When Celtic Culture Goes Bad
Did you know that fairies are always sexy and like to wear revealing, gossamer outfits? Did you know that Banshees were vampires? Did you know that Ireland is awash with proverbs of great wisdom that no Irish person has ever heard of but which turn up regularly in internet articles on Irish culture?
These are just some of the more outlandish elements we’ve come across over the (almost) two years since working in this area. Some of the claims made by self-proclaimed internet experts on Irish and/or Celtic Mythology are jaw-breakingly hilarious although the sheer level of ignorance and misinformation that exists out there with respect to Celtic mythology is a bit of a concern.
As a result, we thought it might be useful to come up with a set of criteria to help you work out the genuine cultural value of the article, book, web-page you’re reading. Hopefully this will help you determine if it’s Celtic fact or Celtic fantasy, if it’s culturally accurate or simply culturally autistic.
The article/book/ web-page you’re reading probably doesn’t have any cultural credibility if the writer:
1) uses W.B. Yeats as a source of information
2) uses the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative
3) has no genuine familiarity with a Celtic language
(1) Using W.B. Yeats as a source of information
If you’re reading anything on Irish/Celtic mythology that cites W.B Yeats or uses his work as its main source of information, you’d be better off avoiding it like a lift-full of sweating joggers. Yeats was a poet and an artist but mythology/folklore formed only a small part of his overall interests. He was predominantly fascinated by mysticism, spiritualism and occultism and as a result, much of what he came across in Irish folklore/culture was adapted to align to these alternative belief systems. The result was often a complete nonsense.
On a more pragmatic level, it should also be remembered that Yeats was a member of the Protestant Ascendancy (an early-1900s group in Irish society made up of Protestant landowners, clergy and professionals). In practice, this meant he was quite insulated from ‘native culture’ and the cultural beliefs of people he referred to as “the peasantry”. It’s probably true to say he had a much better theoretical knowledge of Western esotericism than he ever did of Irish mythology and cultural beliefs.
There’s a reason Yeats is not used in contemporary tertiary education programmes for Celtic Studies.
(2) Use of the word ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ or some other such derivative
The words ‘Fae’ or ‘Faerie’ are predominantly derived from old words in Continental European languages. In the English context, these words are found mostly in old books by long-dead writers (because they actually spoke like that) or in the books of more contemporary writers who want to make the word ‘fairy’ sound more ancient or ‘otherworldy’.
Some of the best names in fiction have done this at some stage and as a writing technique, there’s really nothing wrong with it as long as it remains within the realm of fiction/fantasy. If, however, someone is attempting to claim cultural authenticity while using these terms, you really need to take those claims with … well, a pinch of ‘fairy dust’!
Wikipaedia – not normally somewhere I’d advise for accurate or in depth information – actually has a surprisingly useful summary on the historical development of the word ‘faerie’ and ‘fairy’ as follows:
According to Thomas Keightley, the word ‘fairy” derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form “faerie”, describing “enchantment”. Other forms are the Italian “fata”, and the Provençal “fada”. In old French romance, “fee” was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.
Faie became Modern English fay. Faierie became fairy, but with that spelling now almost exclusively referring to one of the legendary people, with the same meaning as fay. The word “fairy” was used to in represent an illusion, or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; or an individual such as a fairy knight.
To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English) -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in (cookery, thievery). In later usage it generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular type of person, as in English knavery, roguery, wizardry. In the sense “land where fairies dwell”, the distinctive and archaic spellings Faery and Faerie are often used.
In essence, the word ‘fairy’ is just as inaccurate as ‘fae’ or ‘faerie’ in that they’re all words created from a mish-mash of different cultural concepts that have become warped over time and lacking in meaning. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in the context of fiction/fantasy.
Generally speaking, there is some folklore about ‘fairies’ developed from the 1800s as a result of cultural disruption but its relatively shonky. If you’d like to read more on that you can find an earlier article here (The Secret life of Irish Fairies):
(3) Lack of genuine familiarity with a Celtic language
To understand a culture, you really have to have at least some comprehension of the language the population of that cultural society speak (or spoke). Without that understanding, it’s incredibly difficult to appreciate how people in that society thought, how they lived, how they loved, what values they held dear and so on. Even today, although international languages are translated on an almost continuous basis, anyone who speaks more than one language will tell you there are often concepts in one language for which there’s no direct equivalent translation in another language. These cultural concepts generally have to be explained in a different way (usually involving a lot more words) or the word from the original language is used. Examples of this might include ‘schadenfreude’, ‘déjà vu’ or even a little bit of ‘craic’.
This holds just as well for Celtic languages as it does for other more broadly spoken languages. There are expressions and concepts in Celtic languages that don’t translate exactly and which require more clarification. Having some familiarity with the language is very useful in that regard. For example, on occasion, because I speak Irish, I find that I sometimes get a better sense from a particular Irish story or piece of Irish mythology than a non-Irish speaker might get from the same material. This is not because I’m smarter or more insightful, it’s simply because I have a better cultural context.
There are limitations to this particular criterion of course. The Irish I speak today (and being based in New Zealand means I’m getting rusty) is not the same as the Irish spoken by our ancestors (Old Irish or Middle Irish) so my contextual understanding of material from that time is necessarily limited. Similarly, I’d also be extremely reluctant to comment on specific elements of Celtic mythology derived from sources in other Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish etc.).
There are also occasions of course, where non-Celtic language speakers or people of non-Celtic heritage have made great contribution to the overall body of Celtic knowledge but this usually occurs where they bring an associated skill-set (e.g. in archelogy, philology, language etc. etc.). One of the more famous and respected early experts on Irish philology and early Irish literature, for example, was actually German (Kuno Meyer).
In summary, having a grasp of a Celtic language will not ensure your comprehension/ appreciation of Celtic mythology by any means – but it will certainly help.
Hopefully these criteria will give you some idea of what to look out for but please feel free to suggest others you think might work.