Lady Charlotte Guest

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Portrait of Lady Charlotte GuestThe Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991.

Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was; I’ve seen some of her handwritten notes, and while she has, quite understandably, Victorian sensibilities, she had a scholarly frame of mind. I wish that her notes from the first editions were still printed; they are well worth reading, and in fact her translations of the four romances, particularly Gereint (the Welsh version of the tale Chretien called Erec et Enide) inspired Tennyson’s take in Idylls of the King.

You can read more about Lady Charlotte Guest here and here. Angela V. John has written a solid biography: Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life

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Salmon and the Celts

Initial T depicted as a salmon

Salmon as an initial T from the Book of Kells.

I live very near a small fresh water estuary and salmon hatchery in Washington state. This month, the Pacific salmon are swimming upstream to spawn. They are stunning; gorgeous silver scales with bands and spots of pink and green, even blue. They are much larger than I’d expected; many are well over a foot in size, and wider than the palm of my hand.

These salmon have come from miles away, upstream, over rapids and falls and fish ladders to arrive at their original hatchery, where they jump over a series of fish ladders, to reach their home. There they will remain to spawn (and then die), or in some cases, to continue upstream to a different estuary, or even out to sea.


Pacific Northwest First Nations inspired stylized salmon

The annual return of the Pacific salmon (and steelhead trout) to Puget Sound rivers always reminds me of the importance of salmon in medieval Irish texts. The value placed on salmon by the ancient Celts and North American First Nations peoples is similar, in terms of both the salmon’s intrinsic value as a crucial part of people’s diet, and their value as a crucial cultural symbol.

Given the value salmon offer as food items, and the seasonal aspect of the salmon spawn, the return of the salmon every year had to have been a momentous occasion to the ancient Celts just as it was (and is) for First Nations peoples in the Pacific Northwest, as the Salish celebration of the First Salmon’s return suggests.

The salmon’s ability to remember, and navigate to its own birth place to spawn suggests wisdom beyond the ordinary. Words for salmon (, , éicne in Irish, eog in Welsh) are parts of a number names, for both people and places. The place name Leixlip, in County Kildare along the river Liffey is derived from the Norse of the Viking settlers who traveled up the Liffey, and settled; in Old Norse Leixlip is leax hlaup or “salmon leap,” a name that is likely a reference to the annual return of the salmon from the Atlantic to swim up the Liffey to spawn.

Lushootseed, one of the the Salish-family language used by First Nations peoples in the Puget Sound, is equally rich with salmon references, in place names. It’s also a cultural rich with stories. One of the Salish stories explains why salmon return from the sea, swimming up river to spawn, and then die, except for the Steeleye.

The story goes like this:

Once long ago when the Salish were starving, Raven searched for help, and discovered Salmon Woman and her children Sockeye, and Steelhead and Coho and King salmon. Raven persuaded Salmon Woman to marry him and she gave her children to the Salish so they would not starve.

Because the salmon were abundant, in time the Salish forgot their hunger and their desperation. They began to be greedy and over fished. Salmon Woman called her children back to her, and left the Salish, returning to the sea and the longhouse of her father, the Salmon Chief. She vowed never to return to land and the Salish, and soon the Salish again knew starvation and hunger.

Raven begged his wife to forgive the people and return to them with her children. Eventually, he persuade Salmon woman to return, but first she changed her children’s lifecycle to teach the Salish a lesson.

Before this, the salmon at the mouth of the river, near the Salish village, all year long. But Salmon Woman changed her children so that the salmon would spawn upriver, then return to the ocean, and not return to the Salish until spawning season.

The Salish were instructed never to go up river to harvest the salmon, and instead to only take salmon during the harvest moons. But not everyone heard the instructions. Bear, Raven’s brother, was one who did not hear. One year when Bear’s wife was pregnant, Raven was hunting and fishing for Bear’s family, because Bear’s wife was pregnant, a status that was much valued by the Salish.

Bear became bored and restless. He decided to hunt salmon, and went upriver. But each salmon species he touched died, and floated down stream, the coho, the chinook, the chum, the sockeye, all died as soon as he touched them.

The Salish people became worried about starving. They called Raven and asked to find Bear, and stop him. Raven knew his brother was upriver where the salmon spawning beds were, and he hurried to stop him.

But Raven was too late. When Raven arrived at the spawning grounds, Bear has already touched every species of salmon.

Except one, the steelhead.

And that is why even today, when other species of salmon return to spawn and then dies, the steelhead survives spawning and swims out to the ocean.

This tale* serves a number of functions, beyond explaining the miraculous return of salmon to spawn after a year at sea. It also teaches the importance of seasonal fishing, and restraint; notice, for instance, that just as Raven hunts for his brother’s family, a family about to be increased with the birth of a child, they do not hunt the salmon while they are spawning.

That drive to return to where they were born in order to spawn, has helped the salmon take a special place in Celtic myth. Salmon are otherworldly animals in Irish myth; their spots are one of the markers of such creatures.The salmon’s spots are because salmon eat the hazelnuts of the nine hazels of wisdom, one of which grows at the heads of each of the seven primary rivers of Ireland, one at Connla’s Well, and one at the Well of Segais. Salmon are said to bear a spot for each hazelnut they have consumed.

