Cultural memory is a very powerful thing. Even when countless attempts have been made to subdue our ancestral heritage, indigenous and native folkways continuously resurface from our collective unconscious. Many elements from our European pagan past still appear in our popular media today; such as wizards and witches and their accoutrements of mystical power. However, when we look to folklore recorded a century or more earlier, we find that there are some things that have slipped between the cracks. Springwort is one of them. What is this magical plant? Let's find out.
Before history had been firmly established as a field of study, the Greeks used mythology to relay collective memory. Many of these stories were inspired by true events that grew into legend over time.
Just as school children in the United States today learn about the founding fathers, ancient Greeks listened to their Homerian epics. In his book, "Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern," Gerald Schlabach says “to attempt to live without a memory is to attempt to lose one’s humanity,” and, thus, we learn history today to give the individual a place rooted in their wider society.
Mythology served the same purpose to ancient societies. Today we separate theology from history. In fact, Schlabach makes a point to mention this in the essay on his website when he states “to suggest the ways that God may be involved in human history is to move into theology or philosophy of history. Those are different from the documentary study of history.” However, the ancients did not always see it this way.
*Note: because this article touches on topics that I have expanded on in great detail in other articles, I have linked to related articles throughout the text so you can read more.
Our modern conventions tend to view the realms of fairies and witches separately. Witches have been viewed as evil, while fairies are seen as benevolent, cute, and kind. As scholars reevaluate witch trials and the confessions of those accused, we are coming to new conclusions on accused witches. One subject that has been discussed in the academic field of folklore, but has seemingly not seeped into the popular consciousness, is the connection between fairies and witches.
Great Moravia was an important, if short lived, autonomous state in medieval Central Europe. It is important for many reasons, but among them because it is the first known kingdom of the Western Slavic tribes.
To say it is forgotten is somewhat misleading for Great Moravia is remembered and celebrated with great pride by the Czech and Slovak people. But it is forgotten by conventional Western history books.
Today, many of us who have European ancestry are taking it upon ourselves to discover the hidden histories of our ancestral heritage. Thus we begin this exploration of a medieval kingdom with immense importance to the people of Central Europe
Arthurian legend is filled with epic tales of tragic romance. The ménage à trois of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is the story most focused on in contemporary film and literature. Merlin and Vivienne have had their fair share of air time, albeit often as a subplot to the Arthur and Guinevere saga.
But, aside from a poorly received 2006 film, recent media has largely ignored the story of Tristan and Isolde. Since it is a legend that the reader may be unfamiliar with, we shall begin with a re-telling of the story, followed by historical analysis. It should be noted that this tale, like all of the legends in Arthuriana, has many variations.
For the past millennium or so the Vikings have had quite a reputation. And it hasn’t been for their fabulous taste in fabric textures and color palettes! But lately, much has been written exploring the softer side of the Vikings. It came as a surprise to a lot of us, but we might just say that the Vikings were more refined than we ever imagined.
The reputation given to them by some foreigners, most often the victims of raids, has stuck with the Vikings for well over one thousand years – that they were barbarians. The stereotype of barbarians is that they are ignorant, filthy, and brutish.
However, we live in an age that prides ourselves on breaking down stereotypes and reevaluating how we look at people. And so, as we as a society have reconsidered how we define the many different people we interact with in the contemporary world, the stereotype of the Viking has recently been given a makeover as well.
A note to the reader: Never has it been so evident that history can sometimes be murky and difficult to wade through than during my quest to discover the roots of Christmas caroling! Different sources give different information, conflicting dates, and varying histories.
Ordinarily I would not open with a disclaimer. But, under the circumstances, if the reader were to look up this information on their own, they might find answers different than what I’ve written here. So, I will endeavor to weed through it all and give my own assessment of the material. And, I will try to be clear about where my information came from by citing all sources. - Carolyn
During the autumn season when imagery of the harvest is all around, it can be easy to forget that the cornucopia of produce yielded is the product of year round effort. Thoughwe, most of whom are removed from the production of our own sustenance, may not be consciously aware of the agricultural calendar,it is something that our ancestors were very much aware of. Until very recently in the grand timeline of human history, the vast majority of human beings participated in agriculture, in one way or another, as well as the age old customs and rituals that went along with it.
