Merrows: Irish Mermaids

Ruthie from the Celtic Myth Podshow introduces us to these underwater faeries.

The word merrow or moruadh comes from the Irish muir (meaning sea) and oigh (meaning maid) and refers specifically to the female of the species. Mermen – the merrows male counterparts – have been rarely seen. They have been described as exceptionally ugly and scaled, with pig-like features and long, pointed teeth. Merrows themselves are extremely beautiful and are promiscuous in their relations with mortals.

The Irish merrow differs physically from humans in that her feet are flatter than those of a mortal and her hands have a thin webbing between the fingers. It should not be assumed that merrows are kindly and well-disposed towards mortals. As members of the sidhe, or Irish fairy world, the inhabitants of Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves) have a natural antipathy towards humans. In some parts of Ireland, they are regarded as messengers of doom and death.

Ruthie goes on to equate merrows with selkies, women who take on the form of seals by wearing a magical seal skin. To my mind, these are separate creatures, though it is certainly true that legends tend to be fluid over time and distance. There are certainly points of overlap between them.

Shellycoats

Ruth at Celtic Myth Podshow is blogging today about shellycoats, a generally harmless if perplexing creature from Scottish folklore.

THIS is a freakish spirit, who delights rather to perplex and frighten mankind than either to serve or seriously to hurt them.

Shellycoat, a spirit who resides in the waters, and has given his name to many a rock and stone the Scottish coast, belongs to the class of bogles.

When he appeared, he seemed to be decked with marine productions, and in particular with shells, whose clattering announced his approach.

The Fairy Flag of Clan MacLeod

Some light reading for your Thursday:

Many, many years ago, the Chief of Clan MacLeod was a handsome, intelligent man, and all the young ladies in the area were very attracted to him, but none suited his fancy.
One day, he met a fairy princess, a bean sidhe, one of the Shining Folk. Like all the other females he met, she fell madly in love with him, and he with her….

The Island of Hy Brasil

The mysterious island sometimes called “the Irish Atlantis” is the subject of a new post at the Celtic Myth Podshow by
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill.

It got its name from the Irish Uí, meaning descendant of Bresal, meaning beauty. Bresal was of the Fir Bolg and it was after one of his daughters, Galvia, that Galway got its name. It was suggested that the country of Brazil was named after the island, but it actually got its name after the red coloured Brazil wood. Other names for the island included Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Mag Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha(Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue).

There is a description of the island the 9th century biography of Saint Brendan Navigatio Sancti Brendani which was a medieval bestseller. The island was described as being shrouded in mist, visible for one day only every seven years, circular in shape with a river running across its diameter. Though visible it could not always be reached.

Its exact location has never been clarified. In 1325 the Genoese cartographer Dalorto placed it west of Ireland, later it appeared southwest of Galway Bay. Some said it was off the Kerry Coast. On some 15th century maps, islands of the Azores appear as Isola de Brazil, or Insulla de Brazil. A Catalan map from 1480 labels two islands “Illa de brasil”, one to the south west of Ireland one south of “Illa verde” or Greenland.

Five Weird Werecreatures

screech_owlWerewolves are probably the most commonly encountered werecreature in mythology by far. But they are not the only kind of shapeshifting monster. Other examples are known from just about every culture on earth. Some are friendly; many are deadly dangerous. Some are animals who can transform into humans while others are humans (perhaps witches or sorcerers) who can transform into animals.

In my previous post, I looked specifically at werewolves. Now, it’s time to track down some more unusual shapeshifters. Here, then, are five interesting and distinctive werecreatures from around the world.

Wereseals

Selkies are found in the traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and the Orkney and Faeroe Islands. They are a race of shapeshifters, switching between human and seal forms by removing or putting on a seal’s skin. They are generally perceived to be gentle creatures who love to dance on the shore and occasionally fall in love with humans. Both male and female selkies are said to be lithe and attractive. A common story tells of a female selkie forced to marry a mortal man when he steals her sealskin. Eventually, she finds the hidden skin and uses it to return to the sea.

Selkies are related to the Finfolk, which are essentially the same sort of creature but with malevolent tendencies.

Wereowls

In Muskogee legend, stiginis (or stikinis) take the form of animals. Although they might take on the shape of any sort of wild predator, they strongly favor owls. In fact, stigini means “screech owl.”

By day, stiginis look like ordinary humans. By night, however, they vomit up their souls—along with their internal organs—and become monsters who like to feed on human hearts. Hearing the cry of a stigini is an omen of approaching death.

In some stories, mentioning these creatures by name puts one at risk of becoming one. Therefore, stories about stiginis are only told by certain medicine men and women. In other communities, however, they are more of a bogeyman figure casually discussed to frighten children.

Perhaps related is Hoklonote’she, a Choctaw evil spirit who often takes the form of an owl. Hoklonote’she can read peoples’ minds and apparently enjoys creeping people out by reciting their thoughts back to them.

Werehyenas

Werehyenas are common in the folklore of North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East. In addition to being humans who can assume the form of a hyena, some legends tell of hyenas who are able to take on human form.

In the region around Lake Chad, it is believed that whole villages might be populated by werehyenas.

In Ethiopia, it is traditionally believed that every blacksmith (a hereditary occupation) is actually a bouda: a wizard with the power to change in to a hyena, in which form they rob graves at midnight. It should go without saying that they are viewed with suspicion by most of their neighbors! Many Ethiopian Christians believe that Ethiopian Jews are bouda and accuse them of digging up and eating the corpses of Christians.

Weredolphins

Brazilian folklore has the legend of the encantado or “enchanted one.” These are dolphin shape-shifters similar in some respects to faeries. They are thought to be dolphins with the ability to take on human form and not the other way around. Specifically, most of these legends involve the boto or freshwater dolphin of the Amazon River. Occasionally, the stories involve snakes rather than dolphins.

