Changeling. The widespread belief that fairies or other malevolent spiritual forces might secretly substitute one infant for another is amply represented in Celtic oral tradition. Irish corpán sídhe, síodhbhradh, síofra; Scottish Gaelic tàcharan, ùmaidh; Manx lhiannoo shee; Welsh plentyn a newidiwyd am arall (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology).
The Fairy Changeling
(Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. Lady Wilde. 1887.)
ONE evening, a man was coming home late, and he passed a house where two women stood by a window, talking.
“I have left the dead child, in the cradle as you bid me,” said one woman, “and behold here is the other child, take it and let me go;” and she laid down an infant on a sheet by the window, who seemed in a secret sleep, and it was draped all in white.
“Wait,” said the other, “till you have had some food, and then take it to the fairy queen, as I promised, in place of the dead child that we have laid in the cradle by the nurse. ‘Wait also till the moon rises, and then you shall have the payment which I promised.”
They then both turned from the window. Now the man saw that there was some devil’s magic in it all. And when the women turned away he crept up close to the open window and put his hand in and seized the sleeping child and drew it out quietly without ever a sound. Then he made off as fast as he could to his own home, before the women could know anything about it, and handed the child to his mother’s care. Now the mother was angry at first, but when he told her the story, she believed him, and put the baby to sleep–a lovely, beautiful boy with a face like an angel.
Next morning there was a great commotion in the village, for the news spread that the first-born son of the great lord of the place, a lovely, healthy child, died suddenly in the night, without ever having had a sign of sickness. When they looked at him in the morning, there he laid dead in his cradle, and he was shrunk and wizened like a little old man, and no beauty was seen on him any more. So great lamentation was heard on all sides, and the whole country gathered to the wake. Amongst them came the young man who had carried off the child, and when he looked on the little wizened thing in the cradle he laughed. Now the parents were angry at his laughter, and wanted to turn him out.
But he said, “Wait put down a good fire,” and they did so.
Then he went over to the cradle and said to the hideous little creature, in a loud voice before all the people–
“If you don’t rise up this minute and leave the place, I will burn you on the fire; for I know might well who you are, and where you came from.”
At once the child sat up and began to grin at him; and made a rush to the door to get away; but the man caught hold of it and threw it on the fire. And the moment it felt the heat it turned into a black kitten, and flew up the chimney and was seen no more.
Then the man sent word to his mother to bring the other child, who was found to be the true heir, the lord’s own son. So there was great rejoicing, and the child grew up to be a great lord him-self, and when his time came, he ruled well over the estate; and his descendants are living to this day, for all things prospered with him after he was saved from the fairies.
Parasitic cuckoo birds regularly practice brood parasitism, or non-reciprocal offspring-swapping. Rather than raising their young on their own, they will lay their egg in another’s nest, leaving the burden on the unsuspecting parents, which are of another species altogether. More often than not, the cuckoo chick hatches sooner than its “stepsiblings” and grows faster; eventually claiming most of the nourishment brought in and may actually “evict” the young of the host species by pushing them out of their own nest (Wikipedia).
According to Katherine Briggs in Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), the changeling is more often male than female. This stolen child usually has blonde hair and a fair complexion. Briggs says it’s believed the dark fairies steal human babies in order to use them for breeding; thus introducing “fair” blood into their fairy gene pool. Most accounts of changelings in the fairy tales can be traced to Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends. Several other sources are given in Brigg’s text, however. Either book can offer insight into how to retrieve a stolen child if need be, or how to protect one’s own child from being stolen in the first place.
I’ve written about the Bridget Cleary case previously in the Hawthorn Ogham post. To recap: In rural Ireland in 1895, Bridget Cleary’s husband, neighbours, and relatives, murdered her and burned her body. The motive? They were convinced Bridget was a fairy changeling. The active participants of the murder (9 initially charged) maintained their story throughout the entire court case.
