In previous articles we’ve seen how the gods relate to the land and the landscape in both Scotland and Ireland, and how they relate to the ancestors. Traditionally, however, we might refer to the gods, ancestors and spirits when talking about the basics of Gaelic Polytheist belief, and it’s this last grouping that gets perhaps the least discussion.
We might simply and conveniently define these spirits as fairies – the daoine sìth as they’re known in Scotland. But the picture we get, perhaps unsurprisingly by now, is a little more complicated than that; they are involved, to be sure, but not necessarily the be all and end all of what the term ‘spirit’ encompasses. As such, the following article is going to explore just what this means, and how it might help us in our practice.
In studying pre-Christian Celtic beliefs in general, it is often said that the Celts were (and are) animistic – that the Celts saw every natural thing, animate or inanimate, as possessed of a spirit.1 Miranda Green does a good job of exploring the basics for the Continental Celts in her article ‘The Gods and the Supernatural,’2 but here we are looking at the evidence that we can apply to the Gaels. This will involve looking at both the early literature and the later lore, and the commentary provided by the early folklorists and Celticists such as Evans-Wentz and J. A. MacCulloch, and we should also take into account the evidence explored in Gods of Landscape and Lore, and The Gods in Scotland. We see in both that the gods themselves are intimately linked with the land, both in terms of living in it, ruling over it, and perhaps even personifying it (if we think of Ériu, Banba and Fotla, for example).
This in itself might be considered to be a good start in looking into animist beliefs as expressed by the Gaels. We might also remind ourselves of Gildas, who commented (thoroughly disapprovingly) in the sixth century:
“Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which now are subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.”3
While not commenting specifically on Ireland or Scotland, we can see that it can be relevant for them as well.4 As MacCulloch pointed out, these natural elements – or the powers of nature in general – are often called upon in oaths, even by the gods themselves in the early Irish literature. The Morrígan, for example, “invokes the powers of nature and proclaims the victory to ‘the royal mountains of Ireland, to its chief waters, and its river mouths’.”5 Likewise, the same idea can be found in the Táin, with Cú Chulainn calling on the rivers, sky and earth to help him in his endeavours.6
As Evans-Wentz or MacCulloch would have it, some of these nature spirits took on more of a personality than others did, and became known as specific types of nature spirits or fairies – like leprechauns or “demoniac beings haunting lonely places.”7 These ‘demoniac beings’ might be found as kelpies, the púca, or the each uisge (‘water horse’), for example – usually malevolent beings lurking in watery places or fields, waiting to cause trouble for unsuspecting passers-by in luring them to their deaths, but not all of these beings can be seen as wholly malevolent – the gruagach, or various types of brownies such as the fynoderee of Man, are often seen as generally benevolent if treated with the proper respect.8 In some cases, these beings may be seen as modern expressions of half-forgotten gods. As far as Evans-Wentz and MacCulloch would have it, some of these original nature spirits eventually became gods, and so their relegation back to spirit status in the surviving folk tradition can be seen as both evidence of surviving animism alongside Christianity and at least some semblance of consistency in belief and practice.
Here Evans-Wentz and MacCulloch are following the ideas of Tylor, who first defined animism and saw it as the origin of polytheism – the worship of spirits in nature providing the impetus for the evolution of the concept of gods. This theory is no longer subscribed to by anthropologists as being wholly sound, since not all gods are seen to have their origins in nature, or natural elements, at least. Ancestral deities, for one, although they may be associated with specific features in the land (burial mounds in particular) are not necessarily personifications of the land itself.9
However, animism, and the overlapping between gods, daoine síth, and spirits, is an area that can provide a wealth of understanding for Gaelic Polytheists in terms of informing our beliefs and practices. Understanding these ideas, and how they are expressed in the lore, helps us build a foundation of practice.
