Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Gruagach, the Guaigean and the Geige

 A gruagach is a local land spirit in Scotland, who is said to look after cattle in the summer pastures, to make sure they don't wander off and come to any harm. It seems that to a certain extent the gruagach has come to be conflated with a brownie, which is probably not too much of a stretch considering the fact that they are both helpful to humans (with caveats), and will both take themselves elsewhere if you give them clothes.

In a lot of lore about spirits, you tend to find that offerings are very much encouraged when trying to build a relationship with them, but too much gratitude will backfire spectacularly. The gruagach is helpful so long as they are treated right; it is traditional to leave some milk for them in the hollow of a special stone, with offerings given to them at Bealltainn as well, and in some places the offerings are kept up (though unfortunately the one video I've seen about it has now been taken down). Traditionally, if their offerings are neglected the gruagach might not look after your cattle, or worse - they might deliberately lead them to harm. In many ways, the gruagach bears all the hallmarks of a pre-Christian local deity, even if their name might not be known anymore, but according to some the gruagach may be a ghost of someone local, who haunts the glens and looks kindly on people.

Thomas Pennant and Martin Martin both write about the gruagach in their work dating back to the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and you can find an essay on the gruagach in one of Pennant's volumes. Their name refers to their long hair (a motif that points to their Otherworldly nature), and usually they're female. In some parts of Scotland, like on Skye, they're more likely to be male (and tend to be the default explanation for how a pretty young maid might have got pregnant out of wedlock while she was up on the summer pastures).

So in general, they seem to be the kind of spirits that we want to propitiate, and it all seems quite simple. Looking through the Carmina Gadelica late one night last week, though, I found some interesting notes on the gruagach in Volume II, which have coincidentally good timing for Samhainn:
Gruagach, a supernatural female who presided over cattle and took a kindly interest in all that pertained to them. In return a libation of milk was made to her when the women milked the cows in the evening. If the oblation were neglected, the cattle, notwithstanding all precautions, were found broken loose and in the corn; and if still omitted, the best cow in the fold was found dead in the morning. The offering was poured on 'clach na gruagaich,' the 'gruagach' stone. There is hardly a district in the Highlands which does not possess a 'leac gruagaich'--a 'gruagach,' flag-stone--whereon the milk libation was poured. I have seen such stones in Arran, Kintyre, Gigha, Islay, Mull, Lismore, Kerara, Lorn, Iona, Tiree, Coll, Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Heisgeir, St Kilda, Harris, Lewis, Sutherland, Ross, at Culloden, Cawdor, Lochaber, and in various other places. All these oblation stones are erratic ice-blocks. Some of them have a slight cavity into which the milk was poured; others have none, the libation being simply poured on the stone. In making the oblation the woman intoned a rune--

'A ghruagach, a ghruagach,
Cum suas mo spreidhe,
Cum sios an Guaigean,
Cum uap an Geige.'

Brownie, brownie,
Uphold my herds,
Keep down the 'Guaigean,'
Keep from them the 'Geige.'

There is probably no district in the Highlands where the 'gruagach' could not be fully described. A woman living in the remote island of Heisgeir described her so graphically and picturesquely that her interested listener could almost see moving about in the silvery light of the kindly moon the 'gruagach' with her tall conical hat, her rich golden hair falling about her like a mantle of shimmering gold, while with a slight swish of her wand she gracefully turned on her heel to admonish an unseen cow. At intervals he seemed to hear her mellow voice in snatches of eerie song as she moved about among the grassy ruins of the old nunnery--all silent now of the holy orisons of gentle sisters.

The thing that interested me the most was the mention of the 'Guaigean' and the 'Geige' - it's not something I've seen much about in Scottish lore in general. In another note from Carmichael (at the same link, as above), there is a description of the Geigean:
Geigean, Righ Geigean, Geigean, King Geigean. This was the term applied to the man who presided over the death revels. These were held in winter. Lots were cast, and the man upon whom the lot fell was elected king of the revels, over which he reigned from midnight till the old cock crew. A tub of cold water was poured over his head and down his throat, after which his face and neck were smeared with soot. When the man had been made as formidable and hideous as possible, a sword, scythe, or sickle was placed in his hand as an emblem of office...

A rhyme common among boys at play says:--

'Thaine mi o chri-chas,
Thaine mi o chruai-chas,
Thaine mi o Ghigean,
Thaine mi o Ghuaigean,
’S thig mi uat-s’ ma dh’f haodas mi.

