I’m delighted to welcome my friend and colleague David Halpin as a guest author at deadbutdreaming for an investigation into Irish faerie-lore. David writes extensively about Irish folklore and mythology, always producing insightful and thought-provoking articles based on meticulous research. These three pieces have been taken from his excellent Circle Stories Facebook page, which has become a go-to source for a perceptive understanding of Irish folkloric and mythological traditions. Each article is illustrated with David’s own distinctive photography of Irish sacred sites, some of which are included in this piece. Thanks to David for permission to republish these articles and photos here.
Ancestors, Fairies And The Soul In The Stars
One of the most puzzling omissions when it comes to Irish archaeology is the naming and observation of the ancient Irish shaman. Although there are some different views about who exactly the ancient Irish people were, what we can say for certain is they all came from cultures which allocated a position of the ultimate importance to this tribal role.
And yet… the evidence is there, it’s just that the interpretation is half-seen due to the world view of those who made the early pronouncements about ancient Irish beliefs and veneration. For example, many of the 5,000 year old ‘tombs’ contain ashes and body parts but they also contain art, offerings and reusable passageways and entrances. Looking at the shaman’s role in antiquity we can notice that the preservation of ancestral shrines were not places of mourning. They were places of continual communication and ritual. This task was performed by the shaman.
As the world view of ancient people began to change from the Palaeolithic into the Mesolithic and onto the first farming groups the type of veneration also began to include ancestors. The sun, moon and star cycles were continually observed but now people saw the shaman as someone who might bring back information and healing from the members of the tribe who had passed on. There is no definitive time-frame here; cultures ‘progressed’ in different stages and as the assimilation of various peoples and traditions occurred so too did their practices and beliefs.
One thing is consistent, though, and that is the shamanistic function which took place at ancient sites. This is what is missing from the Irish record. While archaeologists talk about graves and shrines they ignore the living traditions and rituals which these places were used for. Obviously our own view of death has filtered our perception of how ancient people might have behaved. Add in the fact that most early Irish archaeologists grew up with an Abrahamic view of religion and you can see why they might have been both reluctant to and unable to take into account the nuances and complexities of a spirituality that challenged their own.
Perhaps one factor which exemplifies this, and also might shed light on the multifaceted Irish concept of fairies, is the concept of the multiple-soul. This belief recurs in indigenous societies from Austronesia to Europe and is probably one you have heard of at some point before as well. Most likely it was the view shared by ancient Irish people as well. Simply put, this belief understands that the soul is divided into various parts. One part might stay within the body and remain on earth after death, whereas another part might travel in dreams or be the summation of the deeds of a person’s life.
Another part of the soul might remain outside of the body and follow it around, sometimes offering advice. It can get quite complex as the Egyptian example demonstrates with the various souls representing the personality, the cumulative deeds, the shadow, the breath and, indeed, the spiritual essence of a person.
The practice of soul-retrieval is another indigenous ritual common to cultures all around the world from Siberia to Africa and from Australia to North America. Often there is a reincarnation or soul transmigration aspect to this as well which we know was part of the Celtic cosmology. Why the multiple-soul is interesting in relation to fairies is because there has always been a contradiction between the fairies being of the Otherworld as well as being the dead themselves. However, when we view fairies from the perspective of those who believed the soul was multifaceted then these contradictions make sense.
The fairies, ancestors, goddesses and gods might dwell in the constellations but they would also be here, on earth, as the ancestral dead.
Fairy Paths, Ley-Lines and Mass Paths
Fairy roads or fairy paths are often confused with Ley-Lines and Mass Paths. It is true that over time many have fused with one another through customs and folklore. However, it is also worth separating the more ancient ‘spirit and fairy roads’ from the later walkways from the 17th century and beyond. Also connected with church paths here in Ireland are natural rock formations called ‘mass rocks’ where funerals and masses were held during times of Catholic persecution.
But, back to fairy roads and Ley-Lines. What are the differences between these two often confused concepts? To put it simply, Ley-Lines, as envisioned by Alfred Watkins, author of The Old Straight Track, were tracks connecting ancient landmarks such as standing stones, raths and other prominent natural topographic features. Watkins himself did not see any association with spirit paths or supernatural energies but over time, as his ideas were taken up by other researchers, these attributes were incorporated.
Fairy roads or fairy paths are a different matter. These are said to be routes or invisible paths upon which fairies, the souls of the dead and other less-observed energetic forces travel. It is considered extremely bad luck to build a house on these pathways as well as removing any feature which is considered a marker for the good people on these routes. We have all heard of how farmers will not remove a hawthorn tree from their field without suffering the wrath of these enigmatic spirits, for example.
You can also read many accounts of roads being rerouted in order to avoid certain places or sites considered to be home to elves or fairies. It is worth noting that this is by no means a solely Irish consideration. Across the entire world, from Iceland to Australia, from Costa Rica to Siberia these sacred pathways are acknowledged and in many cases preserved. In the instances where a site has been destroyed or a fairy tree removed there are often reports of extreme bad luck then becoming associated with a particular spot on the road where the landmark once stood.
