Saturday, 31 October 2015

Hallows Eve ~ Samhain

“Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.”

—From “Spirits of the Dead” by Edgar Allan Poe

Samhain (pronounced /ˈsɑːwɪn/ sah-win or /ˈsaʊ.ɪn/ sow-in Irish pronunciation: is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November, which is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals are held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).

Samhain is believed to have pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. The Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithic passage tomb at the Hill of Tara, is aligned with the Samhain sunrise.

Samhain was seen as a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the Aos Sí, the 'spirits' or 'fairies', could more easily come into our world. Most scholars see the Aos Sí as remnants of the pagan gods and nature spirits.

Karlsruhe Schloss, Germany (by r.dahl)

Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. Mumming and guising were part of the festival, and involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes may have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples. In the late 19th century, Sir John Rhys and Sir James Frazer suggested that it was the "Celtic New Year", and this view has been repeated by some other scholars.

In the 9th century AD, Western Christianity shifted the date of All Saints' Day to 1 November, while 2 November later became All Souls' Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints'/All Souls' merged to create the modern Halloween. Historians have used the name 'Samhain' to refer to Gaelic 'Halloween' customs up until the 19th century.

In Modern Irish the name is Samhain [ˈsˠaunʲ], in Scottish Gaelic Samhainn/Samhuinn [ˈsaũ.iɲ], and in Manx Gaelic Sauin. These are also the names of November in each language, shortened from Mí na Samhna (Irish), Mì na Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Mee Houney (Manx). The night of 31 October (Halloween) is Oíche Shamhna (Irish), Oidhche Shamhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Oie Houney (Manx), all meaning "Samhain night". 1 November, or the whole festival, may be called Lá Samhna (Irish), Là Samhna (Scottish Gaelic) and Laa Houney (Manx), all meaning "Samhain day".

These names all come from the Old Irish samain, samuin or samfuin [ˈsaṽɨnʲ] all referring to 1 November (latha na samna: 'samhain day'), and the festival and royal assembly held on that date in medieval Ireland (oenaig na samna: 'samhain assembly'). Its meaning is glossed as 'summer's end', and the frequent spelling with f suggests analysis by popular etymology as sam ('summer') and fuin ('end'). 

 It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Beltane (~1 May) and Lughnasadh (~1 August). Samhain and Beltane, at the witherward side of the year from each other, are thought to have been the most important. 

Irish mythology was originally a spoken tradition, but much of it was eventually written down in the Middle Ages by Christian monks, who Christianized it to some extent. Nevertheless, these tales may shed some light on what Samhain meant and how it was marked in ancient Ireland.

Irish mythology tells us that Samhain was one of the four seasonal festivals of the year. The 10th-century tale Tochmarc Emire ('The Wooing of Emer') lists Samhain as the first of these four "quarter days".

In Aislinge Óengusa ('The Dream of Óengus') it is when he and his bride-to-be switch from bird to human form, and in Tochmarc Étaíne ('The Wooing of Étaín') it is the day on which Óengus claims the kingship of Brú na Bóinne.

Statue of Midir and Etain in Ardagh, Ireland
Ryan Stone

Tochmarc Étaíne, meaning "The Wooing of Étaín/Éadaoin", is an early text of the Irish Mythological Cycle, and also features characters from the Ulster Cycle and the Cycles of the Kings. It is partially preserved in the manuscript known as the Lebor na hUidre (c. 1106), and completely preserved in the Yellow Book of Lecan (c. 1401), written in language believed to date to the 8th or 9th century. It tells of the lives and loves of Étaín, a beautiful mortal woman of the Ulaid, and her involvement with Aengus and Midir of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

According to Irish mythology, Samhain (like Beltane) was a time when the 'doorways' to the Otherworld opened, allowing supernatural beings and the souls of the dead to come into our world; but while Beltane was a summer festival for the living, Samhain "was essentially a festival for the dead". The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn says that the sídhe (fairy mounds or portals to the Otherworld) "were always open at Samhain".

On 31 October, the locals would go down to the shore. One man would wade into the water up to his waist, where he would pour out a cup of ale and ask 'Seonaidh' ('Shoney'), whom he called "god of the sea", to bestow blessings on the Aos Sí. People also took special care not to offend the aos sí and sought to ward-off any who were out to cause mischief. They stayed near to home or, if forced to walk in the darkness, turned their clothing inside-out or carried iron or salt to keep them at bay.

The Hill of Ward (or Tlachta) in County Meath is thought to have been the site of a great Samhain gathering and bonfire; the Iron Age ringfort is said to have been where the goddess or druid Tlachta gave birth to triplets and where she later died.

