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Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Good Witch: Redefining Witches on TV and Defining the Witch I Want To Be

"The first step in a new direction doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be a step."
- Cassie Nightingale, 'The Good Witch'



As you might imagine if you've read my blog for any length of time, I'm not generally a Hallmark Channel sort of person. More like SyFy Channel or Chiller. There is one big exception to that however in the form of The Good Witch. For those unfamiliar, The Good Witch started as a 2008 made-for-tv movie, followed by a sequel, then additional movies each consecutive year through 2014, and starting in 2015 a television series that is  now going into its third season. If you like it it's a rather addictive thing to watch. I've been known to marathon the movies with my children. They won't be to everyone's taste, they are after all Hallmark Channel fair, saccharine sweet at times and melodramatic. But they are also I think a type of modern myth, subtly interwoven with magic in ways that don't so much ask us to suspend our disbelief as get us to forget we ever didn't believe that this kind of every day magic was possible. They also offer us a new vision of television witches that retains the mystery and functional magic but loses the supernatural.

The movies are based around the life of Cassie Nightingale, a woman with some serious magic although she's never explicitly identified as either a pagan or a witch (despite the title of the movies). It's an endless open ended question whether Cassie really is a witch, but its heavily implied that she is: she owns a store named Bell, Book, and Candle* that sells exactly the sorts of things any self-respecting witchy store would sell, from crystals to tinctures made by Cassie, from sage to occult(ish) jewelry; when people come to her for magical spells she never disappoints although she never exactly responds as you'd expect either; and of course she owns a supposedly haunted house and talks to animals and plants. She also has an uncanny knowledge of things, an ability to mysteriously appear, and owns a black cat named Isis. So its not hard to picture her as a witch, whether she calls herself that or not (and the title of the movies and show doesn't hurt either). But the most enchanting thing about Cassie is that she not only believes in the goodness of people but she has a way of bringing it out in them if it can be brought out. When there's a bad guy that needs to be dealt with Cassie's brand of subtle magic is still effective and more she has a way of letting events play out so that the antagonist orchestrates their own downfall. But that's rarely the outcome and that's one of the reasons I really like this show - because it demonstrates to us that the 'bad guys' are just people too, maybe people making bad choices, or people with difficult situations of their own, but usually in the end we see them as human beings who had reasons for what they were doing. And Cassie somehow finds ways to help them too if she can.

The television series is a bit different. It divides its focus between Cassie and her teenage daughter Grace, and to a lesser degree Cassie's cousin Abigail. They provide three views on magic, using it, having it, living with it. Cassie is much like she is in the movies of course, although we see her doing less of her actual magic, subtle as it was, and more of her intuitive knowing and helping people with that. Grace shares her mother's intuitive gift but struggles with it and the desire to be normal and fit in at school. And Abigail is the magical loose cannon who has power and uses it to her own advantage, rather than for others. Seeing all three is a great way to see, in action, the way that the different approaches play out in their lives without the show being overly or overtly preachy about it. They aren't perfect, they make mistakes, but the things they deal with are the same things we all deal with and their magic seems both plausible and natural.

In a way Cassie, Grace, and Abigail show how far we as witches have come on television. These witches aren't caricatures or supernatural beings, not witches in the school of Bewitched or Charmed, or even of the classic Bell, Book ,and Candle, with the idea of separation from humans and impossible magic, doomed in a way to always suffer for their power and to never really have a place in our world unless they give some part of that power up. Here we see witches as normal members of society, a business owner, an employee, a high school student, dealing with the same life problems everyone else has, from being bullied to needing to find a plumber. But the magic remains. The enchantment is still there. Not as a twitch of the nose or flick of the hand but as a focusing of the mind and setting of intentions. And I love that.

I really like Cassie's character in particular and I always have. If you asked me what it was that hooked me from the first movie and kept me hooked through the following 6 movies, tv special, and two seasons of the show, I would unequivocally answer that it was Cassie Nightingale. I think in a way Cassie is an expression of the ideal witch to me; she isn't afraid to use magic, often and powerfully, but she uses it wisely; she helps others; she is humble; she is kind and strong; and she sees the value in all the life around her, plants, animals, people, places. She brings out the best in everyone around her. She generally doesn't interfere in things that need to be left alone to play out on their own, but she always knows just when and where to step in. And somehow no matter what's going on she always sees the bigger pattern, like the World card in the tarot, and she always finds some silver lining to any situation she's dealing with. She's positive without being unrealistic, nurturing without being smothering, wise without being arrogant, enchanting without being fantastical. Cassie is a television witch for a modern age, but she is also the ideal of what we all could be.

