The Dark Spirits
In Irish folklore, there are many mysterious and frightening creatures from a dark world that roam this world unseen. They can be said to be the spirits of the dead, who are not yet ready to accept their final destiny, ‘eternal rest’. These spirits are the heralds of death, destruction, and evil. They are also the embodiment of Satan him/herself. The following are descriptions of some of these dark spirits.
The Devil is the personification of evil as it is conceived in many and various cultures and religious traditions, the ultimate hostile and destructive demon. Any attempt to give a general definition that will cover all traditions and cultures is virtually and describing it as “the manifestation of evil” is somewhat inadequate. We can only look at the devil through the images that the various cultures have developed as part of their mythology. As a result of independent development within each tradition, the devil is given many names and powers. Generally, however, it portrayed in colours of black, blue, or red, and portrayed as having horns on his head. But, not in every case. In Celtic tradition, there are two candidates for this post, i.e Cernunnos and Balor (Celtic Irish).
is the conventional name given in to depictions of the ‘Horned God’ of Celtic mythology. He was the Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth, and ruler of the underworld, whose name appears in many forms throughout the Celtic World. Cernunnos is usually depicted with the antlers of a stag, sometimes carrying a purse filled with coin, often seated cross-legged and often associated with animals and holding or wearing torcs. Unfortunately, not much is known about the god from literary sources, and details about his name, his followers or his significance in Celtic religion are unknown.
is a more likely candidate for being the Devil of Irish mythology. The name itself may come from the Common Celtic ‘Baleros’, which means “the deadly one”. In the ancient tales of Ireland, Balor was the tyrant king of the Fomorians, who were a group of supernatural beings.
Balor was said to be the son of ‘Buarainech’ and husband of ‘Cethlenn’, and deadly tyrant who oppresses the island of Ireland from his fortress on Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal, where there are features called Dún Bhalair (“Balor’s fortress”) and Túr Bhalair (“Balor’s tower”).
He is often described as a giant with a large eye that wreaks terrible destruction when it is opened. The story of ‘The Cath Maighe Tuireadh’ (“The Battle of Magh Tuireadh”) calls it a “destructive” and “poisonous” eye that no army can withstand and says that it takes four men to lift the eyelid. This great battle was said to be fought between the ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ against the ‘Fomorians’ by Lough Arrow in County Sligo.
In later folklore, he gained a reputation for being the bringer of drought, blight, and the scorching sun. This may have derived from the later traditions saying that – “He had a single eye in his forehead, a venomous fiery eye. There were always seven coverings over this eye. One by one Balar removed the coverings. With the first covering the bracken began to wither, with the second the grass became copper-coloured, with the third the woods and timber began to heat, with the fourth smoke came from the trees, with the fifth everything grew red, with the sixth it sparked. With the seventh, they were all set on fire, and the whole countryside was ablaze!“
Balor’s story tells us that he heard a prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson and, to avoid such a fate, he locked his only daughter, Ethniu, in a tower on Tory Island to prevent her from becoming pregnant. Then, one day, Balor stole a magical cow of abundance, from Goibniu the smith, and took it to his fortress on Tory Island. Cian, who was guarding the cow for Goibniu, set out to retrieve the cow and, with the help of the druidess Biróg, he entered the tower, finding Ethniu and had intercourse with her. Angered by Cian, Balor seized him and put him to death. Then, when Ethniu gives birth to a son, Balor attempts to drown the child in the sea or has the child set adrift on the sea to die. The child, however, was saved by the sea god Manannán, who raises the child as his foster-son, whom he named Lugh. This child, Lugh, eventually becomes king of the ‘Tuatha Dé Danann’ and leads them in the Battle of Mag Tuireadh (Moytura) against the Fomorians, who are led into battle by Balor. Legend tells us that Lugh killed Balor by casting a spear made by crafted by Goibniu, or a sling stone, through his eye and that Balor’s eye destroyed the Fomorian army before Lugh finally beheaded Balor.