As at Beltane, bonfires were lit on hilltops at Samhain and there were rituals involving them. However, by the modern era, they only seem to have been common along Scotland's Highland Line, on the Isle of Man, in north and mid Wales, and in parts of Ulster heavily settled by Scots. F. Marian McNeill says that a force-fire (or need-fire) was once the usual way of lighting them, but notes that this gradually fell out of use. Likewise, only certain kinds of wood may once have been used, but later records show that many kinds of flammable material were burnt. It is suggested that the fires were a kind of imitative or sympathetic magic – they mimicked the Sun, helping the "powers of growth" and holding back the decay and darkness of winter. They may also have served to symbolically "burn up and destroy all harmful influences". Accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries suggest that the fires (as well as their smoke and ashes) were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.

People also took flames from the bonfire back to their homes. In northeastern Scotland, they carried burning fir around their fields to protect them, and on South Uist they did likewise with burning turf.

In some places, people doused their hearth fires on Samhain night. Each family then solemnly re-lit its hearth from the communal bonfire, thus bonding the families of the village together. 

In the 17th century, Geoffrey Keating wrote that the druids of ancient Ireland would gather on Tlachta on Samhain night to kindle a sacred fire. From this, every bonfire in the land was lit, and from thence every home in the land relit their hearth, which had been doused that night. However, his source is unknown, and Ronald Hutton supposes that Keating had mistaken a Beltane custom for a Samhain one. Dousing the old fire and bringing in the new may have been a way of banishing evil, which was done at New Year festivals in many countries.

The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.


Halloween, or Hallowe'en ( a contraction of "All Hallows’ Evening"), also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows' Eve, or All Saints' Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows' Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.

Typical contemporary festive Halloween activities include trick-or-treating (or the related "guising"), attending costume parties, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing and divination games, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories and watching horror films. In many parts of the world, the Christian religious observances of All Hallows' Eve, including attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, remain popular, although in other locations, these solemn customs are less pronounced in favor of a more commercial and secular celebration. 

Because many Western Christian denominations encourage, although most no longer require, abstinence from meat on All Hallows' Eve, the tradition of eating certain vegetarian foods for this vigil day developed, including the consumption of apples, colcannon, cider, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.

The word Halloween or Hallowe'en dates to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. The word "Halloween" means "hallowed evening" or "holy evening". It comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows' Eve (the evening before All Hallows' Day). In Scots, the word "eve" is even, and this is contracted to e'en or een. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Halloween. Although the phrase "All Hallows'" is found in Old English (ealra hālgena mæssedæg, all saints mass-day), "All Hallows' Eve" is itself not seen until 1556.

It has been suggested that the carved jack-o'-lantern, a popular symbol of Halloween, originally represented the souls of the dead. On Halloween, in medieval Europe, "fires [were] lit to guide these souls on their way and deflect them from haunting honest Christian folk." Households in Austria, England and Ireland often had "candles burning in every room to guide the souls back to visit their earthly homes". These were known as "soul lights". Many Christians in mainland Europe, especially in France, believed "that once a year, on Hallowe'en, the dead of the churchyards rose for one wild, hideous carnival" known as the danse macabre, which has often been depicted in church decoration.

The rising popularity of Guy Fawkes Night (5 November) from 1605 onward, saw many Halloween traditions appropriated by that holiday instead, and Halloween's popularity waned in Britain, with the noteworthy exception of Scotland. There and in Ireland, they had been celebrating Samhain and Halloween since at least the early Middle Ages, and the Scottish kirk took a more pragmatic approach to Halloween, seeing it as important to the life cycle and rites of passage of communities and thus ensuring its survival in the country.

In France, some Christian families, on the night of All Hallows' Eve, prayed beside the graves of their loved ones, setting down dishes full of milk for them. On Halloween, in Italy, some families left a large meal out for ghosts of their passed relatives, before they departed for church services. In Spain, on this night, special pastries are baked, known as "bones of the holy" (Spanish: Huesos de Santo) and put them on the graves of the churchyard, a practice that continues to this day.

In Ireland and Scotland, the turnip has traditionally been carved during Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which is both much softer and much larger – making it easier to carve than a turnip. The American tradition of carving pumpkins is recorded in 1837 and was originally associated with harvest time in general, not becoming specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late 19th century.
In England, from the medieval period, up until the 1930s, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Halloween, which involved groups of soulers, both Protestant and Catholic, going from parish to parish, begging the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the souls of the givers and their friends. In Scotland and Ireland, guising – children disguised in costume going from door to door for food or coins  – is a traditional Halloween custom, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895 where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.