Some of the earliest sources mention a curious phrase – a seemingly odd division between “gods and un-gods.”10 We find it in several places, perhaps the best known being in the Táin, when Cú Chulainn blesses the Morrígan after she tricks him into healing her of the wounds he himself inflicted upon her. Here he says: “Bendacht dee agus andee fort, a ingen” – “Blessings of the gods and ungods on you, woman.”11
The phrase can also be found in an early blessing, bestowed upon Aéd mac Diarmata meic Muiredaich (†c750C.E.), one of the kings of Leinster. Here the formula is, “Ind flaith issed a orbae cach math do dé nó andé” – “The lordship, this is his heritage, every good of gods and ungods.”12 Another example can be found being used to describe the gods themselves in the ninth century tale Scél Tuáin Meic Cairill (‘The Tale of Túan mac Cairell’), where there is reference to the Tuatha Dé ocus Andé – ‘Tribes of the Gods and Ungods.’13
Obviously this raises the question of just who these ‘ungods’ are. In literal terms, we might simply assume that they aren’t gods, but that’s not exactly illuminating. If not gods, what? Not quite gods? The antithesis of gods – demons, one might say? Something in between gods and mortals, perhaps…
The Cóir Anmann attempts to explain the meaning by saying that “Dée were the poets and an-dée the husbandmen,” and “These were their gods, the magicians, and their non-gods were husbandmen.”14 The Lebor Gabála Érenn follows suit.15 Of the Tuatha Dé Danann, then, we are led to believe that there were those who were skilled in the arts (dé), and those who were not (andé), but were still of the same race, the same people. Effectively, it is the skill (and resulting status) of the dé that set them apart from their fellow people, and marks out their divine status. That certainly fits with what myths like Cath Maige Tuired tells us about the Tuatha Dé being skilled in the arts, for one – that they “were in the northern islands of the world, studying occult lore and sorcery, druidic arts and witchcraft and magical skill, until they surpassed the sages of the pagan arts.”16
Or, if we see that the Tuatha Dé’s association with the magic arts and skilled professions is part of a later, more modern scheme as laid out by the likes of Lebor Gabála Érenn (the Book of Invasions, where each settler of Ireland brings something to the land, or its society – creating plains and lochs, bringing sin, murder, laws, kingship, and so on) we might see this interpretation as an attempt by later scribes to apply some meaning to a term that is no longer understood. Certainly that is how the explanations appear in the Lebor Gabála Érenn itself with different versions of the text appearing to try and flesh out the explanation from Cóir Anmann.17
We might see the distinction as being reference to the gods themselves (dé), and the priests or kings who serve and represent them on earth (andé), as the Rig Veda compares the gods and brahmins – “The gods who are the gods and the brahmins who have studied sacred lore are human gods.”18 The ungods, then, are not divine, but perhaps to be seen as divine-like, or the closest to the divine. The explanation given by the Cóir Anmann, however, if we take it at face value as drawing a distinction between higher, skilled status of the gods, and the lower, unskilled, layman status of the ungods, would seem to contradict this idea. The Cóir Anmann, and the other sources who give similar distinctions, all seem to emphasise the ungods’ secular status. In this respect, it’s difficult to see any metaphorical idea of the ungods as being husbandmen of the gods, in terms of their being priests.
Keeping with a Vedic comparison, Rhys noted the similarity between the dé and andé with the Vedic concept of deva and adeva.19 Deva means ‘gods’, while adeva has a variety of meanings from ‘enemy of gods,’ to ‘godless.’20 In effect, adeva can be seen as the direct opposite of deva. There doesn’t appear to be any reason to assume that the andé should be interpreted to have been singled out for possessing any sort of specifically negative, even demonic nature, however, and if they were it would presumably have been likely for this fact to have been quietly edited out by the Christian scribes who wrote the blessings down (assuming the meaning of dé and andé was still understood…).21 It’s one thing to talk about the demonic, another to invite blessing from such.
However, this doesn’t mean that we should discount the theory entirely. We might not interpret the andé as being wholly negative in outlook – ‘enemy of gods’ – but certainly it seems that we are not dealing with mere mortals, either. Whatever the andé are, it seems that they are still possessed of some sort of power, and are worthy of respect and blessing. In this sense, we might see them as spirits – perhaps genius loci, nature spirits, daoine sìth, phantoms and ghosts included, and even members of the Fir Bolg and Fomorians – and while they may not all be evil, they are not necessarily all seen as sweetness and light either.