Another legend says that, when Balor was slain by Lugh, he fell face first into the ground and his deadly eye beam burned a hole into the earth. This great hole filled with water and became a lake which is now known as Loch na Súl (“Lake of the eye”) in County Sligo. There is yet another tradition, which claims that Balor was the grandson of Nét and that he met his death at Carn Uí Néit (“Cairn of Nét’s grandson”), which is known in English as Mizen Head.
The ‘Fear Gorta’ is only one part of a huge collection of Irish folklore, but it speaks directly to the suffering experienced during the ‘Great Potato Famine 91848-49)’. The striking image of wasted legs that is usually described in stories containing the ‘Fear Gorta’ may have been derived from the starvation conditions of the Irish peasantry during the ‘Potato Famine’. Even in these modern days the images and memories of the famine play a major part in psyche of the Irish people. Folk-stories help the people to come to an understanding of these terrible circumstances that affected the famine-stricken.
There are many stories within the archives of the ‘Irish Folklore Dep.’ In UCD which refer to the ‘Fear Gorta/ach’ as “The Hungry Grass” as well as the thin-legged spirit (Hungry Men). These stories were collected all over Ireland, but many came from the ‘Gaeltacht’ area (Irish Speaking) through the offices of the Irish Folklore Commission, after it began operations in 1935. It was a massive undertaking to salvage and preserve the nation’s folklore in written transcripts of sound recordings, and from questionnaires, etc. It was, however, among the more generalized collection of folklore that the stories of ‘Fear Gorta’ emerged.
In the various manuscripts, references to the ‘Fear Gorta’ come in the form of belief statements, extensive memories, or third-party accounts e.g.
“This account was given in 1941. The narrator feels that, however, horrible the current war is (WWII), Ireland’s most dreadful story is the ‘Great Famine’. But, the people themselves believe that the ‘Fear Gorta’ constituted their great suffering, and it was not just bad food, or the shortage of food. Treading on a certain spot, or area would result in sudden weakness; no strength in the hands or legs; and the knees bent and trembled, the victim fell, crippled and senseless, and would remain so until the food could be given – a bit of bread or a few grains. Many narratives are told about people who have had the experience.” (Iml. 81:90 (Clare))
All the stories agree on both components that make up the experience (sudden weakness and extreme hunger when crossing a particular spot) and its remedy (consumption of some form of food, no matter how small.) Some folklorists have referenced the ‘Fear Gorta’ as a talisman, which is mistaken. A Talisman is something that wards off ill-fortune. In this case food is not warding off ill-fortune but rather a remedy for the ill-fortune brought by the ‘Fear Gorta’.
There are two reasons frequently given in the archives as to how certain places might acquire the ‘Fear Gorta.’ The first reason usually involves not leaving crumbs of food on the ground after an outdoor meal or offering thanks to God after such a meal. The second reason is usually a certain patch of ground that has come into contact with a corpse. This may happen if someone rests a dead body on the ground on the way to a wake-house. This latter reason brings an association with death at specific places. The resting of a corpse on the way to a wake-house does not involve the act of dying and, therefore, has little to do with the tragedy and its consequences. At he same time, this particular belief does involve unnatural death, which introduces crises within the victim’s community.
Thanks is to be given to – Davis Deborah R. 1994. “Images and Meanings of Purgatory in Folk Expression: A Cultural Thanatology.” and Logan, Patrick. 1972. “Making the Cure: A Look at Irish Folk Medicine.” Talbot Press. Dublin.
Fairy Hound (Cu-sidhe)
According to Irish and Scottish folklore, the ‘Cù-sìdhe’ is described as being the size of a young bull, but with the appearance of a dog. It has a shaggy coat of fur, which is usually a dark-green colour, though it is occasionally white. The hound’s tail has been described as being long and either coiled up or braided. With paws as wide as a man’s hand, its form is very graceful, and always instantly distinguished from mortal, non-magical dogs by its bright red eyes and the red inner lining of its ears.
