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The Devil comes to Celt-land

Updated on August 17, 2016
Old Halloween postcards
Old Halloween postcards | Source

Ach, ‘tis Halloween and that means it’s time to be on the double look-out for Auld Hornie! Ol’ Scratch himself, the gentleman in black, Auld Clootie the cloven footed. The Celtic lands have quite the folklore on the devil and his mischief. What better time of year than Halloween to regale you with tales of his cunning and his pitchforked fury! Let’s start in the green hills of Ireland. After all, no one can top the Irish when it comes to spinning yarns.

Ireland -- The Devil Cat

In Connemara, an area that distills a wonderful peated Irish whiskey by the way, there lived a fisherman and his wife. He was an excellent fisherman and did so well that the wife always had plenty of fish to put out at market. Unfortunately, the best fish would nightly be eaten by a great black cat. The wife was getting quite tired of this nightly event and so was determined to stay up and give the cat a smack with a very large Hawthorne stick.

As she sat in the evening, spinning with another lady while a younger serving girl sorted fish, the door suddenly flew open with a loud bang and whirl and the house became near pitch dark. The huge cat stalked in and went straight to the fire, growling deeply at all three women as he walked.

The young girl exclaimed “This is surely the devil!” This upset the cat greatly, who growled back “I’ll teach you to call me names” and then leapt up at her, scratching her arm so deeply that blood poured out. “Perhaps next time you’ll be friendlier when a gentleman comes to see you.” The cat hissed.

With this, the cat walked out, the door shutting loudly and firmly behind him so well that the young serving girl could not get out, no matter how hard the frightened bit of a girl wanted to.

At the same time, by the house a young man was walking. Upon hearing the girl’s cries, he attempted to open the door, but the cat was still on the threshold and would not allow him to get near enough. The man attacked the cat with a stick, but was no match for the devilish feline. The cat leapt up and scratched deeply into his face, so badly that he quickly fled.

The door flew back open, as if a gale had whipped through the house, and the cat stalked back in and jumped up onto the table where a large fish lay upon a plate. “I hope the fish is good today,” the cat grinned, “and do not disturb me, as I can help myself.”

The wife picked up a set of tongs, having obviously forgotten about her Hawthorne stick, and gave the cat a blow upon its back. Had it been a cat and not the devil, it surely would have died, but instead it just smirked at her and continued to claw and bite into the fish.

The other two women then tried to hit it with sticks, which served only to irritate the devil cat. It spat fire and tore into their heads and arms, causing much bloodshed. They women backed away and huddled in the corner. In the meantime, the wife had snuck away and came back carrying a bottle of holy water from the nearby church. She snuck up on the cat while it was preoccupied with devouring the fish, and threw the holy water on it.

As soon as the holy water touched the cat, a thick black smoke filled up the room, and all that could be seen were two red eyes, glowing as if embers, peering out at the women. As the smoke cleared away, the cat’s body was seen to shrivel up until it turned to ash and blew away. From that time on, the fish and fisherman’s wife were left in peace, for once the power of the evil one is broken, it will come back to haunt you no more.

On a mythological side note, cats are a noted beast in Irish myth. Unlike nearby countries such as Wales and England who use dragons, the Irish have great cats that are terrible to be put up against. So while many other cultures use large black dogs as the animal representation of the devil, the Irish continue their use of cats as adversaries. This use of black cats as the devil also has a connection with the use of black cats as witches’ familiars and their association with the supernatural in Christian tradition.