In Irish tradition, salmon are ultimately responsible for the preternatural knowledge of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. In one version of the myth, the poet Finnécces (etymologically Finnécces means “white salmon.”) has been trying to catch Fintan, the ancient salmon of knowledge that lived at the base of the Boyne. He finally managed to catch the salmon and is cooking the fish prior to consuming it. Along comes the youthful Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Having touched the salmon on the fire, and burned his thumb, Fionn stuck it in his mouth—thus gaining the otherworldly oracular wisdom Finn had intended for himself by consuming the salmon. From that point on, Fionn merely sucks his thumb, and gains the answer to any question.

For the Irish, the salmon’s miraculous return is seen as a sign of wisdom, and the power of memory. In Welsh myth, in the tale of Culwch ac Olwen, the salmon Lyn Llyw in the Severn, is the oldest of all living creatures, and one of the forty wisest animals. It is Lyn Llyw who tells the hero Culwch where Mabon is held prisoner, the ultimate task Culwch must perform in order to win Olwn from her father. Salmon are important iconographically, even for the ancient Gauls. One relief on a Gaulish altar shows a human head between two very large salmon; another altar, this time Gallo-Roman, depicts a strikingly-salmon looking fish talking into the ear of a human head, as if imparting wisdom directly

At the Romano-British temple at Lydney Park above the Severn estuary, dedicated to the god Nodons, the god is shown seated, fishing, with a salmon on his line. Nodons, or Nudd, is linguistically related to the Irish deity Nuadu, and to the Welsh mythological figure Lludd Llaw Ereint.

It is equally telling that salmon have been over fished in Ireland and Scotland; indeed, the Atlantic salmon is largely a farmed fish now, with what few Atlantic salmon that remain in the wild protected as endangered species. I wish the Celts had learned the Salish lesson about seasonal moderation.

* There are several versions by various Salish story tellers of this tale. I’ve merely paraphrased the high points of one version. See the original version here. But see alternate versions too, like this one from Marguerite Which-Ta-lum and this one from Jewell Praying Wolf James.

Things in Honor Of St. Patrick

Image of Saint Patrick's Bell, Armagh, Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Bell

I’ve been blogging for dollars elsewhere, of late. But it occurs to me that this post on Guinness might interest some people, as might this post on Patrick, Bridget, Beer and fulacht fiadh.

It is a little disconcerting to discover how very few people in the U.S. even realize that Patrick was a Brythonic speaker, that is, he was from Britain, and almost certainly spoke an ancestor language of Modern Welsh. I suspect that to the Irish in Ireland, the American preoccupation with Patrick and beer on the 17th of March seems very very odd indeed.

Halloween, Samhain, and such

It’s the time of year when I start seeing incredibly daft posts about the antecedents of Halloween, particularly Samain (Samhain, for you moderns). This year, I’ve created an FAQ about Samain, and what it means.

For those of you already in the know, here’s a link to a translation by Kuno Meyer of the very odd Echtra Nera, mostly based on Eg. 1782. Echtra Nera is a tale tied closely to Samain, and features a sojourn in a síd, as well as the observation that “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

In the beginning of the tale, a dead man directs Nera to take him to a house for a drink; he rejects houses that properly stow washing water and slop-pails at night, for one that violates purity sanctions, and has a washing-tub, and a bathing-tub and a slop pail, available.

He then drinks a draught of either of them and scatters the last sip from his lips at the faces of the people that were in the house, so that they all died. Henceforth it is not good [to have] either a tub for washing or bathing, or a fire without sparing, or a slop-pail in a house after sleeping.

We have in this medieval Irish text the same association of purity and the otherworld that Pistol alludes to in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor when he says:

Elves, list your names; silence, you airy toys.
Cricket, to Windsor chimneys shalt thou leap:
Where fires thou find’st unraked and hearths unswept,
There pinch the maids as blue as bilberry:
Our radiant queen hates sluts and sluttery (V.v).

We see this same association in the sometimes-attributed-to Ben Jonson “Robin Goodfellow,” in which Robin the fairy or Puck says:

When house or harth doth sluttish lie,
I pinch the maids there blacke and blew.

Herrick too uses the same motif of poor housekeeping earning otherworldly punishment in “The Fairies”:

IF ye will with Mab find grace,
Set each platter in his place;
Rake the fire up, and get
Water in, ere sun be set.
Wash your pails and cleanse your dairies;
Sluts are loathsome to the fairies;
Sweep your house, who doth not so,
Mab will pinch her by the toe.

The Otherworld, White Horses, and Genetics

She turned about her milk-white steed,
And took True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bridle rang,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.
“Thomas the Rhymer A” Child 37
The horse she rode on was dapple gray,
And in her hand she held bells nine;
I thought I heard this fair lady say
These fair siller bells they should a’ be mine.
“Thomas the Rhymer B” Child 37

In the first branch or tale of the medieval Welsh mabinogi Pwyll Pendeuic Dyfed, Pwyll and his retinue, desiring to see a marvel (rywedawt), sit on the mound or gorsedd of Arberth, where he in fact does see a marvel:

As they were sitting, they saw a woman mounted on a great, majestic pale-white horse, dressed in brilliant gold silk brocade, coming along the main road that ran past the mound. To anyone who saw it, the horse appeared to have a slow, steady gait as it came even with the mound (Ford, Patrick K, trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. 42).

