Onchú

Variations: Enfield; Alphyn; Water-dog, Sea-dog

Onchu

The Onchú, “Water-dog”, is a peculiar Irish creature with a long history of phonetic transformation. It is better known as the Enfield or Alphyn.

Of the three variants it is the enfield that has the most defined morphotype. It has the head of a fox, the chest of a greyhound, the talons of an eagle, the body of a lion, and the hindlegs and tail of a wolf. A more simple description gives it the head of a fox, the breast and forelegs of an eagle, and the hindquarters of a wolf, combining the cunning of the first, the honor of the second, and the ferocity of the third. There may be a mane and a lion’s tail. Enfields are rarely used in heraldry, most notably appearing in green as the crest of the O’Kelly family of Ireland. This is traditionally attributed to an incident when Tadhg Mór Ua Ceallaigh, the ancestor of the O’Kellys of Hy-Many, fell in battle against the Danes at Clontarf. An enfield or dog-like creature emerged from the sea and protected Tadhg Mor’s body until it was recovered.

As for the alphyn, it vaguely resembles a tiger, sometimes with the same clawed forelimbs as the enfield. It shares its name with the term alphyn or alfin for the chess bishop, itself derived from al-fil, “the elephant”, but this is coincidental. Elephants were well-known in bestiaries long before the decidedly unproboscidean alphyn, which appears at the end of the fifteenth century.

The word onchú is more ancient than enfield or alphyn, and is probably derived from , “hound”, and on, “water” (as in onfais, “plunging”, and onfaisech, “diver”). It is synonymous with doburchú, the otter (literally “water dog”). Therefore the onchú can be inferred to be a dog or dog-like animal that lives at least partly in water. Onchú also is used to mean “banner”, or “standard”, suggesting that the use of the onchú on battle-standards was common enough that the name was transferred to the item – and that its use preceded the battle of Clontarf.

The confusion only increases with the pluralization of onchú to give onchoin or onchainn. Onchainn in turn became onfainn following the trend of ch conversion (e.g. Dunphy from Donnchaidh). Williams traces phonetic vagaries and lists a sequence of alterations: onfainn to anchainn to anfainn to anfaill to anfild to enfild. Anfaill also gave rise to the less-successful alternative name of alphyn. Further assimilation with the heraldic sea-dog gave the onchú/enfield/alphyn a mane and clawed, bird-like forelegs.

Since then onchú has been used as a term for a large water beast. It is wild, fearsome, valorous, heroic, with reptilian and venomous qualities (probably the origin of its green color). The onchú that lived between Loch Con and Loch Cuilinn killed nine men. Muiredach pursued it into the water and slew it, earning the title of Cú Choingelt, “Hound of the Pasturage”.

Williams proposes the adoption of onchú as the official Gaelic term for the animal. Enfield remains an acceptable English version.

References

Barber, R. and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell Press, Ipswich.

Cooke, T. L. (1859) Proceedings, November Meeting. The Journal of the Kilkenny and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society, v. 2. McGlashan and Gill, Dublin.

Vinycomb, J. (1906) Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art, with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. Chapman and Hall, London.

Williams, N. J. A. (1989) Of Beasts and Banners: The Origin of the Heraldic Enfield. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, v. 119, pp. 62-78.

Muirdris

Variations: Muirgris (erroneously); Sínach, Sinech; Píast Uiscide (“Water Beast”); Úath (“Horror”)

muirdris

Fergus mac Léti, the King of Ulster, was an inveterate swimmer. Captured while sleeping by water-spirits, the lúchorpáin or “small bodies” (actually the first appearance of leprechauns), he was awoken by the cold water they tried to carry him into. This allowed him to turn the tables on his would-be captors, and he seized three of the lúchorpáin. Fergus demanded that the sprites grant him three wishes: the ability to breathe underwater in seas, pools, and lakes.

The sprites granted him his wish, in the form of enchanted earplugs and a tunic to wear around his head. But like all wishes granted by the Fair Folk, it came with a caveat. Fergus was not to use his gifts at Loch Rudraige (Dundrum Bay) in his own land of Ulster.

Of course, Fergus arrogantly disregards the rule and swims underwater at Loch Rudraige anyway. There he encounters the Muirdris, the “Sea Bramble” or “Sea Briar”, a huge, mysterious, undefined horror that inflates and deflates, expands and contracts like a bellows. It has features of a thorn-bush, with branches and stings, and its appearance alone is deadly.

