Irish Folklore, Mystical Beliefs, Rituals and Superstitions
By: Charles Black
Back on our series on good luck symbols and superstition around the world, today we have a look at the many beliefs held in the island of Ireland.
To begin, let’s have a little history recap. As you may know, before the British invasion in the 12th century and the island’s eventual assimilation in 1800, the Emerald Island was made up of many smaller kingdoms ruled by different Celtic clans.
But although the Celts may have waned in population and influence, their mystical beliefs survived them, and many of them came to shape a significant bulk of magical thinking in the English-speaking world.
Let’s begin with the biggest and best known of them: Halloween.
All Hallows’ Eve
Some debate still exists about whether the holiday now known as Halloween originated directly from Celtic Samhain festivities later co-opted by the Christian church, or if modern Halloween is in itself separate from Samhain.
This debate will probably never be fully solved, but there is no doubt that at least some influence from Celtic paganism helped shape it.
The festivity known as Samhain comes from ancient Celtic pagan beliefs, and it originated as a celebration to mark the end of the harvest season. Its date is not coincidental, either, as it falls halfway between the autumn equinox, on September 21, and the winter solstice, on December 21.
The Celts believed that on this date, the veil separating our world from the other world was at its thinnest. This in turn allowed the other side’s denizens to cross onto ours and cause trouble, unless they were pacified.
This pacification was the entire idea behind the festival and its many rituals. The not-particularly-wanted visitors were known as the Aos Si, remnant entities similar to fairies or spirits.
The souls of dead ancestors were also thought to join the fairies in their crossing, searching for their descendants’ hospitality.
Samhain marked the beginning of the dark half of the year, where nights would grow longer and the climate colder. Thus, pleasing the fairies was seen as a way to ensure the survival of one’s family and livestock during the winter months.
Offerings to Fae and kin
In this sense, the most common way to get the favor of the mischievous spirits was offerings of food and drink. These could be anything from milk, to bread, to liquor or winter vegetables, placed outside the door.
As for offering hospitality to ancestors, this was done in a more direct form.
Since their company, unlike that of fairies, would be wanted to some extent, an extra place was set at the table, instead of outside. Samhain was a time for feasting, after all, where livestock were fattened and harvest was plentiful.
In the feasts, food and alcohol were consumed in large amounts. A place was set at every table for a visiting ancestor to delight in the foods they enjoyed in life.
All of this allowed the ancient Celts to both avoid bad luck and gain good luck.
The first by appeasing the fairies with offerings. The second, by gaining the favor and spiritual protection of the powerful spirits of one’s ancestors.
Hunkering down for the winter
As mentioned before, the festival of Samhain was about the end of the harvest season and the start of ‘darkness’. Therefore, a lot of the preparations were centered on stocking up ahead of winter. The Celts were a primarily shepherding society, and they based their division of the year around this.
Thus, Samhain would mark the time where livestock was brought down from summer pastures and prepared for slaughter. The harvest would be stockpiled, the meat cured, and the vegetables pickled.
All of this related directly to the appeasing of the fairies, as the Celts believed otherwise, they would spoil or sabotage their preparations, making their supplies go bad and thus jeopardizing survival during the harshest months.
Despite being quite far up north, winter in the British Isles is comparably much milder than in other countries of similar latitudes, such as Russia or Scandinavia.
Because of this, unlike in eastern Europe, winter frosts were not a reliable means to conserve perishable supplies. Mild winter weather, which would make conservation difficult, was considered a characteristic sign of having provoked the wrath of the fae.
Tests of bravery
If you only know one thing about the Celts, it’s probably that they were brave and eager peoples, and Samhain provided the perfect opportunity to prove their worth in feats of skill, strength and bravery.
Many legends abound regarding the way in which Celtic warriors would prove their worth during the festival. Among the most commonly retold, we can find a rather morbid one relating to protection against untimely death.
Warriors would ride out into the night mists in search of gallows that had been recently ‘used’. Once there, they would tie a rope or ribbon to the ankles of a hanging man, then rush back to base.
This morbid ritual was said to not only prove one’s bravery in facing the spirits, but also to act as a protection of sorts. By proving his bravery in the face of death, the warrior who accomplished this feat would cast a counter-spell that would allow him to avoid a similar fate to the man whose ankles they had just tied up.