In the Lebor Gabála Érenn we are told that demons (demnu) and spectres (siabra) fought alongside the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Milesians at Sliabh Mis;22 Cú Chulainn, when he entered into his famous battle frenzies or ‘warp spasms,’ was attended and encouraged by beings known as the geniti-glinni, ‘spirits of the valley’23 in the Táin:
“Next he put round his head his crested war-helm of battle and fight and combat, whereout was uttered the cry of an hundred young warriors with the long-drawn wail from each of its angles and corners. For this was the way that the fiends, the goblins and the sprites of the glens and the demons of the air screamed before and above and around him, what time he went forth for the shedding of blood of heroes and champions, exulting in the mighty deeds wrought underneath it.”24
Likewise Badb, as much as she might be seen as a goddess, can be seen as a battle fury, commanding phantoms (badba) to cause chaos in times of war to the benefit of one side and the detriment of another.25 Badb has a reputation in getting involved in human affairs as well: At the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, it is said that over the battle-field, “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 firmament, and the demoniac phantom host; and they were inciting and sustaining valour and battle with them.”26
Joyce describes other types of ‘fierce apparitions’, like bocanachs and bananachs (male and female goblins respectively), and the spirits known as siabra (a word sometimes synonymous with the Tuatha Dé Danann),27 which were responsible for choking Cormac mac Art on a bone of salmon for his acceptance of Christianity.28
These are the kind of spirits that we could include amongst the andé – spirits that fit a firmly animistic worldview. It would also be tempting to explain the andé as the Otherworldly figures found in the early Irish literature who are not clearly shown to be gods – figures like Fand, the wife of Manannán who fell in love with Cú Chulainn and caused his wasting sickness,29 the woman with whom Lug fathered Cú Chulainn on at the first inception (of three before Cú Chulainn was finally born), or else the fairy woman who enticed Conla into the síd mound in Echtra Condla (The Adventure of Conla), or the many fantastical beings encountered in the immrama (voyage tales).
They inhabit the same Otherworldly sphere, but are not necessarily seen as gods. Some of them live with gods – in the case of Fand, she is married to one. It may be that here, there is simply no memory of Fand’s divine role or function. Or else, as a member of the andé, she simply never had one. Whatever the case, there is an ambiguity in these figures – Otherworldly if not divine, and sometimes explicitly referred to as fairies rather than Tuatha Dé Danann. This confusion and ambiguity may have been deliberate, or else it is the result of the eventual conflation of the Tuatha Dé Danann with the daione sìth in the literature and later lore.
From some of the earliest references in the sources, we know that the gods were associated with the síd mounds,30 and were sometimes known as the aes síde, or ‘people of the mounds.’31 Popular folk tradition often explains the daoine sìth as being the old gods of Ireland (and/or Scotland), and as such we hear of references to their going underground with the coming of Christianity, when, according to the nineteenth century antiquarians of the day “…when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high.”32 Or else they went underground with the victory of the Milesians when it was agreed that Ireland should be divided – the Sons of Míl would have everything above land, and the Tuatha Dé Danann would have everything below.33
Other explanations for the origins of the daoine sìth give them as fallen angels, or souls of the dead (the pagan dead, denied heaven, or else souls trapped in a sort of purgatory, until their sins have been expunged and they can claim their place in heaven); remnants of a bygone race, pushed underground by the coming of the Celts, or simply folk memories of the druids themselves, reduced to fairy tales.34
Either way, much of the lore associated with the daoine sìth can tell us as much about the gods as it can about the concept of nature spirits, which we might see expressed in beings such as the kelpie, the gruagach, the glaistig, the each uisge, selkies, the fachan, or the púca – some of which are explicitly malevolent, others perhaps not so much – who are generally counted amongst the ranks of the daoine sìth.
There are many traits and elements associated with the daoine sìth that clearly show their relation to the gods as well – both are seen as being intimately associated with certain families in Ireland and Scotland as ancestors, or ancestral spirits or guardians; both are intimately associated with the land and the landscape; both are honoured with regular offerings in traditional folklore, and can be seen to influence the harvests and the crops, the weather, and people’s health and luck in general.
Figures such as Áine, Cliodhna, Aoibheall, or Donn are seen in the lore as fairies as much as they bear elements of divinity, for example,35 while the bean sí in Ireland, or the bean nighe or Caointeach in Scotland – usually linked with certain families – also shows the signs of being both an ancestral deity, as well as a spirit.36
As the old gods, the lore associated with the daoine sìth can therefore help us in figuring out how the gods should be approached and honoured or worshipped. Here, however, we must also be cautious.
It would be a mistake to think that what is popularly called the Fairy Faith by the likes of Evans-Wentz and others – the Creideamh Sí – is the be all and end all of belief and practice. The term itself – ‘Fairy Faith’ – “suggests an autonomy which it does not have with respect to popular religion in general.”37 In this sense, it is not simply pre-Christian practice preserved and encapsulated in folk belief, lurking around and quietly surviving alongside Christianity for millennia, because undoubtedly changes in religion, as well as society and politics, have all had their part to play on how the Creideamh Sí has evolved as well. Rather, we should see the evidence embodied within the Creideamh Sí as simply one avenue with which we can inform our own practices.
