Faerie Circles: Between the Night and Morrow

Even those who have never read a word of Celtic mythology have heard of faeries, whether through Disney’s Peter Pan or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They’ve burrowed deep into our culture as symbols of playfulness, youth, and nature.

Tinkerbell, from the Disney film Peter Pan, stands on a mirror.
Tinker Bell is one of the most well known pop culture faeries. She’s quirky and vain, and depends on human belief in magic to stay alive.

But what exactly are faeries?

Modern adaptations of the mythology seem to disagree. Most faeries are tiny, humanoid creatures (usually women). Some are nature spirits, others just magical tricksters.

Other stories veer further off of the traditional template. The children’s series The Spiderwick Chronicles, for example, describes faeries as strange, alien creatures. They’re feisty tricksters with morality and logic all their own, and appear more insect than human.

Botanical-style prints of several almost humanoid insects.
The faeries of The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Both interpretations are interesting in their own right. The Disney faery is captivating, magical, and fun (right on brand for the company). The Spiderwick version is bizarre, indecipherable, and complex.

But when it comes to the original mythology, neither quite hits the mark.

The fey were a vital part of Celtic mythology; in fact, Irish paganism is sometimes referred to as “the fairy faith”. The faery realm was an inseparable part of the Celtic cosmology.

A moss-covered stone monument on top of a grassy hill.
The “fairy castle” on the Isle of Skye is rumored by some locals to be one of many crossroads between the fey and mortal realms. Photo by Pelle Sten (CC BY 2.0).

The Celtic faeries are capricious beings, especially when it comes to the shape they take. They can take the size or shape of whatever they choose, be it a human or a beetle or a hare, and enjoy “feasting, fighting, and making love, and playing the most beautiful music” (An Encyclopedia of Fairies).

There is, in fact, little the faeries love more than music. One common motif in Celtic faerie stories is that of talented musicians being stolen or seduced away from the mortal realm to entertain the fey for all eternity.

For they fey show no regard for human constraints such as time. Many stories of stolen humans agree that the hours and years seem to pass by more slowly in the faerie realm. One Scottish ballad, The Fairies, tells the story of a little girl who was taken by the fey as a little girl:

They stole little Bridget

for seven years long;

When she came down again

Her friends were all gone.

They took her lightly back,

Between the night and morrow,

They thought she was fast asleep,

But she was dead with sorrow.

They have kept her ever since

Deep within the lake,

On a bed of flag-leaves,

Watching till she wake

It’s easy to brush faeries off as nothing more than magical stories for little girls, with little to no real substance. But the timelessness of the fey realm and the recurring motif of humans returning home only to find their family and friends hint at a darker layer to this legend.

The faeries are said to dwell deep underground, below small mounds (referred to as “fairy hills” in Scotland and Ireland) or naturally-occurring circles of mushrooms, stones, or other small objects.

An example of fairy hills, found in the Fairy Glen on the Isle of Sky. Photo by Hilmar Ilgenfritz (CC BY-SA 2.0).

This becomes an especially important point when we remember that the Celts associated the element of earth with death and the afterlife. Furthermore, there are uncanny similarities between descriptions of the faerie realm and the Celtic afterlife, Tir Na Nog.

In Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Yeats described Tir Na Nog as “the country of the young,” an eternal paradise full of revelry, fighting, and music. He also tells the story of a man who manages to return to the mortal realm from the afterlife, and it’s unnervingly similar to the ballad of Bridget:

One man has gone there and returned. The bard, Oisen, who wandered away on a white horse, moving on the surface of the foam with his fairy Niamh, lived there three hundred years, and then returned looking for his comrades. The moment his foot touched the earth his three hundred years fell upon him, and he was bowed double, and his beard swept the ground.”

A ring of mushrooms on a grassy field.
According to some stories, stepping in a faerie circle would whisk you away into the fey realm. Photo by Martin LaBar (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Furthermore, although the exact origin of faeries is a disputed subject, it is generally agreed upon by folklorists that the fey are the souls of the dead. The earliest pagan traditions speak of a magical race–the Tuatha de Danann–who were forced to retreat underground upon the arrival of humans in Ireland. As human belief in their kind dwindled, they shrunk, eventually turning into tiny humans–the faeries. Other, more Christian influenced stories say that the faeries are the fallen angels who were too bad to remain in heaven but too good for hell.

In a sense, then, the original faeries weren’t just magical nature spirits. They were ghosts, in the most literal sense.

Why, though?