I have no delusion that I am like Cassie. I think in practice I'm probably more like her cousin Abigail, and I'm honest enough to admit it. My witchcraft is fairy-ridden, gritty, muddy, moon-dark, smokey, and thorn-sharp; I'm probably more than a bit of those things myself on a good day. But I want to be more like Cassie, I really do. I deeply admire everything about her that I discussed before, from her boundless optimism and ability to see the good in any situation to her quiet wisdom and gentle way of transforming people into their best selves. And so I strive to be more Cassie-like, whether I succeed or fail at it. I hold her up as my ideal witch role model. And the beauty of The Good Witch and of Cassie herself is that she makes it feel possible to make that kind of magic and to be that kind of person. She makes it seem possible for us all to be like her in small ways and little steps.

I've always been a sucker for witchy themed movies and shows. I loved Practical Magic and The Craft. I have the entire series of Charmed on DVD. They are fiction, of course, and silly and sometimes wildly unrealistic, but I still love them. The Good Witch is different. Its different because its made to be something that could be real, rather than something where the supernatural is raising-the-dead, fighting demons fantasy. Cassie's magic always feels possible. Cassie's way with people feels natural. This is a story that seems like it could happen instead of something that belongs in the pages of a novel. I love it for that. And I love Cassie for inspiring me to want to be more like her, even if I'll always have a little Abigail and shenanigans going on.

Original pencil sketch M Daimler
*Bell, Book, and Candle is the name of a 1958 movie staring Kim Novak about witches in New York. One of the main plot points is that if a witch loves a mortal she loses her power forever.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Misinformation and Truths about the Morrigan

There seems to have been a recent uptick in interest in the Morrigan again and I'm seeing a lot of misinformation floating around, so I thought it would be helpful to offer clarification on some things. These aren't personal opinions so much as facts from the Irish language and mythology. Keep in mind, however, that everyone makes mistakes when it comes to things coming from other languages and everyone can fall prey to bad information being shared around, especially if they haven't read or aren't very familiar with the source material. So this is meant as a helpful resource to correct some of the most common mistakes and misinformation that I see floating around. 




One thing that I've seen repeated both online and in at least one book is the assertion that the Morrigan is never called a Goddess in Irish mythology or sources. 

This is untrue, the Morrigan is called a Goddess at least twice that I can think of off hand. 
In the Metrical Dindshenchas, poem 49 Odras, which says: 
dosrocht ben in Dagda; 
ba samla día sóach
...in Mórrígan mórda,
ba slóg-dírmach sámda
.”
"[then] the wife of the Dagda came,
a phantom the shape-shifting Goddess.
...the mighty Mórrígan,
whose ease was a host of troops."
In the Tochmarch Emire we also have this: 

"‘H-i Ross Bodbo .i. na Morrighno, ar iss ed a ross-side Crich Roiss& iss i an bodb catha h-i & is fria id-beurur bee Neid .i. bandee incatæ, uair is inann be Neid & dia cathæ’."
"In the Wood of Badb, that is of the Morrigu, therefore her proven-wood the land of Ross, and she is the Battle-Crow and is also called the woman of Neit, that is Goddess of Battle,because Neit is also a God of Battle."
I have quoted them in the original language to illustrate that the word used in is fact “goddess”: día in the first example and bandee in the second. Don't let anyone tell you different.


Another thing that I've been seeing off and on is people spelling the Morrigan's name 'Mhorrigan' or 'Mhorrigu'. Outside of some very specific circumstances* when writing in Irish the Morrigan's name is NOT spelled with an initial 'Mh'. Unless you are an Irish speaker writing in Irish in the case that calls for lenition, please don't do this. Its grammatically incorrect and it looks really weird. Also it would then be pronounced Worrigan (or Vorrigan I suppose, depending on dialect). Which is how I read it every time I see it.


On a related note, there's also something of a trend to spell her name 'Morrighan'. I think this may be a version from the middle Irish that somehow mainstreamed, so it is a legitimate spelling. But as with the example above the pronunciation would be different, closer to 'MORE-ree-(gh)uhn', with the gh a sound that's swallowed at the back of the throat. The modern Irish is Mór-ríoghain, pronounced like 'MORE-ree-uhn' with the g lost entirely. If all of that looks like either too much effort or too hard to process then stick with the Anglicized Morrigan (MORE-rig-ann) or the Old Irish Morrigan (MORE-rih-gahn). 
If this all seems like a huge pain in the butt, well, sorry, but this is the deal when you are honoring a goddess from a foreign culture and another language. Spelling matters. Pronunciation matters, in relation to the spelling you are using. 

Speaking of names, the Morrigan is always referred to with the definitive 'the' before her name, unless she's being directly addressed like in a prayer. I've been seeing a tendency for people to drop this recently, and its worth keeping in mind that in Irish culture and mythology she's always referred to as the Morrigan. It may help to keep in mind that her name translates to a title - either Great Queen or Phantom Queen, so try thinking that you are saying that. Does it feel weird in English to say "I honor Great Queen" or "My goddess is Great Queen"? Exactly. Which is why we say the Morrigan, the Great Queen.  


