Darrell J. Pursiful

Home » Posts tagged 'Daoine Sídhe'

Tag Archives: Daoine Sídhe

The Sídhe in Fantasy

Excellent post today from Leo Elijah Cristea about the nobles of the Gaelic supernatural realm, the sídhe.

If you’re not convinced you’re about to see the fae make a slow and distinguished comeback, think about elves: everyone said they were dead. Well, the elf is dead; long live the elf. I raise you Dwenda, Shict, and Chris Evans’ revamped “Iron Elves”. If we really want to split hairs, I raise you the elves from the Dragon Age games, where the once-regal race has been given a bit of a different approach.

But, we’re not here to talk about elves: we’re here to talk about my other love. Yes, I happen to love fae. The potential with fae is nearly infinite: such an underdone, unsung, untouched race, one brimming with potential and plenty of fresh ground to dig your heels into.

Of course, the daoine sídhe figure quite prominently in my Into the Wonder Series (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3), which you are of course at liberty to check out for yourselves. 🙂


The Fairy Flag of Clan MacLeod

Some light reading for your Thursday:

Many, many years ago, the Chief of Clan MacLeod was a handsome, intelligent man, and all the young ladies in the area were very attracted to him, but none suited his fancy.
One day, he met a fairy princess, a bean sidhe, one of the Shining Folk. Like all the other females he met, she fell madly in love with him, and he with her….

The Tuatha Dé Danann

Here’s another excellent, concise summary of an aspect of Irish mythology from Ruth at the Celtic Myth Podshow:

The Tuatha de Danann, the people of the Goddess Danu, were one of the great ancient tribes of Ireland. The important manuscript ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’, records that they ruled Ireland from 1897 B.C. to 1700 B.C.

The daoine sídhe or faeries of Ireland are said to be the descendants of this noble lineage.

In the world of Taylor Smart, the sídhe sometimes swear by saying “Danu!” or “By Danu!” I haven’t gone into any detail how contemporary sídhe remember and/or reverence their distinguished ancestors. Perhaps a bit of that will trickle into the third book of the Into the Wonder series, Oak, Ash, and Thorn.

The Irish Sídhe

Newly posted from Ruth at Celtic Myth Podshow:

Numbers of fairy hills and sepulchral carns are scattered over the country, each with a bright palace deep underneath, ruled by its own chief, the tutelary deity. They are still regarded as fairy haunts, and are held in much superstitious awe by the peasantry.

The fairies possessed great preternatural powers. They could make themselves invisible to some persons standing by, while visible to others: as Pallas showed herself to Achilles, while remaining invisible to the other Greeks (Iliad, 1.). But their powers were exercised much oftener for evil than for good. They were consequently dreaded rather than loved; and whatever worship or respect was paid to them was mainly intended to avert mischief. It is in this sense that they are now often called ‘Good people.’

Fan Questions: Sídhe Politics

Dana, a faithful reader, asks:

What’s the relationship between Chief Matron and Primus, when they’re not married? and how much power (in a matrilinear society) does the Triad hold, especially in relation to the Primus?

Someone has been paying attention! In the Wonder, sídhe Courts are led by a Triad of (female) “Matrons” and by a (male) Primus, something like a chieftain or petty king. The Triad is related to the “triple goddess(es)” of Celtic mythology such as the Irish war-goddesses Badb, Macha, and Anu, but the idea goes back at least to Roman times, when unnamed “Matres” or “Matrones,” apparently goddesses associated with fertility and family life, were worshiped across northern Europe.

The Primus is a stand-in for fae kings like Finnvara, who is said to have ruled the daoine sídhe from Cnoc Meadha in County Galway.

As I’m imagining it, then, sídhe society is not strictly matriarchal, meaning women are in charge. Rather, it is matrilineal, meaning inheritance passes through the mother, not the father as in the ancient and medieval cultures of Europe. For a frame of reference, many Native American tribes (including the Cherokee) are matrilineal. A person belongs to the clan of his or her mother, and one’s “blood relatives” are counted exclusively in terms of one’s mother’s family.