A white haired young girl--a faerie--sits in a castle windowsill, waving faintly glowing mist between her hands into the vague shape of a rabbit.
The character Aisling from the Irish film The Secret of Kells is perhaps the most faithful of modern adaptations of the Celtic faerie.

The faeries were such an intrinsic part of Celtic folklore, and stories told about them weren’t stories of mourning. They all had at least a hint of tragedy, but they were still tales of joy, pranks, and celebration; of parties lasted that lasted for days or years and dancing until your feet bled.

I think the best clue here is to look back at the ballad of Bridget.

Although some faerie stories feature adults being taken away by the fey, most of them are about children, sometimes even babies. Yeats, too, observed this common theme: “Sometimes the fairies fancy mortals, and carry them away into their own country, leaving instead some sickly fairy child, or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying, and being buried.”

It’s hard enough to come to terms with death, but senseless deaths, the sort where people simply wither away until you no longer recognize them, where there seems to be no hope of recovery–those are even harder to rationalize.

Far worse is the death of a child.

Belief in fairies gave people a way to reconcile deaths that seemed irrational. Even more so, it gave them an outlet for harmless denial. Their child was gone, yes, but not dead.

Instead, they would spend the rest of their days in a world of eternal merriment, singing through the days and dancing through the night.

A young child sits beneath a tree, surrounded by dancing fairies.
“The Fairy Dance” by Grace Jones (1920).

It’s an undeniably dark way to look at the myths, but one full of hope, too, I think. Nearly every religion has some concept of an afterlife or rebirth. Faeries are simply another way of looking at it–a path to heaven, but one full of whimsy and joy instead of judgement and anxiety.

In darkness, there is always light, and faeries are no exception.


Page sources:

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry by William Butler Yeats

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz

Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Peter Pan

The Secret of Kells

That’s So Raven: The Divine Augury

Like many of the stories discussed here, divination was not an exclusively Celtic practice. Nearly every culture around the globe has engaged in some form of prophecy. After all, we’re only human. We like tidy cause and effect.

Two men, one wearing a veil, watch a flock of birds on the horizon.
“Ein Augur” by Bernhard Rode (1769). Roman augurs drew their prophecies from the flight paths of birds.

But the Celts went above and beyond in their study of prophecy. Classical writers spoke highly of their devotion and experience in divination. Nearly everything was a sign to the Celts–the path a hare took as it ran over a hill, the condition of the clouds, or the direction smoke danced.

Of all the omens of Celtic prophecy (and there were many), though, one took center stage: the raven.

There was some level of symbolism to everything a raven did. Even the timbre of its caw was associated with different meanings (gradh, gradh meant a clergyman was coming to visit; the softer err, err was a warning of sickness). It went so far as to granting ravens their own distinct brand of divination, known as “raven-knowledge” in the Highlands of Scotland.

A raven from Philip Henry Gosse’s Natural History of Birds (1849).

More so than any of their other associations, though, Ravens were linked to divinity. Specifically, the Celtic goddess of war, fate, and death, Badb.

Much like Brigit, Morrigan was a triple goddess, represented by three aspects. These aspects were known by many different names throughout the region*, most notably Badbh, Neman, and Macha. For simplicity’s sake, I will simply be referring to her as Morrigan.

Badbh was said to be able to transform into a raven. She guided men into battle in this shape, or perched on the shoulder of Daghda (king of the gods) to advise him on the outcomes of fights before they took place. She also often appeared to prophesy the death of a great warrior, such as the mythological Irish hero Cu Cuchulain.

A tall woman, dressed elegantly in the old Celtic fashion, stands on a hill over two men with her right arm outstretched.
“Macha Curses the Men of Ulster” by Eleanor Hull (1904). Although Morrigan rarely went into battle herself, her very presence was enough to inspire terror.

Over time the pagan religions died out, and belief in Morrigan waned as Christianity took its hold on Scotland and Ireland. But as we saw with the church grim, old religions don’t simply disappear. Instead, they tangle with new beliefs, creating what we call folklore.

Some of this lore was simple hedge wisdom–an adaptation of the auguries of years past. If a flock of crows took shelter in your field, for example, it meant that a storm was coming. The nesting habits of ravens were also sometimes used to measure the passage of the seasons.

Sometimes, though, the same old stories simply adapted to fit the changing times. Such was the case of the banshee–fairy women who typically appeared as hags, washing blood from clothes beside a river or loch. Their wailing call was thought to be an omen of death.

