Is there any truth in those ancient tales of fairies and elves?

Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Beginnings of Britains Supernatural Beings
by Francis Young | Cambridge University Press, March 2023, 350 pages

Last year saw the inauguration of Ireland’s newest public holiday. Falling on the first Monday in February, it was greeted with a certain coolness by the public. Barely a month after Christmas, why would the government choose a grey day in February for a public holiday when the long, balmy evenings that bless the island every summer lie ahead? Of course, as most readers can guess, the day was chosen to commemorate a significant female figure in Irish history. 

Well, actually two. The church commemorates St Brigid on 1 February every year, and the new public holiday has entered the cultural mainstream as St Brigid’s Day. St Brigid continues to hold affection in the popular imagination, with school children often making the ubiquitous St Brigid’s cross from interlocking strands of dried rushes – the tough, woody grass that grows in boggy ground across the country. 

In recent years, however, poor Brigid has found her day upstaged by a second, shadowy, and somewhat sinister-sounding figure – Imbolg. As every schoolchild knows, bolg in Irish means “belly”, so it is difficult not to hear the name Imbolg and associate it with an unpleasant digestive issue. Or even with Dante’s malebolge, the “evil ditches” or “evil trenches” that form the topography of the eighth circle of hell where, not unfittingly perhaps, sorcerers, falsifiers, and schismatics are punished. Imbolg is the name of an obscure pagan deity associated with spring in the Celtic calendar. 

The name does not roll off the tongue easily, but that has not stopped the nation’s intelligentsia from trying. The historical record for Imbolg is scarce to non-existent, but rather than consider this a disadvantage, Imbolg has become something of a blank canvas onto which modern Ireland can project its new values while paradoxically identifying them as ancient. The term acts as a locus for secular self-conceptions of nationhood, values, and identity, but permits them to be firmly rooted in a venerable, pre-Christian past. 

Neo-paganism

Francis Young’s latest book, Twilight of the Godlings, sheds light on popular and learned traditions regarding the folkloric and the supernatural in Britain, and offers some important challenges to contemporary cultural assumptions regarding them. In this regard, while not directly addressing Irish or Celtic traditions, its arguments prompt timely (and scholarly) questions regarding the sudden rise of entities such as Imbolg. 

Young is an English historian, former school teacher, and lecturer at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education. He has written numerous books on the history of religion, popular belief, and folklore, mostly with regard to Britain, but with some publications covering similar themes in Baltic Europe, too. An active member of the Church of England and contributor to the Catholic Herald, Young’s most recent book offers a challenging and interesting reappraisal of the roots of folkloric beings. 

Describing these creatures as “godlings”, he admits that attempts at restrictive definitions unhelpfully limit both our understanding of them, and our understanding of how people in earlier times understood them, as necessarily much looser entities. Today, we might call them fairies and elves, on the one hand, but also deities of the natural world, on the other.

These manifestations could strike the modern mind as very dissimilar – childhood fantasy on the one hand, paganism on the other. However, it is the disillusioned contemporary mind that is the problem here, which blinds us to appreciating how these entities seamlessly coexisted in our lives and landscapes for centuries. 

Young challenges the tendency to explain away these beliefs as “psychological phenomena” or to dismiss them as “pre-scientific”, likening them in some ways to modern belief in UFOs – “the aliens, alien abduction narrative and UFO encounters are the modern equivalents of encounters with fairies.”

Nowadays we indulge the existence of otherworldly creatures off-planet, rather than upon it or underneath it as our forebears did. If that argument sounds a little too far out, Young also finds compelling resonances with the green movement, which has sublimated westerners’ post-enlightenment disenchantment with religion into a concern for the environment.

“It is increasingly clear that the unease many people feel at the exploitation of sentient animals, the felling of ancient trees or the poisoning of habitats is moral and spiritual as well as emerging from a sense of global civic responsibility”. One need not look too far to find the earth personified as Mother Earth or Gaia in literature, cartoons, and newspaper columns.

One of the most enduring misconceptions regarding folk belief that Young seeks to dispel is the “survivalist hypothesis” – the idea that popular religious practices somehow represent “an ancient substratum of belief that survived beneath Christianity and other organised religions, especially among rural populations.”

Admittedly, “the idea of immemorial traditions in rural communities is an attractive one, both to historians and folklorists”. There is a detectable whiff of paternalism and condescension to the survivalist hypothesis – an urban elite casting a benevolent eye upon the practices of their rustic and simple rural brethren, untarnished or uncorrupted by the complexities of modern life. Young, however, argues against the sustained transmission of popular religious practices from remote centuries, particularly from non-literate (and non-Latinate) traditions.

icon

Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Popular devotions by their nature are more effervescent than this, and wax and wane with a certain spontaneity. “The ‘survivalist’ mindset irrationally privileges the possibility that beliefs and practices in popular religion may derive from remote periods of antiquity,” argues Young, “often without proper investigation of the alternative possibility: that popular religion and folklore are confected and constructed at need, and are often not as ancient as they might seem.”

The sudden and unexplained emergence of Imbolg in Ireland’s cultural discourse in recent years has all the hallmarks of confection and construction. Her portrayal as simultaneously a warrior, activist, and feminist really attests to the modernity and, ultimately, the incongruity of her identity as an Iron Age deity.