Ac wal y bydynt yn eisted, wynt a welynt gwreic ar uarch canwelw mawr aruchel, a gwisc eureit, llathreit, o bali amdanei, yn dyout ar hyt y prifford a gerdei heb law yr orssed. Kerdet araf, guastat oed gan y march ar uryt y neb a’y guelei, ac yn dyuot y ogyuuch a’r orssed (PKM 9; PPD ll. 203–07).

For three days, no matter how they try, neither Pwyll nor his followers are able to catch up to the woman, despite riding Pwyll’s fastest horses (Ford 1977, 43–44).

This is neither a normal horse, nor a normal rider. The horse is described as “uarch canwelw mawr aruchel,” that is, a pale white horse. A pale horse, usually white or gray, is typical for an otherworld mount (Ford, 1977, 8). The inability of Pwyll and the other men to keep up with the woman, never mind overtake her and her otherworldly horse, is reminiscent of other otherworldly animals and psychopomps, like the magnificent white hinds of Breton lais like Graelent, or like the the otheworldy horse Arawn, the king of the Welsh otherworld, rides when he meets Pwyll in the first part of the same text:

Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, is hunting at dawn in Glyn Cuch. He has released his hounds ahead of him when he is separated from his companions. Pwyll hears first his own pack, and then another pack coming towards his and answering them. At the edge of a level clearing he sees a pack of unfamiliar, white, red-eared dogs bring down a stag.

Despite the strange appearance of the dogs, Pwyll drives them off the stag in favor of his own pack. While Pwyll’s dogs are feeding, a stranger rides up.

As he was feeding the dogs, he saw a horseman coming up behind the pack on a large dapple-gray horse, a hunting horn about his neck, wearing a pale grey garment for hunting gear (Ford 1977, 37).

Ac ual y byd yn llithiau y cwn, ef a welei uarchauc yn dyuot yn ol yr erchwys y ar uarch erchlas mawr; a chorn canu am y uynwgyl, a gwisc o urethyn llwyt tei amdanaw yn wisc hela (PKM 2; PPD ll. 25–27).

The stranger’s horse (later we learn he is Arawn, lord of the Welsh otherworld) is described as erchlas a compound formed of erch “speckled, dappled” and glas (GPC glas). Welsh erch is cognate with Irish erc 2 “speckled, also dark red” (DIL erc).

Spots, dappling or speckling, like gray and white, are otherworld markers (Tymoczko 1981, 87) in medieval Celtic narratives (Welsh 1989, 24). Welsh and Irish each contain two words for gray, one of which (glas in both languages) refers to a color spectrum from dark blue-gray through sea-green to a pale foggy tint. The GPC entry for glas offers “light blue, pale blue, pale green, grayish-blue, slate-coloured,” and cites glas being used to mean “transparent,” when, for instance, the color is applied to rain. The Indo-European root for glas is *ghel-, the root which gives us a variety of words in English that relate to shiny things (glint, gleam, glitter) and glass, as well as a range of yellow-ish things, like gold and gall (AHD *ghel), again, connoting a bright, shifting, shining effect. While Glas describes a shifting tonality associated with liminal states, the other gray (in Welsh llwyd, in Irish liath) is typically used to describe hair or beard color (Coe 1989). Gray, neither black nor white, the color of dusk and pre-dawn, is, like dapples and speckles, a liminal coloration, neither one thing or the other, located in the area between two colors.

Sioned Davies points out that “‘fairies riding white horses’ is an international motif”—which in fact it is, specifically FF241.1.1.1 in the Stith Thompson motif index (Davies, Sioned and Nerys Ann Jones Eds. The Horse in Celtic Culture. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997. 126). Ballads and romances are filled with otherworld folk favoring white horses; in Sir Orfeo, the fairy king is accompanied by otherworld knights “al on snowe-white stedes” (l. 144). There are some really interesting things about this white/gray/dappled horse obsession. First, unless the horse is a true albino, born without any pigment, it isn’t a white horse, it’s a gray horse. Mostly such horse are born dark, and get lighter as they age. There are lots of specific breeds known for this color shift—Icelandic horses (ponies, for those counting hands), for instances, and the horses from the Camargue, and the Connemara ponies, too.

Nature Genetics July 20, 2008 has published an article by Leif Andersson of Uppsala University, parto of a collaborative resarch team whose research indicates that gray or “white” hair coloring is caused by a single, unique genetic mutation. The research suggests that this mutation must have been inherited from a common ancestor that lived thousands of years ago. Andersson says in this Science Daily summary:

It is a fascinating thought that once upon a time a horse was born that turned grey and subsequently white and the people that observed it were so fascinated by its spectacular appearance that they used the horse for breeding so that the mutation could be transmitted from generation to generation.

The original article points out that the mutation is closely tied to cancer, and suggests that humans almost certainly interceded to encourage the mutation: “The Gray horse provides a notable example of how humans have cherry-picked mutations with favorable phenotypic effects in domestic animals.” The Nature Genetics piece is here.