A sketch of an old woman sitting below a tree on the edge of a lake at night.
“The Bunworth Banshee” by W.H. Brooke (1825).

Although there is no explicit historical connection between the Banshee and Morrigan, they bear undeniably similarities. Most notably, their roles of portents of death, their appearances (despite her shape shifting powers, Morrigan often chose to appear as an old hag), and their storied connections to ravens and crows.

Like Morrigan, the banshee held some level of shapeshifting abilities. She was rumored to be able to be able to turn into a black dog, a hooded crow, or a raven. According to Katharine Briggs in An Encyclopedia of Fairies, “a crow perching on a house is often the form taken by a banshee.” As such, a raven perched on your house or tapping at your window was just as much a death omen as a banshee’s scream.

If one looks closely at the hooded crow, you can see where the fable may have arisen from–its markings represent a hooded cloak, as many banshees are said to wear.

A white crow with black wings and head.
The hooded crow is found throughout much of Europe. Photographed by Rossographer (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Birds have always been seen as guides to humanity. Seabirds lead sailors to land, and crows and vultures flock to battlefields. As H.C. March wrote in The Mythology of Wise Birds,

Mankind has learnt much from the wisdom of birds, whose extraordinary powers of flight and vision had been used by seamen for discovering the proximity of land or the direction in which it lay, and whose annual passage oversea necessarily proved to observant minds the existence and location of unknown countries.

But the Celt’s relationship with ravens and crows is particularly interesting to me due to the evolution of the superstition, from religion to folklore to mythology. Although it’s not exactly a rare path for stories to take, the raven makes a particularly clear example.

It makes you think, too. A hundred years in the future, or five hundred, what will historians think of us?

And what will they think of the stories we tell?


*The study of the ancient Celtic pagan religion is complicated by a lack of central structure or text, and the fact that our only historical record comes from the Romans instead of the Celts themselves. As such, many of the Celtic deities have very similar roles but are known by different names. For more information on this topic, read this article or A Very Short Introduction: The Druids by Barry Cunliffe.


Page Sources:

The Mythology of Wise Birds by H.C. March

The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence

Celtic Mythology: The Goddesses of the Insular Celts by Prionsias MacCana

The Religion of the Ancient Celts: Sacrifice, Prayer, and Divination

The Raven and Crow of the Celts by Shanon Sin

The Death of Cu Cuchulain 

Selkies: The Call of the Sea

One of the most haunting and romantic tales to come out of Irish folklore is that of the selkies–half human, half seal, and eternally caught between land and sea.

A woman on a beach gazes into a wicker cradle.
One of the most well known modern selkie stories is the Irish film The Secret of Roan Inish. In the scene pictured above, a selkie woman sends her son out to sea in a wicker crib attached to a rope. It is said that the children of selkies will always feel drawn to the ocean.

The selkie is a creature of magic. They live most of their lives in the sea as seals, but if the whim takes them they may shed their skin to become human. Like many of the fey, selkies are often fickle, sometimes dangerous, and nearly always beautiful.

In one typical selkie story, The Seal-Woman of Mikladalur, the selkies gather on a beach one night every year to dance and celebrate. On one of these nights, a young man spies on them from behind a rock, and spots a woman who he takes a fancy to. During the revelry he steals her sealskin, leaving her stranded and alone on the beach when morning comes. The man offers her help and companionship, and so she goes home with him. He locks her sealskin away, and eventually the two marry and have children.

Selkie stories never end in happily ever afters, though; although the selkie woman makes a good wife for many years, she is always drawn back to the sea.

One day, the man returns home to find the hearth cold, his children alone on the beach, and the sealskin–along with his wife–gone.

Years later, the men of Mikladalur make plans to go on a seal hunt. The night before they are set to leave, the selkie appears in the man’s dreams and begs him to have mercy on her true husband and their two sons. The man ignores the dream and sets out early the next morning. Alongside his friends, he slaughters every seal he can.

After a day of hunting, the man comes home and cooks a generous dinner of seal meat for himself and his children. Just as they are sitting down to eat, though, the seal woman returns. She curses the man and the village in revenge for the murder of her husband, and then vanishes.

