‘Adar Rhiannon’- fairy birds

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Adar Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

In Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins you will find the story of Shon ap Shenkin:

“Shon ap Shenkin was a young man who lived hard by Pant Shon Shenkin [in Carmarthenshire]. As he was going afield early one fine summer’s morning, he heard a little bird singing, in a most enchanting strain, on a tree close by his path. Allured by the melody he sat down under the tree until the music ceased, when he arose and looked about him. What was his surprise at observing that the tree, which was green and full of life when he sat down, was now withered and barkless! Filled with astonishment he returned to the farm-house which he had left, as he supposed, a few minutes before; but it also was changed, grown older, and covered with ivy. In the doorway stood an old man whom he had never before seen; he at once asked the old man what he wanted there. ‘What do I want here?’ ejaculated the old man, reddening angrily; ‘that’s a pretty question! Who are you that dare to insult me in my own house?’ ‘In your own house? How is this? where’s my father and mother, whom I left here a few minutes since, whilst I have been listening to the charming music under yon tree, which, when I rose, was withered and leafless?’ ‘Under the tree!-music! what’s your name?’ ‘Shon ap Shenkin.’ ‘Alas, poor Shon, and is this indeed you!’ cried the old man. ‘I often heard my grandfather, your father, speak of you, and long did he bewail your absence. Fruitless inquiries were made for you; but old Catti Maddock of Brechfa said you were under the power of the fairies, and would not be released until the last sap of that sycamore tree would be dried up. Embrace me, my dear uncle, for you are my uncle—embrace your nephew.’ With this the old man extended his arms, but before the two men could embrace, poor Shon ap Shenkin crumbled into dust on the doorstep.” (Sikes pp.92-94)

In several respects this is a typical story about the differential passage of time in Faery and the mortal risks faced by a human returning home.  Such accounts date back to King Herla in the Middle Ages.  Of course, Shon is not aware of any journey to Faery at all; he simply sat in the shade by the roadside, but somehow was transported from this world.

However, what interests me in the tale are two of the details- the tree and the bird.  The tree is said to be a sycamore, which is unusual; it would not have surprised me to learn that it was a hawthorn (or perhaps an elder).  These are notorious fairy trees with which the Good Folk and magical properties have always been closely associated; sycamores don’t seem to have these traditional associations.

The other feature is the bird.  I have discussed the faery nature of certain insects (bees and moths) and fairies fleeing a human’s presence have not infrequently been compared to birds, but the evidence of a fairy nature is much harder to find in the fairylore of the British Isles.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

Scraps of evidence are present, nonetheless.  Evans Wentz mentions Breton fairies who take the form of ducks, swans and magpies (an especially significant bird in British folklore) whilst in Ireland fairies and some of the goddesses of the Tuatha de Danaan appear as crows.  (Fairy Faith pp.200 & 305-7)  From the Isle of Man, there is a fascinating little story about a notorious fairy woman whose beauty was deadly to local men.  She would bewitch them with her charms and then lead groups of them together int the sea, where they drowned.  The people resolved to end this slaughter and plotted to catch and kill her.  To escape, the fairy took the form of a wren.  She survived, but every New Year’s Day she must become a wren once more and face being hunted and killed in a traditional January 1st ceremony.

From Oxfordshire there comes the story of True John and Greedy Jack, a tale that pits a man favoured by the fairies against a jealous neighbour.  Both farmers had apple trees, but John’s produced abundant fruit and were always full of crowds of small green birds whilst, at night, small lights were seen in the branches, accompanied by singing and perfume.  Jack was envious and one day tried shooting at the trees with a shot gun to scare off the birds and damage the fruit.  Instead, it was his own fruit that were peppered with shot and the birds pecked at his face.  After this, Jack lost all his luck.  When John died, Jack cut down the bounteous tree hoping to drive the birds to live in his own, but instead a mighty wind arose and flattened his orchard.  Neither the birds nor the lights were seen again.  Both for their colour and for their close association to the lights, these are very obviously faery birds, a fact that should have been clear to Jack.  From that, it should have been clear in turn that he could not force the fairies into favouring him over his rival.  His downfall followed inexorably.  The protective role of faeries towards apple trees is something I’ve commented upon in several previous posts, too.

