To quote a former co-worker from Mississippi, “bein’s how” Halloween is almost here, and that most Outlander fans know that the Pagan fall feast of Samhain plays such a time-traveling role in the series, I thought it might be appropriate to share with everyone a few fairytales related to the books.
Samhain in a nutshell: The festival of Samhain (meaning Summers End, and pronounced sah-ween) is celebrated as an end-of-summer fire festival which serves to celebrate the harvest season while also honoring the dead. The festival is typically held at the end of October and marks the end of the harvest, and the beginning of the coldest time of the year.
For the thousands of years of religious and political human history, there always seems to be some sort of holiday held this time of year. The Christians celebrate All Saints or All Hallows Day and in Hispanic cultures the Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Children celebrate the beginning of the holiday candy season. Whichever way you choose to bless yourself, there’s just something about this time of year – a time when folks turn inward, get ready to grin and bear the idea of winter, and wait for spring to arrive.
It’s easy to imagine how life must have taken a huge turn at the end of harvest season. It would transform from a very agrarian (work all day from sunup to sundown – gotta get the harvest in so we don’t die – oh shit there’s four feet of snow on the ground) to a more homebound lifestyle. One would assume this shift in outdoor (and sunlit) time could easily sway folks to be a bit more introspective on life, illness, thankfulness, death, and things that go bump on thatch-roofed (I ain’t goin’ out there) nights.
Outlander book readers are very aware of some of the characters of Scottish Highland folklore who are portrayed in the books. From Nessie herself, to kelpies, silkies and the wee folk. I decided to try and learn more about these characters, and checked out my local public library to snoop what was on the shelves. And boy-oh-boy, there’s a whole lot to learn. It’d be impossible for me to put together a “quick synopsis” of anything related to thousands of years of folklore in less than about 3,000,000 pages and a few PhD’s. Instead, I’m choosing to go with just a few stories that made an impression on me, and I hope you enjoy.
Before I get into the fairy tales themselves, we should probably try to actually define a fairy. Fairy people, banshees, wee folk, sideheóg, have all been categorized as fallen angels of sorts. Not quite good enough to be saved. Not quite bad enough to be lost. Some would call them “gods of the earth” and in some cases, when not worshipped or provided offerings, they dwindled not only in public consciousness, but in physical size as well.
Some types of fairies seem to have a better moral compass than others, and are instilled with some sort of honor code. Others just to want to be little turds and steal your shoes. Still others are the stuff of nightmares and there ain’t NO reason to go out to use the privy if you’ve got a feeling that one of those buggers is about.
I found the following book at the local library, “Fairy and Fold Tales of the Irish Peasantry” – edited by William Butler Yeats, first published in 1888 by Walter Scott, London. And while it pertains to Irish folklore, there were several fun bits of cross-over lore which I think Outlander fans would enjoy. If you’d like to read more of these stories, please see your local library, or check online (It’s available on Amazon).
In the late 19th century, Yeats himself decided to go into a bit of folklore hunt because he lamented over the loss of fairy tales. He chose to take a bit of a fairy-tale gathering road trip through Ireland, and as a result, assembled this book.
The synopses of “The Witches Excursion” and “The Brewery of Eggshells” are my summaries of two stories from that book.
Red James and “The Witches Excursion”
This story is an account of a certain character, Shemus Rua, whose name Outlander fans may recognize.
Shemus Rua (“Red James”) was awakened one night to the sound of a gathering of witches who were sitting at Shemus’ hearth happily getting sauced with his old housekeeper Madge. Seeing that they were getting the stink-eye from Shemus for drinking HIS wine, the hags thought it’d be a good idea to be on their way. And the witches – being the canny creatures they are – decided against leaving through the door, and chose to depart by snatching their red caps, grabbing a stick, and chanting a simple intonation:
“By yarrow and rue, and my red cap too, Hie over to England.”
While he admittedly found the sight of drunken witches a bit silly, as a dutiful employer Shemus thought it’d be prudent to dismiss the “desateful ould crococile” of a housekeeper and warn her not return again. But this Shemus, like our James, was also talented in the gift of languages and “being somewhat conversant in witch-lore” tried his luck with the “by yarrow and rue” charm and grabbed a red cap of his own.
Unfortunately for Shemus, he was unceremoniously sucked out of his house, across the Irish Sea, into the Welsh Mountains, through a keyhole, down a hallway, into a basement, and knocked unconscious.
Poor Shemus woke surrounded by yet another bunch of drunkards, and apparently thought – well screw it – he might as well join in and get pissed drunk himself. “The heady liquors soon got into their brains, and a period of unconsciousness succeeded the ecstasy, the head-ache, the turning around of the barrels, and the “scattered sight” of poor Shemus.” So poor Shemus passed out and was roughly awakened by the lord of the castle (oops), who was ticked off that a bunch of fools teleported their way into his house and drank all of his booze.
And in those days, the theft of booze was grave indeed; so much so that it was punishable by immediate hanging. Och! So, poor Shemus was marched to the gallows. But while on his march there, he heard a shout from the jeering crowd, “Ach Shemus, alanna! Is it going to die you are in a strange place without your cappen d’yarrag (red cap)?”
Ah-ha! A plan was formed… Shemus begged leave of the lord to be allowed to die peacefully in his red cap. A servant was sent for the cap (which Shemus had drunkenly left in the basement) and when he plopped it on his head, he once again recited the witches charm,
“By yarrow and rue, and my red cap too…” Poof! Off he went.