In more historically proven terms, one of the big features of harvest feasts were horse races. It is well documented that Celts enjoyed horse racing and made it part of all their major celebrations.
The Samhain races, however, were a bit different: They took place at night, along misty pats dimly lit with the sporadic torch, in clear defiance of prowling fae.
He who managed to keep both his and his mount’s temper to complete this race was said to become immune to their evil antics during the upcoming winter season.
Bonfires were a feature of all four seasonal Irish Gaelic festivals, but the ones lit at Samhain have special significance: they were used not only as a mystical ritual, but as a bonding element in the community.
Bonfires lit atop the many hills dotting the Irish landscape were meant to represent the sun. Specifically, the warmth, energy and protection druids believed to emanate from it. Thus, on Samhain night, villagers would put out the hearths in their homes and attend the lighting of bonfires.
From this one source, which created a protective spell against fae and evil spirits, they would light a torch. This torch was immediately taken back home, where the holder would circle the house clockwise (or sunwise, back then). Then, they would enter their house and re-light their previously doused hearth with it.
This simple ritual not only created a sense of community, but also spread the magic of the bonfire, protecting the home holding the spread fire with the sun’s benevolent power of growth and against darkness.
The ashes from the main bonfire were also considered good luck, and often spread on thresholds and around all houses in the village.
The Jack-o’-lantern’s dad
Without a doubt, the most iconic piece of modern Halloween paraphernalia is the carved pumpkin. A fun, simple family activity which allows for bonding, expression of creativity and great decorations.
Like many things about Halloween, the idea of carving a seasonal fruit also came from the Irish. Except, well, their inclinations were less decorative and certainly less aesthetic.
The Irish did not use pumpkins, (which are native to America and wouldn’t show up in Europe for a few more centuries), but rather turnips. Specifically, the brown, elongated version known locally as the rutabaga or swede.
Now, it is true that the carving of gourds and other root vegetables is a custom dating from millennia, but the Irish, along with the Scottish, were the first ones to give it their best-known use.
They would carve grotesque, intentionally terrifying faces on them and stuff them with a candle. They could be placed at one’s window, facing outwards, or outside the doors.
Their function was not so much decorative as protective. Their frightening faces were supposed to act as a sort of defensive spell: to ward off evil spirits, fae, and in general all forms of unwanted supernatural entities.
Although nowadays we do this only for fun, some well-preserved specimens of jack-o’-lantern’s forefathers can be found in some museums.
Scored soda bread
Despite its widespread availability, soda bread is not particularly fancied even by the Irish. It’s not particularly tasty, and nowadays much better options exist.
Back in the day, however, the island was not so spoilt for food choices, so they had to make do with what they could.
Wreathen bread, as it is locally known, was a staple of the poor islander’s diet.
By this time Catholicism had arrived in Irish shores, and with it, the symbolism of the cross. Marking the top of this fast bread variety with a cross became customary, and it is still done today.
This added an extra layer to the already heavy symbolism of bread in Christianity. Thus, having one or two pieces on the table at all times, even if it wasn’t mean to be consumed, became customary.
The cross was (or is, if you ask any Irish grandma!) a form of attracting good luck and keeping evil spirits away.
Apple peel for marriage prospects
Marriage has been a cornerstone of human society for the majority of its history.
The motivations have changed over time, perhaps, from the financial and social to the emotional, but the institution as a whole remains strong, especially in more religious societies, a category in which the Irish ring a loud, loud bell.
With this in mind, it is probably safe to assume that most old-timey societies have a preoccupation with marriage prospects. And with this, of course, come the rituals.
The Irish have a curious one, which although certainly not as widespread anymore, can still be seen here and there: A simple game involving nothing more than an apple and a sharp peeling knife.
The ritual itself could not be simpler. A maiden will take a good, ripe apple and proceed to peel it with her knife.
The only catch? The entire peel has to come out in a single piece. Once the unmarried woman has accomplished this feat of skill, she takes the peel and throws it over her shoulder.
The Apple Peal Reveals an Important Letter
Then, she turns around and looks for the peel on the ground. According to tradition, the shape of the peel should spell the first letter of the name of her future husband.