Lastly, as Sikes himself records, there is the ancient Welsh legend of the Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). Rhiannon is one of the goddesses or fairy women of Welsh myth.  Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep.”  In a clear sign of their magical or faery nature, the birds can be remote but sound as if they are very near.

This legend appears in the Mabinogion in the story of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr (Branwen ferch Llŷr). Seven men only had escaped from a large force that had followed King Bran across the sea to fight the Irish.  Bran himself had died of his wounds, but had commanded the survivors to cut off his head and bury it under Tower Hill in London. On their way there, the men paused at Harlech in North Wales to rest and feast. Three birds came and began singing to them so sweetly that all the songs they had ever heard before seemed unpleasant in comparison.  The feast and birdsong were so enchanting, they remained listening for seven years.  (see Sikes p.2 and Evans Wentz pp.329 & 334)

The sweetness of song and the dislocation of time (for a period of years of considerable magical significance) are found in the Welsh myth just as in the story of Sion ap Senkin.  It seems clear from these scattered remnants that there was once a much completer knowledge of the nature and powers of faery birds, something that we have sadly lost with the passage of the years.

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Rhiannon by Tammy Mae Moon

For more on fairy animals generally, see my recently published book Faery.  For more on the faeries’ interactions with nature, see my book Faeries and the Natural World (2021):

Natural World

Some Welsh Otherworlds

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Caer Sidi by Sirsur on Deviant Art

In a post last summer I discussed the Welsh tendency to portray fairyland as an island, especially an offshore island that appeared and disappeared unpredictably.  In this post I’m returning to the subject of the Celtic ideas of Faery,  but with a wider perspective.

We have to start with some background.  In Welsh mythology Annwn (Old Welsh Annwfyn) is the commonest term used for the Otherworld, the supernatural dimension.  The word occurs most notably in the title of a poem found in the ‘Book of Taliesin’ and dated roughly to the late 800s- early 1100s- ‘The spoils of Annwn’ (Preiddau Annwn).  This poem describes a journey by King Arthur and three ships full of his men to seize a magical cauldron from Annwn.  The verse touches on many important themes:  there is the Celtic idea of the special food vessel (perhaps a forerunner of the Grail);  the cauldron’s cooking fire is kindled by the breath of nine maidens, a group we must irresistibly associate with Morgan le Fay and the nine virgin priestesses of the Isle de Sein off the Breton coast; there is the use of the magic number seven (only seven men return with Arthur from his voyage- just as only seven men return to Britain with Bran the Blessed in the story ‘Branwen, daughter of Llŷr‘ in the Mabinogion)- and there is the idea of a a fairy fortress, my particular interest here.

Caer Sidi

Arthur’s quest takes him to a stronghold that has various names in the poem.  It is first called Caer Sidi (or Siddi), but it’s also the four-cornered fort, the fort of numbness, the fort of obstruction and the Glass Fort (Caer Wydyr).  Those of us interested in the Arthurian legends could easily be distracted by this last name, which takes us to other mythological sites in the Matter of Britain: to Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass, and thence to Glastonbury and Avalon (but that’s another story).

Back to Caer Sidi; this name is translated variously as the Otherworld fort, the spiral fortress and, importantly for us here, the Fairy Fort.  That interpretation derives from a link made between Sidi and the Gaelic sidhe, meaning the Tuatha De Danann, the fairy folk.  Now, it has to be admitted that sidhe properly means ‘peace’ and that it has come to mean ‘fairy’ because it’s an abbreviation of ‘people of peace,’ one of those euphemisms regularly used by people to avoid naming Them directly that I’ve examined before.  It’s not a wholly secure chain of etymology, therefore, but it’s a generally accepted translation and (as I’m no Celtic scholar) I’m content to accept it.

