This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.
Shapeshifters are found in most mythologies and folk traditions around the world from ancient to modern times. In such traditions, humans change into vampires, werewolves, frogs, insects, and just any about any other creature imaginable and back again. Sometimes the transformation is controlled by the transformer who shifts shape at will. Other times it is an unwelcome event such as a punishment and sometimes it is forced by a magical spell but there are many other reasons besides. Shapeshifters can be good or bad, often moving the story forward in a novel way or have some kind of symbolism that the teller wants to get across to their audience. There are many different kinds of shapeshifting and here we look at different examples from Ireland, Wales and Scotland that provide differing glimpses of shapeshifters in action in the myth, folklore, and tradition of these three Celtic nations.
In Irish mythology, the Morrigan was a shapeshifting war goddess who could transform into a woman of any age and also change into animal or bird form. She had the power of prophecy and as a war goddess would sing her people to victory in battle. Sometimes she could be seen swooping over the battlefield in the form of a raven or crow and devouring the bodies of the slain.
In the story of the “Táin Bó Cúailnge”, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the Morrigan appears as a crow to warn the bull named Donn Cuailnge that Queen Medb is plotting to abduct him. Queen Medb attacks Ulster after the bull but is resisted single-handedly by the hero Cú Chulainn fighting a series of duels with her champions at a ford. In battle, Cú Chulainn undergoes a spectacular change in his form described as ríastrad or “warp-spasm” that sees him his body twist and contort into the most grotesque and fearsome appearance terrifying his opponents.
Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world. Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.
The Legendary Alicanto Bird
In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America. The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal. Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights. These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten. For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green. Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted. Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.
Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless. When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster. It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats. According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros. These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish. It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.
Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness. If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness. If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death. One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore. This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.
The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore
In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also known as the “Fire Rooster”. It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture. According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.
They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements. The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped. If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.
The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales
In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it. The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name. The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room. They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist. It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger. This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.
The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero. All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable.The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout. The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king. On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess. On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire. In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.
The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore
In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form. It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull. The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region. When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land. It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses. However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk. Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.
The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator. Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep. Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa. They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by. Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe. Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well.
The Anqa of Arabian Mythology
In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun. She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib. Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.
Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf. He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves. The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.
In Scottish mythology, Beira, also known as DarkBeira, was the great mother of the gods and goddesses. She was also known as the Cailleach, orthe Cailleach Bheur in the Gaelic traditions of Ireland and the Isle of Man. According to Donald Alexander Mackenzie, she was usually described as being very tall and very old and could be terribly fierce when provoked.Her anger could be as strong and bitter as the cold north wind and as wild and unforgiving as the storm laden sea. Every winter Beira reigned undisputed on Earth but as spring approached her subjects grew restless and rebellious against her stern, harsh rule. They looked forward to the pending return of Angus of the White Steed who was the Summer King and Bride his beautiful consort and Queen.
The King and Queen of Summer
Angus and Bride were loved by all for their arrival brought an end to the dark cold days of winter heralding the return of spring and warmer and lighter days of abundance and happiness. The weakening of her power and the inevitable arrival of the King and Queen of Summer enraged Beira greatly. Although she did what she could to prolong winter by raising spring storms and sending blights of frost eventually winter had to give way to spring and summer as her power weakened.
The Green Island and the Well of Youth
Beira was ancient having lived for thousand of years. She kept herself alive by drinking from the Well of Youth that has its wellspring on the Green Island of the West. The Green Island was a floating island and a place where there was only summer. The trees were always laden with blossoms and fruit and the days were sunny and clear. The island floated freely in the North Atlantic Ocean and the seas around the west coasts of Ireland, sometimes drawing close to the Hebrides.
Although many bold sailors have tried to find the island few if any have ever succeeded as it is hidden by mists. It is possible, even on the calmest and brightest of days to sail past it thinking it was just a bank of sea mist in the distance without realising that the magical Green Island is concealed within. It can sometimes be glimpsed from shore but it will vanish when being gazed upon. Sometimes it will sink below the waves to conceal it’s forbidden sights from human eyes. Nevertheless, Beira was not human and she knew how to reach the forbidden island when the time came. She knew that the waters of the Well of Youth were at their most potent after the winter solstice. Therefore she would always visit the Green Island to drink the waters of the Well of Youth the night before the first lengthening day which was the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter.