They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives Kalamazoo 2008

I’m going to be doing a link-post to others who are blogging Kalamazoo, and maybe add some general impressions of my own, in a bit. I’ve uploaded my paper on medieval fairies, and speech and silence in Sir Orfeo, Thomas of Erceldoune, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight “‘They are fairies; he that speaks to them shall die’: Speech and Silence in Medieval Fairy Narratives” here. Mostly I’m smug that I aimed for a fifteen minute paper, and I nailed it, even though it meant reducing about twelve thousand words to three thousand.

Bridget Cleary, Sex, Death, Fairies and Other

Bridget and Michael Cleary

Bridget and Michael Cleary

This is the third in a series of posts about fairies as other. I promised, in my first post, to concentrate on fairies as other, particularly in the context of sex and death, because, as MacAllister Stone notes “other is all about sex and death.” Last time I looked at the tragic death of Bridget Cleary, burned because her husband Michael thought Bridget was the victim of a fairy abduction. This time I want to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in the context of sex and death.

In Bridget Cleary we have a woman who is seen as other, an outsider in her community because of her differences, differences which are particularly marked for a woman in nineteenth century Ireland where an assertive, opinionated and financially independent woman without children is very much seen as an anomaly. In the March 29, 1895 >Cork Examiner special report on her death, the reporter, having interviewed locals, describes Bridget as

“a bit queer” in her ways, and this they attribute to a certain superiority over the people with whom she came into contact . . . Her attire . . . is not that of every woman in the same social plane (Bourke 2000, 43).

Bridget was perceived as an outsider, “a bit queer,” even by another outsider.

The attention paid to Bridget Cleary’s clothing and body in the descriptions of her “cure,” in the careful details about the extent of her clothing in the court testimony (presumably, as Bourke suggests, to remove any thought of sexual impropriety) underscore the sexual subtext of the situations. Bourke observes that despite the “prudery” in the eye witness accounts

the violence meted out to Bridget Cleary before her death has an unmistakeably sexual character. On Thursday, when he used a metal spoon, and again, on Friday, when his weapon was a burning stump of wood, Michael Cleary’s actions amounted to a kind of oral rape. On both occasions Bridget Cleary was pinned down and prevented from struggling free, while a substance was forced into her body. . . . [the inquest revealed signs of injury to her mouth and throat] The violence used in holding Bridget down was certainly not sufficient to kill her, but its scale and ferocity would have been enough to terrify her, and to show her and anyone watching just who was master (Bourke 2000, 120).

Michael Cleary may very well have felt he needed to assert himself, not only against the uncanny malice of fairies, but as a man with an assertive, financially independent wife, a wife who may well have had a lover. Most of all, he may have felt it was imperative to assert himself given community pressure regarding his relationship with a wife who had not born him any children, which would have been very much seen as a failing by the community. One reason Bridget was taken by the fairies might have been her childless state; the unvoiced assumption being that since she had no children, that there was some sort of sexual failure, a situation that wasn’t helped in the least by the fact that Michael was nine years older than Bridget and that they spent most of the first few years of their marriage apart except on weekends (Burke 2000, 96).

The standard academic way to refer to fairies taking mortal women is to call it fairy abduction, or, more commonly, fairy rape, particularly in medieval texts. Corinne Saunders, writing about Middle English romances that involve fairy abductions and rapes points out that “What is most striking in all these works is the association of the otherwold with sexual violence or desire for possession of the woman’s body” (Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. 233).

Both Bridget Cleary and Heurodis are perceived as victims of a fairy rape.The fairy king threatens to tear Heurodis limb from limb if she doesn’t come willingly, and tells her that she’ll be taken to the otherworld even if they take her in pieces. Bridget is mistreated physically, dosed with “cures,” verbally abused, then doused with human urine before being burned. The overt physicality of the way Bridget Cleary was treated, the man-handling of her, is an inversion of the customary fairy threat to a mortal victim; with Bridget Cleary, we see mortals abusing what they think is a fairy changeling, though she is a mortal woman—her sex is a huge part of the reason she is treated his way.

Women who are assertive, and independent, who dress better than their peers, women who are financially independent, women who have no children, forthputting women who approach men, fairy mistresses and otherworld women like Rhiannon, these are other. They are potentially dangerous to the community, because they disrupt the natural order, or the perceived natural order. These women who like Heurodis are in the right place and the right time, and who, like Bridget, go to the forbidden liminal areas, are just as disruptive as the ostensible external agency, the fairies, who take them. It’s bad enough to have a child or lover taken by the otherworld, but what’s worse for those left behind are the mortals who go off with their fairy wooer, quite happily, and the abducted mortal women who choose to stay in the otherworld, rather than return to their mortal husband and children.

Bridget Cleary was perceived as dangerous and engaging in risky behavior; Michael Cleary objected to her going to the rath, and did all he could to “bring her back.” Underlying his frantic, desperate efforts, almost certainly, was the fear that Bridget might not want to come back. In court testimony from Johanna Burke, Bridget is said to have told her husband, shortly before he set her on fire, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael Cleary asked Bridget, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them” (Folklore 1895, 375). There’s a very definite sexual connotation to “she gave two nights with them,” particularly given the numerous references to fairies taking mortal lovers in medieval literature and folklore.