The idea that the Morrigan is associated with falcons and rebirth: not in the mythology or Irish folklore. I've traced this one back to an online article from 2005 which as far as I can tell is the source for the belief, as well as the idea that she is a Goddess of rebirth (also not something from mythology). The article was one person's thoughts and opinions and was not in any way based on mythology, but rather the person's intuition which the author was very upfront about. 

The Morrigan and the Dagda's union at Samhain is another thing I often hear misinformation about. Basically I hear people repeating the idea that the Dagda sought out the Morrigan before Samhain, before a big battle, and had sex with her in exchange for her promise to help fight in the battle and/or for battle advice. I've actually written a whole blog just about this subject, but the bullet points are:
- the Dagda didn't seek her out, it was a yearly pre-arranged meeting at that location
- we have no idea what they discussed before having sex, only that they talked
- yes, they had sex, but according to Dindshechas they were married, and also in the text of the Cath Maige Tuired where we find this particular story it refers to the location this happened at as 'the bed of the married couple'. I realize most translations give it as Bed of the Couple but the exact word used, Lanamhou, is a version of a term for one of the legal states of marriage in Irish law. 
- yes the Morrigan did give the Dagda battle advice right after the sex and did aid the Tuatha Dé Danann by promising to weaken one of the opposing kings, but she had already been aiding them, specifically by singing an incitement to Lugh to encourage him to fight and prepare for the battle. So since she'd already acted on her own to help them before this it doesn't make sense to see this meeting between a married couple at a yearly tryst as some kind of pay-off for her to help her own people.  
Basically what we have is a yearly meeting of a married couple at a specific location, some marital sex, some martial advice, and some battle magic against a common enemy. 

The Morrigan and Cu Chulainn probably deserve a blog of their own, but again some quick bullet points addressing misinformation:
- The Morrigan loved Cu Chulainn: Well, no, not in a romantic way, not that we have any proof of although she certainly had an interest in him. There is one story (which does not appear in every version of the Táin Bó Cuiligne but only a few later ones) where she appears to him in disguise as a king's daughter, and she does tell him that she fell in love with him 'upon hearing of' his fame. However this is highly suspicious for multiple reasons. Firstly she's in disguise for a reason, because they two of them had previously met and had a rather dramatic disagreement with each other (see the Táin Bó Regamna). You would think if she really loved him she'd show up as her Goddess-y self and offer that. Secondly she's showing up at a point where he's already refused one king's daughter (Ailill and Medb's) and is filthy and starving. There's really nothing going on there to make anyone feel romantic. He tells her he's in a bad way and not in a position to meet a woman; she replies that she will help him; and he says he isn't guarding the ford to earn a woman's arse. At which point she threatens him. Now if she was actually in love with him, as a goddess of battle, wouldn't she be pleased that he was putting honor and duty before pleasure? On the other hand if the whole point was to trick him or anger him she certainly achieves that.** She's also shown in her previous encounter with him in the Táin Bó Regamna that she' quite willing to lie to him as well as annoy the crap out of him, so this has much more of the feel of that to it than of any genuine profession of emotion. 
- The Morrigan offered Cu Chulainn sovereignty and he refused it/she denied it to him because he refused her:  Again from the same king's daughter story in the Táin Bó Cuiligne. Let's be clear - she never offers him sovereignty. She also never offers to have sex with him, although that is implied by his responses. What she actually says is that she has fallen in love with him because of his fame and that she has brought her treasures and her cattle. Nothing about making him a king or anything like that. Could someone argue it's implied? Perhaps, however Cu Chulainn was not a candidate for kingship which the Morrigan would have known. According to the Lebor Gabala Erenn it was Cu Chulainn who broke the Lia Fal*** because it did not cry out under him or his foster son. And when the stone that cries out under the next king, the stone that is an Otherworldly treasure, is silent under someone they are really, really not sovereign material. I'd also quickly point out that when Irish Goddesses show up as Sovereignty to offer kingship to people they generally do so disguised as withered old hags asking for a kiss or sex, to test the person's fitness to rule, not as gorgeous princesses offering their possessions. 
- the Morrigan and Cu Chulainn had sex/had a child: definitely not in the existing mythology.

So that's just touching on a handful of the most common bits of misinformation or errors that I tend to see. There are sure to be more, of course, but I hope this helped to clear some things up for people. 