The Fear Dorcha is a mysterious, malignant, fairy being, found in Celtic myth and legend. Despite modern associations with the word, the term “fairy” was once used to refer to spirits such as the Fear Dorcha. Unlike modern fairies, however, these spirits – or ghosts – were not usually inclined towards acts of kindness, generosity, or mercy. In fact, Ireland’s Fear Dorcha is a classic example of the type of dark fairy found throughout the lands of the Celts:
Far dorocha, fear dorocha [Ir. Fear dorcha, dark man]. A malevolent fairy, the chief agent of mortal abduction. Usually portrayed as the butler-like servant of the fairy queen, he carries out her commands without emotion or waste of energy. With equal aplomb he may serve the queen her tea or retrieve on his black charger a desired mortal. Silently obedient to his queen, he is able to make all surrender their wills to his command. Although many have journeyed with the far doracha [sic] to the fairyland, few have returned with him. – James Mackillop (the Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)
Replace the word “fairy” with ghost and the term “fairyland” with Land of the Dead and you’ll start to get the picture! The Fear Dorcha was a terrifying shadow spirit of nightmares and darkness. He was feared because he served the Queen of the Dead herself.
The Far Dorcha, or dark-man, is not to be confused with the Far Darrig (the red man), Far Gorta (the man of hunger) or Far Liath (the grey man).
According to Mackillop, the red man is basically a “gruesome” practical joker who likes to scare the living hell out of his prey. The man of hunger, on the other hand, pretends to be a beggar. He rewards those who have given him charity, but with what we can only imagine. Finally, the grey man takes the form of a fog or mist. He does this to cause ships to smash onto rocky shores, or for people to stumble and fall to an untimely death. His motives for these heinous acts are entirely unclear.
Fear Doirche, or dark-man, is also the name sometimes given to ‘the Black Druid of the Shee.’ In James Stephens 1920 book, Irish Fairy Tales we find one such example:
“I beg your protection, royal captain.”
“I give that to all,” he answered. “Against whom do you desire protection?”
“I am in terror of the Fear Doirche.”
“The Dark Man of the Shi?”
“He is my enemy,” she said.
“He is mine now,” said Fionn. “Tell me your story.”
The Fear Dorcha, or Black Druid, is also known as ‘the Black Sorcerer’ in some versions of the tale. It’s this Black Druid who finally steals Fionn’s wife. Much to Fionn’s dismay and never-ending searching, she was never seen or heard from again. We can only assume that she was forced to be Fear Dorcha’s bride – and would still be to this day – in the Land of the Dead.
Interestingly, there actually was a man whose name was Fear Dorcha MacFhirbhisigh (1600?). Very little seems to be known about him. The MacFhirbhisigh family celebrated pagan roots, however, and employed themselves as bards, judges and historians. It’s likely that the MacFhirbhisigh family recognized and honored existing druidic traditions. While Fear Dorcha may be a generic term, MacFhirbhisigh’s name may also be more than a coincidence and is worth noting. As is well known, many legendary stories have roots in actual historical places, people, or events.
The Fear Dorcha from Celtic folklore was a predator of the weak and an enemy of the strong. He existed only to serve the whims of the Queen of the Dead, or himself. Ultimately, this would make him a powerful figure in that otherworldly realm, and in ours, as well.
Not much else is known about the Fear Dorcha. Some modern sources give him attributes never mentioned in the old tales. It would be fair to agree, however, that Samhain would have been Fear Dorcha’s greatest day of strength. It would have been a day of great power for all of them, though. For it was on this night – Samhain – that the veil between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead were at their very thinnest.
In the land of the Celts – from lonely moors to haunted castles –the bat has long been associated with witches, ghosts, and other tragic beings of the night…
In the 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions by Edwin and Mona Radford we find one such example: In Scotland, it was said that when a bat rose quickly from the ground and then descended again, that “the witches hour had come.” This witches hour was, of course, “the hour in which [the witches] have power over every human being under the sun who are not specially shielded from their influence.”
The bat in Celtic folklore wasn’t always bad, though. In A. W. Moore’s 1891 book Folk-lore of the Isle of Man we’re told, “fine weather is certain when bats fly about at sunset.” Likewise, Fredrick Thomas Elworthy reported in his 1895 book the Evil Eye that, “in Shropshire it is unlucky to kill a bat.” George Henderon, in the 1911 book Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, also said “the bat was regarded with awe in the midlands.”
“A bat came flying round and round us, flapping its wings heavily.” – the Bard Iolo Morganwg (1747 – 1826)
Sometimes, the bat could be a fairy (ghost or other discarnate spirit) in disguise. In Thomas Crofton Croker’s 1825 book Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland we’re given one such example: The Phooka – who sometimes took the form of a bat – was basically a trickster-being who hijacked people’s bodies and took them out for a joy ride… a trick modern people might call possession. The story implies that it’s the soul being taken on the journey and not the physical body itself.
