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The Ogham Alphabet
Sometimes called the “Celtic Tree Alphabet,” Ogham (pronounced, roughly, Oh-um) is made up of straight lines intersecting a staff at various angles. Atlas Obscura has posted an informative article about this unique writing system:
There are about 400 known Ogham stones in the world—360 in Ireland, and the rest scattered between Wales, the Isle of Mann, and Scotland. Most are monuments or border markers, engraved with the evocative names and genealogies of their owners—”Belonging to the Three Sons of the Bald One,” or “He Who Was Born Of The Raven.” More are almost certainly lurking—hidden stones can (and do) pop up occasionally, built into churches, unearthed at construction sites, or hiding out disguised as decorative stonework.
There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail in Children of Pride in which an antagonist writes a line of Ogham script as part of a spell. But there was no way (or reason) to indicate that this was what was happening. I’ll leave it to my readers to see if they can track down the scene. 😉
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.’
Listverse has a list of ten discoveries that cast the vikings in a new light. It’s quite interesting and worth a read.
Why mention vikings on Saint Patrick’s Day? Mainly because they were instrumental in the development of the city of Dublin:
The Vikings explored vast amounts of Europe and North America, but they eventually settled into the land that would eventually become Dublin. At the time, its relatively mild climate, thick tree cover, and river made it the perfect location for a winter home. There they repaired their ships and set up a trade network.
The number of Viking relics found in Dublin over the years has been staggering. Temple Lane was created by Viking settlers and has been called the oldest street in Dublin. Viking swords have been found in the area around Christchurch, and the earliest foundations of Dublin Castle are clay floors that were also dated to the Viking era. And just south of the River Liffey is a huge concentration of buildings that seem to indicate the center of the Viking settlement, including houses and buildings once used for metalworking and the production of other commodities like leathers, textiles, and jewelry. Also along the area of the Liffey was evidence of amber-working.
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.
Environmental and Historical Preservation of Faery “Homes”
Whether out of respect for faeries, the environment, or history, a number of archeological sites and stunning natural vistas have been preserved in northern Europe, as Melissa Marshall describes in an article at Atlas Obscura titled “Fairy Forts, Dens, & Glens: When Places Are Preserved by Mythical Belief.”
In an effort to avoid the wrath of the fairies, communities of the British Isles and Ireland have protected the fairy “homes,” and as a result have preserved sites of great beauty from development and destruction, which is a kind of magic in itself. Conversely, more than a few lovely spots have become damaged and even threatened with destruction by enthusiastic fairy hunters.
Ireland’s Fairy Forts — more properly known as ring forts — are the remains of strongholds and other dwellings dating back as far as the Iron Age. However, local tradition holds that fairies make their home in these ring forts and terrible luck will come to anyone who participates in their destruction. These folk beliefs seem to only date back to the 12th century, but they were strong enough to allow thousands of ring forts to grow wild as the rest of the land was being cultivated for human use.
In modern times, folk beliefs alone have often not been enough to preserve these archaeological sites. In Iceland, protection of elf homes (elves being supernatural cousins of faeries) is codified into building codes and even made a semi-official vocation at Elf School, and yet some cynics avow that non-believing environmentalists might be exploiting folk beliefs to protect the island’s pristine eco system.
It’s a very interesting article that addresses the many conflicting motivations—and results—of setting aside certain places “for the faeries.”
Ireland’s National Leprechaun Museum
File this away with the Cryptozoology Museum in Maine. According to Atlas Obscura:
By day, this family friendly museum is a lighthearted journey through the myths of the Emerald Isle. The exhibits include the history of the leprechaun from the first sighting in the 8th century to Walt Disney’s visit to Ireland, where he found the inspiration for his 1959 film, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. The tour includes rooms full of incredibly over-sized furniture and other optical illusions, as well as an exhibit that features rainbows and pots of gold after a rain shower. Still others reveal cautionary tales, like what happens when you try to catch a leprechaun and additional stories of mishaps and tragedy like the Children of Lir. The tour mixes predictable exploitation of the infamous little legend with mysteries such as Newgrange and other lesser known Irish myths. It ends in an all-too-bright gift shop full of tourist fare and glitter.
Bronze-Age Irish Kings Had a Very Responsible Position
If anything went wrong, they were held responsible:
Cashel Man suffered violent injuries to his back and a sword or axe wound on his arm, but this level of violence is not unusual for bog bodies. Keeper of Irish Antiquities, Eamonn Kelly, who has worked on all the major bog body finds, theorizes that the bog bodies died violent deaths as a form of sacrifice.
He explained to the BBC, “When an Irish king is inaugurated, he is inaugurated in a wedding to the goddess of the land. It is his role to ensure through his marriage to the goddess that the cattle will be protected from plague and the people will be protected from disease.”
He continues, “If these calamities should occur, the king will be held personally responsible. He will be replaced, he will pay the price, he will be sacrificed.”
(H/T: Celtic Myth Podshow)