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.
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
“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!”
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.
[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.
[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
“Ngetal is the month when the terrible roar of breakers and the snarling noise of pebbles on the Atlantic seaboard fill the heart with terror, and when the wind whistles dismally through the reed-beds of the rivers. In Ireland the roaring of the sea was held to be prophetic of a king’s death.” – Robert Graves (The White Goddess)
The reed is the most commonly associated plant to this thirteenth letter, Ngetal. The Ogham Tract[i] lists Ngetal as either the broom or the fern –and not as the reed- so this letter often causes confusion.
It seems to have been Robert Graves that left us with the association of Ngetal to Reed Grass. This may have been to more easily associate each of the Ogham letters to the corresponding line found in the Song of Amergin -as he made his poetic comparison- or to perhaps make a stronger argument that the Ogham was once used as a Celtic tree calendar[ii]. It may have even been possible that he did not want two such similar plants as the broom and the gorse –found later in the Ogham- to both be a part of the
same list of letters[iii]. This of course is simply my own speculation. We may never know why Graves chose to list the thirteenth letter of the Ogham as the Reed, but it seems to have been further promoted by most writers that followed him.
Eryn Rowan Laurie, along with other reconstructionists, list this letter as being associated with the broom plant, but as noted many times before she does not see the Ogham as a tree alphabet at all but similar to the runes instead.
Nowadays, most do see Ngetal as being the Reed. We must remember that the Ogham’s association with trees was likely initially mnemonic only. However, we do know that the Ogham was used for magic and likely for divination, but we cannot know for certain how the letters were utilized at all[iv]. The tree alphabet has become a tool used in such a fashion in modern days as it may have became over time a tool of power to the ancestors as well. For these reasons the reed seems to fit most comfortably within the list of the plants found in the Ogham today.
The reed is obviously not a tree at all. The Celts had many uses for the plant however. They often used it in the thatching in of the roof, which would have been the final step in completing any dwelling construction. The reed would also have likely been used for flooring material in winter. The reed rod was a type of measuring stick used by the ancestors as well[v].
James Frazer speaks of the king with the reed sceptre in the Golden Bough showing us that the reed is no ordinary plant. According to Graves the reed was used to make arrow shafts and this may be why it is named in the Battle of the Trees as the “swift pursuing” one[vi]. Liz and Colin Murray also associate the reed to the arrow and say that it is the letter of “direct action”, “overcoming obstacles on a journey”, and can be used as a spiritual weapon[vii].
Robert Graves further claims that the reed was a tree to Irish poets[viii]. The research of Nigel Pennick gives us compelling reasons to believe this. Pennick reminds us that the pen of Irish scribes was composed of reed and that, “The reed was also the material from which a sort of paper or papyrus, known to the Welsh as plagawd was made”[ix]. The reed was also used for braiding together baskets and could then be synonymous with Celtic knot artwork.
Ngetal in the Ogham Tract is also considered to be a few of healing. This listing –though more literally being those powers of the broom plant- is made by many Ogham teachers including John Michael Greer.
The reed is also associated with music. Historically it was used in wind instruments near the mouth piece to help create the music sound. This piece of the instrument is still called the reed today. A type of Asian giant reed is usually the preferred material for this construction nowadays, but some instruments still use the traditional reed grass[x]. It should also be noted that the reed sometimes appears as its own musical instrument in Celtic fairly tales.
Ngetal, the reed, is associated with higher learning, advancement, music, healing, action and art. It is this few that brings to us all of those gifts that makes us that most unique of animals.
The thirteenth letter, the reed, is the few of being divinely human.
It is said that the Cluricaune, an Irish fairy being, rides the reed through the air[xi].
The Cluricaune looks like a little old man appearing in “antiquated dress.” He is usually found wearing a pea-green coat with large buttons and oversized shiny shoe buckles.
The Cluricaune is often “detested due to his evil disposition[xii].” People will often try to use him and become his master, but he can be cunning and will try to come out ahead. The Cluiricaune can sometimes be startled as he’s making shoes. He has an incredible ability to vanish, however. It was believed a person could make the Cluricaune tell them where hidden treasure was, or get from him a “magic coin.”
The Cluricaune apparantly likes to smoke and drink; making his beer out of heather. The Cluricaune smokes from a small kind of pipe which is sometimes still found by farmers as they plough their fields.