Following Young’s line of thought above, Imbolg’s ultimate problem is that she is not a grassroots godling, emerging at a popular level, but a top-down construction, whose existence depends on her repeated imposition upon a browbeaten public every February by the media-bureaucratic complex. 

Syncretism

Young argues that Christianity did not appear in Britain with a jolt and spontaneously wash away the old gods. “The Christianisation of Britain was a long process, occurring in one form or another over the space of six hundred years, between the early fourth century and the 970s.”

Modern life has accustomed us to a certain immediacy and uniformity in the delivery of information and material goods which were not possible centuries ago. Furthermore, even today, the institution of the Church and the ideals it advances are not always and everywhere in alignment: “the establishment of the church in a society and its Christianisation are not entirely coterminous processes.” 

Christian formation over a millennium ago was not so thoroughgoing. There were plenty of gaps that folkloric beings and beliefs could continue to occupy in the popular imagination. Indeed, one can still detect its persistence today – in leaving a tooth under the pillow for the tooth fairy, for example, or a glass of milk for Santa and his elves on Christmas Eve. In this regard, popular accounts of folkloric beings and beliefs as fortunate survivors of a hegemonic Christianity are quite simplistic. 

Young proposes a different model for the persistence of folkloric beings in Britain following the arrival of Christianity: what he terms “demonisation” followed by “undemonisation”. Initially, they were portrayed as evil beings by Christian missionaries. However, this demonisation meant that they were not completely eradicated or wiped from memory. Instead, they were reframed in the new Christian paradigm and subsisted as malevolent beings.

After the turn of the first millennium, with Christianity established, they were “undemonised” and reframed as more benign creatures in later medieval literature. Elves, for instance, were no longer the sinister beings of the Anglo-Saxons, but elided with the emergent Norman term “fairy” as more enchanting and sometimes more benign entities.

Ultimately, “the observation that folkloric beings are in some way constructed from the detritus of pre-Christian religion does not make them ‘pagan’,” Young argues, “because they are new characters, brought into being under Christian hegemony, and often without verifiable historical or cultic links with their predecessors.” The continuities with which we associate folkloric beliefs and customs today are more likely a construct than a genuine historical thread. 

Patristic influence

The second long-standing idea that Young rebuts is the uncritical application of “Celtic” readings or the “Celtic twilight” myth to English and Welsh folklore – “the belief that Irish mythology can illuminate ancient British beliefs rests on assumptions about a pan-Celtic cultural identity that is more of a nineteenth-century construct than a historical or archaeological reality.”

Obviously, we cannot deny the clear and enduring interplay of ideas and people between these islands. However, Britain, with its waves of Roman, then Germanic, then Viking, then Norman invasions over the course of centuries, has cultivated a different folkloric ecosystem from Ireland, which encountered different arrivals in different intensities during the same period. 

Young points out that during the late Roman and early medieval period in Britain, the most formative sources for folkloric beings are actually – and perhaps unexpectedly – the Church Fathers. The influence of St Jerome’s translation of the Bible, St Isidore of Seville’s dizzyingly encyclopaedic Etymologies, and St Augustine’s City of God “were crucial in forming learned discourses that fed eventually into popular culture”.

The Church Fathers as the mediators of Britain’s non-Christian folkloric beings can seem paradoxical and challenging to the modern reader, given our over-familiarity with the “survivalist” hypothesis and the uncritical ease with which it has been allowed to persist. Nevertheless, Young asserts that “Britain’s godlings were thus transmitted indirectly from the Classical world through patristic writings.” 

The Vulgate Bible “was the most widely read and copied text in medieval Britain, with the result that Jerome’s translation choices heavily influenced the ways in which medieval Christians perceived the world, including folkloric beings.” Ultimately, it proves almost impossible to discern what is genuinely original to the pre-Christian Iron Age when we must rely on patristic sources for this knowledge: “godlings in medieval Britain were predominantly textual creations from the works of the Church Fathers that passed into folklore, and it is possible that virtually no continuity existed between the religion of Roman Britain and the folklore of the early medieval societies that succeeded it.” 

This reading is bound to jar with the comforting and familiar survivalist hypothesis that predominates today. Yet, if one were to ask a twenty-first-century person why they tossed a coin into a pond or fountain, they are very unlikely to be able to explain the Germanic, let alone Biblical, associations between bodies of water and the sacred. The thread of meaning that would bestow such continuity of understanding is long gone. Only a disenchanted vestige remains, an ambiguous association between performing the action and obtaining good luck.

In a similar way, the emergence of Imbolg, with few definitive roots in the primordial, leaves her with few genuine threads of meaning either. Today, many a willing journalist and armchair Celticist are ready to create her in their own image. 

Folkloric beings offer important sources of national and cultural self-conceptions, traditions, and customs. Young’s thesis regarding the origins, continuity, and striking discontinuity of folkloric beings across time complicates the narrative of an innocent pagan culture enduring against the odds under a hegemonic Christianity. Young’s book thus offers a timely challenge to simplistic paradigms that have become engrained in scholarship regarding folkloric tradition and belief. 


Did this article surprise you? Share it on social media via the buttons provided.


David Gibney is a school teacher in Dublin. He holds a PhD in English literature.

Image credit: Pexels


 

Showing 2 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.