“The Phooka would take his victim on great adventures as far away as the moon, [he] compels the man of whom it has got possession, and who is incapable of making any resistance, to go through various adventures in a short time. It hurries with him over precipices, carries him up into the moon, and down to the bottom of the sea.”
Other mythical beings are also associated with the bat. In 1886, Charles Gould in Mythical Monsters identified the Celtic dragon’s wings as those of a bat as opposed to those of a bird. In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, by John Rhys, we also learn of the Cyhiraeth. “This spectral female used to be oftener heard than seen,” said Rhys. She was usually believed to be a death-messenger, similar to the Banshee, but one who was more likely to be heard than seen. If the title or name of a person could not be heard and understood clearly, then it was assumed that the hearer of the Cyhiraeth’s message would die themselves. Sometimes, instead of words, she would flap her wings against a window at night as a warning that death was coming. The source Rhys quoted in the book said that these wings were leathery and bat-like.
The greatest surviving tale of the bat, however, is the story of the shape-shifting enchantress Tehi Tegi found in A. W. Moore’s 1891 Folk-lore of the Isle of Man:
“A famous enchantress, sojourning in this Island, had by her diabolical arts made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her…When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them.
She led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable, and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which, driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers, to the number of six hundred, in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons, who stood on the shore, to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight, as did her palfrey into a sea hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.”
In this way, the enchantress Tehi Tegi was able to capture the hearts of men through her otherworldly beauty, before dissolving into the shadows in the form of a bat. This, of course, was only after she’d sacrificed the 600 worshippers she had come for in the first place.
In modern times, the bat has become emblematic of Halloween. Halloween, as we know, is the descendent of the Celtic holiday Samhain. In this way, the bat has now become an object of festive tradition instead of a creature loathed or feared.
The bat in Celtic folklore hasn’t lost all of its dark powers completely, however. In Ireland, it’s still said that, “bats commonly become entangled in women’s hair… if a bat escapes carrying a strand of hair, then the woman is destined for eternal damnation[i].” Some people also believe that a bat entering into the home is a sure sign that death will soon follow[ii].
If you’re a lowly man, you could be in trouble if this particular bat portends the arrival of the mighty Tehi Tegi. In this case, the Bat in Celtic folklore might signify a dark destruction for you, as well.
The Banshee’s arguably the most famous ghost of them all, and probably the least understood.
“When the Banshee calls she sings the spirit home. In some houses still a soft low music is heard at death.” – George Henderson 1911 (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts)
There’s an Irish tradition promoting the Banshee as only ever interacting with certain families. Although folklorists have also made this statement in the past, it’s entirely false. The Banshee’s known by many different names, was encountered in many varied forms, and was believed to have existed by a wide array of people[i].
In Ireland, the Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side amongst other names. A great deal of surviving Banshee lore comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, for example, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith. On the Isle of Mann she’s called Ben Shee, while the Welsh call her close sister Cyhyraeth[ii].
The she in Banshee, or sidhe, suggests and older source for the stories. The sidhe were the old gods who had fled the Irish invaders to live inside of the hollow hills. They were also known as the Tuatha De Danaan or “the fair folk.”
“Banshee: A female wraith of Irish or Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.” – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)
In the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, we’re told that the Irish Banshee was more likely to be beautiful, while the Scottish Banshee was more likely to appear in the image of an older crone-like woman. Like most things in Celtic lore, however, this wasn’t always consistent.
The Banshee would usually warn of death by: wailing, appearing as an apparition, playing or singing music, tapping on a window in the form of a crow, be seen washing body parts or armor at a stream, knocking at the door, whispering a name, or by speaking through a person that she had already possessed – a host or medium[iii]. The noble families of Ireland generally viewed the spirit’s attendance as a great honour. Some sources do say that the Banshee served only five Irish families, but others say that several hundred families had these spirits attached to them[iv]. The five families usually stated to have had Banshee attendants are the O’Neils, the O’Brians, the O’Gradys, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs. Many stories, however, are of other families.