Halloween (poem by Robert Burns)
Halloween (poem by Robert Burns) | Source

Ireland -- The Priest vs. a Devil Cat

Such is another case of a poor old woman in County Kerry, whose husband had recently passed away. An old stray black cat found its way into the house and settled in as a permanent guest, of whom the widow pampered. The local priest stopped by to check upon his parishioner and sat down to talk over a cup of tea. When the cat ambled in, the widow got up and went to feed the cat. She was gone a very long time, but had no idea just how long when the priest commented. She insisted that the cat was doing no harm. After all, what harm can an old cat do? The priest insisted it wasn’t a cat, but the widow was incredulous. “What else is it?” She countered, adding “it’s there now and it’ll stay there.” The priest advised against this and stated he would show her what it was. He put on his stole (that’s the long scarf looking thing that hangs down in front of priests – of which various colors indicate the type of liturgy being celebrated) and started to pray. In no time at all, the cat growled deeply and turned into a large man-shaped creature, who ran through the door and promptly vanished. The widow thanked the priest profusely and was forever terrified of black cats.

Ireland -- Saints, Seminarians, and Priests

The devil doesn’t just come as a cat in Ireland, but can come as a man who is fond of vices, including the playing of cards. One tale tells of a group of seminary students, playing at cards when a strange student comes in and joins them. During the course of play, the Ace of Spades (naturally) falls to the floor and one of the first students bends over to pick it up, at which point he notices the stranger’s cloven foot. The stranger laughed evilly and disappeared in front of their eyes. Both committed suicide soon after, but not before sharing the story. There is evidence of the cloven foot being imprinted into the stone where the stranger sat, and serves as a warning that the devil himself will come tease and tempt the boys before they become priests.

Certainly, the devil could tempt more than just seminarians. He was adept at tricks to distract fully ordained priests. As the parish priests would do their rounds across the country, whether to visit the sick or anoint the dying, the dark one would lay snares for them: creating thick fogs to get lost in, attacking them in the shape of a big black dog (even the Irish are not immune from the legends of evil black dogs!), placing real and imaginary obstacles in their path, and creating illusions of money.

In one case, a priest was on his way to give Last Rites to a local woman, and was nearly detained as a traveling companion wanted to stop and pick up gold coins on the road. The priest asked him to keep riding and he could pick up the coins on the way back. They arrived in time for the priest to anoint the old woman before she passed, and on the way back they stopped for the coins, only for the priest’s companion to discover they were horseshoe nails be-devilishly ensorcelled to look like gold.

Nor do the priests do not always win. One of Satan’s best tricks is to use his beautiful singing voice. That’s right! Ol’ Gnarley can still sing like the angel he wants was, as in the case of a priest on his way to anoint a widower. Along the way, he hears a sweet singing voice in the fields and stops to listen, only to then be late. The old man had passed away without his Last Rites before the priest finally arrived.

Saint Wolfgang and the Devil -- Michael Pacher
Saint Wolfgang and the Devil -- Michael Pacher | Source

Ol’ Steamy has also appeared to many saints. He visited St. Molling while in disguise, but the saint discerned his visitor’s true self. St. Molling asked the stranger to pray with him, but then the devil admitted he could not kneel, as his knees were in the back of his legs. St. Brigit encountered the devil in the refractory while she and her fellow nuns were at dinner. The devil came in, thinking he could not be seen, but St. Brigit made him visible. This, of course, was cause for consternation and horror, as the other nuns suddenly saw the devil sitting with them, his head down and feet up on the table, with great gouts of flame issuing from his mouth and nose. The Devil tried to beat St. Colmcille in a trial of poetical skill, as they traveled together, the devil thinking he was disguised (do you see a pattern?). It is helpful to note that the Irish, especially at the time of the great Colmcille, had great renown for their poets. St. Colmcille was able to finish all of the Devil’s passages, but then in turn stumped the Man in Black by using devotionals, holy tracts that Satan would be unfamiliar with.

In Irish folklore, the Devil wasn’t always bad. He could even be somewhat neutral at times. There are cases where he is portrayed as a buffoon and easily taken advantage of, such as in the legend of Stingy Jack as written further in this article. Many of these beliefs are perhaps derived from the “Shining Ones,” also known as fairies, as they are considered to be fallen angels, just not as bad as the fallen angels who went became demons in hell.