* For example in the vocative case, but that doesn't apply in the vast majority of cases where I've seen people using this spelling in English
**there's also been some supposition by scholars that this entire scene was added later to explain her coming at him in three animal forms in the next scene, for those unfamiliar with her promise to do so in the Tain Bo Regamna. It is certainly odd that she threatens to do so in the TBR, then appears as Buan's daughter in the TBC only to make the exact same threat again, however this would make sense if it were a case of scribes duplicating a scene or trying to re-explain something, or even integrating material from a different oral source (all things that aren't uncommon).  ***after it didn't cry out under him Cu Chulainn struck the stone and it has remained silent ever since. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cáca Síofra - a Recipe from a Dream

Dreams - aislingí - are sometimes a way that I receive communication from spirits and the Good People, as are other more controlled means like journeywork. This would fall into the realm of what's usually called 'upg' or unverified personal gnosis in modern paganism. I have found a lot of value in the lessons and messages I get this way, but generally I find these things are too personal too share. Not always though. What follows is something I was explicitly told to share, for anyone else who might want to use it as well. 

I had a dream last night and in the dream I was shown how to make little offering cakes for the Daoine Eile. In the dream I was shown how to make them for the most part and the only thing I was told in words was the oat flour and the name of the cakes, so I'm guessing on the temperature and timing. If you try making them keep that in mind and adjust as necessary. Also I don't bake (or cook particularly well) so bare with my terrible attempt to convey how to do this from what I saw in the dream. They didn't look like modern cakes but were more dense and flat.

Cáca Síofra


3 eggs
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup oat flour


Stir up eggs until blended then add in honey, then slowly add flour. Pour into buttered or greased cake pan or divide into several smaller ramekins*. Cook at about 350 degrees F (176 C) for about 35 - 40 minutes for cake, 30 minutes for larger ramekin, 20 minutes for smaller. Take out of oven when the center seem done. Drizzle more honey on the top when cooled.




I'd mentioned this on my social media this morning and several people who actually can cook have suggested cooking them on a griddle like pancakes. I'm tried both ways, and am reporting the results below.



I tried them as griddle cakes and as little cakes in 2 sizes of ramekins. The batter is slightly thinner than a box cake mix (which is my usual go-to for baking) and seems runny but it cooks well. 
On the griddle they need to be cooked at a lower temp than normal pancakes would or they burn. I found that a medium low worked well after some experimenting.They cook very quickly.
In really small ramekins they only need 20 minutes in the oven at 350. In the slightly larger size (which was the size I saw in the dream) it was 30 minutes.



After cooking them I tried some to make sure they were fit to offer. Without honey they are ridiculously delicious. With honey on top they are too sweet for me, but that was how I saw them so that was how I made them to offer. Obviously my preference isn't the issue for offering cakes, but I did verify that they are edible, and in fact really good. They are also nice and simple to prepare, although they take a lot of honey. 


I'll be making these for offerings to the Daoine Eile on holy days from now on I think.


*I didn't know what these were, but I was looking for smaller cake pans and stumbled across them in the grocery store and they were the closest in size to what I had seen. I should also add here that I wouldn't recommend cooking these on or in anything made of iron. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Power of Names

There is a lot of power in names and naming, so today I want to look at the way we see that played out in mythology and folklore. I thought this would be a good topic to discuss in particular because of the confusion I sometimes see around the idea of True Names and magical names within modern paganism. So let's look at what True Names and magical names are, and the difference between them, with some examples from mythology and folklore.

A True Name is the name that resonates with a being's soul or otherwise identifies that being on the deepest level. This is not necessarily the name you are given by your parents at birth, although we'll look at the power that your birth name can have later. Your True Name is a deeper metaphysical thing, something that you may or may not ever find if you are human, and something that you guard as more precious than your life. Knowing a being's True Name gives you power over that being and allows you a level of control of them. In the Cath Maige Tuired we see this when the Dagda encounters a Fomorian princess who demands he carry her on his back; he refuses until after asking him his name three times* he is forced to reveal his True Name, and knowing it she repeats the request using it and he is forced to comply. In the familiar story of Rumplestilskin we see knowledge of a True Name as the only way for a woman to get out of a contract she has made with a dwarf. This motif and variations of it are found throughout Europe, with either the firstborn child or the woman herself as the agreed upon pay for the Otherworldly being unless the Name can be discovered. Knowing a True Name means knowing the true nature of a being which allows that being to be commanded against their will, and this is exactly why knowledge of a True Name was hidden.

As I mentioned, your birth name does also have power over you. Perhaps anyone who has ever experienced an angry parent yelling their full name at them is already aware of this. Seriously though, even though your birth name is something given to you by others it has the power of blood and kinship bound up in it, and it is tied to your soul all the same, although not as strongly as your True Name. In most folklore it was understood as unwise to give your name to Otherworldly beings, because knowledge of your birth name gave them knowledge of you to some degree. We see examples of this in stories such as 'Maggy Moulach' where a fairy (in that case a Brownie) futily loves a mortal; when he had asked her name, she told him it was 'Me Myself'. The young woman eventually is forced to throw boiling water on the amorous fairy, mortally wounding him, and when he was later asked who had harmed him he answered 'Me Myself' preventing his mother from seeking revenge against the girl. Names have power, even the ones our parents have given us.