It was important to drink the water at precisely the right time so she would arrive early and sit in darkness waiting for the very first glimmer of light in the east. This was the signal for her to drink from pure water of the Well of Youth as it bubbled forth from a crevice in a rock. It was essential that she should drink of the waters in silence and alone, before any bird or animal. If she should fail in this she would die, shrivel and crumbling to dust.
As soon as the water passed her lips she would begin to grow young. She would leave the island and return to Scotland where she would fall into a long, magical sleep. Eventually she would awake as a beautiful girl with long blond hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks to find herself in sunshine. Having rejuvenated herself she was now, with the exception of Bride the Summer Queen, the fairest goddess in the land. She would wander through the land dressed in a robe of green and crowned with different colored flowers.
The Aging of Beira
However, as the months passed by so the year aged and Beira aged with it. She would reach full womanhood at midsummer and when autumn came the first wrinkles began to appear on her brow and her beauty could be seen to be slowly fading. With the return of winter she was transformed fully into the old withered hag and become Queen of Winter. She was often heard on stormy nights as she wandered alone through the bitter wind singing a strange and sorrowful song,
Although the young rejuvenated Beira of the summer was a joy to look upon the aging and bitter Beira of the winter turned into something horrific. She only had one large eye but her vision was sharp and clear while her complexion was of dark blue giving her a dull and dank appearance. She had rust colored teeth and long, lank, white hair that covered her shoulders like a bright frost. Her clothes were grey and she carried wrapped around her shoulders a dun coloured shawl which she pulled tightly around herself. Sometimes she was often heard singing sad songs to herself.
Days Gone By
It was said that Beira was so old she could remember how changes had come to the land. She could remember that in some places where there was water there had once been land. Furthermore, she remembered how places that were now land had once been covered by water. She was once asked by a wizard how old she was and replied,
“I no longer count time in years. I will tell you that where the rock of Skerryvore that is the haunt of seals lies in the sea I remember as a mountain that was surrounded by fields. I remember how people worked in them, plowed them and cultivated them and I remember how the barley grew tall and thick and laden with sunshine. I remember the loch over yonder that but a small tricking spring. In those days I was young and blithe but now I am old, weak, dark and in misery!”
Creating Loch Awe
The stories tell how Beira freed many rivers and made many lochs. She made all the mountains and glens and all of the hills Scotland. One legend tells how there had once been a well on Ben Cruachan in Argyle which Beira habitually used daily. Every morning as the sun rose she would lift it’s lid off and in the evening when the sun went down she would replace it. One evening she forgot to replace it at sunset and this disturbed the natural order of the world.
With the sinking of the sun water gradually began to bubble forth from the well. The lower the sun sank the more water burst from the well. Soon a great flood was rolling pouring from the well and streaming and roaring down the mountain into the valley below. The next morning when the sun rose Beira found the valley to be completely flooded in water and in later days this place became known as Loch Awe.
Creating Loch Ness
Beira had another well which also had to be kept from sunset until sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. One evening Nessa was late in returning to recover the well and as she drew near she saw great torrents of water flowing down so strong that she was forced to turn and run for her life. Beira, who was watching from her home on top of Ben Nevis was furious and cried,
‘You have failed in my trust in you and neglected your task, therefore now you must run forever and remain in the water!”
Immediately Nessa was changed into a river which became known as the river Ness and the loch that was formed from it Loch Ness. There is a tradition that once a year on the anniversary of the evening of her transformation Nessa appears from the loch as a maiden to sing a sad sweet song in a voice that is clearer and more melodious than any bird. She is accompanied by the beautiful music of golden harps and pipes more melodious than that of fairyland.
In the early days of the world the rivers began to break free and formed lochs and this is when Beira began making the mountains of Scotland. She carried a great basket strapped to her back filled with earth and rocks. Sometimes she would need to step over the valleys, rivers and lochs but this sometimes caused her basket to tilt to one side causing rocks and earth to fall out. These would form into hills and cause lochs to form with islands.
To help her in her task she had eight hags who each had a basket strapped to their backs which was filled with earth and rocks. One after the other they emptied it in one place so that each basketful built into a huge pile forming a mountain that reached up through the clouds.