While the first reference to "guising" in North America occurs in 1911, another reference to ritual begging on Halloween appears, place unknown, in 1915, with a third reference in Chicago in 1920. The earliest known use in print of the term "trick or treat" appears in 1927, in the Blackie Herald Alberta, Canada.
There are several games traditionally associated with Halloween parties. One common game is dunking or apple bobbing, which may be called "dooking" in Scotland in which apples float in a tub or a large basin of water and the participants must use their teeth to remove an apple from the basin. The practice is thought by some to have derived from the Roman practices in celebration of Pomona. A variant of dunking involves kneeling on a chair, holding a fork between the teeth and trying to drive the fork into an apple. Another common game involves hanging up treacle or syrup-coated scones by strings; these must be eaten without using hands while they remain attached to the string, an activity that inevitably leads to a very sticky face.
Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In All Hallows' Eve celebrations during the Middle Ages, these activities historically occurred only in rural areas of medieval Europe and were only done by a "rare few" as these were considered to be "deadly serious" practices. A traditional Scottish form of divining one's future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel is believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name.
Unmarried women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in the mirror.
Another game/superstition that was enjoyed in the early 1900s involved walnut shells. People would write fortunes in milk on white paper. After drying, the paper was folded and placed in walnut shells. When the shell was warmed, milk would turn brown therefore the writing would appear on what looked like blank paper.
Folks would also play fortune teller. In order to play this game, symbols were cut out of paper and placed on a platter. Someone would enter a dark room and was ordered to put her hand on a piece of ice then lay it on a platter. Her "fortune" would stick to the hand. Paper symbols included: dollar sign-wealth, button-bachelorhood, thimble-spinsterhood, clothespin- poverty, rice-wedding, umbrella- journey, caldron-trouble, 4-leaf clover- good luck, penny-fortune, ring-early marriage, and key-fame.

Spending Halloween in London?

love and light

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Lady Gregory

Lady Gregory

Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory (née Persse; 15 March 1852 – 22 May 1932) 
was an Irish dramatist, folklorist and theatre manager. With William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn, she co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, and wrote numerous short works for both companies. Lady Gregory produced a number of books retelling stories taken from Irish mythology. 

There's more learning than is taught in books.
~ Lady Gregory

Irish history having been forbidden in schools, has been, to a great extent, learned from Raftery's poems by the people of Mayo, where he was born, and of Galway, where he spent his later years. ~ 
Lady Gregory

It is what the poets of Ireland used to be saying, that every brave man, good at fighting, and every man that could do great deeds and not be making much talk about them, was of the Sons of the Gael; and that every skilled man that had music and that did enchantments secretly, was of the Tuatha de Danaan. ~ 
Lady Gregory

It was on the first day of Beltaine, that is called now May Day, the Tuatha de Danaan came, and it was to the north-west of Connacht they landed. But the Firbolgs, the Men of the Bag, that were in Ireland before them, and that had come from the South, saw nothing but a mist, and it lying on the hills. ~ 
Lady Gregory

There is many a man without learning will get the better of a college-bred man, 
and will have better words, too. ~ 
Lady Gregory

Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland by Lady Augusta Gregory HERE

In talking to the people I often heard the name of Biddy Early, and I began to gather many stories of her, some calling her a healer and some a witch. Some said she had died a long time ago, and some that she was still living. I was sure after a while that she was dead, but was told that her house was still standing, and was on the other side of Slieve Echtge, between Feakie and Tulla. So one day I set out and drove Shamrock, my pony, to a shooting lodge built by my grandfather in a fold of the mountains, and where I had sometimes, when a young girl, stayed with my brothers when they were shooting the wild deer that came and sheltered in the woods. It had like other places on our estate a border name brought over from Northumberland, but though we called it Chevy Chase the people spoke of its woods and outskirts as Daire-caol, the Narrow Oak Wood, and Daroda, the Two Roads, and Druim-da-Rod, their Ridge. I stayed tile night in the low thatched house, setting out next day for Feakle "eight strong miles over the mountain." It was a wild road, and the pony had to splash his way through two unbridged rivers, swollen with the summer rains. The red mud of the road, the purple heather and foxglove, the brown bogs were a contrast to the grey rocks and walls of Burren and Aidline, and there were many low hills, brown when near, misty blue in the distance; then the Golden Mountain, Slieve nan-Or, "where the last great battle will be fought before the end of the world." Then I was out of Connacht into Clare, the brown turning to green pasture as I drove by Raftery's Lough Greine.

