This is a day late, I know, and I apologize. However, I do have something really cool (and slightly terrifying) to share with you today. It’s come from the readings I have for this week on Tara, a site that is both historically and pseudo-historically royal/sacred.
One of the monuments on the site is called Lia Fáil. It’s a stone that has the capacity to cry or weep, and in one story (Baile in Scáil) a king, Conn, stands upon the stone.
And the stone cries out. But it cries out loud enough that it’s heard not just throughout Tara, but also throughout the plain on which Tara sits. And it screams once for every king that will reign in Conn’s line, and let me tell you, that’s a lot of times.
But imagine you’re in that plain. You’re minding your own business, smithing or baking or weaving or farming or whatever it is you do, and out of nowhere, you hear screaming. It sounds like it’s coming from nearby, but you look and see no one, and the screaming doesn’t stop.
You see others, and they can hear it, too, but nobody knows what’s causing it. And it keeps going. And you stay in a group, looking around nervously, but the screaming starts to grate on your nerves.
Some people get angry. Some people cry. Others go out searching for the source, but they never find it. You cover your ears, hoping not to hear it, but it doesn’t help at all.
And suddenly, it stops. You theorize with others about what might have caused it and discuss the supernatural beings that might be at work. You hope something traveling by will be able to tell you the truth of what happened.
But you never run into the king or his druids, and you never learn what caused the screaming.
And from then on, whenever someone screams, you brace yourself in case it doesn’t stop.
Imagine you’re Conn. You’re walking along, minding your own business, and stop on a stone.
And from beneath your feet, screaming starts.
Lucky for you, there are druids with you that might be able to explain why the stone is screaming, but that doesn’t make you feel any better about the noise grating on your nerves. Or your inability to leave the stone until it’s done.
Okay, so I exaggerated and fictionalized much of that. I don’t have that much detail about the story. But I do stand by the fact that as interesting as a screaming stone is, it’s also very, very terrifying.
I’m back in Scotland, done with my first weekend of getting a lot of in-depth dance training, and ready to start my classes tomorrow. I’ll be opening the semester with a class on Fenian literature.
I learned a bit about it last semester as part of other classes, but it’ll be nice to get a thorough look. In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a little something to share about Fionn mac Cumhaill and friends.
Have you ever heard of Fionn mac Cumhnaill? His name is often anglicized to something along the lines of Finn MacCoul (or MacCool). If you haven’t heard of him, you might be wondering why I think you have.
Well, the first reason is the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland is tied to him, and the Causeway is a well-known site.
The other reason is that he has survived in the popular imagination in modern culture. Don’t believe me? There are plenty of places in Ireland and Scotland named for him, and how about Finn McCool’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica and Finn McCool’s Fish House & Tavern in Virginia Beach?
Yeah, he’s running around our cultural imagination somewhere, even if he hasn’t hit you until now.
So who exactly is he?
That’s…complicated. It depends.
See, stories of Fionn mac Cumhnaill have been around a long time. Like, a millennium.
And in that time, given the adaptive nature of stories passed orally which have a whisper-down-the-alley effect, there are different versions of stories from the same places and versions from different places.
He has completed the same feat across Ireland and Scotland, depending which version you’re looking at. Why? Storytellers like to adapt tales to their landscape.
Luckily, there are some basic things we know about him. His name means ‘fair-haired’ or ‘blond’. He leads a band of young warriors called Fianna that roam the countryside, get into trouble, and protect people from various dangers. Think Robin Hood without the tights.
As a boy, he was the first to eat from the salmon of knowledge (sometimes the trout of knowledge) when he burned his thumb on it and put it in his mouth. From then on, he could access its knowledge by biting his thumb.
He’s also a giant in many accounts. And in some, he’s not truly dead, only sleeping surrounded by his men and waiting to be wakened by three sounds of the hunting horn of the Fianna. At that point, he will rise.
Fionn’s son, Oisin – you might recognize the term Ossianic, which comes from his name – narrates many of the tales. In Irish tradition, there are tales of him meeting St. Patrick, sharing feats of Fionn and the Fianna, and also debating between Christianity and paganism.
Oisin also has a son, Oscar, and there are tales about him and other members of the Fianna that are part of the Fenian Cycle of medieval Irish literature and considered part of Fenian literature today.
As you can see, Fionn mac Cumhnaill is a man with a long history and a lot of literary baggage, and that all means there’s definitely enough to spend at least a semester learning about him.
Now that I am at home with more time on my hands, I thought it time to put some blog posts together on ideas and cool things that I’ve been learning about. It’ll be a good way for me to review much of what I’ve been learning while sharing some interesting things.
