Ireland’s Samhain

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland was published in 1887. In it, Lady Wilde lets us look into the minds of the Irish peasantry of the time. She did this by interviewing the elders of a dying faith now referred to as the “fairy religion,” or sometimes simply as witchcraft. Sections of the book have not always been considered authoritative according to some sources, such as Sacred-Texts.com.

This should be taken in context, however. In the preface, Lady Wilde separates herself from the individuals whose stories she’s about to share. She explains the historical and cultural importance of the tales themselves. Wilde then reminds the reader that this might have been the last chance for anyone to record the stories from the dying generation before they would be lost forever. She also offers other reasons for being interested in the pagan subject as well, including a love for anything Irish. Finally, she concludes her apologetic preface by reminding the reader that she’s a woman.

Continue reading “Ireland’s Samhain”

The Changeling

Changeling
Detail from The Legend of St. Stephen. The Devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling in its place. Martino di Bartolomeo. 15th century

 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.

In Nature

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).

Other

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 Bat in Celtic Folklore

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.

Bat in Celtic Folklore
Chiroptera. Ernst Haeckel. 1904

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.Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 7.30.02 PM


[i] http://www.rte.ie/radio/mooneygoeswild/factsheets/mammals/index2.html

[ii] http://www.batcon.org/index.php/media-and-info/bats-archives.html?task=viewArticle&magArticleID=573

Top image commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taphozous_nudiventris.jpg

The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part II: Fairytales and Folklore

Karyn Dunbar
by Karyn Dunbar, gallery accessed by clicking on image

“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 Raven and Crow of the Celts
The Hoodie Crow. H.G. Ford. 1919

“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.

Raven
Film poster of Edger Allan Poe’s The Raven. 1908. The Raven continues to be a potent symbol of death & darkness throughout the ages & into the present era

[i] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 2000

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Alexander Carmicheal. Carmina Gadelica – Vol IV. 1900

[iv] Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887

The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part I: Myth and Legend

Raven
Raven by John Auduban. 1861.

“There are about 45 species of Crow in the world known by a variety of common names, including Ravens, jackdaws and rooks.”  – Candace Savage (Crows)

Both the Raven and Crow have made many iconic appearances throughout Celtic myth and legend – and later in folklore as well.  In earlier times, these black birds were often believed to be aspects of the Morrigan, some other divine being, intelligent allies of the downtrodden, or hapless souls who had been transformed through foul magic. Slowly, however, these birds lost their status as divine messengers and instead became servants of the devil, representing death and dying. Truth be told however, the Crow and Raven have always symbolized death.

Lady Guest’s 1877 translation of the Mabinogion is a collection of 11th Century Welsh Tales. Within its pages Taliesin claims:

“I have fled in the semblance of a crow, scarcely finding rest.”

In the ‘Notes’ section of the Mabinogion, Lady Guest says that in some versions of the tale of Owain, the hero has “an army of Ravens.” W. Y. Evans-Wentz elaborates further in his 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. He claims that Owain had a Crow, “which always secured him victory in battle.” This avian champion did so with the aid of 300 other black-plumed Crows.

In Charles Squires 1905 Celtic Myth and Legend Gwynhwyvar’s father Ogyrvan’s (ocur vran) name meant “Evil Bran or Raven,” which was “the bird of death.” Within the text we’re also told that Bran’s (Bran the Blessed) name meant Raven. Bran is said to be the “Celtic Hades,” or god of the Underworld.

According to John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, in Cornwall, it was believed that Arthur did not die in battle at all. Instead, he was turned into a Raven, which was “a form in which he still goes about.” For this reason, the author claimed that even to that day – the year being 1900 – that a Cornishman would not willingly fire upon a Raven.

The Raven and the Crow were aspects of the Morrigan in Ireland.  The Morrigan was sometimes seen as a trio of goddesses whose names were Macha, Babd and Namain[i]. These “war goddesses” often took on the form of the black bird[ii].  In Lady Gregory’s 1904 Gods and Fighting Men the Morrigan is sometimes called “the Crow of Battle” or the “Battle Crow.” In Charles Squires’ 1905 Celtic Myth and Legend it’s said that:

“Wherever there was war, either among gods or men, she, the great queen, was present, either in her own shape or on her favorite disguise, that of a hoodie or carrion crow. An old poem shows her inciting a warrior: Over his head is shrieking, A lean hag, quickly hopping, Over the points of the weapons and shields, She is the grey-haired Morrigii!”