Now granted, in modern society this would probably not be particularly informative. But if we take into consideration that old time villages had populations in the low triple digits, well… let’s just say it narrowed the choices a bit.
There was a flip side to this ritual, however. It was said that repeatedly failing to get the peel in a single piece was a bad omen. Bet you can guess? That’s right. It signified the woman would remain unmarried.
But hey. At least she had a few fresh apples as a consolation price, and a healthy snack. Or as a base for the ever-popular Irish cider, if the woman was of a particularly enterprising nature.
The OG salt throwers
This one is short because it has become widespread in all cultures, and a sort of cornerstone. But we’re mentioning it anyway because historical references seem to indicate the Irish were the first to do it as good luck ritual. Or at least the ones to popularize it.
Throwing a fistful of salt over one’s shoulder is considered a good luck ritual. Or more specifically, one to avoid good luck.
Salt is considered to have cleansing properties in many cultures, the Irish included. Thus, a few pinches over thrown liberally over one’s shoulder would help cast off evil influences or spirits.
This practice is still fairly common among rural peoples across Europe.
Though for a more aesthetic version, one can always look eastward, specifically towards the Japanese. Specifically, in the Shinto religion, and its influence on the martial art of sumo. Sumo wrestlers will throw a large fistful of salt grabbed from a special container before stepping onto the ring. This can happen multiple times in a single match, and it looks very cool!
An offering of maize to Lugh
One of the most important deities in old Celtic mythology is Lugh. He is portrayed as fiery, unstoppable warrior, equally skilled in arts and craftsmanship. He too, has his own festival, known as Lunasa (or Lughnasadah, in old spelling) which marks the start of the harvest season.
Among the many things this deity represents, the most important are skill in war, mastery of all disciplines (chiefly the arts), the virtue of honesty, law, and by extension, oaths.
In other words, just like people “I swear to God” nowadays when making a promise or assertion, the old Irish used to swear to Lugh.
This last part was particularly important to the Celts, because their monarchy was not always hereditary. In those cases, true kingship would be attained by the embodiment of Lugh’s virtues.
Because his festival takes place at the start of the harvest season (August 1st), the most common offering to him was freshly harvested produce, and maize in particular.
The significance of this offering was one associated with the search of good fortune.
An offering of maize to Lugh was accompanied with a prayer for him to assist the one making the offering. Assist him in what, exactly? Why, in the improvement and mastery of one’s chosen craft or skill!
In this sense, if granted Lugh’s favor, one could obtain the discipline and determination to master his craft. Those less inclined towards the arts and crafts and more towards the battlefield would make slightly different offerings.
Usually of the kind of fruit that could be fermented into alcoholic spirits. Gaining the blessing of his unstoppable, flaming spear would be a good omen for battles to come.
Weddings and Handfasting
As we’ve mentioned before, even in present day, Ireland remains a rather traditional society. Marriage is still a big thing in Irish society, and although nowadays most marriages are of a catholic nature, there are more than a few with more pagan inclinations.
Handfasting is a ritual emanating from such traditions. Basically, the hands of the betrothed are bound together with a decorated ribbon. This represents the bound that will keep them together for life, through thick and thin.
This ritual remains alive and well in many cultures, and has recently seen some resurgence among practitioners of wiccan religions.
Asking Brigit for children
The wedding (or binding) is a thing of the past, and now the new couple is preoccupied with making babies. Well. If any problems happened in this department, the Irish have a solution for you: The Goddess Brigit.
Chief among her many associations are health, fertility and spring. Her feast is called Imbolc, and it traditionally occurred around the start of February. This festival marked the beginning of the sowing season, and its rituals were focused on praying for an early spring and a favorable future harvest.
The harvest, however, could also be of a more symbolic nature. Brigit has a strong association with holy/magic wells, and it is here where prayers to her take place.
The ritual itself does not involve the throwing of coins, so don’t worry if you are haven’t got any spare change.
Instead, one walks clockwise around one of her magic wells, asking the goddess for good health. Or assistance with any fertility issues. And of course, good health for the baby, should she grant you that favour. Hey, you’re already there, after all.
There is another ritual associated with Brigit that can still be observed in modern Ireland. The weaving of a cross with juncus branches.
This cross, known as Brigit’s cross (obviously) differs a bit from the traditional Christian shape: all four arms are the same length, and they meet at the four corners of a central square.