I put up my pony at a little inn. There were portraits of John Dillon and Michael Davitt hanging in the parlour, and the landlady told me Parnell's likeness had been with them, until the priest had told her he didn't think well of her hanging it there. There was also on the wall, in a frame, a warrant for the arrest of one of her sons, signed by, I think, Lord Cowper, in the days of the Land War. "He got half a year in gaol the same year Parnell did. He got sick there, and though he lived for some years the doctor said when he died the illness he got in gaol had to do with his death."

I had been told how to find Biddy Early's house "beyond the little hum py bridge," and I walked on till I came to it, a poor cottage enough, high up on a mass of rock by the roadside. There was only a little girl in the house, but her mother came in afterwards and told me that Biddy Early had died about twenty years before, and that after they had come to live in the house they had been "annoyed for a while" by people coming to look for her. She had sent them away, telling them Biddy Early was dead, though a friendly priest had said to her, "Why didn't you let on you were her and make something out of them?" She told me some of the stories I give below, and showed me the shed where the healer had consulted with her invisible friends. I had already been given by an old patient of hers a "bottle" prepared for the cure, but which she had been afraid to use. It lies still unopened on a shelf in my storeroom. When I got back at nzght fall to the lodge in the woods I found many of the neighbours gathered there, wanting to hear news of "the Tulla Woman" and to know for certain if she was dead. I think as time goes on her fame will grow and some of the myths that always hang in the air will gather round her, for I think the first thing I was told of her was, "There used surely to be enchanters in the old time, magicians and freemasons. Old Biddy Early's power came from the same thing."


The Gregorys travelled in Ceylon, India, Spain, Italy and Egypt. While in Egypt, Lady Gregory had an affair with the English poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, during which she wrote a series of love poems, A Woman's Sonnets.

Tulira Castle, County Galway. 
The tower house to the right dates from the 15th century although resting on earlier foundations.

Edward Martyn was a neighbour of Lady Gregory's, and it was during a visit to his home, Tullira Castle, in 1896 that she first met W. B. Yeats. Discussions between the three of them over the following year or so led to the founding of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. Lady Gregory undertook fundraising, and the first programme consisted of Martyn's The Heather Field and Yeats's The Countess Cathleen.

The Irish Literary Theatre project lasted until 1901, when it collapsed due to lack of funding. In 1904, Lady Gregory, Martyn, Yeats, John Millington Synge, Æ, Annie Horniman and William and Frank Fay came together to form the Irish National Theatre Society. 

Medieval Tulira Castle, in the village of Ardrahan in County Galway, Ireland
Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the 
Tuatha De Danaan and the Fianna of Ireland
Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology
More Celtic Folklore HERE

love and light,

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Thomas the Rhymer

Patron’s La Belle Dame sans Merci painting

Thomas the Rhymer (fl. c. 1220 – 1298), also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas of Learmont or True Thomas, was a 13th-century Scottish laird and reputed prophet from Earlston (then called "Erceldoune") in the Borders. In literature he appears as the protagonist in the tale about Thomas the Rhymer, who was carried off by the "Queen of Elfland" and returned having gained the gift of prophecy, as well as the inability to tell a lie. The tale survives in a medieval verse romance in five manuscripts, as well as in the popular ballad "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad number 37). The original romance ca. 1400 was probably condensed into ballad form ca. 1700, though there are dissenting views on this.

Beneath the Eildon Tree.

Sir Walter Scott expanded the ballad into three parts, adding a sequel which incorporated the prophecies ascribed to Thomas, and an epilogue where Thomas is summoned back to Elfland after the appearance of a sign, in the form of the milk-white hart and hind. Numerous prose retellings of the tale of Thomas the Rhymer have been undertaken, and included in fairy tale or folk-tale anthologies; these often incorporate the return to Fairyland episode that Scott reported to have learned from local legend.

The ballad was first printed by Walter Scott (1803) then by Robert Jamieson (1806).

 The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul.

Eildon Hills
Taken from Scott’s View on a morning when the whole of the Tweed Valley was shrouded in mist.
Keith Robeson
Path with purple heather on The Eildon Hills, Scottish Borders.
There is some evidence that prehistoric peoples regarded the Eildon Hills as a holy place and scholars believe they may have been a place of ceremonial gatherings. There are several holy springs around the base of the hills, now dedicated to Christian saints, but probably originally sacred to Celtic deities
Eildon is said to be a "hollow hill", and is mentioned in the legend of Thomas the Rhymer. Some believe Thomas went under the hill itself, and certainly part of the ballad occurs in the vicinity. Sir Walter Scott tells the tale of a horse dealer who is paid in 'ancient coin' by an elderly buyer in old-fashioned dress and taken inside the hill at night. A host of armed knights lie asleep at their horses' feet; their sleeping leader is King Arthur. Shown a horn and a sword, in confusion the dealer blows the horn: the men begin to awake and a loud voice indicates that he has been proved a coward for not seizing the sword first. A whirlwind ejects him from the chamber and outside he tells his story to some shepherds before dropping dead of exhaustion. Scott identifies the elderly man as Thomas the Rhymer.

