Celtic Myth

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Lady Charlotte Guest

Portrait of Lady Charlotte GuestThe Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991.

Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was; I’ve seen some of her handwritten notes, and while she has, quite understandably, Victorian sensibilities, she had a scholarly frame of mind. I wish that her notes from the first editions were still printed; they are well worth reading, and in fact her translations of the four romances, particularly Gereint (the Welsh version of the tale Chretien called Erec et Enide) inspired Tennyson’s take in Idylls of the King.

You can read more about Lady Charlotte Guest here and here. Angela V. John has written a solid biography: Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life

Salmon and the Celts

I live very near a small fresh water estuary salmon hatchery, and this month, the salmon are swimming upstream to spawn. They are stunning in silver, pink and green, and much larger than I’d expected; many are well over a foot in size. And they have come for miles, upstream, over rapids and falls to arrive at their hatchery, where they jump over a series of fish ladders, to remaInitial T depicted as a salmonin and spawn (and then die), or in some cases to continue upstream to a different estuary, or even out to sea.

With the value they offer as food items, and the seasonal aspect of the salmon spawn, the return of the salmon every year had to have been a fairly momentous occasion to the ancient Celts. The salmon’s ability to remember, and navigate to its own birth place to spawn suggests wisdom as well. You’ll also notice that words for salmon (eó, eú, éicne in Irish, eog in Welsh) are parts of a number names, for both people and places. The place name Leixlip, in County Kildare along the river Liffey is derived from the Norse of the Viking settlers who traveled up the Liffey, and settled; in Old Norse Leixlip is leax hlaup or “salmon leap,” a name that is likely a reference to the annual return of the salmon from the Atlantic to swip up the Liffey to spawn.

It’s worth noting that salmon are important iconographically, even for the ancient Gauls. One relief on a Gaulish altar shows a human head between two very large salmon; another altar, this time Gallo-Roman, depicts a strikingly-salmon looking fish talking into the ear of a human head. In Britain, at the temple at Lydney Park above the Severn estuary dedicated to the god Nodons, the god is shown seated, fishing, with a salmon on his line. Nodons, or Nudd, is linguistically related to the Irish deity Nuadu, and to the Welsh mythological figure Lludd Llaw Ereint.

That drive to return to where they were born in order to spawn, has helped the salmon take a special place in Celtic myth. Salmon are frequently otherworldly animals; their spots are one of the markers of such creatures. associated with wisdom, not only because of its age, and the spots that marked it as an otherworldly animal, but because salmon eat the hazelnuts of the nine hazels of wisdom, one of which grows at the heads of each of the seven primary rivers of Ireland, one at Connla’s Well, and one at the Well of Segais. Salmon are said to bear a spot for each hazelnut they have consumed.

In Irish tradition, salmon are ultimately responsible for the preternatural knowledge of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. In one version of the myth, the fili Finnécces has been trying to catch Fintan, the ancient salmon of knowledge that lived at the base of the Boyne. He finally managed to catch the salmon and is cooking the fish prior to consuming it. Along comes the youthful Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and, having touched the salmon on the fire, and burned his thumb, Fionn stuck it in his mouth—thus gaining the otherworldly oracular wisdom Finn had intended for himself. From that point on, Fionn merely sucks his thumb, and gains the answer to any question.

In Welsh myth, in the tale of Culwch ac Olwen, the salmon Lyn Llyw in the Severn, is the oldest of all living creatures, and one of the forty wisest animals. It is Lyn Llyw who tells the hero Culwch where Mabon is held prisoner, the ultimate task Culwch must perform in order to win Olwn from her father. There are numerous stories of humans who shape-shift to salmon form, including Taliesin, and Amairgin, and Tuan mac Cairill, who is caught and eaten by a woman while he is in salmon-shape, who then bears him so that he is reborn as a human. Loki in Norse myth shape-shifts to a salmon in order to hide.

Halloween, Samhain, and such

It’s the time of year when I start seeing incredibly daft posts about the antecedents of Halloween, particularly Samain (Samhain, for you moderns). This year, I’ve created an FAQ about Samain, and what it means.

For those of you already in the know, here’s a link to a translation by Kuno Meyer of the very odd Echtra Nera, mostly based on Eg. 1782. Echtra Nera is a tale tied closely to Samain, and features a sojourn in a síd, as well as the observation that “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

In the beginning of the tale, a dead man directs Nera to take him to a house for a drink; he rejects houses that properly stow washing water and slop-pails at night, for one that violates purity sanctions, and has a washing-tub, and a bathing-tub and a slop pail, available.