The Sons of Dark Beira
According to folklore there were two reasons why Beira made the mountains. The first was to provide stepping stones for herself as she traversed the country. The second was because she had many sons who tended to be quarrelsome and would fight one against the other for dozens of years at a time. Therefore, to punish those who disobeyed her by fighting she would separate them and make them live in different mountain houses. However, this did not stop them fighting because they would climb to the tops of the mountains every morning and throw massive boulders across the landscape at each other. This is the reason why today we see many great boulders and rocks are strewn on the sides of the mountains or lie in the valleys below.
Beira had other gigantic sons who lived in deep caves in the earth. Others were horned like deer and others had more than one head. Her son’s were so strong they could easily lift cattle off the ground and placing them over their shoulders carry them away and roast them for dinner. Each of her gigantic sons were known as a Fooar.
The Origin of Ben Wyvis
One of the hardest tasks Beira had was the building of Ben Wyvis. She had given her hag servants tasks at other places and because she did not want to hinder their progress she was forced to work alone. After one particularly arduous and tiring day she stumbled and all the contents of her basket fell in a heap on the ground and it was this that became the mountain known as Little Wyvis.
Beira had a magic hammer that she used to help her shape the Scottish landscape. To make the ground as hard as a rock she struck it lightly with her hammer. To create a valley she struck the ground hard. After she had formed a mountain she would then use her hammer to sculpt it into a unique form so that she knew one from the other and could use them as landmarks to find her way around. After they were created she would take great joy in roaming the valleys beneath and between them and wandering over the mountain passes.
Animals and Beira
Beira was beloved by all wild animals especially in her younger form. Foxes would bark out a welcome and wolves would howl greetings from the mountains, while eagles soaring above shrieked in delight at her presence. She gave her protection to the fleet-footed deer and wide horned shaggy cattle, the black pigs and other creatures that roamed the earth in those days.
She kept goats and cattle on the mountains so that they could graze the sweet mountain grass and these she milked. As soon as the wind began to blow milky froth from the milking pails she knew it was time to lead them down to the shelter of the valleys below. The froth from the pails covered the hills and lay glimmering in the sunshine. When the rain hit the mountains in torrents and ran down the sides in streams people would look up and say,
“See, Beira is milking her today see how the buckets overflow with milk and run down the mountainside.”
The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan
Beira wore a great shaggy shawl which she sometimes needed to wash but the only place big enough was the sea in the Gulf of Corryvreckan which lies between the Western isles of Jura and Scarba. She washed her shawl so vigorously she caused a whirlpool in the sea called the Whirlpool of Corryvreckan and was known as her wash pot. There is a legend that a Scottish prince named Breckan was drowned by the whirlpool when his boat became caught in its pull or upset by the waves Beira was making as she washed her shawl. It took her hag servants three days to prepare the water to wash her shawl. When it was ready the noise of the Corry or sea could be heard roaring for twenty miles all around and Beira would commence washing her shawl.
On the fourth day she would throw her shawl in the whirlpool and trample it with her feet. She washed her shawl until it was as white as snow and then she draped it over the mountains to dry which was the sign that her reign as Queen of Winter had begun.
The Creation of the Scottish Landscape
The myth and story of Beira is the story of how the ancient Scottish people expalined the creation of the magnificent landscape they lived and the forces that created it. It provides an explanation for the cycle of the seasons in a way that people understood and could relate to. Although unscientific and perhaps raw and mischievous at times it does have a certain charm and truth that science cannot answer for.
In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or theCailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology and Gaia, in Greek mythology.
Donald Alexander Mackenzie
The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.In his book, Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it. Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.
He saw her as a giantess with a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles. According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys of Scotland. Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch. Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day.
As the Cailleach
In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills. She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys. She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes.
The Cailleach and Brigid
Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess. They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn to Samhain.
In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward, in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st. Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.
Saint Brigid’s Day
According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter. If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.
The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan
Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter. This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days. When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow.
There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut. This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest. If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned. This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.
This is a retelling of a folktale called The Murder Hole, found in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction Magazine, 1829 and believed to be set in an area of Scotland about three hundred years earlier.