Sir Thomas was born in Erceldoune (also spelled Ercildoune – presently Earlston), Berwickshire, sometime in the 13th century, and has a reputation as the author of many prophetic verses. Little is known for certain of his life but two charters from 1260–80 and 1294 mention him, the latter referring to "Thomas de Ercildounson son and heir of Thome Rymour de Ercildoun".

Thomas became known as "True Thomas", supposedly because he could not tell a lie. Popular lore recounts how he prophesied many great events in Scottish history, including the death of Alexander III of Scotland.

Thomas' gift of prophecy is linked to his poetic ability. It is not clear if the name Rhymer was his actual surname or merely a sobriquet. He is often cited as the author of the English Sir Tristrem, a version of the Tristram legend, and some lines in Robert Mannyng's Chronicle may be the source of this association.

"This Thorn-Tree, as lang as it stands,
Earlstoun sall possess a' her lands."

or "As long as the Thorn Tree stands / Ercildourne shall keep its lands".

This was first of several prophecies attributed to the Rhymer collected by Chambers, who identified the tree in question as the one that fell in the storm in either 1814 or 1821, presumably on the about the last acre that was left that belonged to the town of Earlstoun. The prophecy was lent additional weight at the time, because as it so happened, the merchants of the town had fallen under bankruptcy by a series of "unfortunate circumstances". According to one account, "Rhymer's thorn" was a huge tree growing in the garden of the Black Bull Inn, and its proprietor named Thin, had its roots cut all around, leaving it vulnerable to the storm that same year.

The main part of the ‘Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune’ is present in four main manuscripts: The Thornton MS (Lincoln MS.91), dated 1419-50 A.D.; Cambridge MS Ff.5.48, and Cotton Vitellius E.x, dated c.1450 and Lansdowne 762, dated 1500-25. All manuscripts have essentially the same text with some additions and subtractions.

In the romance, the queen declares that Thomas has stayed three years but can remain no longer, because "the foul fiend of Hell will come among the (fairy) folk and fetch his fee" (modernized from Thornton text, vv.289–290). This "fee" "refers to the common belief that the fairies "paid kane" to hell, by the sacrifice of one or more individuals to the devil every seventh year." (The word teind is actually used in the Greenwood variant of Thomas the Rymer: "Ilka seven year, Thomas, / We pay our teindings unto hell,.. I fear, Thomas, it will be yerself".) The situation is akin to the one presented to the title character of "Tam Lin" who is in the company of the Queen of Fairies, but says he fears he will be given up as the tithe (Scots: teind or kane) paid to hell. The common motif has been identified as type F.257 "Tribute taken from fairies by fiend at stated periods" except that while Tam Lin must devise his own rescue, in the case of the Rymer, "the kindly queen of the fairies will not allow Thomas of Erceldoune to be exposed to this peril, and hurries him back to earth the day before the fiend comes for his due." J. R. R. Tolkien also alludes to the "Devil's tithe" as concerns the Rhymer's tale in a passing witty remark.

It has been suggested that John Keats wrote the poem La Belle Dame sans Merci having borrowed the motif and structure from the legend of Thomas the Rhymer.

The ballad around the legend of Thomas has been catalogued Child Ballad #37 "Thomas the Rymer," by Francis James Child (1883).

Music score to the ballad of "True Thomas", from Scott's Minstrelsy.

In Minstrelsy, Walter Scott published a second part to the ballad out of Thomas's prophecies, and yet a third part describing Thomas's return to Elfland. The third part was based on the legend Scott said he was familiar with, that "while Thomas was making merry with his friends in the Tower of Ercildoune," a news "a hart and hind.. was parading the street of the village," at which Thomas got up and left, never to be seen again. The popular belief being that he had gone to Fairyland but is "one day expected to revisit earth."

In Walter Scott's "Third Part" to the ballad, Thomas finds himself in possession of a "elfin harp he won" in Fairyland in a minstrel competition, which is a departure from either the traditional ballad or the medieval romance, where the queen tells Thomas to choose wither "to harpe or carpe," that is pick a choice of either the gift of music or speech. The "hart and hind" is now being sung as being "white as snow on Fairnalie" (Farnalie has been properly identified by Lyle, as discussed above). Some prose retellings incorporate some features derived from this third part.