Otherworld folk are not shy about making sexual conquests. Rhiannon is very much seeking Pwyll as her spouse when she comes to the gorsedd in the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuvic Dyfed. The fairy queen in Thomas of Erceldoune is more than willing to take Thomas as her lover, keeping him mute but with her in the otherworld for seven years, before returning him to the tree where she found him, saving him from becoming a human sacrifice. She leaves him with an unwelcome gift, the ability to prophesy, thus converting him from dangerous other, to magical other with a redemptive gift for the community.

In Sir Orfeo, Heurodis returns from the fairy otherworld because Orfeo rescues her, and both return to Orfeo’s kingdom. At the end we are told Orfeo leaves the kingdom to his faithful steward since Heurodis has no children and Orfeo has no heir. We rarely hear or read of otherworld folk having progeny, and when we do hear about fairy offspring, say the child of the Grey Selchie, the offspring are the result of liasons between mortals and fairies, or other otherworld residents, and the children usually come to a bad end. Pwyll’s otherworld bride Rhiannon is scorned by Pwyll’s people because she is childless. Later, when Rhiannon has a child, the child mysteriously disappears. Rhiannon is typical in being less than fecund; otherworld folk are seemingly sterile, and, perhaps consequently, obsessed with taking fertile mortal women, and young children. Just as with other Others, say Gypsies, or whatever a given community’s racial/ethnic minority is, or queers, in stories about fairies and otherworld intruders it’s a case of “They want our women, and our children, and our women want sex/more sex/better sex, and so they voluntarily go with these Others, and leave us, and sometimes, they refuse to come back.”

I think that fear—the fear that Bridget wants to be with the fairies, with the other, is what’s underlying the Bridget Cleary horror. It’s interesting to note, as Bourke does, that in the spring of 1895 that the Irish papers, and some of the English papers too, were carrying stories about the “witch burning” in Clonmel, Oscar Wilde was on trial for sodomy. It’s also the date of the first attested use of “fairy” to mean queer. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cite the following reference from theAmerican Journall of Psychology as the first use of fairy to mean queer, or as the OED has it ” A male homosexual”:

“The Fairies of New York” are said to be a similar secret organization. The avocations which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian, requiring the dressing in female attaire, and the singing in imitation of the female voice, in which they often excel” American Journal of Psychology VIII (1895): 216.

I’ve been looking at the connection between fairy and queer for a long time, and I think there are a couple of reasons for fairy being used to mean queer. First, I think it works because there’s an association between fairies and an absence of progeny despite their overt eroticism, and the assumption, for many, that being queer has to do only with sex, that it’s all about sex, and that it’s sex without fear of progeny, just like real fairies.

Next time, I’m going to look again at medieval fairies as ways of dealing with other, and sex, and death.

Here are some references to match my citations.

  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link.. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.
  • Thomas of Erceldoune. Scroll down to the Appendix for the text as printed by Francis Child, as part of the versions of Child Ballad 57 “Thomsas the Rhymer.” You can find Murray’s 1875 edition of the romance here.
  • Ford, Patrick K. trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
  • Sir Orfeo with text and ms. page images from the Auchinleck ms.
  • Anne Leskaya and Eve Sedgewick’s annotated Middle English edition of Sir Orfeo.
  • A .pdf of a lightly modernized Sir Orfeo from the Norton Anthology of English Literature

Bridget Cleary: Fairy Intrusion in Nineteenth Century Ireland

Are you a witch?
Are you a fairy?
Are you the wife
Of Michael Cleary?
—Children’s rhyme from Southern Tipperary, Ireland

I promised in my first post on fairies as other to look at a fairy intrusion in nineteenth century Ireland, specifically, the fairy burning of Bridget Cleary.

Bríd Ní Chléirigh/Bridget Cleary

Bríd Ní Chléirigh/Bridget Cleary

In March of 1895 Bridget Boland Cleary (Bríd Ní Chléirig) was a trained seamstress, with a good eye for fashion, who owned her own Singer sewing machine. She lived with her husband Michael Cleary and her father Patrick Boland in a small cottage in Ballyvadlea, Tipperary, Ireland. Michael, like his wife, was atypical in that he could read and write; he worked as a cooper. In 1895 they’d been married about eight years; Bridget was 26, and Michael was 35. On the fifteenth of March, Michael Cleary, believing his wife Bridget had been taken by the fairies and that they had left a changeling in her place, having spent three days in various rituals that were intended to force the changeling to leave and bring his wife back from where the fairies had taken her, set fire to her. He and nine others of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for her death.

On Monday March 4, Bridget walked to the house of her father’s cousin, Jack Dunne, to deliver some eggs. It was an extremely cold day, and Bridget caught a cold. She spent the next day in bed, and complained of “a raging pain” in her head, and shivers and chills (Bourke 2000, xi, 65). A few days later Jack Dunne came to visit, and, upon seeing the markedly ill Bridget in bed, said “That is not Bridgie” (Bourke 2000, 70). Jack Dunne was well acquainted with fairy folklore, and tales of fairy abductions and changelings, and the remedies and protections against them— as was Bridget’s own mother. By March 9, Bridget’s condition had worsened, and she told her cousin Johanna Burke that she thought she’d caught another cold. Despite the rain and cold, Bridget’s father Patrick Burke walked four miles to the doctor’s and asked him to come (Bourke 2000, 71). When the doctor hadn’t come by the following Monday, March 11, Bridget’s husband Michael walked four miles to Fethard and requested that the doctor come, and then, again, with a more forceful summons in hand from the local health authority, he made the trip again on Wednesday March 13. He also requested that the priest visit. While Michael Cleary was out, the doctor arrives and examines Bridget; he describes her as “nervous,” and prescribes some medicine. The priest gives her the last rites, just in case.

