Expanding the Enchanted Forest
Updated: Jun 13, 2020
A frog-bat-lizard creature, known as the Water Leaper, lives in the ponds and swamps of Wales. It has sustained itself by feeding on nearby livestock but its tastes are evolving. The Leaper (or Lamhigyn Y Dwr, to use his proper name) has added fishers and farmers to his diet. And he’s not alone. The Irish Dobhar-chu, an amphibious creature with a half-dog / half-otter body, also has a fondness for human flesh. No, these stories are not ripped from the tabloids. These creatures were incubated in Celtic imagination.
This week I read a post by a book reviewer who said she’s bored with reading fantasy novels that have the same old, same old cast of characters. You know who she means: vampires, werewolves, elves, wizards. And I agree. When I started writing Music of Dragons, the fantasy novel I am currently working on, I consciously chose to fill its story world with beings from Celtic folklore. I did this because I wanted to expand the western world’s concept of an enchanted forest. Also, while I delight in Celtic folklore, most of it is vastly unknown among westerners, even those of Celtic heritage. Even those who live in Celtic lands! But the lore is so rich in characters and tales, I want to do what I can to keep it from fading into the twilight. Last week, I wrote a post on some lesser known Celtic folklore beings. This week, I’m back with more, and a few tales to boot. So, sit back and prepare to be enchanted!
The Phantom Piper
It probably won’t surprise you that this story comes from Scotland but its ending is a bit unusual. In years past, a network of underground tunnels once stretched from the Cove of Grennan to the Cliffs of Clanyard Bay, just south of Stranraer. The locals say that the tunnels were made by faeries, so anyone with any sense and a gram of caution would not dare disturb them, let alone venture inside. Still, one bold (some would say foolish) piper declared he was going in! He brought his pipes and his poor dog with him. Just strode in, he did, playing his pipes loudly and making a racket! For hours and hours, his pipes could be heard by all around. Then they faded into the distance. Suddenly, his dog burst out of the cave, howling, terrified, and without any fur left on him. His master was not with him nor was the piper ever seen again. But his music can still be heard. Although the tunnels no longer exist, people who’ve wandered along the shores of the bay at twilight say they can hear the drone of pipes—coming from underground!
Messing with faeries is never a good idea. This next story from Welsh folklore reinforces that lesson.
The Lake of Cym Llwch
The Brecon Beacons make up a mountain range in Wales. Among the area known as the central Baecons lies a beautiful and calm lake called Llyn Cym Llwch. There is an island in the lake, but it is invisible to the human eye. People know of this island because, for a while, every year on May Day, a passageway would open. It lead from a rock on the shore to an exquisite garden-like island. The island was inhabited by faeries. Any human courageous enough to take the passageway found him or herself welcomed most hospitably by the Fair Folk. The hosts offered the visitor exotic fruits and stunningly beautiful flowers. They also entertained the person with music and stories, and even foretold the future. The visitor was free to return home any time. With one caveat: the guest must not take anything from the island back to the human world. Of course, there’s always someone who has to spoil things for everyone else. Sure enough, one year a visitor snuck an island flower into his pocket and smuggled it back to the shore. But it did him no good. When he exited the rock, the flower vanished, he lost his senses, and the passageway never opened again.
Admittedly, faeries are not unusual in western fantasy and enchanted forests, but the Blue Men of Minch are. Their story is next.
The Blue Men of Minch
In the Minch, the channel waters between the Scottish mainland and the Outer Hebrides, live the Blue Men. They seem to be exclusively male and physically resemble humans in every way except for their blue skin. The Blue Men spend their time floating in the water, sometimes sleeping, sometimes swimming. When they swim, they keep their torsos above water, then leap into the air and dive in a manner similar to dolphins. But whether sleeping or playing, they keep alert to ships entering their waters. When a ship appears, the chief of the Blue Men will call to its captain two lines of poetry and challenge the captain to complete the quatrain. If captain fails to do so competently, the Blue Men destroy the ship and its crew, laughing all the while. Perhaps they wreck the ships by using their chief talent: the ability to create storms.
