The Hunters of Souls Part One: An Old Irish Curse

Illumination of warrior curtesy of historyireland.com

So… as I read more and more excellent posts by fellow bloggers I get more ideas for topics here, and it’s become something of a heaping backlog; I still need to write about the Irish blacksmith goddess, water horses, Edern ap Nudd, portrayals of the cyclops in Celtic literature, and a host of others things besides.* But I discovered this topic recently and now that it has my attention I’d like to focus on it straightaway.

(I) Geraldus Cambrensis’ Itinerarium Cambriae– 1191 A.D.

(C) Codex Sancti Pauli- 9th century A.D.

In a blog article by Greg Hill we find a story supplied by Giraldus Cambrensis in chapter V of his work Itinerarium Cambriae,(I) composed in the year 1191.(1) The tale centers on the character Melerius and the origins of his prophetic powers.(2) It states that Melerius:

Having, on a certain night… met a damsel whom he had long loved, in a pleasant and convenient place, while he was indulging in her embraces, suddenly, instead of a beautiful girl, he found in his arms a hairy, rough and hideous creature, the sight of which deprived him of his senses, and he became mad.

After suffering from this affliction for a number of years, Melerius is found and restored to sanity by the holy men of the Church of Saint David. Afterwards he finds that he is in possession of occult power, and is able to converse with, as Giraldus Cambrensis puts it, unclean spirits:

The spirits appeared to him usually on foot, equipped as hunters, with horns suspended from their necks, and truly as hunters, not of animals, but of souls.

Hill fitfully identifies a number of mythemes present in the Melerius story, including the “Loathly Lady/Sovereignty” and “wild man” types. To maintain a manageable narrowness of scope for this inquiry I’ll be breaking up my investigation into separate posts.

So in this first outing, what is there to make of Geraldus’ mysterious hunters of souls? An Irish text which has not been previously compared to (I) as far as I am aware, might both corroborate Geraldus and provide a clarified understanding of these hunter spirits.

An Old Irish Curse

The tome dubbed the Codex Sancti Pauli (C) is a mishmash of eclectic items that include: extracts from the Bible, theories on the nature of heavenly beings, Old Irish poetry (including some attributed to Suibne Geilt, and the famous Scholar and His Cat), as well as, in a strange turn, a ninth century curse.

Scholarship on the curse charm has been inconclusive in places as certain words and phrases prove difficult to interpret. But the object of the charm is not in doubt; the reciter asks the “phantoms” for succor in a quest to acquire food. (3)

May a phantom come and meet me

with the grain and milk of whoever it is on whom

I cast it.

The reciter casts the spell on an unlucky individual from which to steal food. The charm continues, asking for a vision to show if the speaker’s entreaties have been accepted or rejected by the spirits:

If it is not destined for me,

let it be wolves and stags and wandering on the

mountain and young warriors

that I see.

The phrase translated by Carey as “young warriors” is Old Irish “óaic féne”, literally translating to something like “young tribesmen” but is otherwise conventionally used to mean the fiann, an historical as well as legendary institution constituted of young, landless men who formed groups together as wilderness-dwelling warrior huntsmen. Carey, McCone and Stokes are all correct to conclude that this is the intended meaning; in context with the theme of wandering and wild places it’s hard to argue otherwise. See the EDIL for some other instances of the phrase signifying fénnidi, fiann warriors. (4) It’s an interesting notion that phantom entities should take on these warrior hunter shapes, and of course recalls the story of Melerius in (I). On the other hand perhaps it should be unsurprising; multiple classical authorities describe the mysticism entrenched in Celtic society. In Celtic social consciousness, those that crossed the liminal space between human world and wilderness could easily be connected to what exists in the beyond. Furthermore there is evidence indicating that much of Celtic society sought to maintain links to the otherworld. (5) In a strange prayer headed Oracio Colum Cille we read:

The feiss of Ireland, moreover, the feiss of Scotland, the feiss of druids, the feiss of sages, the feiss of craftsmen, the feiss of trappers, the feiss of sorcerers, the feiss of deer-hunters, the feiss of every living person who wreaks evil… may their poisons… pour back

The EDIL defines “feiss” as the verbal noun of feminine “foaid”, and could mean specifically coition or more generally nighttime festivities. (6) Carey notes on linguistic grounds that the word here is neuter, and would thus be appropriate as the neuter noun of “fis”, knowledge. In any case it demonstrates that diverse occupational roles and particularly huntsmanship were regarded as bonded to the spiritual realm. It’s also worth pointing out, with some circumspection, that all three definitions for Irish “feiss” echo aspects of the Welsh tale of Melerius.