While the daoine sìth might often be said to be the gods relegated to fairy status after Christianity established itself as the dominant religion, not all of those counted amongst the daoine sìth can be said to have originally been gods, just as not all ancestors can be said to be gods. Certainly the lore as it has survived, and evolved, seems to fit this view, and as Evans-Wentz notes, there is a remarkable consistency in the recorded or manuscript “fairy faith,” as he calls it, from the earliest sources to the modern.38
The Creideamh Sí can tell us not only about belief and practice as relating to the gods, but also to the spirits of the land with whom – as Gaelic Polytheists – we seek to build a relationship with. What this relationship might be depends on the kind of spirit we are dealing with; sometimes the spirits are keen to be involved, and if approached properly and treated with due respect, they can form part of a relationship that benefits both sides. Other spirits may want nothing to do with people, or the people making offerings to them, at least.
We see the emphasis on locality in much of the lore and tradition.39 In building the foundations of a reconstructionist, polytheistic practice, then, an important starting place should be on your own surroundings – the home and the boundaries of your property, and anywhere else you might engage in regular spiritual practice or ritual – with offerings made to the spirits of the area. Likewise, when moving to a new home, offerings can be made to the spirits of the area before moving in (‘flitting’, as it’s called in Scotland – moving house) to ensure a good start to the relationship with the area.
Naturally, considering that most members of the Gaelic Polytheist community are not practising in Ireland, Scotland or Man, consideration must be given to the gods and spirits that may not be Gaelic or even Celtic. There is plenty of lore concerning the daoine sìth being found in the Diaspora,40 but this does not mean that they are everywhere, and either way it is not considered good sense to seek the daoine sìth out.
Your practices may be rooted in Gaelic tradition, but the beings you interact with (if they’re interested in doing so at all) may not be, and in many cases, as The CR FAQ details, they may want nothing to do with you. Sometimes, there may be spirits – like certain members of the daoine sìth – who do, although their attention may not be desired or desirable. In these cases, treaties of non-interference with non-Celtic or non-interested spirits might be negotiated by way of making offerings; if they are accepted, it can be taken as implicit agreement by those spirits that they will not interfere within the bounds of your property or area of ritual practice, and they take on the role of Outsiders.41
Accounting for the potential for encountering non-Gaelic spirits, it is important to take into consideration any local tabus, as well as Gaelic ones, when making offerings. For the Gaels, iron in particular is considered to be offensive and repellant to the daoine sìth, as are certain types of wood.42 Certain foods and drink may be considered to be especially favoured (milk and butter, especially),43 or given on certain occasions – in Ireland, for example Evans notes that it is customary to pour a tipple of whatever it is you’re drinking if you’re outside.44 This inevitably has to be tempered with the local tabus like many First Nations people believing that alcohol should not come into contact with the ground.
Likewise, offerings to the gods and ancestors should not be neglected either. At first, offerings might be made generally, to gods, to spirits, to ancestors. Over time, special relationships may develop between certain gods, or certain ancestors as they make themselves known (or don’t, as the case may be), as well as certain spirits. In this latter category, house brownies – not particularly Gaelic in themselves, but well integrated into the lore in many areas – may be considered to be particularly desirable to encourage, or discourage as the case may be!45
Between the gods, the spirits, and the ancestors, there are overlaps and blurred edges. They may be distinct, or all three at the same time. The gods are timeless and Otherworldly. They are seen to be powerful, skilled, possessed of wisdom, but not omnipotent or infallible; they are seen to involve themselves in the affairs of mortals as they see fit, their motives not always apparent. Some people experience revelations and a close relationship in the hands of certain gods, but not everyone may experience something so intimate and personal. For some the gods are distant and only distantly felt, but worthy of honour nonetheless.
We see some of the gods as ancestors, but not necessarily all gods as ancestors, or all ancestors as gods. Ancestors are worthy of veneration in their own right, for they are responsible for our being here in the most direct sense in terms of our blood kin. Or else we may honour the heroes and ancestors of the Gaelic countries themselves – those who’ve left their mark in one way or another. Either way, their wisdom and their own struggles for survival, along with their successes, are worthy of honouring in that without them, we would not be where we are today.