Because there is such an overlap between fairies and the dead it can be difficult to separate more recent folklore from the remnants of probable oral traditions and beliefs spanning much longer time periods. However, comparative mythology shows that many of the same types of spirits and supernatural forms were associated with ancient sites all around the world. Often their behaviour can be observed to have some similar traits although the motivation for this can only be guessed at.
Certainly, fairies are known to move from stone circles and raths when we reach particular points in the year such as Samhain, Bealtaine or during the zenith of certain constellation or star rises. It would be a nice project to try to determine just how encounters and sightings rise and fall before and during these yearly points. Another factor to consider is that individual hawthorn trees, stone circles and sacred sites often also have their own guardian gods, goddesses and spirits as well being markers and byways for nightly and seasonal parades.
Raths in particular are considered both sacred places in themselves as well as being portals and entrances to the Otherworld. There are many recorded sightings of fairy activity at raths in the various Irish folklore archives including this one from Merginstown, Co. Wicklow. This example from Duchas.ie contains all of the typical motifs of the fairy road: the rath from which they emerge, the fact that other raths are visually linked to the site, and the conclusion that building on a fairy path is a very bad idea! There are also legends that raths can be connected through tunnels in many cases. Some stories describe a treasure buried beneath a mound but there is usually a guardian spirit to appease before it can be reached. Often times the treasure turns out to be an appreciation of being allowed to leave alive!
“There are a number of raths or lisses to be found in Merginstown. These Raths go by the name of Moates. Some of them are formed by a deep round pit oftentimes surrounded by the remains of an old ditch or hedge. It is said that these raths are inhabited by the fairies and no one ever molests them. It is also said that one can see a lot of other raths from the one by which they would be standing. There is said to be a great many large flat stones buried in these raths but what was put under them is not rightly known. I have heard it said that at one time the fairies had a path from one rath to another, and that if anything was put on this path it would be pitched aside by the fairies when they would be passing that night. There is generally a couple of bushes to be found growing near these raths. These bushes are called Lone Bushes. If anyone cuts down one of these bushes a curse will fall on them I have heard of a man who cut down a Lone Bush and within a month’s time three or four cattle had died on him. The following is a story which I have heard in connection with the fairies.
There was once a man who lived near a fairies path. The man wished to build a cowhouse and as there was no room in the farmyard he had to build it in a field nearby. Now this was the field through which the fairies had their path. One morning he was coming in with an armful of hay and found to his amazement that the back wall had been knocked down. It was the fairies who had knocked it down because it was built on their path He built it up again that day but it was knocked down again next morning. He then decided on putting a door in the back wall. This he did and ever since the wall was never knocked down. It is believed that the fairies pass through this house at night on their way from rath to rath.”
In this example from Co. Kildare a man finds that taking stones from a rath is just as bad as trying to destroy it. And from Carlow we have a description of ongoing encounters with the ‘little red men’ and a local rath. As an aside, those readers who follow this page will again notice the prevalence of red fairies in this area. In this case they are renowned for stealing cows which might interest UFO researchers but in many other incidents they will take a human for a day or two.
A good example of this type of incident is this account from nearby Kiltegan where a man describes the rath lighting up before he is taken away by small men playing music. And, finally, this encounter is listed as a ghost story which demonstrates the ongoing link between fairies and the dead. In this case the man has built his house on a fairy path and now has to put up with his doors being opened and the sound of people moving through his home every night.
There are further associations between fairy paths and the original form and philosophy of Feng Shui, which may surprise people, but I will keep that for another post. I would recommend the book Spirit Roads: An Exploration of Otherworldly Routes by Paul Devereux for those who would like to delve more deeply into this subject.
Who are the Fairies?
Yes, I know. This is a question for which you will receive many answers but let’s take a quick look at some of the popular explanations which have been given down through the years and also some of the less well known theories about the good people.
The first thing many are surprised by is that Irish fairies being the banished Tuatha Dé Danann is not as clear-cut as some accounts would have us believe. In fact, in Irish mythology it is implied that the Sí were already here before the Tuatha were said to have retreated into the mounds and fairy forts. This would mean that the fairies were separate from the later Gods of Irish lore. The potential twist here is interesting, though. The Tuatha Dé were said to have arrived in supernatural circumstances themselves, emerging from clouds of mist, so perhaps this could be explained as them arriving from a fairy realm in the first place.
As mentioned in a previous post, there is also a story from the west of Ireland that fairies arrived from a western spiritual realm by travelling on the ragwort plant, also known as ‘fairy-horse’. The fairies, then, might be a memory, or an imagining, of the first Irish by the later settlers. When these people arrived and found complex monuments, stone circles and dolmens how could they not be impressed? And to find them no longer used and seemingly abandoned may have led to the belief that they were the homes and entrance-way’s to an ‘otherworld’.