As adults we can choose our own names. We can assume nicknames, or we can even (in most countries as far as I know) legally change our names. There is a long and deep seated tradition of adults changing names to shed the name they were given at birth and assume a new name as an adult, usually to better reflect who the person was. We see this in mythology with Setanta becoming Cu Chulainn; Gwion Bach becoming Taleisin; Deimne becoming Fionn Mac Cumhaill. There is power in naming ourselves, but we should choose wisely as well, because just like birth names the names we give ourselves hold power over us and create connections. Cu Chulainn taking his name also meant taking a gies against eating dog meat, and it his fate was bound up in that taboo.

It is from the power that your name has, I believe, that we see magical names coming in, particularly in ceremonial magic. A magical name was originally meant as a pseudonym, a way to keep your identity hidden from spirits and likely to act as a layer of magical defense from unfriendly people, witches and non-witches. Or perhaps we might say more aptly it was used to create a specific alternate identity for dealing with them. Magical names, like any good persona, were about creating an ideal image for the self, rather than a true reflection of the self. So, for example someone's True Name might be Echaire [horse-keeper] but they may take a magical name that is much grander and more impressive sounding like 'Storm Raven' or 'Ocean Rider'. People also often use the names of deities, mythic heroes, famous magicians of the past, and powerful animals for their magical names. Magical names did build power with use, but could also be shed and remade as needed. Think of them a bit like clothes or armor. Even with this though there was historically usually a layer of secrecy between a person's magical name and real name, an attempt to keep the two separate and distinct, so that in ritual or with fellow practitioners no other name would be used except the magical, and outside of those contexts no name except the birth name would be used.

At some point in the modern era I think the ideas of True Names and magical names were confused somehow, so that people began to think that a magical name was supposed to be a true reflection of self rather than a projection of power and confidence. From this we start to see two things happening, firstly magical names that are intended to reflect as much of a person's soul as possible, and secondly the public use of magical names in non-magical contexts. Or basically the entire concept of magical names became less about esoteric spirit work naming and more of a tribal assuming-a-new-name-with-a-new-community process. One is not better or worse than the other, but they need to be understood as distinctly different things. A public name that you use because you feel it fits you better than the one your parents gave you, isn't a magical name. And it isn't your true name either, or I hope it isn't if your sharing it around so publicly.

Names have power. We can take control of that power by choosing what we want people to call us, by naming ourselves. Even assuming a nickname is an act of power. We can use magical names. We can even seek, and sometimes find, our True Name But we shouldn't forget the lessons that mythology and fairy tales have taught us about the value of the power of the names and the need to guard the names that mean the most to us. Not all names are meant to be shared.

* there is also significance to the repetition of the number three, and of asking a question three times.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Book Review - The Knowing

I haven't done a book review in a long time, and as it happens I just read a new urban fantasy that I really liked, so it seemed like a good time to offer a review here. The book is 'The Knowing' by Kevan Manwaring and is available on ebook through amazon (there is no print edition at this point to my knowledge).

One of the better urban fantasies out there taking on the subject of traditional fairies in the modern world, 'The Knowing' stands apart from most fiction because of the amount of research that obviously went into it. The story is built on the actual history of Reverend Robert Kirk and his 17th century book 'The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies' but takes that history and then conjectures, what if? What if everything he wrote was true? What if Kirk actually was taken by the fairies, as folklore says he was? What if he is still their prisoner? And then it builds it's own story from there, creating a tale of one of Kirk's descendants, her own tragedy and struggles, and her own possibly inevitable entanglement with Fairy. 

Its hard not to get pulled into the tale, and I found myself quickly wanting to know what would happen to Janey, the main character, if she'd overcome her own personal challenges, if she'd win out in the end. The other characters also have stories that are intriguing, and its not often that I find myself as pulled in by the minor characters as the protagonist, but in this case I was just as invested in the tidbits about Kirk, and even Fingal and the Xaeveax. Actually I kind of found myself rooting for the Xaeveax even though they are they antagonists in the story. I also found the way the minor characters' points of view were woven into the larger tale interesting.

There are a few minor things an American reader might take issue with, points where its clear that the book, set mostly in America, wasn't written by someone intimately familiar with the culture, but the story is strong enough that I think that can be overlooked. If you aren't familiar with British terms for things, like solicitor for lawyer and flat for apartment, you may find it breaks your immersion a bit. However I do grade this one on a significant curve, given the enormous number of American authors who write material set in Ireland or the UK without any knowledge of those cultures and produce utterly culturally tone deaf pieces. With that in mind this book did very well in setting the story where it did, and the issues are mostly minor. 

The characters are likable and realistically flawed, quirky without being caricatures, and the fairies are true-to-folklore scary. I was impressed with how well the characterization was done, because I know how hard it is to write a character that isn't perfect and makes some big mistakes during the book but remains likable. I found that even when Janey was doing things that were rather cringeworthy I was still rooting for her to win out, and that said a lot to me about how invested I was in her. I was also really impressed with how well handled the fairies were, as in my opinion most urban fantasy (probably even my own) tends to over-humanize them but this one did not. They remained very alien in their actions and motives and felt very true to folklore even when put into a modern downtown city. 

Ultimately the story is one anyone familiar with folklore will know, because blends of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer pulse just beneath the surface, cleverly hidden and reworked so that they are not obvious enough to make the story predictable. Yet they are still there, a nod at the old folklore, and a memory of every fairy tale and ballad where a brave woman must step up and save a man lost to Fairy. Like any good fairy-story The Knowing is ultimately about choices, and I found myself rooting for Janey to make the right ones to triumph in the end and win (or win back, perhaps?) the things she loved most. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nicnevin, Queen of Fairies, Queen of Witches

One of the most interesting and obscure figures in fairylore is Nicnevin. She appears in folklore from the 16th century onwards as a frightening figure that was used by mother's to ensure children's good behavior, a witch and queen of witches, and a Fairy Queen. In modern understanding she is often depicted as a queen of the Unseelie Court of Scotland. The truth of her nature and associations is shrouded in mystery now and comes to us only in hints and obscure references. 

The meaning of her name is unknown, although the official etymology is that it comes from Nic Naomhin the Gaidhlig for "daughter of the little saint"; a similar name NicClerith (daughter of the cleric) is given in the 17th century to someone said to be a close relative of Nicnevin (DSL, 2017). Other theories claim the name is NicNemhain, or daughter of Nemahin, connecting her to the Irish war goddess Nemhain. A commentator on Campbell also offers the alternate spelling of NicCreamhain, which he suggests comes from Craoibhean, 'little tree man', as the ultimate source for the name Nicnevin (Campbell, 1900). I personally favor the idea that it comes from Nic Cnàimhan, meaning daughter of the bones, but its really all conjecture.

She first appears in a 16th century poem by Alexander Montgomerie, where he describes her this way:
"Then a ready company came, soon after close,

Nicnevin with her nymphs, in number enough
With charms from Caithness and the Canonry of Ross
Whose knowledge consists in casting a ball of yarn...

The King of Fairy, and his Court, with the Elf Queen,
with many elvish Incubi was riding that night.
"
This is interesting for several reasons. We are told that she appears with her nymphs - probably a general term for female fairies or maidens - in 'number enough', reinforcing a previous line that referred to her appearing with a "company". She has charms [read: spells] from Caithness and Ross, both counties in the extreme north of Scotland* giving us a geographic point for her. We are also told that her knowledge or skill consists in casting balls of yarn or thread, one might surmise possibly as a method of divination or enchantment. This is an interesting connection to the Gyre-carling, who was strongly connected to spinning, and who will be discussed in more depth later. The poem itself goes on to describe the Fairy Rade she is riding out with in dark terms mentioning that they are accompanied by many elvish Incubi (a common gloss for dangerous fairies), and it says that she is riding with an unnamed Fairy King (Briggs, 1976). This connects her directly to the Good People and counts her among their number, as their Queen. 





Sir Walter Scott describes her in more depth in this passage:
"...a gigantic and malignant female...who rode on the storm and marshalled the rambling host of wanderers under her grim banner. This hag...was called Nicneven in that later system which blended the faith of the Celts and of the Goths on this subject. The great Scottish poet Dunbar has made a spirited description of this Hecate riding at the head of witches and good neighbours (fairies, namely), sorceresses and elves, indifferently, upon the ghostly eve of All-Hallow Mass." (Scott, 1831).

From this we see an association between Nicnevin and storms, and we see her compared to the Goddess Hecate, as well as called a witch and described as leading a troop of witches and fairies. In the 200-odd years between the two depictions her association with witches has gone from something perhaps hinted at with her skill at magic and charms to something blatant. In the same way the description of the host she rides with has intensified and become more obviously dangerous, riding, as Scott says, 'under her grim banner'

She is also associated in that quote with 'All-Hallow Mass', however due to the calendar shift in 1752 which moved dates by 11 days when it went into effect she became strongly associated with Novemeber 11th, the old-style date of Halloween/Samhain. Because of this we see her being acknowledged on both the new and old dates of the holiday. I have seen people today calling November 11th 'Nicnevin's Night', and some people believe she rides out with her company between October 31st and November 11th*. 

Nicnevin is often identified as a witch, being called the "Grand Mother Witch"; her name was also used as a general name for powerful witches (Scott, 1820). In later witchcraft trials those accused were intentionally connected to the folkoric Nicnevin to solidify their guilt (Miller, 2004). There is evidence of at least three women in the witch trial records of Scotland with last names that were similar to Nic Nevin who were accused and killed for practicing witchcraft. The connection of NicNevin to witches is complex, with her being viewed as both a witch herself, and also the leader of all witches. By some accounts she was a human witch who was burned at the stake in 1569 northeast of Edinburgh, while others claim her as the Queen of witches (Miller, 2004). She is also explicitly called the Queen of Fairies by sir Walter Scott writing at the beginning of the 19th century and in Montgomerie's 16th century poem. 

Nicnevin and the Gyre-Carlin are closely inter-related and possibly names for the same being. As sir Walter Scott says: "The fairy queen is identified, in popular tradition, with the Gyre-Carline, or mother witch, of the Scottish peasantry. She is sometimes termed Nicneven." (Scott, 1802). The connection to the Gyre-Carlin is a complicated one, because she may be a separate figure who also has overlapping witch/fairy connections or she may be Nicnevin by a different name; certainly the two have extremely similar characteristics and associations. The name Gyre-Carlin breaks down to gyre, 'hobgoblin, supernatural monster' and carlin, 'a witch, a crone'. The Gyre-Carlin herself - or perhaps themselves as they may be a category of being and an individual - is described as both a witch and a supernatural woman. She is most associated with the area around Fife, where it's said that housewives who don't finish their spinning before the end of the year will have their unspun flax taken by her (DSL, 2017). The Gyre-Carlin was not limited to this one location, however, with her lore found around Scotland and the Orkneys. She was connected to the fairies for both were known to steal or bewitch babies, and she was also thought in the Orkney Islands to live in the ancient neolithic mounds, as did the Fair Folk (Barry, 1867). The Gyre-Carlin was said to be especially active on Halloween [Samhain], New Years, and the time between Candlemas [Imbolc] and Fasteneen [Lent] (DSL, 2017). 

Another description of Nicnevin, which directly conflates her with the Gyre-Carlin, comes to us from a 19th century source: “… a celebrated personage who is called the GyreCarline, Reckoned the mother of glamour, and near akin to Satan himself. She is believed to preside over the Hallowmass Rades and mothers frequently frighten their children by threatening to give them to McNeven, the Gyre Carline. She is described wearing a long grey mantle and carrying a wand, which...could convert water into rocks and sea into solid land.” (Cromek, 1810). 
Here we see Nicnevin - called McNeven - directly connected again to the Fairy Rades or specifically those processions riding out on Halloween/Samhain. We are also given a rare physical description of her wearing a 'long, grey mantle' and are told she carries a powerful wand that can transmute earth to water and vice versa. 

Nicnevin is a difficult figure to suss out. The meaning of her name is unknown and we see it in various forms thanks to the non-standard orthography of the day. Her true origins are lost to history, and she appears 400 years ago as a figure fully formed in folklore, described as leading witches and fairies through the darkness of Halloween night, her unnamed King at her side. She is repeatedly associated with witches, sometimes even said to have been a mortal witch herself, yet she is also clearly associated with the fairies and called their Queen. She rides out during liminal times of year and during storms, leading a cavalcade of 'sorceresses and elves', and she is described as 'malignant' and powerful, explaining, perhaps, the modern description of her as Queen of the Unseelie Court. The references we do have to her imply that she held a significant position in folklore, yet we have no existing myths or stories featuring her. We are left instead only with hints and later writing that seems to assume she would be known and understood by the reader. A modern understanding then, must be built on what evidence we do have and on whatever else can be gleaned from local folklore as well as individual perceptions. 


 *the two regions are separated by Sutherland, but otherwise represent the northernmost area of Scotland.

*I've translated from the Scots for ease of reading here, the original is:
 "Then a clear Companie came soon after clos,
Nicneuen with hir Nymphis, in nomber anew,
With charmes from Caitness and Chanrie in Rosse,
Quhais cunning consistis in casting a clew...
The King of pharie, and his Court, with the elph queine,
With mony elrich Incubus was rydand that nycht."

*this is information I have gathered by talking to various people, and should be considered anecdotal or personal correspondence. I have found nothing in actual history or folklore to support this. That said I think there is a lot of value in the modern practices that have sprung up around Nicnevin which is part of what spurred me to write about her.

References:
Scott, W., (1802). Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders
Scott, W., (1820). The Abbott
Scott, W., (1831) Letters on Demonologie and Witchcraft
Barry, G., (1867) A History of the Orkney Islands
Cromek (1810) Remains of Nithsdale andGalloway Song
Campbell, J., (1900) The Gaelic Otherworld
Miller, J., (2004). Magic and Witchcraft in Scotland. 
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
DSL (2017) NicNevin, Dictionary of the Scots Language

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Medb and Menstruation in the Tain Bo Cuiligne, a translation

The following excerpt from the Táin Bó Cuiligne is about an incident towards the end of the cattle raid, where Medb and her troops are retreating. Medb's menstraul period begins and she has to stop to relieve herself; while doing this Cu Chulain comes upon her and will not attack her, because of the vulnerable position she is in. Because he spares her she asks that he grant her a favor, by guarding the retreat of her troops, which he promises to do. He is so angry at having to safeguard his enemy's retreat that afterwards he knocks the tops off of three nearby hills with his sword, and Fergus is so unhappy about the situation that he comments that this is what happens to troops who follow a woman. 

It's an interesting piece to translate because in many of the existing versions the menstruation aspect is ignored. Instead the texts tend to imply she needed to urinate which, in my opinion, changes the tone of the passage considerably from that of a woman with an uncontrollable physical issue that she must deal with to one who simply can't hold her bladder and puts her whole army at risk. However the words 'fúal fola' together seem to be an idiom for menstruation*, 'blood urine' or 'blood water' [fúal = urine or water, fola = blood] There may also be some cosmogenical significance to Medb's creation of the 'three trenches' with her menstrual flow.  

The original Old Irish is as follows:
Is and drecgais a fúal fola for Meidb, .i. sciath díten dar éís fer n-hErend, go ro síblur-sa mh'fual úaim. Dar ar cubus, ar Fergus is olc in tráth & ní cóir a denam. Gided ní étaim-sea chena, bar Medb, daíg ni dha bheo-sa mení siblur-sa m-fúal uáim. Tanic Fergus & gebid scíath dítem dar éis fer n-hErend. Siblais Medb a fual uathi, co n-derna tri tulchlassa mora de, co taille munter in cach thurchlaiss, conid Fúal Medba atberar friss.
Ruc Cuchulaind furri ac dénam na huropra sain, & nirra gonastar-sum ní athgonad-sum na diaid hí. Ascaid dam-sa úait indiu a chuchulaind, bar Medb. Gia ascaid connaige, bar Cuchulaind. In slúag sa bar th-einech & ar do chommairgi gorrosset dar Áth mor síar. Gondnoim-sea ón omm, bar Cuchulaind. Tánic Cuchulaind i timchell fer n-hErend & gebis scíath diten din dara leith díb d'Imdegail fer n-hErend. Tancatar ferchutredaig fer n-hErend din leith aile. Tanic Bedb na hinad féin & gebis scíath diten dar éis fer n-hErend, & rucsat leo bhan coir sin fir hErend dar Áth mór siar.
And-sain diriacht a chlaideb d'indsaigid Conculaind, & rabert béim dona trib máelanaib Átha lúain i n-agid na trí Maela Mide, go ro ben a tri cindu díb.
And-sain ra gab Fergus ac tachim in t-slúaig ac dula a Áth Mór síar. Rapa chomadas in lá sa indiu ám i n-diaid mná. Conrecat lochta ra fulachta and-so indiu ra Fergus. Ra gattá & ra brattá in slúag sa indiu. Feib théit echrad láir rena serrgraig i crích n-anéoil, gan chend cundraid na comairle rempo, is amlaid testa in sluag sa indiu.
- excerpt from the Tain Bo Cuiligne, E. Windisch, 1905

My translation:
There it was advanced on Medb her bloody fluid, that is [then she said to Fergus]  "bring about a safeguard covering the troop of the men of Ireland, until my water flows from me"
"By my conscience", said Fergus "It is a bad time and not proper for you to do."
"Not by my choice, however," said Medb, "because I will not yet be living unless my water flows from me."
 Fergus came and set a safeguard covering the troop of the men of Ireland. Medb let flow her water from her, making three great trenches because of it, with the amount of a household in each trench, with Fúal Medba [Medb's Water] called on it.
Cu Chulainn overtook her in the act of this peculiar exploit, and would not kill her; he wouldn't attack her again from behind. 
"A favor for me, a little thing, today, oh Cu Chulainn", said Medb. 
"What favor are you seeking," said Cu Chulainn. 
"The host supported by your reputation and for the sake of your protection until we are past the Áth Mor [great ford] to the west."
"I promise that indeed," said Cu Chulainn. 
Cu Chulainn went around the men of Ireland and maintained a safeguard covering one of two sides of them with his protection on the men of Ireland. A complement of men of the men of Ireland went on the other side. Medb went to her appointed position herself and maintained a safeguard covering across the band of the men of Ireland, and carried peacefully along side with the men of Ireland across Áth Mór to the west.
Then Cu Chulainn pulled his sword for attacking, and wielded a blow against the three unlucky flat hillocks of Átha Lúain against the faces of the three Maela Mide [bald ones of Meath], taking off their three heads from them.
Then Fergus took in the nearby marching of the host going west to Áth Mór. "Indeed today has been a suitable day following in the rear of a woman. Shortcomings on supporting have joined here today" thought Fergus. "Carried off and robbed is the host today. Going the way of horses with a mare in front of her foals in a strange territory, without a battle-leader negotiating with intent before them, thus is the lack on the host today".


*there is to my knowledge no single word known in Old Irish for menstruation, but this word pairing makes sense as an expression for that.