co ro mesc ind Neamain (.i. in Badb) forsin t-slóg."
(he [Cu Chulainn] brandished his shield and he shook his spears and he brandished his sword and gave a warrior's cry from his throat, so that the bánnaig and bocannaig and Otherworldly-woman of the glen and demons of the air answered because of the terrifying cry he had raised on high. So that the Nemain (that is the Badb) came and intoxicated the host).
In this and similar examples we see these three beings, the Bánánach, Bocánach, and Geniti glini appearing together, sometimes also with the fairy host and sometimes with the 'demons of the air' which is likely also a reference to the fairy host. All three were known to appear shrieking or screaming over or near battlefields. 

Cloch an Fhir Mhoir the menhir that marks where Cu Chulainn died in battle
There's not a lot of available information about these specific spirits, but let's look at what we do have:

Bánánach - described in the eDIL as a 'preternatural being haunting the field of battle' (eDIL, 2017). The root of the name is suggested as Bánán which is further suggested as bán in this case probably meaning pale or bloodless, but also possibly meaning 'white'. We may perhaps postulate from this that these spirits appear pale or are clad in white, which would be inline with some other spirits associated with death. MacKillop suggests that the Bánánach is specifically a female spirit. In the Fianaigecht we are told that the Bánánach and Bocánach appeared with the Red-Mouthed Badb, one of the Irish war Goddesses further connecting them to the battlefield. Arguably we know the least about the Bánánach but if we translate the name as 'pale spirits' or 'white spirit-women' we may possibly tie them into other spirits like the White Ladies; although they may equally be connected to the Bean Sí. In some Irish folklore the Bean Sí are said to wear white, to shriek or wail, and to predict death and they are often connected back to the goddess Badb (MacKillop, 1998). This description does seem strikingly similar to the Bánánach, the biggest differences being the Bánánachs association with the battlefield and less explicit associations with death.

Bocánach - loosely described as a goat-like supernatural being, like the Bánánach it is known to haunt battlefields (eDIL, 2017). The name comes from the word Bocán and Boc, both meaning a he-goat. MacKillop considers them a type of goblin. It's possible that they may be similar to or related to the Púca and the Bócan who are both shape-shifting goblin-like fairies associated with goats. In the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh the Bocánach and the Bánánach appear on the battlefield with the Siabarsluag, the fairy host.

Geniti glini - a supernatural female specter who appears on battlefields, the name literally means 'Otherworldy-woman of the valley' (eDIL, 2017). O'Mulconry's Glossary gives us this about them: "genit glinde .i. ben i nglinn (gen .i. ben, glynnon .i. foglaid .i. banfoglaid bid a nglinn)" [Supernatural-women of the valley that is women of the glen (a girl that is a woman, glynnon that is a outlaw that is a female-outlaw living in the valley]. They are also sometimes called gelliti glini, translated as spirit of the valley, possibly due to a confusion between the words genit (supernatural woman) and geilt, a person driven mad in battle or a crazy person living in the wild (eDIL, 2017). These spectral women are strongly associated with shrieking on the battlefield as well as appearing there. Of the three named in this grouping the Geniti glini would seem to be the most obviously dangerous, particularly with O'Mulconry's direct equation of them with outlaws, using a word - foglaid - that also means reavers, plunderers, and later was a general term for an enemy.

 Although we don't know too much about these spirits we can make some general associations based on when and how they appear in mythology. They usually seem to show up right before or during battles, and act to create or magnify feelings of battle-rage, frenzy, and madness. They appear sometimes with Nemain or Badb, Irish war Goddesses, who are both also associated with inspiring these things in warriors and armies. I think we can also safely say that they are not limited to the battlefield but are merely drawn to it, the way crows and ravens are drawn to carnage, since they also appear in conjunction with other mass groupings of fairies like the Siabarsluag. Although the information we have on them is obscure they do seem to have some connections to more well known spirits including the Bean Sí and Púca and it is at least possible that they might be early literary representations of spirits we later came to know by other names.

eDIL (2017) electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language
MacKillop, J., (1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Oisín - Liminal Lord

  One figure from Irish mythology that doesn't tend to get as much attention in modern paganism is the Fenian hero Oisín, son of Fionn Mac Cumhail. Oisín falls into the grey area that many of the characters in the non-Mythic cycles may fall into, where he is not obviously a God but he is clearly not exactly a mortal man either. His mother was a woman of the sí and his father the larger-than-life hero Fionn. Oisín has a fascinating life that is very strongly interwoven with magic, for good and ill, and it seems entirely possible that he lives on today at the very least as a man of the sí.