The Murder Hole
In a remote part of the country there exists a lonely road that runs for miles and miles through an empty and dreary landscape broken by the odd sharp hillock and tor and a few scattered and tortured trees. On one side of the road stands and old stone cross that seems to stand as a bleak warning to the unwary traveler that they are crossing over a boundary into the unknown. Beyond that lies a ruined, abandoned church. There are no flowers and In daylight the landscape appears to be covered in a mass of dull grey, green stringy grass but it is a deceptive and dangerous place. From the road the ground looks firm and solid but there are bogs and marshes whose watery surface take on the grayness of the skies and hide their presence from the unwary and these stretch as far as the eye could see in all directions. The only time their presence can be seen plainly is at times when the veils that shroud this world from the next become thin such as at sunset just before they lift. Then light from the dying sun strikes the watery surface revealing blood-stained pools and streams that appear from the landscape giving it a surreal and disturbing aspect. At such a time any traveler on that road would be vulnerable to their own thoughts as the veil lifts and the night creatures begin to roam through. The road was bad but it was better to keep upon it than risk the treacherous bogs and marshes that changed and shifted. These were dangerous for those who did not know the area but the few locals who remained could find their way through safely.
The only sign of human habitation were a few rough wooden huts clustered both sides of the road that made up a small almost deserted hamlet situated in the center of this God forsaken place. Anyone using that road from either direction must eventually pass this place though it was not quite fully abandoned. There had never been many people making their home in these parts at the best of times and slowly people drifted away to settle in a village beyond the moor telling in hushed tones of the malevolence that haunted that strange forsaken place.
Rumors filtered out that some evil walked upon the moor and travelers used it less and less and then only out of dire necessity and never at night. When people went missing, the people from the hamlet scoured the moor each time, but no body or grave was ever found. No place that may serve as a hideaway was ever discovered that might have been used by those seeking concealment for some reason.
Nevertheless, over the years, people kept disappearing without a trace and the few inhabitants became fewer and fewer. People told of the terrible black nights that fell upon the land and spoke of hearing the deathly silence broken by unearthly screams of anguish from some distant place on the heath.
A shepherd who had been out on the moor one evening came back with a terrifying account of how he had become lost in the featureless plane and came across three dark sinister figures. They appeared to be locked in a terrible struggle, each exuding supernatural effort against the other until one of them slowly sank screaming into the very earth.
This along with similar sinister events persuaded the people of the hamlet to pack up their meager belongings and head for the safety of the village on the other side of the moor. Eventually, the only inhabitants that remained were an old woman and her two sons who owned a humble but ramshackle cottage. They complained that they stayed because they were prisoners bound to this dreadful place by the chains of poverty
The few travelers who used the forsaken road now only did so in groups and would spend the day traveling together and rest up over night at the cottage of the old woman and her sons who were glad of the income they brought. The lodgings were poor and basic but the safety of four walls around them and a roof over their heads was greater draw than traversing that haunted road in the dark. Sometimes by the firelight the cottagers would tell a story or two of the horrors of the moor and watch in dark humor at the terror on the faces of their guests. After a sleepless night In the morning they would gladly pay their hosts and continue their journey glad to be gone
It so happened that one storm night in November, a young pedlar-boy rather than listen to the advice of locals and common sense travelled the road alone. The year before he had traveled this road as part of a group of people and believed himself acquainted and prepared for what a solitary journey may bring but he was wrong
As the night fell and the wind blew he heard the cries and groans of the dying all around him. Fearing to look to the left or to the right he forced himself onward. At last in the distance he saw the glimmer of a fire through a window and knew he was approaching the cottage and hurried towards it. Remembering his last stay as a member of a large party he expected a warm welcome. The old woman had regaled them with terror tales and had appeared to take a shine to him begging him to stay
Reaching the door in relief he rapped loudly upon it but despite hearing a great deal of noise and confusion no one answered. Thinking that the inhabitants might think it was supernatural visitor whom the old lady had spoken so much of on his last visit he looked through a side window. As he looked he saw everyone was busy. The old woman was rubbing the stone floor and sprinkling a layer of sand over it. Her two sons appeared to be trying to push something large and bulky into a chest pushing the lid down and locking it. The pedlar-boy tapped on the window seeking to attract their attention causing them all to jump in nervous surprise and glare malevolent at him. This shocked the boy who was expecting a friendly welcome after his last visit. Before he could do anything one of the men rushed out of cottage grabbing hold of him tightly and pulled him roughly inside.
