Offerings can help us form relationships with the gods, the spirits and the ancestors that we, as Gaelic Polytheists, honour, and so are a good place for anyone wanting to start practising, rather than studying, the religion.
On the face of it, these offerings can be simple acts of leaving food and drink on an altar or shrine in the house, or on a stone, tree or well outside, for example, with a prayer or few words of thanks. However, on looking at it in more depth, a simple act can become something with a much more complex meaning.
As one of the fundamentals of practice, it’s important to get a good idea of how offerings were made, how they still are made, and why we do this.
The reasons we make offerings can be seen in myth and folklore, as well as archaeology. There are many different sites across the Gaelic homelands where deposits have been found that can only be interpreted as being devotional in nature – offerings made to appease, thank, or propitiate the gods, spirits, or ancestors.
There is a long tradition of making offerings to An Trì Naomh at certain times of the year, at certain times of the day or week, or under other circumstances. We do this in order to propitiate them – to gain their favour. As Evan-Wentz notes:
In modern Irish tradition, ‘the People of the Sidhe,’ or simply the Sidhe, refer to the beings themselves rather than to their places of habitation. Partly perhaps on account of this popular opinion that the Sidhe are a subterranean race, they are sometimes described as gods of the earth or dei terreni, as in the Book of Armagh; and since it was believed that they, like the modern fairies, control the ripening of crops and the milk-giving of cows, the ancient Irish rendered to them regular worship and sacrifice, just as the Irish of to-day do by setting out food at night for the fairy-folk to eat.1
In spite of their somewhat demoted status – more spirits than gods – as we might find them in the later lore, they are still seen as having power over the local crops and livestock, and so people make offerings to them in order to ensure a good harvest and plentiful supply of milk.2 On a more everyday level, simple offerings of milk left out at night can help keep the spirits of place on good terms.
These offerings – made to the gods or spirits, however they may be regarded – can be thought of as being a way to help create and maintain a reciprocal relationship with them. As we give, so An Trì Naomh might look on us kindly and come to our aid when needed, protect us and our crops (or livelihoods in general) from disaster and so ensuring our continued well-being. Or at least they might leave us alone and not cause us trouble. I say “livelihoods” because, of course, in modern times few of us rely only on what we can grow or the livestock we can raise for subsistence, but much of the historical and evidence is naturally centred around that. Today, we still rely on those who do produce crops and other products, but it’s not something that’s as much of a pressing or immediate concern to us in our daily lives. Instead, our own focus is naturally on safeguarding our own livelihood – whatever that may be – so that we can afford to feed ourselves and our families, and keep a dry roof over our heads. Whatever our own circumstances may be, the idea remains the same: in making offerings we begin to build a relationship with the gods and spirits, and we hope that they will be there for us in times of need. This doesn’t, of course, offer any guarantees that all of our problems will go away, but having An Trì Naomh can be a huge comfort in those times of difficulty, when everything seems to be going wrong.
Another element of offerings can be seen in folklore – the offering of hospitality. To the pre-Christian Gaels, hospitality was considered to be sacred, and a wealth of laws can be found in the Senechas Mór detailing what was expected of households when a stranger came knocking. This emphasis on hospitality can still be seen today, in everyday life as well as seasonal traditions. At Samhainn, for example, we find the practice of laying a table for the honoured dead overnight, in case any ancestors might want to visit during the night. In some households in Ireland, water, ‘untasted’ milk or food (i.e. not leftovers) may still be left on the table each night for the Good Folk, should they choose to visit, and in the days when the house relied on the central hearth for its warmth, the fire was also kept going (though smoored) so they would be warm and welcomed. Failure to provide a warm fire, food and drink may cause offence to the visitor, and in causing offence the Good Folk might withdraw their favour from us.3
In essence, in looking at the survivals of the Fairy Faith (or Creideamh Sí as it’s called), we can see that the lines between what we could define as gods, spirits and ancestors are often blurred. Though we see that people have historically made offerings to the daoine sìth and land spirits in the lore, we could, in some cases at least, interpret these as being “demoted” deities (gods reinterpreted and rationalised into “lesser,” more humanised roles as belief and culture has changed).
Or else sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…
Sometimes a particular type of food or drink is supposed to be given – in Scotland, milk, for example, was often poured into a stone with a hole in it in order to ensure the Gruagach’s favour. The Gruagach is a friendly spirit who is supposed to look after the cows while the cowherd is away; in giving some milk each week (a precious commodity), the rest of the supply is therefore safeguarded. Failure to observe this rite was believed to lead to disaster, and it is still observed in some parts of Scotland today, as a survival or revival of the tradition.4
In the days when most people would make their own butter, a small portion was traditionally left for the Good Folk after the dairymaid had finished churning to safeguard the rest of the produce, and so on.5 Just as in the case of the offerings to the Gruagach, the spirits receive their due and so the future supply is (hopefully) safeguarded. The offerings are a gift of thanks for their protection, as well as encouragement for them to continue.
Although butter and milk are specific offerings in these examples – “I give you some of this to ensure more of this” – in most cases, it does not matter what is given (although there may be some things that shouldn’t be offered – we’ll get to that in a bit). For example, in Ireland it’s traditional to pour a little of whatever you’re drinking to the spirits if you happen to be drinking outside. You’re on their turf, so it would be rude not to share, basically.
So offerings, libations and sacrifices can have a variety of purposes. On the one hand they are made to a deity or spirit, for example, in order to give thanks to them and show our honour and respect for them. In doing so, the we hopes to build and maintain a relationship with the deity, or deities, and ensure their good favour for the future. In some cases, such offerings can be made in order to secure a particular favour, such as curing a toothache or a plentiful supply of fish. These can be called votive offerings.