Raven and Crow of the Celts
Cuchulain with Raven. Joseph Leyendecker. 1911

Cuchulain – along with many other heros in Irish myth – was followed by the Goddess Morrigan in her Raven form his whole life. When he did eventually die, “a crow comes and perches upon his shoulder[iii].”

In the 1902 Cuchulain of Muirthemne by Lady Gregory, one of the daughters of the evil Irish druid Calatin appears to Cuchulain in the form of a Crow. Having been influenced by the Morrigan herself, she does this in order to lure Cuchulain into battle.

In Lady Gregory’s retelling of the 12th Century Tain, we’re also told that Cuchulain said after killing his own son:

“I am a Raven that has no home.”  

George Henderson in Survival in Belief amongst Celts – published in 1911 – says that the famous bull[iv] also found in the Tain Bo had at one point taken many other forms including that of the Raven.

In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands we’re told that a “Ravan was the son of the King of Lochlin.”

Not every Raven is black, however.  The Tuatha De Danann queen Eriu (Erin[v]) is described in Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men:

“In the one moment she would be a wide-eyed most beautiful queen, and in another she would be a sharp-beaked, grey-white crow.”

Over time, many other cultures and religions influenced and shaped the beliefs of the Celts. The old gods became fairies and devils, and in turn the Raven and Crow of the Celts became the never-tiring pawns of Satan. Next week, we’ll continue our exploration of these birds in The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part II: Fairytales and Folklore.

Raven and Crow of the Celts
The Woman With the Raven at the Abyss. Caspar David Friedrich. 1801

 

[i] This third name is not always consistent and the three in one aspect is not always agreed upon. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. James MacKillop.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Celtic Myth and Legend. Charles Squire. 1905.

[iv] The bull’s name is Donn Cualnge.

[v] Eriu, or Erin, is one of the three queens in which Ireland was named after.

*Layendecker image: Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. T.W. Rolleston. 1911

*Friedrich image: http://centuriespast.tumblr.com/post/9566090200/caspar-david-friedrich-the-woman-with-the-raven

Ur (Heather) II

“On the summit of his ancient stronghold, South Barrule Mountain, the god Manannan yet dwells invisible to mortal eyes, and whenever on a warm day he throws off his magic mist-blanket with which he is wont to cover the whole island, the golden gorse or purple heather blossoms become musical with the hum of bees, and sway gently on breezes made balmy by the tropical warmth of an ocean stream flowing from the far distant Mexican shores of a New World.” – W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

1) The Roots: Background information

2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

The Roots:

Ur is the eighteenth letter of the Ogham. The tree that is usually associated with this letter is the Heather[i].

The Ogham Tract’s kenning[ii] “in cold dwelling” is given the meaning of “fear” in John Mathew’s book the Celtic Shaman.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids says that the Heather is associated with “healing and homelands.” He also says that the herb is connected with the Celtic fairies and thus has magical uses.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom states that the Ogham letter Ur is representative of death, fate and finality through its connection to the soil[iii]. Laurie also claims that Heather –independent from the letter- is linked to poverty.

Catlin Mathews in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks says that Ur’s word-Ogham kennings all refer to either the earth or “growth cycles.” Her divination system supports these reflections as the interpretations refer to hard work, growth, and following one’s life path.

The Trunk:

“Heather is the four leaf clover of the Scottish Highlands.[iv]” In fact, it is often even seen as a Scottish national symbol. As a result Heather is found on many of the Scottish clan badges.

The importance of Heather to the ancestors can easily be understood within the context of the old texts. The “herb” was often used as roof thatch, to cover open doorways, to make rope, and was even an important source of fuel and warmth. In the stories Heather was also often used as bedding or was bundled and used as a pillow.

In the 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans Wentz we find Heather used in a very clever manner. This story is of Dermout who has stolen Finn Mac Cool’s Sister:

“He took with him a bag of sand and a bunch of heather; and when he was in the mountains he would put the bag of sand under his head at night, and then tell everybody he met that he had slept on the sand (the sea-shore); and when on the sand he would use the bunch of heather for a pillow, and say he had slept on the heather (the mountains). And so nobody ever caught him at all.”

There’s actually a link between Heather and the Celtic trickster the fox. There’s an old story found in Joseph Jacob’s 1894 More Celtic Fairy Tales. The same tale is found in various other texts as well. The fox would gather some Heather and put his head into the midst of it. He would then enter the stream stealthily, swimming towards the ducks. These unsuspecting birds would attempt to use this Heather as cover, only to find themselves inside the jaws of the wily fox. It would seem that the Fox had a clever use for everything, because he would also carry a piece of wool in his mouth, backing into the flowing water until only his nose and the wool were exposed. He did this in order to rid himself of fleas.