A statue of a woman standing on a cliff over the ocean.
A statue still stands on the shore of Mikaldalur in memory of the mythic seal-woman and her curse: “Here lies the head of my mate and the hands and feet of my sons. You have had your revenge – and now revenge shall be visited upon the men of Mikladalur. Some will drown at sea, others will fall from the cliffs, and so it shall continue until as many have perished as can link arms around the whole island of Kalsoy.” Image source: Baron Reznik, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The motif of the animal wife is a common one, and not just in Celtic mythology. There is a very similar Croatian tale about a woman who wears the skin of a wolf, and a Japanese story about a girl in a robe of swan feathers. Although the animals change based on the culture, the same themes remain: a beautiful woman who still carries a touch of the wild, and a tragic kind of love story (albeit one that is tarnished by fairy tale sensibilities that read more like sexual assault today–a topic well worth discussing, but far too complex to tackle in this post).

It’s important to notice that selkies are not helpless creatures. They seem to have been thought to have some command of magic. After all, the seal-woman of Mikaldalur has the power to curse the village. Other legends tell of selkies with the power to transform ordinary humans into seals (see “The Seal Catcher and the Merman” from The Scottish Fairy Book, by Elizabeth Grierson), and according to legend, “when the blood of a selkie is shed in the sea a storm arises that is often fatal to shipping” (An Encyclopedia of Fairies).

These days, it doesn’t seem to make sense to portray seals as dangerous creatures. They’re fuzzy animals that we like to watch from the pier, and pose little to no threat to human life. But such was not always the case.

The seal is a remarkably expressive animal–to the point of seeming almost human at times.

In eighteenth and nineteenth century Ireland, seals were incredibly desirable prey for hunters. Their fur, blubber, and meat were all worth a good sum of money.

But seal hunting was a dangerous task. In his memoir on Celtic seal mythology, The People of the Sea, David Thompson recounts a story told to him by an elderly Irish man, about a hunting expedition with his father. As the story goes, the father and son set out in a small boat, with a horsehair net to catch the seal in. The weather that day was bad, and although they eventually caught a seal, she was much bigger than they had expected. The boat capsized, and the boy was washed to shore, but his father drowned.

The Irish peasantry couldn’t afford large boats or sophisticated fishing equipment. When the best you have is a small currach and a hand woven net, the sea and all its creatures–including seals–are something to be feared.

Still, the primary role of selkies in folklore was that of a temptress (or tempter). In their human forms they held a bizarre, otherworldly kind of beauty–in An Encyclopedia of Fairies Katharine Briggs describes them as “more beautiful than ordinary mortals, though… uncouth and shapeless as seals, their beauty only showing in their large, liquid eyes.”

“A Sea Nymph” by Bernard Evans Ward. Stories of female nature spirits (like the selkies) can be found around the globe.

Selkie stories were not an abstract kind of mythology, either–to many Celts, they were very real. Of the two species of seal living around Ireland and Scotland, grey seals and harbor seals, only the smaller harbor seal (also known as the “tang fish”) was acceptable to hunt. The grey seals were selkies, and therefore more human than animal. Their more anthropomorphic traits could be seen in their dark, soulful eyes and heard in their moaning calls. Fishermen sometimes even spoke or sang back to them.

A seal poking its head out of the water.
Two species of seal are known to live near Ireland and Scotland–grey seals and harbor seals. Grey seals have been known to attack humans when provoked.

I like to look at selkies as yet another of humanity’s attempts to anthropomorphize nature. We like to see ourselves reflected in the world around us. In part, that’s why we tell stories–to learn what it’s like to stand in someone (or something) else’s shoes.

So just like the Croatian wolf bride, the Celts took something dangerous and made it beautiful.

But why? What purpose does it serve to romanticize something deadly?

Perhaps it’s an attempt to rationalize the draw we feel toward nature. The ocean was–and still is–dangerous. But it’s also beautiful. There’s music in the waves and poetry in the salty air. It’s a kind of art that not many of us are able to express in plain terms.

Maybe we can express it through stories, though. Stories of beautiful women, women who draw us toward them despite the danger that lurks beneath the surface.

Or maybe it’s just that–a story.

A lovely, tragic, messy story, but just a story nonetheless.


Page Sources:

The People of the Sea by David Thomson

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

The Scottish Fairy Book by Elizabeth Grierson

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

Irish Folktales edited by Henry Glassie

Animal Brides: The She-Wolf by D.L. Ashliman

Swan Maidens: The Feathery Robe by D.L. Ashliman

The Seal-Woman of Mikaldalur

Scottish Natural Heritage: Seals

Experience: I was attacked by a seal by David Faid

The Church Grim: Gentle Guardian or Bad Omen?

Just like many people my age, I was absolutely obsessed with Harry Potter while I was growing up. I loved debating which Hogwarts house people belonged to, or whether cats or owls made better pets. I even went so far as to read the entire series about thirteen times over a few years.