I came from small peril,
I came from great peril,
I came from Geigean,
I came from Guaigean,
And I will come from thee if I can.

'Gigean' and 'Guaigean' are probably forms of 'Geigean.'
So the immediate conclusion seems to be that the offerings to the gruagach are in the hopes that the gruagach will then protect people against the Geige (or Géige, as it should be - Carmichael was terrible for not bothering with accents in the first two volumes especially) and the Guaigean. Considering Carmichael's comments on the Righ Geigean we might suspect that the latter perhaps represent spectres of wintry danger or death, effectively. And/or, considering one of the tales in the first link, of the ghostly gruagach who protected against murrain, she works against sickness spreading.

My first thought was to wonder if the rite described might have something to do with Samhainn (since the festival marks the start of winter); Carmichael was notoriously leery of mentioning Samhainn at all, albeit for a brief entry in the notes in volume II and a few other passing mentions, so he's unlikely to spell it out and it wouldn't be any wonder that he was vague on that point. Pulling out my trusty copy of The Gaelic Otherworld, Ronald Black's notes refers to the Righ Geigean ritual as being performed, specifically, at the beginning of winter (see p457), so that seems to confirm it. It's interesting that the taking of lots seems to mirror a similar practice from Bealltainn, where the men would come together and take turns, blindfolded, to pick out piece of bannock from a basket or cloth. In this case, at Bealltainn, whoever got the burnt piece of bannock called the cailleach beal-tine would effectively take on the burden of failure in the coming season; it would be assumed that they would struggle, in order to allow the rest of the community to prosper. It seems a similar idea is intended for the Righ Geigean - they suffer, so others don't have to.

It's not the only instance of Samhainn practices echoing those found at Bealltainn; it seems the practice of making offerings - by throwing pieces of bannock over the shoulder, with a prayer said - to keep away threats from livestock and family was performed at both Bealltainn and Samhainn. Interestingly, according to Dwelly, a guaigean can be defined as either "a thick, little round cake," or else "a short, stout man or boy." A géige, on the other hand, is primarily a branch or sapling, but can also refer to "a young, superfine female, nymph."

I've not found much else on the Géigean, aside from some hints that it may have been related to the urisk (or ùraisg) who often get lumped in with the brownie and gruagach as a kind of helpful spirit. This is a little confusing, because the ùraisg seems to have something of a more mischievous reputation than the others, but is generally harmless and solitary, preferring to hang around waterfalls or streams. If they happen to live near a farm they might also help out around the farmstead if given milk or cream. So not much like the dangers hinted at in Carmichael's prayer. They tended to have a wilder appearance than the gruagach, though, sometimes being described as half-goat, half-man or quite frightening to those who could see them. According to John Gregorson Campbell, at least some of them did have some association with wintry elements:
"A man passing through Srath Dubh-Uisg (near Loch Sloy at the head of Loch Lomond) on a keen frosty night heard an urisk on one side of the glen calling out: Reoth, reoth, reoth. "Frost, frost, frost."

This was answered by another urisk calling from the other side of the glen: Ceige-reoth, ceige-reoth, ceige-reoth. "Kick-frost, kick-frost, kick-frost."

The man, on hearing this, said, "Whether I wait or not for frost, I will never while I live wait for kick-frost." And he ran at his utmost speed till he was out of the glen."
Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p106.

Ronald Black's notes on this say that Reoth and Ceige-Reoth more than likely refer to the names of the two urisks in the glen - Frost and Jack Frost, "as it were" (op. cit. p363). Furthermore, Ceige-Reoth here refers to the Géigean, ceige meaning "a mass of matted hair" and - aside from Ceige and Geige being very similar - the word denotes the "wild figure" of the Géigean himself.

All things considered, confusing though it might all be, it offers some food for thought for the coming season.

See also here, if anything, in case you're wondering how to pronounce guaigean!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Planning ahead

Seeing as Samhainn is a pretty Big Deal round here it's one of the few festivals in the year where everyone gets excited and I can really make an effort to Do Stuff without appearing to be a complete loon. There's everyone putting up the terribly tasteful decorations and carving tumshies or pumpkins, there's the Hallowe'en parade at school and the guisers coming to our door...It's a great occasion and especially good for being able to get the kids involved.

