Playing in Woods with Fairies - Celtic Animal Folklore

Courtesy of June McEwan www.junemcewan.biz
Courtesy of June McEwan www.junemcewan.biz

As an actress, I often find myself playing in interesting ways and situations. Playing in woods with fairies is a prime example of this - a day spent exploring a glorious Scottish wood, with Celtic folklore themes in mind, in aid of developing a site-specific piece of theatre.

It was a magical time, and the magic began even before setting out for the site: I loved the lore I found in my research. As a result, I am writing a Celtic Folklore series, and this section is about the animals of the area and their associations.

A number of the animals below relate to Celtic Festivals and a lot of the characters mentioned here can be found in the Celtic Folklore introduction - see links to the right.

Cervo rosso - Red Deer commons.wikimedia.org
Cervo rosso - Red Deer commons.wikimedia.org

Red Deer

Deer are pathfinders and often lead heroes into encounters with the Otherworld, sometimes shape-shifting – the mother of the hero Ossian changed into a deer. Deer have also been discovered in burial grounds, possibly as guides to the next world. They are associated with the instinctual self, grace and purity. In Gaelic, red deer can be known as Dearg (red).*

The Hind embodies subtlety, grace and femininity, and is known as ‘fairy cattle’ in Scotland, being milked by the fairies on mountain tops and cared for by the Cailleach in various forms.

The Stag represents pride, independence and purification, and is connected to the Horned One in his various guises, and to Merlin. Antler shedding reflects death and rebirth, and the Stag is associated with Samhuinn, now known as Hallowe’en.

*Note re. Gaelic names: There are many different names from which to choose; where one is common, I use this (such as Sionnach for fox), otherwise some choices are arbitrary. More can be found in Gaelic Names of Beasts.

www.public-domain-image.com
www.public-domain-image.com

Crow and Raven

The Crow and the Raven seem interchangeable in Celtic lore. The hooded or scald-crow (Badb) is often translated as raven in connection with goddesses. The Morrigan in particular is associated with these birds, sometimes referred to as ‘stalkers of the battlefield’.

They relate to magic, prophecy, underworld messages, destruction and healing. In Scottish folklore, the crow is said to have 27 different cries, each for a different event. Only the wisest seer of the land can understand their words when a molmacha, or flock of crows, are in full cry together. Their behaviour, too, is used in divination.

There is a tradition that Churchill replaced the ravens that left the Tower of London, during the bombing of WWII, as they are associated with the protection of the land through the legend of Bran the Blessed. Bran means 'raven' and Bran the Blessed was a Celtic hero whose head was buried where the tower now stands as a measure for protection against invasion from overseas.  It is said that great harm will befall Britain should the ravens leave the tower.

Red Kite and Black Kite NAUMANN commons.wikimedia.org
Red Kite and Black Kite NAUMANN commons.wikimedia.org

Red Kite

‘Kite’ was once an insult, as is seen frequently in Shakespeare's plays. One example of this comes in King Lear, when Lear is furious with his daughter Goneril, calling her 'detested kite'. In Shakespeare's day, this bird was common, known as a carrion-eater and city scavenger of refuse heaps, and associated with savagery.

Due to persecution, however, the Kite (Croman) became extremely rare - indeed extinct in some parts of Britain - and the species had to be reintroduced into England and Scotland.

As a result, these birds have become proud symbols of their homeland, a real transformation of associations.

buzzbeeman.com/red-squirrel
buzzbeeman.com/red-squirrel

Red Squirrel

The Squirrel (Feorag) is associated with preparation, dexterity, activity and alertness. These qualities are obvious in squirrel behaviour: the gathering and storing of food in preparation for hard times, their speed over ground and through the trees, and their alert manner when still.

Traditionally, the Red Squirrel is meant, as the Grey is a later interloper, often unpopular nowadays for bringing harm (via disease) to the Red, who now only resides in a few areas of Britain, notably in Scotland.

www.freeclipartnow.com
www.freeclipartnow.com

Fox

The Fox, (Sionnach), is associated with adaptability - often being a shape-shifter - flexibility, cunning, subtlety and diplomacy. There are many stories showing the cunning of the Fox, not always to its credit, but it should be remembered that ‘cunning’ comes from kenning, meaning ‘to know’, without necessarily carrying slyness.

That slyness may, however, be associated with the false trails a fox can leave in order to deceive its hunters - and foxes were hunted for their pelts, perhaps in a ritual manner. Like the Deer, the Fox was often part of burial rituals, found now in excavations.

www.freeclipartnow.com
www.freeclipartnow.com

Badger

The Badger (Broc) connects to perseverance, along with the patience and persistence this requires. He is considered self-reliant, determined, assertive and willing to work, with an earthy wisdom. Brocan was a name for Pictish wise men.