The Ó Briains’ Banshee was thought to have had the name of Eevul[v], or Aibhill as she is called in the book True Irish Ghost Stories. Likewise, a great bard of the O’Connelan family had the goddess Aine (sometimes called Queen of Fairy), attend him in the role of a wailing Banshee in order to foretell – and honour – his death[vi]. Cliodhna (Cleena) is a goddess-like Munster Banshee, who people claimed was originally the ghost of a “foreigner.” Most Banshees remained nameless, however.
The description of the Banshee varies a great deal throughout the many accounts. If she was young she often had red hair, but she could have “pale hair” as well. She was often described as wearing white, but sometimes she could be seen wearing green or other colors such as black or grey. Red shoes were sometimes mentioned, but so was a silver comb,[vii] which she either ran through her hair or left on the ground to capture some curious passerby. Most described her eyes as being red from crying, or keening, or to be menacing and evil looking. The eyes were also often said to be blue. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the Banshee was said to have webbed feet like a water creature. Sometimes she was wrapped in a white sheet or grey blanket – a statement that reveals an older funerary tradition and a possible source for the modern white sheet-ghosts of Halloween.
In True Irish Ghost Stories we’re told that the Banshee could not by seen by “the person whose death it [was] prognosticating.” This statement is not consistent with all of the stories either:
“THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’” – Lady Gregory 1902 (Cuchulain of Muirthemne – retelling of 12th CE)
The Banshee – who’s often said to have her roots in stories of Morrigan the Irish war goddess[viii] – could also follow families abroad. One famous story regarding the O’Grady family takes place along the Canadian coastline where two men die[ix]. St. Seymour shares another tale in which a partial Irish descendent sees a Banshee on a boat in an Italian lake. In Charles Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land we’re also told of a South Dakota Banshee living in the United States.
The Banshee could also be a trickster of sorts. She was said to mess with “the loom” in Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica. There’s even a blessing in the section, which is chanted over the item. In W.Y. Evens-Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we’re told of a Banshee who could be placated by giving her barley-meal cakes on two separate hills. This action reminds us of the tithes often left for other trickster fairies, and doesn’t seem to be a customary gift one would leave for a ghost. As Katherine Briggs once said[x], however, fairies fall into two categories, “diminished gods and the dead.” Unfortunately, our modern conception of fairies does little to remind us that either one of these forms would be considered as a spirit-being today. As Evans-Wentz further explains:
“It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz 1911 (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)
The Banshee being attached to a certain family could be extremely beneficial and would have not been seen as a negative. As already stated, any family would’ve been seen as extremely important if a Banshee (or several) attended them. In George Henderson’s 1911 Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, a Banshee, or Maighdeann Shidhe, even gave the “Blue Stone of Destiny” to the Scottish hero Coinneach Odhar. In return for favours, however, it would’ve been extremely important to honour these spirits whenever possible, either out of respect for the Banshee, or from a place of fear in order to placate them.
In modern times, the Banshee became associated more and more with evil. As a portent of death she shared many things in common with the approaching Carriage of Death, the death candles, Ankou[xi] or even with the Grim Reaper. In her more ancient visage, she could easily be compared to the Norse Valkyrie (as the Morrigan often is) or to any other Shieldmaiden whose task it was to collect the dead[xii]. To the commoner of modern times, such a role was reserved for the Angels of God and for the Holy Church alone.
Furthermore, the Banshee – like other mystic beings of Celtic lore – was also able to appear in various non-human forms. A fact which would later make her seem in league with the devil:
“The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.” – Donald MacKenzie 1917 (Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend)
Whether the Banshee does, or ever did, exist is a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain, however, the most famous ghost of them all is the one in which few people actually know anything about. The Banshee was more than a shrieking omen of death. In fact, individual Banshees appeared and behaved quite differently from one another in different stories. Her attachment to a particular family was a relationship that was embraced by the Celtic people with pride, and with honour. Her haunting of a particular place, on the other hand, was met with wary bribes. An unknown Banshee – like a stray dog – could have been seen as something quite different altogether. It would have been this Banshee that brought with it fear – which was usually seen as nothing short of a greeting from death itself.
The Banshee in Celtic folklore seems much more interesting, when we realize that many of our modern ghost stories share the exact same elements. A deceased female relative forewarning death, a disembodied voice, a spirit attached to a particular family, or a haunted landmark may not seem to have anything to do with a Banshee today, but none of these stories are really all that different from the old ones at all. Like it or not, in modern folklore the Banshee still remains. It’s only our terminology that has changed.
