Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Irish Magic for Writers

Article by Ty Hulse

Piseog is a difficult concept to understand. As with many ancient magical terms it has no similar word in modern English, nor do any parallel concepts still exist with which to compare it. At it's most simplistic level it can be thought of as superstitions surrounding supernatural events. This meant that it could be anything from the fairies theft of milk to spells to steal the fertility of a neighbor's fields. An event from a little over a hundred years ago will give some idea regarding one particular piseog based concept that could be useful for writers.

"A cattle drover named William Murphy, of Rahill, near Cahir, was brought forward in the custody of the constabulary on a charge of having unlawfully entered the lands of John Russell, of Coolapoorawn, Ballyporeen, for the purpose of performing an act of witchcraft on the latter's cattle. Old tradition affirms that May morning was the one particular morning of the year on which sorceries of this kind - called - Piseogs - could be practiced with the most success. Those who dread such evil influences on their cattle and property frequently remain up all night on guard."
Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society

Writing Prompts
Write a scene with a person sneaking onto a farm to steal it's fertility or about people waiting up to catch someone seeking to steal their fields fertility.

People often make the mistake of focusing only on the dark aspects of piseogs, for example. "The Indendent" stated that;

"Piseogs were a kind of pagan curse, applied mainly by women that could wreak havoc on the unsuspecting farmer. They caused hens not to lay, crops to fail or butter not to keep. By putting rotten meat or eggs on a neighbours' land, it was ensured he had no produce. Putting them in the barn resulted in dry cows. Eddie Lenihan described them as the Irish equivalent of Caribbean voodoo. "People used to believe that there was only a certain amount of luck to go around. "Piseogs are evil magic, the working of badness on your neighbours or the taking away of his luck to add to your own luck," he explained. He revealed that on May Eve between midnight and dawn the women would creep on to the neighbour's land and use a cloth to skim the dew from the grass, which she would use to do her bad work. Placing raw eggs on the neighbour's land was said to reduce his crop and increase your own. Placing raw meat on another man's crop would ruin his crop."

The Independent is both right and wrong in their depiction of piseogs, however. On the one hand piseogs can be used for evil purposes. They are not, however, "evil magic." Piseogs are simply magic and magical ideas. Piseogs include the notion of carrying a rabbit's foot for luck or a badgers tooth to improve your chances of winning a competition. As the Irish Examiner points out;

"Piseogs, or superstitions, are an extension of folk medicine and the Doctrine of Signatures applies also to them. If an animal or plant resembles an organ of the body, then, according to the famous Doctrine, it offers a cure for ailments of that organ. Likewise, the special qualities of an object will be transferred to a person who carries it. Oaks live to a ripe old age; keep an acorn in your pocket and some of that longevity will rub off on you."

The problem is that people typically only write about the darker aspects of piseogs, just like the news now focuses primarily on negative events. But as already stated piseogs could be about medicine, about helping people, and perhaps most significantly, they were a way of making good food, a way of growing food, of helping cows and more. Often Piseogs were passed along from mother to daughter through generations as women were the one's who traditionally handled the milk and therefor controlled the magical knowledge of transforming it into great butter and cheese. Traditional Irish Butter is so much more then a chemical process it's a magical one as well.

Perhaps what's most interesting for fantasy writers is the hundreds of little things people did to ward off dark influences and gain luck. Tying a red ribbon around a cows tail, dressing boys up as girls on May Day Eve to keep the fairies from harming them, putting shoes on the wrong feet to make wild fairies think you were one of them.

Each of these things is more than a cultural antidote, these ideas tell us something about the fairies as well, from their relationship to the color red, to the fact that they were particularly likely to kidnap boys to be their children when they were free to roam the countryside in force, and the fact that they lived in a world which was backwards from our own.

The part where boys art kidnapped speaks both to the ancient Irish culture and to the nature of fairies. Fairies needed to add strength to their bloodline and they needed humans to help them fight wars. Strong boys in old Irish customer were believed to be better for these two purposes as shown by this superstition.

Writing prompt

Create superstitions or piseogs for your world which speak to the character of your worlds deities and magical beings and the cultures which have to deal with them.

Girls, when they were kidnapped were made into witches, for girls it seems were often better at magic. Of course, as already mentioned many girls learn magic from them mothers, and it was believed that some of these women would change into hares to celebrate May Eve or other holidays. Leaving their clothes behind they could play about with their friends in the form of an animal, running free over the fields, through the woods. Imagine that as a slumber party activity. Bouncing about the country, playing pranks as they hopped from human to animal form. Going into animal burrows to feast with the fairies, hedgehogs (also witches in animal form), badgers (magical shapeshifters), foxes (dogs from the other world with magical luck), and other animals.

More Fantasy Writing Prompts