In Cherokee and other Native American cultures, there is a balance of power between the sexes in which the men are in charge of hunting, war, and diplomacy while women are in charge of farming, property, and family. That isn’t a perfect model of what is going on among the sídhe, but it’s close: The Primus is something like the head of state, conducting diplomacy, leading in war, and generally ensuring that the Eldritch Law is upheld. Meanwhile, the Triad is more like the supreme court, resolving inter- and intra-clan conflicts and handing down decisions on how the Eldritch Law should be applied.

That perhaps explains how power is shared between the Triad and the Primus. Now, to the other part of Dana’s question:

Most of the time, the Primus will be the husband of the Chief Matron or ranking member of the Triad. She, in turn, is the ranking (female) member of the ruling house within each Court. This is what readers see with Crom Cornstack and his wife, Mara Hellebore. (Since inheritance passes from mother to daughter, women never take their husbands’ surnames!) As we will see below, it is also possible for the Primus to be the son-in-law or other close relation by marriage of the sitting Chief Matron.

But the situation is currently different in the Summer Court. The former Summer Primus was Vergosus Bright, who was married to Anya Redmane, the Chief Matron. But Vergosus faded in the 1970s. (The Fair Folk don’t die, as a general rule, but will “fade” when they have grown weary of this world.) Normally, the Primacy would then have fallen to the husband of Anya’s daughter—who would herself become next in line to fill the position of Chief Matron. (There would be a convocation of the house of Redmane to ratify the choice, but most of the time this is purely ceremonial.) Unfortunately, Anya did not have any daughters.

This caused the normal succession to shift to Anya’s cousin Martha and her husband, Ambicatus Bright (the brother of Vergosus—sídhe families tend to be somewhat inbred). Ambicatus would be elevated to Primus, and Martha would become Chief Matron, Anya retaining the powerful position of Chief Matron Emerita.

Here is where things got sticky, however. You see, Ambicatus was publicly humiliated when he fell victim to a rather elaborate prank. Although the perpetrator insists this was not his intention, the end result was that Ambicatus’s reputation was so damaged that it became unthinkable that he should ever serve as Primus. He and his wife went into self-imposed exile so as to avoid being the target of scorn and derision for the next several hundred years.

This left the Summer Court in a mess, as there were no other women of the Redmane line to whom to turn. (Nuala Redmane, the daughter of Martha and Ambicatus, was too tarnished by Ambicatus’s disgrace and only barely held on to her own seat on the Triad.)

At this point of social upheaval, the rival house of Fairchild, led by Dubessa Fairchild, compelled Anya and Nuala, the remaining members of the Triad, to offer Dubessa a seat on the Triad and to name her husband, Belas Wakefire, as the new Primus. This was at least somewhat tolerable in that both Dubessa and Belas had Redmane males in their respective family trees.

Backed into a corner, the Triad agreed to Fairchild’s demand. For the last forty years, the Summer Court has found a way to share power between these two influential families with only a minimum of open hostility.

The Fair Folk at War

Trooping Faeries

"They ran him by hill and plain"

Trooping or social faeries are so named because they have a social organization that mirrors that of human beings with courts, feasts, banquets, royalty—and warfare. (See Ronald Hutton’s Typology of Faeries.) Although solitary faeries can be violent, they aren’t organized enough to engage in true warfare. Domestic faeries (brownies, urisks, and the like) are generally too kindly disposed for belligerent pursuits—although they can be individually malicious to those who don’t treat them with proper honor.

In Celtic lands, the principal social faeries are the daoine sídhe, an overtly aggressive and warlike race. Virtually every aspect of sídhe society has an adversarial element. As many unfortunates learned too late, every interaction with these proud people can become a challenge of honor demanding a swift and merciless response. Even their romantic relationships are often played out in terms of pursuit, conquest, and domination. It should not, then, be surprising that these Fair Folk can be given to organized violence.