Considering the fact that it's a pretty Big Deal it's going to require a bit of planning ahead. We got some really huge tumshies last year, which were perfect for carving, so hopefully we'll get some more this year. Seeing as they're quite tough to carve (instructions for carving here, if you're looking for tips) they're not really something I can do with the kids just yet so I've tried to carve a pumpkin over the last few years as well. Maybe it's just the crappy plastic tools we have for the job but they're quite tough too, but while the stench of tumshie is quite evocative, shall we say, the innards of a pumpkin reminds my son of brains, apparently:

We couldn't get one last year but I've promised Rosie a pumpkin soup at the least this year. Seeing as I've no idea how to do that I still need to figure that one out... The kids want to go guising this year, for the first time, so if it's cold (we've already been having frosty nights so there's a good chance) the soup will be good for warming them up when they get back. The kids can help me make it, and some Brodick bannocks to go with it too. And maybe some butter - they have great fun yelling out the rhymes to make the lumps come.

Seeing as the kids want to go guising, they'll need to prepare some jokes or songs if they want their sweets (or hot dogs - one of the houses handed out hot dogs last year, they were very popular!). Trick or treating isn't really a thing here; you only knock on doors that have lanterns put out to indicate that guisers are welcome, so sweets are pretty much guaranteed, and you have to perform a piece of entertainment or the people you're prevailing on can tell you where to go. As the song goes:

Tell a story,
Sing a song;
Dae a dance,
Or oot ye gang!

Although jokes and nursery rhymes are what you'll probably hear, there are plenty of traditional songs too. "Tell a Story" is one, but I think the best known one is Heigh Ho for Hallowe'en:

Heigh Ho for Hallowe'en!
When the witches a' are seen,
Some black and some green,
Heigh Ho for Hallowe'en!

There's another one I quite like:

Hallowe'en a nicht o' tine
A can'le in a custock.

A howkit neep wi' glowerin' een
To fleg baith witch and warlock.

(Or: Hallowe'en a night of fire/A candle and a cabbage stem./A tumshie lantern with scowling eye(s),/To scare both witch and warlock.)

But I suspect the kids might decide to sing "Twinkle Twinkle Chocolate Bar" because they like doing the actions. I think that's about all they'll need to know about guising for now - they can get up to the mischief part when they're older...

We made some decorations last year but seeing as it's the October holiday I think we might just make some more...I think it's going to be a long week ahead this week. We also have our seasonal mural to think about, and now we have a fish tank in the way of where the murals tend to go I think we'll be adapting it to make a background for the tank.

It wouldn't be a proper Samhain without some games for the kids, so a bit of planning is required for that, too. I'd like to try the divination game with the crowdie, where you whip up a big bowl of the cream, honey and oatmeal and mix some charms into it for everyone to try and dig out. Before now I've felt the kids have been a bit too young for it - small parts being included and all - but my youngest is five now and I think she's old enough to get the gist of things and not end up having to make a mad dash to hospital. I'll need to figure something out because I don't have any charms yet, but that shouldn't be too difficult. I might also have to adapt the game slightly because there are worse things in the world today than getting a charm that suggests you won't ever marry. Otherwise, we'll have the usual games - dookin' for apples, blind man's bluff, musical statues and musical bumps and so on. I also have what looks like a decent recipe for treacle scones I can use for that game, so hopefully I'll finally get around to trying that too.

So as usual there's a lot to fit in, including time to do my own thing, of course. Some of our plans will probably fall by the wayside, as it usually happens, but at least I'm in a more physically capable state to make a go of things this year. With the kids wanting to go guising the feasting part of the proceedings will probably take a backseat to the more important aim of the kids making themselves feel thoroughly sick, but I like to round off the celebrations with a nice meal the day after too, so that can still get done. Then of course there will be saining to be done and offerings to be made. And perhaps a story or two to be told, for the kids.

A pretty big deal

Delving into politics here...

The news yesterday was quite momentous for Scotland, with the announcement of an agreement between the Scottish parliament and Westminster about the referendum on independence. There has been a lot of debate in the past few years or so about how the referendum is going to happen and some of the major points were agreed yesterday, with potential for other points to be put in place as well..

The general gist of the agreement is as follows:

  • The referendum will take place before the end of 2014
  • There will be one question asked
  • The possibility of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds is still on the table
This is basically what Alex Salmond, Scotland's First Minister, was hoping for. Over all the news is positive from Scotland's point of view, although the agreement on a one question format has led to some upset. Up until now debate had mainly focused on what the question is going to be - the devil is in the detail there - but also on the kinds of options that could be offered. Broadly speaking, the referendum question could be a simple case of asking voters to decide whether or not they want to vote in favour of Scottish independence, and in case, it's a simple yes/no answer. Alternatively, the question could get a bit more complicated and voters would be offered a choice between independence, staying in the union, or choosing door number three. 