“Wait, wait! I am not what you think I am! I am only the poor pedlar-boy who came this way last year and you gave shelter. Don’t you you remember me? I stayed with you last year and you asked me to stay. When I said I couldn’t. you invited me back at any time and here I am,” he said laughing adding, “I am not what you think I am.”
“I am but a poor pedlar-boy all alone in the world. If I died tomorrow know one would miss me – no one would mourn me. I am completely and utterly alone! ”
The cottagers glared at him suspiciously and the old woman asked “Are you alone?”
“No one would miss you?” asked the old woman in a whisper.
“No one in the world, ” he answered beginning to feel nervous and sorry for himself, “would shed a tear, or be remotely distressed if I died this night!”
“Then indeed you are welcome here!” said the old woman looking at the other two slyly.
It was not the cold that made the pedlar-boy shiver and draw near the peat fire. He was thinking that the shelter of any of the dilapidated buildings in the ghost hamlet may have been a better choice than this. Despite the warmth of the fire he still felt chills running through him and now looking upon the sinister aspect of these three cottagers his apprehension grew. Nevertheless being alone and beyond any assistance he determined to conquer his fears, or at least suppress them to prevent them being revealed to his hosts
He was shown to a room that had the look about it that some violent confrontation had taken place. The curtains hung in tatters, the table had been broken by some mighty blow and whatever scarce furniture graced the room, parts of it lay scattered on the floor. The pedlar-boy begged for a candle to burn until he had drifted off to sleep and was reluctantly given one. When he had been left alone he explored further and found the door had been broken and to his consternation the latch and lock snapped off.
He tried to compose himself for sleep but his nerves were on edge. It had been a long arduous journey and he eventually drifted into an uneasy slumber. In his sleep his imagination was working overtime and vivid scenes of terror and horror flashed through his mind. He was in a lucid world of fear where he saw himself being alone and wandering lost upon the haunted heath. Something followed on behind and people appeared before him warning him not to enter the cottage before dissolving into mist before his eyes leaving naught but a hollow cry echoing in his mind. He found himself sat before the peat fire in the cottage with the three cottagers all looking upon him greedily. Suddenly the old woman moved and grabbed his arms holding them behind his back and the two men rose and moved slowly towards him grinning malevolently. Then he heard the sound of a slow tortured cry and awoke with a start. Covered in a cold sweat he sat up in bed he listened but could hear nothing. As he gazed fearfully around him his eyes were caught by a movement under the door. He stared in horror as a stream of bright red blood oozed silently and slowly underneath the door towards him
Jumping out of bed he crept to the door and peered through a crack into the next room. Seeing the trail of blood came from a goat one of the men had just slaughtered relief swept over him. Just as he was about to return to bed one of them spoke to the other saying,
“Hah! This was a far easier victim than last night’s. It’s a pity all of the throats we have slit were not as quiet or as easy. It is a good job we have no neighbours for miles around. The old man last night would have woken them all had they heard his cries for mercy. How he howled when saw you were going to cut his throat!”
“Let’s not speak of it. I hate blood shed!” replied the other
Oh, you do, do you?” laughed the first.
“I do and it is true. I prefer the Murder Hole. It tells no tales, leaves no trace. There is nothing to get rid of after and no one will ever find them. No one will ever find it and if they do no one will suspect there are over forty dead bodies hidden within it. It looks nothing more than a deep puddle and small enough for the long grass to bend over it concealing it. Unless you know you could stand next to it and never guess it was there or what it was.”
“Unless of course you step in it,” replied the second.”
“Indeed, it’s a fact and it sucks them down, so quick, it is a wonder of nature! How do you think we shall we end the pedlar-boy?” asked the old woman who stood watching hem and pointed towards the door which the pedlar boy was huddled behind trembling. Her eldest son looked at her and with his knife in his hand and a look of sheer evil motioned his knife across throat.