Another Taliesin poem, Kerd Veib am Llyr (Song before the sons of Llyr) also refers to Caer Sidi.  The poet declares that

“Complete is my chair in Caer Sidi/ No-one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it/… Around its borders are the streams of ocean.”

These lines appear to imply that this chair (kadeir- meaning a throne or seat of precedence) is situated on an island and that either the seat or the site confer some sort of eternal youth- that it is a paradise.

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Caer Arianrhod

Magical, or supernatural, forts are popular with the Welsh poets.  Another example that’s worth mentioning is Caer Arianrhod.  This location features in the story of Math fab Mathonwy, also in the Mabinogion.  Arianrhod herself is one of the children of the goddess figure Don, the Welsh equivalents of the Irish goddess Danu and her offspring, the Tuatha De Danann.  The mythology is all very complicated and it’s easy to get lost, but for present purposes it will suffice us to say that forts and fairies seem to be intimately related in Celtic myth.  Another ancient Welsh poem, Kadeir Kerritwen (the Chair of Ceridwen), describes how the River Enfnys flows around Arianrhod’s court: it is, once again, an island, depicted as being physically separated from the rest of the mortal world as a metaphor for its spiritual separation.  I may add that Caer Arianrhod is also a name for the constellation of the Northern Crown, the Corona Borealis.

Now, we’re not talking here about Caernarfon castle- let’s bear that it mind.  These legends were formulated in the ‘Dark Ages’ when there were no stone medieval castles.  Even Norman motte and bailey strongholds of wood and earth would have been too advanced for the period, so what we have to imagine for all of these locations is a traditional British hill fort, somewhere like Maiden Castle or Hambledon Hill.  Of course, as I’ve only recently discussed, there are longstanding fairy associations with ancient sites, whether hill forts, stone circles or barrows.  That’s why, therefore, in my story Albion awake!I had the main characters meet the fairy queen Maeve atop the tumulus on the summit of Hambledon Hill.

So, to return to our theme, Fairyland for the Welsh appears always to have been associated with some identifiable feature in the landscape, whether a prehistoric fortification or an island.  The ‘otherness’ and inaccessibility of each particular site presumably derived from its physical features (man-made or natural)  and also from the aura of mystery attached to it: Iron Age hillforts or Neolithic causewayed camps would have been ancient and inexplicable presences, haunted by the spirits of poorly understood ancestors. Possibly too some memories are preserved of the sacredness of lakes and other bodies of water in Iron Age Celtic worship.  There was a gulf in time, as well as some geographical barrier, that separated the observer from the fairy place.

To conclude, then, the Welsh faerie is somewhere near to us, yet faraway.  It might be found either:

  • on a high hilltop (and you might be reminded here of Arthur Machen’s story The hill of dreams);  and/ or,
  • on an enchanted island in the sea or in an inland lake.  We know that King Arthur sails to Annwn in his ship Prydwen, indicating that Caer Sidi must be doubly remote and inaccessible.  This idea is not uniquely Welsh.  I’ll close with a story from the Scottish Highlands.  In the far north west in Gairloch lies Loch Maree and in that loch there is Eilean Sithain (the fairy island).  On that island is another loch, and in that loch a further island, on which- under a tree- sits the fairy queen, receiving from her people their kain (tithe or tribute) which is paid every seven years to the devil (it was said).  (see J. H. Dixon, Gairloch in North west Ross-shire, 1885, p.159).

Some further reading

I’ve mentioned Robert Graves’ White Goddess before and in it, chapters 5 and 6, he examines the mythology behind the two caers at some length (make what you will of it).

An edited and expanded version of this post will be found in my book Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse.  See my books page for more information.