[i] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.
[iii] St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.
[iv] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.
[v] Thos Westrop. Folklore. 1910.
[vi] W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.
[vii] This may be an overlap with the mermaid, which history likewise seems to have forgotten was also a spirit.
[viii] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.
[ix] This would most likely be referring to the east coast but could also be the west coast, as well.
[x] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. 1967.
According to lore, the spider in Celtic myth was a beneficial being. It appeared in the old texts suddenly, emerging from some now-forgotten lost older oral tradition, creepy-crawling onto the pages of recorded folklore from out of nowhere.
One of the earliest mentions of the spider can be found in Waltor Gregor’s 1881 book, Notes on the Folklore of the Northeast of Scotland. Here, we discover the spider was once a well-respected creature:
“Spiders were regarded with a feeling of kindliness, and one was usually very loath to kill them. Their webs, very often called ‘moose wobs,’ were a great specific to stop bleeding.”
The author adds the following statements for good measure:
“A spider running over any part of the body-clothes indicated a piece of new dress corresponding to the piece over which the spider was making its way.”
“A small spider makes its nest—a white downy substance—on the stalks of standing corn. According to the height of the nest from the ground was to be the depth of snow during winter.”
Lady Wilde later echoed these sentiments – those of a beneficial spider – in her 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. She claimed the Transylvanians and the Irish shared the belief that one should, “Never kill a spider.” The text implies this would attract misfortune.
Although Celtic stories involving the spider are difficult to find, they do exist. One tale, involving the Spider, for example, occurs in Elsie Masson’s 1929 Folk Tales of Brittany:
Two brothers are travelling through a forested countryside, when they come across a beggarly old woman. The first brother ignores the woman, while the second gives her all of his coins. As a reward, the old lady gives the generous brother a walnut, which she claims contains a wasp with a diamond stinger.
The older brother becomes annoyed at his younger brother’s generosity, but opts to continue the journey without much further discussion. As they’re riding, however, the brothers come across a young boy who’s shivering in the wind. The younger brother gives the boy his cloak without any thought, much to the dismay of his older brother. The child in return gives him a dragonfly (winged needle), which is being held in a cage made from Reeds. The child claims that the dragonfly was captured from within a hollow tree[i].
The brothers continue on their way, until eventually, they come upon an old man who says that he cannot walk. Filled with compassion, the younger brother gives the old man his horse. In return, the old man gives the generous brother a hollow acorn (Oak nut), which he claims contains a spider.
By this point, however, the older brother is furious. Angry at his younger brother’s foolishness, the older brother leaves him cold, penniless, and without a mount. He tells the younger brother that he will not share his horse, his coin, or his cloak, nor will he wait for him any longer. The older brother seems quite convinced that the younger brother will learn his lesson if he’s forced to walk and to suffer, so he leaves him. As the older brother rides away, however, a giant eagle snatches him from the saddle and carries him into the clouds. The younger brother, horrified, witnesses the act and sees that two eagles have committed it. One of these eagles is white, and the other one is red.
The younger brother, distressed, wonders aloud as to how he will be able to rescue his older brother. Seemingly, from out of nowhere, he hears three tiny voices from out of his pocket. These voices beg to help him. Seeing a possible answer to his dilemma, the younger brother unleashes the three deadly insects. The spider springs forth and immediately weaves a ladder towards the heavens from upon the dragonfly’s back. The group then ascends into the sky, and into the lair of the giant responsible for the kidnapping.
A battle of epic proportions ensues. The wasp stings out the eyes of both eagles and the giant. The spider then attacks, and wraps, the giant within its steel–like web. Suddenly, the eagles switch sides, blindly pecking the giant to death through the spider’s binding webs. The eagles both die on the spot, however, because as the story goes, a magician’s flesh is incredibly poisonous.
(Tom Thumb Spider. Jemina Blackburn. 1855)
In the aftermath of carnage, the dragonfly and wasp transform into horses and attach themselves to the Reed cage, which has now become a coach. The spider, on the other hand, has become the carriage’s groom. The brothers get in, and the coach carries them through the sky[ii]. The carriage then carries the brothers to their horses, where the younger brother also finds a much fuller coin purse and a diamond-studded cloak. Upon arrival, the carriage disappears and the three insects, which have already been transformed once, now assume their true forms. In their place are three shining angels which light up the sky. The brothers fall to their knees and thank the divine beings for all of their aid and for saving their lives.