Gwyn and The Soothsayers

Keeping all this in mind, let’s turn our attention to a Latin text of the 14th century. (7) Written as a polemic on divination, resembling the tone of both (I) and the Irish prayer, the text includes a description of Welsh soothsayers performing a fantastic chant:

to the king of Spirits, and to his queen–

Gwyn ap Nudd,

you who are yonder in the forest,

for love of your mate,

permit us to enter your dwelling.

The Latin word translated here as “spirits” is Eumenidium, the Furies of classical myth, which may or may not signify the dangerous nature of these wilderness entities. Gwyn ap Nudd himself is a shadowy figure, looming large and vague over the landscape of Welsh legend. But allowing for this uncertainty, a few distinct characteristics can be discerned from his portrayal in early texts: Gwyn is a warrior and a hunter, and he has connections to both the remote areas of Glastonbury and to hell. A long standing question in scholarship has been whether he has an Irish analog in Finn mac Umaill, who shares his name etymologically, leads an existence primarily in the wilderness, and is likewise intrinsically a warrior huntsman. (8) Finn is further portrayed as a rígfénnid or “king of the fiann” in Irish tradition, recalling the invocation to the phantom fénnidi of the (C) charm. I would cautiously suggest that Finn in his capacity as rígfénnid together with the spirit fiann warriors provides another plausible parallel to the hunter Gwyn ap Nudd as king of the spirits.

Here in closing, after this brief evaluation of texts concerning the nature of spirits in Celtic belief, I hope there can be found some added facets to Geraldus’ story. I’d also like to thank Greg Hill for his assistance during the process of formulating this writing, and whatever positive statements can be ascribed to the piece are to his credit.

As always, thank you for reading!

*The inspirers of these topics happen to be:

Mael Brigde- http://brigitssparklingflame.blogspot.com/?m=1

Ceridwen Silverhart- https://illuminatingthefoolsmirror.wordpress.com/

Lorna Smithers- https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/blog/

Wonderful people all, be sure to check them out!

(1) Here is Greg Hill’s article: http://gorsedd-arberth.blogspot.com/2014/03/melerius.html?m=1

As well as his new blog: https://greghill.website/

(2) Itinerarium Cambriae, Melerius episode, p. 52-3 https://archive.org/details/itinerarythroug00girauoft/page/52/mode/2up

(3) Carey, 2019, p. 9-13

(4) óaic féne- http://www.dil.ie/21945

(5) Carey, Magic, Metallurgy and Imagination in Medieval Ireland, p. 47-8

(6) http://www.dil.ie/search?search_in=headword&q=2%20feis(s)

(7) Excerpt: https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/gwyn2.html

(8) Murray, The Early Fenian Cycle, p. 145-6

I would like to make another contribution to the discussion by proposing a (new?) parallel between Finn and Gwyn. I had planned to write a full post on this topic, but due to unavoidable time constraints I think that it’s best to just make the case now, and perhaps return to it more thoroughly sometime later. I believe there are various similarities between the 10th century Finn and the Phantoms found in LL and an episode from the 16th century Buchedd Collin known as St. Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd.

1. Both protagonists are invited under threatening circumstances into a magically appearing otherworld abode.

2. Both protagonists refuse the food served to them. Although the meal is shown to be boiled, Finn declares that he will not eat the giant’s “raw meat” while St. Collen, when served various delectables, affirms that he will not eat Gwyn’s “leaves of the trees”.

3. In the LL, a vicious battle under a shroud of darkness breaks out between the warriors and their spectral assailants. When the darkness clears, the other warriors find Finn readying their horses, while all signs of the otherworld abode has vanished. In the Buchedd, St. Collen leaps up bellowing and splashes his host with holy water, causing the otherworldly assembly and palace to disappear without a trace.