November hearkens the coming of that great American harvest feast wherein we express our gratitude for Nature’s bounty, and for the indigenous people whose generous support ensured the survival of the progenitors of our nation. However, when we dig a little deeper we discover that the tradition of Thanksgiving extends far beyond the borders of the United States.
Canada celebrates her own Thanksgiving in October, and Germany’s version, called Erntedankfest, is celebrated either at the end of September or in early October. The November harvest festival that the British-American pilgrims would have been familiar with, prior to their emigration, is the Feast of Saint Martin,or Martinmas.
Tales of Changelings come up frequently in Celtic folklore. The term “changeling” refers to a human being, usually a child but sometimes an adult, who has been taken by the fairies and replaced by a look-a-like. Technically, the changeling is the look-a-like, while the real person is thought to be held captive by the fairies. This topic is briefly discussed in my article “Ten Reasons Fairies are Scary."
Changeling stories come up often in folklore. So, for this edition of the Archivist’s Corner, I have decided to let the folklore speak for itself. Here is a selection of some folkloric accounts of changeling tales from books that are in the public domain. Both books are available for free download on ProjectGutenberg.org.
Trows are fascinating creatures found only in the folklore of the Orkney and Shetland islands. But, describing them accurately is difficult because sources are not clear. Folklorists have long insisted that the word “trow” is a corruption of “troll,” and that Orkney’s Trows descend from their Viking ancestors’ stories of Trolls.
Sigurd Towrie, author of the comprehensive website covering all things Orkney, disagrees with this assessment. He believes there may be a connection with a different creature from Norse mythology, the Draugr. This connection stems from both creatures’ affiliation with burial mounds.
Scotland is a nation rich in folkloric tradition. Both the highlands and the lowlands preserved distinct cultural folk tradition with influences from Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences. These cultures, along with the unique landscape and climate of this hilly northern country, fused to give Scottish folklore a unique flavor. Stories of ghosts and spirits are one common feature of Scottish lore.
Celtic folklore is rife with tales of the Fae. According to the lore, to avoid angering the fairies you should always refer to them by a euphemism, such as “the Good People.” The fairies can be friend or foe, though in Celtic folklore they are more often known for their trickery than in neighboring Germanic lore, where elves are quite helpful. Germanic lore did make its way to Lowland Scotland with the Anglo-Saxons. The stories of helpful Scottish brownies, who do chores around the house are analogous with other Germanic domestic elves such as the German kobold and Scandinavian Tomte. Fairies could travel in groups, known as trooping fairies, or be solitary figures, such as the leprechaun.
This column was originally devised for a Celtic magazine with monthly themes. But, given the nature of The Archivist’s Corner, wherein I search through antique and forgotten books, journals, poetry, etc., to bring you forgotten treasures from the past, I felt stumped as to what I could find for the theme of “Mysteries.” Well, I was searching on the internet and I came across a book of riddles which seemed to match the theme, but it didn’t appear “Celtic” at all, so I almost dismissed it. But, then I happened to see the dedication on the title page which reads:
Compiled for the Use of
The Great and the Little
GOOD BOYS and GIRLS
In England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Well, there you have it. This book is for all you good little boys and girls with Celtic heritage. These riddles come from a book called “Food for the Mind: Or a New Riddle-Book,” published in 1778. It is credited to having been written by John-the-Giant-Killer, Esq. How fun! Pictures are provided in the book to help you solve the mysteries within these riddles. Quiz your friends and family and see who can guess these!
Hello and welcome to the Archivist's Corner! This is a column dedicated to sharing interesting pieces of history that have buried in the archives of time.