On the other hand, offerings can be an act of propitiation – in other words, an act of appeasement to a deity or (more usually) a particular being in the hope that they will leave you alone – the idea of do ut abeas, ‘I give that thou mayest be gone.’6 In Gaelic practice, propitiation is often aimed at faeries, who don’t generally have a reputation for being kind and helpful towards people. Some do, but there is never a guarantee; some spirits prefer to be left alone completely, others may appreciate a token of your respect and agree to peaceful terms so long as you keep showing your respect.
Sometimes, the spirits may behave negatively towards us because we have offended them in some way. This is often accidental, and due to our own ignorance, but the result of having pissed off spirits on our hands – no matter the reason – is still the same. Offence may be caused be through introducing something they don’t like into their environment (iron, for example), or because we have failed to show them due consideration or respect. A lot of the time, faeries are referred to as the Good Folk, the Wee Folk, or the Gentry, for example – complimentary and inoffensive names that won’t attract their attention to the person speaking of them. In some ways these euphemistic terms are encouraging – we refer to them in ways we hope they’ll behave if they do happen to be listening. But mostly it’s because of the fact that they’re said hate the name that’s been given to them (the ‘F’ word, if you will).7
An offering can have both aims – it can be votive in the sense that it gives thanks, while also being propitiatory in the sense that the person making the offering is essentially making a contract with the being or deity they are making the offering to, to either appease or encourage their favour, or both. “I give this to you in thanks for what you’ve done so far, and in the hope that you will continue on in the same way.”
In making an offering there is no automatic guarantee that it will be accepted: our actions are everything, not just the offerings we make. If an offering is accepted then it doesn’t mean that everything will go the way we want it to. It doesn’t guarantee an easy life.
Sometimes we might find that an offering isn’t accepted, and perhaps even causes offence (or else something else we’ve done might cause offence). The first thing we want to do in this kind of situation is make amends, and offerings and prayer are a natural place to start. In Scotland, for example, when the women of the house rose on the morning after Là Fhèill Brìghde (February 1) after welcoming Brìde into the house and offering her a specially made bed for the night, signs would be looked for in the ashes of the hearth that Brìde had visited during the night. A footprint or a sign of her club or wand imprinted in the ashes was considered to be a positive sign, but if no favourable sign could be determined from the ashes, then it meant that Brìde had been offended somehow and so had chosen to stay away. The household would then sacrifice a cock in her name (buried alive near to where three streams met) and burn juniper in the house to sain it and propitiate her in the hope of making things right.8 Today we might follow suit – minus the animal cruelty (don’t bury animals alive, folks, mm’kay?) – in making an offering with sincere and heartfelt apologies, followed by saining the house with juniper.
In the historical evidence we have to hand, we see that offerings were traditionally made in a variety of places, at different times of the year, and in different ways throughout both Christian and pre-Christian times. Naturally we follow suit today.
The archaeological record also helps paint a picture of practice. Rivers, wells and other bodies of water such as lakes are often associated with goddesses and – later – the saints who sometimes took their place, such as Boann at the River Boyne in Ireland, Sinann of the River Shannon, and *Clota/Clutha at the River Clyde in Scotland – and so it’s no surprise to find that these places are the focal points for many offerings of the pre-Christian Gaels. Or what are thought to be offerings, I should say, because we can only assume that the deposits we find are likely to have been put there for religious purposes. This may not always be the case.
We also have to bear in mind that watery contexts are pretty special in archaeological terms, because the items that find their way into the water tend to find themselves in conditions that are low in oxygen. Without oxygen, bacteria that would otherwise eat away at organic material and help it to rot can’t thrive, and so deposits are often preserved better than they would be elsewhere – buried in soil or left out in the open. They’re also less likely to be disturbed or dug up, or damaged by ploughing or building development, so there’s that too. So while we can say that watery contexts seem to have been a focus where votive offerings were made, in archaeological terms, this could be just an accident of survival. Other places could have been popular too, we just don’t see it so much in the archaeological record.
Still, we can’t ignore the fact that watery contexts do seem to have played an important part in ritual expression for the pre-Christian Gaels. Having a clean source of water is important and so naturally, perhaps, clean sources – and especially ones that had a reputation for healing – were venerated and associated with goddesses and then saints.9
Of course, maybe we just aren’t seeing the other kinds of offerings because they are no longer there and so the evidence has become skewed. Things like food will naturally rot or get eaten by wildlife so we won’t see that in the archaeological record, unless we get large deposits of things like bones that occur in what seem to be ritual contexts. This is something we have to bear in mind as we examine the evidence, because we have to remember that archaeology can’t tell us everything. Nor can history or folklore, on their own. Considered all together, however, we get a much more complete picture.
Getting back to the archaeological evidence, the offerings found in watery contexts (and, occasionally, in dry contexts, like fields) are often valuable items such as bronze weapons, brooches, ornate cups and bowls, cauldrons and even trumpets. In some cases, the practice of sacrificing animals and humans is suggested, such as the human skulls that have been found in the lake of Loughnashade near Emain Macha in Ireland, alongside the bronze trumpets.10
Irish literature gives us some examples of human sacrifice. Crom Cruach, for instance, is said to have demanded “the firstlings of every issue and the chief scions of every clan”, or else:
“Milk and corn
They would ask from him speedily,
In return for one-third of their healthy issue.”11
At the Fair of Taillte, St Patrick mentions the slaying of oxen and cows along with the burning of first-born children.12 Here it has to be wondered whether Patrick is throwing a little Biblical reference into the mix (the killing of babies by Herod, say, to emphasise the fact that such practices went against the teachings of Jesus) to paint a more horrific picture, or whether it actually did happen – or perhaps more likely, that such things were known (or rumoured) to have happened.