I think that the validity of the argument is strengthened when we examine St. Collen himself, a character evidently as enigmatic as his adversary Gwyn. He seems to be viewed with some suspicion by the Catholic Church, probably due to the bizarre accounts of the Buchedd Collin. While the text contains too much material to adequately review here, a short description of the Saint’s lineage highlights its apparent legendary nature. On his father’s side St. Collen is descended from Caradog Freichfras (!) while his mother is Ethni Wyddelis (!!!) daughter of the Irish king Matholwch (!!!!!!) So his pedigree includes a legendary Arthurian knight, an Irish goddess, and a villain from the Mabinogi. It just gets stranger from there. Indeed, I will throw caution aside for the moment to make an audacious claim: it appears possible that your friend and mine, the venerable St. Collen of the Buchedd Collin, may be based on a Brythonic deity himself. Here is Baring-Gould’s account of the Buchedd, p. 157- https://archive.org/details/livesbritishsai04fishgoog/page/n173/mode/2up

11 thoughts on “The Hunters of Souls Part One: An Old Irish Curse

  1. That food-stealing curse charm speaks to a pretty bleak situation if the speaker is desperate enough to ask spirits to steal for them. If it is analogous to Melerius’s soul hunters, it almost sounds like the consequence for propositioning these spirits and being rejected is to surrender one’s soul to the hunters. That would make it a tool only for those with nothing to lose. I can certainly think of situations where people would be driven to such extremes, especially peasants with winter reserves running out way too early.

    I’m curious to see what material you’ll cover in the next part! This is already fascinating, and I’m sure there are many more angles to consider. Also, thank you for the shout-out! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Ceridwen, thanks for commenting, I always enjoy such quality input, in fact it’s probably my favorite part of blogging, haha.

      Yes it was bleak at times, but there were hard times for everyone throughout most of human history, we really are incredibly lucky to live now. The charm itself is a pretty standard formula, the details are all culture specific but the basics of “I want x’s a, if yes give me a vision of y, if no give me a vision of z” is a world-wide phenomenon. Professor Carey compares the Irish charm to a Greek one. Hmm, this should have gone into the post itself… Ceridwen you’ve been a thorn in my side for too long, stop showing me up! J/k of course, this is the sort of feedback I like most, do you think I should edit the post to include that info? Maybe I should also edit in some background on Geraldus himself, I tend to rush through the topical facts so I can get to my argument… And my writing could use a bit of ‘breathing room’ I think.

      Your thoughts on surrendering one’s soul to the huntsmen spirits are chilling. Personally, I think Geraldus’ reference to them being specifically ‘hunters of souls’ is sensationalism for his story. I used it for the title of my post for just that reason, heh.

      It’s an honor to hear that you enjoyed part 1 and are awaiting part 2, I hope it doesn’t disappoint! Also, what do you think of my ‘dual’ post, primarily about Melerius with the ot footnote about Finn/Gwyn/St. Collen? I figure this would be a way to catch up on all my ideas. Because I have to face facts that work and life leaves me very little time to devote to blogging.

      You deserve a shoutout and all the recommendations ever.

      Ack, this comment is already a mile long, sorry about that… I always did love conversation. Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, even with all the challenges this year has brought, there were still far worse years to live. And that’s true, the formula is pretty standard. It was the content that surprised me. I think leaving out the comparison of charms was the better choice considering that this part focuses on Celtic cultures. Greek similarities are interesting, but they don’t back up your point as clearly. Unless they’re directly related somehow? You know your research best! 😊

        Ah, the sensationalism idea sounds good! I would hope most people wouldn’t offer their souls for stolen food. Still, the very act of begging a supernatural force to specifically take food from someone else and give it to you smacks of deep desperation or resentment to me. In Japan, stories about fox spirits warn against requesting their help because if you ask for food or other material items, they tend to steal from your neighbors. And then everyone just ends up fighting.

        The dual post was kind of cool! It felt a bit like I’d stumbled on one of those post-credit scenes Marvel likes to pull, but more interesting. And the information about Finn/Gwyn/St. Collen was fascinating! Will Part 2 continue both discussions or will you be switching over to one alone?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ya, covid, blah, I hope you’re holding up! Sending best wishes!

        The Japanese cautionary tale is great! I’d like to here one, if you know any or have links! I noticed that of all the texts I could gather that have potential to be related to Geraldus’ hunter spirits, the charm is the only one that’s not condemnatory. There’s enough material for a post right there, discussing (even more) texts that caution against magic. The spirit foxes would be a fun comparison.

        I guess I should also say McCone believes that the charm is more metaphorical, and that when the reciter is asking for “corn and milk” it means provided with land to farm. Carey respectfully disagrees with such a elaborate interpretation, opting for a straightforward reading of the text, and I agree. Although McCone is brilliant, I can’t see any reason to believe the charm is metaphorical either, which I say as an amateur with the utmost respect for the good professor.

