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Fairy Tales Fairies Faery Woodlands Magazine Blog About
Understanding the Celtic Fairies in Fairy Tales,
ch 1 - Origins of the Celtic people.
Dark forests rise like cresting waves up and down the mountain and hill side before crashing at last into the sea. The stillness of this dark forest is broken only the sound of a fairies song which could be heard, long after the forests gave way to farm and fields.
In 1877 Queen Victoria took a boat out to a small island in center of Loch Maree and there like hundreds even thousands before her she nailed a coin into an old tree, a votive offering for the fairy within in return that her wish might be granted. Nearby sat a pool which was said to have cured people of lunacy at one time, and a small glade of trees in which ancient rituals had been performed only a few hundred years before.
The last remnants of the ancient “fairy faith” remained in the Celtic lands up into the modern era when in the 1950s people in Ireland forced a road to go around a group of rocks considered to be a fairies home.
It is good that they did for these rocks and trees are the historical sites of the ancient Celts who had no temples but worshipped the natural world, who made offerings to the fairies in such places. It is the rocks and forests then that are the temples of the Celts.
The Celtic peoples who retained one of the last extensive vestiges of fairy belief in Western Europe did not simply grow up out of the ground or come out of the forests descended from the trees. Rather they and their belief in fairies has been built up over the course of thousands of years through process of syncretism, and so to truly understand their fairy tales and their belief in fairies we must as always begin by understanding the origins of the these beliefs.
The Celtic language likely had its roots in a series of tribes which existed in Austria, Southern Germany, and or Switzerland some three thousand years ago. And although it’s always difficult to determine the exact homeland of any language four things have been postulated which have an important impact on the Celtic fairy beliefs.
The first arguably the most important is that the Celts speak an Indo-European language, just as the Greeks, Romans, Germanic, Persians, and the peoples of Northern India. I am developing a more in depth series of articles on the beliefs of the Indo-Europeans here…
Quickly the most important aspects of the Indo-Europeans to keep in mind are;
Indo-European fairies lived in a second society within the hills and lakes surrounding the people, a society which had control over nature and which had more knowledge then humans about nearly all things.
Water spirits and tree spirits were especially sacred to them.
The Indo-Europeans valued poetry to an extreme degree, with their most important stories and prayers being conducted in verse.
They valued cleverness in much the way a Christian might value faith or honesty. Their heroes were often characters like Jack who while a thief is clever enough to out wit a giant. Their moral tales involve deceiving a giant, a fairy, or some other spirit. This makes sense because humans were truly at the mercy of nature and each other so to be clever was to survive.
Secondly it has been argued that the Celtic-P languages resulted from the inability of Etruscan peoples to properly pronounce the Indo-European languages (Martin, 2009). The homeland of the Proto-Celtic peoples fell within the Urnfield culture and Etruscans appear to have come from Villanovan culture which was an offshoot of the Urnfield Culture (Britannica.com Villanovan Culture).
Finally languages similar to Etruscan were documented by the Romans far enough North that they were neighbors with the Proto-Celts. Given all of this it’s possible that the early Celts took over an Etruscan culture, and just as the Greeks and Romans had they then adopted many of their beliefs, especially with regards to fairy.
Among the ideas adopted were the importance of seers as the Etruscans did nothing without consulting the seers – something Caesar also assigns to the Gauls. Further the Etruscans themselves have a number of native deities which became lesser deities when the encountered the Romans, so it’s conceivable that some fairies where influenced by these deities.
Next are the Lassi a spirit in Roman belief of Etruscan origin;
"Lassi are spirits which are heard or seen in a house when one of the family dies. They are the ghosts of the ancestors of the family, who come at such a time."