The brief outline of the ballad is that Thomas was lying outdoors on a slope by a tree in the Erceldoune neighborhood, when the queen of Elfland appeared to him riding a horse, and beckoned him to come away, and when he consents, shows him three marvels, the road to Heaven, to Hell, and to her own world. After seven years, Thomas is brought back into the mortal realm, and asking for a token to remember the queen by, is offered the choice of the gift of a harper or a prophet, at which he chooses the latter option.

Music score to the ballad of "True Thomas", from Scott's Minstrelsy.
The scene of Thomas's encounter with the elf-queen is "Huntly Bank" and the "Eildon Tree" (versions B, C, and E) or "Farnalie" (version D) All these refer to the area of Eildon Hills, in the vicinity of Earlston: Huntly Bank was a slope on the hill and the tree stood there also, as Scott explained, while Emily B. Lyle was able to localize "farnalie" there as well.

There was once a young man named Thomas, who loved nothing more than to wander the beautiful countryside surrounding his home town of Erceldoune in the Scottish Borders, thought to be modern day Earlston. His favourite spot to sit and admire the views over the mysterious Eildon Hills was a lovely old tree, said by some to be a hawthorn, and later known as the Eildon Tree. One day while taking a rest under the tree, Thomas spotted an elegant lady on a milk white horse:

"True Thomas lay on Huntlie Bank:
A ferlie he spied wi' his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her shirt was o' the grass green silk,
Her mantle o' the velvet fyne;
At ilka tett of her horse's mane,
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas, he pull'd aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee-
- "All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heav'n!
For thy peer on earth I never did see"-

- "O no, O no, Thomas," she said;
"That name does not belang to me;
I am but the Queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee."

The Queen of Fairyland dared Thomas to kiss her, so he did, and she asked Thomas to come away with her and serve her for seven years in Fairyland. She mounted her horse with him behind, and together they travelled, her horse travelling swifter than the wind itself. She told Thomas to hold his tongue no matter what he hears or sees, or he will never return to the mortal realms. Some say this should not be taken literally, and that it refers to Thomas being told never to speak word of their love incase the Fairy King should hear. On they rode, wading through rivers, and through the roaring of the sea, and through rivers of blood. She explains that all blood shed on earth runs through the springs of this country. They finally came to a green garden, where the Faery Queen plucked an apple from a tree, telling Thomas to take it for his wages and it will grant him "the tongue that can never lie". He protests, saying his tongue is his own, but she commands it so. The story ends that:

"He has gotten a cloth of the even cloth,
and a pair of shoes of velvet green;
And, till seven years were gane and past,
True Thomas on earth was never seen."

This version of the tale is as told by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish border (1802), he says it was collected from a local lady. He continues with an extension of the story where Thomas has returned to Erceldoune seven years later. It is said that the faery folk must pay a teind to hell every seven years, and the Queen fears that this year it will be Thomas, so she returns him to the mortal world. Some versions of the tale say that he returned with the ability to only speak the truth, and others say he had magical powers of prophesy and became famous throughout Scotland. Then one day while Thomas was celebrating with friends in the tower of Erceldoune, a person came running in and told in fear and astonishment that "a hart and hind had left the neighbouring forest, and were, composedly and slowly, parading the street of the village". Thomas arose and left the tower, then followed the animals into the forest, and was never seen again. According to popular belief he currently resides in Elfland, but is one day expected to revisit our mortal realms again.

Interestingly, a man named Thomas Rymour really did live in 13th century Erceldoune. A charter from 1294 mentions "Thomas de Ercildoun, son and heir of Thomas Rymour de Ercildon". Could this be the Thomas the Rhymer of legend? A leaflet in Melrose refers to Thomas as Thomas Learmont, but according to Briggs' Dictionary of Fairies there is no documented evidence of this name.

If you would like to read more about the various versions of the story, then Jamieson's Popular ballads and songs, volume 2 (1806) is a good starting place. It mentions early manuscripts including one in the Cambridge public library said to be from the 15th century. Interestingly, these early versions do mention places local to modern day Earlston, for example the Lincoln manuscript includes this verse:

"She ledde him in at Eldone Hill,
Underneathe a derne lee,
Where it was derke als mydnight merke,
And ever the water till his knee."