Oisín's mother was Sadb*, daughter of Bodb Derg the king of the Munster sí, who was also a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Unfortunately she was turned into a deer by Fer Doirich, a Druid of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who was in love with her; she rejected him and he used his magic to change her form. As a deer she then ran afoul of Fionn mac Cumhail when he was out hunting but his two hunting dogs refused to harm her and Fionn realized she wasn't a mortal deer. Fionn took her to his home at where she regained her form as a woman and the two were married. While she was pregnant though Fionn left and she was tricked into leaving the fort only to encounter the Druid again who struck her with a wand and returned her to deer-shape. Fionn looked for her for 7 years to no avail but eventually found a wild boy living in the woods who he recognized as his son. The boy told him of being raised in the woods by a deer so he named the child Oisín, meaning 'little deer'.
We have this about his birth:
"Oisín mac Fhinn fear go n-goil
ro geanoir a gCluain Iochtair
ingein dheirg a mhthair maith,
torrthach naoi míos ón mór fhlaith." (Smyth, 1988)
[Oisín son of Fionn, man of valour
was born at Cluain Iochtair [Northern Meadow]
his good mother was the daughter of Derg
pregnant nine months with this great lord]

After being found by his father Oisín joined the Fianna and became both a renowned warrior and poet. He appears in many stories from the Fenian cycle of myths and a few beyond it as he was said to outlive the other members of the Fianna (Smyth, 1988). So pivotal was Oisín in the stories that the cycle is sometimes called the Ossianic Cycle and many tales are told by him or from his point of view (MacKillop, 1998).  In one of the most well-know stories, that of Dairmuid and Grainne, when Grainne was originally meant to marry Fionn she first fell in love with Oisín before switching her affection to Dairmuid; Oisín supported the two lovers in their flight from his father. Many of these stories were widespread and commonly known and over the centuries new details and pieces were added that shaped the tales in slightly different directions, giving us an evolving picture of the way people viewed him and the Fianna more generally. In the famous story of Oisín's encounter with saint Patrick we can watch the story evolving in written form from a more clearly ecclesiastical tale that showed Oisín and Caílte repentently converting to Christianity to later versions that show a lively debate between saint and warrior with Oisín defending the value of the Fianna and even tricking the saint through wordplay into getting his God to release the Fianna from Hell (O hOgain, 2006).

Oisín had one son while he was with the Fianna named Oscar with an unknown mother. Like his father his name incorporates the Old Irish word for deer 'os' combined with 'car' possibly meaning friend, although that is uncertain. Oscar was a renowned warrior and famous fighter; when Oisín later encounters Saint Patrick at the end of his life he tells the saint that he would only believe the strength of the Christian God if he saw that God wrestling his son Oscar to the ground and winning (O hOgain, 2006). He also had two sons and a daughter with his wife Niamh in the Otherworld.

In the Acallam na Senorach we are told that both Oisín and his fellow Fianna member Caílte survive the destruction of the Fianna. The two eventually meet Saint Patrick and relate to him what their life with Fionn and his men was like. In other stories from oral tradition later preserved in writing Oisín was hunting one day when he was approached by a woman on a white horse; she was Niamh Chinn Óir [Niamh of the Golden Hair] daughter of Manannán mac Lir. Niamh proclaims her love for the warrior and asks him to go with her back to her home - alternately either Tír na nÓg or Tír Tairngire (MacKillop, 1998). There the two live happily for three centuries until Oisín wants to return to Ireland to visit his family. Niamh warns him against doing this but he insists, so she tells him to ride one of their horses over but that under no circumstances can he touch the ground. Of course when he goes to Ireland he finds the land greatly changed and all who he knew gone from memory. When he leans over to try to help some men move a stone the girth on his saddle breaks and he falls, instantly aging; the horse flees back to the Land of Promise without him.

By some accounts Oisín was buried in county Leitrim on Curran mountain under a standing stone, while other say he is buried in county Down at Sí Airceltrai (Smyth, 1988). However in other stories when Oisín died he is said to have returned to the Sí of Blaí, his mother's place (Smyth, 1988). Given that he was half-sí himself on his mother's side (or half Dé Danann) and returned after death to her home it may be that he did not die at all but like many humans who were taken by the Othercrowd became fully one of the daoine sí. To me this makes more sense than believing he died as he did, given that he was half Tuatha Dé Danann; it would seem odd to me that he died ignobly while stories say the Fianna all sleep and wait to be roused when they are needed again. I would suggest that versions that have his fall to earth, discussion with saint Patrick, conversion, and death are more clearly set as penitent Christian myths of pagans turning to the new God than what we may view as actual pagan mythology. Each version of his story however adds important layers to our understanding of him.

Oisín is a fascinating personage, found in both mythology and folklore, son of a fairy woman and an epic hero. He was a poet and warrior like his father but in some ways the stories show him to be more levelheaded and compassionate than Fionn was, perhaps making him a better role model. He survives the destruction of the Fianna, either the battle itself or by living in Tír na nÓg until their time has passed and it may be that he lives on still in the shining halls of his mother's sí or by his wife's side in the Land of Promise. For those who seek out role models among the Fianna or who are looking for Gods or beings to honor among the people of the sí, Oisín deserves more consideration than he gets. And in any case, his stories are worth reading.

*in some version's Oisín's mother's name is given as Blaí or Blaí Dhearg, and her sí is called Ocht Cleitigh, near Sid in Broga, see Smyth or O hOgain for more on this. Both names, Sadb and Blaí, may relate to terms for places with Sadb possibly meaning a dwelling place and Blaí possibly meaning a field or plain.