None of the books enchanted me quite so much as the The Prisoner of Azkaban, though. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think a large part of it was the Grim, a creature of superstition who stalked Harry through much of the book.

A teacup containing leaves in the shape of a black dog.
The Grim reveals itself to Harry during a tea leaf reading.

The Grim is a large black dog that, according to Harry’s divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is “an omen–the worst omen–of death!”

It turns out that, just like with many of the other creatures in the series, JK Rowling drew heavily from folklore in creating the Grim.

According to English and Scandinavian legend, the first body to be laid to rest in a churchyard was charged with the eternal task of guarding it from the Devil. This was a lonely profession, and one without rest or respite. To save the souls of their fellow men, the people would instead kill a pure black animal (usually a dog or goat) and bury it in the churchyard. This animal–the church grim–served not just as a substitute, but as a loyal guardian, protecting the bodies and souls of its charges.

A large, black figure with the head of a white goat standing in a snowy forest.
The church grim (known as the Kyrkogrim in Sweden) also makes an appearance in the  iOS game Year Walk. Although church grims from England and Ireland are nearly always dogs, they typically appear as goats in Scandinavian tales.

Despite its obviously Christian connotation, the church grim tradition likely had roots in pagan beliefs. In his collection of Scandinavian folklore, Benjamin Thorpe explained the origins of the dark custom:

Heathen superstition did not fail to show itself in the construction of Christian churches. In laying the foundation, the people would retain something of their former religion, and sacrificed to their old deities, whom they could not forget, some animal, which they buried alive, either under the foundation or without the wall.

By today’s standards, the thought of burying an animal alive–especially an animal so beloved as a dog–seems morally reprehensible. But it’s important to remember the roots of the tradition. The Celts and Scandinavians were just two of many world cultures who regularly sacrificed animals to their gods. The Egyptians commonly buried mummified household pets alongside their owners. Even today, some choose to have their pets buried alongside them.

 

A large black dog reclining on a porch.
Thanks to their reputation as loyal (and fierce) guardians, few animals are both so loved and so feared as dogs. Photo by Joe Parks (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reclining_black_dog.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Pets bring us protection and companionship, and there are few times when we need that more than when we are about to die. Grims provided much the same purpose–to provide comfort. They were a reassurance that the bodies and souls of your loved ones would be protected.

The church grim wasn’t always an altruistic spirit, though. Irish folklore speaks of the church grim (also known as the barguest) as an omen, much like in Harry Potter. According to the Irish tradition, the grim appears as a “large black dog with fiery eyes” who, upon the death of anyone living near its churchyard, “would appear, followed by all the dogs in the district, howling and baying” (Katherine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies).

Nineteenth century writers speak of the church grim as something to be feared. They described it as a monster, with eyes of fire and a monstrous roar. However, I feel that is a misinterpretation of the source material, and that it makes much more sense to interpret the church grim not as something so simple as a guardian or a monster, but as a guide.

Humanity has always needed a way to rationalize death. History has proven time and time again that there is little we fear more than the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknowable as death. Not just what happens when we step beyond the veil, but what happens before. Will the end be soft and slow, or swift and violent?

As if that were not enough, the pagan Celts–despite their general obsession with cycles and repetition–didn’t believe in rebirth. They actually believed in the afterlife and eternal souls, much like the Abrahamic religions. You had one shot at life; after that came eternity in the underworld (or Tir Na Nog, if you were an extraordinary hero).

So maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to have a familiar creature, one revered by cultures across the globe as a protector and a friend of mankind, to warn you when your time is near, and to accompany you into the darkness.

The symbolism of a dog (a common terrestrial animal) being buried deep beneath the earth seems to back up my theory. In a way, it forms a connection between the opposed realms of sky (the mortal, surface-dwelling world) and earth (the eternal underworld). The church grim can pass between these worlds, essentially serving as a furry Charon*.

Of course it’s frightening to come to terms with your own death–that’s just human nature. But church grims were more than a dark omen or a brutal ritual. They were a reassurance to the living–a promise that our loved ones would be cared for in the afterlife.

And as we near the end of our lives, very few of us ask for more.


*Charon, a character in Greek mythology, ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx to the underworld.


Page Sources:

Northern Mythology, Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands (vol II), compiled by Benjamin Thorpe

Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders by William Henderson

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Celtic Culture by Kristin Hawkins

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

Year Walk by Simogo

The Atlantic: The Movement to Bury Pets Alongside People