Fergus does not take well to his encounter with the muirdris, and he is horribly disfigured after seeing it, with his mouth moving to the back of his head. His courtiers are dismayed, as a man with a blemish cannot be king, but they somehow keep this defacement a secret from Fergus for seven years. They prevent him from accessing mirrors, and surround him only with people who will protect the king’s deformity. He finds out only after Dorn, a highborn slave, taunts him about it after he strikes her with a whip. She is bisected for her troubles, and Fergus goes to face his nemesis alone.

The battle between Fergus and the muirdris lasts a day and a night, during which the water of the loch bubbles like a giant cauldron. Finally Fergus slays the monster with his bare hands, and emerges from the loch holding its head in triumph – only to collapse and die from the ordeal.

A thirteenth-century retelling of Fergus’ tribulations renames the monster sínach or sinech. In this version, it is the king’s wife who reveals his secret after an argument.

The muirdris is a monster, but is it rooted in fact? Surely the expansion and contraction, the comparison to a thornbush, and the disfiguring stings strongly suggest a large jellyfish, perhaps the lion’s mane jellyfish.

References

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

MacKillop, J. (2005) Myths and Legends of the Celts. Penguin Books, London.

Bruch

Variations: Bruchus, Brucha (pl.)

bruch

If the Hortus Sanitatis is to be believed, a young locust is far more dangerous than its adult counterparts. Referred to as a bruchus, it is an immature stage lasting until the animal can fly, and is distinguished by absent or undeveloped wings and a yellow color. As bruchi cannot fly, they remain in one place and gnaw fruiting plants down to the roots.

The Epistil Ísu, the Irish version of the pseudo-epigraphic Sunday Letter, describes the Bruch (pluralized as Brucha) differently. Here as before, the bruch is separated from its adult, and both are used to punish people who disrespect Sundays. A bruch has iron bristles and fiery eyes. Swarms of brucha go into the vineyards of sinners and cut the branches, roll about in the fallen grapes to impale them on their spikes, and carry the fruit off into their lairs – much like Pliny’s hedgehogs, which doubtlessly inspired this account.

Brucha apparently mature into locusts, which have iron wings that scythe wheat and make the ears fall. They too are avengers of Sunday.

References

Borsje, J. (1994) The Bruch in the Irish Version of the Sunday Letter. Ériu, v. XLV, pp. 83-98.

Borsje, J. (1996) From Chaos to Enemy: Encounters with Monsters in Early Irish Texts. Brepols Publishers, Turnhout.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Stray Sod

Variations: Ar Iotan, Egaire, Fairy Grass, Faud Shaughran, Fair-Gortha (potentially), Herb of Distraction, Herbe à Adirer, Herbe d’Egarement, Herbe d’Engaire, Herbe de Fourvoiement, Herbe Maudite, Herbe d’Oubli, Herbe à la Recule, Herbe Royale, Herbe des Tournes, Lezeuen Eur, Lezuenn er Seudann, Tourmentine

Tourmentine

“Stray sod” is a general term used here to refer to any plant that, if trodden upon, causes travelers to lose their way. Stray sods have been reported primarily from France and Ireland, and come about in a number of ways. Usually they are specific herbs with magical properties that grow along footpaths. At other times they form over the graves of unbaptised children, or are patches of grass enchanted by fairies. They themselves may be fairies or inhabited by fairies.

No matter the origin, the result is always the same. A solitary traveler at night will inadvertently step on a stray sod, and no matter how good their sense of direction, they immediately lose their path. All landmarks seem to vanish, all roads are dead ends. The unfortunate victim is compelled to wander aimlessly through the night, trudging through hedges and thorns, crossing rivers, slogging through marshes, and feeling their way through thickets. The spell is broken at daybreak, when they find themselves with their clothes torn and stained, their hands and feet bleeding, and miles away from home.

When this happens it is advised to turn one’s coat inside out to counteract the spell. Other remedies include the usage of metal as abhorrent to fairies, or finding certain plants or benevolent spirits to regain one’s bearings.

The stray sod is known as the herbe à adirer (“herb of misplacement”) in Anjou, the herbe à la recule (“herb of turning back”) in Besançon, the herbe d’oubli (“herb of forgetfulness”) in Brittany and Lorraine, the egaire in Normandy, and the herbe maudite (“damned herb”) or herbe des tournes (“herb of turning”) in Saintonge. The ar iotan (“golden herb”) of Brittany is inhabited by a spirit that shines like a glowworm; touching a piece of wood or metal breaks its spell, as does changing horseshoes on one side. The lezeuen eur (“golden herb”) and the lezuenn er seudann (“herb of dizziness”) of the Morbihan cause their victims to walk in circles until daybreak. The herbe royale (“royal herb”) of Saint-Mayeux causes even horses to lose their way. The herbe d’engaire of the Berry grows in vast plains, and causes those who step on it to lose sight of the path entirely. The tourmentine (Potentilla erecta, formerly Potentilla tormentilla) of Forez, which causes disorientation for 12 hours, can be countered by the parisette (Paris quadrifolia), a plant whose fallen seeds guide travelers by pointing in the right direction.