Another literary example can be seen during the funeral of Fiachra, where fifty hostages from Munster were buried alive around his burial mound. In the Dindshenchas, hostages were also said to have been offered as sacrifices in times of plague (as was said to happen in Gaul), and the one tale tells of how the land became blighted after the king married a woman, Becuma, who swore falsely that she was a virgin. The king was advised by his druids that the only way to recover from the blight was to sacrifice the son of an undefiled couple and sprinkle the doorposts and land with the boys’ blood. As it happened, such a boy was found but the mother pleaded for his life and so a two-bellied cow was killed instead, and two birds (signifying an Otherworldly element) were found inside.13
Human sacrifices – usually newborns or young children – were said to have also been laid at the threshold of newly built houses to appease any spirits present at the site, although in some cases hostages were said to have been used at forts. The legend of St Oran, who was at Iona at the founding of St Columba’s community, willingly agreed “to go under the clay of this island to hallow it,”14 at the advice of St Columba (and so was received immediately into heaven) further supports the belief in such a practice. It’s possible that this self-sacrifice by St Oran was meant to be a “foundation offering” of sorts, and a hangover of pre-Christian belief. We’ll come back to this in a bit.
With all that said, the issue of human sacrifice is a knotty one. While there are plenty of sources attesting to or suggesting it in Irish literature, none of it is contemporary to the time it was actually supposed to be happening. In looking at these sources, we have to be objective and question the motives behind the claims being made – as Christian writers, are the allusions to human sacrifice meant to be gruesome and gory as paganism was perceived to be, or is it the result of actual knowledge that these things happened? Are the claims consistent, which could suggest actual practice, or are they overblown and exaggerated? Can they be supported with archaeological evidence?
Archaeology can only suggest human sacrifice, rather than prove it conclusively, so when human remains are found in unusual places, conclusions need to be drawn cautiously and in consideration of the facts at hand. To be adamant that human sacrifice did not take place because there is no hard evidence is just as dangerous as being adamant that it must have taken place because everybody else was doing it (although to be honest, I err with the latter opinion, personally).
The remains of well-preserved bodies such as Lindow Man, found in a bog in Cheshire (England), gives tantalising evidence to suggest how human sacrifice may have been carried out by the Iron Age Celts – he was garrotted, bludgeoned and possibly stabbed before being left to the bog. Certainly this doesn’t seem to have been some sort of chance Iron Age mugging: Lindow Man had been well looked after and fed before his death. The means of causing his death in three different ways certainly suggests a ritualistic element, but that does not necessarily mean his death was ritualised for religious purposes – another explanation could be that he was put to death as a criminal, perhaps.15
Then again, the fact that he was killed in a bog suggests some sort of significance – if this was justice, it wasn’t swift because he was killed in what would have been a very remote place. In this light, it has been suggested that the bog is significant because it is a liminal place – an ‘inbetween’ place that is neither water nor land, but both and something else entirely at the same time, something other. Lindow Man isn’t an isolated incident – several bog bodies have been found in Ireland, as well, all of them seemingly of Iron Age date. Could this have had religious significance?
Aside from bogs, human remains that are suggestive of sacrifice have also been found buried at the thresholds of dwellings.16 Some of these, at the very least, may have been buried at the threshold as a “foundation deposit” – a sacrifice made to ensure the protection or blessing of those who lived (or used) there, rather like St Oran did for his religious community. Once again the simple presence of them, coupled with the literary evidence, doesn’t necessarily prove that human sacrifice was practised: Just because they’re there doesn’t mean they have to have been killed specifically for the purpose. Looking at the bigger picture we can see that other practises found recorded in literature appear to be borne out by the archaeology, such as the presences of charred animal bones over a large area at the summit of Uisneach, one of the most important ritual sites associated with the druids in Irish literature, where Geoffrey Keating wrote that such sacrifices were performed in the spring.17
The problem with proving that a person found in a particular place is evidence of a human sacrifice can be applied to some extent with other types of sacrifices and offerings as well. Just because we find a pile of bones or weapons deposited somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean they have to have been put there for votive purposes. However, in many cases a votive offering is often the most likely explanation, and if we look at the archaeological evidence and compare it with later practice and evidence from folk lore we can see that while practises may have changed to a lesser or greater degree, there is some semblance of continuity in what the more modern Gaels did (and in some cases, continue to do) with their ancient ancestors.
In later times, while human remains were not buried underneath a new house, an offering of sorts was still made to appease and procure a blessing of the spirits by providing furniture (including a bed) and food on the night before the owners were meant to take up residence. If, in the morning, the food had not been touched, or the crumbs had not been swept away, then the house was deemed to be unsafe to live in. Writing in the nineteenth century, Evans-Wentz noted that he knew of two houses that had been left empty because of this.18
Looking at later traditions we can certainly see that water was not the only place that offerings are made in Gaelic practice. It’s more than likely that these types of offerings would have been just as abundant in history and prehistory, but without contemporary written references to it we are unlikely to see it now.
In rare instances, perishable goods like pats of butter have been found, preserved, in places like bogs (where the anaerobic conditions stopped the food from rotting) – and in some cases these finds are thousands of years old. It’s possible that at least some of these pats of butter were deliberately put into the bog with the intention of being retrieved at some point. This “bog butter” was left in the bog to preserve it and so that the waters of the bog would impart a distinctive flavour to the butter, making it a special delicacy – something that was considered to be a real treat. Because of the fluid nature of bogs, sometimes these butters drifted off elsewhere and were never found again, until they were discovered hundreds or thousands of years later by peat-cutters. In at least some cases, however, it’s possible that the butter was put in the bog as an offering, not for flavouring. As an important part of the economy, butter as an offering would make perfect sense.19
Now we’ve got a broad overview, let’s look at a few examples in more detail.