These crosses can still be seen hanging over doorways in or around springtime, as a general protection against evil.
Child acting strange? Probably got switched by the fairies
Okay. So, Brigit decided to grant you a baby. And your baby is healthy, and happy, and all goes well in your household. Except one day, your child starts acting strange.
Not ill or anything. Just, completely different. As if he or she was an entirely different child. Well, he probably got switched by the fae.
From what you might gather in the section about Samhain, a.k.a., Halloween’s predecessor, fairies are not exactly nice in Irish tradition. Not even harmless mischief makers, but outright evil and out to get you. Or your children.
One popular belief was that they possessed the ability to abduct a person (often, but not exclusively a child) and replace him or her with an identical looking copy.
The name for this new entity was changeling. Its nature varies depending on the particular branch of folklore. Some would say it was a fairy baby, whom the mother had exchanged for a preferred human child. Others said it was the embodiment of a decaying fairy in its final throes.
Regardless, one could identify the change had occurred by a marked change in behavior. Folk tales also vary at this point. Some held the change to be permanent and irreversible.
Others spoke of ways to trick the thieving fairy into returning the child. But the latter was not really much better.
The best-case scenario would be catching the fairy red handed when she was trying to steal the human baby (almost always through a window, occasionally through a chimney).
In this case, the shouting of a blessing or other word of virtue would make her flee. Without the baby, of course.
What to do if the Fairies made the Switch of Babies.
If the changed had already occurred, however, options got a bit… darker.
One was startling the changeling into speech to reveal its true nature. Fairies do not speak the language of humans, hence their preference for baby changelings.
Forcing a changeling to speak at an age where a normal baby could not, was one way of forcing the mother to re-swap.
The other one? Throwing the changeling into the hearth. Whilst lit. If it was indeed a changeling, it would fly up the chimney to avoid the flames. Which would force the true mother to reveal the deception. If not, well…
Although by no means a common occurrence, historical judicial records do show evidence of this belief. Namely, accused killers arguing they did so in the belief the victim was a changeling.
Protect your milk from the Pucai
The Puca (plural: Pucai) of Irish folklore are what fairies are in other cultures. Largely harmless entities with an occasional penchant for mischief. Most of the trouble they caused to amuse themselves was in the household.
Moving furniture or kitchen utensils around. Causing milk to sour, butter to liquefy or cheese to get moldy. Sometimes making fruit unpleasantly overripe. And in the most extreme cases taking a hapless victim for a short joyride on their back.
Pucai were said to be able to blend into communities by transforming into domestic animals, such as dogs, cats, fowl or even livestock. Legends said they could also take a quasi-human form, but with animalistic features such as cat ears or tails.
Protection against their antics, luckily, was a fairly simple thing. The aforementioned carved turnips would do the trick just fine. As would other protective charms such as Samhain fires or Brigit’s crosses.
On occasion, the Pucai could also be benevolent, doing things such as secretly helping out with farm work or keeping people from accidents.
The healing magic of the bullaun puddles
A bullaun stone is a natural occurring phenomenon. A flat-ish rock with an indentation on top, which would collect some water during rainy days.
The puddle collected within was said to have magical properties, which could be good or evil, depending on the user. Basically, for someone with good intention, the water was said to possess healing properties. A Lazarus pit of sorts, capable of curing all sorts of maladies.
For the more evil-minded, a bullaun stone could be used as a cursing tool.
The ritual was simple: The person casting the curse would turn the boulder upside-down to empty the water whilst cursing a particular person, reciting their name and the chosen curse.
The bullaun stones passed mostly seamlessly from Celtic paganism to Christianism, and are still considered by many to hold healing properties.
Thus, visits to sites where they can be naturally found are fairly common, as is taking a sip, if any weather is present. Which will almost always be the case, because well. Ireland and rain are like New Yorkers and bagels.
Do not set out to sea with a redhead
Gingers really can’t catch a break, can they? Being, you know, an island, seafaring was an important part of Irish cultures. And like the sailors of every other culture, Irish seamen had many superstitious beliefs.
Chief among them, was not to let a redheaded woman into your ship, lest you condemn the crew to crash and sink.
One would think Ireland of all places would cut gingers a little slack.
By Charles Black