This third option is called "Devo Max." Instead of going for outright independence - full autonomy - voters could instead decide to choose to opt for further devolved powers being given to the Scottish government. In broad terms it could be seen as just one step shy of full independence, essentially giving full fiscal autonomy to scotland, but otherwise staying within the union. 

Devo Max has a few advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it's a baby step towards independence - a step in the right direction for those who like the idea of independence, but not too big when you consider all the things that might go wrong and start to worry about them... It offers a something of a safety net in case of disaster, and so on. On the other hand, it's not independence and it would mean that the Scottish tax payer would still be footing the bill for things that aren't popular here, like nuclear arms, and so on. It is argued in some quarters that this option would be financially wasteful, duplicating expenditure on some things that would remain as part of the UK infrastructure, simply for the privilege of staying under their care. 

To a certain extent, there are a number of folks in both the Yes and No camps who view Devo Max as an unnecessary compromise. In theory it leaves the door open for a further referendum in future, paving the way for a yes vote, so it's not a solution for either side, really. A no vote, on the other hand, is seen as putting the question to rest in a fairly final manner, at least for another generation, anyway. And a yes vote is a pretty final solution too. So neither side really see Devo Max as an end in itself, and ultimately it doesn't solve anything. 

It's also possible that offering three options would have split the vote and we would still end up with a "No" on our hands. The people who didn't vote No might then be unhappy because their vote combined might have given a different result, so all in all it seems that a basic Yes/No sort of question is both simpler - and therefore less confusing for the average voter who doesn't want to deal with complicated options - and potentially safer and more decisive in the sense that the vote can only go one of two ways.

Still, it's a tricky one. Seeing as the agreement has ultimately played out in favour of Scottish parliament, there are some who are saying that Westminster has basically handed the referendum to the Yes vote already. I'd say the vast majority of current Westminster policies are doing the job more than anything right now - with a Tory government (albeit in a Lib Dem coalition, but they're basically ineffectual) in Westminster right now, much of what they're doing really goes against the grain of the average Scottish voter who tend to be more left leaning than the Middle England voters Westminster generally tends to court. That, more than anything, will prove to be a big factor in however people decide when it comes to it, I think.

The potential for opening the vote up to 16-17 year-olds is also controversial and weirdly, from what I've seen on the news so far, it's the one thing everyone is concentrating on. They don't pay taxes, why should they vote! They won't think for themselves, they'll vote however their parents do! And all sorts of silliness. I don't see it as an inherently bad thing but there are surely pros and cons to that too.

The bottom line is, this is a momentous occasion, it really is. There are still plenty of things that need to be hashed out but we now know that the referendum will take place, and while we don't know what the question is actually going to be, we know it's going to ask for a Yes/No answer. Polls so far generally have the yes vote hovering around the 30% mark, but that doesn't mean much right now. Two years is a long time in politics and there are a lot of undecideds and people who won't get their preferred option of Devo Max who will now need to have a rethink. And many might change their minds repeatedly up until the day of the vote itself.

If you want to read up on things, here's something from the BBC with further links to explore on the page. You can also view the agreement itself. Wikipedia has a decent article explaining the basics of Devo Max if you want to look at that more closely, too.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Book review: Celtic Curses

Back at the start of summer I got a good haul from the library that I planned on working my way through for reading or research purposes, and of the ones I decided to read all the way through, I got an lot of good stuff from them, which is always yay-making. I didn't manage to read two of them before I had to take the haul back so I decided to renew them and I've been making a concerted effort to get through them as fast as I can, and now I'm one down with half of the other to go.

Like the other books I've reviewed from the haul so far, these two are relatively recent publications, so they're more up to date than a lot of the recommended reading on Celtic Reconstructionist reading lists and I think they'll make good additions to any wish list. The one I'll be reviewing just now is from 2009 and of the two I think it has a wider appeal. Gaulish and, to a lesser extent, Brythonic or Welsh Polytheists will benefit from this book as well, I reckon.