And in the end, the lord took the whole red cap episode to heart, learned a lesson in temperance, and from that point forward, kindly decided to wait at least 24 hours (post-offense) to hang a man. (How charitable.)
21st Century take home message: Don’t get snockered without a red cap.
Changelings – “The Brewery of Egg-Shells”
I’d never heard of stories of changelings before Outlander, and I find the whole idea rather heartbreakingly creepy. In a nutshell, the idea of a changeling stems from the notion of ‘fairy theft’. Fairies would sneak into homes, and steal a perfectly healthy baby. The human baby was to live forever with the fairies, but would be replaced with one who – while similar in appearance – was actually a weaker, shriveled, and unhealthy fairy. A changeling “child”.
In Yeats’ book, there was a whole section devoted to changeling stories and poems, and I found the story of “The Brewery of Egg Shells” quite shocking. In this one, the mom fought back.
The story tells of a Mrs. Sullivan, who was convinced she was a victim of fairy theft. Her once healthy blue-eyed baby boy was replaced with a shrunken squalling child. Her friends and neighbors suggested that indeed, she was left with a changeling child, but she should take comfort in knowing that her babe would be forever in the company of the good fairy people. In the meantime, to get rid of the changeling, then neighborhood mom-watch suggested that she should either roast the changeling alive, burn its nose off, or leave it out in the snow. (Sheesh!)
Not wanting to do the changeling harm, Mrs. Sullivan sought the advice of the local charmer, Gray Ellen. Ellen suggested the following advice: “Put down the big pot, full of water, on the fire, and make it boil like mad; then get a dozen new laid eggs, break them, and keep the shells, but throw away the rest; when that is done, put the shells in the pot of boiling water, and you will soon know whether it is your own boy or a fairy. If you find that it is a fairy in the cradle, take the red-hot poker and cram it down his ugly throat, and you will not have much trouble with him after that, I promise you.”
Damn, girl. You angry!
So, our dear Mrs. Sullivan set about her work. She got her water boiling, added her eggshells, and the ugly fairy-baby stopped screeching long enough to friggin talk! to her (thus confirming her changeling theory) and ask her what she was cooking. Mrs. Sullivan kept the creepy fairy-baby talking to her while she continued cooking, all the while waiting for her poker to heat up to red-hot / throat-scorching temperatures. When Mrs. S finally told the fairy about the eggshell brew, the changeling let out a horrific scream! Mrs. Sullivan turned quickly to grab her hot poker, and was racing towards the cradle to dispatch the creature. She somehow lost her footing and fell flat. The poker went flying, but she quickly got to her feet. Her poker plan was now shot to hell, so she decided instead to just grab the thing and toss it into the boiling water.
But when she looked down into the cradle, she found her own wee baby boy, tucked safely asleep, rosy lipped, and happily suckling away in his dreams.
21st Century take home message: There are much worse things than a colicky baby.
The Scottish version of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Let’s just take a moment here to congratulate Diana G. yet again on creating a body of work that is so rich in story that she can just add extra characters like nuckelavee’s and move on about the rest of the storyline. In the books, the physical appearance of the Nuckelavee is never really described, they only allude to its scary-as-shit status. And I’m pretty sure that’s intentional, because not only is this one creepy mother-thumper, there’s a long standing phobia of actually discussing the Nuckelavee or calling it by name for fear of attracting its attention.
As the story of the Nuckelavee originates from the group of islands lying off the northern tip of Scotland, called the Orkneys, and being that I am safely across the Atlantic, I feel safe enough to go into a bit of a description of this beastie.
Sometimes referred to as the Devil of the Sea, the Nuckelavee was greatly feared according to Orcadian folklore, as the creature was known to be a skinless horrific beast who terrified folks on the long dark nights of winter and promised death, drought, fire and famine once summoned.
For a truly creepy tale of the Nuckelavee, I encourage you to read “Tammas and the Nuckelavee”, which was recorded by the Orkney folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, and is available here: (http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/nuckenc.htm)
It’s the story of poor Tammas, who was out alone late one night and had an encounter with one. Poor Tammas was simply trying to get home, and noticed a huge object in front of him, blocking his path. On one side was the sea, on the other, a deep freshwater loch. He knew the creature in front of him was no earthly being, but poor Tammie also knew that the worst thing to do would be to turn his back toward the creature, and so he bravely faced the foul-mouthed Nuckelavee.
Please refer to Dennison’s version of the story as the physical description alone is the stuff of nightmares. And it’s a quick little read for this time of year. I will however provide my top five icky things about Mr. Nuckles below.
- He’s skinless. He’s a half (skinless) man and half (skinless) horse.
- The horse part has only one eye and a large whale-like gapping mouth.
- The man part has a large head that just rolls around on the shoulders of the man body.
- The man part also has extra long creepy (also skinless) arms that like to reach out and grab victims.
- He’s got horrible breath.
Without giving away what happens to poor Tammas, he recalled that the Nuckelavee has a weakness – it has a hatred of freshwater. Which in the end, aided Tammas’ escape.
21st Century take home message: Always take fresh water to the beach.
I hope you all enjoyed these stories and find a way to enjoy whatever fall harvest festivus gets your stones humming.
Like most Americans, I will be spending my Halloween strolling through some neighborhood encouraging my six-year old son to summon his courage, and not be terrified of a 6’ animatronic plastic porch demon.
But I just might need a wee dram or two while doing so.
(All Outlander photos are property of Starz and Sony Pictures.)