First on the list: Gaelic folklore!
This is on my mind a lot since I still have to finish an essay for that class, and I know a lot of people who read this are Outlander fans and there are Gaelic folklore aspects of the series.
So what it is?
The first thing that needs to be addressed is actually another question: what is folklore?
When Googling “define folklore,” two things come up:
the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth
a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.
Let’s unpack this a bit, because the definition sounds straightforward, but it gets pretty wobbly when looked at closely.
First: what exactly does it mean for something to be traditional? Does it have to be a certain age or pass through a certain number of generations? A search for a definition ties it to traditions, and tradition is defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.”
That definition sounds pretty similar to the one for folklore itself, minus the stories and word of mouth. So are all traditions folklore but not all folklore is a tradition, since folklore can be orally transmitted stories that don’t follow under the “customs or beliefs” that counts as tradition?
And yet, because talk about the tradition of folklore, as if it is in itself a tradition because customs can revolve around those stories.
And are things like Bloody Mary and local ghost legends folklore passed on in our modern culture, or just scary stories?
It’s difficult to tell (although I’d say yes to those examples).
Another question: Is folklore fixed?
We often get folklore written down or performed and told by people drawing from written sources, at least in a culture so literate as ours (that changes when cultures become less literate and have different ideas about the written and spoken word than America/Europe).
That makes it easy to forget the folklore isn’t fixed. It’s constantly changing and being added to so it fits the times and the storyteller. Major plot points of stories don’t change, and poetry is much more likely to stay the same, but things are added or removed or forgotten. There are multiple versions of much of what exists in the world of Gaelic folklore, and other traditions are similar, although it really matters about the collectors and what people wanted to record or write down, because some groups were targeted for collection more than others.
That brings us to the next point, though: how do you define the group of people the folklore belongs to?
In some cases this is easy. Local legends belong to local communities, after all, and some folklore is situated in certain tribes or cults. However, it gets complicated when things proliferate themselves into many groups. If it can’t be changed, who does it belong to, and what are the limits determining groups? Race, class, religion, ethnicity, education level? Can there be a wealthy group folklore and a poor group folklore in the same place at the same time? Should all work by a race or nationality be grouped together, or could there be other things placing them in different groups altogether?
And how does language play a part?
And the answers to these questions vary culture to culture, community to community, group to group, and even storyteller to storyteller. They have to be considered all the time when looking at any piece of folklore.
Luckily, it’s a bit easier to figure out what Gaelic folklore is. It’s defined mostly by the language: Gaelic folklore is in Gaelic, either Irish or Scottish, and exists alongside folklore in English and Scots and any other language that makes its way into communities, such as Norse many centuries ago.
But the groups can get smaller from there: women, men, children, bardic, leading clan members, soldiers, etc, etc. One of the things that must be done is try to figure out what voice might be speaking through the song or story or poem.
Because that’s another thing: when speaking about Gaelic folklore, although there are customs and beliefs involved, a lot of it is working with literature that fits within those customs and beliefs.
Storytellers that were collected from for Gaelic folklore were mostly men, although there were still plenty of women, and collectors ranged from reverends and ministers to lairds and academics since it started.
And even with a simple language element to Gaelic folklore, it’s still easier, as it is for folklore in general, to look at what it does to help parse it out, not what it is.
Folklore is used for entertainment, cultural validation, education, and establishing/maintaining accepted patterns of behavior, ideas put forth by William R. Bascom.
So what is Gaelic folklore, besides folklore in Gaelic?
The class I’ve been taking has focused on Scottish Gaelic, but the Scottish Gaelic tradition overlaps with the Irish Gaelic tradition in a majority of places, and where it doesn’t, the basic ideas are still the same.
There are many things included in Gaelic folklore, including (but not limited to):
Hero tales (like Fenian)
Working songs (like waulking songs or rowing songs)
Praise poetry (panegyric)
As you can see, it’s a long list, but that just means there are a lot of interesting things to look at, which is how some people can dedicate their lives to this.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of Gaelic folklore that isn’t accessible to most people because it’s in Gaelic and hasn’t been translated, but there is also a lot that has been translated, so it’s still something people can get into.
Some books (certainly not an exhaustive list, just what I can think of that we’ve used this semester):
The Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell
Scottish Traditional Tales by Alan Bruford
Scottish customs: from the cradle to the grave
Any questions? Post them in the comments or shoot me an email and I’ll see if I can answer!That way I know I’m posting about things you want to know about and not just spouting what I think is interesting.