Halloween postcards
Halloween postcards | Source

Wales Tales

Wales has many tales of the Devil. My favorite is of the two men were imbibing all night at the Black Lion Inn in Merthyr Tydfil. This was before Picton Street became Caedraw Road, so you know this is some time back. One challenged the other to summon the devil, so the attempt was made. The devil appeared before them as a gosling, which is a young geese. The goose devil then poked out the summoner’s eyes with his beak, so that he was blind for the rest of his days.

Welsh tales speak of the devil appearing as a large black mastiff, sometimes with its eyes being of fire and sometimes with the whole figure bursting into flame. Those who broke the Sabbath would often see this figure, such as William Jones of Risca village, who was chased by such an animal and who then vowed to never break the Sabbath again. Richard Roberts was another Sabbath breaker who would go wandering throughout the woods hunting nuts instead of attending Mass. One day, he came to a bush that was plentiful with nuts, but when he reached out to collect them, a hairy hand came out of nowhere and reached for the same branch. The moment he saw this hand, he turned and ran and never went hunting nuts on Sunday again. At mass the next Sunday, he spoke to the priest, who warned him that this was indeed Satan come to take him away.

The Osculum Infame (the shameful kiss) -- 1608 image from the Malleus Maleficarum
The Osculum Infame (the shameful kiss) -- 1608 image from the Malleus Maleficarum | Source

Another popular Welsh tale involving dogs has the canine on the other side of the story. It is said Satan erected the Devil’s Bridge, to help people cross a deep gorge, with the understanding that the first thing to cross would become his. A man came upon the bridge but, knowing whose it was, threw bread across it. The man’s trusty dog ran across, chasing the bread, becoming the first thing to cross. Satan, afraid of the dog, chose not to take his due. In a similar tale, it was an old woman who threw the bread across. While Satan was not afraid of the dog, he also did not want it in place of the woman, either.

There is a shared story, between Wales and Cornwall, in that you should not pick blackberries after Michaelmas Day, which back in the day occurred in early October rather than late September as it does now. It is said that it on this day when Lucifer was cast out of heaven. In Wales, the story goes that he fell into a blackberry bush and cursed the brambles. In Cornwall, it is on this day that the Devil urinates on the berries. This definitely makes me reconsider my pasty recipes.

Tam o Shanter (Robert Burns) witches and devil
Tam o Shanter (Robert Burns) witches and devil | Source

Cornwall

In addition to Satan urinating on bushes, he has also been seen flying over Cornwall carrying a very large stone in which he was going to block the gates of Hell. St. Michael, the archangel, flew to stop him. During the great battle, Satan dropped the stone and that spot is now known as Helston, or Hell’s Stone, and has been built into the wall of the Angel Hotel.

Another story tells of two miners passing Carn Kenidjack, at which point they were asked by a horseman dressed in black to attend a wrestling match. The miners came to watch, only to be find they had joined a crowd of demons, who were commanded by the horseman, being none other than the Devil in disguise. When one demon was thrown close to them, stunned by crashing against a rock, the miners prayed, causing the ground to shake and all the shrieking and cursing demons to be sucked into a black hole.

Halloween postcards
Halloween postcards | Source

Brittany

In Brittany, you can find the Devil’s claw print left in one of the rocks of Mont Dol. He had competed against St. Michael, yet again, but this time to see who could jump further. Whomever won would have ownership of the mount and of its monastery to St. Michael. The Devil fell in to the River Ciouenon, but the air lifted the angel up and so St. Michael was the victor. You can see his footprint near Satan’s claw mark in the stone.

Old Halloween postcard
Old Halloween postcard | Source

Scotland

In Scotland, the Devil goes by many names: Nickie-Ben, Clootie, and Auld Hornie being my personal favorites. You can also find a wonderfully horrifying description of him in Robert Burn’s poem Tam-o-Shanter. The Scottish ballad “The Daemon Lover” is another haunting tribute to Satan.

