The Sídhe in Fantasy

Excellent post today from Leo Elijah Cristea about the nobles of the Gaelic supernatural realm, the sídhe.

If you’re not convinced you’re about to see the fae make a slow and distinguished comeback, think about elves: everyone said they were dead. Well, the elf is dead; long live the elf. I raise you Dwenda, Shict, and Chris Evans’ revamped “Iron Elves”. If we really want to split hairs, I raise you the elves from the Dragon Age games, where the once-regal race has been given a bit of a different approach.

But, we’re not here to talk about elves: we’re here to talk about my other love. Yes, I happen to love fae. The potential with fae is nearly infinite: such an underdone, unsung, untouched race, one brimming with potential and plenty of fresh ground to dig your heels into.

Of course, the daoine sídhe figure quite prominently in my Into the Wonder Series (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3), which you are of course at liberty to check out for yourselves. 🙂

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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 Tuatha Dé Danann

Here’s another excellent, concise summary of an aspect of Irish mythology from Ruth at the Celtic Myth Podshow:

The Tuatha de Danann, the people of the Goddess Danu, were one of the great ancient tribes of Ireland. The important manuscript ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’, records that they ruled Ireland from 1897 B.C. to 1700 B.C.

The daoine sídhe or faeries of Ireland are said to be the descendants of this noble lineage.

In the world of Taylor Smart, the sídhe sometimes swear by saying “Danu!” or “By Danu!” I haven’t gone into any detail how contemporary sídhe remember and/or reverence their distinguished ancestors. Perhaps a bit of that will trickle into the third book of the Into the Wonder series, Oak, Ash, and Thorn.

The Irish Sídhe

Newly posted from Ruth at Celtic Myth Podshow:

Numbers of fairy hills and sepulchral carns are scattered over the country, each with a bright palace deep underneath, ruled by its own chief, the tutelary deity. They are still regarded as fairy haunts, and are held in much superstitious awe by the peasantry.

The fairies possessed great preternatural powers. They could make themselves invisible to some persons standing by, while visible to others: as Pallas showed herself to Achilles, while remaining invisible to the other Greeks (Iliad, 1.). But their powers were exercised much oftener for evil than for good. They were consequently dreaded rather than loved; and whatever worship or respect was paid to them was mainly intended to avert mischief. It is in this sense that they are now often called ‘Good people.’

The Fair Folk at War

Trooping Faeries

"They ran him by hill and plain"

Trooping or social faeries are so named because they have a social organization that mirrors that of human beings with courts, feasts, banquets, royalty—and warfare. (See Ronald Hutton’s Typology of Faeries.) Although solitary faeries can be violent, they aren’t organized enough to engage in true warfare. Domestic faeries (brownies, urisks, and the like) are generally too kindly disposed for belligerent pursuits—although they can be individually malicious to those who don’t treat them with proper honor.

In Celtic lands, the principal social faeries are the daoine sídhe, an overtly aggressive and warlike race. Virtually every aspect of sídhe society has an adversarial element. As many unfortunates learned too late, every interaction with these proud people can become a challenge of honor demanding a swift and merciless response. Even their romantic relationships are often played out in terms of pursuit, conquest, and domination. It should not, then, be surprising that these Fair Folk can be given to organized violence.

On the one hand, tales abound of assaults upon human victims in reprisal for various affronts to honor or faery custom. On the other hand, these fae are often depicted fighting among themselves.