He then drinks a draught of either of them and scatters the last sip from his lips at the faces of the people that were in the house, so that they all died. Henceforth it is not good [to have] either a tub for washing or bathing, or a fire without sparing, or a slop-pail in a house after sleeping.

We have in this medieval Irish text the same association of purity and the otherworld that Pistol alludes to in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor when he says:

Elves, list your names; silence, you airy toys.
Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap:
Where fires thou find’st unraked and hearths unswept,
There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry:
Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery (V.v).

We see this same association in the sometimes-attributed-to Ben Jonson “Robin Goodfellow,” in which Robin the fairy or Puck says:

When house or harth doth sluttish lie,
I pinch the maids there blacke and blew.

Herrick too uses the same motif of poor housekeeping earning otherworldly punishment in “The Fairies”:

IF ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his place;
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails and cleanse your dairies;
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies;
Sweep your house, who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe.

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Bridget Cleary, Sex, Death, Fairies and Other

This is the third in a series of posts about fairies as other. I promised, in my first post, to concentrate on fairies as other, particularly in the context of sex and death, because, as MacAllister Stone notes “other is all about sex and death.” Last time I looked at the tragic death of Bridget Cleary, burned because her husband Michael thought Bridget was the victim of a fairy abduction. This time I want to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in the context of sex and death.

Bridget and Michael Cleary

In Bridget Cleary we have a woman who is seen as other, an outsider in her community because of her differences, differences which are particularly marked for a woman in nineteenth century Ireland where an assertive, opinionated and financially independent woman without children is very much seen as an anomaly. In the March 29, 1895 >Cork Examiner special report on her death, the reporter, having interviewed locals, describes Bridget as
“a bit queer” in her ways, and this they attribute to a certain superiority over the people with whom she came into contact . . . Her attire . . . is not that of every woman in the same social plane (Bourke 2000, 43).

Bridget was perceived as an outsider, “a bit queer,” even by another outsider.

The attention paid to Bridget Cleary’s clothing and body in the descriptions of her “cure,” in the careful details about the extent of her clothing in the court testimony (presumably, as Bourke suggests, to remove any thought of sexual impropriety) underscore the sexual subtext of the situations. Bourke observes that despite the “prudery” in the eye witness accounts

the violence meted out to Bridget Cleary before her death has an unmistakeably sexual character. On Thursday, when he used a metal spoon, and again, on Friday, when his weapon was a burning stump of wood, Michael Cleary’s actions amounted to a kind of oral rape. On both occasions Bridget Cleary was pinned down and prevented from struggling free, while a substance was forced into her body. . . . [the inquest revealed signs of injury to her mouth and throat] The violence used in holding Bridget down was certainly not sufficient to kill her, but its scale and ferocity would have been enough to terrify her, and to show her and anyone watching just who was master (Bourke 2000, 120).

Michael Cleary may very well have felt he needed to assert himself, not only against the uncanny malice of fairies, but as a man with an assertive, financially independent wife, a wife who may well have had a lover. Most of all, he may have felt it was imperative to assert himself given community pressure regarding his relationship with a wife who had not born him any children, which would have been very much seen as a failing by the community. One reason Bridget was taken by the fairies might have been her childless state; the unvoiced assumption being that since she had no children, that there was some sort of sexual failure, a situation that wasn’t helped in the least by the fact that Michael was nine years older than Bridget and that they spent most of the first few years of their marriage apart except on weekends (Burke 2000, 96).

The standard academic way to refer to fairies taking mortal women is to call it fairy abduction, or, more commonly, fairy rape, particularly in medieval texts. Corinne Saunders, writing about Middle English romances that involve fairy abductions and rapes points out that “What is most striking in all these works is the association of the otherwold with sexual violence or desire for possession of the woman’s body” (Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. 233).

Both Bridget Cleary and Heurodis are perceived as victims of a fairy rape.The fairy king threatens to tear Heurodis limb from limb if she doesn’t come willingly, and tells her that she’ll be taken to the otherworld even if they take her in pieces. Bridget is mistreated physically, dosed with “cures,” verbally abused, then doused with human urine before being burned. The overt physicality of the way Bridget Cleary was treated, the man-handling of her, is an inversion of the customary fairy threat to a mortal victim; with Bridget Cleary, we see mortals abusing what they think is a fairy changeling, though she is a mortal woman—her sex is a huge part of the reason she is treated his way.