This tale, though Christian by the time of its recording, echoes a much older belief that all of nature, however humble it may appear on the surface, could in fact be a sacred spirit or divine being in disguise.
The Spider was said to have its own powers though. Sometimes that power was beneficial, and sometimes it brought nothing harm. For example, in the 1899 Prophecies of Brahan Seer by Alexander MacKenzie we learn that:
“A spider put into a goose-quill, well sealed, and put around a child’s neck, will cure it of the thrush[iii].”
Somewhat contrarily, Alexander Carmicheal’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica says there’s a “bloody flux” in cattle believed to be caused by the animal swallowing a water insect or a Spider, believed to have caused the bleeding in the animal.
Understandably, the Spider also has ties to the loom or spinning wheel; which in turn suggests a much older goddess connection. In John Rhys 1900 Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx we find the following quote (where the author’s discussing the differences between the Welsh and Breton languages):
“Cor and corryn are also used for the spider, as in gwe’r cor or gwe’r corryn, ‘a spider’s web,’ the spider being so called on account of its spinning, an occupation in which the fairies are represented likewise frequently engaged; not to mention that gossamer (gwawn) is also some-times regarded as a product of the fairy loom.”
Within the Carmina Gadelica we find a more specific connection:
“’Bean chaol a chota uaine’s na gruaige buidhe,’ the slender woman of the green kirtle and the yellow hair, is wise of head and deft of hand. She can convert the white water of the rill into rich red wine, and the threads of the spider into a tartan plaid.”
In 1978, J. C. Cooper stated in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols that:
“The spindle is an attribute of all mother goddesses, lunar goddesses, and weavers of fate in their terrible aspect.”
While the statement does seem a little broad, this is likely true in regards to the Celts, as well. In Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas, written in 1901, we find the following statement:
“In the old days, when spinning was the constant employment of women, the spinning-wheel had its presiding genius or fairy. Her Border name was Habitrot.”
Perhaps, it’s from these two statements that we’re able to surmise an older, and more divine, connection to the Spider. In Thomas Rolleston’s 1911 Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, for example, we find a story containing similar symbolism to those found in Greek or Norse mythology:
“Finn, it is said, and Conan the Bald, with Finn’s two favourite [sic] hounds, were watching the hunt from the top of the Hill of Keshcorran and listening to the cries of the beaters and the notes of the horn and the baying of the dogs, when, in moving about on the hill, they came upon the mouth of a great cavern, before which sat three hags of evil and revolting aspect. On three crooked sticks of Holly they had twisted left-handwise hanks of yarn, and were spinning with these when Finn and his followers arrived. To view them more closely the warriors drew near, when they found themselves suddenly entangled in strands of the yarn which the hags had spun about the place like the web of a spider, and deadly faintness and trembling came over them, so that they were easily bound fast by the hags and carried into the dark recesses of the cave. Others of the party then arrived looking for Finn. All suffered the same experience— the bewitched yarn, and were bound and carried into the cave, until the whole party were laid in bonds, with the dogs baying and howling outside.”
The hags set about to murder the hapless men, but Goll mac Morna arrived and cleaved two of them in half. The third sister, Irnan, having been initially spared, later returns for vengeance. Goll mac Morna[iv] is finally forced to slay her as well:
“He drew sword for a second battle with this horrible enemy. At last, after a desperate combat, he ran her through her shield and through her heart, so that the blade stuck out at the far side, and she fell dead.”
As a reward, Goll mac Morna is given Finn’s daughter, Keva of the White Skin. The story is incredibly symbolic. If we take the tale as being metaphoric, instead of more literal, then clearly the three hags, and their webs, represent one’s own fate or destiny. While Finn and his men (already semi-divine) are powerless, Goll mac Morna (an exterior force) is able to free them.