Warfare in the Mortal Realm

In Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song (Alexander Gardner, 1810), R. H. Cromek reports that priests warned against having dealings with faeries as they were the “light infantry of Satan” (236). The violent tendencies of faery warriors are enumerated: armed with bows and poisoned arrows, mounted on steeds whose hooves do not leave tracks. He goes on to write,

They visited the flocks, the folds, the fields of coming grain, and the habitations of man;—and woe to the mortal whose frailty threw in their power!—a flight of arrows, tipped with deadly plagues, were poured into his folds, and nauseous weeds grew up in his pastures; his coming harvest was blighted with pernicious breath,—and whatever he had no longer prospered. These fatal shafts were formed of the bog reed, pointed with white field flint, and dipped in the dew of hemlock. They were shot into cattle with such magical dexterity that the smallest aperture could not be discovered, but by those deeply skilled in Fairy warfare, and in the cure of elf-shooting. (237)

This is a fairly commonplace description of the violence faeries might inflict: blighting crops and livestock with elf-shot. Other Gaelic tales warn not only of arrows but also faery darts or javelins inflicting death or disease on unsuspecting mortals.

Other stories indicate the sídhe used their prodigious skills as shapeshifters to achieve tactical advantage: spying out the movements of mortals or gaining proximity to their targets by assuming the form of a deer or some other animal: the perfect camouflage!

The daoine sídhe are also known to take sides in great wars among human beings. W. Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith of the Celtic Countries [Froude, 1911]) recounts the role the Tuatha Dé Danann played in the Battle of Clontarf, fought near Dublin on April 23, 1014.

And thus is described the meeting of the two armies at Clontarf, and the demons of the air and the phantoms, and all the hosts of the invisible world who were assembled to scatter confusion and to revel in the bloodshed, and how above them in supremacy rose the Badb:—‘It will be one of the wonders of the day of judgement to relate the description of this tremendous onset. There arose a wild, impetuous, precipitate, mad, inexorable, furious, dark, lacerating, merciless, combative, contentious badb, which was shrieking and fluttering over their heads. And there arose also the satyrs, and sprites, and the maniacs of the valleys, and the witches, and goblins, and owls, and destroying demons of the air and firmament, and the demoniac phantom host; and they were inciting and sustaining valour and battle with them.’ (306)

The “Badb” of which Evans-Wentz writes was the name of a Celtic war-goddess. Originally, however, the word signified “rage, fury, or violence” (Evans-Wentz, 304). In this context, it refers to a kind of glamour or mind-trick, inspiring warriors to lose themselves in battle-lust.

In fact, a number of mind-control tactics are associated with Celtic war-goddesses. The goddesses Neman, Macha, and Morrigan each exercise a particular supernatural power on the battlefield. Neman is a confounder of armies, causing allies to fight amongst themselves. Macha inspires bloodthirsty battle-fury. Morrigan inspires supernatural valor and courage under fire (Evans-Wentz, 302).

Note also that the sídhe have under their command various other types of supernatural beings: satyrs, sprites, “maniacs of the valleys,” witches, goblins, owls, demons, phantoms. They are, after all, “the Gentry,” and what good is being an aristocrat if there are no lower classes to dominate?

A picture is now developing of the Fair Folk at war. This picture includes:

  • Arrows and darts capable of inflicting disease and death.
  • Destruction of crops and livestock as an offensive tactic.
  • Riding faery horses with magical characteristics.
  • Shape-shifting to gain tactical advantage.
  • Bending the minds of mortal combatants.
  • Females actively involved in warfare.
  • Commanding various types of faery beings (as “support troops”?)

War in the Faery Realm

Faery warfare is not limited to the mortal realm, of course. There are also tales of battles between the daoine sídhe and other mythical races.

The daoine sídhe are said to be the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the “people of the goddess Danu.” These Irish deities gained control of the island by going to war against other faery races, mainly the Fir Bolg and the Fomori.

They also fought among themselves. The sons of Midir, for example, rose up in rebellion against Bodh Derg, the son of the Dagda, and fought them in yearly battles. In another story, certain daoine sídhe went to war over “two lovable maidens who dwelt in the elfmound” (Evans-Wentz, 301).

Going to war over women brings to mind the story of the Trojan War. This is an apt comparison. Like the Homeric-era Greeks, it is easy to imagine the daoine sídhe going to war over issues of honor. It seems that most altercations involving mortals have at their root an honor challenge: proper respect has not been paid to the Fair Folk or their taboos. It may be that delivering or answering honor-challenges is a primary reason the Fair Folk go to war.