Again, some gods (and therefore some of those gods seen as ancestors) may be seen as members of the daoine sìth as well. Like the gods the daoine sìth can be unpredictable, but in general they are seen to be relatively hierarchical and organised. They have their own standards, and sets of rules to live by, and it is expected that these should be respected.
Considering the spirits as a whole, though, we might say that of the three – gods, spirits and ancestors – they are the most nebulous and diverse, the most difficult to define or pin down exactly. On the one hand, this is perfectly logical; they represent the spirit of natural things, that are otherwise not conscious or tangible in the same way as we are, or the gods and ancestors are (if at all). On the other, this lack of definition may have a lot to do with an almost unspoken tabu against delving into their world and their nature too deeply.
1 Green, The Gods and the Supernatural, in Green (Ed.), The Celtic World, 1995, p465; Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p200; MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p171-172.
2 Green, The Gods and the Supernatural, in Green (Ed.), The Celtic World, 1995.
3 See: Gildas.
4 The Gods in Scotland.
5 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p172-173.
6 Mac Mathúna, ‘Irish perceptions of the cosmos,’ Celtica 23, 1999, p182.
7 The Celtic World, p465; Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p200; MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p173.
8 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p730; ‘Of the Gruagich’, Rev. MacQueen, 1774 in Pennant, A Tour of Scotland, 1774, p 759.
9 Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: Algonquins-Art, 2001, p427.
10 Also sometimes given as “non-gods”, but “un-gods” is generally favoured as the more accurate translation.
11 Táin Bó Cúailnge.
12 Stokes and Strachan, Thesaurus Paleohibernicus, 1901, p295. See also Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200, 1995, p33.
13 Carey, ‘Scél Tuáin Meic Chairill,’ in Koch and Carey, The Celtic Heroic Age, 1995, p212.
14 Stokes, ‘Cóir Anmann,’ in Irische Texte Vol III, 1897, p355.
15 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn Volume IV, 1941, p199.
16 Grey, Cath Mag Tuired, line 1.
17 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn Volume IV, 1941, p199.
18 Rankin, ‘Bendacht dee agus andee fort,’ ZcP Volume 51, p120. See also Hasting, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 5, 2003, p283.
19 Rhys, The Hibbert Lectures: Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, 1888, p581.
20 Rankin, ‘Bendacht dee agus andee fort,’ ZcP Volume 51, p117.
21 Rankin, ‘Bendacht dee agus andee fort,’ ZcP Volume 51, p119.
22 Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn Volume IV, 1956, p61.
23 Joyce, A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, 1908; MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p173-174.
24 The Táin.
25 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p260.
26 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p306.
28 Joyce, A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, 1908.
29 The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn, or The Sick-Bed of Cú Chualinn.
30 Ó Giolláin, ‘The Fairy Belief and Official Religion’, in Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997, p199.
31 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p1694.
32 Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888, p1.
33 De Gabāil in t-Sīda in-so Sīs.
34 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p19.
35 Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland, 2006, p179.
36 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol I, 1957, p115; Meek, Seanchas Íle, 2007, p55. Lysaght, The Banshee, 1986, p30-31.
Cf Meek: “The Caointeach was a fairywoman. She followed the Clann MacKay and other clans in the Rhinns of Islay. When a death was going to occur in one of these clans, she would come to the house of the person who as ill with a green plaid around her shoulders, and she would warn the family with sad wails outside the door. As soon as the relations of the ill person heard her voice they would lose hope of any recovery.” p55.
McNeill: “When any great happiness or any great misfortune was about to befall the family, the event was heralded by her cries of rejoicing or lamentation.” p116.
Although as Lysaght notes, “It must be emphasised here that it is difficult to regard the death-announcing bean sí as a fairy in the ordinary sense of that expression. Fairies are imagined to be social beings, living in communities…”
37 Ó Giolláin, ‘The Fairy Belief and Official Religion’, in Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997, p199.
38 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p307.
39 Ó Giolláin, ‘The Fairy Belief and Official Religion’, in Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997, p202.
40 See for example Rieti, ‘“The Blast” in Newfoundland Fairy Tradition,’ in Narváez (Ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, 1997.
41 NicDhána et al, The CR FAQ, 2007, p91.
42 Henderson and Cowan, Scottish Fairy Belief, 2001, p89.
43 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p37-38; Ó Súilleabháin, Irish Folk Customs and Belief, p89; Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p11; p25; p82. See Offerings.
44 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 1957, p304.
45 Koch, Encyclopedia of Celtic Culture, 2006, p730.