Seaweed was a precious commodity in coastal areas of pre-Industrial western Scotland, providing not just a cheap source of food (dulse) but also a valuable source of manure with which to fertilise the often shallow and easily depleted soils in the Western Isles in particular.20 After the Industrial Revolution, it also became an important ingredient in the soap industry, and therefore became even more firmly entrenched in the coastal economies of Scotland.
While seaweed itself is not a fantastic source of nutrition for fertilising soils, it was at least freely available and relatively easy to harvest. The often stormy nature of the coast also meant that it was usually in abundant supply, being collected as it piled up on the shore.
However, in times when the storms failed to appear, and therefore so did the seaweed, certain rites were resorted to in order to beseech ‘Shony’ to send some seaweed their way. On the Isle of Lewis, the antiquarian Martin Martin tells us, the sea-god Shony, “had libations offered to him …at Hallowtide: they gathered to the Church of Saint Mulvay, Lewis: each family furnished a peck of malt, and this was brew’d into ale: one of their number was picked out to wade into the sea up to the middle, and carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture, cry’d out with a loud voice, saying: ‘Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of seaware, for enriching our ground the ensuing year,’ and so threw the cup of ale into the sea. This was performed in the night time. At his return to land they all went to church; there was a candle burning upon the altar; and then, standing silent for a little time, one of them gave a signal at which the candle was put out, and immediately all of them went to the fields, where they fell a-drinking their ale, and spent the remainder of the night in dancing and singing.”21
John Gregorson Campbell also records the practice of making offerings for seaweed after a winter shortage had been 22 As Martin records on the Isle of Lewis, the rites took place at Hallowtide – the Thursday before Easter (not Hallowe’en as some scholars have suggested), and instead of ale being offered, Campbell says that buttery porridge was poured from every headland near the places that seaweed were traditionally collected. In the Hebrides, the day was called Là Brochain Mhóir, ‘the day of the Big Porridge’, and the porridge was poured into the sea “with certain incantations or rhymes.” It was only supposed to be done during stormy weather, and the rite was believed to ensure an abundance of seaweed the very next day.23
Alexander Carmichael records what might have been one of the ‘incantations’ to Shony in the Carmina Gadelica:
“Produce of sea to land,
Produce of land to sea;
He who doeth not in time,
Scant shall be his share.
Seaweed being cast on shore
Bestow, Thou Being of bestowal;
Fruitfulness being brought to wealth,
O Christ, grant me my share!”24
As the ritual act of the offering implies, and the prayer suggests more overtly, the idea of the rite was that it was reciprocal: As the men gave the sea the produce of the land, it was hoped the sea would return the favour and send its ware to the shore, a fair exchange.
Ronald Black links the name Shony to Manannan mac Lir, with St Bannan being a Christianisation of the Irish sea god, linked with saint John the Baptist. The name Shony, or Seónaidh in Gaelic, is itself a corruption of the name John (or, more to the point, “Johnny”), who is linked to St Bannan. St Bannan’s name itself appears to be a corruption of Manannán, presumably thanks to the way B’ and M’s can form similar sounds when lenited in Gaelic.25
Fish as well as seaweed were important to the coastal economy and offerings were likewise made to the sea in order to ensure a plentiful supply in the coming season. In Lewis, around 1800, Dr Maclagan recorded a sacrifice that took place in the sea, in similar fashion to the offerings made to Shony for the seaweed:
“A sheep or goat was offered as a sacrifice. The oldest man of the sea was expected to take the lead, assisted usually by the one who came second in respect of seniority and experience. The animal was brought down to the edge of the sea, and after a certain order of procedure was observed, the officiating person, who was a kind of priest for the occasion, in the midst of dead silence, and surrounded by the whole company of those interested, who stood looking on, went down on his knees and proceeded to kill the victim, whose blood was carefully caught in a dish. This over, the officiating man waded out into the sea as far as he could, carrying the vessel in which the blood was, and scattered the blood as widely as he could on the water round about him. Then followed the disposing of the carcase, which was cut up into pieces corresponding to the number of poor persons in the district, and a piece was sent to each such person, to be eaten by them, but none else would touch it.”26
Again, the ritual clearly implies a reciprocal element from land to sea, and sea to land.
Wells are often dedicated to saints in both Ireland and Scotland, either local saints or ones that are much more widely known, like St Brìde (or St Brigid in Ireland, a saint likely to have originally been a goddess who was then adopted into Christianity with a suitably Christian background). Rites associated with wells are often to do with healing, especially the healing of the mentally ill, but in many cases the healing associations are not necessarily specific.
In Scotland the practice of using wells as a focus for votive offerings began sometime towards the end of the third millennium BCE.27 Folklore and myth also attests to a long tradition of such a mystical approach to wells. For example, according to the Dindshenchas (Irish placename lore) the River Boyne is said to have been created by Boann after she drank from the mystical well of Segais, which was supposed to only be approached by her husband Nechtan. After illicitly drinking from the well, disfigured and hideous to behold, she ran away in shame until she ended up at the coast where she died, and the path she took is said to be the course of the Boyne itself, as the water from the well of Segais overflowed and followed her.28 Recorded well into Christian times, the tradition of the sacred well can clearly be seen to persist well beyond the pagan heyday.
