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sluaghIn Celtic mythology, there is a mysterious group of supernatural beings, the aes sídhe, who belong to a realm which is beyond human understanding (yet which lies athwart the mortal world).  The greatest among these aes sidhe were gods and goddesses—divine incarnations of nature, time, or other abstract concepts.  Other members of the fairy host were thought of as elves, goblins, sprites, or imps (for example, the leprechauns–the disconcerting little tricksters of fairydom).  However the supernatural world was also filled with the restless dead…beings who were once mortal but whose failures and miseries in life kept them connected to this plain of existence.  A particularly ominous group of these dark spirits comprised the sluagh sidhe—the airborne horde of cursed, evil, or restless dead.

shadow_peopleThe sluagh sidhe (also known simply as the sluagh) were beings who were cursed to never know the afterlife.  Neither heaven nor hell wanted them.  Like Jack O’Lantern they were condemned to roam the gray world.  Unlike Jack O’Lantern, however, the sluagh were reckoned to be a malicious and deadly force.  They appeared en masse in the darkest nights and filled the air like terrible rushing starlings or living mist.  One of the most horrible aspects of the sluagh was the extent to which their horde existence erased all individual personality (like eusocial insects—but evil and spooky).

article-2077359-0F3F563E00000578-477_634x320Before the advent of Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, and the northlands, the sluagh were thought of as a dreadful, otherworldly aspect of the wild hunt.  When the dark gods came forth to course the world with hell hounds, the sluagh were the evil demons and fallen fairies which flew along beside the grim host.  After Christian missionaries began to arrive, the idea of losing one’s soul forever became worse than the idea of merely being torn apart by dark monsters—and the sluagh was reimagined as a force which hunted and devoured spirits.

Wodan's Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

Wodan’s Wilde Jagd (F. W. Heine, 1882, engraving)

The sluagh were thought to fly from the west.  They were particularly dangerous to people alone in wastelands at night (which sounds dangerous anyway) and to people on the threshold of death [ed.–that sounds dangerous too].  Some of the Irish death taboos against western windows and western rooms are thought to be related to fear of this demonic horde. Although the sluagh could apparently be dangerous to healthy people in good spirits, they seem to have been most dangerous to the depressed, the anxious, and the sick.  From my modern vantage in a warm well-lit (northerly-facing) room, the idea of the sluagh seems to be an apt metaphor for depression, despair, and fear.  Hopefully they will stay far from all of us!

Irish Graves 3872

Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot).  Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).

Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture.  Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear.  Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries.  It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.

During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory.  As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire.  Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.

A Sword Hilt Fitting from the Staffordshire Hoard (Mercian, ca. 7th century)

By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.

Detail of Serpents, lions, and vines from the Book of Kells (ca. 800 AD)

Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter.   Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture.  For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.

Detail from the Book of Kells

Stained Glass Celtic Knot (from Paradise Stained Glass)

Fahan Cross-slab (Donegal Ireland, ca. 7th Century AD)

Celtic Knot Handbag

Celtic Knot foot tattoo from “Tattoo and Piercing Gallery”

Celtic Knot Stencil from “The Artful Stencil”

Traditional Celtic Knot (Drawing by by ~cosmic-tool from deviantart)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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