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. I wanted to pick up on two observations MacAllister makes that particularly intrigued me because they deal with the role of fairies as the øther in medieval literature. It’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot.

First, MacAllister Stone 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 caparisoned 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.

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; so much so that “for fantoum and fayryȝ e þe folk þere hit demed” (SGGK l. 240).

image from the British Library's Cotton_Nero_-AX_f.90v showing the Green Knight on his green horse holding his severed head in one hand and Gawain with the axe, standing before the dais where Arthur, and the Queen sit

Britiish Library MS. Cotton Nero A. x, fol.90v. Used with permission

The courtiers 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.

After some back-and-forth, Gawain takes the fairy knight up on the challenge, hefts the Green Knight’s axe and whacks off his head. When 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 will still be taken by the fairies.

Despite the best efforts of King 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 sanctified, 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:

JKW on Culwch ac Olwen

Jeffry Jerome Cohen, medievalist and blogger at In the Middle, is on vacation, so guest blogger JKW who usually blogs at Pistols in the Pulpit is filling in. JKW says of himself:

My dissertation, which I’m beginning this summer, is about political language, specifically the language of kingship, in England and Wales in the age of Chaucer.

Thus far he’s blogged about Culwch ac Olwen and the implications of the “oldest animals” here.


At this time of year there are always a lot of web pages and blog entries about Halloween, the night before All Saints day, and its origins in the Celtic feast of Samain. A number of them are daft, and many are just plain idiotic. I thought I’d make use of one of the bits I’m cutting from the . . . thing, and call it a blog post.

In 609 Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints’ Day, or in Middle English Alholowmesse. The night before, October. 31 was thus All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. In A.D. 1000, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official sanction.

Most authorities seem to agree that there is some relationship, at least in terms of an inspiration, for All Souls Day, between the Celtic feast of Samain (Modern Irish Samhain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin, and Gaulish Samonios.) There’s a lot of rubbish about Samain on the net, including sites that assert, despite a paucity of evidence, that the Celts, especially the druids, engaged in specific ritual practices. They probably did, but we have very little data about what those rituals were. I’m going to talk about the things we do know from medieval Irish and Continental Celtic texts.

Samain, or Samhain as modern Irish has it, is pronounced, roughly, like the modern English noun sow followed by –in; sow-in, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Old Irish Samain becomes Modern Irish, Samhain, cognate with Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin. Celebrated on November 1, in terms of the Gregorian calendar, Samain is usually derived from Old Irish sam “summer” + fuin “end.” This is somewhat unlikely, philologically and morphologically speaking, though it is a persuasive folk etymology, even one used in the medieval glosses. We know from the Coligny calendar that an earlier form of Celtic on the continent used samoni-, and did not use the compound –fuin for “end.” The antiquity of the feast is attested by the Coligny calendar (c. 1st century B. C. E.), which contains an entry for an autumn feast, Samonios. Old Irish sam “summer” is cognate with Welsh haf, Breton hanv, all derived from the Indo-European *sem2- (summer), and cognate with English “summer.”

Almost any modern text that refers to Samain describes Samain as the Irish or Celtic New Year, separating the Summer or light half from the beginning of the Winter or dark half. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find why that makes it the New Year, with no real conclusion, other than scholars all seem to be repeating assertions by early nineteenth century folklorists. In any case, the association between Samain and the New Year appears to be a fairly recent one that’s been subsequently taken for granted. It’s true that there are references in Caesar to the Celts counting the passage of time by nights, and that the Coligny calendar does seem to divide the year into a dark and a light half, and even notes the trinox Samoni, the three nights of Samain. But these facts, even taken together, don’t really imply all the associations that “New Year” has to a modern English speaking reader.

T. G. E. Powell writes:

The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. In terms of the modern calendar it was celebrated on the first of November, but the preceding night was perhaps the most significant period of the festival. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was considered to stand independently between the two, and its position in relation to the natural seasons shows it clearly to have been the turning-point in a pastoralist rather than an agrarian cycle. It corresponds to the end of the grazing season when under primitive conditions the herds and flocks were brought together, and only those animals required for breeding were spared from slaughter (Powell 144).

Powell’s observations about the pastoral transition, and the subsequent culling of the herd, and the general atmosphere of harvest do fit with the numerous references in medieval Irish texts to Samain and the feis Samain, the feast of Samain. Harvest requires not only a communal effort to gather the crops and herds, but it’s inevitably followed by feasting, as people consume the food that won’t last until Spring, when food again becomes available. The Fianna, we are told, were supplied by the men of Ireland from Samain to Beltene, and the remainder of the year they lived off the land (Rees and Rees, 5). Samain is frequently associated with oenaich, with festivals and great assemblies of people. The Assembly of Tara, perhaps the most celebrated of the oenaich because Tara has strong sacral associations with Irish kingship, took place at Samain, according to some references—there’s a fair amount of scepticism. There was also apparently an assembly at Emain Macha on Samain. In the Lebor Gabala Eirenn, during the reign of Nemed, we are told that the descendents of Nemed were taxed by the Fomoire:

§44. Two thirds of the progeny, the wheat, and the milk of the people of Ireland (had to be brought) every Samain to Mag Cetne. Wrath and sadness seized on the men of Ireland for the burden of the tax. They all went to fight against the Fomoraig (Lebor Gabala Eirinn Ed. Trans. R. A. S. MacAlister. Irish Text Society 1832).