Another water creature from Celtic folklore is the Afanc. It inhabits Welsh lakes and is described as a giant predatory beaver. Laugh if you will, but this beaver is far from cute and cuddly. It will attack and destroy anyone who trespasses in its waters, whether swimming or fishing (or just dangling a toe). One story claims that the Afanc thrashed about to such an extent while fighting against one invader that it pushed water out of its lake, causing massive flooding which drowned people.
It’s unusual for the words “Celtic” and “vampire” to appear next to each other. Nevertheless, as I mentioned last week, Celtic folklore does have its bloodsuckers. The Irish have two: Abhartach and Daerg Dhu. They both have been confined to their coffins now and no longer harass the unsuspecting, but the Baobhan Sith still roams the earth, seeking victims. She is Welsh and, unlike the stereotypical vampires who live in castles, great estates, or the suburbs, Baobhan hangs out in the forests. She preys on hunters, tracking them by the scent of blood on their clothes. When she finds her victim, she appears to him as a beautiful woman in a green dress. She looks every bit a human except for her feet, which are deer hooves. Baobhan seduces the man with her beauty and dances with him until he collapses in exhaustion. Then her fingernails turn into talons and she rips the man’s chest open, drinking his blood until he’s drained dry
A Cailleach is not beautiful. In fact, she’s an ugly old hag. Both Irish and Scottish folklore have Cailleachs, but the two traditions differ in some ways. In Ireland, Cailleachs are a concern for regular folks at Beltaine. On May 1st, people protect their homes and cattle from the hags who are out steal milk, butter, and even cows. One story tells of a Cailleach transforming herself into a hare in order to drink milk from a cow’s teat. In order to protect cattle and houses, people use yellow flowers. They tie the flowers to each cow’s tail and only let them out to pasture after noon (when the Cailleach’s power is diminished). They also scatter flowers across doorsteps to prevent a Cailleach from entering the house.
The Scottish Cailleach is a goddess who has made and continues to make a pretty big impact on the land. She is said have made the mountains and she is the bringer of winter. She is known as Beira, the Queen of Winter and each year, twice a year, she battles the goddess Brighid. Their bi-annual struggle over who will rule is similar to the Celtic myth of the Holly and Oak kings (read about it here). When the Cailleach wins, usually at Samhain, she ushers in the dark half of the year, culminating in winter. By mid-winter, on La Feille Brighde (Feb. 1st), Beira is running low on firewood and tries to create good weather so that she can go out and gather more. According to Scottish tradition, if the weather is clear on February 1st, winter will last longer; whereas, if the weather is bad, spring will come soon since the Cailleach will run out of wood and her fire will die. Either way, sometime between February 1st and May 1st (the feast of Beltane), the beautiful young fire goddess, Brighid, will overcome the Cailleach. Then light and warmth will return to the world, bringing Summer in its wake. But, Beira will come back at Samhain (November 1st) to reclaim her rule.
The final entry for this week’s post is a bit scary but I had to include it. I learned this bit of folklore from my mother in a slightly altered form as a superstition taught to her by her grandmother, Catherine McGuire Fallon. My great-grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from County Leitrim, Ireland. My mother grew up across the hall from her and heard many stories about the Good People, banshees, and the ghosts that Catherine and her sister, Julia, encountered at night on the way to the outhouse. Catherine also shared with my mother (another Catherine) many superstitions. One that was passed on to me was that if you see a hearse, you will die. As a kid, that one pretty much terrified me, but I’ve been fascinated now to discover its roots in Irish folklore.
The story is about the Coiste Bodhar, the Death Coach. It is a black coach pulled by four (some say six) horses and is driven by the Dullahan, a headless horseman (read more about him here). The Coiste Bodhar is summoned by the wailing of a banshee and is a harbinger of death. Wherever it stops, someone will die. It is said that people would run to open gates to let the Death Coach pass through (to keep it from stopping). Opening the front door was risky though because, if the Dullahan saw you do it, he would throw a bucket of blood in your face.
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Until next week, slan go foil!
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