The Eildon Hills are located right next to the present day Rhymer Stone which marking the spot of the Eildon Tree, and dominate the landscape with their 3 peaks that can be seen from miles around. It is said that these hills have been important throughout history, being first inhabited around 1000 BC in the Bronze age, and later inhabited by Celts, Druids, and the Romans, who built the fort of Trimontium at the foot of the hills. Some say that the hills are hollow, and that fairyland lies inside the hills themselves. Another legend tells of a horse dealer who is taken inside the hill by a mysterious gentleman, where he finds King Arthur and his knights sleeping. Some say a single mountain once stood, but it was cleeved into the present day triple peaks by a mighty wizard. Others say that the ancient tumulus Bourjo, on the lower slopes, was once a Druid oak grove where sacrifices were made. Whatever the truth, the Eildon Hills are bursting with folklore and legend, and were obviously seen as an important spiritual and mysterious place.


The queen wears a skirt of grass-green silk and a velvet mantle, and is mounted on either a milk-white steed, or a dapple-gray horse.  The horse has nine and fifty bells on each tett (Scots English. "lock of matted hair") on its mane/nine hung on its mane/and three bells on either side of the bridle/ nine bells in her hand, offered as a prize for his harping and carping (music and storytelling).

Kinuko Craft

Such a queen appears in the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, but she is queen of a nameless world in the medieval verse romance. The name "Queen of Elfland" is mentioned for her only in a later ballad (version A). Thomas the Rhymer's abduction by the queen was not just familiar folklore, but described as a kindred experience by at least one witch (Andro Man). The "Queen of Fairies" in Tam Lin may be the queen of the same world, at least, she too is compelled deliver humans as "tithe to hell" every seven years.

In Scottish popular tradition the Fairy Queen was known as the Gyre-Carling or Nicnevin, In one metrical legend, "The Faeries of Fawdon Hill" is where the Fairy Court is held, presided by Queen Mab.

In both the ballad and romance forms of the legend of Thomas the Rhymer, the supernatural queen initially mistaken for the Queen of Heaven (i.e., Virgin Mary) by the protagonist, but she identifies herself as "Queen of Elfland" (ballad A) or the queen of some supernatural realm that remains nameless (romance). The nameless land or romance is the same as the Elfland of ballad insofar as the queen is able to show Thomas three paths, one leading to her homeland and the other two to Heaven and Hell, and J. A. H. Murray says it is a place which would be called "Faërie or Fairy-land" in tales from later periods.

The Fairy Queen or Queen of the Fairies was believed to rule the fairies. Based on Shakespeare's influence, in English-speaking cultures she is often named Titania or Mab.

Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen by Johann Heinrich Füssli, c. 1788.

In Irish folklore, the last High Queen of the Daoine Sidhe - and wife of the High King Finvarra - was named Oona (or Oonagh, or Una, or Uonaidh etc.). In the ballad tradition of Northern England and Lowland Scotland, she was called the Queen of Elphame.

John Duncan

Both Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare used folklore concerning the Fairy Queen to create characters and poetry, Spenser in The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare most notably in A Midsummer Night's Dream. In The Faerie Queene, Spencer's fairy queen is named Gloriana, and is also referred to as Tanaquill, which "appears to be an epithet for Gloriana, Queen of Faeries" derived from the name of the wife of Tarquinius Priscus. She is the daughter of Oberon, who in Shakespeare's later play is married to Titania, a name derived from Ovid as an epithet of the Roman goddess Diana. Diana was regularly portrayed as the ruler of the fairy kingdom in demonological literature, such as king James VI of Scotland's Daemonologie, which says that she belongs to "the fourth kind of spirits, which by the Gentiles [non-Jews] was called Diana and her wandering court, and amongst us is called Fairy (as I told you) or our good neighbours".

Meadow Elves, by Nils Blommér, 1850

Alfheim (Old Norse: Ālfheimr, "Land Of The Fairies"), also called Ljosalfheim (Ljósálf heimr, "light-elf home"), is one of the Nine Worlds and home of the Light Elves in Norse mythology.

A hall called Gimlé and the southernmost end of heaven that shall survive when heaven and earth have died, explains:

It is said that another heaven is to the southward and upward of this one, and it is called Andlang [Andlangr 'Endlong'] but the third heaven is yet above that, and it is called Vídbláin [Vídbláinn 'Wide-blue'] and in that heaven we think this abode is. But we believe that none but Light-Elves inhabit these mansions now.

It is not indicated whether these heavens are identical to Álfheim or distinct. Some texts read Vindbláin (Vindbláinn 'Wind-blue') instead of Vídbláin.

Modern commentators speculate (or sometimes state as fact) that Álfheim was one of the nine worlds (heima) mentioned in stanza 2 of the eddic poem Völuspá.

Fairyland may be referred to simply as "Fairy" or "Faërie," though that usage is an archaism. It is often the land ruled by the "Queen of Fairy," and thus anything from fairyland is also sometimes described as being from the "Court of the Queen of Elfame" or from Seelie court in Scottish folklore.