Although he can take many disguises, in Scotland they say whatever he looks like, he cannot wear shoes, due to his cloven feet, which can instantly give him away if you know what to look for. He is also said to be good at all jobs except tailoring, because tailors always close up shop when he is among their company.

Back to Ireland and Stingy Jack

And now, it’s time for Stingy Jack! In Ireland, there lived Jack, one of the most niggardly gentlemen you’d ever have the misfortune to meet. If you wanted to find him, though, it would be easy. Look for the nearest pub and there he’ll be, downing a pint or three. One night, as he was staggering home, he came upon a shadowy figure. Being drunkenly brave, he walked up to the person in so he could ask for some coin to purchase more ale. When the figure turned around, it was the Devil himself! Satan had turned up to collect Jack’s soul, it being so tarnished that even the Lord of Hell wanted to collect it in person. Jack, though, having the gift of Irish gab, convinced Lucifer to have a few pints before they left the mortal realm. Lucifer thought of no reason to turn down such a suggestion and so off they go! Jack then convinced Satan to turn into a silver coin (he could not do gold, being the color of Heaven), so they could pay the bartender, after which the Devil could disappear, leaving the bartender out the drinks and coin.

Little did the Devil know Jack’s plan! As soon as Auld Clootie was a coin, Jack slipped him in his coin purse, where he kept his old mother’s crucifix. What a cruel plan, a cruel plan indeed! The Devil was trapped as a coin and was only released when he promised to give Jack ten more years of life. The deal was made and Satan left in a huff.

Ten years goes by quickly, though, and Lucifer was back before you knew it. This time, Jack knew better than to ask for a drink, but he did ask for an apple. He wanted one last taste of the sweet fruit before leaving forever, although he complained he was too old to climb the tree. The Devil, being both kind and stupid for some reason, agreed and up he went into the apple tree. Jack was hoping for this. He had a collection of crucifixes on himself in preparation for this meeting and laid them around the base of the apple tree, trapping the Devil up in its branches. (If you see a connection to fairies and iron, there are theories that this is a Christianized story derived from an older pagan tale.) Jack let Satan down after an even better deal, where Satan could never come for Jack’s soul.

Turnip-o-lantern
Turnip-o-lantern | Source

However, even the most drunken and stingy man will eventually fall prey to the winds of time and Jack passed away on his own. His soul flew up to Heaven, where St. Peter had a good chuckle at Jack’s request to get in. “You’ve been a thoughtless sod your entire life, Jack.” St. Peter scolded him. “Now off with you!”

So Jack’s soul plummeted down to Hell, where Satan had his own laugh. “Get out! I’m not allowed to take your soul, and more is the pity upon you!” And so Jack was left out of the afterlife, doomed to wander the Earth and never find rest. His only aid is an ember from Hell itself, which will always glow with malevolent light, given to him by the Devil as a warning to others and what happens when they attempt to trick the Ruler of Evil himself. Now as Jack carries this ember in a hollowed out turnip, forever roaming the countryside, we are annually reminded of where jack-o-lanterns come from.

Happy Halloween!

Jack-o-Lanterns, Halloween 2015
Jack-o-Lanterns, Halloween 2015 | Source

Further Reading

“Fairy and folk tales of the Irish Peasantry” by WB Yeats (1888)

Archive of the Department of Irish Folklore journal

“The Blessed and the Damned: Sinful Women and Upbaptised Children in Irish Folklore” by Anne O’Connor (2005)

“Irish Rural Life and Industry: with Suggestions for the Future” by William Townley Macartney-Filgate (1907)

“British Goblins” by Wirt Sykes (1880)

“Welsh-folklore” Elias Owen (1887)

“Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Volume 1” by Sir John Rhys (1901)

“The Sutton Companion to the Folklore, Myths, and Customs of Britain.” By Marc Alexander (2002)

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