The idea of fate, however, was contrary to the teachings of the church. Over time the hags, much like the spider, had become “evil.” The following example from St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan’s 1914 True Irish Ghost Stories illustrates a full negative shift away from the older more favourable viewing of spiders. Long before Marvel created the comic book hero spider man – or even spider woman for that matter – this creepy specter was said to be gracing the walls of one particular Irish manor:
“A strange legend is told of a house in the Boyne valley. It is said that the occupant of the guest chamber was always wakened on the first night of his visit, then, he would see a pale light and the shadow of a skeleton ‘climbing the wall like a huge spider.’ It used to crawl out onto the ceiling, and when it reached the middle would materialize into apparent bones, holding on by its hands and feet; it would break in pieces, and first the skull, and then the other bones, would fall on the floor. One person had the courage to get up and try to seize a bone, but his hand passed through to the carpet though the heap was visible for a few seconds.”
While the tale’s unlikely in a literal sense – at least as far as traditional hauntings go – it does show us that the spider lost its status as a “kindly” being by this point, and instead wore a cloak of blackened “evil.”
At one time, weaving was a necessary practice in the daily life of a Celtic community. As trades became more specialized or industrialized, however, and folk came to view nature as something separate and evil, the spider, the spinning wheel, and the act of weaving itself, lost their mystique, their value, and even their sacredness.
Like it or not, if nature’s ever to be viewed as sacred once more, then so must the Spider. To gaze upon a spider’s web, as it reflects an intricate array of light and complexity, one can be reminded that there’s more to the creeping quiet Spider than initially meets the eye. Sacred or not, the Spider shows itself to be an amazing product of evolution. To the Celtic people of the past, this observation must have been nothing short of divine.
[i] The Hollow Tree is usually a Yew.
[ii] Ancient Alien theorists would claim that this story of flying through the air is indisputable evidence that Aliens co-existed with humans in the past.
[iii] An oral fungal infection.
[iv] Goll mac Morna is described as: “the raging lion, the torch of onset, the great of soul.” He disappears in between the two battles and is not ensnared by the web. The story suggests he’s not human.
“The Raven is equally a bird of omen, Raven-knowledge, or wisdom being proverbial” – George Henderson. (Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911)
Many Celtic Fairytales contain remnants of the old stories of Gods and Goddesses [part I]. In Donald Mackenzie’s 1917 Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth, for example, we’re told that the Banshee can appear as a black dog, a Raven, or a Hoodie Crow during the day. The older spelling of Banshee was Bean Sidhe. The word Sidhe is usually used in relation to the Tuatha De Danaan, Old Ireland’s pre Christian deities[i].
Thomas Croker claimed, in his 1825 book Fairy Legends of South Ireland, that the Leprechaun “properly written” was Preachan. Croker said that the name meant, “Raven.”
In the 1773 book Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by Sir. George Douglas, we find a story reminiscent of much older shapeshifting myths when a man’s wife turns herself into a Raven to avoid some ravenous dogs. The same power of transformation is possessed by the Witches of Mull in George Henderson’s 1911 book, Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. The most famous Witch of Mull was Doideag, a powerful sorceress who some believed sank the Spanish Armada[ii].
There are many fairytales in which a person is turned into a Raven, or Crow, as part of a curse. In Joseph Jacob’s 1894 More Celtic Fairytales, for example, a man is turned into a Raven when his wife strikes him. Usually, however, the Raven’s curse is somehow related to “the son of a king” such as the two stories which are found in J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of West Highlands.
In the story of the Battle of the Birds, found in Joseph Jacob’s earlier 1892 book Celtic Fairy Tales, a king’s son happens upon a fierce battle. All of the other creatures have already fled the battlefield or are dead, except for a black Raven and a snake locked in mortal combat. The king’s son aids the Raven and kills the snake. The Raven then leads the king’s son over nine bens, glens and mountain moors in one day, six on the following day, and three on the final day. On the third morning the Raven has disappeared and a “handsome lad” is standing in his place. This boy claims that an evil druid had put a curse on him, transforming him into a Raven. As thanks, for saving his life and lifting the curse, the Raven-boy gives the king’s son a gift of “a bundle,” which contains in it a Castle and an Apple orchard.
In Popular Tales of West Highlands is the story of The Hoodie Crow. In it, the youngest of three sisters agrees to marry a Crow. Once married, she discovers that her husband is really a handsome man – of course. Due to her love, the curse becomes partially lifted and the third daughter is forced to decide if she wants her husband as a man or as a Crow during the day. The bride eventually decides that her husband will be a man during the day and a Crow at night.