For this installment I bring you some Halloween related treasures from the past three centuries. I hope you enjoy these antique slices of history as much as I do. ~ Carolyn
Ye Olde Halloween Poetry
"Halloween" by Robert Burns
This is a poem written in 1785 by Scotland's famous poet, Robert Burns, called "Halloween." The version on the right contains notations made by Burns himself, "to enable his readers to understand it, he added valuable notes, explanatory of the charms and spells of this eventful night."
You can read the full poem in original Scots dialect with Burns' notes here on Google Books.
The poem is available in translation to contemporary English here from BBC, where you can also hear an audio recording of the poem.
Halloween is a fun and festive time of year with roots going back to Old World tradition. While some traditions have faded away, others survived and are still practiced today. In the old days, both October 31s and November 1st were considered special days. Often the eve before a holiday was the time for raucous revelry while the next morning was the time for solemn church going. Thus, All Hallows Eve (or evening) became Hallowe’en, and then simply Halloween. Of course we know that before it was All Hallows, the celebration was called Samhain (pronounced sow-en), a Celtic pagan high day. For this edition of The Archivist’s Corner, your archivist has uncovered some antiquated accounts of Celtic Halloween customs for your reading pleasure.
Since this column was written in the Autumn, I thought it would be fitting to highlight some poems by writers of the British Romantic movement. The Romantic Era had its origins in the early 19th century, but it reached its peak between 1850-1900. It was largely considered to be a reaction to, and to some extent a rejection of, the preceding Enlightenment Era. The Enlightenment brought with it the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
In a recent article about the discipline of folklore , I mentioned that one detriment of these movements was the backlash against folk customs. Because the emphasis was on science and progress, country customs were often seen as backward. The Romantic Movement coincided with the birth of folklore as an academic discipline. Both folklorists and Romantic Era writers sought to press the pause button on this fast paced rush into the future.
Trees and wells have been places of wonder, wishes, offerings, and miracles in Britain since time immemorial. In many cases we can only speculate how long folk customs have been occurring. Northern and Central Europeans did not leave written records, apart from pictograms, sparse runic inscriptions or ogham carvings. Add to that, previous generations used materials that erode or decay. The point is that just because there is no record in no way implies something did not occur. But on the same token, it cannot very well be argued that it did occur unless there is hard evidence. This is the conundrum of the historian, but also of the folklorist who studies both lore and folk practices.
Scottish traditional dress is admired the world round. Indeed, Tartan Day celebrates Scottish heritage each year in April in the U.S. and Canada, while Australia and New Zealand celebrate it in July. Individual tartans are identified with different Scottish clans, and we when we hear the word “tartan,” the first image that comes to mind is the famed Scottish kilt. Perhaps it is because the kilt is so unique among modern men’s clothing that it has been the object of such fascination while traditional Scottish women’s clothing is often marginalized as a footnote. Well, this edition of the Archivist’s Corner is turning the tables! Kilt, step aside! Your Archivist has dug through the annals of time to uncover paintings, drawing, and written observations of traditional Scottish women’s apparel from roughly the 18th through the early 20th centuries.
For this edition, being the month of February, I’d like to share some old Scottish love ballads with you. However, these are not the epitome of what we would consider romantic today! But, they depict true emotion, and maybe a strong dose of heartache, while also giving a glimpse of a world gone by.
The Fairy Flag is an heirloom passed down in the McLeods of Dunvegan family for generations. It is held in the Clan’s ancestral home, Dunvegan Castle. This castle has been in the possession of Clan McLeod for over 800 years, making it Scotland’s oldest castle continuously inhabited by the same family.
In this installment we travel to ye olde Yorkshire. Here is a selection of poems and lyrics in the Yorkshire dialect, accompanied by antique illustrations of Yorkshire. The poems come from “Yorkshire Dialect Poems” edited by F.W. Moorman (no date given, it appears to be circa 1911, with many poems dating earlier). All illustrations come from “Yorkshire Painted and Described” by Gordon Home (also undated, appears late 19th or early 20th century). I hope very much that you enjoy.
(originally published in Celtic Guide's November 2013 issue)