That said, the Badger was not always treated with respect - the game 'Badger in the Bag' started, according to legend, with the celtic hero Pwyll tricking a rival into a bag and each of his men having a turn at kicking the supposed 'badger' he had trapped. Bagging badgers before dealing with them (or indeed baiting them) also has to do with their aggression and fighting skills.

Celtic Animals Around the Year

The associations in this table are taken from Celtic Totem Animals by John Matthews.

Information about the fire festivals mentioned in the table (Samhuinn, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh) can be found in Celtic Festival Folklore.

Month
Period
Animal  / Festival
November
1st half
Samhuinn 
November
2nd half
Crow 
December
1st half
Pig 
December
2nd half
Owl 
January
1st half
Wolf 
January
2nd half
Bear 
February
1st half
Imbolc 
February
2nd half
Cat 
March
1st half
Crane 
March
2nd half
Eagle 
April
1st half
Eel 
April
2nd half
Otter 
May
1st half
Beltane 
May
2nd half
Hawk 
June
1st half
Salmon 
June
2nd half
Bee 
July
1st half
Swan 
July
2nd half
Badger 
August
1st half
Lughnasadh
August
2nd half
Horse
September
1st half
Dog
September
2nd half
Cow 
October
1st half
Blackbird 
October
2nd half
Stag 

Further Exploration

There are, of course, many other animals and birds to be found in the rich Celtic lore (as seen in the Celtic Animals Around the Year table), as well as more information available for the ones I have mentioned. The above is really a brief introduction, based on a particular magical wood and the animals I was asked to look up.

If you are interested in knowing more about Celtic folklore, you may wish to check out the work of Caitlin and John Matthews and that of Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm (often illustrated by the beautiful art of Will Worthington). There are also some connected books visible to the right, available at Amazon.

Should you wish to read further in the Playing in Woods with Fairies series, the following are available right here, at Hubpages:

Celtic Folklore – an introduction to the series, including some Lords and Ladies of the Land

Celtic Tree Folklore

Celtic Festival Folklore

More by this Author


Comments 12 comments

Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

I find myself wanting to pull out the Native American guide to animal lore. It's more of a spirit guide book but each animal or bird (or even insect, if you read my ants hub) reflects a lesson that must be learned. This is so fascinating. Thank you! It explains much about literature from your part of the world.


Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 6 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

I'm dashing out, otherwise I'd be reading that ants hub - I have found and bookmarked it for later.

I'm replying now, though, to thank you for your lovely comments, and I'll be in touch over at your "Why Ants Have Narrow Waists" - can't wait to find out!


Crazdwriter 6 years ago

I love reading about animals because I LOVE animals, especially what the symbolize. I actually have a few sets of Animal Spirit/Oracle cards that I consult from time to time. I am thinking of writing a hub on Animal Spirit Guides too.

Great hub!!!

And I just saw them advertising the celtic Animal Oracle cards and book that I have. :-)


Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 6 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Thanks, Crazdwriter - and yes, you can get a lot of information from such card sets. I collect oracles and tarot precisely because I love the artwork AND the information (though some of the latter can be a bit dubious if one's academically inclined!).

I love the connections that people make, even sometimes when they are a bit historically inaccurate, because they show how our minds follow similar routes and love to tell stories about the truths of our world, even if they are not the absolute facts.

It would be great to see that Spirit Guides hub! And enjoy those cards. :)


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 6 years ago from Stepping past clutter

Thank YOU for stopping by my ants hub and commenting as well!


Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 6 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

'Twas well worth the visit - not flattery, simple truth!


mythbuster profile image

mythbuster 6 years ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

Great hub, Danielle Farrow. I've enjoyed your content and learned a lot about animals and symbolism/attributes that will likely come in handy for me as a storyteller. Thanks for sharing this information.


Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 6 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Thank you, mythbuster! I've been out of hubs for a bit, so your comment and fan message have reminded and encouraged me to get back a-hubbing!

I've just been performing in a story-telling show myself, based on a Scandinavian folktale, so I'm looking forward to reading your pages and have just bookmarked the Categories of Folklore.


tom hellert profile image

tom hellert 6 years ago from home

remember nothung good happens in the woods...Hmmmm maybe i should hub that.... i think I shall


Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 6 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

I cannot help but wonder what exactly goes on when this chap 'Not Hung Good' "happens" in the woods. ;p Let me know if you do hub this!


Mythicalmethods profile image

Mythicalmethods 2 years ago

I find it interesting that the Celtic calender with the animals is similar to the Medicine Wheel often times described by Native Americans. Makes you think about the connections between cultures, especially ones that are separated by a large body of water.


Danielle Farrow profile image

Danielle Farrow 2 years ago from Scotland, UK Author

Yes, indeed, Mythicalmethods - I love connections in life in general and between cultures, especially. We cannot really know if there were physical connections possible at some time, but certainly telling stories about the world around us, exploring and storing it in these ways, seems to be a universal human trait and may be the root of such similarities. I'd love to know more about the Native Americans - I have only picked up a bit along the my life path so far.

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