The faud shaughran of Ireland induces a sensation of flying, of being incapable of stopping until one is over twenty or thirty miles from home. There is a herb that counteracts its effects, but it is known only to the initiated. The similar fair-gortha causes unnatural hunger and craving for food if stepped on. One man in County Leitrim turned his coat and hat inside out but was unable to find his way home, ending up miles away from his destination.

References

Barton, B. H. and Castle, T. (1845) The British Flora Medica. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1992) La Grande Encyclopédie des Lutins. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Duncan, L. L. (1893) Folk-Lore Gleanings from County Leitrim. Folklore, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 176-194.

Rolland, E. (1904) Flore populaire, Tome V. Librairie Rolland, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1894) Les travaux publics et les mines dans les traditions et les superstitions de tous les pays. J. Rothschild, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1898) Les Forêts. Revue des Traditions Populaires, t. XIII, no. 12, pp. 641-661.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1906) Le Folk-lore de France, Tome Troisième: La Faune et la Flore. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Wilde, F. S. (1887) Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, v. II. Ward and Downey, London.

Lavandière de Nuit

Variations: Lavandière, Laveuse de Nuit (French); Kannerez Noz, Cannerez Noz, Gannerez Noz (Breton); Bean nighe, Bhean Nighe, Caoineachag, Nigheag Bheag a Bhroin (Gaelic); Washerwoman, Night Washerwoman, Washer of the Ford, Little Washer of Sorrow (English)

Lavandiere

The lavandières de nuit (“washerwomen of the night”) are present in some form or other from Scotland to Provence. Their exact nature is uncertain; sometimes they are ghosts, other times members of the fairy kingdom. Their best-documented haunt is Brittany.

Lavandières are female, and can be seen washing laundry in the odd hours of the night. They usually take the form of tall, gaunt, and withered crones, but the Gollières a Noz of Romandie are as beautiful as they are cruel. Some of them sing as they wash, earning them the name of kannerez noz (night singers). Their song is sadder than a De Profundis. Those of Morbihan have had their song recorded as follows:

Tors la guenille, tors // Le suaire des épouses des morts.

(Wring the rags, wring // the shroud of the wives of the dead).

Often a lavandière is condemned to wash a shroud in atonement for a sin committed in life. Some merely did laundry on Sunday. Others were greedy misers who denied decent clothing to the poor. The grimmest were those guilty of infanticide. The outline of a baby’s corpse could be seen in their blood-soaked sheets; try as they might, the blood never washed out, and the bones never whitened.

The bean nighe of the British Isles are women who died in childbirth before their time, and who are doomed to wash the clothes of those fated to drown until the day when they were meant to die. Their appearance foretells death. Some are aligned with the Morrigan, and wash the corpses of the dead. Cú Chulainn saw one, the daughter of Bodhbh, washing bloodstained clothes and weeping; he died in battle not long after.

In France, especially in Brittany, they call passers-by to help them wring out the laundry. This isn’t a choice – those who accept out of ill will get their arms broken, and those who refuse are drowned. To escape their clutches, one must wring in the same direction they do, turning clockwise when they turn clockwise and vice versa. But this has to be kept up all night, and the lavandières never tire. One false move and the unfortunate victim is crushed, wrung out, their corpse mangled beyond recognition. Even the strongest man is no match for a lavandière, who wrings humans out as easily as a pair of tights.

Another way of escaping their clutches is to tell them Diwasket ho poan ha me diwasko ma hini (“wring out your sins, and I will wring out mine”). Running away at top speed always helps, and lavandières cannot cross recently-ploughed fields. Finally, making the sign of the cross or reciting Biblical verses is always helpful.

The lavandière of Chantepie was a stingy woman who buried her husband in a dirty shroud. She continues to wash it every night.

The lavandières of Fond-de-Fond hold up the bodies of the recently-deceased.

In Landéda, the lavandières are powerless against the goodhearted, but tie the sinful into knots.

The lavandière of Noes Gourdais, near Dinan, appeared early in the morning and had a skull for a head.

The Mille-Lorraines of Lower Normandy form fairy circles around ponds.

Several lavandières gather in the pond of Roc-Reu, and drown anyone who tries to touch them.

Around Dinan, the teurdous (“twister”) is a rare male counterpart. He does not wash, but instead offers to help washerwomen wring out their laundry. If they accept, he breaks their arms.