In the 1825 book Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker the Cluiricaune knew the “secrets of brewing a Heather beer.” This is not so unusual as Heather was often associated with fairies and magic.

In the 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric, and Lay by Alexander Wallace we are told that witches in Scotland would ride over the Heather on black tabby cats during Samhain. According to this text Heather was also associated with the Cailleach; the primordial Celtic hag goddess[v].

In More Celtic Fairy Tales we find another interesting Heather story. A young couple attempts to escape from powerful witch sisters. As they flee they take the form of Doves in order to confuse their pursuers. When the one sister realizes that the birds are actually the escaping couple she comes at them in a fury. To avoid her they turn themselves into Heather brooms and begin to sweep the town square without “the assistance of human hands.” After this inconspicuous act they turn once more back into Doves and resume their flight to safety.

Nothing to see here, we’re just two brooms doing some innocent sweeping… honest.

The Tylwyth Teg -a type of fairy- at certain times of the year lived in the Heather or Gorse[vi]. Heather is not just connected with fairies but is also associated with the dead. As Katherine Briggs says, however, Fairies and Ghosts may be the same thing[vii].

In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx by John Rhys the spirits of family members are often seen dancing over “the tops of Heather.” The herb is even directly connected to a haunted graveyard. We are also told in the same text that if a person heard the fairy songs – and was possessed to dance – that they would often wake the next morning “in the Heather.” The Heather was also connected to fairy rings elsewhere in the book.

In mythology, Heather is associated with Rathcroghan, also called Cruachan[viii]. This is an ancient site found in the Ulster Cycle and is an important archaeological site today. In the 1904 Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we are told that Finn Mac Cool “delighted” in the song of “the Grouse of the Heather of Cruachan” whose music put him to sleep. Elsewhere in the book we are told that Finn found peace in “the Stag of the Heather of quiet Cruachan.”

Finally, in Joseph Jacob’s 1895 Celtic Fairy Tales we are told of a long forgotten magical use for Heather. In this tale Conall blinds a one eyed giant -who may or may not have been a later version of Balor – with Heather:

“I got Heather and I made a rubber (?) of it, and I set him upright in the caldron. I began at the eye that was well, pretending to him that I would give its sight to the other one, tell I left them as bad as each other; and surely it was easier to spoil the one that was well than to give sight to the other.”

The Foliage:

In Alexander Wallace’s 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay, Heather branches were carried around the sacred fire three times before being raised above dwellings to protect the house’s occupants “against the evil eye.” The text also says that throwing Heather after a person was supposed to bring them good luck.

Robert Ellison relays in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids that “a small broom made from Heather can be used to sweep an area where magic is to be performed.” He also says that Heather can be burnt as incense while working with “spells involving the fair folk.”

In A.W. Moore’s 1891 Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man we are also told of a spell that was used to remove evil or the influence of witches from fishing boats:

“It was not only on land that burning some animal or thing to detect or exorcise witchcraft was resorted to, but at sea also, for when a boat was unsuccessful during the fishing season, the cause was ascribed by the sailors to witchcraft, and, in their opinion, it then became necessary to exorcise the boat by burning the Witches out of it. Townley, in his journal, relates one of these operations, which he witnessed in Douglas harbor: 
in 1789, as follows — ‘They set fire to bunches of heather in the center of the boat, and soon made wisps of heather, and lighted them, going one at the head, another at the stern, others along the sides, so that every part of the boat might be touched.’ Again he says, ‘There is another burning of witches out of an unsuccessful boat off Banks’s Howe—
to the top of the bay.’ Feltham, writing a few years later, also mentions this practice.”

In this example, Heather is used in a similar manner to the Native Americans’ who burnt instead Sage or Sweet Grass. This Heather smoke was used to purify the boat and to chase off evil spirits.

 

“Heather is an Herb Tree in Irish law. It is abundant on heathland throughout western Europe, growing profusely in acid soil.” – Caitlin Mathews (Celtic Wisdom Stick

All images in this post are from Wikipedia commons unless otherwise stated and are of the public domain.


[i] The Ogham was not originally a Tree Alphabet. See previous posts.

[iii] The Ogham Tract.

[v] The previous Heather post relays more Heather stories taken from this book.

[vi] See last week’s post on Gorse.

[vii] Katherine Briggs says that fairies were categorized as either “diminished gods or the dead.” The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.