Warfare would most often be a small-scale affair by modern standards. By necessity, battles would be short, swift, and violent. The objective would be to get in, strike, and withdraw. Such attacks will not win large wars but are well suited to reduce the effectiveness of an enemy force, demoralize a fixed population, reduce the flow of supplies, capture towns for short periods of time, or demonstrate that certain targets, such as villages and civic centers, are in fact vulnerable.

If the daoine sídhe truly reflect or mirror the mortal culture from which they sprang, then it should be no surprise that warfare among them would largely be a matter of raids or ambushes to capture livestock, slaves, women, or valuables or to exact revenge for previous insults. This was how the ancient and early medieval Gaels waged war, after all.

The Irish God of Love

From Celtic Myth Podshow:

It is said that Aengus was troubled by dreams and visions of a beautiful, young maiden. He fell in love with her immediately and started to waste away because he could not find her. His mother Boann searched the whole of Ireland for the maiden, but after a year she still had not found her. The mighty Dagda did the same and also could not find her. Then the great and wise Dagda called on Bodb Dearg, king of the Sidhe in Munster and the Dagda’s aide, to go and find the girl, and she was found at Loch Bel Dracon (the Loch of the Dragon’s Mouth), chained to fifty other girls, all of whom turn into birds.

I wouldn’t recommend asking a King of the Sídhe for help unless you’ve got some serious god cred of your own, however.

Daoine Sídhe: Celtic Fae Nobility

The daoine sídhe (Scots Gaelic, daoine sith) are said to be the descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann (“People of the Goddess Danu”), a race of deities that figures prominently in Irish mythology.

These gods are, in fact, common to various Celtic cultures. Danu herself was known as Dôn in Wales, for example. Both names go back to a Proto-Celtic form Danona. Likewise, the earliest Celts worshipped deities named Lugus (Lugh, Lleu), Noudans (Nuada, Nudd), Ogmios (Ogma, Eufydd), etc. They arrived in Ireland in the distant, mythic past. Some legends say they arrived in flying ships. At any rate, they brought with them several powerful magical artifacts: the Lia Fail or “Stone of Destiny” that helped select successive kings of Ireland, the spear of Lugh, the sword of Nuada, and the cauldron of the Dagda. After defeating the indigenous Fomorians, they became the undisputed rulers of Ireland.

It is said that only iron weapons could injure them. The Tuatha Dé Danann were eventually defeated by the Iron-Age Milesians—the ancestors of the contemporary Irish—and driven to the Otherworld, which homeland they access via the ancient burial mounds that dot the Irish countryside. They continue to live, it is said, as invisible beings. In Irish thinking, the Otherworld is closer to this world at dawn and dusk. This is thus a special time at which sightings of these fae are more likely.

The descendants of the Tuatha Dé Danann are known by a bewildering diversity of names, including:

  • Daoine sídhe or aes sídhe, both meaning “people of the mounds.” The simple term sídhe is also commonly seen.
  • “Still-moving people” or “people of peace,” alternate interpretations of the term daoine sídhe.
  • Daoine uaisle, meaning “lordly ones” or “gentry.”
  • Cloan ny moyrn (“children of pride/ambition”) or adhene (“themselves”), names favored on the Isle of Man.
  • The Fair Folk, the Good Folk, or the Good Neighbors.

All of these terms are euphemisms to avoid using the straightforward Gaelic term siabhra (Irish) or siabhrach (Scottish) “faery.” Use of this term is thought to be far too forward for mortals to use with impunity lest the sídhe take notice of the perceived slight.

By all accounts, the daoine sídhe are powerful magicians. In early Irish manuscripts, they are described as “gods and not gods.” They are generally described as stunningly beautiful, although they can also be hideous monsters. It is likely a duine sídhe can look like whatever he or she wants to. In addition, these fae are often accomplished shapeshifters.