Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Werewolves, Fianna, and Fertility Cults

(This is another article I had written previously, for a Geocities website I once maintained. Though I have written an article for this blog that covers some, though not all, of the same ground, I am bringing it here so that it can be preserved, since it was cited in at least one Doctoral thesis. I understand that the site I once wrote will eventually be archived at the “Reocities” domain, but for now this is one of the only places this short article can be found.)

Since the Fianna were called "werewolves" by their contemporaries, it would seem to be a good idea to find out what that meant to the people of the time. Unfortunately, there are few good records from that era and place regarding the matter. We are left with some scattered references to the werewolf families in Ossory, St. Patrick’s curse, and such. However, we do find that, in many lands that were once Celtic, there are references to werewolves all the way up to the late 17 th century. We even have records of a few cases in which the werewolves themselves are interviewed, albeit with the intention of convicting them of crimes and heresy. We have no reason to believe that some of these testimonies are entirely untruthful, and some, especially the later ones, were given without being tortured.

In addition, it has been shown 1 that these werewolf cults are related to similar cults which are associated with fertility rituals, such as the benandanti, or "good walkers", the táltos, and so on. When other evidence is considered, I think that there is good reason to believe that the fianna, as well as similar groups such as the berserks of Scandinavia, are also a related cult.

The strongest testimony as to the practices of some werewolf cults comes from Livonia, on the Baltic Sea, in 1691 or 1692. Inquisitorial records show a trial of a man named Thiess at that time, who is accused of being a werewolf. His initial testimony is remarkable: he does not deny being a werewolf, but he says that werewolves are the dogs of God, and that they go into Hell, which lies across the sea, three times a year to recover grain, cattle, and so forth that are stolen and taken there by sorcerers. The foodstuffs are guarded by guards who brutally beat those they catch with broomsticks wrapped in horsehair. If they are unable to recover the grain, then there will be a poor harvest. He claims that werewolves go off into the woods, take off their clothing, and put on a wolf skin. By this means, they are transmuted into wolves, and they roam around in groups up to 30 strong, tearing to pieces any animal they come across, roasting it, and eating it. Occasionally, they also steal animals from farms for the same purpose. There is, in his testimony, reference to a powerful werewolf named Tyrummen, who goes after the largest animals. 2 Eventually, the Inquisitors let Thiess go with 10 lashes for refusing to repent, even though they are only able to get him to admit that Hell is underground, and not across the sea.

This testimony closely resembles that given by a number of people in Friulia, who called themselves benandanti. The benandanti said that they were people, born with a caul (amniotic membrane still intact), who were called at certain points of the year to do battle with the malandanti, or "evil walkers". In these battles, the benandanti would wield fennel stalks, while the malandanti would fight with sorghum stalks. If the benandanti did not drive off the malandanti, the crops would fail, the malandanti would enter the basements of people’s homes to spoil the wine, and so forth. 3 There are a number of other cases, as well, in which a group of initiates ventures out to fight an opposing group with agricultural benefits as the prize. 4

Given this ritual structure (and leaving out, for the moment, the question of the exact form and arena of this ritual), we should be able to locate mythic structures which mirror it. The most obvious source, from a Proto-Indo-European point of view, would seem to be the story of *Trito and the cattle raid. In this story, *Trito loses his cattle to a three-headed monster, usually a serpent. *Trito gains the assistance of the warrior-god (e.g. Núada or Lugh) and recovers his cattle. This story exists in two main reflections in Irish mythology, that of the Táin Bó Cuailnge and that of Cath Magh Tuired, though there are a number of minor reflections, as well. For our purposes here, we will concentrate on CMT. 5

In CMT, the gods are left without a king when Núada loses his arm in battle. It is replaced with a silver duplicate, but this is ruled not sufficient for him to retain the kingship. The next choice is the half-Fomhórach chieftain, Bres. Bres institutes a heavy taxation on the gods, taking their foodstuffs for the Fomhóraigh. Desperate to end the tyranny of the Fomhóraigh, the gods satirize him and send him back to his people. Lugh arrives, proves his worth, and takes over the kingship. With the blessing of the Morrígan, Lugh leads the people to battle with the Fomhóraigh, where he defeats Balor, the Fomhórach champion and his own grandfather. Achieving victory, the gods take magical agricultural benefits from the Fomhóraigh.