Although terrified the pedlar-boy had lived all of his life alone in a never ending struggle against the odds of fate. He had never given up and always won through and despite his fear and the odds against him he was not prepared to surrender his life easily. One thing he had learnt was there was a time to fight and a time to fly and decided there and then flight to be the best answer. Creeping silently to the window he gently eased it up and slipped out silently. Once outside he paused to get his bearings but was shaken to the core when he heard one of the men cry, “Curses! He is gone! He must have heard and will bring ruin upon us!”
“Let loose the bloodhound!” cried the other
“Make sure he does not escape,” cried the old woman, “do not bring him back here. Use the Murder Hole for this!”
The pedlar-boy’s heart stopped at these words and he feared greatly for his life but he was determined and quickly roused himself and fled into the darkness of the haunted moor. It was not long before the baying of the bloodhound broke the silence of the night as it picked up his trail. Forcing himself to greater speed he stumbled on through the night but could tell by the baying of the hound and the voices of the men they were gaining on him.
Although he struggled to see in the darkness the hound was unimpeded simply following his scent trail and grew nearer and nearer followed by the men carrying lanterns. Again he redoubled his efforts and ran blindly through the night but caught his foot on pile of stones, tripping and cutting his hands and knees and staining the stones with his blood. Stunned he lay on the ground panting and bleeding but hearing the baying of the dog growing louder and the men’s voices following he forced himself up and onward. It seemed like his feet had grown wings and he flew over the moor. He heard the hound yapping and baying at the spot where he had fallen and if he had dared to have looked back he would have seen it lapping at his blood on the stones where he had lain. To the annoyance of the men it would not move from the spot but continued lapping up his blood regardless of how cruelly they beat it. At last satiated with blood it refused to take up the scent a second time.
The pedlar-boy did not know this and continued his wild flight across the moors. Luckily he did not fall into the bogs but found the road where he could run faster. Although his assassins continued to seek him they could not find find him. As dawn broke he reached the village on the edge of the moors and knocking on every door raised the alarm. After the villagers had managed to calm him enough for him to tell them his tale the light of realization dawned upon them. It was the cottagers who had been responsible for the disappearances of so many of their loved ones. Forming themselves into a gang they marched to to the cottage and seized the old woman and her two son and took them back to the village for trial. The cottagers confessed to over fifty murders and took the villagers to show them the Murder Hole where they had disposed of so many of them. They were duly tried and found guilty and three gibbets were quickly constructed and justice dispensed.
The villages dropped weighted hooks down the Murder Hole and brought up the bones of several victims. It was impossible to tell how many more were down there. There was also the question of what had happened to those who had not gone down the Murder Hole and some suspected these were disposed of in a in a less than savory way. Perhaps it is as well that we shall never know, but now at sunset when the veils grow thin and then part, three more wailing ghosts wander the haunted heath.
By w:Sidney Paget (Uploading for w:User:188.8.131.52) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)
The Cù-Sìth was a spectral dog found in the mythology of Scotland and the Hebrides. The name comes from Scottish Gaelic. A similar beast exists in Irish mythology, the Cu Sidhe and also has similarities to the Welsh Cwn Annwn, or the Hounds of Annwn in English
In Scottish and Irish legend the Cu Sìth, which means ‘fairy dog,’ was said to have a dark-green, shaggy coat and to be about the size of a large calf. Green was a traditional color worn or attributed to denizens of the fairy realm. Read more
In Scottish mythology the each-uisge is a supernatural water horse that haunts the Highlands. The name each-uisge means water horse in Scottish Gaelic. In Ireland the equivalent is the each-uisace, or Ech-Ushkya and on the Isle of Man they have the cabyll-ushtey.
It has a reputation of being the most dangerous water monster in Britain. The each-uisge reputedly lives in the sea and also freshwater lochs. It is often erroneously taken for Kelpie, which are also supernatural water creatures, but live in rivers and streams. These are not regarded as being as dangerous as the each-uisge. Continue reading →
Barley has a long association with human society because of its uses for food, drink and medicine that goes back some 12,000 years. Used for animal feed and to make bread for human consumption, it is also used to make popular alcoholic drinks such as beer, barley wine, whisky and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
Beer is the oldest and the most common of all alcoholic drinks and after water and tea the third most popular beverage. With its ancient importance, barley has given rise to many myths and is the source of much folklore and many people think that hidden in an old traditional folk song of the British Isles called John Barleycorn, lies the story of barley.
