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Merrows: Irish Mermaids
Ruthie from the Celtic Myth Podshow introduces us to these underwater faeries.
The word merrow or moruadh comes from the Irish muir (meaning sea) and oigh (meaning maid) and refers specifically to the female of the species. Mermen – the merrows male counterparts – have been rarely seen. They have been described as exceptionally ugly and scaled, with pig-like features and long, pointed teeth. Merrows themselves are extremely beautiful and are promiscuous in their relations with mortals.
The Irish merrow differs physically from humans in that her feet are flatter than those of a mortal and her hands have a thin webbing between the fingers. It should not be assumed that merrows are kindly and well-disposed towards mortals. As members of the sidhe, or Irish fairy world, the inhabitants of Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves) have a natural antipathy towards humans. In some parts of Ireland, they are regarded as messengers of doom and death.
Ruthie goes on to equate merrows with selkies, women who take on the form of seals by wearing a magical seal skin. To my mind, these are separate creatures, though it is certainly true that legends tend to be fluid over time and distance. There are certainly points of overlap between them.
Ruth at Celtic Myth Podshow is blogging today about shellycoats, a generally harmless if perplexing creature from Scottish folklore.
THIS is a freakish spirit, who delights rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.
Shellycoat, a spirit who resides in the waters, and has given his name to many a rock and stone the Scottish coast, belongs to the class of bogles.
When he appeared, he seemed to be decked with marine productions, and in particular with shells, whose clattering announced his approach.
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 Island of Hy Brasil
The mysterious island sometimes called “the Irish Atlantis” is the subject of a new post at the Celtic Myth Podshow by
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill.
It got its name from the Irish Uí, meaning descendant of Bresal, meaning beauty. Bresal was of the Fir Bolg and it was after one of his daughters, Galvia, that Galway got its name. It was suggested that the country of Brazil was named after the island, but it actually got its name after the red coloured Brazil wood. Other names for the island included Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Mag Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha(Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue).
There is a description of the island the 9th century biography of Saint Brendan Navigatio Sancti Brendani which was a medieval bestseller. The island was described as being shrouded in mist, visible for one day only every seven years, circular in shape with a river running across its diameter. Though visible it could not always be reached.
Its exact location has never been clarified. In 1325 the Genoese cartographer Dalorto placed it west of Ireland, later it appeared southwest of Galway Bay. Some said it was off the Kerry Coast. On some 15th century maps, islands of the Azores appear as Isola de Brazil, or Insulla de Brazil. A Catalan map from 1480 labels two islands “Illa de brasil”, one to the south west of Ireland one south of “Illa verde” or Greenland.
Five Weird Werecreatures
Werewolves are probably the most commonly encountered werecreature in mythology by far. But they are not the only kind of shapeshifting monster. Other examples are known from just about every culture on earth. Some are friendly; many are deadly dangerous. Some are animals who can transform into humans while others are humans (perhaps witches or sorcerers) who can transform into animals.
In my previous post, I looked specifically at werewolves. Now, it’s time to track down some more unusual shapeshifters. Here, then, are five interesting and distinctive werecreatures from around the world.
Selkies are found in the traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and the Orkney and Faeroe Islands. They are a race of shapeshifters, switching between human and seal forms by removing or putting on a seal’s skin. They are generally perceived to be gentle creatures who love to dance on the shore and occasionally fall in love with humans. Both male and female selkies are said to be lithe and attractive. A common story tells of a female selkie forced to marry a mortal man when he steals her sealskin. Eventually, she finds the hidden skin and uses it to return to the sea.
Selkies are related to the Finfolk, which are essentially the same sort of creature but with malevolent tendencies.
In Muskogee legend, stiginis (or stikinis) take the form of animals. Although they might take on the shape of any sort of wild predator, they strongly favor owls. In fact, stigini means “screech owl.”
By day, stiginis look like ordinary humans. By night, however, they vomit up their souls—along with their internal organs—and become monsters who like to feed on human hearts. Hearing the cry of a stigini is an omen of approaching death.
In some stories, mentioning these creatures by name puts one at risk of becoming one. Therefore, stories about stiginis are only told by certain medicine men and women. In other communities, however, they are more of a bogeyman figure casually discussed to frighten children.