“The Crow was a bird of darkness. He was always associated with the man skilled in Black Airt [sic]” – Walter Greger (Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881)
In folklore, the Raven and Crow of the Celts can be somewhat of a guardian angel, as well. Such is the case with the Crow found in Joseph Jacob’s Celtic Fairy Tales. In it, a talking bird appears to a man who’s having problems with a leaky sieve (we all know what that’s like). The Crow tells the man to use red clay from the bottom of the river to repair the sieve. The man does what the crow suggests and the sieve no longer leaks.
The Raven and Crow sometimes has human-like abilities, similar to the Raven found in First Nation myths of the Pacific Northwest. In one Celtic story, for example, a Raven is chewing tobacco[iii], in another, hundreds of Ravens are engaged in a semi-formal dance[iv].
There’s also an interesting story found in the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde. A man steals some Raven’s eggs and boils them. He then places the eggs back in the nest. The Raven returns to the nest, discovers the cooked eggs, and then quickly leaves. The Raven eventually returns with a magic stone, which she rubs all over the boiled eggs. Through this action the eggs are restored to their previous state. The man, as he’d planned all along, then steals the magic stone from the Raven intending to use it for his own personal gain (a Leprechaun-like story).
Besides the many fairytales and folk stories, Raven proverbs are also scattered throughout the old texts:
A Raven hovering over a cow meant that there was “a blight” upon the animal (Joseph Jacobs. More Celtic Fairytales. 1894).
A departing soul sometimes took on the form of a Raven (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
If a Raven was present when somebody died, it was said to be the Devil retrieving his or her soul. If the bird present was a White Dove, however, it meant that the person had obtained salvation (Thomas Croker. Fairy Legends of South Ireland. 1825).
A Crow on a house indicated that someone would die (Walter Greger. Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881).
“The howling of a dog at night, and the resting of a Crow or Magpie on the house-step are signs of death (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”
A Raven tapping three times on a windowpane foretold the death of an occupant (John Seymour. True Irish Ghosts. 1914).
“If Ravens were cawing about the house it is a sure sign of death, for the Raven is Satan’s own bird (Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887).”
“The Crow and Black Hen are ominous of evil (ibid).”
“It is unlucky to meet a Magpie… when going on a journey (ibid).
The Raven prepared “his nest” on St. Bride’s Day and would have a chick by Easter. “If the Raven has not he has his death (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900).”
The Devil could appear as a Raven and would land upon a person’s head in order to possess their bodies (St. John Seymour. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. 1913).
“What is blacker than a Raven?” “There is Death (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol III. 1890).”
“The Raven sometimes brings aid to man (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol I. 1890).”
“The Raven, the Crow, and the Serpent, have appeared as transformed beings of superior power (J. F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands. 1890).”
“Give a piece to a Raven and he will come again (A.W. Moore. Folklore of the Isle of Man. 1891).”
To protect young goats, or kids, Scottish Highlanders often gave libations and cakes to the Crow who they claimed often “molested” them (Charles Squire. Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905).
There is a Scottish chant, “There to thee Raven spare my kids!” that’s used to protect young goats (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900)
It is a curse to leave a dead Crow (or other creature) on a hearth (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
“The day will come when a Raven attired in plaid and a bonnet, will drink his fill of human blood on ‘Fionn-bheinn,’ three times a day, for three successive days… the Blood of the Gael from the Stone of Fionn (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”
Over time, the Raven and Crow of the Celts became an evil bird. It should be no surprise then, that the Raven or Crow may also be a witch in disguise, or the devil himself. In the 1913 book Irish Witchcraft and Mythology by St. John Seymour, a witch on “the gallows” suddenly disappears. In her place is noted a coal-black Raven. In volume 2 of Popular Tales of West Highland, a “gentleman” turns himself into a Raven. The story implies that this man the Devil himself.
The Raven and Crow of the Celts often represented the darker aspects of life. It’s no wonder then, that these shadow-birds continue to fascinate our imaginations to this day. These clever birds have always seemed distinguished, compared to their less intelligent bird-cousins. Some crows even make and use tools. Both the Crow and Raven have always been seen as symbols of darkness, death, and the ignorance of the unknown. Now considered one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet, the Corvus has never given up feasting upon the dead. Good reasons that the birds continue to fascinate and intimidate us to this day.
[i] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 2000
[iii] Alexander Carmicheal. Carmina Gadelica – Vol IV. 1900
[iv] Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887