One example can be found on the island of Loch Maree in the north-western Highlands of Scotland. The island had a reputation for healing, and in the presbytery minutes of 1678 it is mentioned – with great disapproval – that men had been to the island to make a sacrifice to St Mourie, or “ane god Mourie”, according to some of the locals.29 Milk was also poured on the ground near the well as a libation and the meat from the sacrificed bull was traditionally given to deirbhleinean Ma-Ruibhe, ‘Maelrubha’s poor ones’ (Maelrubha being a popular saint in the area – ‘St Mourie’). These deirbhleinean specialised in healing, and so the sacrifice and offering of the meat to them hints at the belief in some sort of mystical connection between them and the healing properties associated with the island.30
It was usual for such practices to be carried out on specific days of the year, such as before sunrise at Bealtainn (May 1st) or on the festival of the saint to whom the well was dedicated. The well was supposed to be approached in silence before the sun rose, and the person was often supposed to be barefoot and alone. Sometimes it was traditional to walk round the well three times, sunwise, before the water was collected for drinking – either to heal or grant a wish. At many wells, silver coins (especially bent sixpences) were often thrown into the well before the water was drunk, or else the coin might be pressed sideways into the trunk of a nearby tree. Sometimes twigs of heather were thrown into the water instead of silver, or else they were thrown near about.31
A common practice at wells was the tradition of tying pieces or scraps of cloth or ribbon to a nearby tree after having approached the well. On the Black Isle, in north-eastern Scotland, the Munlochy Clootie Well is still visited by people who leave behind their offerings. Unlike most wells associated with healing, the Munlochy Clootie Well can be approached at any time of the year instead of specific times such as before sunrise at Bealtainn. The clooties – the rags or ribbons – are supposed to be left after the water from the well has been skimmed and drunk, and originally it was said the clootie should correspond in some way to the part of the body that was ailing the person.32 St Thenew’s Well, once situated near St Enoch’s Square in the city centre of Glasgow, took the idea further:
“[The well] was shaded by an old tree which drooped over the well, and which remained ’till the end of the last century. On this tree, the devotees, who frequented the well, were accustomed to nail, as thank-offerings, small bits of tin-iron – probably manufactured for that purpose by a craftsman in the neighbourhood – representing the parts of the body supposed to have been cured by the virtues of the sacred springs, such as eyes, hands, feet, ears, and others.”33
Comparison can be drawn at this point to the practice of depositing carvings of parts of the body which required healing during the Iron Age at river sources like that of the Seine, which was dedicated to the Gaulish goddess Sequana.34 Could clooties be seen to be an evolution of earlier practice?
As with any offering at a well, the clooties should not be removed from the branches of the tree, otherwise it is said that the person removing the rag will take on the problem that the person who left it was wishing to get rid of.35 In Cromarty, the author Hugh Miller noted:
“It is not yet twenty years since a thorn bush, which formed a little canopy over the spring of St Bennet, used to be covered anew every season with little pieces of rag, left on it as offerings to the saint by sick people who came to drink of the water.”36
Linen and items of wool were hung on a tree that stood next to a well at Montblairie, Banffshire, and farthings and bodles were thrown into the spring as well. At the Lix well, Glen Ogle, quartz pebbles were offered, and writing near the end of the nineteenth century, James MacInlay noted that a small cairn of the stones could still be found just behind the well itself. Coins of small value were also given in offering, and these were usually thrown into the water, and in the nineteenth century one well was found to contain coins dating as far back as Elizabeth I after a drought almost dried up the spring that fed the well, and enabled maintenance work to be carried out. The man who carried out the work, Patrick Dudgeon,
noted that the properties of the water had partially dissolved most of the pennies and concluded that it was not unreasonable to assume that the practice had been going on for some time prior to the reign of Elizabeth. Although offerings were no longer made at the well, it was noted that older folk remembered a time when rags and ribbons also being hung on the bushes around the well.37
Next to Maelrubha’s Well on Innis Maree stood an oak tree, and there the trunk was covered in nails that had once pinned a ribbon or piece of clothing to it. Bone buttons and buckles had also been nailed to it as offerings, and pennies and halfpennies had been pressed edgeways into the trunk, presumably because the branches were too high for the offerings to be tied to.38
Wells were particularly associated with curing toothache, but some preferred the practice of baking an oatcake made specially for the occasion with saliva. Once baked, the oatcake was then placed in water under a bridge where ‘the living and the dead cross,’ and as it melted and dissolved in the water, so the toothache was supposed to disappear.39 Like the rituals of the wells and those associated with Shony, the ritual had to be carried out in absolute silence.
Offerings to the daoine sìth inhabit a shady area of lore incorporating old pagan belief, secular practice, mixed somewhat uncomfortably with Christianity. The belief in the daoine sìth – as fallen angels, old gods demoted to the role of mischevious or even malevolent faeries, or else spirits of the dead – often seem to contradict each other, but the contradictions in themselves suggest remnants of ancestor and spirit reverence, and the honouring of the gods all mashed up and confused in an effort to reconcile them with a new faith.
In his survery of fairy belief in the Celtic countries Evans-Wentz explains the propitiation of the daoine sìth very neatly:
“Partly perhaps on account of this popular opinion that the Sidhe are a subterranean race, they are sometimes described as gods of the earth or dei terreni, as in the Book of Armagh; and since it was believed that they, like the modern fairies, control the ripening of crops and the milk-giving of cows, the ancient Irish rendered to them regular worship and sacrifice, just as the Irish of today do by setting out food at night for the fairy-folk to eat.”40
Belief in the daoine sìth – and especially any dues paid to them by the ‘peasantry’ as the antiquarians so quaintly called the (usually) rural folk of Ireland who held on to the beliefs the longest – was considered to be dangerous territory by the church. Although tolerated, folk practices of propitiating the daoine sìth were considered to be too pagan by half.41 Today, the Creideamh Sí, or “Fairy Faith,” is alive and well, though it’s not something that’s talked about or admitted to much.