Here Samain is associated with tax-gathering, paying a tithe, an appropriate thing to do at the end of the harvest. It might in fact be considered a kind of sacrifice, since the Formoire were certainly supernatural. But other texts associate Samain not only with harvest and feasting, but with judicial process. Cath Crinna / the Battle of Crinna describes the Feast at Tara:

. . .ocus tech gach airdrig in Eirinn ar daigin feise Temrach do denom .i. caeicdiges ria samfuin . ocus caeicdiges iarum. is aire no thinoldais cacha samna ar is ann ba haipche mes ocus toirthe doib. is aire dognithe fis Temrach . uair in smacht dognitis fir Eirenn ann ni lamtha tech tairis no go comraictis i ciionn bliadna doridisi . ocus in ti no ticed thairis ba herfuacrthach o fheraib Eirenn (O’Grady Silva Gadelica 319).

. . . and every king of Ireland [was at Tara] for the purpose of holding Tara’s Feast; for a fortnight before Samain that is to say, on Samain day itself, and for a fortnight after. And the reason for which they practiced to gather themselves together at every Samain was this: because it was a that season that mast and other produce were most mature. Here also is the reason for which the Feast of Tara was done: all the body of law which then all of Ireland made, during the time between that and their next assembly at the year’s end none would dare to transgress, and he that did was outlawed from the men of Ireland.

Notice that the assembly seems to be a judicial assembly much like the Nordic assembly, the Manx Tynwald.

In the Ugarta or taboos of the Kings of Ireland the Feast of Tara is also predominantly associated with law:

Ar in tan no tomlitus in righ sin feiss Temruch no fl’tis dala Herenn co seht mbliadna cona fuighlitis fiacho na coiccerta cusin feiss n-aile iar secht blidna (Dillon “The Taboos of the Kings of Ireland.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. LIV section C no.1 (May, 1941): 1-36, 25).

For when those kings consumed the Feast of Tara they used to settle the affairs of Ireland for seven years, so that debts, suits, and adjustments used not to be submitted for judgment until the next feast seven years later (Dillon “The Taboos of the Kings of Ireland.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. LIV section C no.1 (May, 1941): 1-36, 25).

There are also associations with sovereignty, in the ritual marriage between the king and the sovereignty goddess, a ritual which apparently took place at Samain, and at Tara, among other places, as the feis Temra. The word feis, the verbal noun of the verb foaid “to sleep,” has strong sexual connotations. We also have some intriguing references to Samain in the Scela Chonchobuir /Tidings of Conchobar Son of Ness:

Conchobar im fessin no gaibed in samuin doib fo dagin, terchomraic in tsluaig moir. Ba hecen in tsochaide mor do airichill. fo bith cech fer do Ultaib na tairchebad aidchi samna dochum nEmna. no gatta ciall de 7 focherte a fert 7 a lecht 7 a lie arnabarach.

Airichill mor didu for Conchobar. No noisigthe leis na tri lae ria samain 7 na tri laa iar samain fri tomailt i tig Conchobair.

It was Conchobar himself [who] would give (?) to them the [feast of] Samain because of the assembly of the great host. It was required to provide for the great host, because every Ulstermen who would not come to Emain Macha on Samain eve lost his senses, and on the morrow his grave and his pillar-stone would be placed.

So Conchobar had to make great provision. The three days before Samain and the three days after Samain were distinguished by him by feasting in Conchobar’s house (From “Tiding of Conchobar Son of Ness.” Trans. ed. Whitley Stokes. Eriu IV (1910): 18-33. p.26-27.From Book of Leinster Vol. I Best ad O’Brien, 1956; p. 106a in the facsimile).

Here we see the period of three days, followed by Samain, and then another three days, spent in feasting, and the idea that the assembly was compulsory. Serglige Con Culainn opens with the people of Ulster assembled at Mag Muirthemni for the annual November 1 festival of Samain.

Oenach dognithe la Ultu cecha bliadna .i. tri la ria samfuin 7 tri laa iarma 7 lathe na samn feisne. Iss ed eret no bitis Ulaid insin i mMaig Murthemni, oc ferthain oenaig na samna cecha bliadna. Ocus ni rabe isin bith ni dognethe in n-eret sin leu acht cluchi 7 cheti 7 anius 7 aibinnius 7 longad 7 tomailt, conid de sin atat na trenae samna sechnon na hErend.

Each year the Ulstermen held a fair; the three days before Samain and three days after it and the day of Samin itself. That is the time that the Ulstermen used to be in Mag Muirthemni holding the fair , and nothing was done by them during that time but games and gatherings and pleasure and eating and feasting, so that it is from that come the thirds of Samain throughout Ireland.