On the one hand, tales abound of assaults upon human victims in reprisal for various affronts to honor or faery custom. On the other hand, these fae are often depicted fighting among themselves.

Warfare in the Mortal Realm

In Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song (Alexander Gardner, 1810), R. H. Cromek reports that priests warned against having dealings with faeries as they were the “light infantry of Satan” (236). The violent tendencies of faery warriors are enumerated: armed with bows and poisoned arrows, mounted on steeds whose hooves do not leave tracks. He goes on to write,

They visited the flocks, the folds, the fields of coming grain, and the habitations of man;—and woe to the mortal whose frailty threw in their power!—a flight of arrows, tipped with deadly plagues, were poured into his folds, and nauseous weeds grew up in his pastures; his coming harvest was blighted with pernicious breath,—and whatever he had no longer prospered. These fatal shafts were formed of the bog reed, pointed with white field flint, and dipped in the dew of hemlock. They were shot into cattle with such magical dexterity that the smallest aperture could not be discovered, but by those deeply skilled in Fairy warfare, and in the cure of elf-shooting. (237)

This is a fairly commonplace description of the violence faeries might inflict: blighting crops and livestock with elf-shot. Other Gaelic tales warn not only of arrows but also faery darts or javelins inflicting death or disease on unsuspecting mortals.

Other stories indicate the sídhe used their prodigious skills as shapeshifters to achieve tactical advantage: spying out the movements of mortals or gaining proximity to their targets by assuming the form of a deer or some other animal: the perfect camouflage!

The daoine sídhe are also known to take sides in great wars among human beings. W. Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith of the Celtic Countries [Froude, 1911]) recounts the role the Tuatha Dé Danann played in the Battle of Clontarf, fought near Dublin on April 23, 1014.

And thus is described the meeting of the two armies at Clontarf, and the demons of the air and the phantoms, and all the hosts of the invisible world who were assembled to scatter confusion and to revel in the bloodshed, and how above them in supremacy rose the Badb:—‘It will be one of the wonders of the day of judgement to relate the description of this tremendous onset. There arose a wild, impetuous, precipitate, mad, inexorable, furious, dark, lacerating, merciless, combative, contentious badb, which was shrieking and fluttering over their heads. And there arose also the satyrs, and sprites, and the maniacs of the valleys, and the witches, and goblins, and owls, and destroying demons of the air and firmament, and the demoniac phantom host; and they were inciting and sustaining valour and battle with them.’ (306)

The “Badb” of which Evans-Wentz writes was the name of a Celtic war-goddess. Originally, however, the word signified “rage, fury, or violence” (Evans-Wentz, 304). In this context, it refers to a kind of glamour or mind-trick, inspiring warriors to lose themselves in battle-lust.

In fact, a number of mind-control tactics are associated with Celtic war-goddesses. The goddesses Neman, Macha, and Morrigan each exercise a particular supernatural power on the battlefield. Neman is a confounder of armies, causing allies to fight amongst themselves. Macha inspires bloodthirsty battle-fury. Morrigan inspires supernatural valor and courage under fire (Evans-Wentz, 302).

Note also that the sídhe have under their command various other types of supernatural beings: satyrs, sprites, “maniacs of the valleys,” witches, goblins, owls, demons, phantoms. They are, after all, “the Gentry,” and what good is being an aristocrat if there are no lower classes to dominate?

A picture is now developing of the Fair Folk at war. This picture includes:

  • Arrows and darts capable of inflicting disease and death.
  • Destruction of crops and livestock as an offensive tactic.
  • Riding faery horses with magical characteristics.
  • Shape-shifting to gain tactical advantage.
  • Bending the minds of mortal combatants.
  • Females actively involved in warfare.
  • Commanding various types of faery beings (as “support troops”?)

