This article was written by (c) @David Halpin Circle Stories
For many, today is the beginning of a week long celebration of Lughnasa right up until the 7th of August, the astronomical cross-quarter.
The twin concepts of fire and light are two motifs which appear frequently in Northern Hemisphere mythology related to this time of the year. That said, there are also other aspects of fire, fairies and light within folklore and customs which are less well known.
Before electrification, and the lights we take for granted today, the encroaching darkness of early autumn evenings would have possibly felt much more ominous, perhaps, or at least it would have been respected to a greater degree.
What I mean is that people would have been more in tune with the seasonal change. Routine would have incorporated instinctual time-keeping within the shrinking hours of daylight.
Going back a little bit further and the woodlands and mountains would have held the risk of encountering wolves which roamed Ireland as recently as the late 18th century.
And, of course, there was always the possibility of a person straying into the company of the good people or one of their haunts. Ireland has lost an inestimable amount of megalithic sites over the past two or three centuries. It is sometimes easy to forget that so many have been destroyed. As mentioned in a previous post, in some counties up to 80% of earthworks have vanished. It is no wonder that Ireland has so many stories of both wolves and fairies connected to these sites.
As far as houses and villages were concerned, one of the ways people brought light into their homes was through two particular types of candle: Resin and Rush. The Resin candles were made by melting a lump of Resin and when melted, dipping it in twisted pieces of cloth about eight inches in length.
For Rush candles, rushes which were chosen for strength and length were collected, then cut into equal pieces before being peeled, leaving a tiny strip unpeeled on each rush. Then grease was melted in a boat shaped iron pot called a grisset. The peeled rushes were dipped into this one by one and left to dry on a board. There were other types of candle and other methods of making them but in rural Ireland the way mentioned above was probably the most widespread.
As well as bringing light into homes, the candles also had a magical and ritual use. One of the most popular ways to protect cattle from fairies, as well as curses, was to circle the cow and pass the candle under it. You might notice some similarities to the Uisneach fire protection rites here. In this instance entire herds of cows were driven between huge fires for a similar type of ‘cleansing’, purification, and warding off of evil.
Another magical property of these candles was that if the flame began to turn blue it was an indication that a spirit was nearby. Obviously throughout the entire world candle and fire magic has specific properties related to individual cultures but it is interesting to observe how many of these ‘spells’ share similar steps and rituals.
Many accounts of people encountering fairies at night in old Irish folklore begin with the spying of a strange and unusual light near a rath, stone circle or in the woods. Sometimes the entire mound itself is recounted to have lit up, basking the observer in an unearthly brightness.
Perhaps we too often overlook the aspect of darkness itself in these stories before electrification. Including information regarding light might not be the most anomalous factor for us today in the 21st century, but hundreds of years ago this aspect of the encounter lent yet another layer of strangeness and otherworldliness.
Andrew Lang, in his 1893 introduction to Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691) writes that inside the fairy mounds the light is ‘artificial’ and glows softly. Kirk himself says of the fairy abodes, “Their ‘places’ are large and fair, and unless at some odd occasions are unperceivable by vulgar eyes.” He writes that they, “…have continual Lamps, and Fires, often seen without Fuel to sustain them.”
So, as we can see, perhaps we take this documenting of strange lights less seriously than we should. Perhaps the primal darkness is also necessary in order to immerse ourselves back into natures patterns and all of the sensory input that brings, including the anomalous.
Wolves, though, are something we don’t need to worry about anymore if we get caught at dusk on a mountain summit.
That said, as you trudge back down, through bog and knee-high mist, through tangled forests, glimpsing the first stars through the tree branches, it’s easy to have your doubts.
(C.) David Halpin.