In this passage notice that again the oenach Samain is a festival of seven days; I’ve also seen it described as one of three times three days. It was clearly a time associated with social activities, and a second passage later in the Serglige is even more explicit:

Fechtas and tra fertha oenach la hUltu i mMaig Murthemni. Ocus ba hairi no fertha leu fo bith tabarta do chach a chomraime 7a gascid do gres cecha samna. Ba bes leu dano di ag inna comraime ferthain ind oenaig .i. rind aurlabra cech fir no marbtais7 do thabairt inna mbossain. Ocus dobertis aurlabrai na cethrae do ilugud na comram hi sudiu, 7 dobered cach a chomram and sin os aird, acht ba cach ar uair.

One time however a fair was held by the Ulstermen in Mag Muirthemne. And it was for this that it was held for them; on account of everyone bringing his triumph and his valor every Samain. It was their custom, moreover, for the sake of the contests holding the fair [thus]: that is bringing in their wallets the tongue of each man who they had killed. And they would bring the tongues of cattle to increase the contest then, and each would bring his triumph in that openly, but it was each one in turn.

Ocus is amlaid dognitis sin 7 a claidib fora sliastaib in tan dognitis in comram. Ar imsoitis a claidib friu in tan dognitis guchomram. Deithbir on, ar no labraitis demna friu dia n-armaib conid de batir comarchi forro a n-airm.

And it is thus that they were doing it: their swords across their thighs when they made the triumph. For their swords used to turn against them when they made a false triumph. That was proper, for demons used to speak against them from their sword so that their weapons were guarantees for them.

Notice that Samain activities included warriors boasting, sometimes fraudulently, of their success in battle, with the tongues of the slain functioning as trophies, and their own swords speaking with the tongues of demons, when the tongues of the slain could not give the false boasters the lie.

Other texts indicate, sometimes explicitly, that at Samain the barrier between the world of the side and the mortal world is temporarily relaxed, and Otherworldly courtships and raids take place, for “the side of Ireland were always opened on Samain” (Nagy 1985 260, quoting The Boyhood Deeds of Finn p. 216). The events of Echtra Nera are closely tied to Samain; the story begins on the eve of Samain, and involves Nera’s year long sojourn in the sÍid. Perhaps we might do better to think of Samain as not so much the “feast of the dead,” as various popular sources would have it, but as a liminal time between the death of summer and the birth of winter, when the threshold of the Otherworld is nearer to this world, a liminal time that is in a sense, outside of ordinary time. It is Samain that begins the endless night in Brugh Na Boine that Mac Oc manages. And of course, it’s always good to remember that in medieval Irish myths there are several Otherworlds, and that the Otherworld is not necessarily the same as the world of the dead.

In Tochmarc Emire, it is on Samain eve that Cu Chulainn rescues Derbforgaill, daughter of Ruad, who going to be given as a sacrifice to the Fomoire. In Togail Bruidne Da Derga The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel we are told that the destruction took place at Samain, and it is caused in part by the intrusion of residents of the Otherworld. In the medieval Irish tale of Cath Maige Tuired, the Dagda meets with the Morrigan on Samain, and copulates with her, in a union that is analogous to that between the king of the land and the sovereignty goddess. The king was apparently in some particular peril during Samain; one of the functions of the ollam,the “doctor of poetic arts,” “was that of guarding the King from occult dangers: dlegar don ollam beith i fail in rig im snamad (leg. samain) dia snadad ar siabrud,” that is “the ollam is obliged to be near the king around Samain to protect him from enchantment (trans. Dennis King to Old Irish List Oct. 30, 2005; in reference to the DIL s.v. ollam; cites H 3.18 p. 133).

It is intriguing to speculate that there is some connection between the thinning of the veil between the mortal world and the Otherworld at Samain, the associations of Samain with sacral sovereignty and sacrifice, and the ballad Tam Lin:

24. “And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

25. “But the night is Halloween, lady,
The morn is Hallowday,
Then win me, win me, an ye will,
For weel I wat ye may.

26. “Just at the mirk and midnight hour
The fairy folk will ride,
And they that wad their true-love win,
At Miles Cross they maun bide.”

A Circle of Stones

According to AP, by way of Yahoo, Professor Judith S. Young, Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has built a sun circle, a celestial computer along the lines of Stonehenge, or Avebury. I’ve taken pains to point out elsewhere that Stonehenge, like Avebury, or the passage tomb at Brugh Na Boine (that’s Newgrange, Ireland to you), wasn’t built by the Celts (its earliest stage predates their arrival in Britain by over a thousand years) but Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments are too deeply entrenched with things druidic and Celtic in the popular imagination to ever be disassociated.

Stonehenge looms large in our imaginations—even though Averbury—the largest such circle in Europe, is physically much larger, and Woodhenge, one of several circles at Stanton Drew, is older. Folklore names Stonehenge the “Giants Dance,” and credits Merlin as the chief architect, but those myths are comparatively recent. The circle has had a surprisingly small role in British myth, given its age and magnitude. The passage tomb at Brugh Na Boine, constructed to mark the solstice, plays a much larger role in Irish myth, and is featured in several of the tales that preface the Táin.