Celtic Curses
Bernard Mees

Going by the title alone it's the sort of thing that could go one of two ways, being either the kind of book that would be more at home amongst the likes of your common or garden variety ye ancient Irish potato goddess fluff, or else one that lurks on my wishlist for many a birthday until I can justify splurging on it. Or, y'know. Get a job. Considering it's the latter, the title seems a little provocative and I think to a certain extent it is. But I'll get to that.

Just like the title suggests, we're dealing mainly with the subject matter of cursing in Celtic contexts. The "Celtic" in question is primarily Gaulish to start with, before moving to Brythonic areas (particularly the evidence from Bath), and then Irish evidence. Some Scottish and Welsh gets a look in, but that's mainly incidental, to be honest. Other kinds of magical practices are considered too - ones that might also share some sort of similarities with cursing that might indicate common origins in practice, or perhaps even direct influences. In these cases we're especially looking at Irish evidence like gessi and lorica prayers, and things like the Song of Lugh and the Morrígan's (or Badb's) prophecy from Cath Maige Tuired. Gessi and loricae get chapters to themselves, but things like the prophecy and the Song of Lugh get a few pages or so in the penultimate chapter "Incantations."

The first part of the book primarily deals with the Gaulish evidence while the latter half concentrates more on the Irish and (to a lesser extent) the Welsh evidence, although there are frequent cross-overs. As far as the Gaulish evidence goes we're primarily looking at defixiones, and Mees argues that while the practice certainly owes a lot to Classical influence, Gaulish defixiones also bear the hallmarks of "indigenous" beliefs at play as well. This is mainly borne out by the fact that Gaulish defixiones are often metrical, where as they aren't in Classical practice. Mees also points to the fact that the Irish word for charm or incantation, bricht, also refers to poetic metre of eight syllables, implying the metre itself was originally an integral part of magical charms, and the Gaulish word brixt which is clearly related to the Irish bricht suggests that the metrical element is ultimately a Celtic feature of magic in general. 

This is where the slightly provocative part comes in; from the beginning Mees makes it clear that he views the evidence as a continuum between the earlier and later evidence - i.e from the early evidence in Gaul to the later evidence in Ireland. In supporting this theory, Mees sets out to show coincidences and possible continuity in the evidence (like with brixt --> bricht) in order to argue that such practices bear underlying "Celtic" features. I'm sure there will be strong critics of Mees' idea, and I think it's safe to say that some points are more convincing than others. One of the quibbles I had is that in some places there is very little discussion of the kinds of issues affecting the sources we're looking at, and it seems assumed that because it is written, it must be authentic and representative of actual practice. Given the amount of issues that affect Irish myth in particular, this could have done with being addressed in a bit more detail than it was.

All in all it's a fascinating read and the author gives plenty of examples of curses in discussing the kind of forms they took, the context they were found in, and the features that could be considered to be specifically "Celtic" or specific to a particular Celtic culture and why that might be. In most cases the original language is given alongside with a translation, which is extremely useful, and considering the fact that the language can often be very obscure or difficult there's good discussion of how the translation was arrived at, and the kinds of symbolism and meaning might lurk beneath the techncial terms used. You also get the delights of the kinds of phrasing that people chose to use - one Gaulish example invoking a curse on various things belonging to their intended victim, including their lunch box.

For the most part we just look at what the curses say and what that tells us about cursing and concepts like fate or destiny that must be manipulated in order to effect the curse. This is extremely useful in itself, but I couldn't help but feel that it would have been more useful with some discussion of the religious context they were performed in - not just how the curses were made, who did them, and so on, but also the underlying cosmological and religious concepts they drew on. There is some discussion, but more would have been better. I was also slightly disappointed about the fact that bullauns don't get a look in - or really any kinds of more modern "pishrogues" and folk practices. Cursing wells get a brief mention as the final chapter, but that's about it.

There really isn't much else like this out there that's so readily accessible, so in many respects the few negatives are forgivable because it's very much a beginning in looking at this sort of subject, and there is only so much you can fit in to one book. As far as things Gaelic go, the chapter on "Breastplates and Clamours" has a lot to offer, and so do the chapters on ''Geasa and Binding" and "Incantations" (in spite of my aforementioned reservations about how the myths are approached). In a lot of the Gaulish curses there are deities that are called upon that results in good discussion that I think will be of interest - for Ogmios in particular.

If you're at all interested in how magical practices might look in a reconstructionist context then I'd highly recommend it. I've not seen it going for very cheap but if you can get your hands on a copy then I don't think you'll regret it.