Michael Cleary, in the meantime, concerned, perhaps even despondent over his wife’s condition, has gone back to the doctor. On his way back, he purchases some herbs from a woman in Fethard that were said to be efficacious as a fairy remedy. At the trial Bridget’s cousin Johanna Burke testified that when Michael Cleary told Jack Dunne that he’d purchased herbs as a remedy against fairies, Jack Dunne said: “It is not your wife is there. You will have enough to do to bring her back” (Bourke 2000, 82).

The next day, Thursday March 14, Michael Cleary went to another herbalist; this time, to the locally known “fairy doctor” Dennis Ganey. He purchased more herbs as a “fairy cure.” Traditionally a remedy for someone “taken” by fairies is to boil specific herbs in “new” milk (new milk has properties associated with purification), and then the mixture administered to the patient, which Michael Cleary did. According to the testimony of Johanna Burke, she and William Simpson, and his wife Minnie, met outside of the Cleary’s door that evening.

Witness asked for admittance, but Michael Cleary said they would not open the door. While they remained outside they stood at the window. They heard someone inside saying: “Take it, you bitch, or ‘witch.’ When the door was opened, witness went in and saw Dunne and three of the Kennedys holding Mrs. Cleary down on her bed by her hands and feet, and her husband was giving her herbs and milk in a spoon out of a saucepan. They forced her to take the herbs, and Cleary asked her: ‘Are you [Bridget] Boland, the wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?” She answered it once or twice, and her father asked a similar question. Michael Cleary [witness thought] then threw a certain liquid on his wife. They put the question to her again, and she [refused] to repeat the words after them. John Dunnne then said: “Hold her over the fire, and she will soon answer.” Dunne, Cleary and P. Kennedy then lifted Mrs. Cleary off the bed, and placed her in a kind of sitting position over the kitchen fire, which was a slow one. Mrs Cleary had greatly changed. She seemed to be wild and deranged, especially while they were so treating her (Folklore 1895, 374).

This was the third dose of the herbs in milk; earlier, before Johanna Burke and the Simpsons arrive, Bridget had been forced to swallow two earlier doses, encouraged to do so by being threatened with a hot poker, a poker which left a small burn mark on her forehead (Bourke 2000, 91). Fire, particularly applied to iron, is a traditional method of warding off a fairy, or frightening a changeling into leaving so that the “real” person can return. The “certain liquid” was urine, traditionally believed to force the changeling to flee; Bridget was repeatedly doused with human urine. The neighbor, Michael Simpson, testified that after the third dose of herbs, while Bridget was still lying on the bed, the men “holding her arms on both side, and her head, they lifted her body and wound it backwards and forwards” (Bourke 2000, 92).

On the morning of Friday March 15th, Michael Clary fetched the priest, who performed mass in Bridget’s bedroom, where Bridget was lying in bed. That night, according to Johanna Burke’s testimony, Bridget was dressed, and brought to the kitchen, where, Johanna says

Her father, my brother and myself, and deceased and her husband sat at the fire. They were talking about the fairies, and Mrs. Cleary said to her husband, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” He asked her, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them.” I made tea, and offered Bridget Cleary a cup of it. Her husband got three bits of bread and jam, and said she should eat them before she should take a sup. He asked her three times: “Are you Bridget Cleary, my wife, in the name of God?” She answered twice, and ate two pieces of bread and jam. When she did not answer the third time he forced her to eat the third bit, saying, “If you won’t take it, down you will go.” He flung her on the ground, put his knee on her chest, one hand on her throat, and forced the bit of bread and jam down her throat, saying “Swallow it. Is it down? Is it down?” . . . I said, “Mike, let her alone, don’t you see it is Bridget that is in it” meaning that it was Bridget his wife, and not the fairy, for he suspected that it was a fairy and not his wife that was there. Michael Cleary then stripped his wife’s clothes off, except her chemise, and got a lighting stick out of the fire. She was lying on the floor, and he held it near her mouth (Folklore 1895 373-76).

Johanna Burke testified that she heard Bridget’s head strike the floor, and then a scream. Her chemise, we learn from the inquest and trial, was ordinary calico; it would have caught fire quite quickly. Mary Kennedy, who was in the back bedroom, rushed to the kitchen where she saw Bridget Cleary lying on the hearth, her clothing on fire. According to Mary Kennedy’s testimony, Michael Cleary said “Hannah, I believe she is dead.” It is at this point that Mary Kennedy saw Michael Cleary reach for the lamp from the table, and drench his wife with paraffin oil, until she was consumed with flames.