The Cluricaune is a trickster, but he is loyal to one particular family and will stay so as long as a single family member survives. Despite being a mischievous fellow, he usually has a degree of respect for “the master of the house.” The Cluricaune will protect the home and ward off unseen dangers. He can be extremely upset if he is forgotten. however.
Like other fairy beings, the Cluricaune likes gifts to be left out for him. His connection to wine cellars seems a little suggestive. It is not unheard of for a Cluricaune to let the wine run out of a cask if he deems the household occupants covetous. The Cluricaune was basically a spirit world mobster.
The Cluricaune is said to be as, “ugly as a shrivelled apple”, but he whistles at his work which he seems to enjoy immensely.
He rides through the air with “great velocity” on a reed shaft from place to place. It is said that those who ride with him may take days or even weeks to return home.
(Cluricaune. Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland)
The stories of the Cluricaune remind us to be mindful of the spirits and to leave gifts for them. Whether these tales are contrived or whether they have a basis in truth -however unlikely or Otherworldly this may seem- there is always something to take away from these old stories.
Why a reed? If the story’s make believe then what’s the purpose of the reed in the tale if we are aware of the importance of plants to the ancestors? Why not another tree or branch? If the story does have a metaphysical foundation then what powers does the Cluricaune find within the reed? Is flight literal -or more likely- something far more metaphoric?
There may be more to the reed than meets the eye.
Reed grass may have an important role to play in the future of water treatment and organic sewage management[xiii].
The reed absorbs impurities from water and is used in small neighbourhood treatment ponds or marshes. “Treatment ponds are small versions of constructed wetlands which uses reed beds or other marshland plants to form an even smaller water treatment system”[xiv]. Micro organisms that live on the roots of the plant -or in the bed litter- treat the water that runs slowly through them.
The Stanley Park Storm Water Treatment Wetland in Vancouver is just such a project. The wetland was created to deal with the runoff of polluted rain water from the Stanley park causeway and from the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The water was originally allowed to flow freely into the streams, Lost Lagoon, Beaver Lake, and into the Pacific Ocean itself[xv]. Now it is treated in a holistic manner to lessen any impact that may be caused from the runoff.
The marshland, “Acts as a settling pond, natural treatment and filtration system for storm-water run off”. Large particles are first captured by a filtration system, then sunlight and micro organisms effectively tear apart contaminants. Slowly the water passes through deeper pools -and marsh staging areas- where reed grass and other native wetland plants break the contaminants down even further. The goal of the project is to, “Keep storm water contaminants in a controlled area so as to protect the surrounding area”[xvi].
The process of using reed beds for sewage treatment is actually quite similar. The water moves through the reed grass and the microorganisms that live in the roots and the litter break down the contaminants while utilizing the nutrients that are being offered in return.
The reed, as it turns out, is a very understated tree after all.
Not only is the reed a steed of the fairy kingdom, it is the bringer of music and healing, art and kingship, learning, advancement and action and it even possesses the ability to aid in the healing of the land.
Ngetal, the reed, the thirteenth few of the Ogham, is the teacher that always was and always will be. It grows just beyond the shore, and in doing so, exists partially in one world, and partially in the next.
“The basket greatly resembles in its functions a ‘portable cauldron’ and leads, like it, in the development of the Grail… The basket is one of the thirteen treasures of Britain and is often an object of gifts. The meaning of abundance is represented in ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’. In order to win Olwen, Culhwch had, among other things, to obtain the basket of Gwyddneu Garanhir. Everyone would find in it the food he wished, even if the whole world gathered around him.” – Sabine Heinz (Celtic Symbols)
[ii] For further discussion please refer to the White Goddess. Graves makes a complicated conclusion that the Song of Amergin and the Ogham were both devices referring to a Celtic tree calendar and to each other. Many accept the Celtic Tree calendar as fact however unlikely the reality of this notion is to scholars. I plan on talking about this more in the future.
[iii] The Broom and the Gorse are both non-trees already and would probably have similar or identical meanings in the Ogham as they are similar looking and are very closely related. We will return to these plants when we cover the seventeenth letter of the Ogham, Ohn.
[iv] If at all possible read Charles Graves’ (Robert’s grandfather) On the Ogam Beithluisnin which lists the appearance of the Ogham in many myths and legends. The copy I own is found in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Mathews.