Fairies are continually linked to nature spirits and supernatural beings connected to particular aspects of landscapes. This is not specific to Ireland, of course. All around the world areas considered sacred or magical are said to be the homes of spirits. From New Zealand to North Africa, from Tibet to Peru, natural features and elaborately constructed and aligned monuments are considered the abode of elementals and supernatural deities. However, this does not mean that they are tied to one place, outside of our own understanding. As Claude Lecouteux writes in his book, Demons and Spirits of the Land, “…the syncretic nature of these creatures has conferred upon them specificity so strong it conceals their origin.” (p.133).
After Christianity came to Ireland, the fairies developed a more sinful origin in newer folklore and a spiritual context influenced by a monotheistic point of view. The ambiguity of their actions meant that the good people always occupied a type of neutral space between something that could benefit and something that could harm, but now those outcomes were more simply defined as good and evil. The sidhe, depending on who you asked, might be agents of either side. This notion stemmed from a variety of beliefs which even today makes for interesting conversation.
I suppose the most simple way to put it is that fairies were seen as existing in a type of ‘not quite evil enough for hell, not quite good enough for heaven’ state. Some Christian stories even explained them as fallen angels who had rebelled against god but then regretted their actions.
These stories seem to contain the subtext of an attempt to subjugate pagan gods and spirits into a Christian interpretation of the universe. In his landmark compilation, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W. Y. Evans Wentz, tried to examine fairies from new anthropological perspectives as well as collecting first-hand accounts of encounters with the good people. One of the most complex areas Wentz questioned was whether or not fairies, ancestors and the dead were the same. Did a person who died become a fairy? Were there specific actions or circumstances that made it so? Or, was it a trick by the good folk and they took the form of dead loved ones in order to influence?
Alas, this area is both thorny and controversial. There are indeed arguments for a crossover at times but in my view, at least, this is linked strongly to the perspective of the person or culture at the time. This trickster capacity will raise its head again in the post but for now this quote from the writer, Morgan Daimler, sums it up quite well, “If one could imagine it as a Venn diagram we would see fairies as one circle, the human dead as another, and the area where the two circles overlapped would represent those who fall into both groups-how small or large that is no one can say for certain.” (p. 41).
Another argument Wentz makes in his book might seem odd to us today, namely that fairies are not to be confused with pygmies. Many people are unaware of the popularity of this explanation but it was an argument prominent enough for Wentz to feel the need to refute it. The 19th-century historian, David MacRitchie, believed the Tuatha De referred to an early Inuit pygmy race who first inhabited Ireland and Northern Europe. His thesis was that this was the basis of the cultural memory of small people.
Today, this idea has become popular again among certain researchers who have drawn parallels to the Twa tribes of Africa and the similarity to the word Tuatha, as well as accounts of dark-skinned Picts in Scotland and Orkney. However, MacRitchie did not believe the pygmy race came from Africa, but from Northern Eurasia. These ideas are not accepted by most scholars, it has to be said.
Although some entrance-ways into mounds and cairns are indeed small, there are also many other sites where the opposite is the case. MacRitchie’s explanation also fails to account for the huge amount of encounters with taller fairies, sometimes known as the gentry. Again, this is a much more complex issue than this short post will be able to cover.
Finally, the explanation for fairies which many contemporary scholars and writers seem to favour is one that fits perfectly with the contradictory nature of these beings. In this view, fairies take on the cultural forms most prevalent to those they appear to. So, the angelic and demonic forms fit the myths and lore of ancient times, for example. Are they aspects of our collective unconscious or even psychological manifestations leading us further into timelessness and non-material aspects of ourselves?
In this view, as we move through the centuries, art, religion and writing begin to influence how these beings are perceived. As we became more and more embedded in technology and urbanization, fairies became aliens and inter-dimensional travellers. Now, if you are unfamiliar with this topic the comparison might seem odd but, in fact, there are many places where striking similarities emerge. Fairies and aliens both kidnapping for midwife purposes is one, changelings replacing human children and spinning bright lights resulting in missing time are others. The writers Jacques Vallée and Terence McKenna have written extensively about this subject, and it’s a topic that receives ongoing attention at deadbutdreaming.
So, as you can see, the concept of who the good people are seems to become more complex as time moves on. But is this really the case? Perhaps fairies have always stayed the same and it is us who change and grow, allowing us to comprehend a little bit more of the whole picture with each new generation. Then again, maybe we will never discover what fairies really are and this is the way it is supposed to be; to hold mystery close to our hearts and to continue to imagine and believe in something other than ourselves.
A free e-book containing a year’s-worth of Circle Stories can be found here: A Year of Circle Stories: Folklore, Sacred Sites, Mythology and Local History of Ireland’s Ancient East.