James Kennedy testified that when he cried out to Michael Cleary “For the love of God, don’t burn your wife!” Cleary replied:

She’s not my wife. . . . She’s an old deceiver sent in place of my wife. She’s after deceiving me for the last seven or eight days, and deceived the priest today too, but she won’t deceive anyone any more. As I beginned it with her, I will finish it with her! . . . You’ll soon see her go up the chimney! (Bourke 2000, 124).

According to court testimony, at about 2 am the following morning, Michael Cleary asked Johanna Burke’s brother, Patrick Kennedy, to help bury Bridget’s twisted, and partially incinerated corpse. They wrapped the body in a sheet and carried to a boggy area about a quarter of a mile from Bridget’s home. On the 22nd of March, after a week of speculation, newspaper reports, and intensive searching, the Royal Irish Constables discovered the body in a shallow grave. In the intervening time, Michael Cleary, once in the company of his father in law and neighbors, spent three nights at the fairy rath at Kylenagranagh, convinced that he would see his wife emerge on a white horse, at which point he would cut her free, and rescue her from the fairies, much as Janet rescued Tam Lin.

I am absolutely positive that Michael Cleary, and most of not all of the relatives and neighbors who, like Michael, served time for their part in Bridget Cleary’s death, genuinely believed that Bridget Cleary had been taken by the fairies just as Heurodis was taken by fairies in Sir Orfeo. But I think that there are characteristics or aspects of this tragedy that would have provided cause for that belief, in the context of traditional fairy folklore. I’ve already cited MacAllister Stone’s definition of Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

Bridget Cleary very much was an outsider in the tiny community of Ballyvadlea. She was attractive, and forthright, with a reputation for a quick wit, a sharp tongue, and a direct gaze—none of which were common characteristics of young Irish Catholic women in Ballyvadlea. Her wardrobe was much more fashionable than that of her peers, not unreasonable given her talent as a milliner. In addition to her income from sewing, Bridget, like most other women, kept hens, and sold their eggs; egg money, like milk money, was traditionally the property and income of women. Bridget was, then, fairly well off, and hence more independent because of it.

She was known to go for long walks in order to deliver eggs, and to visit the fairy fort at nearby Kylenagranagh. These “fairy forts,” or raths, are remnants of neolithic structures that dot the landscape of Ireland, where they are still seen as dangerous, liminal places, places frequented by fairies in search of mortal game and prey. Moreover, Bridget was married to a man who was nine years older than her, and, at the time of her death, though they had been married for eight years, they had no children; this would be very much seen as odd in an era and culture where women were valued for their fecundity, and men for their ability to get children and hence heirs to work the land in their own turn. In her extremely thoughtful study of Bridget Cleary, Angela Bourke observes “A suggestion that [Bridget] was away with the fairies was a serious reflection on [Michael Cleary] and on their marriage” (Bourke 2000, 96). Bourke builds a careful and well-supported case for Bridget as an outsider in Ballyvadlea, a woman who didn’t know her place, a woman who might even have had a lover, a suggestion that emerged early in the court testimony, but was soon dropped.

In my next post, I’m going to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in terms of fairies as other, and in the context of sex, and death. If you want to read more, and you have access to JStor, here are some references to match my citations.

  • Bourke, Angela. “Reading a Woman’s Death: Colonial Text and Oral Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.” Feminist Studies. Vol. 21, No. 3. (Autumn, 1995): 553-586. JStor link.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.

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Medieval Fairies as Other

MacAllister Stone has been posting a series about the roles of the other in spec fic. You can find Part I Magical Negroes, expendable queers, and other well-worn tropes here, Part II here, and Part III, or, The Magical Other here. Part IV is likely to appear some day in the future, but I wanted to pick up on two observations MacAllister makes that particularly intrigued me because they deal with the role of fairies as the other in medieval literature. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot.

First, MacAllister defines Other as

a term to describe the phenomenon of the outsider, particularly in fiction, who represents some kind of threat to the community—but often, also serves as the agent for the community’s salvation/redemption.

The best example of medieval fairy other I know of is the c. 1400 Middle English anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight rides into King Arthur’s hall on New Year’s day, while the court is at table. He rides a horse that, while elaborately caprisoned and saddled, is entirely green, as is the equally expensively garbed and very large knight. The knight has green hair, green skin, and green clothes, bears a giant axe in one hand, and a holly bob in the other, and is shockingly uncanny, and other.

Indeed, the courtiers recognize the Green Knight for what he is, immediately:

For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene
He ferde as freke were fade (ll. 147-49).

[Cawley translates line as 149 “He behaved like an elvish man” (Everyman 1962, 56). Vantuono has “He acted like an elvish knight” (12 l. 149). Tolkien’s translation reads “as a fay-man fell he passed” (1982, 23). Garbáty glosses “were fade” as “were fey”-“He fared as man (that) were fey” (Garbáty 1984, p. 260).]

The courtiers identify the Green Knight, quite correctly, as an otherworld intruder, clued in to his origins in part by his color. Keep in mind that other than being large and very green, the Green Knight is in no way monstrous; he is in fact quite a handsome figure. Having identified the intruder as what Professor Carnicelli called “a big green fairy,” they then begin to contemplate the meaning of his arrival “For vch mon had meruayle quat hit mene myȝt / Þat a haþel and a horse myȝt such a hwe lach, / As growe grene as þe gres” (ll. 233-35).