The Scots word elfame or elphyne "fairyland" has other variant forms, attested in Scottish witch trials, but Elf-hame or Elphame with the -hame stem (meaning "home" in Scots) were conjectural readings by Pitcairn.

Rhymer's stone is said to mark the place where the Eildon tree grew and Thomas first met the Fairy Queen. The stone is dated 1929, but the stone it is mounted on says it was re-erected in 1970, is this the original location or was moved so it could be accessed more easily. There's also a stone circle laid in the ground with lines from the poem.

 Rhymer's stone
A path towards the Eildon Hills, leads to Bogle Burn. According to Scott's Minstrelsy, "A neighbouring rivulet takes the name of the Bogle Burn, (Goblin Brook) from the Rhymer's supernatural visitants". 
 Lower slopes of Eildon Hill ~ a very gnarled old hawthorn tree

Down the slopes towards Melrose, another beautiful hawthorn tree

The Eildon tree died before our earliest records. Its place was apparently marked by the Eildon [tree] Stone, which was present by time Walter Scott wrote about it in 1802 (p.249). You can still visit the Eildon stone today.

Three main clues have suggested to writers over the last century that the Eildon tree was a magical hawthorn (Crataegus sp.) (e.g. Kendall, 2012):

Thomas and the Queen enter and exit the Otherworld underneath it.
Thomas first sees the Queen besides it, and knows he can meet her there.
The Queen could have taken Thomas’ speech there, and a pact can be made there.
In the modern period the hawthorn has been identified as a common folkloric portal between the earth and the Otherworld. The tree is especially magical when in flower during May, at the time our story is set.

The hawthorn seems to have stood as a symbol of carnal love in the medieval period (Eberly, 1989), and the identification of the Eildon tree as a hawthorn is therefore tempting. However it is unlikely to be the original intention for the author(/s) for three reasons: (i) I can find no reliable reference to the idea of hawthorn as a portal prior to the twentieth century. (ii) Ecologically the identification is unlikely as we shall see. Finally (iii) the identification probably stems from a misreading of one of the prophecies later attributed to True Thomas:

This thorn-tree, as lang as it stands
Earlstoun shall possess a’ her lands.

Most of Thomas’ prophecies were written by the Eildon tree, and so some have assumed Thomas was talking about that tree. However he was not. The thorn tree has been identified as the ‘Rhymer’s Thorn’ which was accidentally killed in 1814, whereas the Eildon tree was dead long before Scott wrote in 1802 (Scott, 1802, p.249; Murray, 1875, p.lxxxv). After Rhymer’s Tree died, the land was lost.

The tree we are looking for was probably not being pollarded or coppiced or even grown for timber. It may have just contributed to the area as a landmark, or have been grown for fruit. It is likely to be long-lived and tall enough to ride under, as well as dominating the area. It is green and found in a woodland. To be suitable for romantic trysting it cannot have been prickly or borne large fruit or berries in May.

The most probable native species which does have these properties is the English oak tree (Quercus robur). This tree is long-lived, green, and grows in forests. It is the most common kind of tree in Britain but also dominates areas where it grows. It is the quintessential English ‘greenwood’ tree (Johnson, 2004, p.216).

The Eildon tree is part of the texture of the story of Thomas the Rhymer. It was retained in all versions, and is even found in the later ballads. It appears to have been a vital part of the setting of the story. It is symbolic of the idyllic, lazy human world of the greenwood where birds sing all day.


Hawthorn, or Whitethorn, was once used to decorate May poles. At one time Hawthorns were believed to be Witches who had transformed themselves into trees. Witches have long danced and performed their rites beneath the thorn.

The Whitethorn is sacred to the Faery Queen, the Welsh Triple Goddess Olwen of the White Track, as well as the Flower Maiden, Blodeuwedd.

The Whitethorn (or Maythorn or Hawthorn) blooms brightest during the season of Beltane.  In April, May and June, it is full, bushy, strongly perfumed, and buzzing with a thousand bees drawn to the nectar that that heady fragrance shows off. Under the gauzy femininity of the Whitethorn in flower, are branches studded with long, sharp, penetrating thorns. The thorns are masculine: protective and phallic.  Flowering in Spring, the Whitethorn is associated with fertility; it stimulates eroticism, and encourages the fulfillment of desire. Its pallor brings it under the rulership of the Moon, long the Queen of Romantic Love, and Mother of Souls. The Moon in this role can also be compared with the Queen of the Bees that harvest the honey of the Whitethorn.

love and light