Barley – Public Domain Image
The Ballad of John Barleycorn
A traditional British folk ballad, called John Barleycorn, depicts the lead character as the personification of barley and its products of bread, beer and whisky. The song is very old and there are many versions from all around the British Isles. The song does have strong connections with Scotland with possibly the Robert Burns version the most well-known though the song goes way back to before the times of Elizabeth 1st.
In the song, John Barleycorn is subject to many violent, physical abuses leading to his death. Each abuse represents a stage in the sowing, growing, harvesting, malting and preparation of barley to make beer and whisky.
In many versions there is confusion because it is brandy that is consumed even though brandy is made from grapes, rather than whisky or beer made from barley. John Barleycorn is also a term used to denote an alcoholic drink that is distilled such as a spirit, rather than fermented like beer.
In some versions of the song there is more emphasis on the way different tradesmen take revenge on John Barleycorn for making them drunk. The miller grinds him to a powder between two stones. However John Barleycorn often proves the stronger character due to his intoxicating effect on his tormentors and the fact hat his body is giving sustenance to others making humans dependent upon him.
Through the savagery inflicted upon John Barleycorn the song metaphorically tells the story of the sowing, cultivating and harvesting cycle of barley throughout the year. The ground is ploughed, seeds are sown, and the plant grows until ready for harvest. It is then cut with scythes, and tied into sheaves, which are flayed to remove the grain.
Pagan and Anglo-Saxon Associations
Wikipedia says that some scholars think that John Barleycorn has strong connections with the pagan Anglo-Saxon character of Beowa also known as Beaw, Beow, or Beo or sometimes Bedwig. In Old English ‘Beow’ means ‘barley’ and ‘Sceafa’ means ‘sheaf.’ From Royal Anglo-Saxon lineage, Beowa is the son of Scyld who is the son of Sceafa in a pedigree that goes back to Adam.
Many scholars also think that there are strong associations with Beowa and Beowulf and the general agreement is that they are the same character. Some scholars also think that Beowa is the same character as John Barleycorn while others disagree.
The Golden Bough
Wikepedia says, Sir James George Frazer, in his book, ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion’ asserts that many of the old religions of the world were derived from fertility cults which had at their core the ritual sacrifice of a Sacred king who was also known as the Corn King, who was the embodiment of the Sun god. Each year he went through a cycle of death and rebirth in a union with the Earth goddess, dying at the harvest time to be reborn in the spring.
The Corn King
The Corn King was chosen from the men of a tribe to be the king for a year. At the end of the year he would then dance, or perform thanksgiving and fertility rituals in the fields before being ritually killed. So that the soil would be fertilised his body was dragged through the fields to enable his blood to run into the soil. It may be that he may then have been eaten by the tribe in completion of the ritual.
As well as other uses, the barley was made into cakes which would be stored for the winter and were thought to hold the spirit of the Corn King. Around the time of the winter solstice when the sun was at its weakest and as it started to strengthen, the cakes would be fed to children giving them the spirit of the corn king.
There are also theories that possibly an earlier form of John Barleycorn represented a pagan rite before the rise of Christianity. There are suggestions that the early Christian church in Anglo-Saxon England adapted this to help the conversion of the pagan population to Christianity. This is a tactic that was used with Yule and other pagan festivals and traditions. In some versions of the song, John Barleycorn suffers in a similar way to Christ, especially in the version by Robert Burns.
After undergoing ritualistic suffering and death, his body is ground into flour for bread and drink. Some scholars compare this with the Sacrament and Transubstantiation of Christian belief though not all agree.
We will probably never know the true origins and meaning that are hidden in the story of John Barleycorn but the song and its mysteries still have a powerful effect on people today. Many popular musicians and folk artists have performed versions of the song in the recent past and it is still a popular song today.
In 1970, the progressive rock group, ’Traffic’ made an album entitled, John Barleycorn Must Die, featuring a song of the same name which went on to become a classic.
The song is popular with recording and performing artists and a favourite with audiences. Folk rock bands Fairport Convention and Steel-eye Span and many other rock and folk artists have recorded versions of the song ensuring the story of John Barleycorn is still sung and celebrated, so that even though the meaning may be lost in time, the story lives on.