Some of the simplest offerings are made to the Good Folk and the spirits of the place in the forms of libations of milk – a small dish left out on the doorstep each night, or a splash here or there to keep the household brownie happy. At cairns – piles of stones commonly built as markers of burial sites, and often found on remote hills and moors or near water – a smooth stone might be added as an offering of remembrance or thanks to the spirit inhabiting the place.
Gruagachs are spirits who look after the cattle in a particular place, keeping them safe from harm and healthy and happy to ensure an abundant supply of milk for the milkmaids to make butter and cheese with – the making of which would take up a considerable portion of the milkmaid’s summer to make sure there was enough dairy produce to last the winter when fresh milk was in short supply.
Offerings of milk are traditionally poured onto Gruagach or Brownie stones – described as either hollowed out or thick flat stones found in the fields the cattle were kept in. Observing the custom in the late seventeenth century, Thomas Pennant wrote that the libations were made every Sunday by the milkmaid for the coming week:
“This was one of the sober offerings that well became a poor frugal people, who had neither wine nor oil to bestow; by which they recommended their only stock and subsistence to their favourite divinity, whom they had always in their eye, and whose blessings they enjoyed every day.”42
Martin Martin also described the custom on the island of Valay.
The less benevolent spirits, the Good Folk, are also propitiated with milk, and McNeill attributes the practice as having evolved from the Gruagach stones.43 Libations of milk are made in a similar fashion at fairy knolls, and in Ireland ‘beastlings’ (the first milk taken from the cow after calving, which is rich in colostrum – a nutritionally rich and concentrated kind of milk full of antibodies and other good stuff) was often poured in the ancient raths and at the fairy thorns to appease the Good Folk. Also outdoors, it’s traditional to give a casual libation of whatever it you’re drinking to the Good Folk, to ensure they leave you alone (however, alcoholic beverages should not be poured onto the ground in the US).
There are many superstitions involved with avoiding attracting the attention of the Good Folk, and in the good old days in Scotland it’s said that when they visited a house at night they would try to gain entrance through various means. Therefore the household was supposed to to put out the uisge nan cas – ‘feet water’, in which feet had been washed that day, otherwise the daoine sìth would call to it to let them in. If that failed, they would call to the band of the spinning wheel to open the door, but if the housewife had taken it off the wheel, the band was unable to come. Likewise, the little cake, or the oatcake made from the leftover meal on the board could let them in, unless a hole had been put through it as it was made and (in some cases) a live coal had been put on top of it. Failing all that, they called on the smáladh an teine, the raking coal, but if that had been secured properly to ensure the fire did not go out overnight, the Good Folk had no other way of trying to get in.44
Even so, there were occasions when they could still cause trouble, especially if a newborn baby had not been sained or baptised (saining is a rite of protection). The Good Folk have a reputation for stealing away healthy babies and leaving their sick fairy children – ‘changelings’ – in their place, who then whither and die in the care of its human carers, so the appropriate protections are important.
In the days before modern medical advancements helped us to understand illnesses and their causes, babies that became sick for no apparent reason were often believed to be changelings, and offerings were made to the Good Folk in order to encourage the return of the human baby:
“The parents or friends of the stolen baby must take the fairy child to some known haunt of the fairies, generally some sport where peculiar soughing sounds are heard, where there are remains of some ancient cairn or stone circle, or some green mound or shady dell, and lay the child down there, repeating certain incantation. They must also place beside it a quantity of bread, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and flesh of fowl, then retire to a distance and wait for an hour or two or until after midnight. If on going back to where the child was laid they find that the offerings have disappeared, it is held as evidence that the fairies have been satisfied, and that the human child is returned. The baby is then carried home, and great rejoicing made.”45
Babies were not believed to have been literally taken away and replaced by a fairy child, more like they were replaced ‘in spirit’. Likewise cows could be taken by the Good Folk, and while they were still there physically, they would in reality be gone with the daoine sìth and it would seem to the owner of the cow that they had suddenly been struck by some sort of inexplicable disease (and to be fair, this was probably actually the case).
This idea is found in offerings that are freely given as well; it’s believed that anything taken as an offering will have its toradh (or ‘foyson’, as Kirk called it) removed – i.e. the substance, virtue, or benefit of the person, animal or produce.46 The essence of the thing. So while the food or drink itself may remain, it shouldn’t be consumed by anyone because it doesn’t have any “goodness” left, and this idea extends to preventing animals from eating the offering too (though wild animals are often the exception here, perhaps because they might be agents of An Trì Naomh).47 This is a practice that differs from many other religions where the offering must be eaten.
The Gaelic year is full of festival days, with the four Quarter Days of Samhainn (November 1), Là Fheill Bhrìghde (February 1), Bealltainn (May 1) and Lúnastal (August 1) being rooted in pre-Christian practice and forming the major focus of seasonal rites and observances. These festivals in particular give us a wealth of information on the different offerings that may be made at specific times of the year. As the Christian calendar evolved and more and more saints came to be recognised, each with their own day dedicated to them, certain rites and traditions came to be associated with them as well. In some cases it is thought that the rites associated with the Quarter Days may have shifted slightly as they came to be regarded as ‘too pagan’ and so were moved to different festivals, into a more Christian context, or else traditions were simply duplicated, so it can be useful at times to look at the other festivals too.
