Halloween is just around the corner, and that means lots of different things to different people; trick or treating, pumpkins, bonfires, fireworks, and costume parties, to name just a few. In Ireland however, Halloween meant something very different in the past. It all started with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when the year's harvest was celebrated and the coming of winter was welcomed.
Lots of our current Halloween traditions stem from this ancient festival (see our previous post about it here), and it's where all of those spooky associations come from too; the Samhain festival also happened to coincide with the exact time when the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was at its most thin, and spirits – both good and bad – could pass between both worlds as they pleased. Read more about The Origins of Halloween.
Irish people in centuries past were naturally very superstitious, so the thought of otherworldly spirits roaming around all night was enough to make them shut their doors and not leave the house until sunset the next day. They were particularly weary of the 'good people', or fairies to you and me. These weren't the type of fairies we see in children's books and movies, however. They were mischievous, sometimes malicious, and always up to no good. We've rounded up some of the more well known ones, just in case you happen to bump into one of them this Halloween...
Aos Si literally means 'people of the mound', and refers to the fairy race as a whole. The other creatures in this list started out as members of the Aos Si, although some later became solitary creatures. The Aos Si have been described in various mythological accounts as either stunningly beautiful or horrifying and grotesque to look at. They resided in the world of the living, but were invisible to the human eye. They lived in fairy mounds, which were the only visible evidence of their existence – many apparent mounds have in fact turned out to be ancient burial grounds.
The Aos Si were very protective of their world and their mounds, and were very quick to seek revenge if a human did something to offend them, such as trespassing, speaking ill of them, or just about anything else! There are innumerable curses and penalties attributed to them, such as stealing little boys or cursing a family's land. Irish folk were deathly afraid of the Aos Si, and made offerings to them to keep them happy, especially around Halloween.
The Banshee was not exactly evil, but her appearance was sure to set chills down anyone's spine. This fairy creature took the form of an old, bent and haggard woman dressed in grey, with long straggly hair. She wasn't often seen – it was her blood curdling wailing that set people on edge. The Banshee would roam the lands of certain families, and when a death was imminent, would stray close to the house and wail after dark. She was usually the harbinger of sudden, unexpected deaths.
On the rare occasions when she was spotted, written accounts have stated that her eyes were red from crying and she would wring her hands as she wailed. She was sometimes seen brushing her long silver hair with a comb – so anyone who picked an abandoned comb off the ground was sure to be taken by the fairies, naturally. She doesn't seem to cause anyone any direct harm – apart from the horrible fright of hearing her cry! Cynics and realists have attributed this story to vixens calling in the night – if you've ever heard the noise, it does sound remarkably similar to a woman screeching. For more info on the Banshee read the Spirit of the Banshee on our other post.
Unlike the Banshee and the Aos Si, the Puca's appearance, behaviour, and activities are all quite vague in Irish folklore. It is said to be the harbinger of either good or bad tidings and was either malicious or benevolent – so basically it could be anything! Several sources cite the Puca as being a dab hand at shapeshifting. It could appear in various animal forms, but always had a dark coat of fur – more often than not, it appeared as a beautiful black horse with golden eyes, sometimes with chains hanging from its neck. It has the power of human speech and its favourite hobbies include confusing or terrifying humans!
If a Puca entices you to climb onto its back, it will apparently give an exhilarating, roller-coaster ride through the surrounding land – however, the only person to ever fall for its charms and come back in one piece was the legendary High King of Ireland, Brian Boru. For farmers and rural dwellers, the Puca was usually feared as he was known to ruin crops. A small amount of produce was left in the fields at the end of every harvest, known as the 'Puca's share' – however, the day after Halloween (or 'Samhain') was known as the Puca's Day; the only time of the year when he was guaranteed to behave nicely.
The vast majority of people have the same image when they hear the word 'leprechaun'; a small man with a red beard, dressed in green, wearing a hat and shiny gold buckles on his belt and shoes, guarding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. In fact, much of this goes against what is mentioned in Irish folklore. The 'real' leprechaun actually wore a luxurious red jacket embroidered with gold, with seven rows of buttons and seven buttons in each row. That's unless he was travelling in adverse weather conditions of course, in which case he would wear a very nondescript overcoat; his average appearance in this case was what often led to humans falling for his tricks.
The traditional leprechaun was always benevolent – the most damage he caused was endless practical jokes and the inevitable irritation that comes with them! Leprechauns were almost exclusively associated with the cobbling trade, and were often mentioned in old stories as making and mending shoes. So where does the crock of gold come into it all? According to W.B Yeats (who studied folklore in obsessive detail), leprechauns got their great wealth from ancient treasure crocks buried during past wars, which they discovered and then claimed as their own.
The Clurichaun is a not so well-known relative of the leprechaun – or, if rumours are to be believed, it's the form the leprechaun takes at night, once he's finished all of his shoe-making and practical joking for the day. The Clurichaun looks identical to the leprechaun, with one notable difference; it's always drunk! It could usually be found in cellars, and was harmless if left alone but became very surly and aggressive if meddled with. It would spend nights drinking, singing and dancing down in the cellar with an always-full tankard of wine.
Naturally, its appearance in any cellar meant that its owner was doomed to ruin! If treated well, the Clurichaun would protect the cellar from intrusion and damage, but if treated badly, it would wreak havoc on the home and destroy the wine stock. If the owner attempted to relocate to get away from the Clurichaun, it was always a failed mission, since the little creature would just hop into a wine cask and be taken to the new location. They are also said to enjoy taking trips around the countryside on the backs of pigs or sheep at night, and if you go down to the cellar early enough in the morning, you'll find your Clurichaun out of breath and covered in mud!
The Fear Dearg is another similar version of the leprechaun, in that he is a small creature about half the size of a man. His name is Irish for 'red man', given to him because – you guessed it- he dressed from head to toe in red, including a scarlet hat and cloak. He is also usually depicted with long grey hair and a wrinkled face. Like the leprechaun and clurichaun, he is a fan of practical jokes, usually leaning towards the more gruesome kind. His appearance is also a sign of impending bad luck. He visits large houses, where he enjoys warming himself up by sitting next to the fire. If he asks for anything and is refused, he won't be happy, and the impending bad luck will occur much faster than expected. He is also strongly associated with nightmares, and one his favourite mischievous activities is to replace new babies with changelings.
The Fear Dearg is seemingly most active during the winter months, and often found along polluted coastlines or in swamps, marshes and coastal ruins. In some stories, he was originally a human who wandered into the fairy world accidentally, and now attempts to warn others from making the same mistake.
The story of the Abhartach is somewhat different to the others, as it is not from the fairy world but the world of humans. Abhartach was once a chieftain who ruled the fifth century town of Slaughtaverty in county Derry. He was not exactly known to be a nice man, keeping his subjects under a strict reign of terror. Eventually, he was vanquished and killed by a (nicer) neighbouring chieftain, and was buried in a standing position – this was standard procedure at the time for a man of high stature.
The next night however, Abhartach rose from his grave, stalking the town and drinking the blood of his subjects. He was again slain and put back in his grave, but again, the next night rose from the dead to wreak havoc. He was killed yet again and this time was buried face down, which subdued his magical powers prevented him from leaving his grave. The story has strong similarities to that famous vampire story – Dracula – which was written by Irishman Bram Stoker. Many critics argue that his inspiration for the story was Abhartach himself, not the historical Transylvanian ruler Vlad III as is often cited. Whatever the real inspiration was, there's no doubt that the Irish legend of Abhartach is one of the earliest vampires stories around.
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