One can see the similarity in this to the fairies of the banshee type in later Celtic mythology, but the similarities go further. Lassi were devoted to their family as were banshees, occasionally helping family members win at games of chance just as the Banshee was said to help family members win at chess. Also like the banshee the Lassi’s were typically female, often depicted as sweet young girls. The following story was told of a Lasia;
"When I was about twelve years of age something happened to me which I thought at the time was funny or queer (mi trovai à un caso buffo--cosi io to chiamai), but I have since regarded it in a very different light. Once I went with some relations into the country. One day I was in a dark forest, and wandered about picking leaves and wood-flowers, and at last found myself in a very lonely place by a stream. I had a habit of talking aloud to myself, and I said, 'Oh, I would like to bathe there'--the weather was very hot--when all at once there stood before me an old woman, who said: 'Dear child, if thou wouldst like to bathe, undress without fear, I will protect thee.' There was something about her which pleased me greatly, a care and kindness and sweetness which I cannot describe. And when I had bathed and dressed myself she said: 'Bimba, thou hast had many troubles, and many more are before thee, but be not afraid (non ti sgomentare), for in thy old age thou wilt have good fortune,' and so she disappeared, and I never saw her again--and I still await the good fortune which has not as yet come to me.
I believe this was indeed a lasia, a spirit of some ancestor long dead, who wishes me well.
The Etruscans had many other creatures which could have impacted the Celtic peoples fairy beliefs. ()))) goes on to write that;
“Another authority informed me that there is a spirito bambino, or spirit like a boy, who is, however, a wizard. His name is Terieg'h (harsh and guttural and uncertain). He comes up out of the ground, and predicts the future or tells fortunes. As these are the only spirits in such form I suppose them to be the same being.
The name Tago will naturally suggest to the scholar that of Tages, "the wise Etruscan child plowed from the earth," whose history is given in detail by Preller and many more, but by no one so succinctly or elegantly as by Petrarch in his Italian-Latin. This child, one day, as a peasant was ploughing--Hetrusco quodam arante in agro Tarquiniensi--leapt from the furrow, an infant in form but with an old man's head and wisdom--puerili effigie sapientia senili--and proceeded forthwith to astonish everybody by his prophesies and instructions in what was then religious wisdom, but what we should now call magic. And it was indeed from his books and teachings that all Roman divination and sacred observances were drawn. And as Etruscan lore began with him, it would be indeed deeply interesting if we could prove that he still lives in his Etrurian home as Tago or Terieg'h. Truly such survivals as these may not be of the fittest for the spirit of the age, but it is befitting that they be recorded, if only to show the extraordinary manner in which they are frozen up in popular tradition to be now and then hawed out to some seeker….."
This old spirit of unaffected feeling of nature without " culture " is deeply impressed in all this Tuscan-Etruscan folk-lore, and I would that my heart could utter the thoughts which it often inspires. It was all summed up for the ancients in the single word Faunus. Faunus and the Fauni were the incarnation of forests, streams and fields, fairy-life and flowers. Therefore I was glad to find that this deity, who is only another form of Pan, still lives in the Romagnola, as is set forth in the following passages.
"FÁNIO is a wizard who comes in the form of a spirit." This appears to be the Euhemeristic conception of all the spirits in this very primitive Tuscan mythology. First a wizard, or a man of power on earth, who is remembered after death, and then is supposed to still haunt the scenes of his former life. What Fánio does was narrated as follows:--
"Fánio frightens peasants in the woods. He appears as a man leaping up with his hands wide open, thrown forward, or looks like a devil, scattering fire, and then laughs at the fear which he has caused. And when there is a wedding he often anticipates the bridegroom in his kisses, and when the husband comes and would embrace his wife he feels invisible blows and cuffs, which put him in a rage, when Fánio bursts out laughing, and says:--
"'Vuoi sapere chi sono?
Sono lo spirito Fánio,
Che cio che m'e piacuto in vita,
Mi piace at altro mondo;
Mi dovresti ringraziare,
Che ti ho risparmiato tanta fatica!'
'Who I am?--if you would know,
I'm the spirit Fánio!
What in life once gave me bliss,
Pleases me as much in this;
And I think that thanks are due
Unto me for helping you!')
Then if the husband is vexed at this, and if his wife is angry and curses the goblin, he only torments her the more and returns as a nightmare to disturb her sleep."
It is not difficult to recognise in this Fánio the Faunus of the Latins. All of the characteristics attributed to him in the account agree accurately with what PRELLER relates:--
Although such child like fairies and nature spirits are common in Indo-European folklore, a second source of inspiration for them certainly would have helped to solidify them.