Encantados come from an underwater faery-land called the Encante. They are excellent singers and musicians who love parties and are often give to romantic liaisons with mortals. They only rarely take on human form, generally at night.

In addition to shapeshifting, encantados have other magical powers. They are able to control storms and exert a form of mind control over humans. They can sometimes turn mortals into encantados like themselves.

Encantados are dangerous, and many people in the Amazon region are terrified of them. They can inflict disease, insantity, and death, and are said to be fond of abducting humans they fall in love with and taking them to live in the Encante.

A Possible Weremesonychid

Mesonychids are an extinct group of carnivores that are most often described as a sort of wolf with hooves. Even though there haven’t been any mesonychids around for millions of years, a mysterious beast that terrorized France in the 1760s apparently bore a striking resemblance to one. Some witnesses described the so-called “Beast of Gévaudan” as a huge (horse-sized) creature combining features of wolf, bear, panther, and hyena. Some reported that it had cloven hooves, or that each digit was tipped with a hoof. Others said its claws were so heavy and thick that they merely resembled hooves. Such a creature would come close to matching the description of a large hyena-like mesonychid like the Pachyaena or Harpagolestes.

Furthermore, the locals claimed that this beast was, in fact, a sorcerer who shapeshifted into a fearsome creature. In other words, the Beast of Gévaudan was a human who apparently assumed the form of a prehistoric nightmare.

Five Vampires from Around the World

vampire

I grew up on Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. For the longest time, that was what a vampire was—and it was the only thing a vampire could be! Vampires were suave, aristocratic, and spoke with an Eastern European accent. They turned into bats, drank the blood of their victims, slept in a coffin, and were destroyed by sunlight.

Needless to say, it was an eye-opener when I learned there were other kinds of vampires out there. When I first read Dracula, I was amazed at how new and fresh Stoker’s original Count Dracula was compared to Lugosi and all of his many imitators. (Dracula can walk around in the daytime? Why didn’t I know this??)

In honor of Halloween, I thought I’d write a little about some of the unusual vampires or vampire-like creatures found in world mythology. These are not necessarily my “favorites,” but they perhaps show a little bit of the diversity of vampire lore.

Estrie

The estrie is a type of female vampire found in Jewish folklore. It is said to prey mainly on Jewish men, but it also has a taste for the blood of children. Estries are sometimes seen as comparable to succubi, seductive female demons. They are also shapeshifters, able to turn into birds or cats at will.

The earliest estrie legends describe them as demonic entities. Later stories depict them living among mortals as part of the community, possibly victims of some sort of demonic possession.

Unlike other demons or creatures of the night, estries are undeterred by holy symbols or holy places.

Neamh-mairbh

This Gaelic word signifies “the walking dead.” One famous example of a neamh-mairbh was the evil magician Abhartach, whose story is told in Patrick Weston Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (1875). He says of Abhartach,

This dwarf was a magician, and a dreadful tyrant, and after having perpetrated great cruelties on the people he was at last vanquished and slain by a neighbouring chieftain; some say by Fionn Mac Cumhail. He was buried in a standing posture, but the very next day he appeared in his old haunts, more cruel and vigorous than ever. And the chief slew him a second time and buried him as before, but again he escaped from the grave, and spread terror through the whole country. The chief then consulted a druid, and according to his directions, he slew the dwarf a third time, and buried him in the same place, with his head downwards; which subdued his magical power, so that he never again appeared on earth. The laght raised over the dwarf is still there, and you may hear the legend with much detail from the natives of the place, one of whom told it to me.

In some versions of the tale, Abhartach rises from the grave to drink the blood of his former subjects. He is sometimes tauted as the (or an) inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Vetala

A vetala (also vetaal or baital) is a type of evil spirit from Indian folklore. They take possession of human or animal corpses to use as vehicles in which to hunt for blood to drink—although they are also able to move about without the aid of a material “host.” They can also possess living victims.

The vetala is not simply an aspect or residue of person it inhabits. It doesn’t possess that person’s memories. They are malicious creatures in every way. In addition to their blood-drinking, cannibalistic tendencies, they are also known to kill children, cause miscarriages, and drive people insane.

In at least one instance, however, these creatures are presented in a more positive light. In the story of Baital Pachisi, the vetala is a heroic character who saves the life of the king, the protagonist of the story.

Vetalas can be repelled by chanting and released from their undead condition by performing the proper funeral rituals on their behalf.

Ekimmu

Unlike many conventional understandings of vampires, the ekimmu (or edimmu) of ancient Mesopotamia (Assyria) do not drink the blood of their victims. Rather, they are phantom, demon-like creatures that draw sustenance from the “breath” of others, often babies or young children. (Other sources say the ekimmu drained both blood and life-force.)

Ekimmu were the spirits of deceased humans who could not find peace in death. It was possible to become an ekimmu in a variety of ways including dying violently from murder, dying young, being improperly buried, etc.

An ekimmu’s victims generally die after a few days. These creatures could also inflict disease or inspire criminal behavior.

Leannán Sídhe

The leannán sídhe (Scottish leannan sith, Manx lhiannan shee) or “faery lover” is another “psychic vampire” like the ekimmu. Rather than being an undead monster, however, this is a faery being. Specifically, it is a beautiful female faery that compels a mortal man to fall in love with her. In return for her love, she imparts great artistic or creative abilities. The price of this inspiration, however, is often insanity or a premature death. According to W. B. Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888),

The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.

Although Yeats focused on the parasitic aspects of the leannán sídhe, others highlight her positive role as a muse.