Perhaps related is Hoklonote’she, a Choctaw evil spirit who often takes the form of an owl. Hoklonote’she can read peoples’ minds and apparently enjoys creeping people out by reciting their thoughts back to them.
Werehyenas are common in the folklore of North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East. In addition to being humans who can assume the form of a hyena, some legends tell of hyenas who are able to take on human form.
In the region around Lake Chad, it is believed that whole villages might be populated by werehyenas.
In Ethiopia, it is traditionally believed that every blacksmith (a hereditary occupation) is actually a bouda: a wizard with the power to change in to a hyena, in which form they rob graves at midnight. It should go without saying that they are viewed with suspicion by most of their neighbors! Many Ethiopian Christians believe that Ethiopian Jews are bouda and accuse them of digging up and eating the corpses of Christians.
Brazilian folklore has the legend of the encantado or “enchanted one.” These are dolphin shape-shifters similar in some respects to faeries. They are thought to be dolphins with the ability to take on human form and not the other way around. Specifically, most of these legends involve the boto or freshwater dolphin of the Amazon River. Occasionally, the stories involve snakes rather than dolphins.
Encantados come from an underwater faery-land called the Encante. They are excellent singers and musicians who love parties and are often give to romantic liaisons with mortals. They only rarely take on human form, generally at night.
In addition to shapeshifting, encantados have other magical powers. They are able to control storms and exert a form of mind control over humans. They can sometimes turn mortals into encantados like themselves.
Encantados are dangerous, and many people in the Amazon region are terrified of them. They can inflict disease, insantity, and death, and are said to be fond of abducting humans they fall in love with and taking them to live in the Encante.
A Possible Weremesonychid
Mesonychids are an extinct group of carnivores that are most often described as a sort of wolf with hooves. Even though there haven’t been any mesonychids around for millions of years, a mysterious beast that terrorized France in the 1760s apparently bore a striking resemblance to one. Some witnesses described the so-called “Beast of Gévaudan” as a huge (horse-sized) creature combining features of wolf, bear, panther, and hyena. Some reported that it had cloven hooves, or that each digit was tipped with a hoof. Others said its claws were so heavy and thick that they merely resembled hooves. Such a creature would come close to matching the description of a large hyena-like mesonychid like the Pachyaena or Harpagolestes.
Furthermore, the locals claimed that this beast was, in fact, a sorcerer who shapeshifted into a fearsome creature. In other words, the Beast of Gévaudan was a human who apparently assumed the form of a prehistoric nightmare.
Five Vampires from Around the World
I grew up on Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For the longest time, that was what a vampire was—and it was the only thing a vampire could be! Vampires were suave, aristocratic, and spoke with an Eastern European accent. They turned into bats, drank the blood of their victims, slept in a coffin, and were destroyed by sunlight.
Needless to say, it was an eye-opener when I learned there were other kinds of vampires out there. When I first read Dracula, I was amazed at how new and fresh Stoker’s original Count Dracula was compared to Lugosi and all of his many imitators. (Dracula can walk around in the daytime? Why didn’t I know this??)
In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d write a little about some of the unusual vampires or vampire-like creatures found in world mythology. These are not necessarily my “favorites,” but they perhaps show a little bit of the diversity of vampire lore.
The estrie is a type of female vampire found in Jewish folklore. It is said to prey mainly on Jewish men, but it also has a taste for the blood of children. Estries are sometimes seen as comparable to succubi, seductive female demons. They are also shapeshifters, able to turn into birds or cats at will.
The earliest estrie legends describe them as demonic entities. Later stories depict them living among mortals as part of the community, possibly victims of some sort of demonic possession.
Unlike other demons or creatures of the night, estries are undeterred by holy symbols or holy places.
This Gaelic word signifies “the walking dead.” One famous example of a neamh-mairbh was the evil magician Abhartach, whose story is told in Patrick Weston Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (1875). He says of Abhartach,
This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.
In some versions of the tale, Abhartach rises from the grave to drink the blood of his former subjects. He is sometimes tauted as the (or an) inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
A vetala (also vetaal or baital) is a type of evil spirit from Indian folklore. They take possession of human or animal corpses to use as vehicles in which to hunt for blood to drink—although they are also able to move about without the aid of a material “host.” They can also possess living victims.