The true nature of the lavandières is more prosaic. Unfamiliar sounds have been invoked – the croaking of frogs or toads, for instance, might have suggested the sound of washboards. The lavandières themselves may have had nothing supernatural about them. A number of flesh-and-blood women may have had reason to do laundry at night: those who worked during the day, those who did not wish to be seen doing menial work, those who wanted to clean the clothes of their illicit lovers… Anyone coming upon them could be forgiven for seeing them as ghosts.

Others managed to exploit the superstitious fear of lavandières. A garde-champêtre in Vaucluse once stumbled upon a pair of lavandières in spectral white clothes. “Wring the laundry!” they cackled, grabbing him by the collar. And wring he did, all night long. He also noted the fine quality of the cloth they were washing, but did not dare stop until morning, when they left. Only later did the warden find out that a nearby castle had been robbed of various items of clothing. He had spent the whole night helping the thieves wash their ill-gotten gains.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (1996) La Grande Encyclopédie des Fées. Hoëbeke, Paris.

Giraudon, D. La lavandière de nuit Ar gannerez-noz. In Loddo, D. and Pelen, J. (eds.) (2001) Êtres fantastiques des régions de France. L’Harmattan, Paris.

Kilfeather, A. (2003) Legend and wetland landscape in Ireland. Journal of Wetland Archaeology, 3, pp. 37-50.

Le Quellec, J. (1988) Le légendaire du Sud-Vendée: organisation spatio-mythique. Etuderies 3-4.

MacPhail, M. (1898) Folklore from the Hebrides III. Folklore, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 84-93.

Sand, G. (1877) Légendes Rustiques. Ancienne Maison Michel Lévy Frères, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1881) Littérature orale de la Haute-Bretagne. Maisonneuve et Cie, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1904) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Premier: Le Ciel et la Terre. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1905) Le Folk-Lore de France, Tome Deuxième: La Mer et les Eaux Douces. Librairie Orientale et Américaine, Paris.

Sébillot, P. (1968) Le folklore de la Bretagne. Éditions G. P. Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris.

Alp-luachra

Variations: Art-luachra, Arc-luachra, Airc-luachra, Dochi-luachair, Just-halver, Joint-eater, Mankeeper, Darklooker, Art-pluachra (mispronunciation)

Alp-luachra

Fairies are far removed from the sanitized Victorian ideal we are accustomed to. There are beautiful fairies; there are also ugly fairies, cruel fairies, and vile, parasitic fairies. The alp-luachra belongs to the last group.

Native to Ireland, where it can be found across the island, the alp-luachra is a small, newt-like creature not unlike Ireland’s native smooth newt (Lissotriton vulgaris). It was born of ignorance and fear of the unknown – in this case, the habits of the newt. Any similarities end there, however. The smooth newt is a harmless denizen of ponds, while the alp-luachra lives off “the Pith or Quintessence of what the Man eats”, as Robert Kirk put it.

Infestation is simple enough. Anyone asleep outdoors is at risk. Alp-luachras slip into the open mouths of sleepers, and from there work their way into the stomach. The entire process is painless, and hosts are never aware of their slimy new occupants. That is, until the symptoms manifest themselves: pain in their sides as the alp-luachras make themselves comfortable, and increasing, insatiable hunger. The alp-luachras eat the food ingested by their hosts, growing larger, reproducing inside them until their wriggling becomes unbearable; meanwhile, their hosts waste away, becoming gaunt and emaciated. In the span of a few years, the unfortunate victim eventually dies of starvation, and the alp-luachras move out to find new victims.

As the alp-luachra’s glamour prevents it from being seen by physicians, it must be tricked into leaving the body by other means. Inhaling the strong fragrance of savory food can coax them to come out, as can eating very salty food. Once outside the body, the alp-luachra can be licked to cure burns.

Douglas Hyde recounts the story of one farmer from Connacht who suffered from alp-luachra infestation for half a year, until an itinerant beggar and the Prince of Coolavin told him how to get rid of them. He started by eating a large quantity of salted beef. While this made him thirsty (and no less hungry), it made the alp-luachras thirstier. He then lay down with his mouth open above a stream; the alp-luachras, sensing water, crawled out of his mouth and into the stream, one by one. All in all, he had been host to a dozen alp-luachras and their mother, seven times their size.

He never slept on the grass again.

References

Dubois, P.; Sabatier, C.; and Sabatier, R. (2005) The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and Other Little Creatures. Abbeville Press.

Hyde, D. (1890) Beside the Fire. David Nutt, London.

Kirk, R. (1893) The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, & Fairies. David Nutt, London.