Some of the offerings made were relatively bloody, with a sheep or heifer being killed for St Martin on his festival day of November 11 (suggesting a shift in tradition from Samhainn) in Ireland, and in Scotland bulls were traditionally sacrificed at Gairloch on St Maelrubha’s day (August 25) to aid in the cure of the mentally ill. A similar sacrifice was mentioned as an ‘abominable and heathenishe’ practice in the presbytery minutes of Applecross in 1656, after which they walked deiseal (sunwise) round a ruined chapel and tried to predict the future by a hollowed round stone. The minutes tell us that in order to do this, the men ‘tried the entreing of their head’ into the hollow.48
Most of the offerings we find in tradition are not so bloody, though some may have been ’sanitised’ somewhat and possibly bear hints of the bygone practice of human sacrifice, (though this is disputed – see below), but whatever the method the offerings have specific aims – usually to encourage a good season, a plentiful crop or harvest, prosperity and health, or else the offerings are to appease the spirits and avoid unwanted attention from malevolent beings. According to MacCulloch, for example, ‘spirits of the earth and air’ were propitiated on the Quarter Days by throwing a cock, hen, duck or cat outside, which was then supposed to be taken by any malevolent being nearby, thus averting its attentions away from the household.49 Failure to observe the practice would mean certain misfortune was soon to follow, and in general, failure to observe the traditions was considered to be a risky business.
At Bealltainn, special bannocks and a caudle – a custard type drink of milk and eggs with oatmeal added, or else a thicker version that was basted onto the bannock to make a sweet coating – are traditionally made and then offered to any predators of livestock:
“…The rites begin with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation: on that every one takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobs, each are dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them: each then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulders says ‘This I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep’; and so on. After that, they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: ‘This I give to thee, O Fox! Spare thou my lambs; this to thee, O hooded Crow! this, O Eagle!’ When the ceremony is over, they dine on the caudle.”50
The ‘particular being’ mentioned is presumably the Gruagach or Brownie who is supposed to guard the animals, and sure enough offerings of butter, cheese, eggs and milk, or else the Bealltainn caudle and bannock are supposed to be placed in a hollow stone, like the Gruagach Stone described above. All of this is not just to ensure the continued favour of the Gruagach (or perhaps another spirit involved in looking after the livestock), but to ensure a plentiful harvest and abundance of milk in the coming year.
On Là Fhìll Mìcheil (Michaelmas), September 29th, a similar tradition called the Devil’s Tithe is recorded, and it’s performed by taking a piece of bannock dough from the board and putting it on the embers of the hearth until it becomes burnt. The burnt dough is then thrown over the left shoulder as the person performing the rite says: “Here to thee, thou rascal [Devil], and stay behind me, stay from my kine!” In this way, the air sealbhaich, or prosperity, of the house or a particular person is assured.51
One of the most important aspects of the festivals is the reinforcement of social ties within the community.52 At Bealltainn, for example, when the celebrations were an event observed by the whole area (as is not so much the case today) the hearth fires were extinguished and relit from the bonfire built by the whole community, anyone who had committed a crime or had debts outstanding were not allowed to take part in the rite of taking the flame from the bonfire into the home to renew the hearth fire for the year ahead.
The Quarter Days were traditionally the days when payment of rent to the landlord, tithes to the chieftain and the renewal of client-patron relationships were due in Gaelic society, and at certain times of the year, when fresh produce was not so abundant, these payments – which would have been of food and drink, not money – would have been an especial burden on the ordinary person. In this light, it’s no surprise that some of the rites associated with the festivals are focused on ensuring that you and your family get your due, and also on protecting it. At Bealltainn, for example, it was customary to try and be the first to skim the well in the morning before your neighbours did, in order to get the toradh, or substance, of it before someone else could take it (today, it’s the skim of the tap, not the well, that’s observed, and there’s not so much competition to get it. The concern is more on making sure you don’t flush it down the toilet…). As Nerys Patterson puts it: “The focus on ‘first things’ obviously stems from the status of May 1 as the beginning of the new crop season, but the unstated question was not ‘will fertility prevail?’, but ‘will I get what I need out of the common resources of the land in the face of all this competition?”53
Offerings are not just made to the spirits in the field, the god of the sea and so on, but to each other. It is traditional for those who are better off made sure that any excess is given to those who are not as well off. This is seen at Là Fhèill Brìghde in Ireland, when it was customary for itinerant tramps to visit houses asking for handouts, or else in some places items of food would be left out that could be taken by those passing by.54 The same idea is found in the idea of the “Biddy Boys” or groups of young men and women would also go round visiting houses asking for donations, which would traditionally have been of bannocks, cheeses, ale and jams which the group would then take off somewhere and gather for a good feast and a dance.55 These adolescents and young men and women – on the cusp of adulthood, but not having yet taken up full status as an established, independent adult – can be thought of as symbolising or representing the unseen, unpredictable forces that everyone might need to appease. As the youngsters came thigging (‘begging’), the donations were gladly given as offerings.
In even the worst of times it’s considered bad form not to make an offering, but it’s also considered a great offence to refuse what is offered.56 At Hogmanay in Scotland, if the groups visiting houses – ‘firstfooting’ – to wish those within luck and prosperity for the year felt they had been ill-received, they were entitled to wish ill-luck on the household instead, rather like how “tricks” might be played on the ungenerous at Oidhche Shamhna.57
In essence, these practises help to reinforce the bonds of the community, as well as giving a more tangible identity to the Otherworldly forces that must be appeased at these time. In looking after the less wealthy it is felt that those who are better off may avert disaster upon themselves in the coming year. In looking after the well-being of the community as a whole, one ensures the well-being of oneself as well. After all, we never know when we might be the ones in need.