        I’m glad the dual post idea worked out! As far as Finn/Gwyn/Collen go, I’m done for now, but there is a lot more to be mined from the Buchedd, so if I can shoehorn it in somewhere I will. Part 2 is complete, spoilers! but it’ll focus on another aspect of the Melerius tale. Both Finn McCool and the charm make encore appearances though.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks! I think I’m doing relatively ok, but good wishes are always welcome. 😊 I wish you well too!

        I do actually have a link to an article that talks about those spirit foxes. It’s a pretty hefty piece since it also covers Japanese beliefs about cats, wolves, and more. It’s also where I first discovered weretigers. Here’s a version that doesn’t require a sign-in: https://asianethnology.org/downloads/ae/pdf/a116.pdf

        Yeah, I agree with you that the wording doesn’t sound strictly metaphorical. If someone simply wanted land to farm, I would think they’d either ask for a generous donor or ask the earth for bounty. This smacks of a clear intention to take someone else’s resources. It also doesn’t sound like it has vengeance built in with that “whoever” in there, though I’m sure it could be used that way. Quite interesting.

        More on Melerius sounds good! I’m curious to hear more about how he used his gifts. 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. I’ve also pondered whether this was an initiatory experience with a figure akin to Orddu, the Very Black Witch, who was associated with Gwyn and led Melerius to be able to see Gwyn and his spirits. I didn’t know about the Irish parallels. I’m also looking to Gwyn and Finn relations so thanks for the heads-up on the ‘phantoms’ and Collen episodes.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Lorna, thanks for the great comment! What an interesting insight about Orddu, I have to reread Culhwch ac Olwen straightaway.

      I’m looking forward to your post, and you’re very welcome for the info! I’m glad I can give back to someone who has helped inspire me in my posts. I was thinking of writing a post comparing Finn with other Welsh legends. But we’ll see if I even have time to get to it… We could spitball ideas someday, that’s always fun!

      Best wishes!

      Like

  3. Giraldus contains some golden nuggets of information buried among much pious stuff but rarely with enough context or background to be able to make much of it.

    Some things that were not fully worked through in that post on Melerius six years ago, and which didn’t arise from thoughts about your draft, do now occur to me on reading your post. A possible connection between the Wild Man theme and the ‘Loathly Lady’ theme is that both are, at the mythological level, about an individual being taken somewhere other. It’s easy to see how one of them morphs into the other when the mythological context is transferred to the context of heroic legend where the individual runs from battle to become a wild man in the forest. That such a wild man also becomes a prophet (as with Myrddin Wyllt) but that prophesying is then translated from inspired visionary utterance to validation of the warrior ethic and so the right to rule, or even simply to prophesying the defeat of enemies (the ‘sovereignty’ theme). So one way to be taken somewhere other is to run wild in the woods. Another is to be carried off by the ‘Loathly Lady’ as with the Scottish story of Thomas of Erceldoune who, like Melerius, makes love to a woman who turns into a hag and he has to go with her to the Otherworld, but then returns with the gift of prophecy. This has many variations as myth is overlain by heroic legend and the narrative is used to validate the right to rule. So in the story of Conn being carried off to an enchanted place to meet the ‘phantom’ Lug and given food and drink by the woman called ‘The Sovereignty of Ireland’, he is shown a vision of his line of succession. The different elements may separate and so not always appear together, or where they do, as in Giraldus, may lack a coherent explanation.

    All of which is speculative and in need of further thought, but I think indicates the range of issues which arise from these themes and illustrates the way myth morphs into legend and so into social validation. How, I wonder, might the ‘sovereignty’ themes continue to be applicable to the complex ways sovereignty is exercised today?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hey Greg! Thanks for such an astounding reflection on Melerius! It makes me happy that my writing can elicit pondering from a person that has often inspired my own writing. Also thanks for not pointing out my spelling errors… again, lol.

      Your hypothesis about the synthesis between wild man and loathly lady is fascinating and I find it compelling. I hope you develop it further so that I can continue my education. The prayer concerning ‘feiss’ also reminded me of the sovereignty type. I’m mulling over whether I want to write a part 3 focusing on sovereignty, but what I’d write would be pretty contentious and I don’t know if that’s worthwhile pursuing right now.

      Your concluding rhetorical question is a heady one – so true to form for you! I’ll have ponder on it.

      Best wishes!

      Like

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