The vetala is not simply an aspect or residue of person it inhabits. It doesn’t possess that person’s memories. They are malicious creatures in every way. In addition to their blood-drinking, cannibalistic tendencies, they are also known to kill children, cause miscarriages, and drive people insane.
In at least one instance, however, these creatures are presented in a more positive light. In the story of Baital Pachisi, the vetala is a heroic character who saves the life of the king, the protagonist of the story.
Vetalas can be repelled by chanting and released from their undead condition by performing the proper funeral rituals on their behalf.
Unlike many conventional understandings of vampires, the ekimmu (or edimmu) of ancient Mesopotamia (Assyria) do not drink the blood of their victims. Rather, they are phantom, demon-like creatures that draw sustenance from the “breath” of others, often babies or young children. (Other sources say the ekimmu drained both blood and life-force.)
Ekimmu were the spirits of deceased humans who could not find peace in death. It was possible to become an ekimmu in a variety of ways including dying violently from murder, dying young, being improperly buried, etc.
An ekimmu’s victims generally die after a few days. These creatures could also inflict disease or inspire criminal behavior.
The leannán sídhe (Scottish leannan sith, Manx lhiannan shee) or “faery lover” is another “psychic vampire” like the ekimmu. Rather than being an undead monster, however, this is a faery being. Specifically, it is a beautiful female faery that compels a mortal man to fall in love with her. In return for her love, she imparts great artistic or creative abilities. The price of this inspiration, however, is often insanity or a premature death. According to W. B. Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888),
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.
Although Yeats focused on the parasitic aspects of the leannán sídhe, others highlight her positive role as a muse.
The Fair Folk at War
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.
Five Helpful Clans of Little Folk
Not all faery beings can be imposing sídhe lords and ladies, sinister jinn, or wild, unpredictable satyrs. In world mythology, some of the inhabitants of the Otherworld are humble, unassuming, and even quite helpful to mortals. Today, I’ll highlight five types of little folk that you probably wouldn’t mind dropping by. They are all good with chores and domestic tasks of various sorts, and are usually happy to help mortals out for a modicum of remuneration. (Offerings of food or milk or cream usually does the trick.) All of these beings are all found in Scotland, Ireland, or surrounding regions.
A brownie is called a brùnaidh in Scots Gaelic and grogan in Irish. These are domestic spirits who attach themselves to a house or family and often perform domestic chores when no one is looking. The house elves of Harry Potter are modeled largely on brownies.
The uruisg (or urisk) is very much like a brownie, but is set apart by having goat-like hooves. They are called fenodyrees on the Isle of Man. The are said to have a mischievous nature and also tend to be inclined to perform farming or agrarian tasks. They are thus somewhat similar to a pooka.
Kilmoulis are faery millers, an ugly form of brownies said to haunt mills. They also hail from the Border counties. They have enormous noses but no mouths, and therefore they have to inhale their food through the nose. Kilmoulis work hard, but also enjoy tricks and pranks.
Gruagachs (the Gaelic plural is technically gruagaichean) are field-folk native to Scotland. Their name literally means “long-haired one.” They love to help mortals with household tasks. Female gruagachs herd and protect cattle, and are also associated with water. They are described as having long blonde hair and wearing a green dress. Sometimes they are said to be attractive; more often, however, they are grotesques hags—although extremely kind-hearted.
Male gruagachs have thick fur, although occasionally they are described as handsome youths dressed in green and red. They commonly work as farm hands shredding and thrashing grain.
A clurichaun (Irish clobhair-ceann) is thought by some to be a variant form of the leprechaun who goes out to drink after finishing his daily work. They are always drunk. If treated well, a clurichaun will protect a mortal’s wine cellar.
Interesting Facts about the Irish Language
Irish is a Celtic language, which means it is distantly related to Welsh. In distant prehistory, Irish and Welsh were married. Eventually, however, they got a divorce. In the settlement, Welsh got custody of most of the consonants while Irish got custody of most of the vowels.
Anyway, with Saint Patrick’s day coming up—and given the importance of Irish language and folklore to the faery mythology—I was pleased to see a Mental Floss article on “8 Fun Facts About the Irish Langauge” by Akira Okrent.
You might also appreciate this Beginner’s Guide to Irish Gaelic Pronunciation. Or just do what I do and find a computer to pronounce it for you.