There is, of course, quite a bit more to the story, but this synopsis will do for this analysis, as it covers the essentials.

Here we see all of the important elements of Thiess’s story: the sorcerers stealing the grain, cattle, and so forth are equivalent to the Fomhórach taxation of the gods and to *Trito losing the cattle to the three-headed monster. The expedition of the werewolves into Hell (and in other related cults, they do so with a powerful, shadowy leader, who may also be represented in Thiess’s testimony by Tyrummen) is similar to Lugh leading the gods to battle with the blessing of the Morrígan and *Trito getting the aid of the warrior-god. The werewolves recovering the grain and other foodstuffs to prevent the bad harvest and so forth is the same as Lugh defeating the Fomhóraigh and getting magical agricultural benefits from them as well as *Trito recovering his stolen cattle. It would seem, from this analysis, that what the Livonian werewolves were doing was the ritual equivalent of the myth that was frozen in literary form in Ireland as CMT.

This does not yet, however, connect the activities of the fianna with this myth/ritual complex. Unfortunately for this article, that connection would require more space than is available here, and would have to discuss various cults as far afield as the maenads in Greece (who, like Thiess and his werewolf companions, would tear apart animals that they ran across in their ecstatic revels, and whose Dionysian madness has long been related to the frenzy of the berserks), the berserks themselves and the ulfheðnar of the Scandinavian countries, Misrule bands, and many other groups and institutions besides. Still, even with all of that analysis, it seems that the question would still be left open, as there is just too much necessary information that was not recorded at all, either for or against. Nonetheless, my iomas says that the connection is there.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this connection exists, and there is a relationship between the fianna-bandit-fáelad werewolves and the fertility-hunting werewolves of Livonia, what would this mean? At the very least, it would provide an explanation for why these groups came to be in the first place, and for why they were tolerated by the (militarily much stronger) local and tribal chieftains. The männerbunde have always seemed an anomaly in northern European and other Indo-European cultures, as they have no general analog in most other cultural matrices. Since they represent a socially- destabilizing force, they have long been difficult to assess in terms of their value to the society. If a ritual function could be identified in relation to them, they become comprehensible and subject to social and economic analysis.

1Ginzburg, Carlo,Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath
2 Lecouteux, Claude (tr. Clare Frock), Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages (original title: Fées, sorcières, et loups-garou au Moyen Age), Appendix 3: The Trial of the Werewolf
3 Ginzburg, Carlo (tr. John and Anne Tedeschi) The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
4 Ginzburg, Carlo Ecstasies, op. cit.
5 Gray, Elizabeth (tr.) Cath Maige Tuired


  1. I don't recall if I mentioned this to you, but I had a nice chat with Michael at the end of March on the various Greek gods and cults that have some lycanthropic (or at least some therioanthropomorphic aspects) connections, and how I think it all schematizes--in a rather structuralist manner, granted--but which has been pretty satisfying for my own thoughts at present. I'll discuss it more in e-mail if you're interested...

    Also, I'd note one thing: in CMT, Lug isn't really given the kingship as such (indeed, when he arrives, he already has a king's crown on his head), he's sort of given a "regency," if that.

    Also (also!): I sort of wonder what the place of the Three Gods of Skill is in all of this--they're pretty much sent out by Lug to get things in a díbergach/fénnidi manner for Lug's benefit...?!?

  2. I'll be emailing you about that, definitely! Schemas are interesting, and can sometimes facilitate thinking, especially about complex issues.

    That's an interesting point about Lug. The section in question says that he "went to the king's seat" for 13 days (? Later we are told that things are continuing three years later - there's also the question of the seven-year period implied by the incident with the tri déo Danonn). One could interpret that as a short-duration kingship, which is rather like a regency. Ultimately, I think that one can't really apply late medieval concepts like "kingship" to the incident.

    The question of the tri déo Danonn is an interesting one. I'm not sure if I read that as them going out and getting things, or as crafting the weapons and equipment.

  3. Interesting, I hadn't come across werewolf trials before!