Al studied þat þer stod, and stalked hym nerre
Wyþ al þe wonder of þe worlde what he worch schulde.
For fele sellyez had þay sen, bot such neuer are;
Forþi for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed (SGGK ll. 232-240).

To the courtiers and serving folk, waiting in the hall, the Green Knight is not just clearly other, he’s fairy other. They’re not an unsophisticated audience, either; they’ve seen other sellys, other marvels, but he is very very different, and quite clearly a magical creature; “for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed” (SGGK l. 240).

MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v.

They are cautious and silent, wary of risking the dangers of speech with something so different. Consequently, they’re not terribly surprised when the Green Knight issues his bizarre challenge and invites any of the knights to take the axe he carries and strike off his head, in return for the promise to allow the Green Knight to return the favor a year and a day later. Nonetheless, when Gawain takes him up on the challenge, and the Green Knight picks up his severed head where the courtiers have been kicking it around under the table, and rides off, they’re pretty sure that Gawain is for it when he has his rendezvous to receive the Green Knight’s return blow in a year and a day at the mysterious Green Chapel. The court watches on All Souls Day the following November 1 as Gawain departs in search of the Green Knight and the Green Chapel. They lament that Gawain is to be “Hadet wyþ an aluisch mon, for angardez pryde” (l. 681 ).

The courtiers have good reason to assume the worse; not only because the Green Knight can happily survive decapitation, but because, well, he’s a fairy. Fairies and otherworld folk in general are dangerous in the extreme, prone to kidnap mortals simply because the mortals were in the wrong place at the right time, like Hereudis in Sir Orfeo. She falls asleep under an ympe tree, a grafted fruit tree, in her own orchard around noon, and sees the fairy king and his knights. The king tells her:

“Loke, dame, tomorwe þatow be
Riȝt here vnder þis ympe-tre,
& þan þou schalt wiþ ous go
& liue wiþ ous euermo;
& ȝif þou makest ous ylet,
Whar þou be, þou worst yfet,
& totore þine limes al {f.300vb}
Þat noþing help þe no schal;
& þei þou best so totorn
Ȝete þou worst wiþ ous yborn” (Sir Orfeo ll. 165-74).

Notice that the king explicitly threatens her; if she does not make the assigned rendezvous, and go with the king to the fairy otherworld, she’s to be torn limb from and still be taken by the fairies. Despite the best efforts of Orfeo, and his hundred knights, the next day Heurodis is taken from them by the fairies. Despondent, Orfeo resigns his crown, turning his reign over to his steward, and exiles himself as a wanderer with a harp in the wilderness. In his exile he manages to see the fairies engaged in fairy pursuits, including a group of women hawking, with Heurodis a silent member of the party. He follows them “in at a roche,” into the otherworld. There, in the otherworld, he sees a chamber of horrors, filled with other mortals taken by the fairies.

. . . Of folk þat were þider ybrouȝt
& þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt.
Sum stode wiþouten hade {f.302ra}
& sum non armes nade
. . .
& sum lay wode, ybounde,
& sum armed on hors sete
& sum astrangled as þai ete
& sum were in water adreynt
. . .
Wiues þer lay on childbedde,
Sum ded, & sum awedde;
& wonder fele þer lay bisides
Riȝt as þai slepe her vndertides.
Eche was þus in þis warld ynome,
Wiþ fairi þider ycome.
(ll. 389-92; 94-97; 99-404).

These are mortals taken in various liminal states. They were not quite dead, nor quite alive, not quite sactified, not quite unfit. These are explicitly, despite the assertions of some, not dead people; they are, the poet tells us, “folk þat were þider ybrouȝt / & þouȝt dede, & nare nouȝt” (ll. 389-90). They are maimed, and wounded, headless, armless, some bound and mad, some armed on horseback, some strangled, some drowned, or burned. There are examples of special liminal cases, too, like wives taken in childbed, as well as those, like Heurodis, taken as they slept in the heat of the day.

Keep in mind that these fairies are the same fairies that, when Heurodis first sees them,

“Al on snowe-white stedes;
As white as milke were her wedes,
Y no seiȝe neuer ȝete bifore
So fair creatours ycore (ll. 145-48).

The fairies who abduct Heurodis are no more monstrous than the Green Knight is, yet they still threaten Heurodis, and take mortals at will. Indeed, their strikingly beautiful appearance marks them as other just as much as the Green Knight’s color does. The actions of the fairies, however motivated, or rule-based they may be, appear arbitrary and unmotivated to the mortals of the communities where the fairies intrude. Fairies are capricious, unknowable, and, given the threats made to Heurodis, and the Green Knight’s ability to suffer decapitation in good cheer, quite possibly malicious in intent. Certainly they are “other,” with all its connotations of dangerous, incomprehensible, and alien. Both the fairies who kidnap Heurodis, and the Green Knight fit MacAllister Stone’s definition of other: they are outsiders, and they represent a threat to the community.

I’m going to skip forward about fifteen hundred years in my next post, to look at a fairy otherworld intrusion in nineteenth century Tipperary, Ireland, in 1895, and the burning of Bridget Cleary. My third post is about Bridget Cleary, too, in the context of fairies, sex, death and the other.

In the meantime, here are some links for the curious: