Writing

People, Both Large & Small

In the Celtic tales of old, the sgeulaiche, or storytellers, recall another world that exists just below the sod, stones, and hills, a world far different from our own, a world populated by faeries, pixies, leprechauns, and giants. The stories are not relegated to one area of Celtic culture, either. The Welsh have their Bwbachod and Bwca; in Ireland, there are similar creatures known as Faylinn. In Scotland, they are called "the wee folk," and Daoine Sithe. Every Celtic culture has at least one story of a fairy, a giant, a brownie, a troll, a kobold, or some other manifestation of the underworld and the effects that creature had on the human world above.

In nearly every one of the stories, the "folk" in question are described as "living within the hills of the area," and there are many Celtic references to "spirits" that dwell in the mines. The Cornish version calls the beings either knockers or knackers, and are said by some to be the spirits of those who died in the mines. They are described as small, ugly creatures with thin limbs, hooked noses, and mouths that stretch from ear to ear. The mouths are the most fearsome part of the being, as the knackers use them to make hideous faces at the men working in the mines. In Wales, the creatures are called coblynau, but unlike the knockers of Cornwall, they are good-natured and knock at the richest veins of ore.

Another similarity between the myths of different areas of Celtic culture is the connection relating Cyhyraeth, a Welsh spirit who groans and wails before a death or tragic event, and the traditional ban sidh, or banshee, from Ireland. Some scholars claim that the Irish banshee has its roots in either the banànachs, bocànachs, or the Geniti Glinne, all of which are supernatural beings said to scream during battles or before a death. This last, the Geniti Glinne, bears a striking resemblance to a Scottish fairy, the Ghillie Dhu. The Ghillie Dhu are guardian tree spirits who dress in leaves and green moss and prefer their own kind to humans. Generally depicted as benign forest spirits, these primarily night-dwelling beings favor birch trees, and vigilantly protect them from humans. Those traveling through magical forests must be wary of the long, green arms of the Ghillie Dhu; to be caught by one of these creatures will result in enslavement forevermore.

The Ghillie Dhu are much like the Cornish "small people," who are richly dressed faerie folk with huge, luminous eyes and a liking for gems and jewelry. Rumored to use rabbits for transportation, these beings would bring flowers to the sick, the old, and the poor, and enjoyed dancing and playing pranks.

On the flip side of these tiny creatures were the giants, of which there are many in Celtic mythology. Usually portrayed as lumbering, gluttonous barbarians, the giant could not, traditionally, be bested by strength. To defeat a giant, one must use cunning and wits to trick him into his own demise. In fact, the traditional children's fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk has its roots in the Cornish tale of the giant Cormoran. This story comes from Lands End, and supposedly took place during the time of King Arthur. Cormoran, the Giant of St Michael's Mount, terrorized the surrounding area for years and stole so many cattle that the area had no meat for use or trade. Jack, a farmer's son, set his mind to kill Cormoran, and, in the process, earn a reward. Jack dug a deep hole near Morvah, and covered the pit with long branches. He then lured the giant to the trench he had excavated by blowing a horn. Cormoran came running to Jack and fell into the hole. Jack ended the giant's reign of havoc by hitting him with a pickaxe. Jack then filled in the trench, and today, a large stone near Morvah Church marks the Giant's Cave. Some even say that voices can be heard echoing from within it.

Every Celtic society had its myths, legends, and stories about giants. The personalities, though, are what mark the differences: Irish giants are affable and friendly, while English giants are openly malevolent. Welsh giants are clever and cunning, and all giants have a keen sense of smell.

But the giants with the worst reputation were the ones who called Scotland "home." Said to be selfish, bigheaded, and cannibalistic, Formorians, as they were called, left behind many archaeological artifacts such as standing stones and Cairns. Natural geography in the shapes of everyday furniture such as tables and chairs were thought to be the remnants of a race of giants. The lowlands of Scotland had their giants as well. The stories of these giants usually depict two rival giants chucking stones at one another. The solitary boulders that dot the Lowland hills and fields are said to be the giant's shots gone awry.

Not surprisingly, given the number of standing stones and monoliths that dot the Celtic countryside, hundreds of myths, legends, stories, and tales have proliferated as to the beginnings of the circles and monuments.