War in the Faery Realm

Faery warfare is not limited to the mortal realm, of course. There are also tales of battles between the daoine sídhe and other mythical races.

The daoine sídhe are said to be the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the “people of the goddess Danu.” These Irish deities gained control of the island by going to war against other faery races, mainly the Fir Bolg and the Fomori.

They also fought among themselves. The sons of Midir, for example, rose up in rebellion against Bodh Derg, the son of the Dagda, and fought them in yearly battles. In another story, certain daoine sídhe went to war over “two lovable maidens who dwelt in the elfmound” (Evans-Wentz, 301).

Going to war over women brings to mind the story of the Trojan War. This is an apt comparison. Like the Homeric-era Greeks, it is easy to imagine the daoine sídhe going to war over issues of honor. It seems that most altercations involving mortals have at their root an honor challenge: proper respect has not been paid to the Fair Folk or their taboos. It may be that delivering or answering honor-challenges is a primary reason the Fair Folk go to war.

Warfare would most often be a small-scale affair by modern standards. By necessity, battles would be short, swift, and violent. The objective would be to get in, strike, and withdraw. Such attacks will not win large wars but are well suited to reduce the effectiveness of an enemy force, demoralize a fixed population, reduce the flow of supplies, capture towns for short periods of time, or demonstrate that certain targets, such as villages and civic centers, are in fact vulnerable.

If the daoine sídhe truly reflect or mirror the mortal culture from which they sprang, then it should be no surprise that warfare among them would largely be a matter of raids or ambushes to capture livestock, slaves, women, or valuables or to exact revenge for previous insults. This was how the ancient and early medieval Gaels waged war, after all.

Ronald Hutton’s Typology of Faeries

In the video I mentioned in this post, Prof. Hutton provided a concise classification system for the faeries of northern Europe. It is but one part of a fascinating and expertly presented lecture, and I’m summarizing it here because it fits nicely (though not perfectly) with the way I developed the Fair Folk one meets in Children of Pride.  Hutton speaks of three basic categories of faeries in the British Isles:

1. Faeries proper, which Hutton describes as “the neighbors from hell.” These are the frightening and often malicious faeries one encounters in the oldest strands of faerie lore: the daoine sídhe and their cohorts. They live underground in a society that mirrors that of human beings, with courts, royalty (usually queens), banqueting, dancing, and the like.

2. Household helpers, including all manner of brownies, hobs, fenodyrees, and the like. These creatures are more mischievous than malicious, and they can sometimes be persuaded to help with the domestic and agricultural chores. But be careful, because they are easily offended and may just leave if one does something of which they don’t approve.

3. Faerie tricksters such as Robin Goodfellow. These are practical jokers, generally harmless or amusing rather than hostile. They are a rather late invention according to Hutton, largely under the influence of Shakespeare’s Puck. He is most assuredly not a pooka, which would better be understood as a dreaded “night being.” He further compares Robin Goodfellow to Native American trickster archetypes like Coyote as a trickster and buffoon, but also sometimes a powerful cosmic force. (Hutton does not use the specific terminology of “faery trickster,” but I think this is a fair description.)

He also notes a fourth category:

4. Nature spirits such as the pans and nymphs of Greek mythology. Properly speaking, Hutton says there are relatively few of these in the folklore of the British Isles. He further insists that these creatures are not, properly speaking, faeries at all since they fit into the natural realm in a way that traditional Anglo-Celtic faeries do not. Unlike faeries proper, beings of this type seem to be nearly universal in human cultures. Although Hutton insists such creatures are not faeries, he does say that the trolls or faeries of Iceland (and the related trows of the Orkney and Shetland Islands) are something of a hybrid between this category and the first. They are “land wights” who exercise guardianship over the land, but they are also said to live in underground communities and are often less than hospitable to human beings.

If you’re interested in the faery lore of the British Isles, you really owe it to yourself to listen to Prof. Hutton’s lecture.