The ‘Fairy Hound’ is one of the most formidable enchanted beasts that can be occasionally met in lonely rural locations, where it makes its home among clefts of rocks and roams moors and woodlands where Ireland’s Fairy folk dwell. The ‘Cù-sìdhe’ was feared as a bringer of death and would appear to bear away the soul of a person to the afterlife. In this role, it holds a function similar to that of the ‘Bean Sidhe’ (Banshee) in Irish folklore. It was said that even the mere sight of one of these creatures would bring the observer bad luck while speaking or touching one usually meant certain death. If it is treated with sufficient courtesy and compassion, however, a fairy hound can occasionally bring the observer good fortune.
According to the tales of legend, the ‘Fairy Hound’ was capable of hunting silently, but would occasionally let out three terrifying barks, and only three. These barks could be heard for miles by those listening for it, even far out at sea, and those who heard the barking had to reach safety by the third bark, or they would be overcome with terror to the point of death. Some said that the baying was also a dire warning that nursing women should be locked up safely for fear the hound would abduct them and take them to a fairy fort to supply milk for the ‘Daoine-sidhe’.
At one time the wolf was an integral part of Ireland’s countryside and culture, but they are now extinct. Indeed, the last wild wolf in Ireland was said to have been killed in 1786, three hundred years after they were believed to have been wiped out in England, and a century after their disappearance in nearby Scotland. It is not surprising, therefore, that Wolves feature prominently in the mythology of Ireland. A mysterious creature called Airitech had three daughters, who appeared as werewolf-like creatures and were eventually killed by Cas Corach.
‘Mac Tire’ is the Irish word for wolf, literally meaning ‘The Son of the Country(side)’, keeping an association with its ability to transformation from a human being. Some consider this tradition not to be of native Irish and yet there are many references in Irish mythology to ‘lycanthropes’ and the changing from human form to other animal forms.
‘Faoladh’ and ‘Conroicht’ are both Irish words for “Werewolf” and, as you will learn, the Irish werewolf is a complex creature that is just as often helpful as it is deadly. Unlike other folk traditions, Irish werewolves were considered guardian spirits, who protected children, wounded men, and the lost.
The famous Norman historian of the 12th century, Gerald Cambrensis, wrote a topography of Ireland and described the Irish people as being barely civilised. He had, undoubtedly, a vivid imagination, believing Ireland was an exotic place where natural marvels were widespread. As a result, he told the most fantastic stories and presented them as fact. One such tale was “The Werewolves of Ossory”, which begins with a priest who travelled from Ulster to Meath. On this journey the priest and his companion were taking a rest by a fire, which they had lit in a clearing, when a wolf-like creature came upon them and began to talk. The wolf told them, “There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of ‘Natalis’, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their place, they return to their country and their former shape.”
The manner in which the wolf spoke to them gave them bot a sense of reassurance and they listened as the wolf explained that his female companion was dying, and that he wished to have the last rites from the priest. Unhesitatingly, the priest followed the wolf to the lair, where he saw the female wolf near to death. But he had serious doubts about administering the sacrament to an animal until the male wolf reached out, pulling off her wolfskin and revealing an old woman. He was content, now, to give her the last rites and she died peacefully. Happy with this outcome the wolf stayed with the priest and his companion all that night, talking. The priest, it is said, subsequently passed on this story to his bishop, who sent it all the way to Pope Urban III.
There is a variant of this story, which describes the pagan Irish mocking St. Patrick’s preaching by howling like wolves. Totally enraged by such behaviour the Irish Saint curses them all by changing them into wolves, or that he changed King Vereticus into a wolf.
Cambrensis also states, “The descendants of the wolf are in Ossory. They have a wonderful property. They transform themselves into wolves, and go forth in the form of wolves, and if they happen to be killed with flesh in their mouths, it is in the same condition that the bodies out of which they have come will be found; and they command their families not to remove their bodies, because if they were moved, they could never come into them again.”
In another text, ‘The Coir Anmann’, we hear of Shamans and other magicians who are able to send out their spirits, while they continue to lie as if they are dead, or asleep. “It says “ Laignech Fáelad, that is, he was the man that used to shift into fáelad, i.e. wolf-shapes. He and his offspring after him used to go, whenever they pleased, into the shapes of the wolves, and, after the custom of wolves, kill the herds. Wherefore he was called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf-shape.”
They were said to be fearsome warriors who, howling like wolves, fought for the ancient kings of Ireland, and were every bit as fierce and ferocious as the beasts whose shape they took. They, it is told, lived in remote areas, and unlike the werewolves of Ossory, they could turn into wolves whenever they wanted. There are tales that point out that these warriors would fight for any king who could pay their price, which was not measured in gold, but in the flesh of new-born babies.
They supposedly flourished during the reign of ‘Tigernmas’, who also followed Crom Cruach, according to the ‘Book of Leinster’ version of The Roll of Kings. ‘Tigernmas’ was a real king, who is famed for mining the first gold and introducing the art of working gold. The tales say, “… he died in Mag Slecht, in the great Assembly thereof, with three-fourths of the men of Ireland in his company, in worship of Crom Cruaich, the king-idol of Ireland; so that there escaped thence, in that fashion, not more than one-fourth of the men of Ireland; under Mag Slecht.”
In Irish folklore the ‘Fiann’ are well known as a group of landless young men and women, often sons of lords who had not yet inherited property. There are many stories about these brave bands, mainly in the ‘Fenian Cycle’ or Fianna ‘Fiannaíocht’, which relate the tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, and mentions bands of werewolves, and their relationship to witches, fighting off sorcerers who steal the grain and animals from the local farmers.
‘The Morrigan’ is the name given to the Goddess Morrigan, who is one of the triple Goddesses in Celtic mythology, and her name means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’. Representing ‘the circle of life’, she is associated with both birth and death, and being a shape-shifter she watches over the rivers, fresh water and lakes. In Irish mythology she is also described as being the Goddess of revenge, magic, priestesses, night, prophecy and witches.
‘The Morrigan’ is often depicted as a triple goddess, but this varies according to the source of research. But, in Celtic mythology, the number three has incredible significance and, occasionally, she is featured as one of three sisters, while on other occasions she is singular. In almost every artistic representation of the Goddess she is represented as being young, with long, flowing dark hair. Her clothing is black and sometimes very revealing, while she is sometimes cloaked so as not to show her face. Because ‘The Morrigan’ is a shape-shifter, she is often shown with one of the more common animal forms that she would assume, i.e. a crow or a raven. There are occasions when she is associated with horse symbolism and has been linked to ‘Epona’, the equine Goddess. There is one thing that is not disputed and that is, in every representation she is shown to be strikingly beautiful, and yet very intimidating.
It is difficult to find the exact origin of Morrigan in existing texts since much of Celtic mythology has either been destroyed or lost over the generations. But many say that she was part of the Tuatha de Danaan, a mythical race living in Ireland, who were descendants of the Goddess Danu, whose son, Dagda, was a powerful leader. While the story of ‘The Morrigan’s’ family is difficult to unravel, legend says that she was the daughter of Ernmas. She is supposed to have had several siblings, including Badb, Macha, Banba, Fohla and Eriu, while she and Dagda married and had a child. Other sources state that the pair only encountered each other on one occasion, and that, at a river. But the fruit of this encounter, or relationship, is said to have been a child, who was given the name Adair.
‘The Morrigan’ is known for her strengths, which include her ability to instil fear in those who opposed her, and she often helped to protect the people from invading armies by blowing a layer of fog over the land, thereby decreasing visibility. Although she did have some weaknesses, she is better known for her vindictiveness and her willingness to kill if she felt she was disrespected. She is forever linked to the festival of Samhain and is usually symbolically represented by a crow or raven.