Thirdly one can see that the Celtic peoples borrowed a number of words from the Ugric languages (Finnish, Estonian, Mari, Komi, etc). More specifically (Tristram, 2007) argues that
“World for “ice” in Celtic and Germanic (Olr. aig, gen. ega, W ia, MCOrn . iein gl, grigus, Corn, yeyn ‘cold,’ Brit. yen ‘cold,’ Olsl. Jaki ‘ice,’ all have a proto form *jegis), This parallels not only in Hitt. ega-, agan ‘ice,’ ekuna ‘cold’, but also in FIn. Jaa, Hung. Jeg, Live. jej, Mord. jej, ej, Lapp jiegna. Bogul. juunk, also meaning ‘ice’ (going back to proto-Uralic *jeng-). Given this parallel, Julius Pokorny pointed out that “there is no doubt that there exist very old connections between the British Islea dn easter Baltic countries.... Adding the Germanic material, we could suppose an early borrowing from Uralic languages. According to Prkorny, this was “an Upper-Paleolithic substratum” of an unknown Arctic race which may have been of Uralic origin….. Consider OLr
esce (a)/eisce ‘moon’ and Lapp. aske ‘moon, the god of the Moon,’ The list of parallels could be continued.”
What’s so interesting about this is that the Mari and Komi peoples still follow much of their traditional religion. Further the relation of the Celts and other northern Indo-European peoples is one place from which I draw my argument that these peoples had some concept of multiple souls early on. The idea of multiple souls is significant to later beliefs in fairies because it can help to explain the internally dualistic nature of Celtic fairies for example how household fairies even change their name when they grow angry and mischievous and are even classified as a different fairy.
Further as I have pointed out before at the same time that the Celtic peoples thought the soul of a person could grow into a tree, could become some form or earth spirit, or could cause water to spring forth. The people Brittney for example also believed In Brittany, souls are frequently thought to be in butterfly form, “but that upon leaving the body it is often believed to take the form of a fly and sometimes that of a raven…" (Ralston 1872).
The Celts to another extent also appear to have believed in an afterlife in which they went into the underworld (a place where the fairies were commonly said to live). From this we have three forms of fairy; flying (though originally fairies rarely had wings), underground, and those which exist in trees, earth and water.
Later Celtic peoples believed that fairies were often the souls of the dead; it does seem likely that in some ways this was originally attested too. Certainly the Romans (another Indo-European people) believed that those who drowned had been taken by the nymphs as playmates. The idea of living among the fairies in the afterlife was likely comforting. The fairies after all were free and happy; dancing dances that seemed so wonderful they lured people away. It could be that seeing a fairy dance was at one time was occasionally similar to our current concept of seeing a light or heaven when one dies. Although the idea of dancing fairies is likely Indo-European in origin, the point is that the Uralic people’s belief in multiple souls and the Indo-European people’s belief that a person can become a form of fairy after death can have allowed people to become more then one type of fairy at one time.
Fourthly (Tristram, 2007) argued that the Gaul’s skill at riding horses came from an Altaic people which invaded Europe. Certainly the peoples of Northern and Eastern Europe do seem to believe more firmly in the idea that a human can grow into a tree or some other feature of the land then do the peoples of the Mediterranean and this is a strongly Altaic idea, though it is also present among the Uralic and the Indo-European peoples as well, so the importance placed on it might have come from a change in focus rather then an encounter with another people.
Migration to the Islands, the Celtic peoples.
One cannot of course discount the original peoples of the current Celtic lands as they still make up the majority of the population. Unfortunately, however, we have no way of knowing what they believed or how their beliefs might have impacted the fairy faiths of the Celtic peoples. Some have argued that they were similar to the Basques and certainly there is a genetic connection between the two, but this Genetic connection can be tens of thousands of years old, making them even more distantly related then the Finns and many of the native Americans. It seems likely that if they had spoken some language we know of we would be able to find some connection between the two with loanwords or pronunciation such as we do with Celtic-P and Etruscan, local place names, etc. However, even if someone could make a reasonable connection between the Basques and the Celts, we know so little about the original Basque beliefs that we would not be able to draw very many conclusions about how this would impact the fairy faith.
See our References for this and other articles here
Understanding Celtic Fairies in Fairy Tales Ch 2 will be released soon.