There is always somebody worse off than you, and this is recognised in different ways at different times of the year in Gaelic tradition. During the harvest, there was great competition to avoid being the last out in the field, and the first to finish harvesting would make a corn doll (called the cailleach, or old carline etc) and pass it onto a neighbour who was still harvesting, who would then pass it on to someone else and so on until the buck finally stopped somewhere. The final recipient of the dreaded doll would be looked upon as very unlucky indeed, and could look forward to nothing more than want and woe in the year ahead. Those who had passed on the cailleach could rest assured that they would be all right because someone else was sure to lose out. At least one person/family would always be considered ‘outside’ of the community in some way.58
In a similar vein, a ‘victim’ was often chosen at Bealltainn in some form or manner, who invariably had unpleasant things happen to him. In Perthshire, for example, the bonnach Bealtuinn was made and then divided amongst the men gathered at the bonfire. Of all the pieces, one piece was marked in some way (burnt, perhaps) and this was known as the cailleach beal-tine, or the Bealtuinn carline. Whoever received this piece was then promptly set upon by the other men and a great show of throwing him into the fire was made, with some of the men intervening at the last minute to save him.59
Previously the tradition has been interpreted as being evidence of a remnant of human sacrifice – i.e. whoever received the cailleach beal-tine would really have been thrown into the fire in times past. However, it could equally be interpreted that while the unlucky recipient was lumped with the epithet of cailleach beal-tine for the rest of the year, his fellow men intervened and saved him, in a symbolic act of recognising and reinforcing the communal bonds between them all. If the harvest failed everyone could suffer. Sometimes some families suffered disaster whereas others did not, but the expectation was that everyone would look after each other, and during the heyday of the clan system in Scotland it was the clan chief who was meant to look after his own in times of hardship as they looked after him with their tithes of food.
Whatever the case, such a rite could be interpreted as the men of the community coming together, with one of them offering themselves up as the unfortunate soul who would carry the burden of suffering for the year to come so the rest of the community wouldn’t have to. In turn, the rest of the community would save him from a dire fate, although they wouldn’t want to get too close to him in case his misfortune rubbed off.
1 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p291 and Lebor Gabála…
2 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p38; p279; p436.
3 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p70.
4 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland in 1769, 1998 (1772), p759; Martin, p254; Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p92-93.
5 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p37-38 – “Whatever milk falls on the ground in milking a cow is taken by the faeries, for faeries, for faeries need a little milk. Also, after churning, the knife which is run through the butter in drying it must not be scraped clean, for what sticks to it belongs to the faeries. Out of three pounds of butter, for example, an ounce or two would be left for the faeries.”
6 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p258.
7 Gregor, Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, “The name of fairy was not pleasing to them, and men spoke of them as “the fair folk,” or “the gueede neebours.” ”, p59 as one example.
8 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1994, p583.
9 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p25.
10 Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland, p183-184.
11 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p237.
12 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p237.
13 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p238.
14 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p238.
15 See C S Briggs – ‘Bog Bodies: Did They Fall Or Were They Pushed?’
16 A notable example being from Hornish Point, South Uist, where the bones of a twelve year old boy, along with some remains of cattle and sheep, were found in four separate pits dug into the floor of a later prehistoric house. No cause of death can be determined from the bones to suggest either sacrifice or natural causes, but the finds of animal bones along with the human bones may point to a foundation deposit along with the remains of a feast that was performed along with the ritual. – Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, 1998, p53.
17 Patterson, Cattle-lords and Clansmen, 1994, p139.
18 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p75.
19 Some bog butters, like those found near the find spot of a wooden female figurine that may have represented a goddess or guardian of a trackway built across the bog, and dating to the Iron Age, can more convincingly be interpreted as being likely to have been votive in nature. It’s worth noting, however, that some bog butters – especially those placed in wooden containers – may have been deposited on purpose to help ‘improve’ the flavour, but were then never retrieved by the owner. – See Hingley, Settlement and Sacrifice, 1998, p50.
20 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, p637-638. Martin Martin also notes this for the Isle of Lewis, for example.
21 Martin Martin (no page numbers given, accessed 12/04/08).
22 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p134.
23 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p548-549.
24 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, song 363. See also pages 579-580.
25 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, 590-591.
26 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, 590-591.
27 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p25.
28 See Boand I.
29 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p87.
30 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p139.
31 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p251; Gregor, Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p59; McNeill, 1957, The Silver Bough Vol 1, p67.
32 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p142.
33 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p199.
34 Green, The Gods of the Celts, 1986, p140; Green, Celtic Goddesses, 1995, p90-p93; Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts, 1997, p199.
35 “The latter was the symbol, or rather the embodiment of the former, and accordingly, to leave the gift was to leave the ailment – the patient being thus freed from both. The corrollary to this was, that whoever removed the offering took away also the disease represented by it.” MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p202. See also McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, p67.
36 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p192-193.
37 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p196-197.
38 MacInlay, Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, 1893, p195-6.
39 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p138.
40 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p291.
41 For example, Evans-Wentz records an anecdote from Scotland: “An elder in my church knew a woman who was accustomed, in milking her cows, to offer libations to the fairies. The woman was later converted to Christ and gave up the practice, and as a result one of her cows was taken by the fairies. Then she revived the practice.” Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p92.
42 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland in 1769, 1998 (1772), p759.
43 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol I, 1957, p87.
44 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p10.
45 Revd James Napier, 1879 – Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 1992, p17.
46 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p11; Walsh, 2002, p127/129.
47 Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p44.
48 Beith, Healing Threads, 1995, p87.
49 MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts, 1911, p244.
50 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland in 1769, 1998 (1772).
51 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p258.
52 Patterson, Cattle-lords and Clansmen, 1994, p138.
53 Patterson, Cattle-lords and Clansmen, 1994, p138.
54 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p15; p29-30.
55 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p27-28; Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, p582.
56 Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p30.
57 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, p78-79.
58 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol 2, p123.
59 McNeill, The Silver Bough Vol 2, p59-60.