Smyth, D., (1988) A Guide to Irish Mythology
MacKillop, J., (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Acallam na Senorach
O hOgain, D., (2006) The Lore of Ireland

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar; A Brief Overview of Elves in Norse Myth

Discussing the Álfar is complicated because they appear in mythology as both one cohesive grouping and subdivided into more specific groupings. Often in Norse myth we simply see references to the Álfar, often paired with but distinct from the Aesir, giving us phrases like in the Voluspo "How fare the Aesir? How fare the Álfar?" and this one from the Lokasenna "From the Gods and elves who are gathered here..."*. Yet we also find distinct groups mentioned among the Álfar that seem to have their own characteristics and descriptors, the Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar. It is possible that these distinct groups are literary conventions, created later to better define different mythic motifs, or to reflect foreign influences. Certainly in modern times we see only the general grouping of Álfar in folklore and the word álf is used in compounds such as land-elf and waterfall-elf, implying that álf has more general connotations.

Consider this a cliff notes of Alfár in Norse mythology. In the Prose Edda we see Snorri Sturlson mentioning distinct types of Álfar who appear in mythology, the Ljósálfar and the Svartálfar. A third group of álfar, the Dökkálfar also appear in mythology.
Ljósálfar - their name means 'light elves' and they live in a world called Álfheim [elf home] or Ljósálfheim [light elf home] that according to mythology belongs to the Vanic deity Freyr. The Ljósálfar are described by Snorri as being beautiful and fair to see. Ljósálfar are said to influence the weather and like the Aesir, Dwarves, Humans, and Giants they possess runes given to them by Odin.
Dökkálfar - The Dökkálfar are referenced in a few places in Norse mythology. The name itself means 'dark elves' and Snorri describes them as living in the earth. Grimm calls them 'Genii obscuri' or spirits of the dark and suggests a connection between them and nâir, spirits of the dead, even going so far as to place them living ''in hel, the heathen hades" (Grimm, 1888, p446). Grimm also questions whether the Dökkálfar should be separated from the nâir or whether "[t]he dusky elves are souls of dead men..." (Grimm, 1888, p 447).  There is some strong evidence that the Dökkálfar were the mound dead or male ancestors and the Dökkálfar are sometimes called Mound Elves; it is not certain however and it may be that some Dökkálfar are human dead but others are not**.
Svartálfar - meaning 'black elves' they possess their own world, Svartálfheim [black elf home]. The Duergar or dwarves also live in Svartálfheim creating a longstanding confusion about whether Svartálfar are truly elves in their own right or are actually another name for dwarves. Both are associated with mountains and mountainous regions, but seem to have a distinct and separate focus in activities and interactions with people. Grimm believes that the Svartálfar were good natured beings and argues that they received worship from people into the 19th century.

The álfar and the duergar - elves and dwarves - are also difficult groups to entirely sort out. On one hand there are some good arguments that the two may actually be the same, with Svartálfar and potentially Dökkálfar both simply being alternate names for deurgar. This is supported by three main things: many deurgar have names that incorporate the word 'álf' such as Vindalf and Gandalf; the Svartálfar were said to live in Svartálfheim but the deurgar live there as well; and the svartalfar and Dökkálfar were said to live beneath the ground or in mounds. However there is also evidence that might support the argument that the two groups were separate, including that they are occasionally referenced in the same work together as different groups.  In verse 25 of Hrafnagaldr Óðins we see the Dökkálfar being grouped together with giants, dead men, and dwarves: "gýgjur og þursar, náir, dvergar og dökkálfar" [Giantesses and giants, dead men, dwarves and dark elves]. This would at the least seem to indicate some degree of separation between Duergar and Dökkálfar. In the Alvissmal it is also established that the Álfar and Duergar have different languages and kennings for things, which would also indicate separation of the two groups (Gundarsson, 2007). For the most part the Álfar would seem to be beings closely tied to the Gods, perhaps one step beneath them in power and influence, beings who can influence weather and possess powerful magic that can effect people's health. The Duergar are associated with mining and smithcraft and are not as closely tied to the Gods; when they appear in myth dealing with the Gods they must always be negotiated with or otherwise dealt with in some fashion diplomatically.

The Álfar are a complicated and fascinating group in mythology and we have barely touched on them here. Consider this merely a brief introduction to some basic ideas about the Álfar as they appear in Norse mythology but bear in mind that they can be found throughout Germanic/Norse folklore. they are beings that are both benevolent and dangerous as the mood suits and depending on how they are treated, like the elves found across folklore.  

* For my own opinion I think this is likely referencing the Ljósálfar whose realm would seem by descriptions to be close to the realm of the Aesir, however as far as I know the original text does not specify which álfar
**the idea of some dead joining the elves after death is something we see as well in the Irish, indicating that this may be a wider concept.

Faulkes, A., (1995) Prose Edda
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology, volume 2
Hrafnagaldr Óðins
Gundarsson, K., (2007) Elves, Wights, and Trolls