Women who are assertive, and independent, who dress better than their peers, women who are financially independent, women who have no children, forthputting women who approach men, fairy mistresses and otherworld women like Rhiannon, these are other. They are potentially dangerous to the community, because they disrupt the natural order, or the perceived natural order. These women who like Heurodis are in the right place and the right time, and who, like Bridget, go to the forbidden liminal areas, are just as disruptive as the ostensible external agency, the fairies, who take them. It’s bad enough to have a child or lover taken by the otherworld, but what’s worse for those left behind are the mortals who go off with their fairy wooer, quite happily, and the abducted mortal women who choose to stay in the otherworld, rather than return to their mortal husband and children.

Bridget Cleary was perceived as dangerous and engaging in risky behavior; Michael Cleary objected to her going to the rath, and did all he could to “bring her back.” Underlying his frantic, desperate efforts, almost certainly, was the fear that Bridget might not want to come back. In court testimony from Johanna Burke, Bridget is said to have told her husband, shortly before he set her on fire, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael Cleary asked Bridget, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them” (Folklore 1895, 375). There’s a very definite sexual connotation to “she gave two nights with them,” particularly given the numerous references to fairies taking mortal lovers in medieval literature and folklore.

Otherworld folk are not shy about making sexual conquests. Rhiannon is very much seeking Pwyll as her spouse when she comes to the gorsedd in the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuvic Dyfed. The fairy queen in Thomas of Erceldoune is more than willing to take Thomas as her lover, keeping him mute but with her in the otherworld for seven years, before returning him to the tree where she found him, saving him from becoming a human sacrifice. She leaves him with an unwelcome gift, the ability to prophesy, thus converting him from dangerous other, to magical other with a redemptive gift for the community.

In Sir Orfeo, Heurodis returns from the fairy otherworld because Orfeo rescues her, and both return to Orfeo’s kingdom. At the end we are told Orfeo leaves the kingdom to his faithful steward since Heurodis has no children and Orfeo has no heir. We rarely hear or read of otherworld folk having progeny, and when we do hear about fairy offspring, say the child of the Grey Selchie, the offspring are the result of liasons between mortals and fairies, or other otherworld residents, and the children usually come to a bad end. Pwyll’s otherworld bride Rhiannon is scorned by Pwyll’s people because she is childless. Later, when Rhiannon has a child, the child mysteriously disappears. Rhiannon is typical in being less than fecund; otherworld folk are seemingly sterile, and, perhaps consequently, obsessed with taking fertile mortal women, and young children. Just as with other Others, say Gypsies, or whatever a given community’s racial/ethnic minority is, or queers, in stories about fairies and otherworld intruders it’s a case of “They want our women, and our children, and our women want sex/more sex/better sex, and so they voluntarily go with these Others, and leave us, and sometimes, they refuse to come back.”

I think that fear—the fear that Bridget wants to be with the fairies, with the other, is what’s underlying the Bridget Cleary horror. It’s interesting to note, as Bourke does, that in the spring of 1895 that the Irish papers, and some of the English papers too, were carrying stories about the “witch burning” in Clonmel, Oscar Wilde was on trial for sodomy. It’s also the date of the first attested use of “fairy” to mean queer. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cite the following reference from theAmerican Journall of Psychology as the first use of fairy to mean queer, or as the OED has it ” A male homosexual”:

“The Fairies of New York” are said to be a similar secret organization. The avocations which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian, requiring the dressing in female attaire, and the singing in imitation of the female voice, in which they often excel” American Journal of Psychology VIII (1895): 216.

I’ve been looking at the connection between fairy and queer for a long time, and I think there are a couple of reasons for fairy being used to mean queer. First, I think it works because there’s an association between fairies and an absence of progeny despite their overt eroticism, and the assumption, for many, that being queer has to do only with sex, that it’s all about sex, and that it’s sex without fear of progeny, just like real fairies.

Next time, I’m going to look again at medieval fairies as ways of dealing with other, and sex, and death.

Here are some references to match my citations.

  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link.. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.
  • Thomas of Erceldoune. Scroll down to the Appendix for the text as printed by Francis Child, as part of the versions of Child Ballad 57 “Thomsas the Rhymer.” You can find Murray’s 1875 edition of the romance here.
  • Ford, Patrick K. trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
  • Sir Orfeo with text and ms. page images from the Auchinleck ms.
  • Anne Leskaya and Eve Sedgewick’s annotated Middle English edition of Sir Orfeo.
  • A .pdf of a lightly modernized Sir Orfeo from the Norton Anthology of English Literature